Holding a Successful Session Zero


A Dungeons and Dragons campaign is a collaborative storytelling experience. Sure, as the dungeon master, you’ll be creating the world your group adventures in, but the epic tales of terror and intrigue you tell will be created by folks on both sides of the screen.

Today, we’re discussing the fundamental first step of a successful campaign: Starting with a session zero. Specifically, five tips to maximize the success of your campaign’s baby steps.

Holding a session zero has become far more popular as of late. Perhaps it is the push of character’s being integrated into the story, or maybe it’s to discuss what the campaign should be about. Regardless, I’ve been a fan of sessions zeros for quite awhile. They allow both the players and the DM to set expectations about the campaign before it begins. Most of the time, session zeros can solve any problems that may occur during play before they even arise, and they allow the players to participate in the building of the world.

Without further ado, let’s delve in!

1. Before meeting as a group, talk with each player privately

During these conversations, try and ascertain what kind of character each player would like to play. Get them thinking about their character’s race, class, and background before you all meet for session zero. In addition, talk about what they'd like to see in the campaign. Are they searching for a romp through a mega-dungeon? Do they want a high seas adventure filled with sahuagin raiders, flamboyant pirates, and titanic monsters of the depths?

If everyone’s already thought a tad about their characters, and the campaign as a whole, I’ve found that character creation goes incredibly smooth, and is much more enjoyable for everyone involved.

2. Come prepared

Before you ask your players to officially meet for session zero and create their characters, ensure you’re prepared for the process. For a campaign’s session zero, you’ll usually need the following:
  1. Information about the setting. Is the group beginning in the blistering deserts of a land forsaken by the gods, or are they delving into the depths of a jungle crawling with demons and undead? Know and remember this. Most of the time, I create a brief guide for the setting that the players can read if they’d like.
  2. Pencils, dice, and character sheets, as well as a few blank notecards and sheets of paper. The former is for your players, while the latter is for a campaign-building exercise that we’ll discuss soon.
  3. A sharp and open mind. The goal of session zero is to craft a campaign that fits both you and your players. Build on their enthusiasm, include them in the campaign-building process, and take notes on things they’re excited about.

3. Hold a group discussion about the campaign’s focus

Everyone involved in the campaign should have a voice in what it’s primary focus or foci will be. In other words, the campaign’s core pillars should be decided upon by the players, with some input by the dungeon master.

I’ve seen many methods to accomplish this, but my favorite (and what I’ll be using from now on) uses notecards and dice.

Take an arbitrary amount of notecards, and write a genre/theme/mood on each of them. Examples include horror, slapstick, epic, weird, intrigue, tactical, exploration, and episodic. Set these cards on the table. Then, give each player four dice.

Now, have the players put their dice on the theme they want most. The more dice a notecard has on top of it, the more that theme will feature in the campaign. This allows the group to openly discuss what type of campaign they’d like and gives the dungeon master a solid idea of what their group prefers. Make sure to take notes during this portion of session zero. Using the thoughts and ideas that come from this can help make the campaign last AND be enjoyable for everyone at the table.

4. Establish the setting

Before the player’s officially roll up their characters, make sure they understand the world they’ll be playing in. I’ll usually do this by giving an elevator pitch for the world and writing a short setting guide that accompanies by general world guide.

The pitch need not be long, but it should communicate the big ideas of the setting to the players.

In the setting guide, I include the brief pitch of the setting, in addition to small patches of information on iconic locations and characters, character hooks, and a trinket table. This concise packet gives the players enough information to build on using their character's backstories, and for them to feel somewhat connected to the starting location.

5. Allow the players to contribute to the campaign

Once the player characters are created, they’re woven into the world by their backstory, and the campaign is nearly ready to begin, I like to do a bit more campaign-building with the players. To accomplish this, I simply ask players a few, choice questions using a handout. The handout asks:
  • What’s a creature you’d like to face?
  • What’s an ally you’d like to work with?
  • What’s an item you’d like to see?
  • What’s a plot twist you’d like to occur?
  • If you’d like, please name:
    • An organization in the world.
    • A nonplayer character in the world.
    • A villain in the world.
    • A location of great wonder in the world.
Once this is done, I not only have the PC’s backstories to pore over but content that excites and was made by the players!

In Summary

Kicking your campaign off correctly is key to running a successful, fulfilling campaign. Holding a session zero is a great way to do that. During it, be sure to collaborate with your players and establish the setting that you’ll all be playing in for months and years to come.

Next week, I’ll be beginning a new series of blog posts about published Wizards of the Coast material. I absolutely love to read through adventures and books, pilfering any ideas I think sound great or would work well in my campaign or world. We’ll be starting with fifth edition’s premiere adventure book, Hoard of the Dragon Queen.

Until then, farewell!

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