When starting a new game, expectations can be high on both sides of the DM Screen. The players want what they want from the game…be it hack and slash, role-play heavy sessions, a series of dungeon dives, or something in between.
Meanwhile, the Dungeon Master might want to focus on a cold war in their homebrew setting, filling the world with political intrigue and shades of grey.
Without talking to one another, there will be opportunities that are lost, and quite likely some level of disappointment. This goes for every game, regardless of system, not just Dungeons & Dragons.
The following are some of my thoughts on “session zeroes,” why they are important, and what you get from planning one.
NOTE: A Session Zero is the first session in which you build characters, discuss expectations, and figure out how the group will fit together before you actually begin play.
You Get to Play to the Crowd
Every Dungeon Master likess to tell a good story and to entertain his/her friends…that goes without saying. What better way to ensure success than knowing what your players want right from game one? If you don’t know all the players well, a session zero can keep you from fumbling in the dark.
Some game themes, horror in particular, need to be talked out before you start. Horror is a personal thing for many, and you can’t be sure what might trigger the party if you don’t ask about it it first. We do this gaming thing for fun, and you don’t want anyone’s inner demons dragged into the light when you play.
The Tightest Bonds are Forged Together
What do a dragonborn barbarian, a tiefling bard, a human rogue, and elf cleric have in common? What makes them not only fight together, but also care about each other in a meaningful way?
It’s always tricky when you get a group of strangers together to play D&D. Your players’ PCs get together because the story requires that they do, but they may not have any real reason why they’re fighting alongside these other murder hobos.
But if you come together ahead of time to build your adventuring company and create some bonds between the four disparate characters, they would have a meaningful reason for being, and you as the DM have more background hooks to use.
Give the Players a Sense of Ownership In the the World
World building is a hefty job, especially if you’re the one doing it all. Even if you are using a setting like Eberron or The Forgotten Realms, you still have plenty of work in front of you to flesh out the story.
If you let the players help create some of the elements in the story, they will have a greater level of engagement in the game. And they may not see any rails you have to put them on…because they made the rails themselves!
Which leads me to my next point…
Don’t Swim Against the Tide
Your players are going to throw out some crazy ideas. They are also going to say what sound like throwaway lines to you, when in fact these deatils are meaningful for their characters. Pay attention to these little gifts.
While you don’t have to roll over and let the players run roughshod over the world, you should also not completely reject what they want to do.
Much like a riptide, struggling against the players will tire you out in a hurry. However, if you swim with the tide, following the shore of the framework of the ideas you crafted together, eventually you’ll be free to work with what you want.
The best role playing games are collaborative, not just the Dungeon Master’s story that the players slog through.
Workshopping Ideas Early Can Prevent Future Displeasure
I personally have a short play session in my session zeroes in the form of a short encounter, so that the players can stretch their characters legs and get a feel for what they built beyond the numbers on the page.
These encounters are especially useful if their character choice presents a class or subclass that they haven’t played before.
The players have an opportunity to see if they like their build, and to make adjustments if needed. They can take some risks and try something they haven’t before, like a support class, yet still have time to make a change before you get deep into your campaign.
Moreover, they can discuss with the group as a whole what changes to make (a simple change in their spell list for example) to be more a more active support for the group. Or perhaps they need to completely recast the character to make it work better.
This applies to the Dungeon Master as well. Maybe the story idea that sounded great to you won’t go over well with the players. Or perhaps their builds create a simple mechanical solution to the problem you wanted them to spend the first few levels trying to work out.
Getting that info early can spare you from the frustration of having to rework your campaign.
Steal Ideas from Your Players
Not all days are sunny…sometimes there is rain. You won’t always have a plethora of ideas to throw at your party, especially if real life gets in the way of your creative time.
Knowing may be half the battle, but preparedness is the other. If you have a stack of ideas, be they encounters, NPCs, or just story hooks that you can save now for use later, it will make make your life easier when you run short on ideas.
Gather all the tidbits that your players give you during session zero. Chances are when you get around to using them, they won’t even remember that they were the ones to give them to you.
You’ll get all the praise for their idea!
Do you have any other tips or tricks for a session zero? What have you done with your gaming groups? What are your thoughts about how to start a campaign? Leave is your thoughts in the comments below.
(images used with permission of Shaman’s Stock Art)