Before the Beginning – The Importance of Session Zero

It’s a sad fact that while almost every campaign starts out with oodles of enthusiasm, most tend to die out within the first few sessions. There are plenty of reasons for this, and while there’s no way to get rid of them entirely many can at least be reduced by a good Session Zero.

As the name implies, a session zero runs before the campaign actually starts. The main aim of it is to establish how the game will be running, what the DM expects and the kind of thing the players themselves would like to see – think of it as creating strong foundations on which you can build the more interesting parts of the game.

In all the excitement that comes when starting a new campaign it can be easy to overlook this vital step, especially if you’re part of a group that has played together before. However, spending a couple of hours going over everybody’s expectations can help to smooth out any issues long before they crop up.

Here are four things that you may want to include in the session zero for your next campaign.

Table Rules

These aren’t rules the modify the game itself – we’ll be getting those later – but rather the social and organisational rules that determine how you’ll play.

It may sound obvious, but it’s important to work out how often you’re going to play, where you be playing and how long you’ll be playing for.

Games that run ‘when we’re free’ have a terrible habit of petering out, especially if players have jobs and children to accommodate. This means it’s important to at least try and set a regular time and place for a session.

Some groups also like to establish rules for how people act at the table. For example, you may agree not to use phones or tablets while you’re playing or to work out some boundaries on the kind of material the group is happy to tackle.

Finally, sort out the snack and soda rotation. Don’t just expect the host to keep the popcorn and beer flowing week after week, especially if they’re also the DM.

Campaign Tone

One of the great things about tabletop RPGs is their incredible flexibility. Even if you’ve already agreed on a particular system the tone of the game can often be anything from an epic drama to a knockabout comedy farce.

Not only do you need to decide on where the group is going to fall on the Game of Thrones/Adventure Time spectrum, you also need to work out whether you’re going to try and keep things vaguely realistic. Some people get a kick out of portioning rations and accounting for every arrow, while others are happy to take all that for granted.

It’s important to note this shouldn’t just consist of the DM making a decision and the rest of the group having to live with it. Working out a tone that everyone is happy with is one of the most important factors in keeping a campaign going for the long run.

Establish the World

This is especially important in a homebrew campaign, but even in games that use published or well-established worlds you still need to make sure that all the players know what kind of place they’ll be dealing with.

Exactly how much the DM needs to explain will vary pretty significantly from table to table. A band of Tolkien nerds are unlikely to need the history of Middle Earth explained to them, but even the most seasoned gamers are likely to need an introduction to more esoteric settings.

This doesn’t mean that you need to begin every campaign with a PowerPoint presentation, however. Players are likely to simply stop paying attention after a while, so it’s important you pick out the most pertinent bits of information.

For example, you probably don’t need to explain the entire 3,000 year history of the heroes’ kingdom, but it may be important to explain that magic users are universally hated before one of your players rolls up a friendly Wizard. Similarly, if bronze is still considered the height of technology it may get a little awkward when someone turns up with a Gunslinger.

Sort out any Houserules

Houserules are those little tweaks that allow groups to make their game flow a little more smoothly or cater to their particular tastes.

These may include critical fumble charts, flanking rules or alternate ways to level up. There are plenty out there and it’s a good idea to talk them through with the group before implementing them, especially if you have any new players who may not realise that you’re actually houseruling.

It’s also worth making sure that everyone’s happy with how you’re running it, perhaps even allowing the group to vote on which ones you include.

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