Session 0 - Start Your Campaign Out on the Right Foot
“It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Starting a brand new D&D campaign has a special feeling. The world laid out before you, undiscovered. The characters around you, their secrets and motivations unknown. There is an air of possibility and potential. Sometimes, however, that feeling fades after we play a few sessions and start to uncover those secrets. Your cheery outlook dwindles as you do yet another dungeon slog or spend a whole session talking to NPCs in a town and buying new hats. What is the best way to keep this wonderful, campaign opening optimism present beyond the first few sessions? Well, there are many ways to do that but today I'm going to tell you about one of my favorites: The Session 0.
Recently, for the first time in an official book, Wizards of the Coast presented some guidelines for running a Session 0 at your table. In Tasha's Cauldron of Everything there are 3 pages dedicated to the topic. The advice there is sound, but I honestly found it a little lacking. It's certainly a great start, but I feel like there is a lack of concrete guidance. So, what is a Session 0? What should we talk about in it? How do you run a Session0? How long should it take? All this and more, coming right up!
What Is It?
A Session 0 is the session before the first session of your campaign. In it, you go over all the things people need to know to play in this campaign. It's a chance for everyone to get to know each other and have a few conversations about what they expect from each other and the DM. It can be short or long and each one will be different, even if you're playing with the same people. Mainly, a Session 0 is largely designed to avoid conflicts and issues down the road, by ironing out some details upfront.
Do I have To?
Let's get this out of the way upfront. Yes, you can run a D&D game without a session 0, yes you can handle these things ad-hoc as they come up, and yes I know that this might look overly cumbersome for a game you play in your basement. While it is totally possible to skip the Session 0 entirely, you are probably doing some of these things already and just not calling it a "Session 0". For people who have been playing together for a long time, you have built up these agreements over the years, as issues arose. If you are playing D&D for the first time with a group of friends, you already know each other and have built a rapport together, outside of the game. However, with the explosion in popularity of D&D in recent years, more people than ever are getting together to play D&D for the first time and have not built these agreements or rapport beforehand. People are finding each other online and playing with groups that have never met in person before, who live in different cities, countries, or continents. To make sure that everyone has a positive experience, it's important to set some guidelines and ground rules.
Treat the following as a buffet of options. Pick and choose what you think might be important for your group, knowing the types of people who you are going to play with is going to be key.
The length of the Session 0 largely depends on what you need to cover. If this is a group that has played together before, you can probably get through it all in under an hour. With a brand new group that has never played D&D before, you should be prepared to take a much longer time. If you are planning your Session 0 and think you might not need the full session, it can be fun to play a small 'intro' session with some light combat and role-play to get familiar with each other. If you are prepared for this but don't end up using it, you can skip it or incorporate it into your next session.
This is all about the when and where. When are you going to play, how often and for how long. Some people want to play weekly while others only have time for every other week or even once a month. It can be really frustrating when there is a difference of expectations here and people commit to playing more often than they are really able to, so make sure everyone is on the same page. You should also think about where you're going to play. If it's at someone's house, what happens if that person is unavailable? Knowing these things ahead of time can help you avoid last-minute cancellations which are really frustrating, especially for people that need to travel to get together. Also, who is bringing the snacks?!
If you're playing online, you'll need to figure out which tools you're going to use and make sure everyone is comfortable with them. There are lots of options here, so make sure you take the time in the Session 0 to iron out any of the technical issues so that they don't eat into gameplay time down the road.
Inevitably, people will need to miss a session. Life happens, and you need to know what people are expecting when this happens. Cancelling the whole session is somewhat extreme if only one person is missing, but how many people need to be unavailable before it's cancelled? What happens to the missing person's character if you play ahead without them? You can have the DM play the character, or another player can pilot them, but consider the situation where an absent player's character dies while they aren't there to play them. This would feel really bad for that player, I'm sure, so talking these situations out ahead of time is important.
It may be the case that you have different people who want different things, which is fine. For example, when Alice is away she wants her character to have gotten lost elsewhere, not interacting with the main plot, while Bob is okay with Charles playing his character when he's away. Whatever your group agrees to is fine, the important thing here is that you have the conversation so nobody is surprised or blindsided.
There are lots of different ways to play D&D and one of the most important factors to your players having fun is the style of game they want to play. For example, if you want to run a very hardcore, low magic, gritty, story-based game while some of your players want to play a light-hearted combat-focused game, you're going to run into some problems. Figuring out what everyone likes ahead of time will make it easier for you to adjust and will help everyone know what they're getting into. Starting a new campaign is no small commitment, so knowing what they're committing to is important. Try and be flexible in running a game that your players will enjoy, but also feel free to expand their horizons as well. At the end of the day, everyone needs to have fun at this, including the DM, so coming to a mutual understanding is key.
If you have new players, you can help them through the character creation process during the Session 0. Even if your players aren't new, you can help everyone anchor their characters to the world. If you have a player who wants to play a character who comes from a small fishing village, help them to determine where that is in your world, and give them some NPCs that they know from that place. This helps to solidify their place in the world and increases the immersion and realness of the game.
This is a also good time to let everyone discuss the makeup of the party and what types of characters they want to play. If you have two players who want to play the same class of character, let them talk it out and make sure they're okay with that. Creating your characters together makes sure that everyone rolls their stats using the same method and everything is fair. While it is possible, using certain methods, to roll all 18s and 19s for stats, it's more believable if you do it in front of everyone else.
If there is important historical information that the characters need to know, that everyone from that place would know (creation myths and pantheons of gods etc.), you can use the Session 0 to lay this out. It can be a bit boring to just have a wall of text read to you, so you have a few options here. "Show, don't tell" is an important saying and is particularly applicable here. You can have NPCs tell the story, to the characters directly, or have it be overheard. You can spend some time uncovering these things organically as you role-play your way through the town. This can take quite a bit of work to set up, however. If you don't want to go that route, another option is to just write it out into a handout ahead of time. If you're feeling really fancy, you can follow this guide from Anto at Icarus Games: How to make a campaign setting guide. In it, he gives you some cool ways to make a professional-looking document for your players. Yours doesn't need to be this fancy, but it certainly is cool!
This is a good time to flesh out the place where you are starting. Decide if your party knows each other yet, and if they do, how they met. If they don't know each other yet, decide how they're going to meet. It's fine if you want to start in a tavern, but if you're feeling a little more creative there are lots of other ways to get your party together. A really interesting way is to start them "In medias res" (in the middle of the action) but this is certainly a more advanced technique. There's lots of good info out there about how to do that, I recommend this article as a great starting place: Reddit - DM Challenge: In Medias Res.
Now is the perfect time to outline any homebrew or 'house' rules you are going to use. I'm a huge fan of homebrew and I highly recommend you try some of this out in your games. I have an article here: Getting Started with Homebrew in D&D if you're looking for some tips on how to get started. If you are going to use some house rules, you really need to outline them. It feels really terrible when you roll your first critical hit on a monster and the DM says "Actually, I'm using a homebrew rule where you can't crit a monster unless it's under half health, sorry.". If that's a rule that you want to use, fine, but you need to be upfront about it so nobody is surprised.
That being said, session 0 isn't the only time to introduce new house rules! Check out this video for some tips on introducing these rules to your existing campaign: 7 Simple Tips on How To Implement and Test New Homebrews for Your Tabletop RPG.
Everyone has a different comfort level for the type of content in their RPG. It's important for everyone to feel comfortable at the table, and for that, we need to be very deliberate about those lines. Especially when we are playing with people we don't know, it's important to have this conversation upfront. D&D is a combat-heavy game, but some people are not comfortable having that violence described in detail. You should have an open conversation about how to handle romance, inter-party violence, the level of detail in the combat descriptions, phobias (small spaces, spiders, etc.), and any other situations that might be problematic. This can be a sensitive topic, so take this one slowly. Luckily there are lots of good resources out there to help you along with this. I'm a big fan of the survey that Monte Cook has prepared: Monte Cooke - Consent in Gaming, and a few others here: The X Card and Safety in TTRPGs. Even if you don't want to use these resources directly, read through them to give yourself some ideas about how to guide that conversation.
Can We Play Now?
Once all of that is done, you have set the stage for a successful campaign and you can start playing! I would recommend you try to squeeze at least a little game-play into Session 0. Even if you are playing with people brand new to D&D they are going to learn more quickly by playing than by listening to you talk about how to play. Use the game-play to highlight important themes in the overall campaign or to introduce key NPCs that will be important, or even just to illustrate how dangerous the world around them is. Showing them important things through the game will always make a stronger impact than telling them important things outside of it. It takes a little extra effort, but it is well worth the time.
That's all for this week! Wishing you all many happy beginnings and don't forget, there are 20 sides to every story!
-The Intrepid Adventurer