So, you’re a Dungeon Master, and you’ve found a group of players that want to play in a game you run. That’s great! Sometimes that’s the hardest hurdle to overcome. Now, before you get to playing, you need to have a Session Zero. Again, don’t just suggest a Session Zero, but actually hold one. It can even be on the agreed upon start date, and just the first time you all get around a table, is for Session Zero specifically.
But what is a Session Zero? Whether this is a new concept, or you just want to make sure you’re not forgetting anything, there are three things you need to include, to make sure your game gets off on the right foot.
In Session Zero, all the players (and DM) get around a table to discuss Table Rules (behavior), House Rules, and Gameplay (including character creation).
Obviously if you’re only playing a one-shot, this isn’t necessary, or possible sometimes, but if you’re committing to a multi-session adventure/campaign, you need to do this.
Table Rules are the first things you need to cover, because no matter what else happens, if there isn’t an agreement or understanding on Table Rules, the game will fail 100% of the time. There are two major parts of Table Rules.
- How do you schedule the games?
- Do you have a set day of the week, where the DM is running a session, and whoever makes it makes it?
- If less than half the people can make it, is it cancelled?
- Do you try to find a time when everyone can play, and postpone until you get to that point?
- Is this a weekly game? Bi-weekly? Monthly?
- Where do you play the game?
- At someone’s house?
- Rotating houses?
- The local game/comic shop?
- What if one person misses a session?
- Does the DM work with them to figure out what that character was doing in the meantime?
- Are they just in the background, not really adding anything to the game, unless they were holding the magic item needed, and you just kinda take it from them?
- When everyone is sitting around the table, how do you expect them to behave?
- How do they expect each other, and yourself to behave?
- Are phones allowed at the table, or should everyone be paying attention?
- What about off topic conversations?
- If people start talking about movies they like, instead of the game, is that okay?
- Is this a social game, an excuse to hang out with people, and also have a fun game as well?
- Or are you here to play the game, you can chat before or after, but during game time we focus?
- Are you allowed to eat at the table, or is this strictly for gaming?
- If you are, is everyone responsible for making their own food, or will someone make a meal for everyone?
- Is this a rotating responsibility?
- Is drinking alcohol allowed at the table, or will it make someone uncomfortable?
- What about doing drugs?
- If someone disagrees with the DM on a rule decision, is the DM’s word law?
- Or will you allow a set amount of time to find the rule in question, and challenge the rule?
- You don’t want an endless argument about rules in the game, because it will completely derail the session, and no one will have fun.
Some of these questions may seem ridiculous, and you can’t believe that someone would be so strict about a game. If the whole group agrees with you, then that’s great! However, if one person wishes that you had asked these questions, and you don’t, and then they leave the group, it would just be better if they left now. On the other hand, what if you realize you are the only person that thinks these questions are stupid, and you quickly realize you don’t want to play with these people. Just find the truth now, so you don’t have to worry about it later.
These are the things that the characters are allowed to do in the game, as well as the “Hard Topics” that may or may not come up during play.
- How mature can this game be?
- Are we all swearing sailors, that kill with the upmost violence?
- What about sex and romance?
- Are players allowed to be romantic to NPCs?
- If so, how is the DM expected to act?
- Are players allowed to romance each other?
- If so, how far can you go?
- Do you talk about sex, or is that “off screen”?
- What about sexual assault, both in the story, or your characters backstory?
- What about racism and prejudice?
- How overt can racism be in the world?
- Or is there enough racism in the real world, you don’t need it in your fantasy games too?
- Is slavery a fact of this world, and how should it be handled?
Again, this might seem ridiculous to you. However, if one person in your group has a different opinion than the rest, you want to know now, and not play together. Even if that person is you.
Finally, just make sure that you all have the same expectations for how player and character behavior should go, and be open to communicating it. If just one person disagrees, you don’t have to change your play style, but they should just find a different group, because THEY WON’T HAVE FUN.
This, as you’re probably familiar with, is how you, as the group or the DM, prefer to run the game itself.
- Do you play the whole game, Rules as Written (RAW)?
- Or are there certain rules you disagree with, or prefer the older edition version of a certain rule?
- Do you use any homebrew mods, such as races or classes? Maybe even a magic system?
- Do you track experience points (XP) for each monster killed?
- What about extra XP based on roleplaying?
- Do you just level up based on story milestones?
- Dice rolls! Does the DM have to roll in front of everyone, or can that happen behind a screen?
- Can players roll a dice, and say what it was for after they roll it, or do you have to announce what you are rolling for?
- If someone rolls a dice, and it falls off the table, or lands leaning against something, should they just reroll?
- Do critical rolls count for skill checks? If some Crits on a “to hit” roll, is it max damage or double damage?
- What if they Crit fail? Do they hit themselves with minimum damage, or do you roll on a “fumble” chart?
- What about your DM style?
- Do you tend to run modules, or homebrew your own adventure?
- Are they very sandbox, and the players need to have the drive to find their own adventure, or do you have a rough story in mind?
- Are you more about the hack-and-slash murderhobos, and you’re just going to drop them in a never ending dungeon, to fight their way through?
- How long will this adventure take? Does it have a clear beginning, middle, and achievable end, or will it be an ongoing journey until they max out or die?
- Are you planning on going with these characters until the max out/die, or will you maybe run out of steam, and start fresh with new characters?
- Are you going to make sure that the party is always up against a fair fight, or will there be consequences that might kill them if they aren’t careful?
- What about your players’ ability?
- If someone’s not very bright, but playing a high intelligence character, how do you handle puzzles?
- If someone’s not very charismatic, but playing a bard, how do you handle socializing?
- Players aren’t expected to be as strong and dexterous as their characters, so they shouldn’t be expected to be as smart or charming as them either.
- One of my favorite house rules, is that after you finish session 1, anyone can change their character as much or as little as they like.
- Change race, class, backstory, anything. You don’t know what your character is like until you play them, and maybe get into a fight.
- How do you handle meta-knowledge?
- Let’s say a character has never fought a troll before, but the player has? Do they know to use fire attacks?
- For magic users, do they have to track their material components?
- If a spell has verbal components, does that get stopped if they are gagged?
- Or are they just magical, and their spells happen when they think of them?
- If someone dies, can they get revived?
- If so, is there a time limit before it’s too late?
- Do they come back *different*?
Hopefully these questions make more sense to discuss beforehand, because these can easily get into the “if I had known that then I would have…” territory, which is never a fun situation to be in. This is all about managing expectations.
Lastly, this comes down to the world and game itself.
- What’s the Setting you’ll be playing in? Faerun, Eberron, homebrew, etc?
- How are adventurers in this world treated?
- Are they heroes? Or a menace to society?
- How heavy do we get into politics in this game?
- Is this a world full of political strife, and factions all around?
- Or is it just your standard King, who might have the occasional assassination attempt?
- How much do we care about alignments?
- If a Paladin does something Chaotic or Evil, will they begin to lose their powers?
- How much do the characters need to fit together?
- If one person is making a Roleplay heavy bard, and another is a min-maxing Barbarian/Sorcerer, is that going to be a problem?
- When rolling up the characters, are we actually rolling for stats, doing stat-buy, standard array, or a mix?
- If we are rolling, do we have to roll all together, so no one rolls at home and has a dump stat of 17?
- Do the characters always have to work together?
- Are character secrets allowed?
- Are characters allowed to be seduced by the evil villain, and end up going against the party?
- Is the party rogue allowed to roll to steal from the paladin?
- Can characters get extra skill bonuses based on their backgrounds? If they are a 75 year old elf, can they have multiple backgrounds and get multiple bonuses?
- When they level up, are they just sticking with the stat bonus, or do you encourage them to look at the feats instead?
- Do you think that mounts (horses) are game breaking, because characters can travel too quickly in a fight?
Overall, all of these questions are just about managing expectations between everyone, so that when the game starts, you are all on the same page, and can just focus on the fun of the game.
Of course, the last part of the Session 0, is creating the characters. This can be done by each person while discussing this of course.
One Shot Closer?
Have you gone through all of this, and still have a couple hours scheduled? This is likely if you’ve played with this group before, and everyone had character ideas before they showed up. Well, looks like we have some time to actually play a quick one shot!
This doesn’t have to be canon to the story, just a practice run to see if you like the mechanics of being a sorcerer as opposed to a wizard. Or this could be the day that everyone met each other. Did you all meet while protecting a ship you are all on from pirates, and realized you could work together?
There are many one shots you can find online as ideas for this final act of your Session 0. Again, not necessary, but fun if you have left over time.