Session Zero: How To Start Your D&D Campaign Off Strong

So you have decided to run a game of Dungeons & Dragons. Perhaps it’s your first time, perhaps you’ve been playing so long that you’ve lost count of how many games you’ve run. You might have decided to run an official hardcover adventure or a campaign of your own design. You might be playing weekly, monthly, or whenever you all get a chance to get together. Whatever shape your game will take, the players all want to make their characters and you want to figure out the best way to engage them.

Enter Session Zero.

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What is Session Zero?

Session Zero is when you and your players get together and talk about what kind of game you’re going to run. There are a lot of things that can happen as part of this. The players might roll characters together, the DM might introduce a hardcover adventure that will be run, play styles might be discussed, and more. A successful Session Zero is one that gets everybody on the same page so the start of the campaign is as smooth as possible and there are fewer unexpected twists that might negatively impact everyone’s experience.

Every Session Zero is different because every table is different, but there are a few things that we at Dungeon Master’s Workshop strongly encourage everyone to do during Session Zero. These are described below.

Talk About Game Style

We’ve all seen parties where every character seems to come from a different genre. The Western European knight in full plate sitting in the same tavern as a Hyborean barbarian, a Wuxian sword-mystic, a Gothic vampire hunter, and a Lovecraftian occultist, each embracing a different tone that influences how they approach the game. A moment of abject horror for some party members might be a challenge to epic combat for others, and a campaign involving sophisticated political intrigue might be completely unsuitable for a party where the primary motivation is to punch things.

If the DM has an adventure partially or completely written that involves certain themes or types of enemies, Session Zero lets the players know what kind of characters will be most appropriate and likely the most fun to play. Alternatively, if the DM doesn’t have very much prepared and wants to base the campaign entirely on the characters that the players make, this is a good opportunity for the group to decide on any salient details.

If you’re running an official hardcover adventure, we recommend plumbing the adventure’s overview, background, and/or synopsis to pull together a brief description of the campaign that avoids spoiling plot twists but gives the players the right information to build appropriate characters. For example, if you’re running Curse of Strahd, you might start with the first three paragraphs of the adventure’s introductory chapter, along with the first paragraph of the Running the Adventure section of that same chapter. On the other hand, if you’re running Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, you might have to craft a description of your own, something like:

The forces of the Nine Hells have long had designs on the mortal world, and brave heroes are constantly thwarting plots to advance their goals. But now Faerûn is about to face a threat so great that it stretches from the shadows of Baldur’s Gate to the front lines of Hell itself, and adventurers must brave the blasted plains of Avernus to put a stop to it. Against the infinite evils of Baator, only the most stalwart and cunning party can survive. But everyone has secrets, and yours may very well be your undoing.

This adventure will begin at level 1 and take the party into tier 3, most likely to level 13.

Additionally, Session Zero is a good opportunity to cover what kind of roleplaying the group prefers: descriptive or active. More information about roleplaying styles, and these approaches specifically, can be found in the Social Interaction section in chapter 8, “Adventuring”, in the Player’s Handbook.

Talk About House Rules

Fifth Edition D&D is a very lean system that allows for easy modification to suit individual campaigns. Whether it be whole new classes or alterations to existing ones, house rules are a way to respond to the needs of specific campaign, enhancing some aspects or covering for weaknesses in others.

That said, if you want to include rules that aren’t in the Player’s Handbook, it should be a group decision, and it should ideally be agreed on before anyone makes a character. Imagine how frustrating it would be to make a wizard and then have your DM decide three sessions into the game that they’re going to implement a Dragonlance-style magic cycle based on the moon, rendering your powers weaker half the time. Or imagine making a warlock with all of two spell slots and then the DM deciding to implement the longer rests variant from the Dungeon Master’s Guide, forcing you to draw out those spell slots over the entire day rather than regaining them after every fight.

Discussing house rules at this point also might result in revelations coming to you through player observations. Contrary to what players might believe, Dungeon Masters aren’t omniscient masters of all the rules, and it may be that a fulsome discussion of potential rule changes reveals unforeseen consequences that would negatively impact the game. It’s also a good opportunity to gauge player interest in your proposed changes, or learn about changes that they think would improve the game based on the style of adventure that will be run.

This is also a good time to talk about variant rules within the Player’s Handbook, like multiclassing and feats. DMs who wish to allow these options, possibly with additional conditions, might start off with this information as an easy introduction to the discussion.

Talk About Table Conduct

Each group is different and an exhaustive set of rules to ensure everyone’s complete enjoyment would be impossible to produce. Additionally, some issues don’t manifest until the party is into the game. However, there are some things that can—and probably should—be discussed beforehand.

Rules vs. Fun

Every table will have a certain tolerance for the flexibility of the rules, whether to support suspension of disbelief or to allow for an entertaining moment. Some players might derive more enjoyment from optimizing their usage of game mechanics they consider inviolable, while others may happily throw even explicit prohibitions aside if the so-called “Rule of Cool” may result in a particularly humorous outcome. Feel free to use the Dungeon Master’s Workshop Scale of Fantastic Rigour to define how your party will engage the game:

Rigour Factor
0 You Mean ‘Handbook’, Not ‘Rulebook’. “The books are more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”
1 PCs Are Epic Heroes. “Yes, you can totally toss the dwarf across the gap to the bridge. Just don’t tell the elf.”
2 Rules, But The Fun Kind. “I’m not going to keep track of your encumbrance as long as you try to be reasonable.”
3 The Fun Is In The Rules. “You’re keeping track of your arrows, right?”

Adult Content

A lot of D&D falls under a general viewer discretion disclaimer, with some violence and perhaps even coarse language. Monsters and people are injured or even killed, and mature subject matter often arises. Except in rare circumstances, people won’t have a problem with this.

But graphic depictions of violence don’t necessitate similarly graphic depictions of other mature themes, and some players might be uncomfortable including that kind of content in their games. It’s worth mentioning up front if this kind of content will be handled in camera or if the narrative will be indulged with the rest of the party.

Sensitive Topics

Some people find certain topics offensive or uncomfortable, to the extent that they may feel victimized or apprehensive to the point of panic. Survivors of oppression and violence are especially vulnerable to reminders of their experiences and may feel particularly betrayed or overwhelmed if they are confronted with such things.

Before starting play, check in with your players about how they feel regarding certain themes that might trigger these reactions—things like bigotry, colonialism, and certain types of violence. You may think that adding such themes to an adventure provides an opportunity for players to engage the issue constructively, but your players might prefer to simply avoid the topics altogether.

Putting It All Together

There is no one way to play D&D, and to ensure the game goes smoothly it is wise to decide beforehand how you envision the campaign going. This is most easily done in Session Zero, before characters are even rolled. This article has some helpful advice, but it is by no means an exhaustive account of everything you might want to cover. What’s important is that you have a discussion so that everyone has a good idea of what to expect.

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