A Session Zero is the first session of a campaign that is about building characters more than advancing the plot. You get together and create your characters as a group to better meld them into a party and to help each other out. I highly recommend this if you’re going to do an ongoing campaign, but if you want to try something a little more engaging you should try telling a story at the same time. One of the best games to use this with is my favorite sci-fi RPG, Eclipse Phase.
One of the first Actual Play podcasts out there for Eclipse Phase is the much-celebrated Know Evil campaign by Caleb Stokes on Roleplaying Public Radio. While this wasn’t my first experience with Eclipse Phase it was certainly influential and I think that holds true for a number of fans out there. Since then, the group has done a number of different Eclipse Phase games, including another full campaign called Duality.
My favorite thing that the RPPR group did with Eclipse Phase, though, is a short, simple adventure called A Glorious Fall. The second half of this adventure is the scenario Glory from the core Eclipse Phase book, but the first half is an imaginative situation where the characters wake up in a mysterious room and slowly remember where they are as the players themselves are slowly introduced to the setting. I’ve used this several times to introduce groups to Eclipse Phase and I thought I’d give it some consideration here to formalize the process.
To start an Active Session Zero for Eclipse Phase, you need to decide what situation the group starts in. The easiest option, and the reason this works so well for Eclipse Phase, is to have them in some sort of simulspace. This might be during the Fall, afterwards because of some bad petal trip or harsh punishment by the Planetary Consortium, or even more bizarrely on some distant exoplanet in an alien computer network.
Whatever the case, the characters start off as blank slates that are filled in step-by-step over the course of this first session. Maybe this launches them into the action or maybe it’s a one-off experience that doesn’t necessarily relate to the broader campaign. They awaken in some room or space: describe it in detail and don’t try too hard to make it seem like an artificial space. That will come later.
The first thing the players will do is to give their characters a name. This is how they will be known and what they will call themselves. Besides it makes it much easier to refer to the character instead of “your person.” This is all that they (and the player) know about who they are… Though of course they might be remembering someone else’s name in the end or else a nickname they received once. In the confusion of waking it’s easy for wires to get crossed and at the end of the process they might choose to change it.
As the characters wake in the middle of a ruined hotel room, they try to figure out what happened. Did they go to some party? A rager that wound up in drunken chaos here? Whatever the case, they can only recall their names. Juan is on the floor by the window, Oswald on the couch staring up at a chandelier missing half its bulbs, and Ama underneath the pool table.
As the characters look around and begin to interact with their surroundings, the players will pick out their Aptitudes. You can have them assign points as described in the Eclipse Phase core book or have them pick an Aptitude Template as described in Transhuman. However you pick it, the players now know what their character’s base potential is.
As Juan tries to look out the window while Ama and Oswald search the room for clues, their players assign Aptitude Templates. Juan is an Extrovert, Ama a Techie, and Oswald a Researcher.
After a few moments, the characters will discover that they have stronger abilities than just their natural aptitudes. Have the players pick out 400 points of Active Skills or, if you’re using Transhuman packages, 1 to 5 Package Points of Focus and Customization Packages. If you’re using the package system, you might not give the players a limit at all, but you can explain that they will get a total of 10 Package Points and they’ll need at least 2 later so they can decide how many to spend now. They gain a rating of 70 + INT in their Native Language as well, which should beg the question of why they can all understand each other.
In the hotel room, Juan is searching for more clues about where they are while Ama is trying to find a computer terminal to determine what technical systems are around. Oswald is searching for useful items in case they need to defend themselves or break down the door. Given these actions, Juan’s character decides that he has the Face package (3 PP) and the Con Artist package (1 PP). Ama’s player picks the Hacker package (5 PP) and Oswald’s player picks the Scientist (3 PP), Lucky (1 PP), and Mentalist (1 PP) packages.
Juan speaks Spanish natively, Oswald speaks English, and Ama speaks Amharic.
At this point, the characters should realize they’re in a simulspace experience and not the real world. This should immediately make them look for a way to get out of there, which should be a skill check or two. If the whole game is them being stuck in the simulspace, after all, it won’t be terribly interesting. Maybe they break out through a brute force hack because the system isn’t monitored, or maybe “breaking out” means successfully signalling someone on the outside to release them.
Whatever the case, the characters work to reach the outside world and in the process gain some context of their past lives. Have the characters pick a Background (if using the core Eclipse Phase rules) or a Background package (if using Transhuman) and apply the bonuses listed there.
As they’re working to signal to the outside world, the characters begin to realize who they are. Juan remembers that he is a street kid from Mars and takes the Fall Evacuee: Underclass (3 PP) package. Ama remembers that she is from an important and influential family and takes the Hyperelite: Scion (3 PP) package. Oswald, to his shock (and the player’s delight), recalls that he is actually an uplifted neo-octopus so he gains the Uplift: Standard Specimen (3 PP) package.
Having remembered who they are and where they come from, characters should naturally start asking the next reasonable question: how did we get here? Whatever scenario you picked originally, the characters now can start to piece things together using their skills. If you’re using the Transhuman package system they already have most of the skills they need to do this. If you’re using the core Eclipse Phase character creation, have them assign 300 points to Knowledge skills first.
Using their skills, the characters start to piece together what happened. They were traveling with a Scum Swarm (the GM takes this time to explain in a few sentences what that means) and foolishly agreed to a shared XP (again, a brief description) with a drug dealer. They will need to convince this guy that the experience is starting to go bad and he should end it early.
Describe Your Muse
Characters aren’t alone in the universe, they have their trusted muses by their side! As they gain access to their memories and mental faculties again, they will likely see many frantic messages from their muse wondering what’s up. Have players name their muses and give a one-to-two sentence description of what they look like. You can figure the rest out later.
Juan’s muse is a younger version of himself dressed in a kid-sized motorcycle body suit, with swagger well beyond his years. Ama’s muse is an African woman with a posh British accent who presents herself as a personal aide, something that was considered the norm in her family growing up. Oswald has a corporate-generated muse that has been with him since the laboratory, a cheeky raccoon who is always complaining that he’s hungry.
Once they’re out in meatspace again, the characters will figure out what body they are in. This is the time to explain how resleeving works and also to show players that not everything is fun and wondrous in the future. In other words, they get their first experience with stress as they make Alienation tests. They also might make Continuity tests if there is a significant gap in their memories. Use the standard rules for buying morphs in character creation from either the Eclipse Phase core book or Transhuman. The Choosing a Morph table on p. 44 of Transhuman is really useful either way.
Juan resleeves into a handsome Latino slyph while Ama resleeves into a dark-skinned menton. Oswald, of course, resleeves into an octomorph.
Pick Post-Fall Faction
Once they’re free of the simulspace, your scenario is on its own. It will head in whatever direction you had planned: fun and games aboard a Scum swarm, exploring an exoplanet, navigating the streets of Valles-New Shanghai, escaping the Fall of Earth in a transport ship, etc. One thing that’s left to do here is to pick your Post-Fall faction (Eclipse Phase core) or Faction Package (Transhuman). This will determine your place in the solar system during the rest of the game. If the party is going to immediately farcast and resleeve elsewhere, you should give them a free morph of the same type they picked so that they don’t have to immediately choose a new body after doing all that work.
Resleeving onto the Scum swarm, everything starts to come back to the characters. Juan remembers his life after the Fall, scrambling for credits on Mars and joining a criminal syndicate (he uses his remaining 3 PP on a Criminal package). Ama remembers living on the Moon and watching the Earth fall from her family estate before leaving the family business to devote herself to helping transhumanity survive (she has 2 PP left and spends one of them on a 1 PP Argonaut package). Oswald remembers escaping during the chaos of the Fall and making a new life for himself on the run (he uses one of his PP on a Mercurial: Uplift package and one on a Scum package).
After this process is through, end your Session Zero with some tidying-up. If you’ve been creating characters using Transhuman, you need to make sure they’ve spent all their Package Points and have them spend the remainder if they haven’t. If you’ve been following core Eclipse Phase, they still have 300 CP to spend on skills, plus their rep scores. Regardless of the system, you still have gear to buy and the character’s remaining stats (see p. 138 of Eclipse Phase or p. 38 of Transhuman) to calculate.
As the players look over Gear Packages, the GM tells Ama’s character that she has 1 PP still left to spend. She looks at the list and decides that Essential Skills looks important, so she adds that to her sheet and adjusts totals accordingly.
And there you are! Your characters are ready, they already have a common experience to draw from, and they can head out into the greater universe of Eclipse Phase. As the GM, you should note that these characters are unlikely to be optimized fully, but this happens every time your players are trying out a new system, right? Allow some adjustments before your next session and then probably again after the end of that session. You can keep everything big the same but allow players to shift some skill points from one place to another or to switch out their morph without much fuss. It’s only a game, after all!
As a brief post-script, I thought I’d mention the FATE version of Eclipse Phase. This is a different sort of deal but it can also work for introducing players to the system and setting. You need to mix up the Character Creation steps listed on page 19 of Transhumanity’s FATE: they’re front-loaded with memories and you need the opposite. Have the players start off picking a name as discussed above and then picking a broad or deep focus of skills (THF p. 23). Have characters assign their skills as they attempt to use them (“You want to search the room? Alright, what is your rating in Investigate?”) until everyone has spent all of their Skill Pyramid assignments.
After that, have your characters describe their high concept, then their trouble concept, and then their two ego aspects as their memories return. When they realize they’re in a simulspace and start asking questions, they go through the Firewall Phases to establish how they got in this mess. They should also establish their muse at this point, same as above. Once they resleeve and pick a morph, they pick out their 3 to 5 stunts and head out into the universe. At the end of your Session Zero, have them figure out refresh, stress track, and consequence slots, as well as picking out gear.