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Build stronger D&D parties with The Session Zero System, a novel tarot-based game

Gabe Hicks’ latest effort joins the panoply of pre- and post-game tools for TTRPG groups

A close-up of two people, each holding a tarot card up to their face to obscure half of it.
Gabe Hicks and Elise Rezendes, co-founders of Mythic Grove Productions.
Image: Mythic Grove Productions

One of the true joys of tabletop role-playing games is creating a character, someone to inhabit at the table alongside your friends. But rarely do players and game masters spend enough quality time meshing those characters together before leaving the tavern for their first adventure. Professional game master and designer Gabe Hicks and their team at Mythic Grove Productions want to change that. The team’s next project is a game called The Session Zero System, a tarot-based pre-game tool that could soon join the ranks of The Quiet Year and World Ending Game as role-playing essentials.

A “session zero” traditionally refers to time that a soon-to-be role-playing group spends together before actually playing the first session of a one-shot or a campaign. It’s a space to talk about safety at the table, to delineate ways to ensure that everyone is comfortable and engaged with the material and the situations being presented. But it’s also a time to build the party itself into something more than a compilation of disparate classes, backgrounds, lethal weapons, and magic spells. It’s a golden opportunity to build community, but often one that newbie Dungeon Masters overlook.

Three tarot-style cards read: Descendent, showing a Black woman walking down stairs filled with ghostly specters; Oathbreaker, showing two warriors on a field of battle; and A Wish Granted/A Prophecy Ignored, showing creeping purple hands reaching out for a hero, reaching for a falling star. Image: Mythic Grove Productions

“I like session zeros in the sense of getting an idea of what everyone wants to play — the kind of game everyone wants to experience,” Hicks said during a recent interview with Polygon. “Something that’s been really important to me is players having a little bit about each other’s characters so that we build off of them. I have found that in the session zero, when you don’t talk about your characters with each other — like goals and aspirations and stuff like that — you end up not highlighting each other’s moments.”

Hicks gave the example of a character who has an insatiable lust for forbidden, cursed objects. When something like that shows up in-game, knowing that a member of the party has a special, personal connection gives players the signal that they should leave that item alone, steering the player with the special connection toward it instead.

“I don’t have to know the reason they want the forbidden item,” Hicks said. “I don’t have to know that maybe there’s something inside of them that is craving them, but [simply] having the notion that forbidden items are important to this character helps me as a player be more receptive and be more involved in giving them that moment to shine.”

Three tarot-style card decks, one each for the three elements of The Session Zero System. Anew shows a golden book filled with writhing spirits; beloved shows two women embracing to kiss; and a leader dies/a life is spared shows a titanic spectral king overlooking a coronation. Image: Mythic Grove Productions

To use The Session Zero System, GMs play cards for each player at the table from three different decks — Bond, Catalyst, and Legacy. Each card presents a prompt for the players to consider, and then discuss openly at the table using their already created characters as a baseline to guide their response. The Bond deck establishes how characters, non-player characters, and the world around them are connected. Catalyst establishes events in the history of that world that put characters into conflict with their surroundings, or perhaps even one another. Legacy is how those events played out, creating the character as they are today.

“It’s not about knowing the rules of the game the most,” Hicks said. “It’s not about knowing the world the most. It’s about what you want to add to world-building in this session that we’re going to be playing together.”

Often, these kinds of internal waypoints and motivations are clearly communicated to GMs ahead of time, but Hicks said that spreading that knowledge between all the members of the party helps alleviate the load on the GM alone. It also encourages building complex webs of relationships between the different members of the party — a surefire way to help those new to the hobby find equal footing with more experienced players.

“The notion is if someone has a character in mind, they can answer these questions as that character,” Hicks said. “If someone doesn’t know who they want to be, they get a moment to think about it at that point.”

More than anything, Hicks wants The Session Zero System to be a tool that helps empower more players to become GMs and DMs down the line, and not feel as intimidated when they’re first jumping in. The goal isn’t to replace the custom of session zero games, but to enhance them with more structured and friendly tools.

“There are dozens and dozens and dozens of incredibly advanced storytellers that might never need or want to use something like this,” Hicks said. “I want those people to be able to enjoy it, but I also really want that person who doesn’t necessarily know how to start this — doesn’t know how to necessarily pull people in the same way [...] — I want that person who’s nervous [to] make them comfortable to do it. I want this to be one of those tools for them.”

The crowdfunding campaign for The Session Zero System is currently live on Kickstarter and runs through Nov. 10. Sets of 60 cards and an interpretive booklet begin at $45, with delivery set for November 2023. A digital version starts at just $10 and is expected a bit sooner — by August 2023.

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