Becoming a Dungeon Master: Session 0

This is the fourth installment in the series and is focused on creating Session 0 for your campaign. If you missed part three, check out Becoming a Dungeon Master.

It’s Friday night and you have your table set-up. Your group of players all said they would be there in about an hour, but you couldn’t help yourself; you got your grid out, set up your screen and have pencils placed in front of each seat.

You’re utterly giddy. Your first campaign is about to start. With this session; you just can’t wait to see what characters everybody came up wit-.

Wait a minute…

Wait. You don’t know your player’s characters? In that case, then you don’t know their motives. Nor their backgrounds. Nor personalities. In fact, you don’t even know if they will fit in your world.

Well, do your players know what to expect of your campaign? No? Oh boy. You didn’t have a session before the first night of your campaign; Session 0.

Session 0 isn’t “necessary”, per se. However, amongst seasoned Dungeon Masters, it is a commonly understood rule of thumb.

However, you weren’t supposed to just know that inherently! How were you supposed to know? Well, that’s why I’m here; to let you know the importance of this session.

And boy oh boy, do I wish someone gave me that advice when I started.

Having a collection of your party’s character sheets is very useful

Without Session 0

Bright eye and bushy-tailed, I did exactly what I described above; I was more than excited to get the party started. I set up the table, made elaborate grids and maps, and I made everybody’s spot at the table personalized with a map. Let Session 1 be epic.

I thought I was prepared, but being prepared means more than having maps, a campaign, and NPCs loaded and ready to go.  Little did I know that being prepared means also being on the same page as your players on almost every account.

When my campaign began, I ended up with four out of six characters being Chaotic Neutral rangers who wanted to power play. They then didn’t expect my campaign to be story driven, and were taken aback when they realized they were missing crucial elements to the narrative. They didn’t realize that NPC interaction was a must, and on top of all of that, the PCs’ motivations made zero-sense.

This resulted in the first five-ish months of my campaign feeling very disorganized, disjointed and…

A ranger who went to the kingdom of Sonnewelt, a very mountainous and planar kingdom, in search of a boat to call his own.

The others’ motivations were also weak and empty. None of it made any sense for the setting.

Session 0 is arguably the most important session

Importance of Session 0

This could all be a result of most of the players being new, but if I worked with them and discussed the campaign and expectations, then many of these issues could have been mitigated. In fact, after running a Session 0 with the Good Morning, D&D! crew, I have learned just how incredibly important Session 0 is:

  • I knew each character coming in
  • I was able to help the players keep a balanced party
  • The party’s composition ended up with synergy between PCs
  • Each player developed a compelling back story that ties in with my world
  • The players all had motivations that made sense to why they are where they are
  • The players understood the kind of campaign I was running
  • They all had expectations appropriate for the campaign

Had I run a Session 0 for my real-life campaign, I would’ve been able to ensure variety in characters, explain my expectations, ask for their expectations, and make compelling back stories with my players. If players have a back story and motive that they care about, they will be more invested in their character. On top of all of this, if you helped the players with their back stories, you’ll be able to sprinkle in hints of the characters’ back stories to keep the player engaged.

And that is incredible rewarding.

Knowing your players’ characters allows you to tie them into your world organically

 

Session 0 with the Individuals

I worked with each of my Good Morning, D&D! players with their back stories, and I have to say; working with them to make their back stories made for amazing world-building on my part, and made me more invested in their characters.

Although Session 0 is with the group as a whole, talking with your players individually allows some privacy for the players. The players don’t want to divulge every aspect of their character to the entire group. While “meta-gaming” is typically fought against amongst the players, we are humans and sometimes it is hard to pretend that we don’t know a fact.

This privacy develops more mystique to your campaign.

Discussing and work-shopping a character with a player allows him or her to go all-out on their player without the fear of others knowing. This allows you, the DM, to sneak in plot hooks that relate to that specific character. When the team comes across this plot hook, they will think it’s just another quest. But that character knows, “Awh damn…this relates to me.”

At the end of the quest, not only did the players do something meaningful to the world, but it gives opportunity for the party to learn about their fellow compatriot(s).

D&D is about the unified party, more so than the individual

Session 0 with the Party

Session 0, in my experience, can be short and sweet. But you can make it long and drawn out, if deemed necessary.  You’re going to want to make sure every player is on the same page, what type of adventure the party will be departing on and the rules and expectations of the table

The PC Classes

What I personally recommend is that you give your players a week to come up with several character options and classes in mind. They’ll come to the session with a few ideas in case something doesn’t work out. What I do with my groups is tell them to hold off on their class choice until Session 0.

I urge that the group avoids having duplicate classes, for the sake of each player having a role and balance within the party. It doesn’t matter how you go about giving each player a chance to announce their preferred class. You can do it randomly or just have the players have a free-for-all. But the main goal here is that everybody is in agreement.

After all players are settled on their class and are in the midst (or have finished) building out their motives and back stories, it is time to bring to their attention your campaign.

The Nature of the Campaign

Keep in mind, every campaign has a different tone, goal, and nature. Campaigns could be a goofy series of adventures , a la Adventure Time, where comedy and randomness are the goals here. The campaign could be a murder mystery. Role-playing  would take precedence over combat while filled with mystique and intrigue. Or, is your group of players the Murder Hobo type? Then, your campaign could be combat heavy, where story takes a backseat to action, and Murder Hobos would feel at home.

This is where you will do one of two things: announce to your players as to what type of campaign you will be running or ask your group what kind they would like to partake in. Now, the latter is the path you will take if you haven’t built your campaign yet. The former is obviously the announcement you make when you already have your campaign built.

When you and your players are on the same page, you all will know exactly what to expect from the adventure itself. If you have in place a campaign based on adventure and mystique, then your players will come in with the mindset of “Ok, I can’t focus on just murdering everything. Maybe I should focus on my NPC interaction”. If you have a combat-focused campaign, your players will build their characters on combat efficacy and not need to stress over role-playing.

This communication is incredibly important because you and your group knows what to expect. In my first campaign, I didn’t convey an ounce of information to my players. With most of them being new, they were focused on “power-gaming” (yuck) while my campaign was story-centric. This lead to frustration and confusion for me and my party members.

Your in-game and out-of-game rules are a sort of rules of engagement

In-Game and Out -of-Game Rules

Finally, and arguably most importantly, is the discussion about your rules and expectations. You will want to try your best to compile a list of rules you are going to enforce throughout your sessions. This can range from in-game rulings (“house rules”) and out of game rules. You’ll also want to have a list of expectations from yourself and your playesr.

Your rules are to keep things moving and as civil (or as uncivil, if you, for some reason, prefer) as possible. You may have subject matter that you don’t want in your game, and that is totally in your right. But your players have to know about them and have to be in agreement with them.

You may want zero romance in your campaign and feel that it takes away from your story. You may not want any sort of violence against any innocent. Or you may not want anyone to play as an Evil aligned character because your campaign is a good campaign about saving the world.

Maybe you don’t want phones at the table so your players can focus. Or, let’s say your group is a talkative and energetic. Enforce a rule that has your players raise their hands when things get too rowdy. Hell, maybe you want a different player to order pizza every week. This will spread the cost of food for your night, keeping everybody happy and fed.

All of your rules need to be conveyed to your players as clearly and as early as possible. If you can’t think of in-game “house rules” ahead of time (which is understandable for newer DMs), then write down as much as you can. Then, just let your players know that you will be adding rules as you learn and as the game goes on.

Conclusion

Session 0 is important, but not required. Do you want to live life on the edge, and jump right in with no communication! By all means, go ahead! But I urge that you not do this, based on my experience.

Or would you rather take a cold, calculated and methodical approach to beginning your game? Then I applaud, thee. Seriously, when I say Session 0 is an incredibly useful and important, consider running this session. No, it isn’t exciting and you may have to put off your game another week. I understand your excited to get started, but communication is crucial in any relationship And, yup, that includes the relationship between the Dungeon Master and his or her players.

After Session 0, you will be ready to take on your campaign. Your players will have an understanding as to what kind of campaign you will be running. You will have your rules in place so everybody knows how to act and behave in and out of game. And everybody will have a character that fits in your world with things at stake.

Next week, your players will be in search for treasures hidden within dungeons and on the path to encountering their first dragon.

I just like this picture!

 

 

Published by

Erick Schwartz

Writer and streamer! My life is Star Wars with The Witcher a close second, introduced to me via the books! Video games are a big hobby of mine, and include driving, space and flight sims, fighting, and story-driven games!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.