(Disclaimer: This essay is going to be using terminology most commonly used in Dungeons and Dragons, but for the most part, the general idea should be universal sacross most Tabletop RPGs.)
Session Zero: what exactly is that? Well, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a preemptive session before the actual play begins. During Session Zero, the players along with the Game Master (GM) will set some ground rules, talk about table etiquette, house rules, discuss the type of campaign they want to embark on, and even discuss the setting, tone, and kind of characters they want to play as.
You can find numerous guides to a hosting a session zero online, so for this essay, I’m going to be going through my steps for hosting one. If you don’t like what I have to say, that is fine. You can take what I say and twist it to whatever fits your whims, and this is by no definition the best way to do it.
Establishing House Rules & Table Etiquette
I feel the best way to start out your session zero is by establishing house rules and table etiquette. House rules are those little things about your games that are different from others. These aren’t necessarily alternative rules like the rule books mention, but instead more personal homebrew rules that you think may make the game more enjoyable. A common house rule for me in 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons is for my players to gain a feat automatically at level 1 and level 4. My reasons for doing so are simply because I think feats are cool and that in typical play, you don’t get to see them too frequently (or at least, I don’t).
Table etiquette typically refers to the rules outside the game. Basically, it’s your table manners. Things such as bringing food or drink to the table, usage of your phone, side conversation while others are talking, picking up your dice too quickly so others can’t see the results, abusive metagaming; that sort of stuff. Establishing table etiquette at the beginning of the session zero can really help engrain it the players’ heads.
Building the Adventure
Next, I like to give the players a brief rundown of the adventure. I’ll give them the setting, the tone, and any alternative rules if they happen to be relevant. [Disclaimer: Alternative rules count for things like the Gritty Realism or Epic Heroism as listed in the Dungeon Master’s Guide pg. 267 and don’t count house rules as mentioned above.] Upon giving the players this outline, they can start to formulate an actual plot or narrative that they’d most enjoy.
This is also a good time to gauge what your players are most interested in. Are your players more into roleplaying and the immersive story telling elements or do they want the more traditional hack-and-slash dungeon delving adventure? Perhaps they want something in between. Regardless, it’s around this time when you should take note of your players’ interests and cater to them. You don’t need to outright ask them what aspect they’re more interested in, and if they’re a group you’ve played with before it might not even be necessary, but sometimes it is fun to shake things up a bit.
One of the most important aspects of this phase is getting your players invested in the adventure. If you thrust them right into an adventure you’ve had planned out for a while, sometimes they’ll feel a bit distant. However, if you just lay out the basics of the adventure, maybe give them the barest boned idea, they can expand upon it in a way you never would’ve thought. And you don’t have to agree with everything your players say. If someone says they want to do something that you either don’t feel comfortable doing, you can tell them that and they get upset with you, they can gamemaster their own adventure.
And now we get to the fun stuff: Creating the characters. Sometimes you have an idea for a character already laid out before you even get started and that is totally fine but try your best to keep your character’s objectives as vague as possible. If you have a character whose a paladin bent on seeking revenge against the group who killed their family or to retake the throne, that might not work with your adventure. It very well could, but sometimes its best to sort out those details at the session zero or privately with the gamemaster if you wanted to keep secrets from the other players. The reason for this, from my experience, is players can feel let down if certain parts of their backstories aren’t brought up or if the campaign ends before you get a chance to delve into something that they thought was important for their back story. Now, I have a few solutions for this, but most of them are for a future essay so we’ll save them for then.
However, what we can delve into next is one of my personal favorite reasons for building your characters: party relations. For me, as both a player and gamemaster, it’s annoying when some friends and I start up a new campaign and we need figure out how the characters meet up and/or why they stick to adventuring together. Sometimes, if the players are comfortable enough, it can be fun experiencing the characters all meeting together and developing a genuine and sporadic connection, but I feel like most of the time it gets in the way of progressing the adventure.
One of the most important aspects of this phase though, and really all phases in session zero, is to continuously ask questions. The gamemaster should be asking lots of questions to the players to solidify their background and history as well as personal objectives, and the players should be asking the gamemaster about the setting and how they fit into everything. Questions make the session go round.
Let’s Have a Session Zero
Now that we’ve laid the groundwork on what a session zero is, let’s create an example party to break down how it would theoretically go:
Let’s say we have a gamemaster and three players. The gamemaster has been playing for some time and has a firm understanding of the game, but wants to experiment with a few alternative rules. They ask their players if they’d be interested in trying out a game which would be very gritty and low magic, including things such as encumbrance, the gritty realism rest variant, and rests require a healer’s kit in order to restore hit points. The gamemaster also wants to try out a campaign in which the players really focus on staying in character to keep with the more serious style of play. The three players are a little hesitant to the idea of a super gritty adventure, but like the idea of a more serious tone where they have to stay in character, so for the time being they’re on board.
From there, the gamemaster explains that the adventure will take place in a sword-and-sorcery style world where tensions between clans and races are high, and the people are generally cruel to outsiders. The gamemaster stresses that in this particular world things like slavery and racism would be very common, once again, to stress just how cruel and unforgiving this world is.
Two of the players are rather interested in the idea of a very brutal world, but the last player is a little hesitant and unsure if they’d be comfortable in a setting like that. The gamemaster decides to cut back and say that perhaps slave trading is seen as a very immoral and barbaric trend that is only used by those who tend towards a more “evil” alignment. In addition, racism is less acts of violence against other races and more general distrust and disdain.
The gamemaster explains that the adventure would start off with the players captured and are now getting ready to get sold off to a villainous kingdom as slaves. After hearing that, one of the players asks how they’re being sold off. Since the campaign takes place in a sword-and-sorcery world similar to the likes of Conan the Barbarian, the gamemaster says it would most likely be via cages and wagons. The player then suggests that perhaps they could be getting sold off by pirates via ships. The other players like that idea as it opens up several opportunities for various adventures. The gamemaster, liking the idea, decides to roll with it and decides that they’ll start out already aboard the slave ship while still en route.
After all of that, the party begins building their characters, and the gamemaster says the players get to start at level 3. The players decide that they don’t want to have any prior knowledge of one another, however for the benefit of building the party, they decide to build their classes and share the most surface level facets of their characters. Since long rests are going to take longer than a standard campaign, the party agrees that spellcasters wouldn’t be the strongest bunch around, but maybe having one wouldn’t be too bad.
One player thinks that in a traditional sword-and-sorcery setting a barbarian or fighter would be fairly standard and a good base to form their party around. They decide to go with a barbarian due to their naturally higher hit points making them a bit more resilient which they think would be useful in a grittier and harsher setting.
The next player decides to be a warlock since they recover their spell slots on a short rest, thus giving them access to their spells more frequently even if they only have 2 spell slots. However, they decide to keep their patron and pact boon a secret from the other players. In secret with the gamemaster, the player decided to make a pact with The Celestial to grant them some extra healing.
The last player decides for some fun roleplaying bits that they’d play a monk. They figure with a barbarian and a warlock, the monk would be a fun character to juxtapose them. Not only that, but the monk restores their ki points every short rest, thus giving them resources that they can use more freely.
From there, the gamemaster speaks with each of the players in private, learning more about their backstories, asking them questions on what they character knows or where they’re from, how they got wrangled into slavery, and any connections they may have.
And there you have it! A fully functional session zero! Now, of course, there is more to it than that and you’re free to experiment as you see fit. Thank you for tuning in and may you all have a wonderful day.