Tales from Session Zero: the different paths to inspiration

In Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) and other games of its ilk, there is often what’s known as a ‘Session Zero.’ Think of it as the origin story or the part of the movie trailer with the line “in a world…” In this session, the Dungeon Master (DM) can present the game world and setting in which he wants his players to act their characters out within.

This can be either a world drawn from one of the many established settings, like the setting du jour known as the Forgotten Realms or even more classic ones, like Spelljammer (think fantasy-meets-sci-fi) or Ravenloft (a vampire-ridden demiplane). Or, it can be a world of the DM’s own design.

While my current campaign exists within the Forgotten Realms and follows a module (Tyranny of Dragons, if you must know), my next campaign falls squarely in what’s known as ‘homebrew’. That is, I’ve developed my own world and setting for my friends to create new characters for and begin playing sometime this autumn.

Like any creative pursuit, this is a rather vulnerable thing. Believe me, fellow fledgling DMs, sharing that Google Doc containing what I’ve been working on – gleefully, of course – over the past several months was not easy. 

But, it also opened my eyes wider to my own approach to the game than any experience before it, and how differently people approach creating characters, not to mention how seriously they take it. So, here are three major takeaways from my first-ever Session Zero.

DMs: don’t prepare too much

Seriously. I know that sounds weird, but what I learned in my Session Zero is that, at least with my players, what your audience wants more than anything is agency, to feel as if they’re a part of the storytelling process and that their characters are a part of this world you’ve made.

Particularly, I’m finding it liberating to not bother crafting major cities or towns within my world yet, waiting for the players to provide their character ideas and major goals or story beats they want for their characters. Then, we’ll build those landmark locations from there, based on the players’ choices and input.

That way, we both have something we’ll enjoy exploring once the game starts and it feels equally ours, or that at least the player feels more at home in the world, having made part of it with you. Plus, you can turn this into momentum for developing the rest of the world later – asking what major landmarks connect to this one and how is the most logical jumping off point from there.

Also, your players might not even leave Session Zero having made characters (mine didn’t), so don’t spend too much time developing content they may not even enjoy. Let them contribute things that they know they’ll enjoy, and you can still make plenty of room to surprise your players therein once the campaign begins.

DMs and players: prepare to compromise

That, and come to the table with an open mind. For instance, my world draws rather heavily from my own fantasy inspirations, go figure. So, elements of classic, old-school fantasy media very much have a place within my new game, and that means restrictions on what the players can choose as their character race, and only certain races have access to magic in my game.

These limitations are for the sake of a cohesive story I’m looking to tell with the help of the players that’s focused and (hopefully for that reason) compelling. However, what I learned during my Session Zero is that some players create characters from different bases, if you will.

Whereas I might create a character based on a concept that I think is plausible within the world I’m presented, other players start from a more mechanical or aesthetic base, drawn to elements of the D&D Player’s Handbook and starting from there to see whether the setting will allow it.

This is where compromise comes in, and if a player has an idea the DM hasn’t thought of, it’s time to work out a plausible reality for that concept, whether it be a character race or a class combination you hadn’t considered beforehand.

DMs: forego expectation

Just like when you’re about to sit down for a real game, try to free your mind of expectation for how your players will react to what you’ve made or what ideas they might have for characters. Your players reaction to reading a six-page setting document – which, if you can, make sure yours is shorter – is simply not going to add up to how they experience your game once it’s go time.

If your players seem to take this decision as seriously as mine, they’ll need time to ruminate over what’s in front of them before reacting to strongly in any direction, much less make a character. They need the circumstances and context from within which to make their character or to which to fit their fantasy.

This is something I didn’t realize until later on in my Session Zero, when a friend frankly said as much, assuaging much of my fear that I wrote a bunk campaign setting.

When you’re planning to build a world that’s a reflection of the players and their characters’ decisions, and thus requires more creative input from them, they need that time to find where they’d like to make their mark on what you’ve made, and whether you both vibe with it.

Or, they just need time to find a way to reasonably get their half-dragon man kung-fu master fantasy into your world where neither such thing existed, nor did you intend for them to.

The bottom line is that revealing a new campaign to players, as well as being on the receiving end of that reveal and in turn revealing your own ideas for characters, is a vulnerable process. You’re both sharing what you think is fun and exciting, and hoping that the other will feel the same way, as those feelings are close to you.

Whether held online or in person – in this case, I prefer the latter – or enhanced with physical aides or digital tools, Session Zero is a crucial foundation to any successful campaign. The sooner everyone in the game is on the same page, the better the resulting D&D game will be.

  • Joe Osborne may be a newer Dungeon Master, but he has a lot to say about tabletop games and their growing intersection with technology. Follow his tips, insights and musings in his regular column, Critical Bits. Have a question you’d like answered or something you’d like to see covered? Let him know on Twitter @joe_osborne.
Joe Osborne

Joe Osborne is the Senior Technology Editor at Insider Inc. His role is to leads the technology coverage team for the Business Insider Shopping team, facilitating expert reviews, comprehensive buying guides, snap deals news and more. Previously, Joe was TechRadar's US computing editor, leading reviews of everything from gaming PCs to internal components and accessories. In his spare time, Joe is a renowned Dungeons and Dragons dungeon master – and arguably the nicest man in tech.