I do not like cold starts. Opening in a tavern or what else kills the believability for me. It also lacks any hook for why the party should be working together instead of apart. To alleviate this I exclusively have some sort of starting condition. Most recently a caravan of refugees traveling across expansive, empty steppes. This is better than starting out nowhere but I still think there should be some glue to bind the party before they set out on adventure. To accomplish this, I've devised a method of quickly "linking" characters together, and then actually putting that to good use by making the players actually think.
So here is my session zero character linking rules:
Every character will roll a die. Which die is dependent on how many players you have and what the starting conditions are. A a larger die (such as a d10) will result in less relationships, while a smaller die (such as a d4) will result in many more relationships. A d8 tends to work well. In small groups, use a d6. Increase or decrease the die size depending on the starting conditions. If all the players are starting in a small town, and are likely to know each other, decrease the size. In a busy trade hub filled with adventurers, increase the size.
Once you've settled on a die, have each character roll that die and write the result somewhere on their character sheet. You will likely want to do this after character creation but before deciding on names and backstory/background. Then follow these rules for linking characters based on their rolls:
- If two characters rolled the same result, they are closely linked. They have known each other for multiple years if not their entire lives.
- Optionally, if characters have rolled numbers off by one, they are passing acquaintances. They have met before, maybe even worked together, but are not long time friends or enemies. This rule works better with larger die sizes, so you may wish to increase the die size by 1 if you opt to use this rule.
- The GM may wish to include a blank slate NPC. This NPC gets a name and maybe a light description. They get to roll a die too and are included in the final connections. The GM should also write everyone's results down.
- If three or more characters have all rolled the same number, it does not necessarily mean that they have a single unifying relationship, just that they are all linked with each other individually in a strong way.
- If any characters have no connections, they may re-roll. If the result of the second roll is the same as a different character, they are linked, but the connection is a total mystery to the other character(s).
- If any characters have only a single relationship, and rolled an even number, they may roll a second time.
- For each connection (except secret ones as above), have the players who's character are connected
step out of the room and workshop a relationship for their characters. These meetings should be one-on-one and have a time limit of about 3 minutes. Afterwards, have the players report back with a concrete relationship. If they don't have a definitive answer, the GM should give them one (or roll for one on the list later on)
- Every relationship must be written down on the character sheet. This is crucial, as it cements the relationship instead of it being something abstract. They should also write their first die result down.
The end result will be a starting point for a characters backstory and reason for joining in the adventure.
If characters have written down their die roll, new characters and even NPCs can be introduced using this method. When introducing new characters, follow the rules above, but increase the die size as necessary:
- Increase it by 1 if the party has stayed around where they started
- Increase it to a d20 if the party has ventured out of where they started, but have not gone a considerable distance.
- Increase it to a d30 if the party has gone far far away, such as to a different continent or even further.
Even if no relationship is established, have the new character write down the number for future inclusions.
20 example relationships:
- Parent / Child
- Uncle / Aunt & Nibling
- Romantic Partners
- Godparent / Godchild
- Childhood Friends
- New Friends
- Served together
- Student / Teacher
- Apprentices of the same Master
- Business Partners / Partners in crime
- "It's Complicated"