Session Zero: How to Start a Successful Tabletop Roleplaying Campaign

Holding a session zero is widely regarded as best-practice for beginning a tabletop roleplaying game on its best possible footing.

In this article, you’ll find an overview of what a session zero is, how to structure this critical piece of your new game, and even a few scripted suggestions on how to traverse the trickier parts. Let’s get started.

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed here are my own. This post may contain affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I may earn a small commission.

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Session Zero is a great opportunity to get to know your players a little better before the game starts.

What is Session Zero?

In a new Dungeons and Dragons Campaign, or any new TTRPG campaign, session zero allows players and the game master to set expectations, create characters, introduce aspects of the story, and make sure everyone will get along.

Meeting New Players

This is your opportunity to see how your new humans interact with each other. Tension? Flirting? Awkwardness? Someone who says like… nothing the entire time? It can give you an idea within minutes of what you’re going to be working with.

Create or Finalize Characters

This is a great time to be available for new players who may need help creating their first D&D character. A good friend of mine (who is also a most excellent Dungeon Master) likes to create premade character sheets in different classes, and just have the new players fill in some backstory details.

This saves them the trouble of learning so many new mechanics and rules up front, and they can just dive right into the game. Once the player levels up, the DM helps them understand how their character works and gives them what they need to make good decisions; this way, they learn the rules gradually over time.

If you’ve never made a character before and you’re planning on running the game, I have two pieces of advice for you:

  • Make a character.
  • Remember the wise words of Chris Perkins: “You are the master of your own character.” I tell my players this all the time; especially once they reach level 10+. I don’t always have the answers to every question about their skills, subclass, or build. No big deal.
A session 0 can help you see potential issues or needs ahead of time.

Why a Session Zero is Necessary

You should hold a session zero for a successful start to your campaign. It sets up your new players with the right ideas and expectations about you and your game, and helps ensure you will all get along well (at least to start).

This get together should be a lot of fun. I can get so much information from my new players. What they love, what annoys them, what kinds of characters they’re excited to play, how much experience they have in the game, and how much support they’ll need from me or other players. You can see who is nervous and who is a know-it-all, who min-maxes and who purposely wants to build a broken character for the sake of their back story.

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Why Setting Expectations is Crucial

This is a huge deal. So huge, it gets its own article.

The short version is this: talk to your players about what kind of game you’re planning on running, and ask them what they’re excited about in a new campaign. Lots of tense, political intrigue? Tons of tactical combat? Owning property? Running a business? What are they interested in?

When you talk to your potential players, before session zero even starts, ask what kind of game they want. It can save everyone some time and heartache.

If you have different ideas of what makes a campaign fun than what your players want, the campaign is not going to work.

If you want to read straight from the book and do nothing but tactical combat—no roleplaying—and you’re sitting with a bunch of theater nerds… you need a different group. And they will be wanting a different DM, too. I know it’s hard at this point, but that’s why you have a session zero. I suggest when you talk to your potential players before session zero even starts, you ask what kind of game they want. It can save everyone some time and heartache.

How to Structure Your Session Zero

There are many ways to do this. Here’s how I usually organize events:

Set a Clear Meeting Time

Set the day and time so everyone can make it comfortably, otherwise you’ll have problems with tardiness and attendance in the long run.

Lead the Group

Once everyone arrives, tell them how excited you are that they’ve joined. You can drop a few juicy hints about content in your new campaign, or not. I like to tell them the planned setting, date, and any major conflicts in the region.

Your enthusiasm here is paramount. If you’re not bursting at the seams with exuberant joy, they’re not going to be as excited to show up again next week. Or the week after.

Don’t Monopolize the Time

It’s important to get the conversation started, but don’t go on for too long, or you’ll wear everyone down. A few minutes of overview is good. Then, ask a question.

Something like: “Okay, you have a basic idea of where we’re going to be. I’d love to hear any ideas or concepts you’ve considered for your characters, and I’d be happy to help anyone fill in their character sheet. Let’s go around the table.”

This gives everyone a moment to shine. It should go without saying that you are so excited about every character concept presented here, but do not dominate the conversation. This is not about you.

Most people won’t front with something like: “Oh, I want to be a jerk murderhobo that ruins the game for everyone.” So don’t assume that’s what anyone is planning. Your enthusiasm here is especially important for new players, who need you to be nurturing and encouraging.

Socialize a Little

After everyone introduces themselves, I like to just let conversation flow for a bit.

They should be working on their characters and helping each other out. It gives me an idea of who is more outspoken, confident, who is the most knowledgeable of the rules, and (most importantly) who is kind, patient, and helpful.

I can usually see if there’s going to be a real-life player conflict pretty easily at this point.

Set Expectations

This is when you tell everyone the types of attendance, behavior, and content you expect, and they can expect from you. If you’re not comfortable doing a safety check with them just yet, that’s okay, but make sure you keep your content truly “trigger-free” until you complete one. MCDM has a free one that works great.

I talked about this some above, but if you need additional guidance on setting expectations, I have an article on it. You can check it out here.

As a quick example, here is a loose script I would say to my players at this point:

We will meet weekly, and the session will last for about four hours. I love having new players at my table, and I expect everyone to treat one another with kindness and respect. I don’t foresee that being a problem with you guys, but please understand that I have no tolerance for hatred.

This is a game, which means it is supposed to be fun. That means it needs to be fun for everyone. If your version of fun makes someone else uncomfortable, than that’s not going to work for me.

Until we complete a safety checklist, we will be keeping the game strictly PG. Personally, I’m not okay with any graphic violence against animals or children, and no creepy sexy stuff at all. Are we good on all that?

You can also give anyone the opportunity to speak up here, if they’d like.

Lighten the Mood

You just dropped some serious, possibly heavy info on them, and you don’t want to end on that. So here’s how I transition. After expectations, I say something like: “Okay—we’re good on the serious stuff. Now, it’s time for your characters to shine. You ready to meet each other?” Big smile!

I describe the scene where the game officially starts, and they meet and chat and possibly get their first quest hook just before I close the session. This play time can be anywhere from 30 minutes to hours, depending on your scheduling. Try to end on a cliffhanger, or a very interesting moment. You want them to come back next week, and they’re all still deciding on you!

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Closing Thoughts

Session zero is an ideal gathering space for setting expectations, getting players excited about their characters, and defining the mood for the campaign. It’s also a great time to make sure everyone gets along and has the right idea about what’s going to transpire within the game.

Do you have a ritual or best practice for session 0 that I didn’t mention here? I’d love to read about it in the comments below.

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Love, Malice. I hope you enjoyed the article! I'm here if you have any questions. Feel free to leave a comment below!

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