Have you gone into a Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) group, only to find out your teammates are marching the beat of their own drums? The bard is a joke character, your paladin is a rule-book worshipper, and that rogue is trying to steal from literally everyone they see? This situation, where no one is on the same page and has their own ideas on how the game should be played, is precisely why you should consider doing a session zero for DND 5e before you start the campaign.
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What is Session Zero?
Session zero is a planning session that takes place before the start of a campaign. It allows the Game Master(GM) and players to establish expectations, create characters that fit the world and story, and discuss any house rules or homebrew content that will be used in the campaign. It can also be held mid-campaign, at any point, to get an idea of how everyone is feeling about the game in general.
Why is Session Zero Important to 5e DND?
Session zero is important because:
- It can be used to discuss monster-type bans to make people more comfortable playing
- Players can express what kind of campaign they’d like to have – setting themes and social standards for the party to adhere to
- GMs can talk about ideas for gameplay elements, such as logic puzzles or skill check challenges that fall outside of combat, to see if players are interested in that sort of thing.
- And much more.
As the article goes on, I’ll explain various topics typically covered in session zero.
Hosting Session Zero: Setting the Game Style and Tone
If you’re new to playing D&D, you might not understand what setting the style and tone in a campaign means. To help you with this, here is the process that my groups and I do when planning a new campaign in session zero:
Establishing a Campaign Theme
First up, you’ll want to discuss the campaign’s themes. Essentially, you want to work with your group to figure out the kind of campaign you are interested in. Some examples for you include:
- What genre should you base the campaign around? Consider popular genres like high fantasy or horror for a quick start.
- Are there going to be dragons?
- What about Vampires?
- Zombies, Skeletons, or Ghosts?
- Arachnids or insects?
- Invent your own!
- What sort of gameplay experience are you interested in? My advice here would be to focus on a specific one, like dungeon-crawling or political intrigue.
- Trapped dungeon diving?
- An ongoing war between two countries that the party walked into, with political nuances and social castes?
- A murder mystery the players need to solve?
- Holiday specific one shots?
- Get Creative!
- What sort of setting or culture do you want to play in?
- For example, a medieval Europe-inspired world with knights, swords, and magic.
- Or perhaps you and your group want to take a more modern approach – firearms and technology.
- GMs can use this as a guideline for describing places you visit to make you feel more immersed in the story.
- Should there be any moral or ethical dilemmas?
- Roleplaying some of the darker facets of human society can lead to very interesting storytelling and encourage heroic acts against atrocity, but you need to be careful and listen to what the group is comfortable exploring.
- What sort of world undertone would you like to see? Emphasize a particular mood or tone, like a grimdark or whimsical atmosphere.
- Are the streets empty, with shutters being slammed as the party enters a fog-covered town?
- Is there a celebration or festival taking place in the streets, with people merry, singing, and having fun?
- Is there a carnival going on with a show taking place with fantastical acrobatic feats?
- Is the town on fire as it is being raided by bandits or attacked by monsters?
For any theme you are interested in, make sure you bring it up because it can dramatically alter the campaign and the sessions going forward.
Building the Settings and Atmosphere
Next, talk about and provide examples of the setting’s atmosphere that you’d like to see.
- Do you like cities and places of human interaction?
- Do you like underground cave systems with fantastical elements like glowing mushroom lighting?
- How prevalent do you want the citizens to be concerning religious faith?
- Do you like elements of small detail, such as a random carpenter hammering away as his son yells, “Greylocks Carpentry! Get your quality, hand-made chairs from Greylocks Carpentry! We have spoons, plates, and mugs too!”
These elements flesh out the various scenes that players are guided through during the campaign and are integral to making the world feel lived in.
Discuss Player Behavior Guidelines
One of session zero’s most important aspects is establishing guidelines for player behavior. Ultimately, D&D is a story told from the collective perspective of the players and the GM. If anyone is uncomfortable with how situations play out, it can completely derail a fun campaign and break groups apart.
- Regarding that rogue that likes to steal from everyone, being upfront and saying, “If you steal constantly, the party and you will start to encounter more guards, as there is a rise in crime. The world is responding to your actions. You’ll need to pass a skill check or escape, lest you be thrown in the stocks for stealing.”
- This doesn’t say to the rogue, “You can’t steal”; it says, “If you steal, there may be consequences in the game. If you’re prepared for those consequences, then by all means, you may certainly try.”
- Taking this approach allows the party to progress with their own roleplay while the rogue gets to hang out in the stocks after their reign of theft finally catches up with them, getting tomatoes from upset townspeople thrown at them. (A comical way to deal with too much stealing detracting from the rest of the game).
- After some time, the guards will release the rogue (usually after the roleplay of the other players is explored for a bit.) This is a way to balance the game so that not all attention goes to one player.
- As for the rule-book worshipping paladin, there is a simple solution.
- State up-front to them in session zero, “The rules are only loosely followed and can be completely ignored for fun gameplay.”
- This ensures that the game flow doesn’t suffer every few minutes for several minutes while the GM verifies how a rule works.
- Our GM may research the rule after the session and announce to us how the rule will be handled going forward and that the session before was just a one-time deal.
- Next, the joke character bard that takes their performances to silly levels.
- They can be told at session zero to moderate their silliness in certain situations. This allows the party to be drawn into the story without constant comic relief in their face.
- Being up-front about it rather than complaining about it later can avoid arguments and prevent issues from happening in the first place.
- We also discuss specific themes that are not acceptable, such as flirting or adult-only roleplay.
- This sort of thing can make players and GMs very uncomfortable and seriously detracts from the groups’ enjoyment of the session.
- Unless everyone in the party is game for that sort of roleplay – I’m not judging anyone’s interests.
- Personally, though, I’m not interested in people flirting with my girlfriend or me, even if it’s only roleplaying in D&D. I don’t feel comfortable with it, so I state that up front in session zero to shut down attempts before they happen.
- One final addition: Allow open discussion and feedback. Session zero can be held at any point in the campaign.
- Players and GMs may not know about everything they are uncomfortable with until they are put in the middle of the situation. For this reason, I’ve created a short list of safety rules, which you can find below.
Establishing Safety Rules
Putting rules in place to keep people comfortable and safe is imperative for a roleplaying game. I’ve come up with a short list of rules for you to reference, but this is by no means a complete list – feel free to add or remove rules to fit your groups needs.
I’ve included some of the more important rules I personally would like to have in any campaign I play. These rules should be established from the very beginning in session zero.
|Respect the Players||All players should be treated with respect and kindness. No player should ever be targeted, bullied, or made to feel uncomfortable.|
|Consent||Players should always ask for consent before engaging in any sensitive or triggering topics.|
|Use “X Card”||The “X Card” is a tool players can use to signal discomfort or a need to stop a scene. No questions are asked, simply move on. The GM should inquire after the session but not push it if the player doesn’t want to discuss it.|
|Respect Physical and Emotional Boundaries||Players and GMs should respect each other’s physical and emotional boundaries. This is often overlooked in many groups – remember to use that X card if someone is approaching any boundaries!|
|Take Breaks||Players should take breaks as needed, whether for personal needs or to decompress after a difficult scene.|
|No Hate Speech or Discrimination||Players and GMs must agree not to engage in hateful or discriminatory conversation. This includes racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or any other discriminatory behaviors.|
|Use Trigger Warnings||Trigger warnings should be used for sensitive topics that may be distressing for some players.|
|Establish Limits on Gore or Violence||Limits should be established and respected for gore or violence in the game. This includes verbose descriptions of injuries or deaths.|
|Respect Privacy||Players should respect each other’s right to privacy and not share any personal information without permission.|
|Speak up if You Feel Uncomfortable or Unsafe||If a player feels uncomfortable or unsafe, they should speak with the GM about it in a Safe space. Refer to the “X-Card” rule above.|
Help Creating Characters
Session zero is also one of the best times to get help in creating characters. The party can help explain what each class does and the differences between each playable species. As the entire group is gathered for this session, it is easier for the new player to get multiple ideas for their character from suggestions by group members.
Best Time to Establish Player Backstory Connections
Additionally, while the players and GM are helping to build out your character, discussions on how each character comes to be a part of the party should take place. You can use a boilerplate backstory, or come up with something unique to your own character.
These backstory elements may come into play later as the GM uses your backstories to help structure out the campaign around your characters.
House Rules Discussed and Clarified
Another useful conversation point for session zero is house rules. House rules are game rules put in place that can fundamentally alter how 5E D&D plays.
They can be as simple as allowing players to drink a potion using a bonus action or as game-changing as a critical fail table that can result in a weapon breaking mid-combat from a Nat 1 roll. Discussing these house rules at session zero establishes how the campaign may differ from other groups in which players have participated in the past.
Here is a table of some house rules my GM utilizes:
|No Multiclassing||Players are not allowed to multiclass their characters. This can simplify the game for people so that they aren’t trying to balance the mechanics of two different classes. I recommend using this rule if your group has one or several new players to 5e D&D.|
|Flanking||Advantage on melee attack rolls against a creature if another player is on the opposite side of it.|
|Critical Hit/Fumble Tables||A table that players roll on when they get a critical hit or a critical miss, adding an extra effect to the attack.|
|Bonus Action Healing Potion||Players are allowed to drink healing potions as a bonus action. This does not apply to other potion types, only healing.|
|Skill Challenges||Players must pass a series of ability checks to complete a task, such as sneaking past guards or navigating treacherous terrain like a bog.|
|Spell Points System||Using a points system instead of spell slots to manage spellcasting. Be careful with this one, though, as it can dramatically unbalance the power of spellcasters if not properly set up.|
|Modified Ability Scores||Changing the way ability scores are generated or modified, such as using point-buy instead of rolling for them.|
|Healing Surge||Allowing players to use a limited number of healing surges per day to regain hit points outside of rests.|
|Armor As Damage Reduction||Armor provides damage reduction rather than an AC bonus. Be careful with this one, because it is difficult to balance between each encounter.|
|Hero Points||Players can use hero points to re-roll dice or gain advantage on certain checks or saves. Great for new players.|
Session Logistics Planning
The final section I’d like to cover, as this article is already quite long, is session logistics. Essentially, when you guys will play. Here is a helpful table that you can use to set up your session schedule at session zero.
|Establish a Consistent Schedule||Set a regular day and time for sessions that works for everyone, and try to stick to it as much as possible.|
|Determine the Session Length||Decide on whether food and drinks will be provided or if players should bring their own, and communicate it with the group. Also, if applicable, put aside a block of time in the middle of the session for breakfast, lunch, or dinner for everyone to eat.|
|Plan for Breaks||Factor in regular breaks during sessions to allow players to stretch, eat, or take care of any personal needs.|
|Plan for Food and Drinks||Communicate the goals and plans for each session with the group beforehand, so everyone knows what to expect and can prepare. You don’t need to give details, just “We will probably have combat this session” or “we will be ending early/late today if everyone is okay with that”.|
|Set Expectations||Clearly communicate expectations for attendance, punctuality, and preparedness before each session.|
|Assign Roles and Responsibilities||Assign roles such as GM, session recorder, or rule-keeper, and make sure everyone understands their responsibilities. Some roles may not be necessary for more casual groups.|
|Communicate Session Goals and Plans||Have a backup plan in case someone can’t make it to the session, or there are unexpected interruptions. My group likes to talk about ideas they have for their characters or use the time to get help understanding a new spell they just got, etc.|
|Have a Backup Plan||Have a backup plan in case someone can’t make it to the session or there are unexpected interruptions. My group likes to talk about ideas they have for their characters or use the time to get help understanding a new spell they just got, etc.|
|End Sessions on Time||Try to end sessions on time to respect everyone’s schedules and commitments outside of the game.|
Setting a Session Schedule
Setting up a session schedule for your campaign is an ongoing organic process. This is because people have responsibilities that they need to tend to, like work, school, kids, or health, that may require a scheduled game to be delayed or canceled. Sometimes, this could mean that you can go months without a session, as my group sometimes does during the holiday season when everyone travels to visit family.
You’ll want to plan around this issue and take some good notes for when the session returns. A few times, none of us took notes, and we ended up with a roleplaying session just getting used to our characters again.
Conclusion for The Importance of Session Zero in DND 5E
Overall, you can see why planning out a session zero benefits you as a player or GM of a D&D 5e campaign. I hope that this resource was helpful to you – good luck with your sessions!