Monday, December 25, 2017

The Formal Session Before the Formal Session

Ah.  My Christmas is over now, as it is for my readers in Australia and Asia, and pretty much almost over for Europe and Africa.  So we can go back to D&D now.

I held back on doing this yesterday, since it was Christmas Eve.  And also because I don't want to steal attention from the Invented Region post, on which I intend to produce more content.  In the meantime, however, let's deconstruct the start of the video below.  I suggest watching at least 10 minutes before reading the post below, as the quote does not include all the presenters' comments on the subject.

Jim: "And so maybe you've seen the idea of this session zero concept ... it is the idea that before any characters are created, and before the game formally starts that everyone who's going to play in the campaign gets together, they sit down at the same table, and this is your opportunity as a new DM to formally introduce the setting.  I highly recommend in those initial communications that you're doing when you're finding new players that you at least give them a taste of the setting.  See if you can parse it down to an 'elevator pitch.'   Now is your time to introduce it, the location that you're going to be in, some notable features of the environment ... and what you want to do is to present setting information in such a way that the players then have some guidance when they start creating their characters.
"For me, I like to be upfront and honest about what type of campaign that I'm running, so the players can make appropriate characters ... some DMs don't like doing that.  They like to have the characters make the characters in the dark, and then the campaign is independent of that.  But I really am for almost all things clarity and communication are going to be better than lack of communication and lack of clarity."

Why This Sounds Necessary

Session Zeros are all the rage with the table-top community now, demonstrable by my having heard of them.  I stumbled across the concept for the first time when I began making these advice-deconstruction posts.  Judging by the time-stamps on the videos, I would guess this has been a thing now for two to three years.

Role-playing games are terrifically complicated things, so it stands to reason that we should take the time to establish clear and focused goals for what we hope to present and accomplish.  At the beginning is the best time to address a lot of the concerns that are sure to be encountered down the road, though of course we don't want to bombard them with information that will make players feel overwhelmed.  It only seems natural that we should hit the high points, figure out what concerns the new players have, give them the information they need.  That way, the players can be better players when the game actually starts.

Most important, we want feedback.  I have argued the value of feedback from players many times.  Moreover, feedback seems like a necessary, active ingredient for communication to enrich the campaign and make it more flexible, friendly and experience-positive.

DMs are running to this strategy to enable players to feel welcome at the table, and comfortable in an initially unfamiliar world setting that, as most people say, might require a considerable amount of buy-in before it can work.  DMs have face-planted before; most of the time, this has seemed to be the fault of expectations, where what the players wanted proved to be vastly different from the DM's predictions.  Hopefully, by outlining the premise, DMs hope to give themselves a better understanding of the players' expectations, while transmitting their own expectations in turn.

Rich and unique RPGs, after all, have specific conditions that require specific responses.  Understanding this reduces the risk of disputes and disagreement, establishes better relationships between participants and increases the likelihood that players won't quit your game.

Who doesn't want that?

Why Some Think This Has Worked for Them

Everything I've just written above was paraphrased and reworked from two sites: this one, 10 Tips for an Effective New Employee Job Orientation and this one, 5 Steps to the Most Effective Employee Orientation, Guaranteed!  Some of the above was stolen, word for word.

It's hardly possible to take a new job today without a job orientation, whether it is for a big multi-national company or a franchise with just two stores.  For business, the Orientation is the Human Resource equivalent to the Holy Grail, and anyone with the will can find hundreds of sites just like the two I've described above.

We are, therefore, habituated to believe that job orientations are, a) necessary and b) effective.  We've been reminded most of our working lives that if we didn't understand something about our jobs, it was explained in the orientation and therefore, if we don't understand it now, it is our fault.  We've also all had the experience of learning something in the orientation only to discover, six months down the road, that the policy has changed and that no, sorry, no employee will be getting [this] any more.

Orientations were not created for employees, they were created by Managers, as a way of managing employees.  The basic premise is to make it clear what the policy is, communicate this policy to the employee, then emphasize the requirement for the employee to accept and live up to this policy in the nicest way possible.

After all, as new employees, we do learn that the company isn't going to suddenly adapt to our needs as soon as we're hired [though we may have been deluded about that once].  So we're willing to accept that, well, sure, they're going to dick around with us for a bit, feed us a few spoonfuls of sugar, stroke us and stuff, until we can get down to the business of actually working, which doesn't have to start right away since we also know that working at this new job probably won't be that much fun.

So we buy-in.

A DM using this management tool probably will discover that it works, since it reduces the players to the level of employee in the DMs corporate game.  The players accept it because, well, we need a DM or else there's no game.  So sure, all right, we'll play along with this, have our chance to have a say (though that's just window dressing, both at the game and at our jobs), while enjoying the pleasure of at least being asked (though we'll be ignored after, we're used to that).  It's only natural that DMs would eventually learn that you can go a long, long way with underlings if you pretend to care about their needs, even if you really really don't.  Just ask Walmart, Apple, Google or anyone else making a helluva lot of money right now.

Does this work?  Oh hell yes it does.  And six months down the road, when a player reminds the DM that in the session zero, they were given reason to believe something that is now being ignored, the DM can just say that the policy was changed.

And what is the player going to do?  What do you do, when this happens at work?

Why It's Bad Advice

The fact that something "works" does not establish it as good advice.

There will be some who will fondly remember their session zero, in their games, and deny that it was anything like a job interview.  Most probably, because it was not.  I have been giving a "session zero" for 38 years ... only, I didn't think of it that way.  At the beginning of my games, I would explain, "Here's my world, I'll be starting you off in this place, unless you'd like to be somewhere else.  Good?  Great.  Let's roll up characters."

With the online Juvenis campaign, I gave the players a choice of what part of my world they wanted to start in, then plonked them down in Stavanger, described the town and their relationship to it, and got started.  I did not explain my "expectations," though some of that did come up as the players began to behave in ways inconsistent to running a campaign in text-only, online.  For example, I can handle a lot more role-play at a table, when I can respond instantly and ask direct questions, as opposed to piecing together twenty comments in text, without emphasis, intermixed with italics, quotes, random pieces of information and a total lack of emotional context.

But this sort of knocking out the kinks is not what people mean by a "session zero."  Here's a quote from the video above that makes it clear what the DM's expectation is:
Jim: "Because this is a social game, telegraphing and being honest about what you're going to do with the campaign means that you avoid players feeling like you pulled a bait and switch on them."

Why is Jim giving this advice?  Because as a DM, Jim has experienced this.  So have most of you.  Meaning that you have, probably, given the players reason to think you're fucking with them ... but now you're fine, because now you've warned them.

Excuse me, but exactly how can you telegraph and be honest about what you're going to do with the campaign if it hasn't happened yet?  "Listen guys, here's the thing:  I'm going to do all this stuff, and then, somewhere down the line, I'm really going to screw you up the ass, so I just want you to feel warned and comforted, because this is a social game."

Okay, let's say that I'm misinterpreting the quote.  I am trying to get to the heart of this and I am not trying to be glib.  I'm expressing, with blue language and with somewhat purplish accent, my feelings about someone "telegraphing" a campaign that hasn't happened yet.  The word means to signal one's intentions ... and in this case, the intentions are being signalled to avoid the players "feeling" something.  Well, why exactly would you have concerns about the players feeling that particular thing?  Unless, of course, that particular thing happens often enough that it needs to be countered by a specific strategy.

To take this in another direction, why is it that the thing supposed isn't a positive?  Why do we not say, "... what I'm doing with the campaign so the players will feel like they are in control of what happens to them?"  Or, "... what I'm doing with the campaign so the players can choose what things to avoid, once they know what's coming?"  Why is it expressed as a refutation of the players' feeling justly bilked out of what they expected from a typical game?

Why do they need to be warned about something that would be wrong to do, whether the players are warned or not?

Just so you know, I'm going to kill you in six months.  So, when I am killing you, don't say you weren't warned.

'Course, that's just one sentence, right?  Maybe this is not what Jim means.  Let's look at the very next interchange:
Pruitt:  "Yeah, they make a completely social character and you're going to do a dungeon diving hack and slash [garbled]."
Jim:  "Right.  Now all that said, there is a place for a totally social character in a dungeon-delve hack and slash game.  There is a place for a no-holds-barred badass barbarian in a game of courtly intrigue.  But ... they require players who are willing to be flexible, DMs who are willing to let those players think outside the box and be creative, and everybody just with understanding that, like yeah, these characters aren't perfectly suited for this campaign but we're going to try to make it work."

At which point, Jim changes the subject to his heirarchy of gaming needs.

We have here an excellent example of management double-speak.  "There's a place for creativity at your job, but not right here and not right now, or not for you, but for other people better skilled for that sort of thing, according to my opinion, so get back to work."

IF there is a place for any kind of character in any kind of environment, then what do we need a session zero for?  And if the player isn't flexible enough, which is itself a euphemism for "clever" or "smart" enough, shouldn't that be demonstrated through game play?  And if the DM isn't willing to let the players think outside the box and be creative, how will a session zero help that?

The answer sounds good ... and it is clear from Jim's face in the video [begins at 3:10] that his eyes are all over the place as he struggles to find the right words to sound like he's got this ... and at the moment that he figures out how to change the subject, his eye contact with Pruitt reasserts itself and his body language returns to a comfort level.

Last Thoughts

I have no doubts that whoever latched onto the concept of a session zero came from a background where they gave job orientations or where they had personally experienced a lot of such as they drifted from job to job.  Of course it got stolen for D&D.  I've stolen dozens of management processes for the game, so I can't quibble with people picking this one.

But while there are endless sites on the web describing "steps to perfect job orientations," there are no sites at all that give metrics for people being better or happier at their jobs.  All the content is written by people who claim to have given such orientations (but usually without naming the company, and at any rate they're not with the company now, apparently) or people who have credentials as writers and journalists, not business managers.

Basically, the job orientation was designed to enable your boss to be a tyrant, and to justify it by holding your own orientation over your head.  It was not designed with the employees' well-being in mind.  It is about propaganda, not training.

And most bosses who do the thing don't even know this!  They do orientations because they're told to ... and they probably hate the orientation more than you do, as you just have to do it once and they have to do it all day, every day.  To them, it has as much meaning as communion does for most people: it is a religious thing that we do, that used to mean something special when we were little children, but is now just habit.

Are your players going to fall in line after you pull a session zero?  No.  Because you're not paying them.  At best, you can get a little currency out of making them feel guilty, but then you're an asshole running your game by making your players feel guilty.  That's awful.  Why would you want to be that DM?

Give your players the basics.  Let them know where they are, give them as many options as they can handle, let them walk around your world and ask questions in character, with characters rolled up, and save the orientation.  Get the game started and let the pieces fall where they may.

I'm tempted to write some sort of "Session Zero" for a group of players sitting down to play poker, but I'll forego it.


Ozymandias said...

I noticed early on in the video that Jim's body language was very non-committal. He didn't look at the camera(s). He didn't look at Pruitt. I couldn't quite understand why because he sounded like he knew what he was talking about, but...

Wouldn't "session zero" for poker (or any other game) just be instructions on how to play the game?

Alexis Smolensk said...

Well, Oz, before we settle down to play poker, I just want to let you know that I will be trying to play the game well enough to take your money. Part of my goal, here, will involve moments when I purposefully distract you, or otherwise cause you to inadvertently give away your level of confidence, in order to gauge whether or not I should bet.

Also, if I happen to notice any behaviour on your part that seems to indicate that you're not holding cards of value, while attempting to convince me that you are, I won't be sharing my discovery with you or anyone else here. I'm afraid, I'm going to coldly use that information to take your money when I can. And if I can upset you while I gather up your money from the table, so that you get angry and overextend yourself, well, you might count on that as well.

Finally, I won't be giving you any orientation at all, in fact. I will be keeping all that I've written here in my head, as well as a good, solid, reliable run-down of the rules. The less rules you know, the better for me, so it isn't in my interest to help you, is it?

So, in closing, keeping my mouth shut so that I don't reveal my feelings about this, but tough shit for you.

Yep. Tough shit for you.

Ozymandias said...

And people wonder why I have trust issues...