Session Zero is probably the most important session you will have if you are going to be running a campaign, even if it is with friends. It’s the session in which you set expectations for the campaign going forward.

For those that are new to these terms, a campaign is a story told over a series of game sessions, whereas a one-shot is a self contained game in a single session. A campaign can last for weeks, months, or even years, whereas one-shots can be as little as an hour long.

Top tip: An agenda is a great idea. It will help you ensure that you cover everything you need to. Things you can cover in this session can be character creation, or going over character sheets; working out if characters know each other previously; and setting rules going forwards. In my online games, because I am usually bringing strangers together, I also like to run a short one-shot to see what the dynamic is like within the group, and if any players are potentially going to be a problem. This also helps the players to see my style of DMing and to see if they like it - it’s a two way process after all!

If you’re new to each other, take some time to introduce yourselves. It can help to find out what each person’s experience is with D&D, so you are aware of which players may need more coaching. You can support them yourself when asking for rolls by clearly stating what you are asking for, or you can team them up with a more experienced player (if you have one at the table) who can help them understand what they need to do. I teach new players quite often, so I explain what I’m asking for quite clearly (“I’d like you to roll a perception check, so that’s a d20 plus your perception modifier which is on the skills list”), and I have various handouts that I’ve written that I can give to new players to help them along. It’s also good to find out what people want from their games. Some players love combat, and would like to have one or two encounters per session, whereas others love the roleplay aspect, and would be happy to have sessions where there is no combat present at all. Knowing this at the outset helps you tailor your game so the players can get the most enjoyment from their sessions, as you will all be aware of where the balance needs to lie between roleplay and combat.

An important thing to do in this session is to write conduct rules. Make this a collaborative process and make sure everyone agrees by the rules you come up with. As a DM, it’s your role to enforce them, and by setting these out right at the beginning, there is less chance for any disagreements later on. Having said that, make your rules flexible enough so that you can add a rule in later on if it doesn’t occur to you at the time.

I have some preset conduct rules for my games, and I invite players to read them, agree them, and contribute their own suggestions. They’re very straightforward standard things, but what I allow and disallow at my table might be different for your table. For example, I am personally uncomfortable with graphic sexual descriptions. I won’t allow erotic roleplay or any descriptions of this type at my table. However, if you want to go into gruesome detail as to how your character has brutally maimed this orc chieftain, be my guest. I also have some house rules on critical hits that I use in non Adventurer’s League games, that I like to explain to my players.

If there are rules, there also need to be consequences for breaking those rules, and if these are also clear at the outset, then a player who is penalized should not be surprised when this happens. I tend not to remove people from my table unless it is really warranted. Again, I highlight communication here. Usually speaking to a player in private is enough to highlight an issue and rectify it. Some players may not even realize they are breaking a rule, if it is something like “no metagaming”. Give people a chance to change their behaviors where you think it is appropriate.

Something you can do if players are breaking minor rules is to impose setbacks at the table. If you give a player a clear warning to not talk over you or to abide by a ruling you have made, and they continue to disregard your warning, then you could impose disadvantage on their next roll. This doesn’t remove their agency or harshly penalize their character, but it does give consequences to behavior. And ultimately, if you cannot resolve issues, you do reserve the right to remove someone from your table. As DM, you are there to have fun as much as the players are, and managing a disruptive element is generally not a fun task.

Here are a few examples of things I include in my agendas and rules. They are not an exhaustive list, and as ever, what works for me may not work for you. This is just intended as inspiration, for you to use and amend as your own.

Sample Agenda:

  • Introductions
  • What do you want from the game?
  • Character Creation
  • Rules and how to apply them
  • One-shot (if running at session zero)
  • Agree schedule going forwards
  • What we will do if people can’t make a session

My rule examples:

  1. HAVE FUN! (This is the most important rule!)
  2. Respect everyone at the table. Be engaged when it’s not your turn and not on your phone or having a conversation with someone else. Personally I find that kind of behavior rude, and I will ask people to focus if they are not doing so.
  3. No real world sexism/racism/other isms are acceptable. I may incorporate NPCs who have prejudices to affect interactions, and equally I will allow PCs with prejudices in my game, as this can add an interesting dynamic, but this does not represent my real world views and I do not condone that sort of behavior outside of the game world.
  4. No graphic sexual descriptions or erotic role play. It’s not necessary to tell a good story. I have no problem with romance, I just do not need to know exactly how it played out in the bedroom.
  5. I don’t do critical success or failure on skill checks. RAW, that’s not a thing, although I know a lot of DMs rule that it is. That’s their table, this is mine. Also, don’t assume you succeed or fail on a roll. I’m the one that determines the success, and I work DCs in my own way. I may have a sliding scale of information, I might have a higher or lower DC than you anticipate, or it might be different for different PCs depending on their character, background or environmental factors! I also don’t like players saying “I’ll roll perception/investigation/whatever”. Again, you should describe to me what your character wants to do, and I’ll tell you what skill to roll, because it might not be what you are expecting!
  6. Leading on from that, I don’t like people to rules lawyer, metagame, or otherwise ruin people’s fun in this way. My table is there to collaborate and tell a shared story. As a DM, I am here to interpret the rules. I don’t know all the rules, so I may have to pause and look something up. Sometimes the answer won’t be immediately obvious. I’ll make a ruling that makes sense at the time based on my judgement of the situation and we’ll move on. Abide by that ruling at the time. When I go and check up on it later, if I find that I’ve got it wrong, I’ll own up, and we’ll work out a fix going forwards, but at the time, we’ll adjudicate, move on, and enjoy the game.

Frank has given me some good points to add in regarding the last rule. If you don’t know the rules well, having someone more experienced at the table who does can be a huge help and you can lean on their experience and ask them to help adjudicate. This was certainly my situation to begin with. Later on, once I was confident enough with my knowledge, I had to step up and say to my players that I was now confident enough, and that whilst their experience was valued, I was now taking charge and would only solicit that experience if absolutely necessary. At my tables, my word is final and that is how it should be with any DM running a game. This doesn’t mean you should be in an adversarial situation. The point is to avoid the argument by saying “this is what we will do on this occasion, let’s move on with the game and look at the detail later”

I hope this article has helped you understand why Session Zero is a good idea, and given you some inspiration for what to include in your Session Zeroes!