Welcome back to the Zurn blog! In today's post we'll be talking about the importance of running a "Mission Zero" for your campaign. I first heard about the concept of a Mission Zero from the YouTuber DawnForgedCast, who, if you don't follow him online, you should totally subscribe to him. His channel is amazing, and he has really good insights into D&D, Pathfinder, and other RPGs. Highly recommend his content.
To begin this discussion, we will define what we mean by "Mission Zero," and then discuss what points you should cover in your first session and how this will assist you in having a cohesive, engaging campaign.
We will then take a look at two case studies, involving two game masters I recently sat under who used a Mission Zero, discussing the useful elements that came from their use.
1. Mission Zero: What Is It?
A "Mission Zero" is where, at the start of the campaign, the party gathers for a session where there will be no rolls. The players are still awaiting their "arrival into the world," if you will: it is not Mission One, where they will begin their quest.
Instead, the party gathers with the game master to discuss what the themes and background of the campaign are, build their characters, and present parameters that are useful to know as they build their characters.
The advantage in running a Mission Zero is that it puts everyone on the same page: people know, in advance of the first session, who the characters are, what they do, and how they fit together as a party.
It also allows the game master to present general knowledge of the setting and parameters for the campaign. If the campaign requires a burglar (Tolkien's The Hobbit, for example), the party needs to know upfront that they need a burglar. If the party needs to be loyal to an NPC (an escort campaign, a defense campaign, etc.), the party needs to know that these are incumbent on the characters they build.
A Mission Zero also allows game masters to inform their players of their style of GMing. If you are the kind of GM who wants to run a "Good Campaign" (i.e., players don't attack each other) or an "Evil Campaign" (players can attack each other, betray each other, etc.), you can tell them. If you are more interested in a serious action drama as opposed to a comedy of fools, tell your players.
In short, Mission Zero is designed to bring the party together. By building characters as a group, it is easier to tie character concepts together, build a shared past background with your characters, and tie the campaign closely to your backstory, making the story more impacting for the players.
With this in mind, the following are things I would cover in a Mission Zero.
2. Points to Cover in Your Mission Zero
There are a lot of things you can discuss in this opening session, but the following are essential points you should cover (and I'll present them in what I would consider the best order of presenting them, as they build on each other):
Restrictions: Start with what players are not allowed to do, take, or access. If you start with the setting, goal, requirements for the party/players, etc., then they may build a character in their minds that uses things that are not allowed, and that may lead to tense discussions later in Mission Zero. So at the outset tell the players what is not allowed. If you want them to stick with the core rulebook, tell them that. If their race is pre-determined at the start of the campaign, tell them that. If players do not have access to rare or artifact-grade gear, tell them that.
Requirements: Now that we've told the players what they can't have, we should tell them what they can take. This prepares them for what is to come: the setting and purpose of the campaign, so that they can start thinking in their minds about what they'd like to do. So if there are roles (you need a burglar), items (someone having a ring of power for us to destroy), races (do you have to be a dwarf or hobbit?), etc. that are required, specify them.
Setting: We want the players to know what part of the world they are in, who their allies are, who the antagonist(s) are (if that is pre-determined at the outset), etc. This includes discussing the climate (will a cloak or other warm items be a necessity? If we're crossing a desert, will we need canteens and flasks for water? Knowing the climate changes a lot about the characters they will build), natural resources (does the region have access to ores and metal? Ready access to wood? All of this substantially changes the way a player will build a character), technology level (can the locals only make basic items? Do they have access to advanced artisanry for higher-grade weapons and armor? If the campaign forbids rare or artifact-grade items, this is part of the setting as well: the presence of a rare item will be even more rare than normal), and cultural norms (Do people greet each other on the street, and if so, how? Are you expected to loot the body of men you kill? Are you expected to bury the bodies of men you kill? Tell them what to expect).
Goal/Purpose: Tell them what they will be doing in broad terms. Are protecting five elven villages from attack, saving as many elves as they can? Escorting a princess to her uncle for safety? Rescuing a troll mage? Finding a rare artifact? Uncovering a murder mystery or an underworld plot? Make sure that, before they build their characters, they know the goal of the campaign, so that they can build characters that are helpful in accomplishing the goal.
Character Role Selection: Help players discern their role in the party. There are myriad ways to do this, but I recommend that the party try to cover five bases (ideally with more than one person having proficiency in each area, but not necessarily excelling at more than 1-2 themselves): damage (both up close and at a distance), armor (because it's just nice to know that someone can sustain a beating if the worst happens), perception (a stealth attack can be deadly if you don't have an answer for it), healing (be that magical, herbal, supernatural, etc.), and knowledge (you don't want to walk into a situation where no one can put two and two together). Make sure everyone can contribute at least one of these skills to the party, in addition to whatever else they want to contribute (stealth, hexing, augmenting, trapping, tracking, etc.).
Shared Backstories: Players can intertwine their backstories as they fill their roles. This gives your party greater cohesion coming together, and allows them to setup banter for future sessions ("This is like Budapest all over again!"), so make sure that you spend some time talking about where they might have met before the campaign begins.
You can cover much more than this, but these are the bare minimum of what I would cover in a Mission Zero. It will help the players find their bearings, and it will insure that you have all of the bases covered before you begin Mission One.
3. Case Studies: What You Get From Mission Zero
I've recently been under two game masters who used a Mission Zero to start of the campaign, and they used these sessions very effectively. The first GM (we'll call him Valinen) used the session to discuss expectations and the trajectory of the campaign for the first 30 minutes or so, but used the rest of the session just to work on character background, past experience and shared backstory between the characters, and how we would function as a party.
This was extremely useful, as all of us brought unique elements to the game. My character was a spirit guardian for one of the other characters since her infancy (yes, you can play a spirit guardian as a character in Zurn - it's really fun!), so I had to note how I was going to protect the party as a whole, not just the one other player character. We had a "lone wolf" guy, and he got to discern how he would help the group, not just strike out on his own. And so on - but what I discovered through Mission Zero was just how many problems Valinen avoided by running a Mission Zero: a host of the common problems for GMs disappeared.
Similarly, I am now in a D&D campaign under another DM (we'll call him Twyll) who used the session in part to talk about backstory and personal character builds, but spent much of the session talking lore, history, legend, and had a wonderful handout that gave us some of the cultural and historical background of the area. We had something we could hold onto out of session that we could reference, which was very useful.
I found myself leaving both sessions feeling empowered to fully engage in the campaign as my character, but more than that to do so in a way that would be constructive to the party and in-line with my GM's desires for the campaign. I also felt like I knew how I could help my GM have fun while running the campaign, which, as a fellow GM, I appreciate a lot.
So do what you will with the recommendation of using a Mission Zero, but I highly recommend it. It will make your life easier as a game master, and will help everyone be on the same page as you start your campaign. And if you are a player and you are reading this, I highly recommend at least floating the idea to your GM about having one, so that you can know how to best engage in the campaign when it begins.
In our next post we will talk about Mission One, and how you can build an effective opening to your story. The adventure is about to begin!