D&D Session 0: Setting Expectations

A productive D&D Session 0 can unquestionably mean the difference between a compelling, long-lasting, fun Dungeons & Dragons campaign and a disjointed experience that fades away into disappointment and memory.

Session Zero is an opportunity for both players and Dungeon Masters (DMs) to address everything from scheduling and play styles to house rules and tone expectations together.

From the official source material to countless social media and blog posts, it’s understandable if you feel a bit overwhelmed and under-informed when it comes to knowing precisely what constitutes a Session Zero.

The goal of this guide is to do away with some of the dross, dispel some myths, and otherwise serve to guide you through running a Session Zero; thus providing a solid foundation for your campaign.

What is Session Zero?

Before we go any further, let’s have a quick pop quiz.

What exactly is a Session Zero?

  1. A fantastic Hazy IPA microbrew on offer from Krohll’s Alcheminarium®™
  2. The original infected carrier at the center of the zombie apocalypse
  3. A gathering of participants in a TTRPG to plan and discuss an upcoming game
  4. A brand of Giant Space Hamster kibble

If you picked ‘3’ then you’re in the right place and on the right track!

In short, Session 0 is an opportunity for players and DMs to all get on the same page before actually launching the campaign. Dungeons and Dragons is at its absolute best when everyone around the table agrees on the type of story they all want to tell together.

For example, if you’re the DM and your intent is to run a game of international intrigues and labyrinthine plots, it could really prove disastrous for your gaggle of players to show up ready for a hack ‘n slash dungeon crawler.

Or, conversely, if you’re a player who is already on page 17 of your Elven wizard’s backstory, and the DM suddenly drops the news that the campaign revolves around the loss of all magic in the world…there will be frustrations.

So, how do you run a productive Session Zero? Ask a dozen experienced D&D enthusiasts, and you’re likely to get a dozen (or more) answers.

One thing most will agree on, however, is that a successful Session 0 will allow both the players and the DM to establish and communicate clear expectations; about the game itself, the rules, the social aspects, etc.

If you’re playing with a group of people you’ve known and played with for years, you may find that you’re not going to need to repeat your table expectations. You may know which topics to not include or where each other’s restrictions are.

Even if you know everyone at your gaming table very well, though, you should seriously consider hosting a Session 0 to establish common ground and allow for a free exchange of ideas.

It’s important to note that not every table needs to explore all the same topics as every other table. As with most things when playing D&D, experimentation and clear communication with your fellow gamers will prove to be the most essential ingredients of a successful game.

Let’s start off with a very high-level overview of what should be addressed in your Session 0 and then we’ll break things down in detail afterward.

D&D Session Zero Overview:

  • OOC Logistics:  When, Where, and How to Play.
  • Rules:  House rules or clarification on tweaks/changes.
  • Safety Tools: Decide what content to prioritize and what to avoid.
  • Campaign Overview: The campaign setting, overarching plot drivers, etc.
  • Character Creation: Appropriate character types, available books, how do the PCs fit together?

OOC Logistics

Here’s a tidbit of eldritch lore gleaned over decades of running and playing countless Dungeons and Dragons games. An absolutely vital component of keeping a campaign running is to actually play the game.

Pretty obvious stuff, huh? 

What I mean by that little nugget of obvious wisdom is that very few campaigns can survive an unplanned 2-month-long break in between game sessions. If everyone is planning on a weekly game, but nobody can actually count on there being a weekly game, things go awry quickly.

Enthusiasm diminishes. Memories fade. Players start making other plans for upcoming game nights since they’re already assuming it will end up being postponed or canceled anyway.

That being said, it’s key to establish and communicate a realistic schedule for the game. Some DMs spend a lot of time preparing for each and every game session and may prefer to play every two weeks or complete a one-day marathon session once a month.

Others are big into improvisation and can be ready at a moment’s notice. Be frank and honest about your schedule (especially with yourself!), including potential future appointments or conflicts with your family and work.  Find a schedule that works, and more importantly, get buy-in from everyone to stick with it. 

This is also an excellent time to discuss what happens if some people can’t make it to game night. Some groups continue to play regardless, creating in-game reasons why absent player characters aren’t particularly talkative this week.

If time allows, some DMs will run players through personal side-quests before the next game. Many groups will play a different game of some sort (RPG, card game, board game, etc.) as a fallback option if the whole party can’t be present.

My current gaming group switches between games and DMs from time to time according to our respective scheduling complications.

Now comes the question of where you’re playing. Naturally, it is always best to find a comfortable place with ample lighting and space, but also consider the importance of convenience and proximity.

When you sit down at Session Zero, discuss where everyone can comfortably play each session. Many groups choose to meet at the DM’s house, but some prefer to rotate weekly.

Other gaming groups might choose to play in locations such as a school, café, friendly local gaming store, library, church, or community center. So many possibilities!

Of course, depending on various factors, a group may find that online gaming is the better (or only) option. Virtual tabletops have come a long way over the past decade. Take a look at services such as Astral, Owlbear Rodeo, Foundry VTT, Fantasy Grounds, and Roll20 to explore this option.  

Before moving on to other broader topics, it’s a good idea to throw out a few other subjects for group discussion. For example, while playing D&D is a social event, how does everyone feel about drinking or smoking during the game?

For some groups, it’s a non-issue. For others, it may merit addressing. Another thing that has become extremely prevalent in recent years that bears consideration is the presence and use of phones or other mobile devices at the gaming table.

They can be excellent tools, with apps for game book reference and dice rolling. They can also be unbelievably distracting. I’ve enjoyed games where nobody glanced at their phones more than once or twice. However, I’ve also experienced situations where certain players had to be reminded that it was their turn and given updates on what had just occurred in the game, all because they were staring at their phones.

To address this, some gaming groups go so far as to all place their phones in a basket by the door before they sit down to play. Others just have a simple “pay attention to the game” sort of rule.

Some tables even have strict and clear in-game consequences for losing focus. Session Zero is the right time to decide what’s going to work best for your particular group.

Rules

Once you’ve sorted out where, when, and other related topics, it’s a good idea to communicate (and maybe evaluate) your house rules.

One of the truly wonderful things about this hobby is that, outside certain core aspects, every group of gamers will bring their own individual interpretations and flavor to the game.

If the DM has particular house rules that will be implemented, they should absolutely be listed and discussed.

Dungeons and Dragons has a ton of variant and optional rules baked right into the core rule books (Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide); spell points, training before leveling up, encumbrance, morale, experience point milestones, massive damage, and on and on.

When you consider this extensive list and then add in an individual DM’s house rules for a specific spell or rules about how they’d like to handle death saving throws, it’s definitely something that could easily become confusing.

This is yet another great opportunity for a Session Zero discussion. In fact, if the list of variants, options, and house rules is particularly long, it’d be a very good idea for each participant to have a printed list available. 

It’s also a fantastic idea to bring up how rules disputes and/or adjudication will be handled. Nobody wants to waste valuable gaming time arguing and debating about the appropriate implementation of a rule during a dramatic scene.

Whether it boils down to a DM or player getting something completely wrong, or just a question of interpretation, rules disputes need to be addressed. You can handle them then and there, sacrificing narrative flow for decisiveness.

Or you could put a pin in the topic for discussion after game, or between games, thus allowing the story to go on despite the possibility that a rule may have been flubbed.

From there, it’s a matter of deciding whether such mistakes call for a retcon (retroactive continuity) change to the story, a change to the rule going forward, or whether things can stand as they are.

As long as everyone understands how these things will be handled, it will cause inevitable future issues to go a lot more smoothly. 

Safety Tools

Ultimately, D&D is a game, and everyone who participates in it (which includes the DM) should enjoy it. Allowing individuals to have means at their disposal to ensure that enjoyment, and to avoid circumstances that may result in discomfort or distress, just makes good sense.

As discussions about this topic have grown across the D&D fan community, a lot of excellent suggestions have come to light regarding techniques that contribute to making everyone at the table feel respected, valued, and secure.

With that in mind, it may be beneficial to pick from among many available safety tools to continue making your D&D experiences as entertaining as possible.

I also strongly advise you to address and use your table’s preferred safety measures throughout gaming sessions, rather than only employing them in response to difficulties that have already arisen.

While there are a wide variety of tools available, I’m going to give an overview of just a few very popular options. 

Veil and Lines

These two terms are inextricably linked, but very different. They are, at their core, a way of categorizing content or subject matter which will either be limited or excluded from the game as a part of an individual session or the campaign as a whole.

Common content which might be subject to a particular table’s Lines or Veils could include gore, slavery, sex, assault, and so on. 

A Line is a topic that is, literally, off the table. It is a subject that will not enter into the game in any fashion. As my great-grandfather might have said, “Es ist verboten!”

A Veil, on the other hand, is a topic that can be a part of the game but will be handled off-screen, so to speak, or otherwise glossed over. Not a forbidden subject, but not one you’re going to spend a lot of time describing or discussing.

Every group of gamers will have different takes on Lines and Veils, and that’s absolutely as it should be. It should also be made clear during Session Zero that neither of these categories has to become fixed unmoving points but can, instead, be considered flexible as group consensus allows so long as each individual’s perspective, comfort, and enjoyment are being considered and respected. 

X-Card

This tool is absolutely simple to create and implement. While I suppose one could be crafted with as much glitz and filigree as desired, the simplest version of the X-Card is just an index card with a plain X drawn on one side.

That’s it. You could use a sticky note. Etched stone. Whatever. But, the key is that the card is recognized for what it is and then implemented appropriately. 

How it works is equally simple. 

When a player is uncomfortable with the content for any reason (which need not be communicated but certainly can be), they simply place their hand on the card, hold it up, or otherwise clearly indicate that they are invoking the X-Card.

The DM then knows to move on and limit such content going forward. If the source of discomfort is unclear, the DM and the player can discuss the topic immediately or take a short break to provide the necessary insights. 

Consent in Gaming

Consent in Gaming is a free 13-page supplement offered by Monte Cook Games. It includes a number of safety tools and a lot of very useful information and resources related to navigating sensitive or painful subject matter within the context of a roleplaying game session.

It includes a very helpful session zero checklist, which I found to be very illuminating, as well as an extremely useful bit on the topic of how to handle making mistakes while attempting to use these various safety tools. Nobody’s perfect, after all. I highly recommend picking up your free copy of this exceptional PDF here.

Campaign Overview

Session Zero is an opportunity for the DM to really build excitement and set both standards and expectations for the game ahead. I sometimes like to think of Session Zero as the big release of a movie trailer!

Will this be a home-brewed world, or are you pulling this straight from a published setting? Will the adventure be coming from a module or something utterly original? Are there unique races, classes, or fascinating historical events you want the players to know about?

Now is when you can hit the salient highlights, as well as some tasty teasers, and important details of your campaign plans.

Playstyle

There are a lot of ways to play the game, and spending a few minutes on the subject of preferred playstyles will not go amiss. For example, is the intention to run a story that’s utterly focused on the players and their actions, or will their adventures serve as a contrast to highlight larger events in the world as a whole?

Should they plan on viewing the game world as a huge sandbox there for them to explore and build on, or more as characters moving through a heavily scripted tale with linear events and important set pieces (sometimes referred to as a railroad)?

Tones or Themes

The players will absolutely want to know if they should be prepared for an urban noir adventure, a gritty military tale, or a high fantasy romp.

If the DM has clear themes in mind for the campaign, I cannot recommend heartily enough that these be communicated.

When the Session 0 moves on to the Character Creation phase, it will absolutely have a strong influence on players if they know to expect a dark and brooding Underdark campaign filled with paranoia, treachery, and mystery.

The World Itself

When running a D&D game, there are seemingly endless possibilities for setting, tone, theme, monsters, etc. But, realistically, the types of games that will actually resonate with your audience (the players) will be a lot more limited.

If you happen to have been playing with the same group of people for a long time, you may all have very clear ideas of what sorts of games each participant enjoys. But, what if this is a brand-new group gathering together for their first adventures together? Or, maybe some of the group are very familiar with one another, but some are new faces?

When you’re playing with a new group, Session Zero can be a great time for the DM, to get to know the players, find out what they like and don’t like about certain aspects of D&D, and figure out what kind of game they’re going to enjoy the most. 

If you’re the DM, I highly recommend taking some time to consider the type of campaign you want to run long before Session Zero begins.

  • Are you looking to run a Norse-inspired saga with world-ending stakes and mythic characters?
  • Or to set your game in a single city, with your players engaged in elaborate and deadly urban intrigues?
  • Would you be keen on running a game about daredevils on faerzress-fueled skiffs navigating breakneck rapids through the subterranean depths of the Underdark, while bootlegging eldritch treasures and dodging a Duergar Empire?
  • Or maybe a survival-focused hex-crawl through verdant primeval forests hunting a basilisk, which is worshiped by a local tribe of Yuan-ti?

It’s never a bad idea to have a backup idea or two, as well. So, think about two or three different pitches for a campaign you want to run as a DM. These don’t have to be anything terribly elaborate, and you should really err on the side of brevity if possible.

Just include several short sentences that introduce players to your world and describe the gameplay you’d want the players to experience. It’s also a good idea to have each little pitch include a few cultural touchstones to help them understand the tone and themes you’re working on; movies, books, music, etc.

Additionally, you can give your players some guidelines to use when choosing their character’s race and class, as well as when selecting their personality, backgrounds, and general aesthetic. 

Absolutely be sure to include any aspects of the world setting that deal with how available races or classes are dealt with! If there are no Dragonborn in the setting, for example, that may well prove to be vital information for a player who had every intention of playing one.

Or, the fact that all Warlocks are gun-toting law enforcement agents of the Faerie Queen should also be shared right upfront. 

Whether it be historical, cultural, environmental, or religious, it’s a very good idea to communicate fully how standard character options might be just a touch different in your setting than they are by the game’s default assumptions.

Informing your characters about what their choices can lead to beforehand can lead to better roleplaying experiences.

This isn’t to say you should restrict their choices unnecessarily, but you can give them a better sense of how those choices may fit with the game world and the consequences that should be expected should they choose to follow that particular path. 

Character Creation

Another typical part of the Session Zero experience is the creation of characters. You’ve covered the logistics of the game itself, you’ve spent some time discussing the rules, and even delved into the setting to some degree. 

If you still have the time for everyone to collaboratively work on building their characters, this is an excellent path to follow.

Not everyone likes to handle things in this fashion, as some prefer to make character creation either a more secretive process between each player and the DM or to simply schedule a separate session solely for making characters. These methods are absolutely fine, of course. 

But, personally, I really like the idea of allowing everyone to strike while the proverbial iron is hot and all of this information that was just discussed is fresh in their minds. Other advantages include the immediate availability and proximity of both the DM and other players to serve as sounding boards and general rules support. 

With the options available, character creation can be overwhelming for a newer player.  Further, as a player, building your character alongside your soon-to-be adventuring companions and DM is also a great way to integrate them into the party and the wider world.

If you have decided to collaborate on the character creation process during your Session 0, there are a number of considerations that can be handled at this time. Some are rules-based, while others can be discussed and decided by the group.

For example, there are three general ways to determine ability scores in D&D; Rolling, Buying, or Standard Array.  All three are given a full explanation in the Player’s Handbook, and players should be aware if any of the options are preferred, altered, or not going to be allowed.  The same applies to hit points (rolling or average). 

Another important distinction would be whether your game is going to allow players to make their choices from a limited or full choice of Backgrounds. Maybe certain racial or cultural backgrounds just don’t make good sense in the context of the campaign setting you’re about to explore.

Also, are you going to allow for Feats in the game? How about making minor tweaks or even full-blown substitutions between the Skills or Feats in a Background to better fit a player’s character concept?

As mentioned before, Session Zero is a fine opportunity to create a sense of integration between the individual characters as well as the wider world they’re set to inhabit. 

For how long have they known one another? Will the first game session involve them meeting for the very first time, or are they old war buddies with years of interactions and bonds between them? 

Why did each become an adventurer in the first place? Are any of the player characters family members and, if so, what’s their relationship like?

 
The alternate patron rules presented in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything also make for an excellent tool to provide background, bonds, and integration for a group. 

In addition to encouraging players to engage more deeply with the world, Patrons serve as ways for Dungeon Masters to unite parties, and provide them with regular opportunities to participate in quests (without feeling railroaded by the ‘quest of the week’), collect gold, training, and experience.

Get Your D&D Session 0 Started!

While we have definitely discussed quite a bit here, it all really does come down to a few basic ideas.  At its core, Session Zero is truly about communicating and setting expectations between everyone who is going to be participating in the upcoming game. 

When everyone involved is on the same page about everything from scheduling to house rules to the campaign setting itself, then the game is off to a very auspicious start.  Potential problems or misunderstandings can be avoided entirely, rather than leaping out from the bushes and getting a surprise attack somewhere down the road. 

If the group takes the time to plan, attend, and fully engage with one another during a Session 0, the odds of the game being an entertaining success are a great deal higher. 

D&D Session 0 FAQs

Do you need a Session 0 in your DnD game?

In short, yes.  It’s a good idea to have a Session Zero that everyone can attend, so they can manage their expectations and ensure that both players and the Dungeon Master are on the same page. While also addressing logistics like scheduling and important things like house rules, getting a sense of the world in which the characters exist and the broader story helps tie the characters together.  They are especially useful when running campaign games.

Do you start at level 1 or 0 in DnD?

While there are some home-brewed variant rules for starting at level 0, D&D is designed for characters to start at level 1.  Starting at level 1 is especially helpful for players who are new to the game so that they understand the character growth process while not being overwhelmed by excessive options.

What is the average DnD session time?

An individual session of DnD has no specific time limit and could conceivably run anywhere from a few hours to an entire day! However, on average, most gaming groups report that their games typically last for around 3 or 4 hours. 

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Written By Jim Flory

Jim has been running, playing, and creating role-playing games for over four decades and shows no signs of slowing down!