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Session Zero An RPG Feature

Session Zero
Session Zero
Image rights go to D&D Beyond

The session zero is arguably one of the most important sessions in a roleplay game if not the most important. This isn’t a new concept. It’s been around in some form for decades even if informal, but in essence it is all about the combination of preparation and planning for a more enjoyable and rewarding roleplay experience.

What Is A Session Zero?

This is an opportunity for the Game Master (GM), (or Dungeon Master (DM) in some systems), to present in depth an idea for a roleplay campaign, to discuss main aspects of the campaign, the game world and what characters would be suitable for balance and character development. The GM may give insight into what to expect and draw opinion from the players whether this is something that appeals to them, giving players a voice to help shape the storyline and development opportunities.

The players then have an opportunity to discuss character ideas, discussing backstory and character traits and personality; ideally working together with other players and the GM to create characters that will be fun to play and fit the narrative.

A Player’s Perspective - Melissa

When I first started playing D&D, I never thought that our campaign would start before the campaign actually started. The first meeting between the DM and players has become widely known as “Session Zero” and is an invaluable part of both the players’ and the DM’s campaign experience. I would actually go as far as saying that Session Zero is possibly the most important one of the campaign entirely!

As a DM, Session Zero allows you to introduce your world to the players. Whether it is a home-brew or a published campaign, the world the players thrive (or die) in, is effectively the DM’s world. The DM creates it, the DM directs it, the DM controls it. There is no better way to get your players interested, engaged and excited for your campaign than sitting down with them during a Session Zero and describing the environment and world in which they will be adventuring with you. Session Zero helps to make your players feel part of the world which you have created as you can get an idea of what the players want from their campaign

What To Consider?

As a GM, I usually already have an idea regarding the campaign, what system to use, what game world and what the main aspects of the plot are. Sometimes not, as it is possible to start the ball rolling by throwing the question out to players – ‘What do you want to play?’ Bear in mind, a session zero does not have to be a single session, although it usually is, but rather it refers to a character generation and campaign familiarization process which could take several sessions.

But usually, ideas have already been formed and the Session Zero is about discussing in more detail, so what can you consider? I’m presuming here that the game system and game world have already been decided so the main focus is to dive deeper.

Campaign Type & Style

Typically, as the GM I would want to give an overview of the type of campaign I’m looking to run. I wouldn’t normally give plot details or any spoilers, but I would likely give an indication of whether it is an epic continent spanning save the world type of campaign or something quite localized and low key or somewhere in between. I think this helps with expectations, understanding expected campaign length and what might be achievable for a character. It’s usually a good idea to give hints as to what character types might work best to avoid limiting a character’s usefulness and development potential and therefore fun.

If a GM wants to run a campaign where the start is quite rigid or where there may be limits to character growth in some areas, it is sensible to be open and up front and give the players the opportunity to understand what the possibilities are and buy into the premise.

Session Zero then provides a key opportunity for players to ask questions, such as “What races are available for me to play?” to “Can my character have a pet?” It also allows the GM to set out rules for their world, or indeed, “house rules” for how certain issues can be resolved. One example is that you can re-roll 1’s when rolling for health during level ups - a house rule that I am very grateful for (as I am a notoriously bad roller!).

Boundaries And Table Rules – Also Known As The Social Contract

Session Zero can also help address the parameters of play and one key campaign issue (which all players and DMs will be all too familiar with) - availability. This is always best addressed early before you start to discuss the expectations of how often the campaign will be run, as well as if it will be in person, remote, or both! Nothing can derail a campaign quite like intermittent play due to unreliable attendance or long gaps between play that disrupts momentum and naturally can lead to players forgetting key information.

Of course, real-life does tend to kick in at some point and often it can’t be helped, but at least you can set up a campaign to best cater for everyone’s needs, set the expectations and help improve the chances of a smoother ride.

The social contract here is very important. The session zero is the best place to discuss what can be expected, tolerated or not, how a GM wants to run the campaign, and any house-rules and conventions to be used. It’s important therefore that all players and GM buy in to an agreement that we are all here to have fun, socialize as friends, understand what expectations can be met in a spirit of co-operation and roleplay a character, with an understanding of what challenges and opportunities for growth lie ahead.

A few things to note here, it is a good idea to lay down boundaries. Typically, in our game groups, we ask that everyone involved comes to the table to leave the world behind, to get into character, with no talk on real world politics or religion or anything else that can be divisive, to support each other with understanding the rules and accepting the GMs decision when in live play. All of this helps cultivate a healthier experience and although this should really be unsaid or discussed once with a game group for future reference, a reminder is sometimes necessary and especially if you have new players.

In Game Challenges

Challenges and opportunities for growth are vital for fun. Traditionally, there tends to be a balance between exploration, roleplay and combat. In any campaign you ought to find all these three in varying measures. From that experience there ought to be suitable challenges to test the players (because without challenge how can there be growth and the satisfaction of success) and development (because character progress is a key objective and measurement of success).

A session zero can help discuss what players want but in a spirit of co-production, players can even give ideas to help the GM add campaign detail. Players may want a combat heavy dungeon-crawl or then again something that requires more social interaction. In a recent scenario, I had set up a masquerade party in a D&D 5e campaign, because I thought it would be fun and interesting to see how the players would interact with a variety of masked characters, which could prove beneficial.

As a sneaky tip, as pointed out numerous times by players, a GM can take inspiration from them (and this does not end with the session zero!). Depending on what characters players create or the suggestions they make a GM can build in encounters to suit the party. Even during a campaign or even a single encounter, a GM can draw upon this to add detail to enrich gameplay. It does get said ‘Don’t give the DM ideas!’ So, the session zero helps with the creative process, what plot detail to add, puzzles, traps, social events and twists etc to create something rewarding to play in.

Character Balance And Development

One of the most important and fun aspects of the session zero is discussing character ideas. You don’t need an adventure party to be balanced, but it helps and the session zero is a great opportunity to talk about what is needed in the party. This can enhance the chances of success in the campaign and given success brings reward, it helps the creative process to design a character that fits.

It's also an opportunity to think about whether characters know each other. This is important because an adventure party tends to work better if they have good reasons to want to work together. It can be fun to play with secrets amongst characters and tensions do sometimes rise up, but in my experience, it really makes a big difference if, out of character, players consider why they would co-operate.

It can be quite disruptive to have characters with opposing objectives or who are war with each other. Even worse when a player deliberately sets out to cultivate disharmony leaving you to wonder if it is player driven and character alignment is just an excuse. Sure, if you want to play this type of campaign, if you want to play a party of orcs or trolls in the Middle-Earth setting, for example, go ahead, but agree the expectations in advance and that is a luxury the session zero gives you.


This is not essential, but it is often very helpful for players to write a mini article on their character. What is their background? Where are they from and their family, what are their prejudices and motivations and why are they adventuring?

An Example Of How A Good Backstory Can Enrich A Game – Neil

Just before lockdown I started a campaign. One aim was to focus on roleplay and the social side would be important at various stages. The three starting players sat and discussed their ideas and three great characters were born. One of them, a bard, had a background in which he was part of a mercenary company that had ceased to operate for reasons that were undisclosed.

Later on in the campaign, when exploring the underdark (it was a D&D 5e campaign set in Faerun), I gave the characters rumours that there were survivors of a mercenary company in a drow mining facility. The party explored this rumour, discovered the location and through careful planning rescued the company. This was really a side quest, but it was well received and added a depth and richness to the play experience and all because backstory was encouraged, created and then utilized in play.

Wrapping Up

So, some useful guidance and tips on what a session zero can for you as GM. Don’t rush it, savour it and allow players to craft characters as you make additional notes on how to use the information given. I like to reward players for making the effort too, so the session zero gives you food for thought as to how to do that in gameplay.

At the end of a session zero, everyone should be ready to play with a fair idea what to expect, comfortable with the characters they’ve chosen and eager to play!