Session 0s are vital for the best chance to run a successful campaign. If you don’t believe me, Matt Mercer mentioned here how important it is to have one.
So what is a session 0 and why exactly do you need to run one? Before the campaign starts you and your players get to sit down to discuss goals, themes and various topics of the campaign. You are looking to ensure everyone is on the same page before starting.
That covers what a Session 0 is, so onto why it is important. Bruce Tuckman wrote about 4 stages of group-formation which is aimed towards the working world but is broadly applicable to your gaming group. When embarking on a campaign, you want to have the Forming stage at the offset to align on personal goals and campaign themes so people understand what to expect. Everyone is going to be at different stages, some will be pumped to start whilst others will be more apprehensive; so ensuring everyone is on the same page allows for people to feel comfortable and temper expectations. Making sure they understand what content warnings may come up or understand the specifics of how stuff is going to work is vital for a fun-filled campaign. Session 0s offer to complete this first stage easily, so you can continue in the group development process during actual play.
Given everything written so far, there is a decent portion of prep work that you need to put in before holding your session 0. The first thing to do is to read the NoDDSoc GM Etiquette guide.
Work through the list below, making sure you have a good idea of what kind of game you want to run. You want to be able to come to the table having considered the following:
- Are you playing 5e, Call of Cthulhu, Mekton or Coriolis? What ruleset is the game based in?
- House Rules
- Are there any changes or additions to the rule system you are going to use?
- Homebrew or 3rd party material?
- Lore changes if an established setting (Forgotten Realms, Golarion, Night City)
- Table Rules
- Policy on drinking
- Cellphones & digital devices
- Player attention
- Real-life events
- World events will always affect people’s mental state. Are you ok with people discussing real-live events?
- Campaign Details
- Length (number of sessions)
- NoDDSoc runs for approximately just over 20 sessions each academic year.
- Time & Location of sessions
- Cancellation Notice (Emergencies Excepted)
- Pre-planned Cancellations
- Make-up Sessions & Sessions during Holidays and Exam Periods
- Genre warnings are helpful. If someone is looking for an epic fantasy, then joining a slow-burn mystery game is going to cause problems.
- Examples are; Epic fantasy, Mystery, Slice of life, horror, Sci-fi.
- Content warnings
- What is likely to come up; gore, violence, slavery and racism are often common themes that may trigger flashbacks. You should have a list ready of what you expect to come up to warn your players in advance. Your players will update you with any triggers or squicks that may affect them during the actual session.
- GMing style
- What is your style like? Do you like setting up complex mysteries or getting into the nitty-gritty of tactical combat?
- Do you like maps or prefer the theatre of the mind?
- Character Creation
- Do you intend for this to happen during session 0, or will the players have brought homemade characters? How are you doing stats? I personally prefer making characters as a part of session 0, but that’s your call entirely. It allows for everyone to gauge other players and find the right niche for themselves. It also helps to identify any possible personality conflicts and avoids creating characters that are copies of each other
- Player’s Guide
- This is a summary document for the world. It should contain main factions, basic info on the Gods (Clerics), prominent enemy types (rangers), level of magic/technology, laws & taboos, starting location and significant history.
- Player Expectations
- Backstory Length
- What to bring to a session?
- Dice & character sheet are obvious
- Dice trays, laptops, clipboards etc.
- Between session journaling? I personally enjoy doing it but I know many consider it homework.
- Inter-session reading material
- This can be in-game handouts or discussions over the next course of action.
- Length (number of sessions)
Questions for the Players
With your prep work complete, it is time to gather your players and align. You want to ensure that you do this when & where you want to actually run games. Print off a copy of the list above and work through it with your players. You want to let them know how playing at the table is going to be, so let them know your answers.
When you are going through that list, the following questions will also be good to get as information for you to help run.
- Player triggers & squicks
- What affects them. This can be extremely varied and should be treated with absolute caution and respect. Here is a link to the trigger section of our Player’s Etiquette guide. It is required reading for all players in NoDDSoc Games.
- If you are using the card system, this is a good time to introduce it and make sure your players are aware of it. I cannot recommend this system enough since it can be very difficult to explain verbally when you have triggered any of your players, and this allows you to quickly get yourself to a safer place.
- Do not forget yourself here. You are a player as well in this game.
- Player roles
- Is there someone who loves talking to NPCs? Someone who loves combat, what do people want to see?
- If there are any rules lawyers, this is a good time to co-opt them into ensuring the rules are followed. If you can have someone be the expert on the rules, it frees up your attention on the table to focus on everything else. It is especially important to be clear with your players about any house rules you intend to use and how lenient you will be with them.
- Player Questions
- What are the goals that the players have for themselves? Stuff like getting better at RPing, achieving system mastery. Just chilling out and having fun is a perfectly good answer.
- Table etiquette
- Pronouns & Preferred names
- Policy on breaks & snacks
- Spotlight Sharing
- PVP Content
- Intra-party dice rolls (Using skills against other players)
- Dice rolling
- Crooked dice or off the table
- Unannounced rolls
- Character Questions
- What are short & long-term goals that your characters have? Maybe it is to recover the ancestral sword or get enough money to pay off the debt so the family can keep the farm.
- What are the reasons the party has to stick together?
- Not every system requires a unified party, but most do (hence why this question is here). Everyone should have a reason why they are adventuring with the group.
- This questionnaire is great for helping players develop their character by considering various aspects. I recommend having people pick 5-10 questions and trying to answer them. https://www.roleplayingtips.com/characters/character-questionnaires/
- Finish any remaining character creation and answer any unmentioned questions a player might have.
It can be tempting to jump into play right after all this. There is a mixed response on whether this is a good idea. I have found a short 30-40 minute scene where all the characters meet in a bar works great to let them try out getting into character. A great example of this would be a small combat scene with an aggressive patron. Another idea would be to have the players on a long journey via boat or caravan where bandits or animals attack. Your mileage will vary and it will depend on your campaign.
If you have any suggestions for additional questions, let me know at email@example.com.
I want to finish by reminding you that ensuring you remain aligned on goals is important. You should consider running a regular retrospective feedback session to see what is working and what needs to improve. NoDDSoc has a guide you can find here. https://noddsoc.co.uk/gmu/mid-campaign-retrospective-guide/
Many thanks to Oscar H, Becca, Henry, Pip & Rob O’B for their comments on the NoDDSoc Discord for ideas when I was writing this resource.
Additionally massive thanks to Callum G, Jack, Mim, Richards C and Shim for help with proof-reading and further comments to support the creation of this resource.
I also used the following guides to write this:
I thoroughly recommend giving them a read as they are excellent tools.