So you’ve figured out a plot, your friends are excited to play, and you’re dreaming of all the amazing D&D sessions you’re going to run. But how do you actually start a new Dungeons & Dragons campaign? How do you run a session 0? I reached out to Bob World Builder to help answer these questions with his D&D Session 0 checklist. He provided this article which has been adapted from his excellent video guide below. Take it away, Bob!
What Is a Session Zero?
A session zero in D&D is the session a DM holds with their players to establish expectations, discuss character options, set the tone for the campaign, and more. Wizards of the Coast has finally released some formal guidelines for a session 0 in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, but we’re still left with a ton of opinions and even more questions. As someone who loves starting new campaigns, I’ve compiled all of the answers for you, and distilled them into the ultimate session 0 checklist!
First, the goal of a session 0 is to get everyone in your group on the same page. Whether or not they’ve played D&D before, each player has their own preconceived notions of what this new campaign will be like. This session gives you a chance to align everyone’s expectations for the campaign and player behavior. And the beauty of it is you can have a “session 0” check-in at any point in your campaign!
By the end of your session 0, you’ll have:
- plans for your gaming schedule
- a framework of rules for your table
- and a foundation for the adventure itself.
I say “plans, framework, and foundation” because once you start playing, things ARE going to change. But having this solid baseline makes it way easier to deal with those changes as they come along.
1. Team Building
A session 0 is a perfect opportunity to help players get to know each other if they don’t already. Even if they do, this can be a great chance to build up the camaraderie. I promise I’m not suggesting just a goofy icebreaker that will make everyone uncomfortable; it’s three simple questions to give everyone a chance to introduce themselves and get excited about the game!
- What’s one thing you love about tabletop RPGs? This could be a favorite moment from a previous campaign, a reason they’re excited to play (strategy, story, social interaction), or anything else.
- Are you most excited by combat, exploration and puzzles, or roleplay?
- As a player, what’s one strength you bring to the group? If someone can’t think of their own strengths, let others share a strength they see in that player.
This last one really gets everyone thinking like a team, and you should seriously take notes on their responses here, so you can use that information to enhance your game (there’s a space on the checklist for you to do so!).
People are busy! It’s great to figure out the logistics right off the bat with the following questions.
- How long can the group reasonably commit to playing this campaign? Sure you may want it to last for years, but start small. A few months is a good goal that won’t scare away brand new players who actually do stuff besides think about D&D.
- How often can everyone meet? Weekly is great, but twice per month is the reality for most groups of 4 or more players.
- How long should a session last? About 3 hours is normal, but if you only meet once a month (and if your group is up for it), consider going for those 6+ hour marathons!
- Where will you meet, or what virtual tabletop will you use?
- What’s the preferred day of the week and session start time? And how long will you wait for that last person to show up? This might seem like overkill, but it keeps your players accountable—not having a regularly scheduled game time is the #1 killer of D&D groups.
- Finally, under what conditions will you cancel your game night? What do you do with the character of an absent player? I included a few suggestions for how to handle these points in the checklist because different groups have different methods. And this idea leads right into the most important section…
3. Table Expectations
Some of these points are simple, some are serious, but they are all critical for maintaining a fun game! If a player’s expectations aren’t being met, they won’t be focused during the game—or worse, they’ll start making excuses and stop showing up. You can’t please all the people, but if you’re their host, you should try to set up great D&D etiquette at your table!
- Is food welcome at the table? Alcohol? Smartphones? Phones can be distracting, but they are great tools for looking stuff up!
- On that note, how much time, if any, should be spent to check a rule? And how much can player knowledge overlap with character knowledge?
- Does your group want to roleplay like the gang on Stranger Things or Critical Role? Remember all characters should get their time in the spotlight if they want it!
- Is the general tone of the game dramatic or comedic?
- How much narrative control do the players have? This could be limited to deciding the actions of their character, or extended to on-the-fly descriptions of a scene to assist the DM (I recommend the latter for keeping them invested during a session).
- When can a situation be taken back, or retconned?
- Is player-vs-player action okay with your group?
- What other RPG pet peeves do they have? This question could bring up some serious topics, in which case, we jump right to the next point…
- What is the “rating” of your typical game: PG, PG-13, R? Encourage your players to privately share with you any topics they do not want to come up in the game.
This whole section is about respecting people’s boundaries, but these are the issues that could potentially ruin someone’s experience with D&D forever, so listen to your players!
Finally, you should ask what are the consequences for a player who goes against these guidelines that the group agreed upon? For most adults and children, a simple disapproving look is enough to get them in line, but others will need to be spoken with privately. And if they repeatedly cross the line, they DO NOT respect your group, and they’re just not a good fit for this campaign.
4. Campaign Framework
The framework isn’t something a lot of DMs include in their session 0 because, usually, they’ve already made a lot of those decisions—and I get it! I started DMing because I made a setting and wanted my friends to play in it! But if you want a rich D&D experience, or that multi-year campaign, it’s best to create your setting together. Or to at least let your players help make some decisions about the adventure.
- What’s the accessibility of magic and general level of technology?
- What are the primary adventuring environments?
- What are the major threats and main story themes?
- Do players prefer a very linear or very non-linear structure?
- What’s the starting character level, and how will you ensure that the characters are all connected to each other and the setting? I prefer when each character has a pre-existing relationship with at least one other character in the party, AND at least one NPC in the world.
In short, your players ought to know as much as possible about the setting before they build a character. Yes, as soon as you invite your friends to a session 0, they’ll probably start working on ideas, and that’s great! They’re excited to play. But they shouldn’t do it all on their own, or they’ll end up with a character that doesn’t fit well in the party or the setting. Encourage them to come up with a few ideas and be flexible because they haven’t heard the final section yet…
5. House Rules
This part is different for every table, and the session 0 checklist has suggestions for how to handle some of the points below, but here are some common mechanics that groups often do differently:
- generating character statistics
- leveling up and raising HP
- race/class restrictions
- crits and fumbles
- starting gold
- health regeneration
- character death and resurrection
Be sure to go over these kinds of rules with your group to decide exactly how your table wants to play it.
Should You Play Now??
A lot of groups like to play at the end of a session 0. And it makes sense—you’re all hyped up about this new campaign, and you want to dive right in! But I suggest you hold off…sort of. If you are in with a group of people you already know, and a pre-written setting and campaign that everyone already understands, then go for it. But if you’re still getting to know everyone, or you’re running a homebrew adventure, or you need to make big changes to the campaign based on your discussions, then wait. Let your players hold on to that excitement and spend more time on their character backstories while you prepare the ultimate session 1!
You can find the full session 0 checklist right here. Thank you for reading, and keep building!