For those of you reading that are new to the Dungeons and Dragons scene, you may have not heard of the term ‘session zero,’ or at least don’t understand what it is or why it’s important. Basically, session zero is where a group’s members, the players and Dungeon Master, get together to nail down exactly what the upcoming campaign will be, deciding on things like theme, scope, and tone.
Not everyone uses a session zero, instead opting to run the game right away, and this is fine if that works for your group, but everyone I’ve talked to has said that holding a session zero always improves the game. New groups, who have never played before, should definitely consider it. But why is it important? What exactly do you talk about? I’m not going to give you any hard and fast rules, but here’s some general guidelines, starting with…
This is, at least for me, the most difficult to explain bit, and that’s why I put it first. The theme of a game is a bit like a painter’s palette. Everything in the game is painted with this palette, but the colors and brushes are decided ahead of time. Does war and violence take up a large part of the story, like A Song of Ice and Fire? What about discovery and diplomacy, like Star Trek? Theme is the general feel of the entire story, the general beat of its music. Like I said, it’s hard for me to explain.
Not every story covers the comings and goings of every important person in the entire world. Some stories never even leave a single house, like most good horror movies. This is the part of a session zero where you decide how big your play-space will be, whether it’ll be a world-hopping adventure like Star Wars, or focused on a single town’s struggle on the edges of civilization, like Tombstone. Deciding on the scope of your game is most beneficial to the Dungeon Master; letting him know where the majority of his game will take place makes planning that game a lot easier.
Tone is the most subjective portion of a session zero, and almost no group will come to a single consensus on it, and that’s just fine. If themes are your palette, scope is your easel, then tone is your style of painting. Is this going to be a comedic romp with little danger to the main characters, like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or does danger lurk around every corner and your survival isn’t guaranteed, like Conan the Barbarian? You don’t need to set things in stone, either, as comedy has its serious moments, just as grimdark settings have their funny moments.
How well do you know your players? If you’re just sitting down for the first time, and you’re not all life-long friends, you probably don’t know them as well as you should. What sorts of things do they absolutely hate about role-playing games? How ‘adult’ of a game do they want? How do they want the consequences of death handled? This is when you and your players nail down the stuff that you just don’t like, or find offensive, and to come to a consensus on what is allowed and isn’t.
Most, if not all, Dungeon Masters have a house rule or two that they find ‘required’ for playing. There’s usually a good reason, but there’s one thing to keep in mind. While the DM’s call is final, house rules should be agreed upon during a session zero. If the players don’t think a house rule needs to be kept, or one is missing, don’t ignore them. Don’t let your ego get in the way of people’s fun. With that said, once the rules are in place, they’re the rules. You agreed to them, don’t argue about them at every chance you get.