Session Zero is…
A “session zero” is generally a gathering before the campaign you’re about to embark on begins. These aren’t really useful in the case of a one-shot or one time game, but they can be useful when organizing what will hopefully be a long term campaign, especially when that campaign involves a potentially large group of players. Session zero is generally a gathering of the DM at one or more of the players, so it’s not just a planning session for the DM’s ideas. This can be done over voice/video chats for an online campaign, or gathering informally or at the campaign location when doing and in person game.
What do you do during it?
A variety of things can happen during a session zero, but most commonly they are a pre-campaign roleplay session. Some DMs conduct these one-on-one to establish what type of roleplay each player is likely to engage in, smooth out details of their backstories, and provide them with experience, levels, or items they’ll need to start the campaign. For example, before my husband ran his first campaign he attempted to conduct one-on-one session zeroes with the majority of the players. During mine, we roleplayed my character to determine a mechanical function of her backstory as well as introduce her to an important NPC for the campaign.
In large campaigns it can be useful to conduct a few session zeroes with multiple players. This helps create bonds between party members, removing some of the severity of “a group of strangers thrown together.” This can also be useful in a campaign that is designed to start at level three (a very common starting level) but in which the players and/or the DM don’t want to skip levels before beginning. A session zero can easily be designed to graduate the players to level two or three.
In addition to getting players used to their characters and roleplaying, leveling up, and creating party bonds, session zero is also a good way to make sure everyone is comfortable with the campaign. Some tables like to discuss the meta details of their campaign before and during it, whereas other tables rely on the element of surprise to drive the story and therefore there’s little discussion out of character about what takes place in the campaign. Either way, a session zero is a good way to make sure the DM’s attention is spread out evenly amongst the players to establish ground rules. This includes potential triggers that players may not want to explain to the entire table, behaviors and attitudes the DM is uncomfortable with, or any number of interpersonal and communication needs that should be discussed on a smaller scale to ensure the safety and comfort of everyone at the table.
Why is it helpful?
Honestly the purposes of a session zero demonstrate that they’re helpful for organization, clarification, and communication. From a practical standpoint:
- Lower level characters are easy to kill, and it’s not fun for anyone when PCs die very early into a campaign. For campaigns that structurally don’t allow for level skipping, or roleplay committed players who don’t want to skip levels, session zero provides a story-appropriate setting in which to level up to a stage where PCs can easily handle challenges at a low level.
- Some players aren’t ready for a campaign or are unsure of the commitment to it. Session zero is a non-commitment session that shouldn’t affect the overall story. If a player discovers in a session zero that they don’t like their character, or don’t want to play at all, it isn’t a huge loss for a change to be made before the campaign begins.
- DMs don’t always understand a player’s backstory or character. Players tend to keep parts of their characters secret in order to enjoy the surprise of roleplay at the table. A one-on-one session zero allows a DM to get more insight into a PC’s motivations and backstory without ruining any surprises the player may want to keep.
- Players might not know one another! When organizing an online game, most players are strangers to one another. Even in person games can be arranged using friends-of-friends to fill seats. If the players and the DM are not already acquainted, or some of the players do not know one another, session zero can be a good time to make introductions and learn about one another.
- Session zero can also be a good time to learn the mechanics. New players or players unfamiliar with the gaming system being used (different editions of D&D vary) will take some time to learn how to read and use their sheets and dice. Session zero is a low pressure environment that allows them to learn how to operate the mechanics of their character.
- Session zero can also be a chance to create a cohesive party. Informal session zeroes can be character creation sessions, in which the table can openly discuss how they might like their characters related or what sorts of characters would suit one another in the party. A more formal session allows a roleplay to create party bonds.
Is it necessary?
Strictly speaking, no, session zero is not necessary. Tables that are comprised of a group that have played together before and get along usually don’t need a session zero to jump into their next campaign/game. Groups that are assembled online may feel they have enough information about the campaign they’re joining, and be comfortable at what level they’re starting out at. Scheduling is one of the number one challenges of any long term campaign as it is and it’s legitimate for tables to not have the time for a session zero before jumping into the campaign itself. Some players don’t see the need for a session zero so long as they have the information they need to build a character and have nothing more to inform the DM of. There are also campaigns and game systems whose premise may preclude the need of a session zero such as a campaign based on amnesiac characters in which the players don’t know anything about their PCs to begin with.
I think that session zero can be an incredibly useful tool when preparing a campaign. Even an informal session zero in which the players gather together to create their characters is a good idea! If the campaign doesn’t require a formal session zero, or multiple sessions, to establish backstory, party bonds, or levels, it can still be fun for the party to get together informally and out of character to just hang out. This also helps level out any differences in experience and takes some burdens off the DM’s shoulders. If the group is comprised of some players with experience and some without, the DM has help when guiding the newer players through the character creation process and determining the ways the party will be incorporated together. Of course, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to not want/need a session zero in your game!