D&D Session Zero – The Formula for a Great Start

A good Session Zero can make the difference between an engaging, long-running, fun campaign, and a disjointed, disappointing experience that fizzles out after a few weeks.

The Session Zero is a chance for both players and dungeon master (DM) to get on the same page about everything from scheduling and safety tools, to house rules and the style of game you all want to play. 

From the official source material to the myriad reddit forums and blog posts about what exactly constitutes a good Session Zero, it’s understandable if you – as a player or DM – are feeling a little overwhelmed.

In this guide, we’ll try to break down and demystify some of the key steps of running a session zero that will form a solid foundation for your campaign. 

What is a Session Zero?

In short, a Session Zero is an opportunity for both players and DMs to get on the same page before a campaign begins.

D&D works best when everyone at the table agrees on the kind of story you all want to tell together.

If you’re a DM, having it in your head that you want to run a highly social campaign of political intrigue where combat is rare could lead to disaster if your players all show up expecting a hack-and-slash, dragon-slaying dungeon-crawler.

Likewise, if you’re a player who wants to show up each week for a totally immersive roleplaying experience, you’re going to be disappointed if your DM is looking to run a goofy, whimsical game accompanied by pizza and beer.

Aligning expectations between players and DM during Session Zero can be essential in reducing any friction between expectations and reality as the campaign wears on. 

Of course, there’s a lot more to what makes for a successful Session Zero.

Ask a veteran player or DM, and you’ll probably get a list a mile long, and some of the things that are absolutely essential for some groups might not be necessary for others.

As with most things when you play D&D, experimentation and clear communication with the other people playing alongside you are the most important parts of any successful game. 

Our Session Zero Checklist:

  1. Logistics: When where and How you’ll be playing.
  2. Rules: Determine any House Rules or non-standard rules you’ll use.
  3. Safety/Personal choices: Decide what content is preferred and what is not acceptable.
  4. DM Pitch: The DM can come up with their thoughts on how this campaign will go, see our Example Pitch: Rebellion in the Emerald Wood (click here to view, print, and download the example pitch).
  5. Character Creation: Anything out of bounds should be discussed, party makeup, backstories, names, roleplay voices, and more.

Logistics: When, Where and How to Play

One of the most important things about playing D&D is, well, playing D&D.

Few campaigns can survive an unplanned two-month hiatus; enthusiasm wanes, and people start making other plans on game night under the assumption that you’ll just be pushing it to next week anyway. 

When… Dates, Times, Options

When you sit down for a Session Zero, one of the most important things to get out of the way first is to settle on how often you’re going to play.

Some DMs, particularly those who like to meticulously prepare for their games, might prefer to play every other week or even run a marathon all-day session once a month.

Talk openly and honestly about your schedules, including potential future conflicts with family and work, in order to come up with a schedule that works and, more importantly, everyone can stick to. 

Where… House, Game Store, Online?

I’ve run games of D&D in living rooms, the back rooms of bars after closing time, in a school gymnasium, on a houseboat, and around cramped kitchen tables. I even ran a short campaign in a greenhouse once.

Of course, finding somewhere comfortable, with good lighting and enough space is always going to be preferable.

When you sit down for your Session Zero, talk about where everyone is comfortable playing each session. A lot of groups choose to congregate at the DM’s house, but some groups prefer to rotate each week.

Of course there is always the online option as well.

The various virtual tabletops have come a long way, and while it’s a different feel than in person, it’s also much easier to get the gang together regularly.

For this option check out: Foundry VTT, Fantasy Ground, and Roll 20 for your tabletop.

I like to communicate via Discord for both voice and text.

How… Rules of the Campaign

There are a few other real-life concerns that are worth going over during Session Zero.

What’s the DM’s policy on alcohol (or other substances) at the table? What about phones?

A lot of DMs politely request that players put their phones away during the session. Some DMs don’t mind either way.

It can feel awkward as a DM to set rules for your table, but doing so successfully can really make the difference between a fun session and disaster. 

One of the most important things you can do to improve the resilience of your D&D group is to establish rules for what happens when some people can’t make it to a session.

Some groups keep playing, inventing a reason why the absent player’s character isn’t being particularly chatty this week.

Some DMs arrange for them to do solo side-quests (sometimes known as Gandalfing) before the next week’s session.

Some groups just choose another game (it can be another RPG, a board game, or even cards) to be your default fallback option in case someone can’t make it. 

My current group plays D&D 5e on the weeks where everyone is available.

In the somewhat frequent event that one or more of my players is missing we play other, more rules-lite, games, like Honey Heist, Mörk Borg, or Mausritter

House Rules 

Once you’ve sorted out the mundane logistics, it can be a good time to go over your House Rules.

Every DM runs D&D a little differently; it’s one of the beautiful things about this hobby. And making sure your players are on board with the type of game you like to run can make or break a group. 

In addition to letting your players know where you stand on things like dropped dice (my policy is that, if it goes on the floor, you roll it again) and metagaming (strongly discouraged), you can also talk to your players about the themes and content that they are comfortable with, as well as giving an overview of Safety Tools if you use them (you should – more on this below). 

Then, to go one layer deeper into the game, you can talk to your players about any in-game rules that might differ from the Player’s Handbook or Dungeon Master’s Guide as written.

Personally, I don’t track encumbrance in my games, although if I were running a campaign that focused on exploring the wilderness, I might choose to introduce it.

There are a nigh-infinite number of house rules out there developed across myriad tables and groups, or stolen from other role-playing games – from usage dice to exploding criticals.

Whichever ones help you to run the kind of game you enjoy, let your players know about them ahead of time. 

Safeguarding and Safety Tools 

D&D is a game, and as such should be fun for everyone who plays it (including the DM).

To make sure that your game of D&D is as consistently fun as possible, it can be helpful to choose one or more Safety Tools. 

There are a number of techniques that can help make sure everyone at the table (players and DM) feels comfortable and safe.

It’s also a good idea to introduce and engage with your chosen Safety Tools during Session Zero, rather than use them reactively if and when problems arise. 

Lines and Veils

When the game begins, the DM can ask the players about their Lines and Veils.

A Line is a subject or action that the player doesn’t want to be included in the game at all.

A Veil is a subject or action that should only be described in vague terms.

When the Players and DM have outlined their Lines and Veils, it’s up to everyone else to ensure they’re respected. 

The X Card

Place a card in the middle of the table (or give everyone their own form of an X Card if you’re playing online).

If at any point, someone feels uncomfortable with the things currently happening in the game, they should touch (or display) the X Card, and the rest of the group should steer the game away from, or replace the element that is upsetting.

The person who touches the X Card is in no way obligated or expected to explain their decision if they don’t want to. 

There is a lively discourse about different Safety Tools ongoing in the roleplaying game community, and some safeguarding techniques work better for some people than others.

Talk to your group about how best to find a way to ensure the gaming table is a safe place for everyone. 

For DMs: Pitching Your Game

Session Zero, especially if you are playing with a new group, can be a great opportunity for you, as a DM, to get to know your players, what they like and don’t like about certain aspects of D&D, and what kind of game they’re going to have the most fun playing. 

One of the techniques I make sure I bring to every Session Zero I run is The Pitch.

Before Session Zero begins, think about the type of campaign you want to run.

  • Do you want to run a game about daring pirates sailing on an enchanted ship between realities, dueling mind flayers on the sunless seas of the Astral Plane?
  • Do you want to run an epic story with high drama and world-ending stakes, like the first arc of The Adventure Zone?
  • Do you want to set your game in a single city, with your players taking part in elaborate, deadly games of courtly intrigue?
  • Do you want them to explore a vast, uncharted wilderness, like some kind of bizzaro Oregon Trail? 

The possibilities are endless, but the types of games that will resonate with your players certainly aren’t. 

It can be helpful to come up with two or three short pitches for campaigns you, as the DM, would be happy to run.

To do this, write two or three short sentences introducing the world, describe the style of play the campaign will involve, and list off a few cultural touchstones that can help your players grasp the tone and themes you’re looking to engage with. 

This can also be a good opportunity to give your players some guidelines to use when choosing their race and class, as well as for deciding on their character’s personality and tone.

Maybe some races are treated differently in your world; dwarves may have disappeared from the world centuries ago; or perhaps all sorcerers are to be captured, or even killed, on-site, by order of the local high elf countess.

This isn’t to say that you should ban your characters from making certain choices, but informing them of the potential narrative consequences beforehand can lead to more satisfying roleplaying experiences. 

Here’s a quick example of a pitch for a campaign. 

Session 0 Example Pitch:
Rebellion in the Emerald Wood 

Campaign Pitch: Rebellion in the Emerald Woods

The Barony of Alden, which runs from the Western Sea to the borders of the Emerald Woods in the East, languishes in the grip of tyranny.

The rightful Baron, Caleb Montpennier, has been usurped by the wicked sorcerer Alazar the Cruel, whose foul magics have begun to corrupt the land, and whose armies of gnoll mercenaries plunder and pillage at will.

To the East, however, a fledgling resistance is growing, deep within the Emerald Wood. Unable to stomach the injustices of Alazar’s rule any longer, you have answered the call. 

Themes: Freedom vs Oppression, Rebellion, Medium-High Fantasy  

Play Style: Resistance fighters, Medium Combat, Medium Politics 

Touchstones: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Star Wars, Wolfenstein: The New Order 

Player Buy In: You will be playing resistance fighters, opposing the forces of Alazar the Cruel. You will frequently be outnumbered, outmatched and overstretched as you fight time and again against a superior force.

There will also be opportunities for you to build, fortify, and expand your base as you construct a safe haven from which to strike at Alazar’s domain.

Think about why your character has chosen to join the rebels, and what they stand to lose if Alazar’s reign continues. 

Additional Notes: Humans are the dominant species in the Barony of Alden. Elves, Dwarves and Dragonborn are a rare site, although their rarity often makes them the kinds of outsiders and marginalized misfits more likely to join a ragtag group of freedom fighters.

Alazar the Cruel has already come into conflict with a circle of druids living deep within the Emerald Wood. As such, anyone caught practicing druidic magic in the Barony is to be arrested.

Playing a Druid (or an Oath of the Ancients Paladin for that matter) is likely to create some problems for you. 

Making Characters  

Another huge part of the Session Zero experience is making characters.

Some DMs like (or tolerate) it if you show up to Session Zero with a fully-fledged character. Some of them would rather you make a character that explicitly fits within the campaign you’re about to begin. 

Personally, I think that creating characters is best done together during Session Zero.

Not only does this make it easier for new players to get help from the DM or any veteran players (character creation can be a pretty overwhelming process) in the group, but it usually means the party you all end up with is more cohesive.

As a player, building your character alongside your adventuring companions and DM is also a great way to integrate them into the party and the wider world.

Remember, the DM is the ultimate authority of what is and isn’t true about their world.

If you show up to Session One with a Red Dragonborn Sorcerer, only to find out that the game the DM has planned is set in a world populated exclusively by halflings where magic is illegal (probably not the most fun pitch for a campaign, but I bet you could make it work), either the DM is going to have to bend over backward to fit your character into the story (which will annoy them), or tell you flat out that you need to make a different character (which will annoy you). 

Conclusion

So, to quickly recap…

If you can take the time in your Session Zero to figure out the logistics of when and where you’re going to play, establish your House Rules (both at the table and in the game), Pitch Your Game to the players, and help the players Create Characters that fit into the game you’re all about to play, it’s likely that you’ll feel the benefits, all the way from your Session One to the grand finale of your campaign.

There are a million different ways to do a Session Zero, and finding the right one for you is going to be a process of trial and error.

However, as with all things D&D, if you effectively and openly communicate with the other people at the table, you’re going to have a better, more inclusive, and more enjoyable time.