From the DM’s Chair: Session Zero

Rolling up characters together gives a great chance for players to learn about each other and can be introduced to your new world together. Artwork taken from, piece by Milivoj Ceran.

When coming to start a new Dungeons and Dragons campaign, laden down with notes, books and plotted maps of a freshly detailed setting, the first thing many a DM desires is to do is jump straight into the action, get the story going immediately, and there is nothing wrong with this approach. However, there is another way which, in the long run, might give your players, and yourself, more satisfaction.

Welcome to From the DM’s Chair, I’m Shadowonthewall and today, we’ll be looking at how to start off your Dungeons and Dragons campaign. Now, after all the time I’ve spent writing about developing settings, you’d think we were done with our preparation stages. Before you can even think about starting playing D&D properly, however, it’s important that all of your players actually have characters to play. Rolling up stats for characters can be a fairly lengthy process (the quickest I’ve ever been able to do it was in about ten to twenty minutes), but usually, if you’re not knowledgeable on the system, rolling up characters can seem like a lot of work and fussing, and it kind of is. But it doesn’t need to be. This is why, for this segment of From the DM’s Chair, we’re going to talk about the ‘Session Zero’, why it’s a good idea and the things I learned whilst trying it out with my new party: Dion, Beth, Joey and Lukas.

Session Zero: What is it?

The answer is simple: it’s a session where your players roll up their characters together as a party and the DM has a chance to set them up for the adventure that’s about to come. It’s a great chance for your players to get into character and, with everybody present and able to talk and help each other, rolling up characters soon becomes much less of a chore. At least, that’s the idea in theory.

Sadly, my own little bubble on this was popped as problems quickly began to arise. Firstly, the campaign would be running over Discord so, whilst we would all be technically in the call together to roll up, the environment wasn’t naturally suited for the same round the table cooperation that I had intended: it was usually one voice breaking through and we had to take it in turns to roll up each character as a result. Following that, Beth was unable to attend to roll up her character at the arranged date due to a personal emergency. Then, Dion explained he wanted to roll his character up in secret because he had an idea. All at once, my session zero was crumbling down around me.

The Best Laid plans of Mice and DM

My first piece of advice to you as a Dungeon Master is this: things will go wrong. Your party of players will never fully follow your plans and sometimes, your plans will come to nought. Whether it’s actually in game, or out of it, life tends to get in the way.

And that’s okay.

The second lesson is to accept that and move on from that. As a DM and probably more so as a person, when things go wrong, you can only continue to move on and keep doing your best. Dreading on things you can’t change usually just creates added stress. For other such factors, that’d be understandable but D&D is a game, it literally exists to have a good time with your friends. So, regardless of the minor issues popping up, I went with the flow and organised something: I’d roll up separately with Dion, Lukas and Joey would roll up on the day of the arranged session zero and I’d just catch Beth at some point and get her character sorted when possible. Adjust your plans if able, but mainly, it’s just a matter of being courteous as a DM and a player. This was mentioned to me a few days before the roll up so I was able to sort the new arrangement and come up with something that both I and my players were happy with. In life as much as gaming, communication is key. The next stage was the rolling up of the characters itself.

Rolling up: do it your way

Another important thing to accept early on in D&D is that the system itself, and a lot of RPG systems, function as mere guidelines. There are rules present, true, but the rules exist to facilitate fun and enjoyment. As such, there are lots of ways to play D&D and, before we even get to play, there are lots of ways to roll up.

The standard method is to roll four six sixed dice a total of six times, taking away the lowest number from each collection and adding the remaining numbers together. This, in all honesty, is arbitrary to a fault. These scores, whilst still featuring on a minor level of importance, exist mainly to give us a series of ‘modifiers’, which usually range from -4 to +5, the highest stat you can get naturally including added race benefits to the scores.

The crucial thing about rolling up like this is there are lots of different methods that spring from this. Some people roll just 3D6 and add them together (as was done in the old days), others roll the 3D6 in order and force you to use each one for each score (even more like it was done in the old days). Some even scrap dice rolling all together and use a point buy system to make sure everyone is nice and equal (if a little boring). The main lesson from all of this is use whatever system works for you and your party. As long as you get six numbers from 3-18 with a suitable amount of double digit numbers to calculate the modifiers from (take 10 from the number, divide by 2 and round down to learn what the modifier is. Yes, it is incredibly convoluted), you should be free to use whatever system you want.

I say this because my own personal system is very generous. I allow my players to roll the standard 4D6 but encourage them to re-roll 1’s and 2’s. This means that the lowest a player can get is a 9, a -1, and higher numbers are more probable. The reason I roll up like this is a simple one: I want my players to feel like heroes, to be empowered. If players want a more negative score, they are free to take one, because I know it makes roleplaying fun and can really add a lot to a game when character’s play by their flaws. For example, the Wizard who can think his way out of any situation but struggles opening a door can be more memorable than your average player character. The main complaint of this method I can see is that it is too good to players and makes players too strong at early levels. I suppose this statement is true, but that’s why I increase the difficult of encounters. Players like feeling powerful but they also like being challenged. With all that rolling system detailing out of the way, let’s continue on to what actually happened and what I learned whilst helping roll up these player characters.

Dion is Kassadin Lightfade, the Neutral Evil Tiefling Fighter

An ex-paladin from the Platinum Garrison, cursed with a devil’s visage, Kassadin Lightfade sails to Dorvine in search of a new life and riches beyond his wildest dreams. Art by Dion Russell, you can find other pieces of his work here:

Allow your players to affect your setting even in character creation

Now, for all we talked about with setting, you should also be willing to add and alter to that setting for your players. Now, I’m not saying it’s a good idea to rewrite the entire cosmic mythos for your world because one player wants to play a talking badger (though there is probably a homebrew for that). If you have your own rules for the campaign, they should be respected. However, if possible, you should work with your players to see if you can make the character and story they want to tell a part of your world.

For Dion, this was the case with his character, Kassadin Lightfade. Kassadin Lightfade was pitched as a Tiefling Fighter. I presented Dion with the options for customising the race and, ultimately, he decided he wanted Kassadin as a variant Tiefling from Mordenkainen’s: a Mephistopheles based variant for fire-sword spells at higher levels. That part was easy enough to introduce, I was already planning on having the hells feature in the story at higher levels, considering the ‘darker timeline’ aspect of the setting. Then, Dion began asking questions about the setting and told me the story he wanted fitting in. Kassadin, he explained, was once a Paladin, a noble warrior of good, until an ambush left him for dead and he was faced with the cold inevitable reality of death. Seeking any way to escape his fate, Kassadin made a deal with a Devil and in return, was brought to life as a Tiefling, a first generation Tiefling directly sired by a Devil.

This was pretty special and despite my inclusion of the Black Rose, I didn’t have any ideas for a Paladin organisation I believed would be suitable for Kassadin’s backstory, nor did I have any idea of a Devil to transform Kassadin. Mephistopheles was his bloodline but from what I’d read in Mordenkainen’s, I had a very different idea for his character than the deals on the deathbed type of devil that Dion was seeking. As a result, I simply took a moment’s thought and helped work Dion’s vision into the world.

Kassadin became a member of the Platinum Garrison, Paladins to the Platinum Dragon Bahamut. A staple character in the standard D&D pantheon, Bahamut was exactly the kind of generic good God Dion was looking for in Kassadin’s backstory, the Garrison the specific order and an ambush at the hand of Tiamat’s cultists sufficient for Kassadin’s tragic fall. It was then, on the spot, I made up the name for the Devil who turned Kassadin. Dormin. Dion, thrilled, noted the name down. At the time, he didn’t quite know that the name came from the demonic force from Shadow of the Colossus and when he found it, he didn’t exactly care. Yes, plagiarism is bad, but as a DM, it’s important to borrow from things around you to help you tell a better story. Plus, it works better if you put your own spin on those characters and concepts, but we’ll touch on that when Dormin actually becomes relevant again. So, with a simple twist, Kassadin Lightfade had been slotted neatly into the Dorvine universe, a soldier on the boat to Dorvine in an effort to start a new life, clad in his old platinum-coloured armour with a wide helmet over his head, to hide his race from onlookers…and the other players. Dion was especially demanding that I not let the players know his race, telling them all he was a human which, technically, he once was. I liked the idea and I’m always one to go for dramatic twists so I approved.

Joey is Granny Megaera Grumbleweed, the Neutral Evil Night-Hag Warlock

Granny Megs
Returning to Dorvine’s shores for her new ‘Something Wicked This Way Come-back’, ‘Granny Megs’ is searching to reunite with her coven of sisters in order to reform their old girl band, B-Abba’Yaga. Art by Dion Russell, you can find other pieces of his work here:

Cater to your Players, don’t be afraid to homebrew.

Yes, you read that right. I let one of my players play a Night-Hag. And yes, all of that tiny backstory above is accurate. Joey is one of my favourite players I have ever had the pleasure of running a game for. He engages with roleplaying on a deep and meaningful level and yet he’s always entertaining, funny and dramatic, bringing a crucial levity and a focus on story. Even though I know he enjoys playing a ‘type’ of character (old drunk ladies, bonus points if they’re spellcasters), I never mind because he always puts a new spin on the idea and each of his characters are distinct.

It is also because of this level of trust that I wanted to work to make Joey’s character come true. DM’s, of course, have a right to refuse to let a player play a particular race if it doesn’t fit with the setting, but I always find that saying no to the players usually lessens the experience. True, sometimes the players will try to do and will say stupid things in character, but as a DM and as our own person, we have no real right to stop a player from trying new things as long as they are aware that their actions will have a reaction. We DMs do have the right to mobilise the town militia or roll fall damage, but we’re not the one who tells the Rogue to pirouette off the roof ‘just like Assassin’s Creed’.

Due to my level of respect for Joey as a player, I was willing to put in the work to homebrew a Hag race for him to use. After a quick browse, I found several available online but disagreed with a lot of them, so in the end, I simply picked up a copy of Volo’s and the Monster Manual and read as much as I could on Hags to create my own. Joey was happy with the results and when he spotted the ‘Ethereal Jaunt’ ability I’d given the Night Hag (the ability to turn ethereal for 1 round per day), he hopped on excitedly.

Part of the reason I was happy to do this was that I understood Joey didn’t want to be a Hag out of any attempt of a power play. I’ve had a lot of players over a years and I’ve sadly known players that clearly wanted to be the most powerful person at the table and didn’t care for the whole ‘cooperative’ side of the game. A secondary lesson here is don’t humour that person, be honest and try to work with them but at the end of the day, you are the DM and even if you’re there to entertain, your job is to make everyone feel special and included, not just that one person. Joey, in reality, just really wanted to play an interesting character and explore and impact the world around him and Granny Megs gave him the perfect framework for that. Plus, I knew Joey well enough to know he wouldn’t argue if I suddenly decided one of the Hag abilities I wrote was too powerful for a player and thus Granny Megs needed to be scaled down.

When I asked him about what class he fancied, Joey explained he wanted Granny Megs to be a Warlock. This made sense to me, Joey had played the class before in my Strahd campaign, so it was one he was really familiar with. Still, it was odd for a Hag to have Warlock magic loaned to her by a patron rather than her own innate magical ability. When I asked Joey about it, his genius answer was that Granny Megs’ magic only excelled in cooking and pastries. She was excellent at creating spectacular recipes, not so much the actual spells featured in D&D. It was a silly explanation but one that fitted Joey’s style of play and my world in general, so it was easy enough to throw in. As a DM, always give your players a chance to explain themselves, especially if they come up with amazing plans or ideas like the one above. Joey also gave me a backstory to mine for future plot-hooks, with Granny Meg’s Hag sisters added to the roster of NPCs I could use in the future.

Lukas is Teoku Skia, the Chaotic Neutral Shadar-Kai Warlock

Adrift from a former love and seeking bereavement time away from his matriarch and clan, Teoku Skia comes to Dorvine in search of distance and purpose. Art by Dion Russell, you can find other pieces of his work here:

Work with your players

Lukas, much like Joey, originally came forward with a similar approach to character. He said he wanted to play a vampire as the character he was thinking of playing was going to be ‘angst-personified’. Now, as a fan of these darker characters myself, I was all for Lukas going with something this drastic. I was even more happy, considering that the DMG includes rules for bonuses a player gets for becoming a vampire, so I didn’t need to homebrew two really complex races.

Of course, becoming a vampire isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Quite the opposite, really. I explained to Lukas that if he agreed to play a vampire, he’d be bound to the weaknesses that a vampire possesses, as well as the over-powered strengths. Obviously, this was a bit of a disappointment for Lukas: immortal youth and badass powers were cool but an easily combustible body was a minor drawback. I realised I’d disappointed Lukas a little here. Here was Joey getting an awesome cool character race and yet I’d kind of shut down Lukas’ own idea for a fun time as a vampire in a strange new land. That one was an error on me.

In hindsight, I should have really recommended the Dhampir race for Lukas, being much more grounded than the vampire idea but still along the lines of what he wanted. Instead, I focused in on his desire for an angst based character and threw out some suggestions for races that fit the dark ascetic. I cannot stress how important just talking to your players can be, you learn a lot about them as people and can also help get the most out of the RPG experience you’re crafting for them. When I explained the Shadar Kai from Mordenkainen (that book is proving so useful) to Lukas, his intrigue was peaked. Playing as a person who was literally working for the Queen of Death sounded like just what he was looking for.

My main advice from this section is simply just to support your players, talk to them and help them make the experience they want to play. When I started the campaign, I considered Lukas the most new to D&D. Whilst Joey had played in a few games before and I knew Beth and Dion had played in a campaign with a friend, I had only known Lukas to play as a character in the short Strahd campaign I ran and, sadly, it wasn’t the best environment there for a first time player. There were too many players, too many plot-lines and a bit of off-table drama that I feel led to Lukas being left behind a bit, even if he did really enjoy himself. That was definitely not something I wanted to happen this time. I wanted Lukas to feel welcome at the table and, most importantly, to have a good time with a character he was interested in playing. That said though, I also wanted to see if I could help push him to experience the system more and see what he could find.

Like Joey, Lukas wanted to go for a Warlock, as he had also played in Strahd, but wasn’t sure what archetype to go for. Whilst I was fine with having two people of the same class in the party, I also really wanted to help Lukas play a different variant on the classic spellcaster than Granny Megs. Considering Granny Megs was planning on a pact of the Fae, I decided to try and push Lukas into playing a type of Warlock I knew he’d be interested in, mainly because it was one I’d had a lot of fun with: The Hexblade. Being a servant of the Blackrazor, Lukas had a direct relation to his home plane of the Shadowfell, but also ended up emerging more combat focused than Granny Megs, and quickly became a stand-out damage dealer in the party because of it. Lukas took to it well and I am so glad I helped him find what he wanted to be because in the first few sessions, I learned that Lukas was really dynamic and interesting when it came to combat encounters. His response was never simply to roll and attack. He’d specify places to hit, he’d say Teoku was going to use the environment and push over his enemies for more flanking and, of course, he would usually say how his character would bring out his bat, his trademark weapon, and smack his opponents round the head.

For Teoku’s backstory, I was told that he had lost his love and was given leave from the Shadowfell by the Raven Queen to find his own way in the world, a path that would bring him onto the boat to Dorvine where the campaign would begin. It was a simple but effective idea on Lukas’ part and still allowed the Raven Queen and other members of the Shadar Kai to linger in the background, something I could possibly draw on again if it ever came up.

Beth is Lady Elizabeth Grey, the Chaotic Good Human Barbarian

Elizabeth Grey
Trapped between a world of sophistication and her own unbridled rage, Elizabeth Grey seeks to cement her place as heir to her family by following them into the great unknown of Dorvine. Art by Dion Russell, you can find other pieces of his work here:

Give your players strong connections to the world, NPCs and plot-hooks

When Beth told me of her idea for Lady Grey, I fell in love with the character instantly. A human noblewoman navigating the complex politics of nobility, whilst battling with her own inner rage, a barbarian based less on the lifestyle of savagery and more on the inner savagery that is innate within all of us. It was a cool idea and I eagerly asked Beth for any details about the character I could sink my teeth into. Beth explained the basics, that Lady Grey was the heir to a tea manufacturing company…but didn’t have any specifics on the actual family. She hadn’t really expected to need any. She was unaware that I, as a DM, love a good backstory. I had already sniffed out bait for a great story-line and was now an eager fish swimming to jump on the hook. I asked Beth if she wanted me to design a family for her and she said that sounded great.

She probably didn’t expect the two parents, four siblings and the dog…

As a DM, it is incredibly important to put effort into helping your players feel welcome, involved, and connected in the world that you’re creating. The Grey family soon became a fascination of mine for the campaign, an array of NPCs that could serve as a safety net for the party through Elizabeth but also provide a chance for some tense exchanges, great character development and intrigue. Plus, on a player level, I wanted Beth to feel that her character was validated, that Lady Grey was a part of the world and that her family had their own personality, wants and desires. So, after a few minutes brainstorming, I threw together a family dynamic based on earning the respect of a father whose only real love was the woman he married, not any of the children that love had begotten.

When creating NPCs, I find that most of the time, starting with simple concepts can produce great characters for the players to engage with. Earl Thomas Grey is the cold and distant father figure engrossed in buisness, Lady Chrysanthemum ‘Chrys’ Grey was the woman who married for love above her station and has still retained her old fashioned sensibilities, Ceylon Grey is a needy scheming brat, his sister Eliya is the party girl with far more impulse than sense, Jasmine is the intelligent and quiet prodigy, cold like her father, and James Grey is just a child whom the looming family politics are an unknown to and who has yet to realise the state of the family he’s been born into.

And then there’s Chai. He’s a puppy.

And yes, all of the Grey family are based on different types of Tea.

This is the political battleground I built for Beth and one, so far, she’s navigated with skill, keeping strongly to her principles, loving her family regardless of their obvious scheming and keen to brave her own path and keep her family name. Whilst the family is currently for the most part in the background, I want to bring them out steadily over the course of the campaign to match wits with Elizabeth, and maybe even the party, to help develop a personal arc for Elizabeth to engage with. So far, it’s proved to make the game enjoyable.

And there we have it, my party, everyone filled with excitement and optimism about the new campaign. Obviously, moments like this fill a party with a high expectation and DM’s with a lot of dread for having to meet them. This is the beauty of a session zero. After rolling up, you have the perfect chance to talk to your players and arrange the future of the campaign.

Session Zeroes: Building Consensus

Once the character creation is done, it’s a good time to see what everyone else wants out of the campaign. Art taken from D&D 5e starter set.

Not everyone wants to play the game you want to run and not everyone is okay with everything that might happen at the game table. That is exactly why session zeroes are important, for every member of the party to come forwards and talk about what they want from the campaign, what tone everyone is looking for. After all, there were a degree of evil characters in this campaign, which normally I don’t allow. The stories I usually want to tell involve good people trying to do good but in the ‘darker timeline’ aspect I was looking to emulate in the world, I considered that evil would be an appropriate approach. Of course, not all of the players might have been okay with this, which is why talking to people in a session zero is important and building a joint idea of what is important to the campaign. This was so crucial to my plans that I even ended up messaging the players about it before the actual session zero just to make certain. The feedback I received was positive, open and ultimately, things I could work with. I knew what people didn’t want to see in-game, I knew that everyone’s plans lined up pretty well with one another and, most importantly, I knew that my party of players wanted to spend time together and just enjoyed hanging out. With this in mind, I ended my session zero informing my party they were all currently on a boat heading to Dorvine. Why they were on the boat was relatively up to them, but I did point out the invading armies and also sent a document about the world to everyone so they could do research if they wanted. It was then I would come to learn a new lesson.

Never send your players 13 pages worth of world detail

This should go without saying, but this also goes to show that even when DM’s gain experience, you’re still prone to regular mistakes. That’s fine, that’s part of being human. My main error in sending out the notes to the players was the sheer size of it though. There were 13 pages about the various settlements with detailed politics and organisations hidden through the notes. No DM should expect their player to willingly wade through vast swathes of lore to learn about their character’s place in the world or the various alliances of a land. Setting guides are available to players but are primarily for DM’s so we can know where we’re setting the action and how the world works. Players are free to engage with that stuff but expecting people to read it was the wrong approach. A smaller more precise document could have been drafted that would have accurately told the players what their characters knew and the various factions that they were aware were active in Dorvine. As things stand, this wasn’t all that horrible. I had sent the document for optional reading, but if it had contained some important facts within the document and not told it to my players, then they would have felt adrift and betrayed at having such details hidden from the world. I know I had a similar experience one time as a player, only learning the tone and expectation of a game when the party was knee deep in combat and my character was knee deep in blood.

Despite an awkward start, the session zero went well and by the time of the first session, all the players were rolled up, happy with their characters and eager to start playing in the world. Their adventures after session zero and all of the lessons running their campaign that I’ve learned since then will sadly have to wait until next time.

That’s going to be it for this segment of From the DM’s Chair. Join me next time as we finally get into the campaign proper with session 1. I’ll advise you how to start your campaign proper, tell you all the little tips and tricks I used and begin the epic saga of the Dorvine campaign.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s