Are you new to roleplaying? We’ve got all sorts of resources to help you out: from helpful advice for GMs with GM Tips to learning to play RPGs with Starter Kit, we’ve got advice aplenty.
Thousands of questions can assail the minds of new GMs and players wanting to get in on their first tabletop RPG. Perhaps the most asked question of all, and definitely a crucial one, is, “Where do I begin?” That question, and a great many others, can be answered in what has come to be known as Session Zero.
What Is Session Zero?
Session Zero is the RPG equivalent of a job interview. It’s one of the best RPG tools to use and will help guide GM, players, and the entire game towards having and being the fun time everyone wants.
What exactly are the elements that make up a successful Session Zero? Ask a veteran GM and you’ll probably get a long list. But take that lists and clarify each entry, you’ll find they can be divided into five categories: Play Style, Campaign Flavor, Table Rules, Homebrew Mods, and Character Knowledge.
Session Zero is a personal moment between a GM and player, where they may be meeting for the first time as people, and as new players, in a new world. Therefore, it is essential to their potential relationship both in and out of game that each person sets forth their gaming expectations, starting with what type of gameplay style each is looking for.
In the Dungeon Master’s Guide, playstyle is described on page 34, and covers the Hack and Slash, Immersive Storytelling, and the Something In Between styles that are most popular in the D&D system. In Session Zero, a GM should have a strong idea of their preferred play style, as the one you like best is the one you’ll run best. Likewise, a player should know which playstyle they prefer. The point here is to state respective playstyles and see if GM and player have a match. If not, then both parties may bow out quickly and gracefully, saving each other much potentially wasted time and effort.
“Dungeons & Dragons is a fantasy game, but that broad category encompasses a lot of variety.” From the Flavors of Fantasy section starting on page 38 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, the many fantasy flavors of the D&D system are described: Heroic Fantasy, Sword and Sorcery, Epic Fantasy, Mythic Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Intrigue, Mystery, Swashbuckling, War, and Wuxia.
Session Zero gives GM and player the chance to state their preferred flavors, and once again see if they match up. Each flavor section in the DMG also gives examples of which official D&D campaign setting fits within it. GMs running official campaign settings, or their own homebrew setting, should be able to tell players the flavor of their campaign and be willing and able to request and answer questions from players about it.
Table rules give GM and players expectations about how to interact with the game and each other during gameplay. In the Dungeon Master’s Guide, pages 236 and 236 detail a few table rules to have during gaming.
In addition to basics, such as food, drinks, and alcohol at and on the game table, cocked and dropped dice policy, and metagaming, Session Zero gives both parties a chance to express concerns about sensitive and potentially disruptive topics, such as politics, religion, PvP, and overall personal ethics. Before we can play well with each other in game, we must first know we can play well with each other out of game, and much of that comes by knowing and being respectful of personal likes and dislikes. Table rules will help set forth an understanding towards that.
Whether you’re playing an official campaign setting, or a setting created entirely from your GMs imagination, the story that gets created is yours and yours alone. Session Zero is when a GM can describe the main components that make up the campaign world (DMG Chapter 1), and also state additions and restrictions, such as how magic works, which gods exist, and campaign class or race restrictions.
Here in real life meatspace, we commonly have knowledge about life and aspects of it we are in close contact with by the time we reach ‘adventuring’ age. We go to school, read, watch TV and movies, travel, and such. Some or all of those options may be directly or indirectly available in your RPG of choice. GM and player should work individually and separately to establish if those options do exist, and how they affect characters and their world.
Character creation is a process best done during Session Zero, where both GM and player work towards building a character with a solid foundation in the campaign world. As a player develops personality, background, and skills for their character, the GM helps with placing how, when, and where those personal traits were developed. Knowledge skills are specifically helpful in planting during this time, as they provide the player a greater sense of having a past life before becoming an adventurer. A character who knows what knowledge they’ve gained prior to becoming an adventurer often makes more sense than rolling for it later.
D&D is the main source for this article, but not the only one. For other prime Session Zero examples, take a look at these:
- Sagas of Sundry: Madness, Episode 1: Madness Prologue
- Wil Wheaton Introduces Valkana! | Chapter 0 | TITANSGRAVE
Session Zero is probably the most important session of your RPG campaign. Plan it out with this guide in mind, and make your campaign the best it can and should be!
Do you use a Session Zero in your RPG campaigns? What topics do you include? Share your thoughts and ideas about Session Zero in the comments below!
Want more roleplaying goodness?
- Take a peek at some of our favorite roleplaying systems.
- Get great GM wisdom in this retrospective episode of GM Tips with Satine Phoenix and Matt Mercer.
- Get yourself a Critical Role dice set from the G&S Shop!
Image credits: Wizards of the Coast, Critical Role