Where It All Begins
A bit of communication before the first game session goes a long ways in setting your group up for success. Today we’ll talk about a popular technique known as session zero. Session zero will get you off on the right foot and build group cohesion before a single word of spoken narrative. Imagine the following scenario:
You’ve expressed interest in DMing a game, you gathered your group, and set up a basic campaign to dive right in. Your players and you all gather for game night to dive into the world you’ve created. Your players sit down and introduce their characters. You realize that multiples are playing the same class. And certain characters have uncooperative personality traits.
Pushing past the clumsy character synergies, you begin to lay out the scenes for the quest hook. One player immediately attacks a central NPC in the middle of a busy tavern. The others try to placate the situation. The barkeep calls the town guards. One or more of the characters have to flee off into the night. While the more cooperative characters remain at the inn in a state of confusion. They have no real connection to the murder hobo(s) and no justification to go off and find them now that they’ve committed assault or murder. You’re well crafted story hook crashes and burns before it even starts. It doesn’t have to be this way of course.
What is Session Zero?
Session zero is a pre-meeting where the gaming group gets together to talk about the upcoming campaign. Session zero is all about communication. You set the game expectations with your players ahead of diving into your world. You’ll have an easier time corralling your players. And they will enjoy having some general ideas about what to expect in your campaign.
Its a place for you to preview the campaign, the thematic elements, and style of game you are going for. In session zero, you’ll want to introduce any rules variants, or custom content you plan to use throughout the course of the campaign.
Your players get the chance to discuss character options and backstory elements. They can establish character cooperation before the first session even starts. You can also take care of the administrative elements if you feel that is necessary. Have your players build out character sheets, determining character stats, starting items/wealth, etcetera.
As a group you can establish a social contract between all participants in the game. This lets you set expectations for how the players will act and how you run the game. Its also a good time to discuss topics that are off limits at the table. Lastly, you’ll want to set your expectations around game scheduling. Discuss game frequency, what happens during a player’s absence, and tolerance for player absence.
Getting Player Buy-In
Being the DM means you are in charge of setting the vision for the campaign. A big benefit of DMing is that you get to set the backdrop for where the stories will take place. But with your initial visions, you’ll want to get buy-in from your players. If you want to run a gothic horror style campaign, but they are interested in a swashbuckling adventure, your going to have a disconnect.
Remember its a two way street. You’ll DM types of games that your interested in, but the players have to agree to play in that type of setting. If not, you’ll have to go back to the drawing board to get everyone on-board.
Remember, its all about communicating with your players. Share your game plans with them, show your excitement about it and chances are they will be excited to play too.
Using session zero can get your player characters goals aligned before rolling a single die. Why? because you can talk through all that before the game even starts! Some tables prefer to keep character builds, motives and personalities a secret before the game starts. While this works for some tables, the RPG horror stories you hear about bad players stem from this upfront secrecy.
Tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons are team cooperative games. There is no “main character” and everyone shares the enjoyment together. Establishing team cooperation helps communicate your party’s expectations ahead of time. It also reduces the friction between character playstyles.
Session zero also lets your team discuss different class combinations. 5th edition D&D does not have necessary party compositions like earlier editions had. But many people enjoy playing a particular role within the group. They can feel discouraged if they find out another party member shows up with the same class or similar build to themselves. Your mileage will vary depending on your group. But, its a good thing to let them discuss during session zero. Your role will be an active listener during the discussion. Add in any insights or observations you hear as you listen can help your group out tremendously.
You’ll also want to discuss how the group relates to one another. Connecting the group right off the bat gives your players a premise to work with. It helps you as a DM set the initial stage for their adventures. The connections can range as widely as your imagination: from growing up in the same village together, working in the same guild, or captured as prisoners by a villain. And not every character has to have the same connection. Maybe two are a part of the same guild, while a third grew up in the same village as one of them.
The Eberron campaign book introduced group patrons for D&D 5e, which was later expanded up on Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. An entity or person can sponsor the group as they go throughout their adventuring career. They could start off with a patron as common grounds and then shirk the patron later if story at the game table called for it. Wizards of the Coast’s group patron design does not add much in the way of mechanical crunch to the game. But, it gives a decent template and inspiration for how patrons can tie the group together.
For my home games, I used a set of tables that identify connections between players and a pooled dice mechanic. Each player went around the table and sets the first part of a connection to the player to their right. They select a rolled number and a corresponding result on one of the tables. Then, we reverse order. The player picks the second part of the relationship with the player to their left. This lets both players have some input into their relationship while also building in some randomness with the dice. It also helps limit choices. Which I think can be a good thing to prevent the “deer in headlights” scenario when you ask a PC for their relationship with the other PCs. My system is a derivative of Sly Flourish’s bonds based on fiasco-style relationships.
In general, I recommend finding a way to set the relationships between party members before the game starts. Establishing the common ground will make things feel a little less forced to start with. How you create those bonds is entirely up to you (and your group).
Session Zero Outline
You can use session zero to cover a lot of different topics. It can be overwhelming to think of all the items you need to cover. You can search for other write ups people have done on session zero to give you a sense what you might want to include. But to simplify things, I’ve added a list of common topics and ideas for you to think about including. Use what works for you and discard the rest:
- Campaign Summary / Elevator Pitch (Keep this short and punchy. One to two paragraphs. Avoid lore dumping on your players)
- Game Expectations
- Tone (serious, comedic, gritty, etc.)
- Style (dungeon crawling, political intrigue, swashbuckling, etc.)
- Game direction (player led vs. DM led) – I’m not going to get into a debate about sandbox vs. linear adventuring, but knowing what your group wants ahead of time helps tremendously
- Social Contract
- Player & DM expectations (showing up on-time, cancellation policy, phone use at the table, paying attention, etc.)
- Sensitive/off limits content
- Game frequency & scheduling
- Character Creation
- Allowed resources/books
- Banned/restricted elements (races, classes/subclasses, backgrounds, etc.)
- Character relationships
- Character stat generation method (point buy, standard array, dice rolling)
- Rulings, Variants and Other Items
- Variant rule options (gritty rest variant, flanking, etc.)
- Character leveling (milestone vs. experience points)
- House rules
- How you handle rulings at the table
Feature Image Credit: Ede László