Starting off on the right foot.
The idea of a formal ‘Session Zero’–an initial meeting where the ground rules are laid out for campaign based games like Dungeons & Dragons–hasn’t been around for that long. Indeed, the first references online date back to about 2017.
The more tabletop games I play, the more important I feel a good Session Zero is: But what, exactly, is it?
Session Zero is a pre-game period, typically handled in a session before the actual adventure starts, where the Dungeon Master (DM) and the players discuss character ideas, boundaries, limits, and the setting. It’s the beginning of the collaborative process of playing a tabletop roleplaying game like D&D where everyone is brought up to speed on what everyone else wants out of the game while developing an understanding of where people’s comfort levels are going into the campaign.
I have to admit that the first couple of games I played in and ran were mostly fine without much beyond character creation. But it’s the “mostly” that was the problem. I’ve made and experienced a few mistakes that could have easily been avoided if they had been discussed ahead of time.
Once, I secretly put an NPC in the crossfire of an area-of-effect spell, a misguided attempt to show that actions have consequences, a decision that upset one of my players to the point where they didn’t tell me about it until years later.
That’s what a good Session Zero should be for: avoiding game-changing mistakes before they happen.
The notion of a Session Zero has even made its way into official D&D product, with page 139 of the newly-released Dungeons & Dragons book Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything kickstarting a section on Session Zero. This marks the first time it has been formalized in an officially released D&D book –a good step toward making the game more accessible to new players.
But inspiration for running good Session Zeros often comes from outside the world of official D&D products.
The first time I seriously started considering how to run them beyond just character generation was in 2019 when Monte Cook Games released a supplement called Consent in Gaming. It’s a worksheet for tackling mature content in tabletop games for players to fill out so their DM knows what topics they can safely cover in their stories without upsetting anyone in the group.
“There’s a spectrum for each topic” the guide notes. “A person might be okay with having goldfish in their game, but not be okay with vivid descriptions of their goggly eyes, weird smell, and scaly skin. They might be okay with violence, but not graphic descriptions of blood and gore.”
While I haven’t specifically used this checklist, I have started seriously applying the guide’s lessons to my games, as I consider how (and if) I tackle relationships and sex in my games, mental and physical health themes, and beyond.
I began asking my players about what they didn’t want to see and cutting or replacing content as needed.
The second and more recent example comes from Dice Friends, a tabletop game series from Canadian comedy and streaming company LoadingReadyRun. Their most recent series, at time of writing, is a short Vampire: The Masquerade chronicle run by Jacob Burgess, whose handling of a Session Zero was inspiring.
V:TM is a horror game with elements of loss of humanity and control being central to its themes so doing a Session Zero thoroughly is vital to everyone’s enjoyment of the game.
The first 33 minutes of the video is a masterclass in how to do it right.
Take note of Jacob’s laid-back approach to discussing sensitive topics. He gives everyone time to speak and think about their limits, with examples from his own personal experience to help the players on their way. Most importantly, he’s respectful of people’s limits.
The only questions he asks are for clarification, with zero attempts to undermine them by trying to make them reconsider. By doing this he’s not only showing a high level of respect for his players, but he’s creating the absolutely crucial welcoming atmosphere that leads to honest discussion.
It’s also worth mentioning that talking about limits and triggers shouldn’t end after one session.
Keeping up communication during play is vital to keeping everyone happy. The best D&D games are ones where everyone is working together to tell the story, and using the safety mechanics and limits established ahead of time goes a long way to fostering inclusivity around the table, which in turn will help get people more comfortable and more likely to enjoy the game.
A common safety mechanic that can be established in Session Zero is the X Card, which for physical tables or virtual games with video chat, is an index card with a big X written on it.
This card, proposed in 2013 by John Stavroupolis, is held up whenever a theme or discussion occurs that one of the players is uncomfortable with, which is a sign that it needs to stop immediately and be redone in a way that everyone is happy with. It’s a powerful tool that, if used properly, can make sure no lines get crossed and the whole table can enjoy the game more.
Ultimately, Session Zero is about communication, a tool that can help with managing expectations, getting players to open up more, and making tabletop gaming a safer experience for everyone at the table.
Tabletop gaming may be a hobby, but it’s a hobby that people, myself included, take very seriously. At the end of the day, it’s a social way of having fun, and that requires everyone to contribute something of themselves to move the game forward, and someone feeling unsafe or unhappy means you aren’t getting the best possible game or your players’ best possible selves.
Nobody wants that.
Top image: By Yerson_O under CC BY-SA 3.0