The short answer to this is, of course, yes. Session 0 is incredibly important, and very worth it! Read on to find out why!
What is Session 0?
Session 0 is the preamble to a game. The Dungeon Master sits down with the players, and everyone creates their characters. Initial backstories are hashed out. The players basically learn about their characters, and figure out how they’re going to become a group of adventurers. (Or decide not to – that could be interesting, too!)
It’s called session 0 because you don’t do any real gameplay. Now, a lot of people use it just to create characters, and that’s fine. You’re missing out a lot if that’s all you do, though. Here is a small list of things you should do as a player, and as a DM, during Session 0.
Whether you’re the player, or dungeon master, you should be taking notes. Dungeon Masters: Take notes about what your players are talking about. If they mention a reason for adventuring, write it down! If they mention a parent/sibling/friend from childhood, write it down! Anything your players tell you about their character’s personality can be a gold mine for ideas in future sessions. When you can tie sessions together with references, it makes the game seem that much more cohesive.
Likewise, players should be taking notes. Player notes should be different than DM notes. You might make some interesting observations about the other characters, but only write things down if your character knows it.
Your character has never met another player’s character. You shouldn’t write down that their favorite color is pink. Your character wouldn’t know that, so you shouldn’t either.Example
The majority of your notes should be about the world and the area you’re in. As we’ll talk about a little later, your DM should be dropping information about the world. Things relating to your immediate surroundings, and maybe some of the region’s backstory in the session 0. These clues should help you make better character decisions. They can also be useful for future sessions and future decisions. If your DM drops the name of the town Mayor, that might be something to write down. If he mentions some rumors, or local gossip, that can be good to write down too.
Everyone at the table is responsible for telling the story. Relying solely on the Dungeon Master to come up with content can lead to railroading. (Railroading is when a Dungeon Master sets up a story, and doesn’t allow for deviation.)
My philosophy: the DM is there to help you tell your character’s story. They present challenges, and rewards. The player decides which challenges the character wants to pursue. The best way to do your part is to take note of the world being built. Then your character can interact with the parts that interest you.
You’ll be doing your Dungeon Master a huge favor.
Come up with Goals
This is primarily a player-related task. You should spend some of Session 0 determining your character’s motivations, and communicating those to the appropriate people. Mainly the DM, but if your characters are all friends, they should probably understand why you’re adventuring together.
Your character wants revenge for their dead parents. By letting the other players know, they can decide how best to help your character achieve this goal. Letting the DM know allows them to start weaving the goal into the shared story.Example
Out-of-game goals are important, too. These relate specifically to play style, and what you want to do with your characters. Some players might want to have an epic, high-combat, overthrow the gods Campaign. Others might prefer intrigue, and deception, with minimal combat, while most probably want to land somewhere in the middle. There are also players who want to be gritty and real, while others want to make jokes and be comedic.
All of these are acceptable game styles. You may encounter an issue with the Dungeon Master, though.
Your DM is setting up an elaborate, intricate scene involving very serious crimes. One player begins making off-color jokes, taking everyone out of the scene. The inverse is also true. If you’re playing a comedic session, a dour player can suck the fun out of the room.Example
There isn’t a right or wrong way to play. Just make sure everyone is on the same page before you start rolling dice!
While we’re on the topic of being on the same page, it’s important to understand various play styles. Even if it’s not your first time playing with this group of people, knowing the table rules will help you have fun. Here is a non-exhaustive list of topics to cover with any gaming group.
(You may periodically want to refresh these rules outside of Session 0, too)
As is said often, the Dungeon Master determines what rules are followed, and which ones aren’t. This isn’t some power-trip for the DM. (At least, it shouldn’t be.) Dungeon Masters are responsible for setting up challenges for players to conquer. Some DMs can hold a lot of different rules in their head at one time. They might enjoy massive homebrew sessions! Others have to do a lot of referencing. In the middle of combat that can slow a game down to a crawl, leaving players with nothing to do. It can also break the tension during a climax.
There’s also a balance issue that needs to be addressed. Some homebrew content tilts the balance in a very drastic way, even if it doesn’t seem like it. The Dungeon Master is responsible for handling situations like that. Bringing up homebrew content at session 0 gives the Dungeon Master time to review it. One exception: alternate classes should probably be sent to the DM before session 0. Giving the Dungeon Master time to understand the content makes it easier for them to say “Yes”. (Or possibly provide alternatives!)
It’s important for a Dungeon Master to share any of their homebrew content with the players, too. Dungeons and Dragons is a cooperative game. Any deviation from the Rules as Written should have buy-in from the players.
When I played Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, we played “High-Magic, High-power campaigns” a lot. So every time you rolled a new character, you had a 5% chance of starting with a magic item. That magic item was always a minor magic item, and often ended up being a potion of some kind. Sometimes, though, it was a +1 weapon, which can tilt early encounters in favor of the players.Example
For my games, there is only one book that I guarantee my players will have access to: The Player’s Handbook. That’s the basis for our games, and that’s so everyone has an even footing.
I am a big believer that you should communicate with your players as much as possible. This helps prevent a majority of disputes, because everyone is in the know from the beginning. That said, disputes still happen. Players will be mean to each other, characters will do things to the detriment of the party, and sometimes players will disagree with the Dungeon Master over a ruling.
So it’s important to have a dispute process ready to go at the beginning of the game. There are two in-game situations you should have a dispute process for: Combat, and Roleplaying.
Mine is pretty simple: If the action doesn’t kill or save a player, the DM’s ruling is final. After the session, we can discuss it further one-on-one. If I change my mind in relation to a ruling I reward the player. This is usual inspiration or advantage on a roll of their choice. Sometimes, if it changed the outcome of the encounter drastically, I’ll give them an in-game reward.
If the ruling could affect the life-or-death of an NPC or player, the table gets to make a choice. They can choose to agree and move on, or uphold the dispute. If they agree and move on, we double-check the ruling afterward. If the players were right, they all get advantage or inspiration, or a minor magic item for the party.
A party reward would be something like the SoupStone from the Dungeons and Dinners podcast.Example
If they uphold the dispute, I side with the player at that moment, and we check the rule post-session. If the original ruling was correct, they all get disadvantage on a roll of my choosing next session. (Generally something critical that could affect the outcome of an encounter.) We’ll do research together after the session, and the ruling will be final at that point. If we’re not in a time-critical moment, we can just stop and look up the proper ruling.
Sometimes players will disagree with what other players are doing. The Dungeon Master is usually responsible for handling these situations. Because these are significantly more subjective circumstances, a good dispute process can make the DM’s life a lot easier.
One thing to keep in mind when you come up with your dispute process: Player Agency. Players should feel like they are the only ones in control of their characters. If the Dungeon Master can just “retcon” an action they took, they won’t feel like they are an active, equal participant in the game.
I won’t claim to have a perfect dispute process for this – it’s one of the areas I struggle with. I like to ask players to come up with a justification for their action. This can be done privately if they want to keep their motives hidden from other players.
Some answers I won’t accept:
- It’s just how my character would act.
- I feel like it.
- Because x player was being a dick last session.
The goal of the game is to have fun – make sure it’s fun for everyone. Sometimes, that means firing players and Dungeon Masters. Not everyone is a good fit for every game, and that’s okay.
The main idea is to keep players focused on the task at hand. The less time a player has to “Kick Dice”, the more time they’re having fun.
Kick Dice: When a player is bored and rolling dice to hear what they sound like. Indicates that they are not paying attention to the players, or Dungeon Master.
This is the best time to do some player-based World Building. I’ve gone over this in the past and will be going over it again in more detail in the future. But I’m also going to attach a form that you can download to have your players fill out, too.
Most of this is related to the character themselves – not every player will have a lot of this at their fingertips. You can give them the worksheet to take home and work on between sessions, or you can let them work on it during down-time in future sessions. Not only will players feel like they have some control over the world, but Dungeon Masters have lots of additional information that they can use to build a more realistic world for the players.
Some groups are very comfortable with sexual content, other groups are not. Roleplaying Games should be places where we all feel safe to come together. There’s a running joke about Bards seducing everyone and everything in their path – in some games, that can be a very true trope! In others, though, it can make people around the table very uncomfortable.
I was talking to someone at Springfield GAME about an uncomfortable situation their Dungeon Master put them in. Their character had been knocked unconscious and taken captive by Orcs. The Dungeon Master proceeded to describe in graphic detail how the Orc violated the person’s character. After he started, she said she wasn’t comfortable hearing that, and could they just “skip past it”. His response was to tell her “no, because it’s realistic.” She got up and left the game immediately.Example
You should strive to make the game enjoyable for everyone. Again, I recommend you ignore some of these darker aspects unless everyone at the table agrees to them ahead of time. (And not only agrees to them, but wants to explore them as part of the game.) Not every campaign needs to be for everyone, but you shouldn’t force your preferences on others, (or let other players force their preferences on you). Remember: This is about having fun.
Out of Game Rules/Administration of the Game
The last thing you want to make sure you take care of in a Session 0 is coming up with out of game rules. These are things like, “How often will we get together to play”, and “What do we do if someone misses a session” and “snack policy”. Basically, anything relating to the table, environment, and frequency should be understood before you dive into playing.
If you have all of those things handled in the 0 session, you can devote more time to gaming when you’re supposed to be gaming.
Thanks for reading, and I hope this helps your Session 0 turn out better!
Have your own Session 0 tips and tricks? Leave’em below in the comments!