Hi, everyone! Today I’m going to talk about the importance of Session Zero – the part of the game that happens before you start playing the game with your friends!

This will talk about doing Session Zero from the DM’s perspective, but can also be useful for players, as well, so that you know what to expect and what questions to ask your DM.

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So, to explain more accurately, Session Zero is when you meet with your campaign group to prepare for the campaign game before you actually sit down to play. I feel like this is a very important step in starting your campaign.

There are a few goals to this session:

  • Roll stats, and build your character
  • Discuss backstory options
  • Establish the tone and player goals
  • Cover house rules
  • Talk about the campaign and setting

Let’s go into detail on each of these!

#1 – Roll Stats, Build Characters

This one is pretty straight forward. Have the players build their characters. Get out that ol’ PHB and get going. Whether you employ the point-buy system, the die roll system, or the good old-fashioned “standard set,” you’ll want your players to fill in their Character Sheets with their Ability Scores, and the other standard information. They don’t necessarily have to start putting in character names, or physical appearances and more “role playing” like that, I like to save that stuff for later.

Basically there’s an order I like to do this…and that’s how I listed it above. So, first, I have them do all the stats part of their character sheet…all the stuff that isn’t affected by character flavor. Because, I’ve found, when you put all that “calculated” information in on the sheet, the character starts to appear and become more obvious.

For example, if you get a high Dexterity score, you will probably want to pick an appropriate class. So you probably won’t be picking a Cleric or a Wizard. I mean…it’s the player’s choice, but still it’d be smarter to pick a class that’s better suited for a high Dex score. Then you pick a background that helps boost the kind of skills you want to use in the game – such as Stealth and Sleight of Hand (both Dex-based skills), and now the character is taking even more shape.

Of course, alternatively, you can have a certain type of character in mind, and try to build them by picking the class, skill, and background options that you think best fit that idea. It’s the player’s choice, after all.

#2 – Discuss Backstory

Now that the character is looking nearly complete on the sheet, it’s time to talk about the kind of backstory you want the character to have. The DM is a great tool to utilize for this, because they are most familiar with the setting in which the players’ characters will be adventuring. Therefore, they are a wealth of information into which players can tap to assemble a character backstory that truly fits within the campaign setting.

Working together to create a great, memorable, and playable backstory is a lot of fun, and a fantastic way to get players – even more timid players – into the mindset of role-playing their characters. Don’t worry, though, it’s still going to take the players a bit of time to really find their characters’ “voice” and all.

And try to build a backstory that helps to explain the skills that the characters have, and the Ability Scores they have, and why a particular Background was chosen. DMs – pay close attention to these backstories that the players are creating. You’ll want to be on the look-out for potential story seeds that fit into your setting, and how you can create conflict within the campaign by knowing a character’s Personality Trait, Bond, Ideal, and Flaw.

For example, the D&D campaign “Storm King’s Thunder” pits adventurers against several giants. So, if a character has a backstory that involves giants, that character has even more motivation to do something about the events that occur within that campaign.

#3 – Establish Tone and Player Goals

Now that the characters are even more fleshed out – and pretty much at a “complete” stage (meaning they’re ready to play) – it’s time to speak to the players about the campaign itself. Part of this is to establish tone. This, I feel, is crucial to the setup of a campaign.

Different people like to play D&D (and other role-playing games) different ways. Some people like it to feel like a sweeping epic, that they are badass characters that complete feats of incredible action set to booming Howard Shore music. Other people prefer it to be a more sillier experience, and play things more tongue-in-cheek.

And DMs are going to already have an idea for how they want their campaign to be as well. So, there’s going to have to be a discussion about what each players wants out of the game itself, and there’s going to have to be compromise. Trust me, it’s painful sometimes to do this, but it’s much better to set this up ahead of time instead of risking a game implosion later because all the “serious” players are sick of Paul and his constant jokes.

So, the DM’s job is to find out how the players want it to be played, and to tell them how you were hoping to run the campaign. My campaign right now is “Curse of Strahd,” and that’s a fairly serious and dark story, full of gothic horror and terrible dangers. I knew I wanted to take this campaign more seriously. However, I settled for “semi-serious,” because it’s literally impossible to play D&D entirely straight-faced and to not make jokes.

The next part of this is to discover what specific goals the players have for their characters. They created these great backstories…now, how do the players want their characters to grow? What are they hoping to happen? DMs, ask your players if there’s some kind of character growth moments to which they are looking forward, and write those down so that you can try to work those into the narrative of the campaign. Players, really think about these, because they can make for some great moments.

I feel like a lot of players come up with their backstories and then start playing the game without any expectancy that their characters will have any personal growth in the campaign. But, really, they should! I’m going to use Critical Role as an example here. How amazing is it to watch these flawed and broken characters start to accept their faults and take steps to overcome them and become better people? Like with Scanlan and his daughter? Or Grog with Earthbreaker Groon? It’s incredibly satisfying for the players and the DM to create these moments together.

#4 – Cover House Rules

As the DM, you may have a handful of house rules that you like to use in your campaigns. Bring those up, and discuss them with your players. Make sure there’s a common consensus among the group of which alternative rules are accepted and will be used. For one, it helps to do this now instead of grinding the flow of the game to a screeching halt to discuss them when it actually comes up at the table. Second, some players may not be cool with certain house rules, and suddenly learning that they’re in-use while gaming will take them right out of it.

Also see if there are any custom rules that the players have used in the past that you might consider including in your game. I find it really fascinating to hear about other rules that were used in other games, and to see if it’ll work for me too. Basically, the point is, the minimal the surprises at the table, the better.

#5 – The Campaign and the Setting

Some of this was probably already covered in some of the previous steps. For example, you may have given out some details of the campaign’s setting when you were helping your players form their characters’ backstories. You may have discussed certain aspects of the campaign itself while you were establishing the tone of the game with your players. Now is the time to really lay it on the line.

Tell your players about the campaign. Obviously, you’re not required to give away any of the secrets or “answers” to the campaign, but I suggest telling them small details of what they can expect.

For example, when we did our Session Zero for “Curse of Strahd,” I straight-up told my players that they were about to play a “brutal” campaign which was very tough. I didn’t beat around the bush, I told them that there was a higher likelihood that character deaths would occur in this campaign. That’s why I had them pre-make two characters.

Basically I didn’t want them to feel surprised when they faced something for which they weren’t prepared, and were slaughtered unfairly.

Talk about the setting – especially if it’s a homebrew one – so that that players have some idea of what their characters know, (typically) having lived in this setting their whole lives. Like, a person who grew up in Waterdeep would probably know a lot about Waterdeep.

Again, you don’t have to give away any plot points, but make sure your players know and have a good idea of the world in which they are about to play.

Finally, ask questions and be available to provide answers to the questions the players ask. See if you can get a feel for what type of gamer the players are going to be. That way you can try to assemble encounters and situations based on those results, and make your players happier.

That’s basically it. I love Session Zero because it allows me to get to know my players better and to understand why they’re there to game. What’s also really important is that now your players have all this information and a (probably mostly) completed character sheet that they can go home and study for a while until the first session of gameplay. That way, they can come to the table with a solid understanding of their character, their backstory, and the world in which they live.

Until next time – Well Met!