How to run a session zero

You won’t find ‘session zero’ mentioned in the core rulebooks, but if you follow the D&D community even a little bit, it’s probably a term you are familiar with already. Session zero is the session you run before you start a larger campaign. In essence, it’s a chance to discuss your expectations as a group and lay the groundwork for a bigger story.

Jumping straight into a long campaign without any preliminary discussion is probably a mistake. I highly recommend running a session zero.

In this guide, I break down the sorts of questions you should be talking about before you start playing a campaign.

Discussion or pitch?

For the most part, this guide is built around the assumption that you are planning the new campaign as a group. D&D is a shared experience, and everyone’s feelings matter to some extent. However: it is the DM who will inevitably put in the most work, so perhaps it’s fair that they get a bit more ‘creative control’ about the game they want to run.

As such: DMs, consider coming to session zero with a range of ‘campaign pitches’. Maybe you really want to run a high politics campaign in the world of Eberron, while the rest of your group want to do a more traditional dungeon crawl like Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage. Maybe your group would like to play in Eberron, but they want more combat and less social interaction. It’s all about compromise and expectations.

Ultimately, you have to be a bit utilitarian and find something that pleases the most people, and if it’s still not a game you can get on board with . . . well, perhaps you have to sit this one out. You can’t force yourself to like something.

Scheduling

If D&D has three pillars, scheduling is the fourth, so let’s start with that: the who, where, and whens of the campaign.

Who’s in? As good a place to start as any. Who are the players? Is it an open table game, like the West Marches model, or is it a fixed roster? Is there one DM, or is this a shared campaign with multiple DMs? Most D&D games assume a party of four to six adventurers. A smaller group, or a much bigger group, can start to present challenges, and needs to be taken into account.

How often do you want to play? Weekly? Fortnightly? Monthly? If you can manage it, weekly is best, but it might be better to play fortnightly if scheduling makes a weekly game challenging.

How long do you want our sessions to be? For most players, two or four hours is about right. Personally, if I’m playing online, I prefer shorter sessions: I start to lose focus by the three-hour mark. RPG Bot has advice for running one-hour sessions.

Where are we playing? This might be more straightforward for some groups than for others. Are you playing online or in person? If online, which platform are you using? (I recommend D&D Beyond for character sheets and Roll20 for maps.) If offline, are you playing at the DM’s place, or a pub, or somewhere else?

How long do you want the campaign to last? Lots of groups don’t really discuss this, but I think it’s an important question. Some groups like to play a ‘season’ of ten sessions and then take a break or switch to a different system. Other groups are happy to let a campaign run and run, to 20th level and beyond. If you want to run a long campaign, you don’t want to drag the players along with you.

How are we handling player absence? It will happen, so how do you handle it? The easiest method is probably to ‘bubble’ the character and pretend they’re not there. Do absent players still get XP, though? Alternatively, one of the other players could play the character. But what if they get the character killed? These are things you want to discuss as a group.

Rules

Once you know who’s playing, and where and when, you probably want to discuss the rules you’re using.

What ruleset do you want to use? This site is generally aimed at plyers of 5th edition D&D, but perhaps you want to try something new for a change, like the Cypher System, Fate, or Blades in the Dark.

What are our safety tools? This is important. D&D is meant to be a fun game, but it can also be unpredictable, personal, and affecting. D&D often goes into quite heavy topics: slavery, murder, and torture feature in a number of published adventures, for example. Some groups hate any kind of romance to be roleplayed between players. You never know what might upset someone, and while it’s not always avoidable, that’s no reason not to take steps to prevent it. Some groups use an ‘X card’ or say ‘pause for a second’, others use a questionnaire to decide on ‘lines and veils’. Do what works for you. Monte Cook’s Consent in Gaming is excellent on this subject, and it’s completely free.

Behaviour expectations. This is stuff like phone usage, food at the table, cheating, ‘substances’, that sort of thing. You probably don’t need to write this down as a code of conduct, but some groups are more casual than others, and you don’t want to cause friction later down the line. Other things to consider:

  • How do you feel about inter-player conflict?
  • How are you going to handle rules debates?
  • Are we strict about things like readied actions and rerolls?
  • What do you do if the dice end up on the floor or propped on their side?
  • Are you OK with players breaking immersion, or is it a big no-no?

Without focusing on the negative, it can be helpful to talk about ‘pet peeves’ so that other players know to avoid them. See my post on how to be a good player.

Are there any house rules you want to use? 5th edition has been out for seven years, and there are lots of variants and homebrews out there now. There are more than 40 optional rules in the core rulebooksalone, and Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything introduced several major updates, too. Downtime can be a big part of the game for some groups, and the rules in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything are not to everyone’s tastes.

Do we prefer combat on a grid or theatre of the mind? Playing on a grid is technically a variant rule in 5th edition, but it’s so common that many players assume it is the only way of doing this. It’s possible that opinion is split in your group, so you may have to compromise. Personally, I like theatre of the mind for two situations: simple, low-stakes battles that are over within a round or two, and complex, cinematic battles where hordes of minis get in the way. But that’s just my preference. (PS: there is a third way, zone-based combat, which is something of a half-way house.)  

Setting and playstyle

This is a big one!

Is there a published campaign adventure you would like to play? If there is, that’s this section sorted, more or less, since most of the hardback 5th edition adventures have an assumed setting. Want an urban adventure? Try Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. A jungle? Tomb of Annihilation. The arctic? Rime of the Frostmaiden. (If you’re not sure which adventure to play, I have an article on this here.)

What game world would you like to play in? There are six official campaign settings for 5th edition: Eberron, Ravnica, Theros, Ravenloft, Wildemount, and, of course, the Forgotten Realms. Alternatively, you can of course use a homebrew world, which is a whole other discussion in itself! Even if you agree on a campaign setting, those worlds are vast and varied. A game set in the Silver Marches can play very differently to an adventure in Chult, for example.

What style of play do you prefer? There’s a big, big spectrum here. Broadly speaking, most players lean towards acting, storytelling, or gaming, and some are equally interested in all three, or just like to hang out with friends. Some like the game to be quite serious; others don’t treat it seriously at all. Do you want to run a sandbox campaign with maximum player agency, or would you be happy to follow a railroad? What kind of narrative do you like? In all these matters, some players are good at ‘reading the room’ and getting a vibe, or vocalizing what they like, but others need a bit more clarity from the outset, so talk about the kind of game you want to play before it gets baked in. And as always, be prepared to compromise. You’re unlikely to get five or six people who all have the same goal in mind.

Character Creation

The player characters are the most important characters in the campaign, and seeing them grow is one of the real joys of D&D. Don’t rush this step.

What level would you like to start at? If you’re playing through a published adventure, this may be decided for you. If not, consider 3rd level. 1st level is pretty deadly in 5th edition, and 3rd level is where most characters start to specialize and pick a subclass.  

How do you want to determine ability scores? Default array, point buy, 4d6 drop lowest? Should everyone follow the same approach, or are you happy for players to roll their own way? I recommend the Scroll Method™: roll 3d6 seven times, reroll 1s, then take the top six totals.

What sort of characters do we want to play? It can be fun to think about not just race-class combinations but also the party concept. Eberron: Rising from the Last War introduced the fun idea of group patrons: perhaps you are all members of crime syndicate or a religious order, or you all work for a newspaper or a university. Regardless of whether you pursue this idea or not, it’s good to have a conversation about everyone’s character choices, not least to ensure that the party is reasonably balanced.

Are any character options off limits? Maybe the DM doesn’t have access to one of the sourcebooks, or maybe they feel that a new subclass is overpowered. Maybe you’re playing in a desert world like Athas, and tritons feel a bit out of place. Think about issues like alignment here, too. Evil characters can be tricky in a game of D&D, and some groups ban them completely.

Similarly: are there any character options that are particularly fitting? A gloom stalker ranger works brilliantly in Out of the Abyss and Dungeon of the Mad Mage, whereas a light domain cleric will feel very powerful in Curse of Strahd, and an archaeologist would be a fun character background for Tomb of Annihilation. If there are any player options that you think will be particularly fun or fitting, bring it up.

How do our characters know each other? This could be linked to the group patron idea (above), but you could go further than this. Are any of your characters related? Have they worked together before? Do they have mutual friends or enemies? Essentially, this is about party integration. The lazy option here is ‘you all meet in a tavern’, and you know what: that’s fine. But it can be fun to think a bit harder and build some ties that bind.

Future Sessions

Would you prefer to use milestone levelling or XP? Milestone levelling is technically a variant rule, but it’s popular among many groups. If you’re using XP, do you want the DM to give out lots of ad hoc rewards for roleplaying and so on, or do you like the idea of going old school?

If milestones, how often (roughly) do you want to level up? Ultimately, this lies in the purview of the DM, but it’s good to talk it through. Some players are happy with a very slow progression rate (one level every eight to ten sessions, say). Others want to advance rapidly. Jeremy Crawford has suggested levelling up every session, just to see how it feels!

How should we handle character death? And linked to this: how deadly do you want the campaign to be? Some players are very relaxed about character death and are happy to roll up a new one. Others can get quite upset, or take it personally, if their favourite character dies unexpectedly. I’ve written an article on how to approach character death, and it’s worth talking about in advance – just in case.

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