Shadow of the Rat Session Zero: Part One

Gaming Nights

As I’ve mentioned before for the last couple years on-and-off I’ve been running a tabletop roleplaying game (ttrpg) over the internet. We use Roll20 for the tabletop elements, and Discord for the talking. We mostly don’t do video, although that’s slowly changing.

I’d run Blades in the Dark and Spire, and we tried out the Heart and Root quickstarts. After six months of quickstarts, though, I fancied something a bit more polished. We decided to knock Root on the head – mostly the problems of trying to play a game while it was in the middle of being developed were tarnishing the fun a little – and try something a bit more crunchy.

The hankering for something a little more like Dungeons and Dragons had been growing in ma belly for a while, and with Root proving to be enjoyable in spite of the quickstart rules we were playing instead of because of them, and having spent the last couple years playing “softer” more “make it up as you go along” games I fancied a bit of a change.

I also felt we were getting more comfortable with Roll20, and it might be time to get ambitious. I’d “mastered” music, and pictures, and even some light macro making. We’d gotten more comfortable with talking to each other while we played a game at one remove, and so it felt the time was right to dip our toes into something with a few more rules.

After a Facebook straw-poll i pitched 13th Age from Pelgrane Press. It helped that two of the players in my regular group were already fans, and only one was unfamiliar (and they were familiar enough with Dungeons and Dragons it was unlikely to be an issue).

Why 13th Age?

I knew from the get-go that I wanted us to have more tactical action scenes than we’d been having recently. This would likely mean maps and the digital equivalent of little plasticine blobs – that is, tokens created in MS PAINT –  that we’d move about.

I didn’t want grids, though, and while I wanted some rules I didn’t want us to get overwhelmed with minutae. I think there’s a line between using maps as a way to keep track of who is where, and using them to play out a tactical boardgame. I enjoy the latter, but if I’m going to do that kind of thing I want the whole tactile experience of picking up the little figures and bouncing them off the map as I count spaces of movement.

I’d never run 13th Age, but I’d run a lot of dungeons and dragons over the years in all editions. I felt like Age was positioned in an ideal sweet spot on the border between crunch and making-it-up that I was looking for.

If you’re unfamiliar, 13th age is a d20 fantasy tabletop role-playing game designed by Rob Heinsoo (lead designer of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition) and Jonathan Tweet (lead designer of D&D 3rd Edition), and published by Pelgrane Press. If you want to know more you can read this sentence and more on wikipedia here.

I encountered it at just the right time, as Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition was losing its lustre for me. I enjoyed 4th Edition incidentally – more than 3 or 3.5 – but I have to admit it had its flaws. A good friend of mine complained at the time that 4th was a bit “soulless” and with a few years retrospect I can’t disagree with that assessment. As another friend suggested, it was a bit too much like Descent in the way it played out. I still think it’s my favourite of the editions, mostly because it was the first one where playing a Fighter or a Rogue was not a complete waste of time and don’t make me fight you.

13th Age has a particular style to it that suggests its written for people who know what Dungeons and Dragons is, and know what they want out of their fantasy ttrpg. It’s a combination of homage and cool new ideas. Several of the latter have intrigued me since  I first read the core book while working on Empire at the Boss’ house. They include the escalation dice that adds a rising-action element to combat, the thirteen Icons that define the factions of the Age, the fascinating way the monsters are designed to remove a load of the heavy lifting from running a fight, and the prevalence of miss damage that means even if your combat maneuver misses you still have a bit of an impact.

The gang were sold, so we moved to the first stage of playing a new game – a session zero.

Why bother with a Session Zero?

When we were younger we didn’t need session zeros. We’d got together round a table, made characters and then just started playing. That was back when a ttrpg could start at ten in the morning and go on until ten at night (or more often six in the evening and go on until three in the morning). In retrospect, character creation often felt like a chore we were racing through so we could get to the cool bit (which often meant surviving the first adventure so you could be second level, or better yet third, but that’s a discussion for another time).

I also remember that it left precious little time for discussing what you were playing. I’ve lost track of the times the what was described as “Vampire, but in London, make your characters, no caitiff.” Any kind of game experience suffers when people don’t know what they are getting into, and boy did a lot of those early Vampire-in-London games suffer.

Arguably worse were the times when what was “Dungeons and Dragons” because for quite a while the idea that there might be more to that what than “roll up a character, you’re in a room with exits on the north, east, and south walls” was completely alien to us.

But I digress.

These days we are all much older than we were in the 90s and we have a much smaller window to do our geekery in – about two hours or so on a Thursday evening – so it was pretty clear our first session was going to involve setting up the game.

I made a few notes about what I wanted to run, and then knocked up a basic Roll20 game page, which had the added advantage of having online character sheets for us to use. We went onto Discord and chatted about what we wanted to do in the coming weeks, with an emphasis on what we were gong to find fun.

Running Online

20Roll

We’ve been using Roll20 for several years. All the tools you need are free. Its my go-to for setting up an in-character tabletop, and while some of the more complex stuff is indeed complicated you don’t need anything outside your comfort zone in order to play, in my experience.

I’ve known the mates I would be running the game for – Clive, John, Mark, and Steve – for a surprising number of years if you add them all together. We’re reasonably comfortable with each other although there can be the odd sharp edge now and again and it’s interesting that only two of us (me and Mark) have ever been in the same face-to-face tabletop group.

It doesn’t need saying, but playing a game online is very different to playing a game face to-face. Taking turns during a discussion is a lot more important. The lack of the visual cues that provide a lot of non-verbal communication context can make everything more challenging. You can end up feeling a bit distanced from what is going on. Nobody can see my making faces and clawing at the air when I’m going “rawr” as a rat monster. Stuff like that.

It’s one reason i think its important to start an online game with ten minutes of catching up – just like we’d spend an hour talking about Neighbours (or whatever) back in the day. I’m trying to resist the urge to start each session ten minutes early specificall to allow for this – because when you only have 120 minutes to play 10 minutes of sportsball banter can feel frustratingly like wasted time but i think it’s an important part of establishing that you are about to have fun rather than perform an obligation.

Most of my ttrpg for the last several years has been online because my friends are scattered around the United Kingdom. The 5th ed D&D game I’d just started before the Fall of Civilisation is probably the first regular actual tabletopping with real people at a real tabletope I’d done in five or six years. And then pandemic. Which is annoying.

I guess a lot of people are learning about the pros and cons of online tabletop gaming right now. People other than the streamers I mean. I’m nt going to get into a digression about people playing tabletop roleplaying games on Twitch and Youtube and what have you, but I will admit to enjoying the Oxventure gang you can find on the YouTubes because their “fun and relaxed” quality feels much more similar to what I experience around a tabletop than some of the more “serious” stuff that is out there.

A digression about adversarial gaming

roleplaying mastery

Word to the wise… with all due respect to Gary Gygax, who co-created the game that kind of started it all, this book is pure poison and if anyone tries to get you to read it you should punch them in the crotch and run. Trust me.

Running a tabletop game can be a chore. For a lot of our hobby’s history the relationship between Game Master (by whatever name) and players has been actively adversarial, and not just in the direction you might expect. Early writing about running a game seemed to have a very “these people are vermin and they will eat your bullshit with a smile and ask for more or you will kill them with falling rocks!” that even when I was twelve felt a bit off.

Perhaps with that in mind its no surprise that I’ve also been at tables where some of the players have felt that they needed to protect themselves from their GM’s implicit malice, refusing to get too involved, keeping their capabilities secret, and doing their level best to either subvert the game or wring what enjoyment they can out of it before the inevitable rockfall.

Other tables have involved players who viewed the GM as their thrall, whose sole job it was to provide them with opportunities to wave their dicks about and show how cool they were, and where any concept of collaboration was quickly kicked to death with steel toed boots and katanas.

None of these situations creates “a fun enviroment” as I recognise it, to put it mildly.  I’m glad we seem to have broadly moved on from that kind of antagonism, and I really don’t miss it.

These days I’m a lot more interested in everyone knowing what they’re signing up for, at least in broad strokes. I’m also a lot less guarded about the setting and the game than I used to be – I’m much happier to let players add details to the game and talk about what they’d like to see and do because I don’t feel the need to protect anyone from abusive behaviour.

Another digression! We’ll easily hit the word target a this rate.

Suffice to say, if none of that preceding paragraph seems familiar to you, you have missed a particularly dark time in the ttrpg hobby and should count yourself lucky. You can probably sum it up by saying “ugh, power fantasies!” and moving on.

Actually getting round to talking about Session Zero

After the Soapopera and Sportsball segment of the session, I took ten minutes to talk roughly about what I thought would be fun to play – a action-orientated cinematic game, reasonably high in fantasy elements rather than low-down and gritty, with both heroic themes and political themes. I’ll just quickly break those down, like I did for the players.

  • By action-oriented cinematic, I meant that it’d be a game with plenty of swash to buckle. That I’d be happy with anyone swinging on chandeliers, trying death defying stunts, or adding descriptive flourish to otherwise boring basic attacks. Implicit in this is that the penalty for failing to do a cool stunt will not be punishing. If you fail to swing on the rope across the stage I won’t cause you to fall fifty feet onto spikes because that would discourage you from making the effort. it’ll also be a game where I’d be happy with players knowingly playing towards cinematic tropes such as romancing the villain, or making a heroic stand to save the orphanage.
  • By high in fantasy elements I mean that there’ll be plenty of weird magic, floating cities, villains who want to destroy the entire city, and opportunities to do over-the-top crazy things as you attempt to wield, explore, or stop them. This won’t be a game where you die of an infected wound, or where you spend a session going through the villains accounts to find a loophole to get them arrested for tax evoison. Rather there’ll be big splashy musical numbers, and most likely a certain level of magic-as-technology.
  • By heroic themes I mean that the players will be heroes rather than protagonists. Their hats may be a bit grubby, but if you dust them off they’re white underneath. The players’ characters will be called on to do heroic things, and they’ll have more fun if they buy in to the idea of being brave, determined, and standing up to evil rather than compromising with it. implicit in this is that your characters will have an impact, and that NPCs will see them as heroes.
  • But at the same time there’ll be political themes which means there will be plots and plans, conspiracies, people motivated by ambition or public service, and chances to have an impact on the game through negotiation and diplomacy. Not every problem will be solved with a fight, and some opponents will not be suitable targets for just stabbing them in the street.

Part of my job in this session, and in the first few sessions of the game, is to bring out these bullet points and make them real for the players. I don’t need to go into them in detail at the start, as long as I at least chat briefly about them and then use a bit of show-not-tell to bring them out.

From a setting point of view, I was pretty sure I wanted an urban game, at least at first. Cities give great opportunities to engage in espionage or crime elements and explore the odd mystery in between the fighting. I think it also helps to focus on one place for a little bit when you start a game, to give the players a familiar backdrop against which to explore who their characters actually are.

I can’t stress enough how important it is when you’re running a game to communicate what you want to run to the people who’ll be playing with you, and to listen to what they want to play. Back in the day, especially with groups I didn’t know as well as I know the people I play with today, I’d feel the need to be very prescriptive in terms of what could be played and what the setting would be, partly due to lack of experience and partly due to that whole adversarial thing I just wasted a bunch of paragraphs on.

A tabletop game is meant to be fun for everyone and that includes the person running it. You don’t “owe” people a game except in some very specific and weird circumstances. You’re there to have fun as well. It’s incidentally another reason I’m a great believer in the idea that a ttrpg group needs to have a complementary approach to their games. It’s fine for people to get different things out of the game, and enjoy different types of content, but if (for example) one of your group won’t play anything except a Drizzt Do Urden clone no matter what game it is that is being run, your game is probably doomed.

I finished my bit by mentioning a couple of world-design points I’d already settled on – half-orcs would be orcs, and there’d be no half-elves. I’d sort something specific if I really needed to. This is pretty much a general rule when I run fantasy d20 games. I don’t like the resonance that hangs round hybrid player species and unless I’m running Eberron (the only place I’ve ever really seen them handled well), they’re not welcome. Likewise, there’d be no “species determines alignment” bullshit. And indeed, no alignment bullshit.

Oh, and I explicitly called out that we’d be taking the “pilot show” approach which is one we usually use – that you have carte blanche to shake up your character for the first session or two if it turns out you don’t like some element of it. The conceit is that the first few sessions are a pilot after which a character might get “recast” while staying the same character.

Then I asked the players what sort of stuff they wanted from a fantasy ttrpg, and the one we were about to play specifically.

Collaboration makes the fun more fun

monica

In some ttrpg circles I’m a monster because I agree with Monica Gellar that rules help control the fun and make it better. Like rules, this kind of discussion is important for me because it helps to get everyone into the same shared head space as to what we’re going to be doing together while pretending to be undercover agents of the Dragon Empress. I want people to know how their abilities work and keep that consistent so they are able to make better decisions, and its the same with the wider questions about the game like the themes and the level of action-vs-realism and wotnot.

Each of the players had a chance to talk about what they wanted from the game, and what they wanted to play. I made notes about it. Everyone else was involved in the discussion as well, but as ringmaster my job at this stage was to make sure everyone got a chance to speak. That’s an often underestimated skill every game runner needs, incidentally. With the best will in the world, peoples’ enthusiasms can get away from them and you need to make space for the less extrovert players to make their voices heard – doubly so in an online environment.

As to the specifics…

Mark has always wanted to do a dungeon crawl, apparently. I reassured him that would be a thing. He’d looked at the 13th Age book and fancied a sorcerer with a connection to the Diabolist. That fitted neatly with the stuff I’d already sketched for the first session.

Steve didn’t want a gang of murder hobos. I was entirely behind that – when I run fantastic action games I prefer the group to be broadly on the side of the good guys. I like a bit of ambiguity, obviously, but I’m not interested in running a game in which the characters are murderous cannibals. You can blame too much White Wolf in the 90s if you like. Because it’s to blame.

He wanted to protect something – which I suggested could be the town/city the game would take place in – and he wanted to keep the Icons at arms length rather than have them appear in person. Something that I was also happy with as the last thing I wanted was superpowered NPCs turning up to overshadow the player characters.

He’d decided to play a rogue. Initially he wanted to play a halfling, but in the end settled on an orc – possibly because I may have given the only slightly correct impression I wasn’t a fan of halflings.

John was easy. We discussed gritty low levels, corruption, rat people, and human evil. John and I like a lot of the same tropes, so I already knew I’d want to throw a bit of body horror, possibly some spiky chained demons, and a leavening of 90s tropes into the mix. He had an idea for a nonstandard cleric which I thought was interesting and easily fitted into 13th Age’s very laid back attitude to priests and gods.

Clive was also easy, at least on the surface, and a bit more interested in the methods of play than the setting. He was keen for the occasional in-depth tactical positioning fight, but also keen that we didn’t get tied up in knots over maps and miniatures. Shaking things up a bit from time to time with the odd narrative combat, for example. Again this suited me, as it meant I could vary the amount of prep that was requiried. He was interested in a dwarf bounty hunter ranger. We actually needed to do some tweaking to make this work, once we started to drill down into the ranger class, but I’ll talk about that more later.

Money, treasure, and gear

We talked money – whether we wanted to track it or not. In most Dungeons and Dragons inspired games, I find that money is only really relevant for two things. Buying equipment at low level and buying magic items. After that it;s just a way of keeping score.

But at the same time, players like finding treasure. They like levering the gemstone eyes out of demon statues, or filling their backpacks with gold coins, or stealing all the pricless paintings from the villains mansion. Treasure is more than just a way of keeping score, or buying healing potions.

Likewise, in some games equipment can be a source of fun in itself, but it’s often polarising. I love having an exhaustive equipment list myself with everything assigned a weight and a note of which bag it is in, but this is very polarising. For every party member that likes a good shopping spree, loves to squander their cash on stylish clothes for the Goernor’s ball, or has decades long brand loyalty to the Ares Predator, theres another player who hates shopping, hates wasting money that could be used to buy a +2 sword, and hates encumbrance restrictions.

There’s a few sliders already built into 13th Age – money is mostly a way for the party to get hold of consumable items like potions and magic runes that temporarily enhance their weapons and armour.

With a bit of a nod to Blades in the Dark, we agreed we’d not bother about trivial expenditure or exactly how many feet of rope someone had in their backpack. Instead we’d use WEALTH, a shared party resource that reflected their ability to make Significant Purchases. After a quick look through the book, I made a mental note that one WEALTH would be about 50gp purchasing power. I very nearly called it GOLD BARS in reference to Birthright, but resisted the urge. For now. 50Gp incidentally is about the amount it costs to buy a standard healing potion going by the rules.

We also talked briefly about a great skill from the Gumshoe line, also by Pelgrane, called Preparedness. It’s a skill you use to see if you have the thing you need. My plan is to use skill rolls and equipment together, rather than ask people to keep track of every 10 foot pole or bag of caltrops, and let flashbacks and common sense rule the day. Because in my opinion the question “do I have a (mundane item)?” is almost always one where I want to say “yes, what do you want to do with it?”

I want to enable players to do things, and as long as everyone trusts everyone else, letting them have the incidental bits of crap they need to (for example) jury rig a rope bridge or spike a portcullis or tie up a brigand is always worth more than making them try and predict every eventuality. Anotehr thing I thank Blades in the Dark for making explicit.

Magic Items

Sometimes magic items and special bits of kit are great, and sometimes they are really, really dull. I’ve long since favoured moving away from the “its a +1 sword” style of play to “it’s Erkenbrand, the silver-etched runesword of the elven hero Mumford. If you wield it in combat you get +1 to hit and damage, and the runes glow in the presence of elven undead.” Magic items should feel magical, basically. They don’t need to dominate, but this isn’t a looter-shooter like Borderlands. If your heroes are constantly discarding unique items to “upgrade” their kit you’re a bit far over to the Diablo side of the fence for my liking.

So as part of Session Zero we talked around it a bit, and the party were largely keen on at least some of their special items being “cool” or “iconic”. Steve mentioned Earthdawn, and the way that the cool items there have their own stories and gain power as you use them to do interesting things. I like named items myself – I want everyone to find all their magic items cool rather than having the old golf bag of magic swords for every occasion as I’ve already mentioned.

13th Age already makes magic items kind of a big deal. They have quirks – roleplaying effects almost – that get stronger the more items you have in close proximity to the point where if you have too many (more than one per level) they can take you over for a short time and make you pursue their agenda.

I’m still pondering whether I want to have the players give me a “wish list” of the kind of items they’d find cool, or trust my own instincts once I’ve seen how they play their characters. Two of the players gave me a clear indication of what their first important magic items should be when we got to the One Unique Thing stage of character creation but more of that later.

The tentacle question

cthulhu

It took me a while to realise it, but not every game needs cosmic horror in it. It’s a hard truth to recognise, but there it is. That said there are some good fantasy treatments of the Cthulhu Mythos out there such as this one by Sandy Peterson for 5e D&D. But it probably has no place in this 13th Age game. Or at least if it does it better be wearing a pretty good disguise.

Then I asked the tentacle question. I feel like I have to ask it whenever I run a game.

I have a problem you see. I like a bit of what for a better word you’d call “Lovecraftian” or cosmic horror theme in my games. I wanted to know where the players wanted the tentacle slider. After a bit of discussion we settled on “occasional tentacles, wee bit of cosmic horror, demons are better.”

The default 13th Age setting posits that the Dragon Empire is under attack by demons who boil out of places called hellholes, and several of the Icons directly relate to exploiting or opposing demonic powers. I had a chat with myself, and decided that I was going to do my best to run a game without any overt tentacles – instead of aberrations being the source of my cosmic horror I’d use demons who want to unmake creation. It skirted a little close to the D&D 5th edition game I’d started up just before the Collapse of Civilisation, but I was confident I could make it different.

With the idea that the Outside Evil in the game would definitely be demons, coupled with John having mentioned Warhammer Fantasy earlier in the session, I told the players the campaign would be “Rise of the Rat” or “Shadow of the Rat” and made a mental note to reskin the low-level demons as the kind of rat horrors who gnaw away at the foundations of reality to make it easier for their fellow demons to push through into the world.

Lines and Veils

One of the nice things about the ttrpg hobby growing up a bit is that there’s a lot of good resources for helping your game stay fun for everyone. God knows there was times back in the day where I wanted to take a GM or a player aside and say “enough, that is not on, let’s get back to killing goblins/caitiff please.”

One tool that is very useful is lines and veils, and if you’re not familiar you can read about them here. The short version is that you establish with your players lines that you’re not going to cross, and veils where you can include the themes but you “draw a veil” over the action in the manner of a novelist using an ellipsis. Sex, for example, is often the subject of a veil-out and maybe a line of “you spend a delightful night in carnal excess and awaken the next morning tired but happy” before we move on.

I actually don’t make as much use of them as maybe I ought, because I mostly run games for people I know who I trust to speak up if something is upsetting them. But it’s dangerous to be complacent. Once we’re past the initial honeymoon “sewer tunnels and giant rats” stage I’ll probably discreetly ask if there’s any topics people would rather avoid.

I’m not including it in the Session Zero because I think that lines and veils can be awkward, and make people feel uncomfortable. They can also feel negative – even though making sure nobody at the table is going to be made to feel uncomfortable is innately positive in the context of a collaborative experience.

It’s not just about the obvious things, incidentally. I’ve run games in which I’ve needed to be aware that some of the players really don’t want there to be any child endangerment for example, or don’t want to have to fight giant spiders, or be confined in small spaces or whatever. I’ve known GMs who ignore this kind of thing and they are pricks. Each and every one of them.

With all that dealt with and half our Session Zero over, we moved on to the real meat of the session – characters and what they tell us about the world we’re going to play in – which I’ll talk about in more detail next time.

Next time, the second part (and roughly the second hour) of Session Zero involves creating characters together and firming up some more details about our game world.

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