If you’re new to Dungeons & Dragons, you may have heard the term "Session Zero" tossed around.
But, what is a Session Zero? Why should you have one? And, what should you discuss with your table during it?
This article is going to cover what a Session Zero is and includes a checklist to make running one a bit easier.
What is a Session 0?
A Session Zero is when you and your D&D group get together before actually playing the game. The purpose of a Session Zero is to figure out characters, how they fit in the world, and expectations during play. Usually, the Game Master (GM) runs the Session Zero as they explain the basics of the setting and campaign and mediates discussions on acceptable table ettiquette.
There’s been a recent surge in people extolling the importance of Session Zeros in D&D and other TTRPGs. And, for good reason.
Having a Session Zero helps get everyone playing (both Game Master and players) on the same page, so to speak. Everyone should understand the idea of a campaign and what is expected of them during play. That is, what they should or shouldn’t do and general rules for how to behave.
If you’re playing with a group of people you’ve known and gamed with for years, you probably don’t need to rehash what the expectations are for the table. You all might know what topics not to include or what each other’s boundaries are.
That said, even if you’re familiar with everyone at the table, you might consider running a Session Zero so everyone has a similar idea of the setting, campaign, and each other’s characters.
One of the most important aspects of running a Session Zero is to lay out what is allowed in your game. This way, everyone know what everyone else is comfortable with in-game.
That is to say: a Session Zero should establish acceptable behavior at the table.
I often see people complain about how their table came after them for some joke they made out-of-character or GMs not knowing how to handle a situation that arose during play due to its subject matter. Some of these problems might never have happened if they ran a Session Zero that plainly outlined what behaviors were acceptable.
Now, is this to say that Session Zeros take the fun out of playing D&D?
All a Session Zero does is establish what content the GM and players are okay with. If you want to play in a hyper grimdark campaign with intense gore and other dark themes, so long as everyone at the table agrees to this, you’re fine. Inappropriate jokes at the table? Make sure that’s cleared in Session Zero. Themes and events that are completely unrealistic that borderline on the cartoonish? Clear it in Session Zero.
The point is; everyone should be onboard with everyone else by the end of your campaign’s Session Zero.
After your Session Zero, everyone should have their characters made (or in the process of being made, at the very least) and have an idea of what behaviors everyone at the table is comfortable with.
So, let’s move on to a general checklist you can use to get started with for your first Session Zero.
The Session 0 Checklist
Every Session Zero is different as what you need to address depends on who all is playing.
That said, Role Player’s Respite has put together a fairly general list of things to address in your Session Zero. This checklist isn’t 100% exhaustive, but it does touch on many aspects you should consider when playing with a new table or even just a few new players.
Here’s a Session Zero checklist to get you started:
- The Setting
- Campaign Pitch
- Tone of the Campaign
- Character Creation
- How the Party Came/Comes Together
- How the Players Want to Play
- Player Versus Player
- House Rules
- Understanding D&D is a Game
- Campaign & Session Length
- What’s Physically Allowed at the Table
- Missing a Session
- Cancelling a Session
- Safety Tools
- Blacklisted Topics
We’ll briefly go over each of these as they can get segmented out or be a bit nuanced. So, let’s dive right in.
Of course, the first thing you’ll want to address is what the players can expect from your, the GM’s, game.
You don’t need to explain every detail of the story or even an outline of the campaign’s entire plot. But, the players should have an understanding of where their characters find themselves, the idea of the campaign, the tone of your game, and other common knowledge they would have in-game.
Dropping characters who have no idea about the world may pose an obstacle for your players to buy-in into the game. So, you should go over what your players should expect from your game.
Also, get feedback from your players on what they want from your game. That way, you can work that into the campaign which adds to their characters’ stories and adventures.
Trust me, you’ll love watching your players react to including their backstory and playstyle into your game.
Explain the setting in general to your players.
Is the setting underground? What about underwater? Is it on a desert world? A tundra one? What about in the sky/
Now, there are a few things to bear in mind when guiding your players through the setting. You should give them all the general knowledge someone in-game would have. For example, your players’ characters shouldn’t be surprised at the fact that the queen is a werewolf if the general populace already knows that. Unless a character isn’t from the area, but that’s a different story.
Anyway, here’re some pieces of information you should provide your players about the setting.
What are the major nations of the setting? Are there unique, well-known landmarks around? Where are the player characters from?
Make sure you let your players know the primary areas their characters will explore.
When they’re creating their characters, knowing what sort of biomes they’re likely to visit may help them when deciding what kind of character they want to make. For example, if your campaign features a prominent forest, a player may want to make a Druid from that forest or even a Ranger who explores the fringes of the woods.
Additionally, give them a general rundown of the nations likely to appear in your campaign and where they’re located. Again, this helps your players understand the state of the setting and inspire their characters.
Who is the ruler? Are there any particular factions at play? What about individual NPCs with reputations of their own?
General information about specific, well-known NPCs that the player characters may or may not interact with helps them buy into the setting a bit more.
This is especially important for the characters’ backstories. Maybe a character has a connection to the royal line of the kingdom through distant cousins. That feeds into their backstory and becomes something you can use later in the campaign.
Laws of the Land
Are their specific laws the player characters would know of?
Unless a character isn’t from the locale your game takes place in, the characters should know of any uncommon laws that could get them in trouble.
For example, are weapons allowed? I’ve seen stories of players complaining about GMs having guards attack their characters for seemingly no reason only to find out that weapons weren’t allowed within a city’s walls…after entering through the guarded gate. Now, having a guard stop the characters and inform them in-game is enough in this situation.
Just make sure to note any commonly-known laws in-game that might be a bit unusual to players.
How prevalent is magic in this setting? Do common folk fear magic? Do they revere it?
Magic is often a point to mention when it comes to any setting. Your players should know whether magic is rare in your setting, if it’s found in every home and sold in every market, or if it’s somewhere in between.
Chances are you’ve already pitched your campaign to your players. But, Session Zero is a great time to reiterate what the idea of your campaign is.
This should be a one to two sentence description of your campaign. Your pitch should give the briefest description of what the players will face.
For example, a campaign pitch could look something like:
A powerful organization of necromancers seeks to resurrect a god of undeath but a clandestine arcane society seeks to stop them before it’s too late.
Honestly, it’s as simple as that.
The players learn who the villains will be (an organization of necromancers), what the villains’ goal is (to resurrect a god of undeath), and the opposing force (an arcane society). Whether the players choose to align themselves with the necromancers, the arcane society, or decide on their own path is up to them.
Tone of the Campaign
Establish the tone of your campaign during your Session Zero. Is it dark, serious, and gritty? Or, is it light, whimsical, and low-pressure?
Deciding on the tone of your campaign is important for ensuring everyone understands what subject matter to expect. A more dark tone means you should also explain how death happens all too often and the people struggle simply to survive. On the other hand, a light tone may mean a more comedic campaign full of mischief and less serious actions.
This is important because you don’t want to run a light-hearted romp through the fae realm with Sir Grimms Darkly, Agitator of Doom brooding in the corner of every tavern the players come across. Likewise, you don’t want a player-driven tale of the hardships of war with Buckles McGiggles the dancing automaton along for the ride.
Decide on a tone and make sure everyone is okay with it.
Now, this comes down to personal preference. Many D&D groups make their characters together during Session Zero. But, if your players want to surprise each other, you should still mention how character creation will work for your campaign.
How will you determine the characters’ Ability Scores? What races and classes are allowed? Where do each of the characters come from?
If you have specific rules on how your players should go about creating their characters, address that in Session Zero.
Making the player characters together helps in bonding the party together (which we’ll also address in a bit). But, even if you don’t want to make characters together, you should establish how they should go about creating them.
How the Party Came or Comes Together
Do the characters already know each other? Do they all share a common acquaintance? Otherwise, how will they meet?
Finding a way to bring a D&D party together is one of the more challenging aspects of starting a new D&D game.
That said, you can decide on this during Session Zero. This works especially well if you’re starting your game at a higher level.
For example, maybe the characters all joined an adventuring guild for one reason or another and know each other from their various jobs. Or, maybe they all were conscripted into the military due to an oncoming war. Or, a common patron brings them together to help with a specific task.
You can use Session Zero to establish how the characters know each other or how they’ll meet in the first session of the game.
How the Players Want to Play
Do your players prefer combat, exploration, or social encounters and roleplaying?
Now, D&D consists of three Pillars of Play: Combat, Exploration, and Social. But, these general ideas can apply to many TTRPGs.
Find out how your players would prefer to play the game. If they enjoy tactical combats, make sure to throw challenging battles at them over the course of the campaign. If they prefer to explore the world, give them uncharted dungeons or mysterious lands to wander through. Or, if they prefer roleplay, present them with tricky social interactions or unique NPCs for them to befriend (or be-enemy).
Player Versus Player
Will you allow player versus player (PvP) actions in your game?
This one requires a bit of buy in from your players.
Now, PvP doesn’t strictly apply to combat. Pickpocketing other players or turning NPCs against party mates for personal gain fall under PvP as well.
Sometimes, PvP leads to out-of-game conflict. Obviously, this is becomes a problem. But, if you establish that PvP is allowed and all the players agree, you can alleviate tensions a little bit should it happen.
Or, you can flat out not allow it. This is a little heavy-handed, but it prevents arguments from ever happening.
Now, you can also leave it up to circumstance. If both players consent to a PvP situation, let it play out.
The important thing here is making sure everyone involved consents if or when PvP happens.
Do you have any house rules in your game? How do you deviate from the rulebooks?
If you have specific house rules, rules that modify or differ from the official rulebooks, make sure your players know them ahead of playing.
The purpose of outlining your house rules during Session Zero is to prevent arguments in the future. For example, if you don’t like D&D 5e’s Feats and disallow them but a player wanted to pick one once they reached 4th-level, that kind of ruins their fun.
For example, I’m playing a game where flanking doesn’t confer advantage on attack rolls. Instead, it gives +1 to melee attack rolls. If I didn’t know that ahead of time, I would’ve been disappointed if I tried flanking during the first combat of the game.
Just make sure you let your players know of any house rules you use in your game.
Aside from what everyone should expect from the game, you should outline and discuss what is accepted at the table itself.
Arguably the more important part of holding a Session Zero is establishing acceptable table behaviors. You want everyone on the same page, so to speak, about what sort of topics, jokes, and behaviors are okay and which are not.
Establishing what sorts of things you allow at the table and what everyone is comfortable with is very important to discuss during your Session 0.
Understanding That D&D is a Game
Make sure everyone understands the difference between in- and out-of-character actions.
This might sound obvious. But, it can become easy to mistake the in-game actions of a character or NPC with those of the player or GM. The GM probably doesn’t have it out for you specifically when the dragon eats your character’s family. That’s just how things go sometimes.
Now, you may run into adversarial GMs or players who are just…not good. But, that’s an entirely different topic of conversation.
Just make sure everyone at the table understands that D&D is a game and not representative of one’s desire to attack you with an axe.
Discuss with your group what days work best to have sessions and how often you all can play.
The most difficult monster in all of Dungeons & Dragons and other TTRPGs isn’t the wizards, dragons, archdevils, gods, or eldritch entities from beyond the stars.
No. The greatest enemy of all tabletop roleplaying games is aligning 4-6 people’s schedules to have one night off together to play.
A Session Zero helps as you all coordinate days, times, and cadence. But, let’s be honest, it only helps so much.
Campaign & Session Length
If you’re the GM, let your players know about how long the game should last in terms of number of sessions. And, everyone should discuss how long they’re willing to play during a session.
Most D&D sessions last anywhere from 3-5 hours. But, if you all have a longer day available or you can only play for a couple hours while the kids are at practice, lay all this out during your Session Zero.
Where will you be playing? At school? At someone’s house? At a local gaming store or cafe?
Make sure everyone knows where you’ll play. You don’t want someone to get confused and miss a session because they went to the wrong place.
Now, if you’re playing at someone’s house, this probably won’t be that much of an issue. But, if you meet somewhere else for your Session Zero, like a game store, you should still reiterate where everyone should meet up.
What’s Physically Allowed at the Table
Is it alright if someone brings food to the table? What about phone use?
Now, we’re not talking about the basic items you need to play D&D. Instead, this is non-game essential things like food and beverages.
Most tables typically don’t mind food or beverages as long as a player doesn’t make a mess. But, you should still make sure everyone’s okay with food at the table during the game.
The big one I’ve seen people bring up is whether players are allowed to use their phones or not. Now, phones can be very distracting so I understand why it seems that many GMs outright ban their use during play. But, it’s also important to find out if someone needs to keep their phone on-hand for any variety of reasons.
Discuss phone usage during Session Zero to prevent issues in the future.
Missing a Session
What happens if a player misses a session? Does the GM take control? Or, does the character become absent for the session?
Let’s face it, every player is going to miss a session at some point. Things come up, schedules change unexpectedly, and emergencies happen. It’s just a fact of life.
So, discuss what the players are okay with in the event that they can’t make it to a session.
Many tables simply have the GM take control of the missing player’s character for the session. But, just as many seem to just have the character split off from the party for the game. Whatever you decide, make sure to clear it with all the players.
Cancelling a Session
What would constitute cancelling a session?
Related to missing a session, how many players need to miss a session to justify cancelling it altogether?
I’ve seen a few people say they usually need at least half the party to miss to commit to cancelling that session.
There’s also the even that the GM can’t make a session. If the person running the game can’t show up, it’s kind of hard to have the session.
That said, a GM missing a session gives a player the opportunity to run a one-shot and practice their game running skills.
What safety tools will you employ to ensure everyone has a way to avoid uncomfortable situations?
Now, I’m not talking general uncomfortable situations as is wont to happen in a D&D game. Chances are, the party are fighting against some horrible evil and NPCs are probably going to die.
I’m talking about specific situations that the players themselves are uncomfortable in. The reasons vary, but everyone at your table should feel comfortable over the course of the game.
The safety tools in your D&D game may include a list of potentially disturbing content like violence towards animals or body horror or making sure everyone knows they can stop the game if things get a little too rough. Monte Cook games has a great resource called Consent in Gaming that available for free that includes a list of topics you may want to address.
Address any topics you or your players are absolutely uncomfortable with.
Now, this consists of both what topics to avoid during table conversation and what sort of material is allowed in-game. You should already address what sort of content your game may include.
That said, if one of your players voices concerns about certain topics, make sure you adjust your game.
Figuring out what topics are not okay at your table may seem like it shouldn’t be necessary. But, it’s important to remember that you’re playing with other people who may have their own reasons for avoiding certain topics. So, make sure you discuss what topics are not allowed at your table.