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How to Run a Session 0

by Jae
How to run a session 0

Every Dming blog, Youtube channel, and podcast has recommended that you run a session 0, and for good reason. For most TTRPGs, and DnD especially, session 0s are one of the best ways to get your game started properly and give you the tools you need to run a successful campaign. While everyone, us included, has suggested that you run a session 0, most of those recommendations are light on how to actually do so. Dungeons and Dragons didn’t even include tips for this until they published Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything! Let’s do something about that and break down how to run a session 0 that actually provides a meaningful impact to your game.

What is a Session 0?

A Session 0 is simply a session you run before the game actually starts and you go over everything players might need to know beforehand. In addition to being a time for you to set down all the stuff they need to know about the game, it’s also the point where you will learn what your players want to get out of the game. A session 0 is all about planning and it can seem like a lot, but if you’re going to run an entire campaign and meet every week for months, it’s worth it to take a session (or several) to prepare for the game you’re going to run.

A session zero covers a lot of ground and despite what you might find in advice online, there’s no one correct way to run a session 0. Some GMs like to run a session 0 privately for each player, others like to do them as a group, some DMs do both. You can pick and choose what you want to use in your session 0 to fit your needs, but we’ll provide a list of topics that you are likely going to want to cover with your group.

Session 0 and the Logistics Conversation

A lot of stuff in a session 0 can be about the game itself, but before you even have a game, you all need to agree to meet and play. This is why the logistics conversation is what we recommend covering first.

In this part of a session 0 you’ll be discussing when the group can meet and getting everyone’s schedules. You’ll talk about if you’re going to run your games online, in person, both, or hybrid with some players meeting in person and others meeting online. Here you’ll also outline policies for when players can’t make a game. Do you cancel if not everyone can make it, or do you let someone else control their character? Things like this need to be hammered out or your group is likely to fall apart before getting very far into your campaign.

Another part of logistics comes down to setting expectations around time limits. Some people like to play 6 hour long games, other people can really only stomach a couple of hours at a time. This should be expressly stated early on so you don’t have anyone who feels trapped in your sessions.

While you’re working out timing and schedules you will likely also want to discuss snacks and food responsibilities. Running an in person game without snacks or drinks is criminal, so make sure you have food items figured out. This also includes learning everyone’s allergies and preferences, and having everyone agree on how food items are going to be split up. If you get pizza, then figure out if the cost rotates or if you split it each week. This may seem a bit micromanage-y, but it really makes a difference when it comes to running a successful game.

Finally in the logistics category you’ll want to discuss how players will get the resources that they need to play. Not everyone has every book and some people might need to borrow some from time to time. And because everyone is an upright citizen no one would ever share illegally obtained PDFs of core rule books, so also discuss if you’ll be using something like D&D Beyond to give players access to the books you’re using for your campaign. Based on this discussion you could even end up needing to plan a “silent session” where everyone gets together early to share books, update character sheets, and look up specific rules before you play.

Session 0 Game Setting

Beyond logistical concerns with your game, your players are going to want to understand your setting. This is the time where you give everyone a brief overview of the world they’ll be playing in as well as the information that individuals who live in that world should know about. These things include a world or continent map, an accounting of recent world history, locations players should know, and areas where their characters might be from.

In this game setting discussion you’ll also lay out some of the groundwork for talking about the kind of world you’re running. Is it gritty survival fantasy or is it high fantasy roleplaying? Walking through the setting’s feel might help players decide how they want to build their characters later on.

This is also the time in which we would recommend you tell players not just the game’s genre, but also the vibe of game you’d like to run. You might have to adjust this, so make sure it is more of a discussion than it is a declaration.

Session 0 Game Mechanics and Character Creation Questions

Mechanics come after the basic setting. Here you’ll talk about the way the game will be played. This is when you outline exactly which source books you will be pulling from and which ones are restricted or banned. You’ll also lay out the basic homerules or alternative rules your game might be using, and specify version specific information you’ll pull into your game.

A common topic in this discussion will be what is and isn’t possible in your setting and that bleeds right into character creation. While we think character creation is a topic of discussion unto itself, there’s really no separating characters from mechanics fully, so you’ll inevitably end up going over both at the same time. We’ve divided them into sections here, but likely you’ll be covering both together to some degree.

And speaking of character creation, you’ll have to lay out all the options and restrictions. Using DnD as an example, you might have only core races and classes available, or you could open it up to splat books. Similarly, you might have restrictions on classes or races that don’t work in your setting. Even core races and classes can have variant rules and you’ll need to specify if they can or cannot be used. It seems like a lot to cover and you certainly won’t be able to catch everything, so lay out your general intentions and leave options up for discussion. But remember: if you’re too restrictive about what people can do, they might opt out of your game.

Following basic mechanical rules on character creation, you also need to discuss the mechanics you will use to level up. Can players level up while on an adventure or do they need to rest and train before they get the benefits of that experience? Are you using milestone or experience systems? How do you award milestones or experience respectively? These are all things you’ll need to answer for your game.

During these discussions also remember to take notes on and tweaks, changes, or concessions you make. You don’t want to forget and cause problems later on. 

Session 0 Character Creation Specifics

Some GMs like to run character creation as a session 0 itself. This can be done with each player as part of your group session 0 or individually. During this you help your players create characters for the game and guide them to make a character that not only fits into the game world, but works as part of the party. Some GMs like to encourage balanced party creation, but this is not always necessary and should be discussed with the group. You should never force someone to fill a role they don’t want to, but you also probably shouldn’t have a party that’s just 5 barbarians.

In the character creation session you will be doing all the normal character creation stuff with your players, but you’ll also really want to get to know what their character wants to do as well as how they want to play the game. This is where you can ask them to rank what types of gameplay they like best between roleplaying, combat, puzzles, exploration, and any other mechanical elements you might include in the game. You’ll end up with a list of preferences for your group that will help you understand what motivates them to play the game. This is a huge boon for later on when you balance out sessions you’re planning to run.

While your players are going through character creation they’ll also likely have questions. They might want to have their character come from a big city, but they don’t know which big cities they could come from. Your job is to fill them in and for each piece of their backstory they want to build, you can give them choices from the world you’re running for them to build off of. By doing this you prevent people from having a bunch of disparate backstories that don’t line up and can’t be glued together in your game.

Finally, and we cannot stress this enough, do not skip character goals. Knowing what the character wants to do is one thing, but knowing their big dream is extremely important for your game. If you have a character that dreams of opening a restaurant, that’s important as it gives you something to dangle in front of that character in the game. Maybe a quest includes a magic frying pan as loot. This is a weird example, but trust us, you want to make sure your game follows along a path that leads players towards their dreams while setting up reasonable obstacles in their way. It makes your game better!

Session 0 Behavior and Game Expectations

Now with the game stuff well laid out and people knowing what kind of characters they want to play, you have to take time to get into expectations for your game. Some of this stuff is heavy and difficult to talk about, but it should be covered before you run a game.

Table behavior is a wide topic. First is what you expect of everyone who is playing. Are side conversions alright? Can people have cell phones at the table? Sure, some groups can run fine with these distractions, but not every group can and focus can be hard for some people. Set those expectations early so that you don’t have to curb bad behaviors later on.

Right along with player behavior comes banned discussion topics. When you play with diverse groups of friends you may end up with some people who have ideological differences at your table. If it will be something that causes friction, let people know that your game time is not a place to discuss these things. Politics and religion are the biggest two contenders, but there are a lot of other things that you might not want to discuss at the table, such as sexual situations.

Similar to banned discussion topics, you may also want to talk about the use of drugs and alcohol. Where you are living might have various laws on what is permissible, but also some people you play with might not be comfortable being around individuals who use certain substances. It’s also worth noting that you should head off anyone who says they can’t or won’t play without their substance of choice as that’s a sign that you might run into trouble later on. It’s best to give people who choose substance over your game a chance to leave right at the start.

Moving into some less heavy topics are some mechanical logistics that center around behavior. These include topics on calling dice rolls, player agency, muchkining, and PvP. It’s important that you’re clear on each of these. For example, if players roll before they declare their intention, is that allowed? Do players have the ability to try anything no matter how absurd? What about players who take every rule as law? Is that correct or is the DMs ruling law? Can players fight each other or is it expected that they will work together? While every group will answer these questions differently they should all be worked out before the games starts so everyone knows what’s expected at the table.

In the same vein where you lay out what is expected of players you should also let players know what they can expect from you. This comes to how you handle certain issues that come up with the rules as well as how you will handle rolls. As a GM you may make rolls in secret, and that might be okay for you, but not your players. This is also where you should let them know how to ask in game questions and what your rules on meta gaming are. You should also lay down the law on what you consider deliberate game breaking. Some people think it’s fun to try and do that and if that’s not cool for you, let them know early.

These are just the start of the types of conversations you can have about behavior, but it’s important to not just have the discussion, but also make sure players agree to how things will be handled. Once everyone is on the same page you can move on to the next bit that continues this discussion, but with more of an in-game twist.

Session 0 Game Tone and Character expectations

Beyond the behavior that can be expected of your players at the table, you should also talk about behavior that won’t be tolerated in game. This typically is where you ban or allow murder hobos. This is also where you express if your game will allow evil characters, party splitting, deliberate quest failures, etc. It might seem silly to think that there are players who will deliberately go against the general flow of a game, but it happens all the time and you want to outline what is and isn’t allowed early on. It may seem a bit authoritarian, but really you’re just trying to establish expectations. So have a discussion about this to make sure no one flies wildly off the handle in your game.

At this time you also want to establish the game’s tone. While you may have let your players know about the genre earlier on, this is where you tell them if the game is serious, silly, or casual. This is also a good time to bring up the lethality of the game and how you handle character death. In more gritty, serious games you might start your session 0 by telling people their character could die at any time and they should have two backup characters ready to go right from the start. This is also when you would discuss how secondary characters get added back into the game, which can sometimes feel awkward if you haven’t laid out the procedure beforehand.

Session 0 GM Preferences

Not everything you discuss will be a black or white rule. Some things are just preferences. We recommend that these preferences also get discussed here. If there are certain things that drive you crazy in a game, let your players know beforehand so you don’t resent them later on. If you hate when players shout “I check for traps!” every time they enter a room, let them know now.

There are lots of preferences you can have that are “nice to have” things. This can range from not talking over each other to not hogging the spotlight from other players. If there are things you want your players to be considerate of to make running the game easier for you, let them know. Your players are not mind readers, so don’t expect them to know what bugs you if you didn’t tell them.

Session 0 Player Preferences

Just like there will be things that bug you, ask your players if there are any habits that might bug them from either you or their fellow players. Airing this out early is a huge help. A common example from one of our own sessions is that two of our players love to do in-game shopping while the rest of the group absolutely hates it. Because of this we’ve had some issues, but once we talked about it we came to an agreement on a happy medium. Things like this go a long way to making your game run more smoothly.

Session 0 Sensitive Material and Topics

This next section covers sensitive material topics. If you don’t want to read about these sensitive topics, please skip ahead. 

If you’re still here it’s important to know that there are a lot of topics that some people can find offensive, uncomfortable, or downright objectionable. Each of these should be discussed if anyone has issues with them existing in your game. While we understand that some of these might come up in the course of story or gameplay, it is best to avoid sensitive topics at your players’ request, or at the very least warn them before they come up so that they can avoid sections of the game that would make them uncomfortable.

Sensitive topics may include, but are not limited to:

  • Gender and gender politics
  • Sex and sexuality
  • Particular preferences, fetishes, and typical/atypical behaviors
  • Assault, rape, or unwanted physical conduct
  • Topics of race and prejudice
  • Slavery or topics of personal autonomy
  • Topics of mental health or mental conditions
  • Graphic descriptions of anything in this list or of gore and combat
  • Existential topics (broad, but sometimes an issue)
  • Topics of illness or physical health
  • Inclusion of extreme phobias
  • Political or religious topics
  • Violence against animals
  • Violence against the helpless
  • Topics of war and devastation
  • Topics of interpersonal abuse (physical, verbal, or otherwise)

This is a big list of topics, but rather than pouring through all of these and inadvertently stumbling into something that someone has an issue with, ask people to volunteer things they don’t want to see in their games. Some of our own games include some items on this list, but they’re specifically tailored for our groups and tackle them in a mature and respectful way.

It might seem that you can’t avoid everything, and in some ways you will have trouble, especially if someone wants to play DnD while avoiding descriptions of combat or gore. While these things might be hard to avoid, they’re not impossible and understanding the lines your players draw can help you know how to not cross them.

Another point worth making is that players who want to avoid topics like these should be able to. If you feel your game needs to have a sensitive topic in it, let your players know so they can opt out at the very beginning rather than leaving the group part way through. While we believe you can always edit your game to accommodate people’s needs, we understand that some GMs simply will not do that. In that case, the best you can do is allow players the ability to walk away before you cause more trouble for yourself before it becomes an issue.

As a final note on this, some players will opt to play games with content they feel they are not comfortable with. This is rare, but some players might want to be present for parts of a game that make them uncomfortable so long as they are not participating. In these cases ask people to confirm that they’re really okay being in those sessions and be sure to warn them ahead of time that those topics might come up in the session they’re going to be in. Also let them know they can excuse themselves at any time if they feel a topic is too much for them to handle. Being sensitive and compassionate to others’ feelings is very easy when you discuss things ahead of time.

Session 0 Roleplay Rules

Another topic that is way less heavy but still very important is how you handle roleplay in your game. This can be as simple as expecting players to stay in character or being more casual about light meta gaming and rolling for interaction outcomes.

One common rule that is often used when mixing players of various comfort levels with roleplaying is “the roleplay or roll rule”. In this case players can either roleplay soft skill interactions like intimidation, or they can roll the dice and let math do the talking for them. This is a fairly casual ruling, but one that should be discussed before you start your game so that everyone is aware as to how things will be handled.

If your game is going to be more roleplay focused, it’s a good idea to take the time and lay down the rules on roleplay etiquette as well as how and when they can flip from character to player in their interactions with the DM. If people are unclear on this, it might be helpful to run a simple roleplay-only scene for players to get a feel for this part of the game.

Session 0 Level, Power Curve, and Loot

Early on you’ll want to let your players know what level they are starting at. This happens in character creation discussions, so you’ve likely already covered it. Coupled to that is the game’s power curve. In some games the heroes stand head and shoulders above the power of average citizens and are even a formidable force for monsters and threats throughout the world. In others, the player characters aren’t noteworthy at all. This matters because it impacts the way your characters will be seen in the world. If they’re the strongest people around by a wide margin, they can be more bold and often act more straightforward. If they’re average compared to everyone else, they need to be smarter about how they play the game.

This discussion also feeds into leveling and magical loot. Some items break the game wide open. This can be fun, but you should let your players know if this is something that will be available to them or not. Getting levels that push your players towards more and more exceptional heights can be fun, but it can also really throw off game balance, especially when you plan on having your players return to areas they already visited earlier in the game. By letting your players know the expectation of balance or lack thereof, you can help set the stage for more exciting adventures that are more fun for your players.

Session 0 Character Death

While we’ve already recommended that you tell your players if their characters are likely to die or not in an average game, we have not expressly stated that you should explain what character death is like in game. Sometimes it’s a big deal and you build up a narrative around it. Other times you just hand a player another character sheet and the game moves on. Depending on how you run your game, there can be all sorts of fit issues with character death. Most players don’t want their characters to die, so you need to let people know if it’s likely and what specific mechanics get used when they bite the dust.

The biggest question initially is the chance of resurrection. In low level games it is all but certainly off the table, but your game can feature whatever rules you want. Let players know how you will or will not handle resurrection and if you apply any penalties for coming back from the dead. In some games resurrection is even common, so your players might not be expecting this and should know relatively how this will work.

If you’re not using resurrection in your game you need to explain what happens when a player character dies. Sometimes this is as easy as telling them to prepare a new character. Sometimes it’s as complicated as running an additional side session to help them make a new character and create a narrative reason to work them back into the game. In either case the rules should be clear to the players as it makes the whole process a lot more fun when there is less uncertainty about the mechanical nature of things.

Session 0 Demo Game

The last part of your session 0 is an actual session. Most of what you’ve done up until this point is discuss how the game will run, what the setting will be, and player preferences. Following this you should run an actual sample game giving people a bit of time to try things out and work through issues. These can be with their characters for the game or with characters you’ve premade, but this session doesn’t count towards the actual game unless everyone wants it to. This is a time for players to get a feel for things, make mistakes, and work out the initial pregame jitters.

The session 0 demo game can also serve as a time for you as the GM to work out any kinks in the system. Maybe you want to try a sample encounter to figure out combat pacing. Perhaps you want to try roleplaying with everyone to try and understand who will engage with that. These are very useful metrics and getting them sorted early will help you immensely later on.

We recommend that a sample session 0 include interplayer roleplay, meta discussions, a simple combat, a short complex combat, and some NPC roleplay. You can add more to that or strip out things you don’t need, but if you can do each of those you’ll get a good sense of your group’s capabilities and strengths before the actual game.

Session 0 A La Carte

With everything we’ve described there is certainly no shortage of things for you to cover, but not every session 0 needs to cover every topic. You may be playing with a group you’ve played with before and you can likely skip over a ton of session 0 topics for things that are the same between games. In other cases you might have 1 new player who needs a session 0 while everyone else already knows what’s up.

On top of all this, you’ll likely want to customize your session 0 experience for yourself. Getting all of this stuff ready for a game can be a lot of work on top of having to prepare for the campaign! Don’t stress too much about things you think won’t be relevant to your game, but try and think about what your session 0 needs and what it doesn’t.

Finally, be sure to take things in stride if you’re new to the session 0 concept. There’s a lot to do and if you’re new to session 0s, or new to TTRPGs in general, you’re going have a lot on your plate. You don’t need to be perfect. Just do the best you can and work with your players to make a great game. Everything gets easier with practice, so keep trying things and see what works for you.

Session 0 Substitutions and Surveys

There’s a lot to cover in a session 0! That being said, you can cover some of the things you need to do ahead of time with a simple survey. Using a survey to gather all the information you might cover in a session 0 will tell you two things about your group. One, it will give you all the session 0 information you asked for. Two, it will tell you who is and isn’t capable of filling out a survey and turning it in on time. That’s important to know early before you start making expectations of what your players will and will not do between sessions.

The session 0 survey can be a very useful tool, but it lacks all the back and forth and contextual information you get from having a conversation with your players. We don’t consider a survey a full replacement for a session 0, but you can run 80% of a session 0’s information through a combination of surveys and pre-game reading. If you do this you can cut the in-person/online session 0 chat down dramatically.

The other advantage of the session 0 survey is secrecy. Some people might not feel comfortable talking about things in front of the rest of the group, but will happily fill out a survey. Other things might be secrets for the game that can help you build a narrative later on. In either case, these are only achievable with a survey or individual side sessions.

The final advantage worth noting is that once you do this prep work of making surveys and notes, you have a template for the next game you run. By doing a bit of work now, you save yourself a lot of work in the future.

Session 0 in Summary

A Session 0 can be a very functional tool for starting your game on the right foot. While there is a lot to go over, using a session 0 to get a lay of the land and share understandings about how the game runs will help make every future session easier. In addition to being a tool for smoothing things out, it also helps you avoid pitfalls that can break a game group apart. In the long run a session 0 only serves to help you have a better campaign, no matter how much or how little of one you actually run. So get out there and get ready to start running your campaign, there’s never any shortage of planning to do!

Happy GMing!

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