Dungeons & Dragons is arguably the most difficult game to create content for. With so many Dungeon Masters trying to sculpt their perfect game, there's a huge propensity for bad DMs to "railroad" players – a term meaning keeping all agency in the game to themselves, with minimal input by the other players. Alternatively, they risk making the game an unmanageable sandbox where their party can roam free to a state of complete and utter plot derailment. This is why a Session Zero – a pre-campaign session where rules and boundaries are established – is necessary.
On a personal level, I am beginning my own Dungeons & Dragons campaign on Friday, May 15th, and will be kicking the campaign off with a Session Zero. I'm still trying to figure out how to make it immersive if I even can without brushing off some important aspects of the session's point, but there are many things that I'll be implementing.
What Is Session Zero, Anyway?
Simply put, Session Zero is a pre-campaign session usable in any roleplaying setting where the players convene with the DM or GM to establish ground rules for the sake of the comfort of all parties. The topic of consent comes up a lot; not just in the traditional sense of the term, but also regarding the terms of the game's mechanics and flow. Is a player uncomfortable with rampant murder-hobos in the game they're about to play? That player has their chance to discuss this here. Does the DM absolutely loathe the Lucky feat? The DM gets the opportunity to ban it here (and later on, if the issue arises). In essence, the Session Zero of any campaign draws lines but also breaks walls of miscommunication between players.
As someone who does not wish to cause my players extreme discomfort in my campaign, I feel inclined to go over such things in a Session Zero.
On Homebrews and Session Zero
My Dungeons & Dragons 5e campaign setting Dastarque is set in a world custom-fit for antiheroes and even villains to flourish and thrive in. It's a personally-homebrewed world, and as such I have to make sure my players know what they are in for. There are a few things that this homebrewed setting can exemplify in an ideal Session Zero:
Setting Themes: Dastarque is a dark fantasy setting, and as such a lot of themes are, well, dark and fantastical. There are going to be suggestive themes of substance use, sin (traditionally speaking, both cardinal and *ahem* original), and a ton of criminal activity. Your settings as a DM could include lighter themes, but I choose for this setting to be dark, fairly morbid, and oftentimes violent.
Mechanical Preferences: In my campaign, despite its ties to the themes of Magic: The Gathering (a game that, if you've read my other articles, you know I love), character races from outside of my campaign setting aren't allowed in my campaign for a variety of reasons, including mechanical. This is just one example of the mechanical preferences I have set in my campaign. Others include the notion that I'm only allowing classes from the Player's Handbook, the barring of the conceptualization of Fiends, Gods, and the Undead (more on these bars if I ever get into my world's cosmology), and a whole other alignment chart.
Expectation of Playstyles: My campaign is likely to be of a hack-n-slash style from the beginning, but as the campaign goes on, I aim for it to contain themes of stealth, exploration, and possibly political intrigue. There will be a lot of places in this campaign where I want players to do what drives the plot; however, that doesn't mean I want to railroad them. I'd much prefer they have a chance to interact with the world I've created, even if this does mean they become murder-hobos (temporarily).
Duration of Terms: Anything that I as the DM establish as a tenet of the world I am creating is going to be established as pending my whim as DM. Things are meant to be pliable, and rules are meant to be bent at my discretion. This must also be made clear to my players, as with any DM and their respective parties, every time.
My Players' Input During Session Zero
Anything my players have an issue with during Dastarque's Session Zero will be discussed right away with me, and if it isn't discussed at Session Zero, it can be brought up with my privately any time afterward. I'm mulling over the idea of also giving my players each a copy of the below consent form to make sure I can accommodate them in the best ways I can.
This form covers a lot of topics for player comfort and has a few blank spaces where other things can be input. I recommend using this one if you are looking for a comprehensive form. You can find a PDF version of the book it comes from, Monte Cook Games' Consent in Gaming by Sean K. Reynolds and Shanna Germain, here on DriveThruRPG's webpage.
What Else Should Session Zero Be?
While I'm looking for a fun way to immerse my players in the world as early as Session Zero, I don't want the immersion to interfere in the discussions typically brought into play therein. What else should a Session Zero in Dungeons & Dragons bring up? Do you have any suggestions for players in my position? Discuss it in the comments below!