For context on this story, be sure to listen to our bonus episode Session Zero! Otherwise it might not make much sense.
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“So, what exactly is a Session Zero?” Michael asked, easing into his seat as deliberately as he did everything, with practiced precision.
“It’s like a setup session,” Teresa explained, placing her books carefully in front of her, less because she wanted them to be neat and more because she wanted something to do with her hands. Fun. This was going to be fun. “We’ll talk about our characters, and our expectations and hopes for the games.”
“Why?” River asked. Her hands were folded in front of her, listening almost too intently.
“For safety and communication purposes.” Em lined faer dice up in between faer fingers to watch them catch the light. “The last thing a DM wants is to throw a monster at someone that will trigger them, or put them in a character situation that’s uncomfortable.”
“Exactly,” Teresa agreed. Session zero had been Em’s suggestion, when Teresa had confided in faer that she was nervous—fae had DM’d several games, fae was practically an expert.
“That is a great idea.” Alex lounged in his chair like a slovenly emperor, one leg thrown over the arm, which couldn’t be comfortable but definitely drew the attention of the room. “Cal, you remember that group we tried to play with in college?”
“Oh my god,” Cal groaned. “They were the absolute worst.”
“No respect for the narrative,” Alex explained. “Just try to have a character moment. They’d ruin it.”
“Murder hobos,” Cal went on, flipping their graph-paper notebook to a new page. “Misgendered me and my character constantly.”
“And their jokes were awful,” Alex went on. “Really, that game was just an excuse for them to speak into existence every sexist or homophobic thought they’d ever had.”
“Why did you keep playing with them, then?” River asked, mystified.
“We didn’t for very long,” Cal explained. “But we stuck with it longer than we should, ‘cause who else were we going to play with?”
“The group fell apart without us,” Alex said, a little smugly.
“I’d like to prevent that, if I can,” Teresa said firmly. “I don’t know how long this story will go, but I do want to make sure we’re all still friends on the other side of it.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Alex said, lifting an imaginary glass.
“Should we talk about hard no’s?” Em suggested, removing faer dice from between faer fingers and building them into a little stack.
“Yes, um, to start with—in this world we’re going with no homophobia or transphobia whatsoever.” Teresa flipped to the list she’d written on a scrap of paper in the Monster Manual. “I just don’t see the point of that, and I don’t think it’s interesting to play in that space anyway.”
“Good!” Cal said, crossing their arms. “This is supposed to be a break from reality.”
“What about fantasy racism?” River asked. “Do the dwarves hate the elves in this world?”
“No, I feel like it’d be more complicated than that if this was real, right?” Teresa said, leaning back in her chair. “Even places that have been at war for years—not every individual member of one nation hates every individual member of another, right? I’m trying to build some nuance into the geopolitics.”
Em looked up. “You’re building geopolitics?”
Teresa was suddenly embarrassed. “I’m trying to. I like lore. I’m having fun.”
“Good, the point of this is for you to have fun too,” Em reassured her.
“What about stereotypes?” Michael said with that intensity he had, the kind that Teresa knew meant he’d been thinking very hard about something. “Maybe there’s no outright hostility, but people will often think two-dimensionally about others, regardless of what dimension it is they’re actually seeing.”
“Planning on playing a jerk, Michael?” Alex said casually.
Michael blushed, just a little.
“I think that’s acceptable, as long as you’re not bothering other players,” Teresa said. “Can we agree on that?”
The players nodded or made some small noise of agreement, except for Em, who held up one finger. “If it doesn’t mess up your lore, can I put a moratorium on institutionalized slavery?”
“The official stuff on the drow is pretty gross,” Cal agreed.
Teresa nodded, trying to think through the plot she’d already built. “We can do that. Oh um…how do you feel about individual bad guys treating people like slaves, though?”
“As long as it’s not state-sanctioned and we get to blow them into the astral plane,” Em said.
“Done,” Teresa agreed.
“I don’t do zombies either,” Em added. “They give me nightmares.”
“We can definitely work around that,” Teresa said. “Who else?”
“Um, can I…” River began, and then hesitated.
“Go on, River,” Alex encouraged.
She swallowed and nodded. “Um, I just…it’s not a hard no, so much, but…is this going to have a happy ending? Like, I don’t mind tragedy, I just want to know what I’m getting into going in.”
“Oh, I don’t want you guys to die!” Teresa assured her. “Like, seriously, whatever happens—I want you to win.”
“You can’t win D&D,” Cal laughed.
“Sure you can!” Alex declared, swinging an imaginary sword. “Kill the monsters, hit level 20, win the heart of fair maiden.”
“Those are encounters.” Cal nudged Alex with their elbow.
“Don’t be pedantic.” Alex nudged them back.
“That makes me feel better, thanks Teresa.” River folded her hands up again. “I did just remember, I do have one hard no? Can I request that no one flirt with my characters?”
“Easy enough,” Teresa said, making a note.
“Aw, but River, what if it’s funny?” Alex said.
River considered this for just a little bit longer than was comfortable in perfect silence, before giving a sharp nod. “Okay. Do not flirt with my character unless it’s very funny.”
“Deal,” Alex said.
“Okay, anyone else?” Teresa asked, and when no one responded, said, “Then I think it’s time we talk about our characters.”
“I don’t really have an idea for mine yet,” Alex said, throwing an arm around Cal. “Except that Cal’s and mine are going to be best friends. Non-negotiable.”
Teresa smiled. “Okay, Cal, do you know who you’re playing yet?”
“Something fighty,” Cal shrugged. “I’ll flip through the book and see.”
“I think I’m going cleric, but I have questions about how the gods work first,” River said.
“Okay, we’ll get to that in a sec…Em?”
Em unzipped faer backpack, pulled out a folder, opened it to a page, and place the page in front of Teresa on the table. “Here.”
“You already got yours done?” Michael said, with a note of worry in his voice.
“Do you know how long it’s been since I got to be a player instead of a DM?” Em retorted.
Teresa looked over the page. It was a human wizard, and she would have to check against the book, but it looked like standard stats with racial bonuses already applied. She flipped to the back—Em even had a spell list all set up.
“All right, Meltyre, welcome to the party,” Teresa said, handing it back to Em. “Would you be okay with helping everyone else set up their characters with me?”
“Sure,” Em said. “Did you see the spells I picked?”
“I saw that you picked them, why?”
“They’re good,” Em said, jabbing a finger into the sheet.
“What are you playing, a wizard?” River said.
“Nerd,” commented Alex.
“Wizards get the most spell variety and spell slots, and my boy is perfect and I love him,” Em shot back. “I bet your character eats my character’s dust.”
“Oh, we’ll see about that,” Alex said, snatching up a Player’s Handbook that was most likely Cal’s. “Let’s figure this out right here, right now.”
“What about you, Michael?” Cal asked.
Michael took a long slow breath. “I…I think I have an idea. I read through the handbook, but…I’m not sure if what I’m doing is…allowed?”
“We can work something out,” Teresa said, hoping she sounded reassuring.
“Maybe. Alex was kind of right, is all.” Michael looked down, picking at the table. “I am thinking of playing a jerk.”
“That’s okay, if it’s interesting,” Em said.
“Michael the person is not a jerk, and we’re all smart enough to know the difference,” Cal said.
“I don’t really have any experience playing at all, though,” Michael went on. “Won’t I slow you down?”
“The more people who play D&D, the less often I have to be a perma-DM,” Em added.
“Are you sure?” Michael said, finally looking up. He looked pained.
Teresa saw now—it was imposter syndrome, or something like it—Michael didn’t believe that they all wanted him to play.
“Dude, if we didn’t want you to be part of this game, I wouldn’t have dragged your ass here,” Alex said, nonchalance hiding the kindness.
“When Teresa was trying to come up with a fifth player, we literally were like, Michael would be perfect,” Em added.
“I want to know about this character who’s a jerk,” River said. “Sounds interesting.”
“We’re sure,” Teresa said firmly. “I mean it.”
Michael still looked as though he wasn’t quite convinced, but he pulled out his phone. “I um…I typed up what I was thinking. Can I send it to you?”
“Please!” Teresa said, relieved.
“Wait, did you say you read the entire Player’s Handbook?” Alex said.
Michael looked up from his phone. “Didn’t you?”
Teresa suppressed a laugh. “Let’s roll some stats.”