There are a lot of discussions about Session Zero and what should be discussed. You can find numerous blogs, articles, and pages. I did a quick Google search on “Session Zero RPG” and it says there are about 172,000 results.
And I’m going to add one more? How is mine going to be any different than the rest? Well, I know I’m a member of the Dungeons & Dragons 5e Facebook group, and I regularly reply to posts with links to other articles I’ve written. It comes up often enough that when people asked about the dreaded Session Zero, I’d like to offer my perspective.
To that end, I’m going to interview myself with the questions you should be asking, and then provide the answer. (What, When, Where, Why, and How)
What is Session Zero?
Session Zero is the session before the adventure starts. Players make their characters (if they haven’t already), you (the DM) go over the various rules, constraints, and a bit of background. Liken it to your first day on a new job; you show up not knowing what you’re going to do, where you’re going to sit, and who you’re going to be working with. You may have a vague idea, but you probably don’t know the specifics. Session Zero is the time for you to get to know your players and for them to get to know you – at least enough to start playing.
When do you run Session Zero?
Normally, you try to do this before diving in to the adventure. Sometimes you can’t do it right away and you must do it later. Sometimes it never gets done. Sometimes you don’t need it, or, at least, you don’t think you need it. In reality, you do, but sometimes it’s not formalized.
Where do you run Session Zero?
Most often you do this at the table you’re running the game. Whether it’s your house, a game store, an office conference room, or a table at a gaming convention. It doesn’t matter. There are two factors to consider regarding the facility:
- Are you in public or are you in private? In other words, can people you don’t know, who are not playing observe you while you’re playing?
- Are you responsible for cleaning up the place?
We’ll get to how these factors matter in a bit. But beyond that, sometimes Session Zero is run via email before the day you sit down at the table and start playing. Or parts of it.
Why do you do a Session Zero?
Oh, this is the big question! Why is Session Zero so important? Even if you’re gaming with people you know, Session Zero is still needed. This is your opportunity to lay down some basic ground rules and let the players know what you have planned for them. First, you want to determine if all the players are a good fit for your game. The last thing you want is a player who is disruptive and distracting because they aren’t having fun. They may be dissatisfied for a variety of reasons, but Session Zero is your opportunity to figure this out early on. It’s not bad if a player isn’t compatible with you, your group, or your game, and you should be clear about it. However, you must be honest and up front and make the right decision. It’s easier to do it now than later. Second, the players need to know what types of characters they need to create. Do they want a party balanced with a variety of classes and abilities, or is this adventure suitable for a group of specialists?
How do you run Session Zero?
The best way to do this is to have a checklist or agenda. The specific order of events is up to you and the group, but these are the things I think should be covered:
- Game System and Version: What game system are you using and what version? What house rules will be employed? If you’re playing D&D 5e in a high fantasy setting, make sure no one is expecting to beam up to their ship after touching their comm-badge.
- Acceptable Behavior? What subjects and topics are allowed versus which ones are taboo? Is foul language acceptable? What about food and drinks? Alcohol?
- Contact Information: Make sure everyone can get in touch with you and everyone else.
- Gaming Style: Make sure everyone understands the type of game you run. Are you detail-oriented serious OCD and do you expect everyone to track encumbrance and how many copper pieces they are carrying? Or, are you a story-teller that wants to regale your audience with an epic tale of heroism, where cleverness and cinematic showmanship wins over die rolls during the battles? Can your players expect to have a lot of agency and choice as to how their characters will interact with your world, or will they be railroaded along a pre-determined path? Yes, I’ve described extremes, and as a DM, I would hope you’d fall in the middle. However, you need to know what your players want and they need to know what you’re willing to provide.
- Introduce the Setting: I run a homebrew setting and I’ve written a couple pages of introduction to give the players a general perspective of what they’ll be seeing. Maybe you’re running a published adventure. Hopefully, you’ve read the material and can tell players and overview of what’s involved.
- Build Characters: If they haven’t started already, now is when you build characters. You’ve already told them how. For inexperienced players, you should to sit with them individually to guide them through the book and make the various decisions. At the same time, allow the players to discuss with each other what roles they want to play within the group. Who’s the “face,” who’s the “tank,” who’s the “crowd-control” and so on.
What did I do?
The following section I copied straight from the player guide I gave my players in one of my groups. This group meets weekly at a local game store, Game Time Indy, and because we play on Friday night, we must contend with the store’s hosting of Friday Night Magic. I can’t complain – FNM is a huge money maker for them, and I want them to stay in business. When I wrote this, I did my best to avoid a condescending or legalistic tone. I wanted this to be a positive introduction of me and the game I run. Judging by the players and that we’re going in to Session 7 this week, I think I hit the mark. Feel free to use from this what you like and change what you need to suit your game. Oh, sorry, I left out the pages that introduce my setting. That’s on you.
Code of Respect
Adherence to all Game Time Indy policies is a requirement. There are a few points that I want to emphasize:
- Ambassadors: Be courteous to all gamers, staff, and store customers, whether they are participating in our game or not. We should consider ourselves as ambassadors of quality gaming, Dungeons and Dragons, and Game Time Indy.
- Mind Yourself: Please maintain good personal hygiene and decorum. Watch your language, especially when there are children present. Don’t show up high, drunk, or contagious. Also, we will not tolerate bullying, racism, rudeness, or other inappropriate behavior.
- Attendance: When you join the group, you are implicitly agreeing to attend all sessions, except where life circumstances prevent it. If you can’t make a session, let us know as soon as you can, preferably before the scheduled time.
- Distractions: Gaming in a store means numerous distractions – people playing other games, people observing us, children, etc. Many distractions we can’t prevent. Some we can: Keep your phone put away and if you get an important call, step away from the table to take it; if you bring young children, make sure they have something to keep them busy while we’re gaming; don’t involve yourself in other games or events at Game Time during our event.
- Food: Game Time offers an assortment of snacks and drinks for purchase, which is encouraged. They don’t have a specific policy against bringing in food. At the table, however, keep your drinks capped and if your hands are greasy, clean them before handling anything that isn’t yours.
- Keep Up: There is a lot of backstory and narrative in my setting. I get that it’s a lot to keep track of and I can’t expect you to be as engaged as I am. However, I ask that you at least review the material and stay current with any conversations taking place on the forum. This allows us to spend less time reviewing and more time playing.
- Stuff: Don’t mess with stuff brought by other players without their permission. This includes rolling dice belonging to other players, counting their dice and totaling for them, moving their miniatures on the game board, reading their character sheet, etc.
D&D 5e Sligo-House Rules
We are playing Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition. The rules include Players Handbook (PHB), Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG), Monster Manual (MM), Volo’s Guide to Monsters (VGM), and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything (XGE). As a player, you are not required to own any of these books, though having the PHB is encouraged. Content from Unearthed Arcana or other unofficial sources is not available for use in my game.
Following are the house rules used in my game:
- Inspiration is not used (PHB page 125).
- The battle map uses a hex grid. The use of the hex grid is outlined in DMG, on page 249.
- I use the Flanking rule (DMG page 251).
- The Opportunity Attack rule is expanded to include movement through a hex where an enemy can strike.
- Natural 20: A natural 20 on an attack roll is considered an automatic hit. It is considered a critical hit only when a natural 20 was not required to hit.
- Natural 1: A natural 1 on an attack roll is considered an automatic miss. There are no critical fails. A natural 1 with a magical weapon or spell attack may result in a roll on the Wild Magic Surge table.
- Wild Magic Surge: I use my homebrew table for Wild Magic Surge resolution, not the one in PHB.
- Tabaxi Trails: Tabaxi characters (VGM) use my homebrew class system, not the standard system in PHB.
- Schrödinger’s Death: When you are called upon to make a Death Save, your roll is made secretly. Do not reveal the status of your character until another character makes an examination.
- Character Generation: If, while rolling character stats, you get two results less than 9, you may start over, but you must reroll all six stats. We use the 4-dice, take the best 3 system. We do not use the point-buy system or the pre-determined stat values.
- Player-vs-player: I do not permit player-vs-player combat, and no experience will ever be rewarded for counterproductive behavior.
- Experience and Leveling: I will post experience for each session on the forum as part of the weekly adventure recap. It is helpful to level up your character between sessions, however, you do not gain the benefits of your new level until after completing a long rest. This may require you to have two copies of your character sheet (before and after) during a session.
This is a touchy subject because it can adversely affect our game if not properly managed.
- Tribal Knowledge: This refers to general knowledge you, as a player, may have about D&D Monsters, like “Trolls are vulnerable to fire, and ghosts can only be hurt by magic weapons.” This knowledge is allowed, as it suggests that your character doesn’t live in a vacuum. You hear things, you learn things; some things may be true and some may not.
- Monster Stats: During a battle, I do not reveal your opponent’s Armor Class, Hit Points or other statistics. If you hit by rolling the exact number, I might say, “You just barely hit.” And if you miss by 1, I’ll say, “You barely missed.”
- Hit Points: For monsters where their condition can be determined by casual observation, I will use yellow and red tags to indicate their health status. Yellow means they have suffered at least one third of their hit points in damage. Red means they have suffered at least two thirds. Other colors may be used to indicate special conditions.
- Character Stats: The same system is used for characters. Additionally, don’t ask for or openly announce your character’s stats. Instead, try to describe them in non-numeric, narrative terms.
- Retcon, back-tracking, and reactive decisions: You only roll dice when I, the DM, tells you to. Each player should announce their actions before rolling dice. If a player announces an action that requires a die roll, I will check with all other players to determine their current activities or actions first. Once the die leaves your hand and hits the table, you cannot backtrack or reconsider.
- Min/Maxing, Optimizing and Power-gaming: I’m not a fan of this. It happens, and sometimes it happens organically. However, I highly discourage you to start character creation with this intention.
- Rule Lawyering: I have final say when it comes to the rules and how they apply to a given situation. While I want to be correct, we don’t want to spend time looking up obscure rules or arguing about them. Respect my role as the DM in that I know what will advance the story. I will break rules occasionally for that purpose.
- Game Books: In general, you shouldn’t need any books at the table. Having the PHB handy isn’t a bad thing, but there should never be a reason for you to pull out the MM to look up the monster you’re fighting. That’s my job. The same goes for digital copies.
- Know your Character: You should know what your character can and can’t do. Know your spells. If you can’t decide what to do within a minute during your turn in combat, your character, by default, takes the “dodge” action and does nothing else. This also means that if you remembered some special ability that applied to a die roll you’ve already made, it’s too late. If necessary, I can print your spell list from a database so you don’t have to dig through books.
I favor good role-playing, story-telling, and narration. In Neuith, there are a lot of moving parts and story elements. It is truly a sandbox world where you will have numerous options and choices. Decisions and actions have consequences. I want to be sure that you, as players, feel that you have control over the destiny of your characters, yet at the same time, you are contributing to an epic and enjoyable gaming experience.
Here are some pointers that will contribute to this experience for everyone:
- Where possible, speak AS your character, not FOR your character.
- Play your character consistent with the personality and background you developed.
- Try to view the world from the perspective of your character.
- Work cooperatively with the other players in the group. Don’t build a character that refuses to participate. Disagreement is fine; just don’t be a jerk about it.
- Immerse yourself in the setting in the same manner that you’d get “into” a serialized TV show. Don’t just know the story, be part of the story.
- Don’t be a “murder-hobo.” Not all monsters are meant to be killed. Some may have useful information or, better yet, become allies that can help you later.
- Don’t focus just on the game mechanics. Likewise, don’t build and develop a one-dimensional character. Give yourself the opportunity to explore your character’s uniqueness. Be willing to try a character you’ve never played before.
We’re human. We make mistakes. Sometimes things don’t quite work out as planned. Other times, they do, but not everyone is happy with the result. That’s life.
I am your Dungeon Master, and, by extension, the leader of this group. In this role, I need to be aware of any issues or problems. Please bring to me, privately, any issues you have with how the game is being played, other players in the group (including me), the facility, or anything else that comes up. I have no problem discussing this with you to determine if there’s an equitable resolution.
I’ve stated numerous times and in numerous ways what our objectives are. If you feel we’re not achieving them, I can’t help fix it if I don’t know about it.
It is my goal to provide you with an entertaining and satisfying role-playing experience. Your characters live in a sandbox-style world, with multiple quests and story lines to follow. I don’t want you to feel railroaded, yet there may be times where narration may force the issue. Agency is an important factor in keeping the game engaging, and I want to be sure all players are involved and can participate.
These rules and guidelines form a contract between all of us. You agree that this is the type and style of game you want to play, while I agree to be prepared and provide the game experience you expect. We’re here to have fun. To succeed in this goal, all of us must agree to and adhere to these guidelines.