D&D 101: The Importance of a Zero Session

A lot of common problems at the D&D table can be prevented or at least identified by sitting down for an important "Zero Session" beforehand. Welcome to D&D 101, a column that answers reader questions about Dungeons & Dragons (and other tabletop games.) We'll cover everything from game management skills, character builds, and creating memorable campaigns to some of the trickier "social" aspects of the game. If you have a question that you'd like to see answered in a future column, leave us a comment or find me on Twitter at @CHofferCbus and ask me on there!

Today's topic comes from my pal @Koltreg who wanted me to follow-up on my last column about finding a D&D group. Once you've found a group to play Dungeons & Dragons with, how can you tell that it's the "right" group? Even if you're playing with friends, there's no guarantees that your style of play will be compatible with others. Every D&D player and DM has their own playstyle, their own storytelling methods, and their own ways of enjoying the game. A player who loves the resource management or rule nuances of D&D might get frustrated with a player that simply wants an outlet to live out their "hack and slash" fantasies. Or maybe you don't want a game in which the DM railroads the player from plot point to plot point without giving players time to explore the world. There are lots of reasons why you might not be a good fit with a newly formed D&D group, but how do you figure this out before you actually sit down and start campaigning?

One key to determining whether you're a good fit with a D&D group is honest communication before the campaign starts. Before players actually start a campaign, they should think about what they want out of it and if there's any topics or playstyles that they want to avoid. While players may want to be as accommodating as possible because they don't have many opportunities to play D&D, it's important to know what your personal boundaries are and communicate them to your fellow players. After all, if another player doesn't respect your wishes, it's a strong sign that the D&D group won't be a good fit.

An easy way to figure out if you'll be compatible with a new group of players is to have a "Zero Session," an informal session that takes place before the start of a campaign. Some DMs use Zero Sessions to brainstorm ideas about a campaign, giving players a chance to suggest what they want to see in the campaign, or even choose on what "style" of campaign they want to play. Sometimes, DMs will briefly introduce players to the world of their upcoming campaign, suggesting backstory elements for players or incorporating ideas from the players into the fabric of their world.

DMs also use Zero Sessions to lay out ground rules for the campaign, particularly when it comes to "home rules" or player restrictions. For instance, if a DM really hates the Lucky feat, a Zero Session gives DMs the opportunity to express their dislike and address any potential pushback from any player who really wants their character to have that feat. The Zero Session is meant to allow for open communication between players and work out any potential problems before they actually occur in game. Every DM has their quirks, and a Zero Session is a great way to temper expectations and explain things to players before it becomes a problem.

Zero Sessions may also serve as a first introduction between players, which makes it the perfect chance to establish what everyone wants out of a game. If you haven't played with someone at the table before, zero sessions are are the perfect opportunity to discuss playstyles, boundaries, and other important concepts not necessarily covered in official D&D rules. After all, the Player's Handbook has detailed guides about how to grapple an enemy, but the rulebook doesn't cover how to solve conflict at the table.

The key to a productive Zero Session is open communication, especially when a group of players haven't played together before. It's important to know what your fellow players like or dislike, as those differences become common sources of conflict. DMs should use a Zero Session to ask players what their character's goals are, and how they want to handle things like roleplaying, metagaming, or rules conflicts. Some players really want an immersive experience, where the players stay in character the entire time. Others really enjoy sticking to the D&D rules as they appear in the campaign, and don't want any variance from them. Some folks are just there to have a good time, joke a lot, and laugh. There's no wrong way to enjoy D&D, but a Zero Session helps players get a sense about whether you'll fit in or not before the campaign actually starts.

Recently, I had an impromptu "Session Zero" with my players when we decided to put out long-running campaign on hold due to some players needing to take an extended absence. One player suggested that we play through a smaller storyline that could be wrapped up in a few months, while another player suggested that we try a campaign with evil characters. We turned those two suggestions into the foundation of what should be a really fun campaign, featuring a group of cultists trying to free their trapped dragon god so that it can save the world from an even bigger threat. We also used the Session Zero to change what day of the week we would play on (thus addressing some scheduling issues head on), and determined that this would be a plot-heavy campaign that didn't need a ton of sandbox exploration.

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Usually, social circles establish boundaries over time. My friends know my likes and dislikes because they've known me for years. A D&D group tends to be like that too - every party is going to have its awkward or tense moments, which usually get smoothed over after a few minutes or a conversation to clear the air. However, if you're worried that you might not get along with your players, it's helpful to sit down with them in advance and talk things out. It's better to get things into the open in advance, rather than risk having an uncomfortable D&D experience. If you're getting ready to start a D&D campaign, ask for a Zero Session to establish the rules of the table and to get to know your fellow players.

If you have a question for D&D 101, leave a question in the comment section or find me on Twitter at @CHofferCbus to tell me what you want to see in a future column.