How to Have a Session Zero for Your Tabletop Roleplaying Game

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Hail, and well met! In continuing one of my favorite pieces I’ve written for the site here. I’ll be elaborating more on the concept of starting a tabletop roleplaying game campaign once you’ve solidified your premise, which is a fun exercise in and of itself. Nerdarchy has mentioned this in several of their videos concerning Game Master advice, and I’ll be giving you guys my thoughts on the matter. That’s right! We’re talking session zero.

What is session zero?

The first thing to keep in mind about having a good session zero is it’s just a conversation, albeit a steered, and somewhat guided conversation with some groups. It’s a conversation that includes an overview or information about the world you as the Game Master have created for your fellow players and friends. The key here is to listen to your players’ questions about setting details. Examples are too numerous to list here. But here are some common questions:

  • How does magic work in this world?
  • Is there a weave of magic or tapestry of reality like there is in the Forgotten Realms?
  • Are the mercurial forces of magic governed by several gods of magic, like it is the Dragonlance setting?

These are great questions to keep in mind, and players are going to have all sorts of questions. Like any night out with your friends, there’s going to be a lot of tangents and side talk. This can sometimes get slow down the process, but it’s still part of the conversation. (Make sure you bring snacks aplenty!)

As the GM a lot of the pacing of the conversational nature of session zero is largely out of your control. But if you bring maps and other resources like inspirational art players can flip through for information about your campaign setting it won’t take long for the gears to start turning in their heads. That’s when you know you’ve got some of them hooked on the idea. Your goal as the GM is laying out your expectations on the table, and take what your players find interesting about the world, and attempt to weave that into a campaign. All campaigns in some way start off as one shot adventures, so some premises and ideas may not be great fuel for longevity. Don’t fret, as this is part of the journey. Learning what types of games work for your group is one of the many joys of this hobby. Not to mention troubleshooting is a great skill.

The next thing to keep in mind is each player may be interested in different aspects of your campaign. Darryl, who’s getting ready to roll up a half-orc rogue may love the idea of a campaign with a lot of political tension and the possibility of espionage. But Rashida and Chris may love the possibility of war brewing in the background and are eager to have their characters fight on the front lines for whatever nation their characters happen to hail from.

Whatever the case is at your table, having things like fleshed out politics and nations is another point in favor of getting your players hooked on the concept of your campaign, and thus invested in your world. What you can do as the GM is something that your players will love. You can give them a little bit more agency in your world by collaborating with them to explore these concepts more deeply together. Take note of what each of them is interested in, and have little moments where each side is getting something rad out of the game. Darryl gets to experience his high espionage spy game, and the other players get to incorporate the kind of game they want out of it.

But what if players aren’t hooked on your idea from the get go, and want something different than you originally thought they’d have liked? Don’t fret, there’s a lot that you can still work with. Always have something to write with on hand, and take some notes. Once you’ve jotted down whatever it is the players want, it’s up to you to incorporate these ideas into the campaign. Sometimes, this is merely a product of miscommunication and this can be fixed in a few ways. I used to have a lot of problems with this happening, and the main thing I found to have helped me was to work on my improvisation skills and become more of a minimalist GM.

One of the best campaigns I’ve ever put together was a game for D&D 3.5. My group’s session zero was essentially a poll gauging what the players wanted out of the game, and it came down to a highly political game laden with intrigue and the revival of a dead god. We created a great story together, and it came about because we worked together and listened to each other during our session zero.

Now let’s look at ways to make your own campaign world. Fortunately, a great source for this exact topic exists. It’s a book from the bygone days of second edition AD&D called the World Builder’s Guidebook. The book is chock full of handy tables, governing everything from the shape of your world to the tectonic plate activity. I highly recommend this for any GM wanting to dabble with map making and homebrew world design. It’s a wonderful tool to have in your GM toolbox.

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