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How to run a D&D session zero

Updated: Apr 6, 2023

Dungeons and Dragons is a collaborative storytelling game that relies on the cooperation and creativity of both the players and the Dungeon Master (DM). It can be an incredibly rewarding experience, full of memorable moments and exciting twists and turns. However, a successful game requires a solid foundation that starts before the first dice roll: the session zero.

A session zero is a pre-game meeting where the DM and players get together to discuss the upcoming campaign, create characters, and set expectations for the game. It's a chance to align everyone's vision for the campaign and ensure that everyone is on the same page. Without a session zero, players might come in with wildly different expectations, leading to conflicts and confusion down the line. The session zero is particularly important if you have brand new players who have never played an RPG before.

In this blog post, we'll walk through the process of creating a successful session zero for your D&D game. We'll cover everything from character creation to party dynamics to safety tools, giving you the tools you need to set up your campaign for success. Whether you're a first-time DM or a seasoned veteran, this guide will help you create a solid foundation for your game that will pay off in the long run. So, let's dive in and start creating your session zero!

Setting Expectations

One of the most important things you can do during session zero is set expectations for the game. This includes everything from the tone of the campaign to the level of player agency to the level of difficulty. Here are some things to consider when setting expectations:

Tone: D&D can be played in a variety of tones, from light-hearted and comedic to dark and serious. It's important to discuss with your players what tone you're going for in your campaign, so everyone is on the same page. This will affect everything from the types of quests and enemies the players will face to the amount of humour or drama in the game.

Player Agency: D&D is a game where the players have a lot of agency over the story. It's important to discuss with your players the level of agency they will have in your campaign. Will they be able to affect the world around them, or will they be more constrained by the DM's plans? It's important to strike a balance that works for both the players and the DM.

Difficulty: D&D can be a challenging game, both in terms of combat and puzzles. It's important to discuss with your players the level of difficulty they're comfortable with. Do they want a more casual game where combat is rare and easy, or do they want a more intense game with challenging enemies and puzzles?

By setting expectations early on, you'll avoid conflicts down the line and create a game that everyone can enjoy. Encourage your players to be honest about their preferences and work together to find a balance that works for everyone. In the next section, we'll talk about character creation and how it ties into setting expectations for the game.

Character Creation

Character creation is a crucial part of session zero. This is where players create their characters and get a sense of who they'll be playing for the rest of the campaign. It's important to go over character creation in detail to ensure that players create characters that fit well within the game world and party dynamics. Here are some things to consider during character creation:

  1. Party Composition: D&D is a team game, and it's important to create a party that works well together. Make sure that players are creating characters that complement each other's strengths and weaknesses. For example, having a variety of classes and skillsets can be beneficial for tackling different types of challenges.

  2. Backstory: Encourage your players to think about their characters' backstories and motivations. This can help them create characters that feel more fleshed out and connected to the game world. Ask them questions like "Why did your character become an adventurer?" and "What is your character's ultimate goal?".

  3. World Building: During character creation, you can also introduce players to important elements of the game world. For example, you can describe different factions or locations that might be relevant to their characters. This can help players feel more connected to the game world and give them a sense of purpose.

By going over character creation in detail, you'll create a party that works well together and feels invested in the game world. Encourage players to be creative and work together to create a party that feels balanced and interesting. In the next section, we'll talk about party dynamics and how to avoid common pitfalls.

Party Dynamics

Party dynamics are the interactions between the player characters, and they can greatly affect the success of the campaign. It's important to establish clear party dynamics during session zero to avoid conflicts down the line. Here are some things to consider when discussing party dynamics:

  1. Intra-Party Conflict: Intra-party conflict can be an interesting and dramatic element of a D&D game, but it can also lead to tension and hurt feelings if not handled correctly. Discuss with your players the types of conflicts they're comfortable with and establish ground rules for how conflicts should be resolved.

  2. Communication: Communication is key in any team game, and D&D is no exception. Encourage your players to communicate with each other in-character and out-of-character, and establish ways to keep everyone on the same page. This can include things like a shared Google Doc for campaign notes or a group chat for scheduling and planning.

  3. Leadership: It's important to establish who will be the "leader" of the party, whether that's the DM or one of the players. This can help streamline decision-making and avoid conflicts. If a player is designated as the leader, make sure that everyone is comfortable with that arrangement and that the player is up to the task.

By establishing clear party dynamics early on, you'll create a more cohesive and enjoyable game. Encourage your players to be open and honest about their preferences and work together to create a party that works well together. In the next section, we'll talk about safety tools and how to create a safe and welcoming environment for everyone at the table.

Safety Tools

Safety tools are mechanisms used to ensure that everyone at the table feels safe and comfortable during the game. D&D can involve themes like violence and death, so it's important to establish safety tools during session zero to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Here are some safety tools to consider:

  1. Trigger Warnings: Trigger warnings are used to alert players to potentially triggering content in the game, such as violence, sexual content, or themes of abuse. Encourage your players to be open about their triggers and establish a system for how to give trigger warnings.

  2. Lines and Veils: Lines and veils are tools used to establish what content is off-limits (lines) and what content can be present but only in a limited or less explicit form (veils). This can help ensure that everyone feels comfortable with the content of the game.

  3. X-Card: The X-Card is a tool used to stop the game if anyone feels uncomfortable with the content being presented. Anyone can use the X-Card at any time to pause the game and discuss what's making them uncomfortable.

By establishing safety tools during session zero, you'll create a safe and welcoming environment for everyone at the table. Encourage your players to be open about their needs and preferences, and establish a system that works for everyone. In the next section, we'll talk about homebrew rules and how to incorporate them into your game.

Homebrew Rules

Homebrew rules are custom rules created by the DM or players that deviate from the official rules of D&D. They can be used to add new elements to the game, balance out existing rules, or create a more unique and personalized experience. Here are some things to consider when discussing homebrew rules during session zero:

  1. Theme and Tone: Homebrew rules should align with the theme and tone of the game. For example, if you're running a gritty and realistic campaign, you might want to avoid over-the-top magical abilities or powerful artifacts that can detract from the immersion.

  2. Balance: Homebrew rules should be balanced and fair to all players. Avoid creating rules that benefit one player over others or make the game too easy or too difficult.

  3. Agreement: Homebrew rules should be agreed upon by all players before they're implemented. Make sure everyone understands the rules and how they affect the game. Encourage players to voice their concerns or suggestions.

By discussing homebrew rules during session zero, you'll create a more customized and engaging game. Encourage your players to be creative and come up with their own ideas for rules or modifications. In the next section, we'll talk about campaign expectations and how to set them during session zero.

Campaign Expectations

Campaign expectations are the goals and objectives of the campaign, as well as the overall tone and theme. It's important to establish campaign expectations during session zero to ensure that everyone is on the same page and working towards a common goal. Here are some things to consider when discussing campaign expectations:

  1. Theme and Tone: The theme and tone of the campaign should be established early on. Is it a dark and gritty campaign or a lighthearted and humorous one? Make sure everyone is comfortable with the tone and theme before starting the game.

  2. Goals and Objectives: Discuss the goals and objectives of the campaign. Are the players working towards a specific quest or mission? Are they trying to save the world from a looming threat? Make sure everyone understands what they're working towards.

  3. Playstyle: Discuss the preferred playstyle of the campaign. Will it be combat-heavy or roleplay-focused? Will there be puzzles and riddles to solve or open-ended exploration? Make sure everyone is comfortable with the playstyle.

By establishing campaign expectations during session zero, you'll create a more focused and engaging game. Encourage your players to voice their preferences and work together to create a campaign that everyone enjoys. In the next section, we'll talk about character creation and how to make unique and interesting characters.


While the creative aspects of D&D are important, it's also crucial to discuss the logistics of the game during session zero. Here are some things to consider:

  1. Scheduling: Determine a regular schedule for your game and make sure everyone is available to play. Decide on the frequency of sessions and the duration of each session.

  2. Communication: Establish clear lines of communication between the DM and players. Make sure everyone has each other's contact information and determine the preferred method of communication (e.g., email, text, Discord).

  3. Equipment and Supplies: Make sure everyone has access to the necessary equipment and supplies. This includes dice, character sheets, and rulebooks. Consider providing extra copies for those who don't have their own.

  4. Rules and Expectations: Discuss any rules or expectations for the game. For example, you might establish rules for punctuality, cell phone usage, or conduct during gameplay. Make sure everyone understands and agrees to the rules.

  5. Location: Determine where you'll be playing the game. This can be a physical location (such as someone's home or a local game store) or an online platform (such as Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds).

By discussing logistics during session zero, you'll create a more organized and efficient game. Make sure everyone is on the same page and understands their responsibilities. In the next section, we'll talk about how to handle conflict and ensure everyone has fun.

Pre-empting Conflict

Conflict can arise in any group setting, and D&D is no exception. During session zero, it's important to address potential sources of conflict and establish guidelines for handling disagreements. Here are some tips for pre-empting conflict:

  1. Discuss Boundaries: Talk about any sensitive topics that may come up during gameplay, such as violence, sexual content, or discrimination. Establish boundaries and make sure everyone feels comfortable with the content.

  2. Encourage Communication: Encourage open and honest communication between players. Make sure everyone knows how to express their concerns and grievances in a respectful manner.

  3. Establish Group Goals: Establish common goals for the group to work towards. This can help reduce conflicts and create a more cohesive experience.

  4. Address Personal Issues: If there are personal issues between players, address them before the game starts. Try to resolve any conflicts or tensions so they don't interfere with gameplay.

  5. Establish a Conflict Resolution Process: Establish a clear process for resolving conflicts if they do arise. This could include taking a break, talking things out, or involving a third party mediator if necessary.

By pre-empting conflict during session zero, you'll create a more positive and enjoyable gaming experience for everyone involved. Encourage everyone to be respectful and supportive of each other, and make sure everyone feels heard and valued. In the next section, we'll talk about how to wrap up session zero and get ready for the first game.

Wrap Up

Congratulations, you've made it to the end of session zero! Before you wrap up, take some time to review what you've covered and make sure everyone is on the same page. Here are some things to consider:

  1. Recap: Recap the key points that were discussed during session zero. Make sure everyone understands what was covered and answer any questions they may have.

  2. Assign Homework: Assign any homework that needs to be completed before the first game. This could include creating characters, reading up on the campaign setting, or reviewing the rules.

  3. Establish Next Steps: Establish the next steps for the group. Determine when the first game will be and who will be responsible for organizing it.

  4. Express Gratitude: Take a moment to express gratitude to the group for their time and commitment to the game. Let them know how excited you are to begin playing and how much you appreciate their participation.

By wrapping up session zero in a positive and productive manner, you'll set the stage for a great gaming experience. Make sure everyone is excited and motivated to begin playing, and keep the lines of communication open as the game progresses. With these tips and guidelines, you'll be well on your way to creating a memorable and enjoyable D&D campaign.

What to do if players don't get it

If players don't like or don't understand why you need to prepare and have ground rules in a session zero, it's important to communicate the reasons why this is necessary. Explain to them that session zero is an opportunity to set expectations, establish boundaries, and create a shared understanding of the game world and the style of play.

You can also share anecdotes or examples from past games where not having ground rules led to confusion or frustration. Encourage players to ask questions and express any concerns they may have, and be open to adjusting or revising the ground rules if necessary. Ultimately, it's important to emphasize that preparing for a game session will lead to a more enjoyable and rewarding experience for everyone involved.

Examples of things that worked out in a session zero and a few things that didn't:

  1. Good Idea: One time, our DM decided to incorporate a house rule where each player could add a unique item to their starting inventory that was not listed in the official character options. This led to a lot of creative and fun ideas from the players, and it really made our characters feel more personalized. This one had to be judged well and fortunately nobody tried to add campaign wrecking super weapons.

  2. Kind of Thing: In our first time playing a dungeon crawl, our DM made the mistake of not setting clear ground rules for how long rest worked. We ended up taking multiple long rests in one dungeon, which made the challenge feel significantly easier and less rewarding. Players will spoil their own fun by benefitting from DM giveaways like this if not carefully managed.

  3. Game Masters: A friend of mine was a first-time DM for a new campaign setting and made the great decision to have a session zero where we collaboratively created the world and various factions within it. This not only helped us feel invested in the world but also made it easier for the DM to create plot hooks and conflicts that felt relevant to our characters. For fans of this sort of thing, we'll be creating collaborative world building rules in Psion when he launch it.

  4. Campaign Setting: One DM I played with ran a Curse of Strahd campaign but added their own twist by introducing political intrigue among the various factions in Barovia. It made for a much more interesting and dynamic campaign, and it was a great way to keep things fresh even when following a pre-written adventure. Pre-written adventures can be adapted, developed, changed and amended (depending how much time you have).

  5. Safety Tools: Our DM for a long campaign made sure to incorporate safety tools such as a "fade to black" option for any uncomfortable social encounters. This made the whole group feel more comfortable and allowed for a more inclusive and enjoyable experience. There has been some push back against safety tools in recent years, but the fact remains that some people find things distressing and want to enjoy a game without being freaked out and upset (not an unreasonable position to take).

  6. Character Sheets: A DM I played with for a new D&D game made sure to have extra character sheets available for newer players or those who may have forgotten theirs. It was a small gesture but made a big difference in making everyone feel welcome and prepared for the session.

  7. Party Members: In a game of Dungeons & Dragons, it's important to have party members who work well together. However, a DM I played with in an online game had to deal with individual players who weren't willing to compromise or work together, which led to a lot of conflict and tension in the playgroup. It eventually ended with one player leaving the group, and the moral of the story is that you can't please or accommodate everyone all the time. Most people are capable of getting along with one another just fine, but sometimes you have to place the interests of the group first.

  8. Game World: In one campaign, the DM created a much, much larger world than anyone was used to, with multiple continents and an incredible amount of lore. It was a lot to take in at first, but the DM did a great job of slowly introducing us to different regions and cultures, making us feel more invested in the story of the game.

  9. Play Style: One DM I played with had a more relaxed and casual play style, which was great for newer players or those who didn't want to take the game too seriously. However, for veteran players who wanted a more challenging and immersive experience, it wasn't the best fit. Players who know their game style and like what they like will eventually gravitate to the game that suits them best.

  10. Player Expectations: In a long campaign, it's important to have clear communication and expectations from both the DM and the players. One DM I played with didn't establish this from the start, which led to a lot of confusion and frustration for the whole group. What players assumed would be a lightly themed one shot turned into a dark fantasy epic campaign.

Overall, there are many excellent and amazing ways to run a D&D game and have a good time with everyone; all we're really looking for is some fun social interaction and some exciting stories to tell. The best kind of game will depend on the group of people you're playing with and the style of play/house rules you prefer. However, by keeping in mind some of the most important aspects of character creation, ground rules, and player expectations, you can set a great foundation for a fun and engaging game session run by a prepared Dungeon Master.

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