Improve Your 5E D&D Experiences with Session Zero in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything
Between bursts of fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons character creations, revisions and reimaginings brought on by the release of Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything I find myself most captivated by Dungeon Master’s Tools in chapter 4 of the new book. While these sections aren’t exactly breaking new ground in the tabletop roleplaying game hobby they do achieve one super important thing — creating official support. Right now I’m focusing on the lead in to the chapter outlining session zero, which I believe is the most critical part of any 5E D&D campaign. So let’s get into it.
Hit the sweet spot with a session zero
Many other games incorporate a session zero into their rules and untold numbers of gamers practice this method when starting a new RPG campaign. While session zero isn’t universally accepted or advocated taking time to establish expectations, outline the terms of a social contract and share house rules is hugely effective and useful. It’s terrific to see 5E D&D include this in an official capacity. Commentators and creators (like us!) can encourage gamers to put this into practice all day but with session zero guidelines now appearing in an official product it lends more legitimacy to it for 5E D&D specifically. And let’s be honest even with the collective YouTube subscribers and website traffic from Nerdarchy and countless other creators we’re not reaching everyone. I love to imagine a new player coming across this section of Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, learning about this practice for the first time and going on to experience wonderful campaigns built on what comes about during their session zero.
Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything hits on three aspects of a session zero with examples and guidance for groups to consider. One of the most important parts of a successful 5E D&D campaign is player engagement. This includes characters’ connections to each other, players’ connections among each other and players’ connections to their individual characters. The section on running your session zero touches on these three factors to help ensure the unfolding game is a fun experience for everyone.
Character and party creation
Because of the wide array of possibilities in terms of race, class and background — made even more flexible through the character options in the selfsame book — 5E D&D is quite forgiving when it comes to covering all the bases. Especially in light of the further tips and suggestions given as part of the session zero section it’s not exactly critical to make sure your group has a rogue, cleric, wizard and fighter (the stereotypical four person party).
Nevertheless session zero provides a perfect opportunity to begin forming an adventuring party before a campaign starts in earnest. This section shares a great insight as well by mentioning shared backgrounds. This foundation of character creation covers what characters did prior to the adventuring life and makes a wonderful connection. On an individual level background includes characters’ personality traits, which is one of the resources for social interaction and an invaluable tool for Dungeon Masters. Backgrounds tie characters to the world and create a collaborative space between DMs and players. For example guild artisans are members of an artisan’s guild (duh) so what’s that like? Many backgrounds encourage players to work with their DM to develop these things. Make your backgrounds mean something!
I absolutely love the section on party formation here, which explains a DM’s role in letting players build the characters they want and helping them come up with explanations for how the group comes together. Forming connections between characters is perhaps the most worthwhile activity players can do. Characters face deadly danger and extraordinary circumstances together and developing bonds between them makes their adventures have meaning! The book provides several examples for these connections including group patrons (covered elsewhere in the book) as well as a handy Party Origin table to let the dice decide.
One last part of this section addresses running a game for one player. It’s very brief and points you to sidekicks. This is another super useful 5E D&D option presented in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything.
A 5E D&D group can work together all they want to create new characters and develop their connections but when the rubber hits the road this part of session zero keeps the ride from screeching to an unfun halt. A discussion about the kind of experience players hope for along with boundaries for the content of the campaign makes a tremendous impact.
The basis for a social contract is respect. This is a time to make it clear the shared game you’re all about to participate in aims to be fun, fair and tailored to the players and their characters. It establishes the role of the DM and players in terms of arbitration of rules, making sure everyone has opportunities to contribute and shine plus how to handle violations of the agreed upon social contract. The book touches lightly on safety tools like anonymity and content limits. For more resources like this you can check out the TTRPG Safety Toolkit here.
Although not included in the book it’s not a bad idea at all for players to complete a consent form of some sort. You might scoff at such a practice but I encourage groups to take time to fill out such a form. Especially in this time of a flourishing RPG hobby when people meet and play games with new friends and folks they meet for the first time it’s even more important to know what’s acceptable or not. Even an established gaming group familiar with each other could do well to consider a consent form. More than likely you’ll learn something about yourself too. There’s a variety of free consent form resources available out there. Here’s one I like.
The Dungeon Master’s Guide introduction advises DMs to Know Your Players and Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything builds on this material with a list of sample questions for players to help clarify their tastes. This section encompasses things like what pillars of adventure appeal most to players, the balance of humor in the game and even touches on worldbuilding as well as mechanical aspects like advancement. This is also where groups discuss house rules.
As a whole session zero not only lays the groundwork for fun and respect for the entire group it’s also an amazing opportunity for a DM to gather information and generate ideas. A DM might come up with what they feel is the most incredible campaign and adventure hooks ever devised but a disjointed group who careens forward with everyone bristling at the uncomfortable content of the game doesn’t sound like much fun to me. Conversely an adventuring party keyed into each other and the world they’ll explore makes a lot more sense.
Covering all three of these sections during session zero leads to better game experiences all around. All of the most fun and memorable campaigns I’ve participated in — 5E D&D or otherwise — incorporate a session zero in some fashion. Whether your group intends to play a published campaign like Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden, a series of wholly homebrew adventures or something in between I cannot advocate enough taking time to share these discussions. Embarking on a new campaign with the potential to continue for weeks, months or even years and possibly hundreds of hours is a big investment. Would you dive into any other such venture sight unseen?