We’ve all heard stories about campaigns that go south. For one reason or another, a group has to stop playing together. Maybe the players couldn’t work together. Maybe the party ended up being five different flavors of edgelord rogues. Maybe the DM uses a bunch of homebrew rules that the players weren’t aware of and don’t find fun.
Whatever the reason may be, campaigns can fall apart more easily than you might realize. Getting a group of individuals together at the same time to sit for hours on end to partake in a collaborative storytelling exercise is a surprisingly fragile dynamic, and it doesn’t take much to destabilize it
Luckily, there’s a handy tool that should be in every dungeon master’s pocket to nip these issues in the bud before they can become larger problems later on. The Session Zero.
What is a Session Zero?
A session zero is exactly what it sounds like. A session that takes place before the first actual game session. This is the time to sit down with your party of adventurers and, as a group, go into detail about your ideas and expectations for your campaign.
This meeting is good for a list of reasons. For starters, it gets everybody on the same page. If your concept for the campaign is a roleplay-heavy political game with a more serious tone, you might have a player or two who are mostly in it for combat and silly antics who won’t enjoy that style of play very much. Which there’s nothing wrong with! Everybody enjoys Dungeons & Dragons for different reasons, and just because two peoples’ ideas of what makes the game fun don’t match, doesn’t mean either is wrong.
However, it’s important to get that out of the way before the game actually starts so that the DM can either make adjustments to the campaign, or the player can decide that this might not be the table for them.
Ultimately, that’s what a session zero is; a space for a group to figure out how (and if) they want to proceed with a game together. While a useful tool for new and old groups alike, the session zero is invaluable for any group that hasn’t played together before.
No D&D is Better than Bad D&D
We’ve all heard the horror stories. Some of us have even lived them. Power-hungry DMs who think their job is to kill the players and take a questionable amount of pride in every character they drop. The player who spends the whole session on their phone and never knows what to do when it’s their turn. The rogue who’s constantly stealing from the rest of the party. The power-gamer whose min/maxed character never gives anybody else a chance to shine.
There are thousands of stories out there about bad DMs and problem players and groups falling apart. If you don’t believe me, head over to /r/RPGHorrorStories, sort by top, and have some cat pictures handy to cleanse your soul afterwards.
These elements can be problematic, and especially for newcomers, can leave a bad taste in one’s mouth regarding tabletop gaming. Even experienced players may find that their playstyle clashes with the DM’s or the rest of the party, and it’s a lot easier to figure that out in a session zero rather than multiple joyless sessions in. If a game isn’t going to be fun for you, it’s better to step back and wait for the right table to come along instead of souring the experience.
This is where we talk about that edgy rogue again. You know the one. With the dark past that nobody ever gets to know about. The lone wolf who doesn’t like working with others and always puts themselves first. We’ve all had to play with that guy™.
I’m gonna let you in on a little secret, though. You ready for this? There’s nothing wrong with the way that person is playing the game.
Think about it. It may be cliche and overplayed, but there’s a reason for that. It’s a genuinely great character archetype that can do wonders for a party’s dynamic and has lots of room for personal growth. Sure, Lord Edgington’s petty crimes are constantly causing some level of grief for the party, but as he travels with the group and fights side by side with them he slowly opens up and learns to be a little less selfish.
The thing about problem players is that 99% of the time, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the way they’re playing the game, it’s just that it doesn’t mesh with the rest of the table. It’s not the players that are necessarily the problem, it’s the lack of managed expectations. A session zero lets the whole group get their expectations out in the open so that they can manage them together.
Granted, there are certainly players and DMs out there that fall firmly into the “problem” category. Bullying, sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of hate speech have no place at the table or in the community. Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, and other tabletop RPGs should be inclusive spaces where all are welcome.
Topics to Consider
If you’ve never held a session zero before and don’t know what it should include, or even if it’s a staple for all of your games and you’re just looking for new ideas, here are a few things I think should be included in a session zero at the start of any campaign.
- Themes – What themes are you aiming for with this game? Do you like a fun, casual game with lots of jokes and silly antics? Or do you want a darker, grittier story that keeps your players engaged with moody atmospheres and brutal challenges?
- Content – We all have thresholds, and it’s vital that they are established at the start of any campaign. You might not have any problem with describing and torture and violence in graphic detail, but not everybody at the table may feel the same. Excessive violence, sexuality, or any number of other subjects might make some people deeply uncomfortable or even dredge up old traumas. Discuss these things with the whole group to establish limits and make sure everybody is able to have a good time.
- Rules – Do you use any homebrew rules? Do you allow non-standard races or classes? Do you allow phones at the table during the game? What about drinking during the session? It should go without saying, but establishing the rules for the game is integral to everybody being on the same page. The fighter doesn’t want to hit level three and then find out that the subclass he was building towards isn’t allowed in your game. Laying down the rules in advance will help prevent tensions further down the line
- Expectations – What do you want out of this game? Heavy roleplay? An emotional story? Intense combat? Every player, DM included, likely wants something a little different. It’s okay to want different things, but establishing what they are is the best way to make sure that everybody gets what they want. Discuss your expectations with each other so the DM is better-equipped to create satisfying encounters and plotlines.
- Character Creation – The end of a session zero is the perfect time for everyone to create their characters. While you’re all together the group can discuss character concepts, party dynamics, and even come up with interwoven backstories that give them more depth. Furthermore, this allows the DM to ensure that all characters fit the rules and themes of the game and are rolled correctly.
One Simple Step
Everybody runs their session zero a little different. Some DMs use handouts. Some work through a checklist. For some, it’s simply an open forum for discussion. There’s no wrong way to run a session zero, but the good it can do for your party and your campaign is immeasurable. Getting everybody on the same page is the first step to the table working together and creating an environment where everyone can have fun.
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