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The Most Important Parts of D&D Session Zeros

Before beginning a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, it’s important to hold at least one session zero. During this prologue session, the Dungeon Master should collaborate with the players to mold the world to them, their characters to the world, and the characters to each other. However, before running this group-wide session zero, there is another type of session that can greatly contribute to the success of the campaign: one-on-ones. This type of session zero is held between a single player and the Dungeon Master. During it, they collaborate and create the player’s character and introduce the character to the world.

Group session zeros and one-on-one session zeros are stellar ways to ensure the success of a D&D campaign. As I am in the process of beginning my next D&D campaign, a campaign I want to be the best I’ve ever run, I’m taking the opportunity to gaze back at the lessons I’ve learned from campaigns past. The following sections explore the most important parts of each type of session zero, as well as what to avoid when running them. The focus is on one-on-one session zeros because I already wrote an article about group session zeros long ago.

One-on-One Session Zeros

A one-on-one session zero is similar to a question and answer session between a player and Dungeon Master, followed by a brief escapade into the world the player’s character will be playing the campaign in. Before holding it, the player should have an idea of the character they want to play. Knowledge about the character’s class and race is necessary, but anything further than that simply soothes the process.

In the session, begin with a question and answer portion. The Dungeon Master should begin with surface level questions about the character, information that gives away little to nothing about their motivations. During this time, the DM and player should spar back and forth, the DM representing the world and the player representing their character. Together, they build the character and connect it to the world, piece by piece, story by story. Potential questions are:
  1. Who are you?
  2. Where are you from?
  3. Where do you live?
  4. Do you have a profession? If yes, what is it?
  5. Are you friendly with anyone nearby? Give them a name, a description, and a personality.
The next step is prying the character open. The DM should ask questions that reveal more about the character and its relationship to the world and the campaign’s initial plot. This makes the player think about their character’s thoughts about the world and the world’s thoughts about their character. Unknowingly, they’re making their character deep and complex, something Dungeon Masters usually enjoy. Potential questions are:
  1. Why are you in ?
  2. How has affected you?
  3. Who do you love?
  4. Do you know anyone who wants you dead? Give them a name, a description, and a personality.
  5. What is your short term goal?
  6. What is your long term goal?
  7. Who is your patron deity? Why?
To close the question and answer portion, let the player tell you anything new or ask you anything else about their character and its background. If you have anything else to add, go ahead and do so.

With the questions and answer portion concluded, the next step is to run an actual but brief session of D&D between the player and DM. This is the character’s first foray into the campaign world. Here, actions matter. But what actions should they take? These type of sessions are meant to let the players discover what it’s like to play their characters in front of a single person, the Dungeon Master, and see how they react to the world around them. As the player becomes accustomed to their character, it’s the Dungeon Master’s job to weave together and interesting opening plot. Remember the nonplayer characters you created with each player during their session zero. For each one-on-one, drop an NPC made by another player into that player’s session zero. Ian might create an arrogant half-orc cleric named Zaburk during his Q&A session, but I can use the half-orc in Jessie’s one-on-one actual play session.

Without even touching or creating a plot, these characters have a connection despite not knowing each other. Unless you plan on starting a campaign with the party being aware of each other, perhaps even adventuring together already, these loose connections are vital. On top of them, you can sway them all toward a unifying opening scene or goal of the campaign. End these actual play sessions on a strong note or a cliffhanger, leaving each player wanting more but surely knowing where the next session — the first session of the campaign — will begin. They may know where everything kicks off, but they won’t know how.

Somewhere in this section, make sure to include one combat, one social interaction, and one exploration encounter. The combat allows the player to feel out their characters combat skills and gives you the opportunity to give the session stakes. They need not be death, but they could be the respect of a rival, the possibility for a lesser magic item, or story to boast about to potential companions. The social interaction gives the player a chance to interact with the people of this new world, to see how they view it, and how others receive their character. During this interaction, try to sneak in some foreshadowing about the campaign’s opening moments if you can, but don’t fully spoil them. The exploration lets the player make an evident impact on the world, adding a piece of detail that wasn’t there before. Let them create a ladder leading to the rooftop of the inn, a guard outpost just down the street, or a backdoor to a large apartment complex. Here are the notes for one of my latest campaign's session zeros. They might help!

As I mentioned before, the one-on-one session should conclude in a satisfying way that sets up the beginning of the campaign. The player should know where the campaign will begin, but not how it will begin. They might be going to meet a shady confidant, a notable merchant, or a desperate brother, but they don’t know how the encounter will play out or how they’ll meet their eventual party members. The unknown is part of D&D’s excitement, hinting at what it might entail is fine and often rewarding; revealing it completely is a poor move.

Group Session Zeros

Group session zeros are when the Dungeon Master and players all gather to discuss the campaign as a whole, flesh out the world a bit more, and possibly connect their characters. It’s a preface to the rest of the time they will be spending together, an opportunity to learn more about each other and the world before they dive head first into a grand adventure. I explored this topic in an article a few years ago, so I’ll link it here. If you want a summary of it, here you go:
  1. Before meeting as a group, talk to each player privately. This is accomplished in the new system I propose, running one-on-one session zeros with each player. During them, build the character, connect them to the world, and get a sense for what the player wants from the campaign.
  2. Come prepared. This goes for both players and Dungeon Masters. Players should bring their character sheets, dice, knowledge about their character, and an excitement to create and contribute to the campaign. Dungeon Masters should arrive with information about the setting, all the proper materials, and a sharp, open mind.
  3. Hold a group discussion about the campaign’s focus. The group should talk about what they are open to and what they aren’t, mostly about what they aren’t. Do you want a sandbox or an on-the-rails campaign? Do you hate exploration? How gory can combat get? Are revolting and sensitive topics like torture or slavery allowed? Iron all this out during session zero and ensure no one is afraid to have a voice.
  4. Establish the setting. If the players aren’t already accustomed to the setting, ensure they are. Give a brief description of the area and its surroundings and talk about iconic individuals. Introducing six truths as described in Sly Flourish's Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master is a great idea as well. Creating trinket tables unique to your campaign is a stellar idea as well, one I love to use every campaign.
  5. Allow the players to contribute to the campaign. Finally, the Dungeon Master should ask the players a few questions about the campaign and world. What’s a creature they’d like to face? What’s an item they’d like to see? What’s a plot twist you think would be interesting? What’s a location of wonder in the world?
At the end of the group session zero, make sure everyone’s characters are ready to go for the first session of the campaign. Double check the character sheets are filled out, clean the dice, and prepare everyone’s minds to immerse themselves in a world of their own design.

In Summary

The weeks leading to a new campaign can be used to ensure the campaign is as fun and epic as you want it to be. Pay attention to the most important parts of session zeros: connecting the characters to the world and each other and ensuring the players are excited about what the story the campaign will tell. Take the following actions to do so:
  1. Run one-on-one session zeros with each of your players. The first part of each should be a question and answer session about the player’s character. The second part should be an actual play segment in which the character explores the world for the first time and the player becomes accustomed to their character.
  2. Connect each player character to each other during their session zeros. Use NPCs one player made in another's session zero and ensure everyone's session zero ends in a manner that will unite the entire party come the first session.
  3. Hold a successful group session zero. Together, your group should talk about what they want from the campaign and contribute a few pieces to the world. This ensures the campaign has the legs to last.
Building our campaigns with session zeros in mind makes everything better and easier. We get a glimpse into our players’ minds and allow them to contribute to the campaign and world before it begins. This not only gives us ammunition to use in the campaign’s early moments, it ensures the players — and their characters — are connected to the campaign the moment it starts.

Until next time, stay creative.

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