I’ve got to say that holding a session zero is something that is a recent thing for me. Back when I first started playing, it wasn’t really a thing. Whoever was DMing would dictate the background and style for what was going to go on. Maybe there would be a character creation session with all the players so the party didn’t have all fighters or all wizards. But beyond that, there wasn’t much discussed. Maybe the DM would tell the players they were running a homebrewed world and they would provide material that was special for that setting or maybe they would tell them we’re playing in one of the many campaign settings that were available. That might influence the races or classes that were available for the players to select. This didn’t always allow a player to feel very involved in the world and that the DM owned the world and story.
Thankfully the minds behind gaming have gotten away from this and have decided that the game should be a collaboration between the DM and the players. Yes, the DM is still responsible for either developing the world or for presenting the world setting. They’re still responsible for either finding published adventurers to use or to come up with their own ideas. But now, the DM isn’t coming up with all the ways the players might react to a scenario or how the whole story arc is supposed to unfold, regardless of the players’ actions. And that all starts with having a session zero.
I don’t think I’ll ever start another campaign for any rpg without holding a session zero. As a DM, this is when you can come to the table with the players and present them with what your idea of the campaign will be. This could be seeing if they’re interested in playing out one of the great published adventure paths available or present them with a rough outline of a homebrewed campaign.
As a DM, you definitely need to be listening at this point. Ask questions and use those answers to make the game fun. When we started the first of the work campaigns, the players were looking for something fun, light, and that wouldn’t veer into anything that could be construed as not safe for work. When we started the Imperium Campaign, a few people expressed not wanting the game to be all about politics. For the most part it stayed away from that until the players started pushing it that way.
Find out what tone of game do they want to play. Are there topics that are off limits? Are there topics that are tough, but they’re willing to explore? If a player identifies something as off limits, respect that. You don’t know what your players have been through and a game is no time to have something trigger a trauma. The same goes for tough topics. These are things that you can work around the edges of, but do so sparingly.
Along these same lines, find out if the party is looking for a game that is combat heavy, social interaction heavy, or exploration heavy. This will give you an idea about the locations and events that will work best. Keep in mind though that you’re going to have 3 or more individuals sitting around the table. They’re not all going to want the same thing. You’re going to have to balance encounters to keep as many players happy as possible. With the Imperium Campaign, I found that I could run two or three sessions where it was about exploring or social interaction before my combat oriented players would be looking for a fight, whether it was a group of gnolls or the local pub goers.
With these basics in mind, you as the DM might be crossing out the idea you had for the campaign. That’s a good thing! That means you’re listening to your players and are now going to be able to tailor something to closer match what they find fun. It doesn’t mean you have to scrap your whole idea. Most of them can be tweaked into something that will work.
Session zero is also a good time to layout what classes and races are available for the players to choose from. Sometimes you give the players the full buffet and sometimes you might want to restrict things as fits the idea you have. Once as a player our DM was running us through a published module, but decided he wanted us to only play characters of the githyanki race. One player wasn’t happy with that an asked if he could play as a changeling posing as a githyanki. The DM said yes because it wasn’t a major disruption of what he had in mind and things went along in a pretty fun manner.
Session zero is also a good time to do character creation, but that will be the topic of my next post.