Whether you’re gathering a group of players together for a new D&D game or you and your friends are in the midst of a long campaign, investing time in a Session Zero is a terrific practice that benefits DMs and players alike.
The idea behind a Session Zero is providing a platform for the DM to present the setting, introduce nuances and quirks of the world and explain their expectations of playstyle and how they imagine the game might run. For players, it is an opportunity to let the DM know how they envision their characters interacting with the world, and their goals, motivations and expectations both for themselves as players and for their characters.
Typically, a Session Zero unsurprisingly takes place before any actual gaming begins, but depending on the circumstances of your group can be an effective resource at any time. In later cases it’s more of a “state of the game” session, but the spirit is the same.
In the game i’m running, i have players from a variety of tabletop RPG experiences. Our first session included a mishmash of players. One has never played any TTRPG before but was interested to dive in and become a regular at the table. Another had played 1st edition AD&D many years ago in high school, and he brought along a friend visiting from Japan for just the one session, who also had no TTRPG experience. A friend of mine who i’ve been gaming with for over ten years was there as well.
As the DM, i was excited for the simple chance to play at all, and i wanted to get the group right into the action. To that end i pulled out a sort of tutorial adventure i’ve had for a while that thrusts the characters into a pivotal battle as conscripts in a conflict between three human kingdoms, beginning in medias res on the front lines.
Taking time for a Session Zero in our situation wasn’t in the cards, since everyone wanted to dive in and start playing. They received a short introduction to the world and their place in it, and they were off and running.
One of the greatest joys i get as a DM is running a game for new players and watching for that moment when recognition clicks that they can try to do anything they can imagine, and with two new players at the table i got that secret glee twice. Everyone had a blast that first session, so i considered my DMing a success.
With a rotating cast of characters in subsequent sessions, running through the tutorial adventure, i began to think of ways to do things a little differently. Once the idea for adding elements of the Spelljammer setting came to mind, my imagination took off for the stars. At the end of our third session and the climax of the tutorial quest – a quasi-adaptation of the classic Against the Cult of the Reptile God – the party discovered a strange vessel after defeating the deadly spirit naga Explictica Defilus. At that point the party were all 3rd level characters and they were shocked and delighted to find the universe literally open up to vast possibilities for adventure.
Because of the dramatic change in the campaign and setting, we started our next get together with a Session Zero. All of the players were excited for the opportunity to slow things down and really start discovering who their characters are beyond the numbers on the character sheets. Until then, they’d been plowing ahead at a breakneck speed, approaching D&D more along the lines of a video game. They wanted to get through the quest, defeat the evil cult and free the tropical island of the curse of winter that had isolated it from the rest of the world.
Our Session Zero took place as the party, aboard Illrigger, their newfound spelljamming ship, was escorted to the Rock of Bral for debriefing. As such, members of the escort ship Resolute’s crew came aboard Illrigger to aid in piloting and share supplies for the long journey. i let the players direct the action, asking questions of Resolute’s crew and talking amongst themselves.
What i picked up from them is that they all seemed eager to approach their characters from a more realistic perspective. As one player pointed out, they had acquired a lot of treasure and were essentially very wealthy. The entire party could live a comfortable lifestyle for about a year. With their own ship, they surmised that they could take on various jobs of their choosing, instead of letting adventure come to them.
They discussed coming up with a business name and hiring themselves out, using examples of shows like “Firefly” and “Cowboy Bebop” as inspiration for how they envisioned their characters’ lives. Looking over the blueprint of Illrigger they began planning how they’d renovate the ship, hire a crew and so on.
Several other things emerged from their conversations as well that helped their characters become more fully realized. One of the characters is a dragonborn warlock, Krex, with a Great Old One pact. We’d never explored what that meant beyond the game mechanics. Krex’s player described that an otherworldly draconic presence reached out to him, offering magical might. One of the major features of the setting is a draconic threat from the Void, so it was a perfect fit that Krex’s patron was a part of that arc.
Another character, played by the brand new player, was an eladrin swordsman with the sailor background. He’d come up with a basic backstory previously, but was excited to explore how his background interacted with their situation running a ship now. He became quite interested in establishing a crew and making sure the ship ran efficiently.
The other core player, playing an elven monk with the hermit background, decided that his Discovery involved wildspace and the crystal spheres, paths that his mind wandered to during his hundreds of years in meditation.
As a DM, this was wonderful material that the player was adding to the campaign. The stuff that comes out of a Session Zero gives DMs a wealth of ideas to implement into adventures. They could be the basis of a grand adventure or a small detail the party comes across. Either way, the players will feel like they had a hand in the creation and that their characters have a unique place in the world.
The sailor swordsman player offhandedly asked if there were illicit substances like drugs out there in space, and found it hysterical that indeed i’d made some notes about that very topic. While making a stop to refresh their air and supplies, the party encountered a shady tiefling and one natural 20 Persuasion check later they had established a minor link to the illicit drug trade. The player seemed fascinated by this and took a few more opportunities to explore this aspect of the setting.
The most noteworthy moment of our Session Zero came while the party visited an underground club owned by a beholder. Chazzledazzel is also a popular crooner and the party was just in time to catch his show. Although i described the lounge and the performance area, when one of the players asked more about it, another player described how the room was deeply inclined with seating arranged in tiers down towards the circular pit in the center from which Chazzledazzel floated up to perform his show. The noteworthy part was that i hadn’t said anything about the seating arrangement, but the player let his own imagination add to the setting. It was a small moment, and i doubt anyone else thought much of it, but to me as the DM i felt like i’d achieved success by inspiring the player’s imagination. It was pretty cool.
A lot of our Session Zero played out that way. While it wasn’t a true Session Zero where the discussions take place outside of the game, the results came across the same way. We integrated the dramatic change in playstyle and setting, with the players presenting a lot of how they’d like their game to be through actual gameplay. Instead of instinctively looking to me to guide them on what to do next, they invoked their agency. It was a subtle shift from relying on the DM for prompting, to them telling me what they wanted to do.
It was less of me asking “what do you want to do?” and “can I try to intimidate the guard to open the gate?” and more of the players initiating the action by telling me “I want to persuade him to join our crew.”
After a while, when the thirst for adventure became too great, the players started their own investigations to find some action. There were a few hooks they discovered and ultimately decided to pursue a bit of clean up work for Chazzledazzel, who had a financial interest in some old docks that were disused and infested with vermin.
With his eyes towards renovating the area, and a natural 20 Persuasion check, the party struck a deal with the beholder for 3 percent of the profits over six months on whatever the old docks develop into in exchange for clearing the area up. They proceeded to do so in a somewhat unorthodox way (as players will always do).
For my part, i was thankful that i’d spent a lot of time developing vast amounts of random information to pull out as needed. These players want to know everything! As a DM, it is extremely satisfying to be able to provide as many good answers as possible. But that is a topic for another post.
Taking time from regular play to have a Session Zero is an invaluable resource for DMs and players. It gives the DM an opportunity to speak outside of the game to let the players know how they envision the game world and what sort of game they are offering. Players have the chance to let the DM know how they see their characters and what they expect to do in the game.
It’s not much fun to create a character who is an expert in Nature, for example, if the adventures never involve a need for that skill, or a character who is exceptional in social situations if the party never encounters other rational creatures.
Likewise, a DM can spend a great deal of time developing plots, arcs, timelines, NPCs, towns, cities and the like, but if all the players want to do is kick down dungeon doors and slay monsters, then that disconnect is going to make the game suffer for everyone.
Session Zero works best at the start of a new game, when everyone is creating characters and the DM has prepared a starting point for the party. But a Session Zero can be implemented any time. Perhaps there is a dramatic shift in the campaign, or the players come or leave the group.
In my case it was a combination of all of those things as well as giving my players new to TTRPGs a chance to understand more what the game is like before exploring bigger concepts. They had a chance to do some adventuring and learn the ropes of the game itself for a few sessions, and develop ideas on how they wanted to play from there.
Call it Session Zero, a “state of the game” or simply table talk, spending time to let your players tell you what kind of game they’d like to play gives DMs invaluable information that helps them craft and guide experiences for everyone to have fun.