On the go? Listen to the audio version of the article here:
You have friends, dice, books, and a hunger for adventure. You’re all excited about playing D&D together, but there are many things to consider before jumping into it. Better make sure everybody is on the same page regarding what sort of adventure this will be, behavior at the game table (or Discord call), in-game-behavior, and so on. Now, what is a session zero?
A session zero is a meeting before starting a campaign where players and the GM set expectations and boundaries, discuss specific rules, create characters, decide how the team assembled, and implement safety features. This helps ensure the game runs smoothly and is enjoyable for all.
In this article, we’ll cover the main points of a good session zero: the social contract, safety tools, character and party creation, and campaign setup.
The Social Contract
Tabletop RPGs are a social experience, a mix of tabletop-game and semi-improvisational storytelling. As with any other social endeavor, there are standards of behavior that every participant should follow. These vary a lot—no two groups are the same.
A session zero is a great way to agree on shared standards.
As a Game Master (GM), you might not feel good having someone constantly on their phone when you’re setting scenes or another player is interacting with a Non-Player Character (NPC). Or you’d rather not be randomly interrupted because someone wants to share a meme they saw on Twitter.
These are things that should be addressed upfront instead of exploding after weeks of bottling it up. Thus, a session zero.
Example that Worked for Me
I’ve DMed adventures with traitor Player Characters (PCs), which required forethought and planning in our session zero.
The Nerd Details: Once, in a crazy 12-hour one-shot (a game that only lasts a single session), the firbolg barbarian Jebediah—secretly a warlock of Baphomet—killed the party leader Barnabas, halfling warlock of The King in Yellow. After he and his co-conspirator, bugbear eldritch knight Cretin Madu, used Barnaba’s crystal to open a portal to the Abyss, the sky bled as a fiendish invasion began.
Jebediah paraded Barnaba’s corpse as a glaive ornament. Everyone at the table cheered and laughed. It was great.
Takeaway: It wouldn’t have been great at many other tables. If the thought of conflict between PCs fills you with anxiety and you’d rather that doesn’t happen, bring it up in session zero.
Social Contract Topics for a Productive Session Zero
These are a number of questions you may want to address in your first meetup.
What Experience is Each Player at the Table for?
A player who’s only interested in killing stuff and getting rich will likely not enjoy a roleplay-heavy, intrigue-based game. The opposite is also true. By voicing your expectations in session zero, you can pave the way for compromises or walk out of a game that doesn’t suit you.
How will the Spotlight Function?
Some group are good friends and enjoy talking over each other, fighting for attention. Alternatively, they could defer politely to one another.
But more often than not, I’ve found that there is usually one or two shy people around the table who gets overlooked or doesn’t get to push their preference.
My suggestion: Whenever they’re in a new environment, you can go person-by-person and ask what they’re doing. If it’s a quick action, roll and resolve it, then move on to the next person. Some will want to do something that requires a “scene”, like a full conversation or a new location; set that aside and resolve the others’ quick actions first.
If your party finds it unfair who gets to go first or you just want to incorporate game mechanics, you could make them roll for initiative. This has happened occasionally when it comes to looting fallen enemies. Alternatively, you could just maintain the initiative from combat, if it just took place.
Alcohol at the Table: How Much is Okay?
I enjoy a couple craft beers with my D&D, but I never get drunk when playing. I wouldn’t like to play with someone who’s plastered, either. Some other groups might do shots whenever someone crits in a fight, and that’s fine—just not my thing. It’s up to you to decide what your group will allow.
How Long Do We Wait for Late-comers Before Beginning?
Everyone has a whole life outside the game, but they made time for it. An agreed lateness-limit can help avoid hurt feelings in case the game starts without everyone present.
What Should the Average Session Length Be?
People need to know how much time to set aside for the gaming sessions. If most of the group wants to go for 8 hours every time, but someone can’t, an agreement must be reached.
Are Phones Allowed at the Table?
Some people track their in-game resources on their phones. No issue. Others have a hard time giving things their full attention, and this should be addressed early. Concessions can be made, such as taking breaks more frequently.
Others still are just not that invested and will spend a lot of time on their phone during sessions. This can be disruptive, slow things down, and make others at the table—particularly the GM—feel like their efforts aren’t appreciated. This makes phone use and general web-browsing good session zero topics.
If the problem continues, then you may be dealing with a type of Problem Player.
How Will Unannounced Dice Rolls be Handled?
There will be times that players will roll random, unannounced dice. If you have a less moral person doing so, then the bad rolls will disappear, but the good rolls will be cheerfully announced.
If you trust everyone at the table, then it may not be a big concern, though it could be irritating to have people randomly rolling without any reason given.
So your choices appear to be:
- Every roll must be called beforehand
- Allow random rolling, but they must always be announced, whether good or bad.
- Anything goes
How Descriptive Will the Violence Be?
I myself am a bit of a gorehound, but this is something I could easily curb if I ever find myself playing with people who are more sensitive. It’s good to make sure no one undergoes unnecessary distress at the table, and depictions of violence can cause that.
Is PVP (player versus player) Action a Possibility?
Many people don’t want to be opposed to their friends, even in the shared fiction of a game. These are people who probably shouldn’t play Paranoia and might be better off avoiding campaigns where the motto is “trust no one”.
Depending on the campaign, some may not allow overt violence between players, but allow some amount of social PVP. I recommend against allowing persuasion to happen between players, as this can end up with the party “face” leading the party everywhere. However, I do enjoy allowing for deception/sleight of hand between players, and their counter checks.
Everyone could agree to scrap the threat of PVP in favor of being able to play with their friend who’s not cool with in-game backstabbing. This also leads us to…
Are Evil Characters Allowed?
Related to the previous question, since an evil character in a mostly good/neutral party (speaking in D&D alignment terms, which are a whole other can of worms) will likely lead to conflict.
Another angle is that playing in an evil party with evil goals, or GMing for one, isn’t something everyone can have fun with.
Where Do We Stand on Sexual Themes? In-game Romance?
Sexuality and attitudes toward sex are personal. Saucy roleplay might be intensely uncomfortable for many people, as well as in-game romance—be it among PCs or between a PC and NPC.
Many tables fade to black after implying that sexytimes will be had, while others take it as a joke. I’ve been on both sides of this to the point of having the fabulous orog bardbarian (bard+barbarian multiclass) in one of my games make a Performance check for boning.
Does Anyone Have a Phobia or Trauma-trigger We Should Know?
In the same vein as the topic of violence depiction, there may be less obvious things that should be handled with extra care or avoided altogether. I DM for two arachnophobes, for instance.
Suicide is not something that’s ruled out at my table, but it might be at yours. Knowing these things beforehand saves the DM from possibly discarding work due to a bad situation at the table, and it protects those who would be hurt by it.
Looking to challenge your players?
Puzzles and Riddles can be tricky! Too easy and they’re pointless; Too hard and it’s pure frustration. What is a DM to do?
For easy-to-use resources for any D&D game, check out the selections at Dungeon Vault!
Half the bullet points above deal with themes and situations that might be uncomfortable or harmful to people. I assume we all care about the people we game with and would like to avoid hurting them, so something has to be done to avoid spoiling the fun.
This is where safety tools come in. Ideally, they’re implemented at session zero.
- “A soft limit is a threshold that one should think twice about crossing, as it is likely to create genuine anxiety, fear, and discomfort.
- A hard limit is a threshold that should never be crossed.”
The “limits” tool is likely inspired by the more popular Lines and Veils tool, originally from the Sex and Sorcery supplement for the Sorcerer RPG by Ron Edwards. After Edwards created these tools, they became popular in the indie TTRPG scene.
A line is something that’s completely excluded from the game’s narrative, as it would cause someone at the table intense distress. To quote Edwards:
“There is no torture in the events in our game. We don’t do it; NPCs don’t do it to us or to each other. Whether it happens elsewhere in the setting is not an issue in terms of enjoying play.”
This makes torture a line for his group. Usually, the most sensitive person draws the lines. Some common lines are sexual violence, child abuse, and suicide.
Bear in mind that this includes table talk. If you have an edgelord at the table who likes to stir the pot, throwing politics, religion, and whatever else to get people going, then this should be discussed upfront as well.
A Veil is more flexible. As the name hints, it allows the topic to be tackled with a layer of abstraction between it and the players. It can be part of the story but only mentioned in passing or implied, like in the fade to black example.
In this case, PCs could torture an NPC, for instance, but this would not be roleplayed at all. It just happens, and the narrative goes on, maybe with a single roll to see if it worked for its purposes.
Ideally, voicing discomfort with something that’s happening in the game, pointing out if a line or veil was crossed, should be as frictionless as possible. The uncomfortable player speaks up, and the situation is quickly resolved or skipped altogether, no questions asked.
Some groups even rewind the game to right before it got out of hand and pursue alternative paths of progression through the narrative. This sounds like a good approach and, now that I’ve learned this, I’m adding it to my toolkit.
One way to make the process of stating “I’m not okay with this at all. Line crossed,” is the X card. In a physical game around an actual table, it’s a literal card with an X on it that you can tap to tell others: “let’s not go this way.” A way this is done in online sessions is by sending a big X on the group chat. Finally, depending on group dynamics, players can virtually whisper (Like on Roll20), text, or verbally speak with the DM to address the issue.
Session zero is also a great time to workshop characters.
In a highly tactical game, party composition can be a big deal. Working out what meshes well, mechanically speaking, is something the group can do together.
Beyond that, it’s a great time to work with the DM on getting the PCs grounded in the world and with players interlinking their backstories. These are helpful to increase immersion and get everyone quickly invested in the setting.
A lot of the initial awkwardness of roleplaying can be sidestepped by having the characters already know each other from the get-go.
A Tool from Another System
Some games have this process built into them, such as Spire. As a part of character creation, you come up with a bond between your PC and another, as well as with three NPCs, based on your PC’s class.
For instance: Isilik, my carrion priest, helped the azurite Edelium dispose of a body once. The body was an uncooperative debtor Edelium pressed for money to help out the Vermissian sage, Inyor.
You can implement this neat little trick into any game you run. I ask players in campaigns I run to write at least a couple of their PC’s relationships to help me generate drama down the line.
The session zero section of TCE (pg 139) contains tools for deciding the adventuring party’s origins. These include helpful questions, such as “what keeps them together?” and a table with possible group origins.
PCs having a shared history before the game, common goals, and possibly a Group Patron (TCE, pg 83) can do wonders for party cohesion. These also help generate roleplay moments. The patron is generally an organization, higher power, or joining force that works as a framework to bring them together and outline their objectives.
The Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount goes deep into the weeds, complete with a plethora of tables to generate well-grounded characters from scratch using the Heroic Chronicle system. Seriously, there are even location-based “favorite food” tables. With this system, you can generate relevant relationships based on background and place of birth, among many other things.
To wrap up, consider playing character generation and world-building mini-games! There are a few of these floating about, particularly on itch.io. These mini-games are essentially system-independent prompt generators to guide the creative process.
Here are a few:
- Session Zero, by Meghan Cross: “Using a standard deck of cards or the deck of Session Zero cards, draw a hand and answer the prompts to create the story of your character from before your story with them began. “
- Golden Lasso’s Decuma: “a tarot-inspired card game that helps the GM and their players collaboratively create all the important details for their campaign, including key locations, character connections, NPCs and setting conflicts.”
- Beak, Feather & Bone, by Tyler Crumrine: “a collaborative world-building tool as well as a competitive map-labeling RPG.” With this, your group can collectively create a city (or many) to play their adventures in!
Frighten Your Players
In a dark room, Jon is on the edge of his seat. He’s afraid his next act will be his doom.
Everyone holds their breath—except you, the DM. You enjoy watching them sweat as tension comes to a head.
“Do something!” Sara shouts, causing everyone to jump. Rattled, Jon does something stupid.
For less than a Starbucks coffee, gift a thrilling night for you and your crew;
Check out Weeping Walls, our haunted house intended to fit into any campaign.
There’s some overlap with Social Contract matters here, but still, the campaign setup merits its own section.
During session zero, it’s important to clearly state what the campaign is about. What are the overarching themes the GM wants to explore? What sort of character journeys do the players want to have?
One of my DMs keeps a Google Doc with short and long pitches for future campaign ideas to save time. He graciously allowed me to borrow a couple of his short pitches as examples:
- Here, There Be Monsters: A group of monsterkin mercenaries: Gnolls, Hobgoblins, Kobolds, etc. They’ll take jobs, explore the wild eastern frontier of the continent of Valkea, and witness the unfolding of historical events.
- The Long Dark: The long winter has come. Survival is difficult; the game should be hard. The PCs are conscripted into a temporary army to fend off fiendish invaders and maybe cut the season short, for now.
On the one hand, unaffiliated mercenaries conquering a wild frontier. On the other, conscripted soldiers fighting for survival amid a Game of Thrones winter. These two base scenarios hint at intended playstyles and different tones. These, in turn, can affect what sort of character the players bring to these games.
I certainly have different characters in mind for the exploration-focused campaign and the tactical, meatgrinder one.
Important Campaign Questions
Other questions that help shape expectations and make choices tuned to the specific campaign are:
At What Level Does the Campaign Begin?
This can inform backstory decisions since a 7th level character has probably seen and done things that a 1st level one wouldn’t dream of. It also impacts mechanics choices, such as multiclassing and feats.
At What Level is it Likely to End?
This can affect intended PC development in both roleplay and mechanical senses, as with the above.
How Will Leveling Up Work?
There are two primary methods:
- Milestones: Better for closing chapters and making sure the team is all on the same page, ready for what will come. It can be a reward after completing a huge journey or tough fight.
- Experience (XP):
- First, how do you get XP? This is important as it will guide behavior. Example: If you only reward killing, then roleplaying will go out the window and nonviolent resolutions will be avoided.
- Generally more consistent growth, feeling like you’re working toward a goal, and you know exactly how much you need to get there. Some groups prefer this because the DM can use XP as a reward for creativity or behavior they want to encourage, but it can lead to a party imbalance over time.
Both can work, it’s just a matter of preference.
Then, there’s the question of when you can level up. Some options are:
- Between sessions: In-game, it’s as if it happened instantaneously. Easiest for most, but can break immersion.
- The next short rest
- The next long rest
- The next time you’re in town: This one makes some sense when it comes to learning new spells, multiclassing, or other things that would require intervention of some sort. How did the wizard suddenly get a new spell out of thin air? Some aren’t bothered by this, while others find it immersion breaking.
What Style of Game Will It Be?
This particular question will have multiple categories you want to address, each falling somewhere between High and Low:
- Lethality: Should you emotionally invest in your character and aim for growth, or are they liable to be killed off at any moment, scrapping all investment and background that was created? If you want to keep stakes high with lethality low, think about incorporating permanent handicaps, like a limp (-5ft speed) or other hindrances that build up over time. I hesitate to suggest it, but some enjoy Crit Failure Decks.
- Combat: As opposed to the previous section, combat does not necessarily mean death. It’s important to know how much players want to maximize their combat skills. An alternative would potentially be more roleplay or puzzle-heavy gameplay, leading us to…
- Social: Knowing that it’s going to be a high-social game would encourage players to choose different classes or proficiencies. And yes, you can have a high-social, high-combat game. Some have even homebrewed Social Combat systems, allowing for a combination of both (like the amazing Disco Elysium). But if you want traditional combat, you could have failures in social settings lead to being seized by guards or other bad outcomes from social gaffes.
- Magic: Is the world full of wonder, or is it closer to reality? Is every magic item a legendary artifact, or can you find silly situations like this one? This choice can open crafting and buying options for magical items, or it could push them to track down every rumor about an artifact of power. Bear in mind: Low magic means less potions, healing, and buffs. This generally increases lethality.
- Community: Is the game going to be constant forward progression or will it involve ample downtime, allowing crafting, carousing, and otherwise enjoying the social setting? Will they have a base of some sort? Can you get closer to factions or powerful figures and gain their boon? Will reputation matter? Many things to cover.
For example, if you wanted to run a Game of Thrones-style game, you might land on:
Ultimately, whatever is right will be up for your group to decide.
What Will You Do About MetaGaming and MetaIgnorance?
Most players are aware of what metagaming is—using player knowledge to guide the in-game character’s actions, despite the character not having that knowledge. Will you allow it? Will there be punishments?
- The rogue rolled badly when checking for traps and declares there are none. Should the team be hesitant or will they take it at face value?
- Only one character in the group passed the Insight check for a sketchy character. How will the rest of the team react when the character declares the sketchy character to be untrustworthy? The in-game characters don’t know that these rolls took place or that they failed it.
- When fighting certain types of enemies, what about weaknesses? The player may know that undead are immune to charm, but that doesn’t mean the character would.
The other side of the coin is metaignorance—things the player is unfamiliar with, but the character should know, given their background. This isn’t our world, and most new players will be completely unaware of what’s going on.
- The courtesan bard is accidentally speaking atrociously out of line when addressing the king and will likely be arrested for doing so.
- The object has a bunch of sigils on it that are likely magical, but the unfamiliar wizard player doesn’t do an Arcana check because they don’t think it’ll do anything.
- A certain group of people in your world is known for being wholly good and trustworthy, but they have done some things that seem sketchy. Your team automatically doesn’t trust them because they don’t know the context, though their characters should.
Arguably, most DMs will handle these things by hinting or suggesting options, especially for the 2nd and 3rd. However, many overlook the 1st and automatically jump to punishing the PC for speaking out of line.
Double check their background, as they may automatically be aware of the situation. If their background doesn’t cover it and it’s common knowledge, make them do an intelligence check.
Sometimes players didn’t take notes or forgot a key detail from the campaign. Many DMs will say that it’s their fault for not being more organized. Personally, I see this as akin to making the player do push ups whenever the character does a strength check; why does the player need to remember every detail? Just do an Intelligence check and see if the character recalls it.
What Sort of Opposition Will We Most Often Face? What Environments?
You need to let players know what sort of context is expected. For example:
As well, particularly for classes that have favored terrain, such as Rangers, it’s important to know where you’ll be playing. Tundra? Underdark? Sea? Forest? All of the above? This is important for planning your character and roleplay.
Do We Follow Rules-as-Written or as-Intended?
This is important to know for the purposes of adjudicating events in-game. Knowing beforehand that the rules are followed strictly as-written prevents pointless arguing. If the opposite is true, it enables more nuanced discussion when a judgment call is needed.
Which Sources and Books Can be Used for Character Creation?
At time of writing, some DMs hate Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, while others embrace all the new rules and even allow homebrewed content.
Some find Warforged to be overpowered (OP), while others like the flavor.
It’s easiest to clear these up from the getgo.
Are We Using Any Optional or Homebrew Rules?
In a D&D game dealing heavily with Lovecraftian monsters, you may want to use sanity rules. In one of my campaigns, I adapted the Insight (renamed Enlightenment) mechanic from Bloodborne because it fits the warlock’s search for hidden knowledge.
Is It in a Readymade Campaign Setting?
If so, there’s often reading material for any player that wishes to do a character-grounding deep-dive.
Players usually have less power to build the world alongside the DM when using a setting like this, but they have the benefit of preemptively answering many questions.
How Much Narrative Authority Do Players Have?
Settling this question helps players know how much control they have when describing scenes or if they can create content for the world. I’ve added new gods and factions in campaigns I run, working closely with players whose PCs backstories and goals involve them.
- A session zero is a meeting before starting a TTRPG campaign.
- The goal is to make sure every participant is on the same page, setting rules for both in- and out-of-game behavior, implementing safety tools, and possibly creating PCs or building the world!
- Safety tools are mechanisms to protect the mental health of everyone at the table by appropriately handling difficult topics based on the needs of the group. Lines and Veils are an especially good tool.
- PC backstories can be linked, and party origins decided. There are even special storytelling mini-games geared toward this.
- You can also do the campaign’s setup in session zero. It’s the best time to make sure everyone understands and is into the intended tone, playstyle, and more.
Most Important Take Away
Many of these choices should be made upfront to make sure everyone is on the same page. Some more minor rulings and details won’t come up at all, or may only come up in very specific circumstances. The best way to deal with it is to see it as a Living Document that is continually added to and tweaked over time, such as a Google Doc. DMs may want to have one on-hand that they can give to prospective players.
Like with most things in D&D, it is a collaborative process that’s meant to increase enjoyment for everyone involved.