How to Prep for Session Zero

The Question: What should I do to prepare for Session Zero?

Let me get all my baggage out in the open here: I’ve run Burning Wheel before, with varying degrees of success and failure. I know how important having Beliefs with tangible goals in them is, so I harped on that too much with my last players, worked with them on rewriting weak Beliefs, and turned some of them against the whole notion of having Beliefs or goals at all. I’ve read a great deal of first-timer advice on this forum and elsewhere, and I know that having a starting Situation primed for conflict is a big deal, too.

That was two years ago, I think. I’ve moved. I’ve played and run a lot of games in that time span. My only experience before that Burning Wheel adventure had been D&D 4th Edition. My perspective is very different now.

I’m having a hard time focusing on a Situation (or Situations) to present because I’m nervous about people not grokking the system and being unable to help them without turning them off Burning Wheel. I’m concerned that the serious tone I’m looking for will be hard to elicit from my freewheeling gaming group. They have great potential for drama in them; they showed that when I last ran Apocalypse World. But can I channel it through this system?

I don’t know. I’d appreciate any advice about what to do (and what not to do) in preparing for and running the World Burning and Character Burning session.

Start with the situation pitch. “Guys, I’d like to run a game where…” Situation has nothing to do with system, really. If your situation grabs them, they’ll be ready to go. And if it doesn’t, you should hammer that out first. In fact, it’s great to say up-front that you’re working on this idea and you’re happy to take their input.

Then you explain it’ll be Burning Wheel, and why. (You don’t always need a why, but I like it for every game.) Give them some basic understanding of BW, or the PDF of the Hub if they’re the types to read it.

The last thing you do, once you’ve all agreed on a situation and everyone has a basic grasp of BW, is character burning. It’s okay to give suggestions on Beliefs, particularly things like how helpful it is to use the secret “Long-term X, so short-term Y” formulation, but don’t do that extensively. The most useful thing is to get characters and get playing. Player buy-in of the situation can cover weak Beliefs; even perfect Beliefs won’t help if players just don’t care. BW requires both players and characters to be invested.

If you can get your hands on it, Blossoms Are Falling contains “Perilous Adventure Burner”, which is a series for players to answer, and, in doing so, generate a cool campaign. It’s written specifically for a game set in Heian Period Japan, but can be easily modified to fit whatever setting your using (I recently used it for a campaign set in pre-colonial Philipines).

I do have Blossoms. I’ll take a look.

Don’t be afraid to come to the session with ideas that excite you.

I’m pretty stoked about an idea I had last night: elves as the mostly benevolent ruling class, humans as subjects, right after the Etharch who won the last war is overcome by his Grief.

I see room for human insurrectionists, heretics from the elf-worshipping orthodoxy, for elves rooting out dissidents (especially other elves), high court politics in the Etharchy, and whatever else. All with the doubt that whatever Darkness the old Etharch defeated will return with him gone.

Problem solved!


I will still accept advice about how to run the first session, if anyone has something to add that hasn’t already been said.

But I am less nervous about the prospect.

That’s a neat setting. Do you have a particular situation in the setting in mind for players or are you just going to bounce ideas off them (and they off you) until you’ve settled on something? I’d advise at least starting out with the specifics: playing as rebels, playing as counter-rebels, court intrigue or daring violence, whatever. You don’t have to stick with it, but having a “first bid” on the table gives players something to mull over and embrace, modify, or reject.

Be sure the players understand that Elves and Men don’t balance even more than BW in general doesn’t balance. Maybe consider allowing Men more lifepaths. You know your group and how it will handle this sort of thing better.

I was thinking about making the party all-elf or all-human to avoid that particular issue.

But someone will probably want to be the token member of the other race.

It’s fine to mix stocks if everyone’s okay with it, and there’s plenty of drama in playing Elves supporting the rights of Men—or in Men who believe that their rightful place is subservient. Mixing Elven loyalists with upstart Mannish firebrand revolutionaries is a recipe for disaster in many gaming groups. Maybe BWHQ can pull that kind of thing off; I can’t.

When I come to the table I try to have a couple of pitches, usually one for each of the races and then another for a mixed group to see what the players want. At least each one is written in a flavor for a particular race. Usually 1 or 2 sentences is all it takes. It is very true that a gamemasters plans never survive contact with the players. After all players are programmed to mess with our ideas. Session 0 is no different and each player will want to take something different away from the table.