The beginning a campaign can often be a bit rough around the edges– the players are still feeling out their characters and you’re all trying to find some sort of common thread to bind the fledgling band of adventurers together.
This is where a Session Zero can come in handy! Think of it as a Prologue to your campaign. While by no means mandatory, holding a Session Zero is a fantastic way to welcome your party members to the world, help them through character and backstory development, and find their initial Call to Adventure both as individual heroes and as a party. It can be as basic or as in-depth as you want it to be…it’s simply an opportunity to avoid some of the infamous awkwardness of Session One party formation. It’s also a fantastic way to introduce new players (especially young adventurers) to the concepts behind playing D&D 🙂
Here are some things I like to do before–and during– a Session Zero, as both the DM and a Player.
As a DM…
Before you even begin playing, take the time to introduce yourself and your style of DMing to your players. Are you more narrative-based or are you a master of combat encounters? Do you like to be hands-off once the game begins or do you like to be a more active guide for the party as they navigate the world? Do you emphasize NPC characterizations or are they more like tools for story progression? Do you already have a specific story thread in mind, or do you like to pull from your players’ backstories to keep it engaging?
These are all things you should think about as a DM and, most importantly, communicate to your party. This is also your chance to lay out some “table rules”. How much chatter are you comfortable with? Pre-combat planning? Metagaming? Regardless of your preference, you can use this time to talk about it with your players. Open communication is important to ensure everyone is on the same page with the kind of story you want to share!
Set the Scene.
This is where you want to introduce the players to the world(s) they are about to explore. Whether you are using a homebrewed or published setting, give them a heads’ up for the key characteristics of the world. For example:
- What era is it (you can compare to a historic time period for reference)?
- How does magic work?
- What are some social structures or organizations they would be aware of?
- Are there any ongoing events (i.e. civil war or resistance movements) that may impact their interactions with the environment?
You don’t have to tell them everything up front, but think about the kinds of things you want to convey in your initial descriptions. Each of the things above can be shown indirectly through the setting and NPCs without you telling them as the DM.
Many of these details will either come from your prior worldbuilding (which we can explore in a later post) or straight from the published campaign setting. No matter where you found it, this information is important for your players as they develop their characters and motivations. For example, if dragons are a rarity in your world, it might be awkward if an unwitting player rolls into Session One with a Dragonborn PC!
Just remember not to reveal too many of your secrets. Session Zero is an introduction, not a lore dump!
Find the Call to Adventure.
This is perhaps the most critical question you must answer with your players: “Why are we here?”
As a DM, it is your job to offer up a story hook intriguing enough to bring the party together, to help them feel a sense of shared purpose. There needs to be a reason for them all to have met in that inn. When developing this hook, work with your players to determine their motivations so you know how to pull them in. You could use some sort of event, have an NPC approach them with a request for help, or draw from your players’ backstories. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s something that your characters will have some sort of investment in. Campaigns end up feeling hollow if your party members don’t actually have a reason for traveling together.
As a Player…
You know all those sections in the Player’s Handbook, where it says to “work with your Dungeon Master”? Session Zero is where you can do just that!
While it doesn’t require quite as much preparation for the players, there are still some things you should think about for your Session Zero that will help your DM craft a story and give yourself an opportunity to decide how you want to play your character.
Think about your Backstory.
Where did your PC come from? What did they do before taking up the mantle of an adventurer? Do they have a family? Think about what is important to them, and why they left “home” in the first place. Was it by choice or something out of control?
The DM can work with you on your backstory, but they don’t write it for you. If they did, you would just be another NPC. Your character and their story should be uniquely yours, and thinking through the questions can help you begin to craft a PC that feels believable.
Find your Call to Adventure.
As mentioned above, the Call to Adventure provides a reason for being in the adventuring party. If your DM provides the plot hook, you are the one who determines what would motivate your character to follow that thread. Think about some short-term and long-term goals and share them with your DM. If your PC doesn’t have a reason for adventuring, why would they be there at all?
These are just a few of the things you can accomplish in your Session Zero, and every party does it a little differently! Remember, it doesn’t have to be a full play session, but more of a prologue for the campaign itself. Every hero, every party has some sort of origin story. This is your chance to create it!
If you’ve run a Session Zero before, or if you’ve been through one as a player, feel free to share your stories in the comments below!