Your very first session of your game should be a preparation session which is commonly known as a session zero. This session zero guide uses examples from Dungeons and Dragons but you can substitute your own system in.
This is what we suggest you include:
What kind of game is it?
Are you running a campaign, mini campaign or one shot? How many sessions do you expect to run? How long is each session on average in terms of hours? Will you have a break during the game?
We highly recommend using safety tools such as lines and veils and the X card. Have your players fill out before hand and give it to you in private then discuss what the lines and veils will be for the game without specifying who has which lines and veils.
Talk about the kinds of relationships everyone wants to explore in game. Some examples that are common are: found family; romance; friends or enemies. This is also a good place to talk about boundaries around romance and sex.
Your expectations and boundaries as a DM
It’s okay to have expectations and boundaries as a DM. Have an open discussion about how do you feel about and handle
- Characters keeping secrets from one another
- Possession, werewolves and other things that turn players into DM controlled characters
- Player vs player
- Rules debates
- Character deaths
- Player discomfort and what to do if a player feels uncomfortable with something
- Unannounced dice rolls
- How you spotlight people
- Murder hobos
- What to do when you don’t know what to do
- What do you do when players are absent from the game
- Using phones during the game,
- drinking and narcotics during the game,
- Hot buttons topics like religion, politics and sports and general chatter.
Introduce the world
Introduce players to the world you are running and do some joint World Building. Letting layers contribute is a good way to get them invested in the game.
What is important about this world? What does magic look like in this world? What does everyone know and what do only a select few know? What season is it and what does that mean for weather?
Go through the process of building characters. Talk players through how it works, what races and classes are allowed and what other rules apply such as min/maxing.
This is a great time to answer these questions
- Are loner characters allowed?
- Do alignments matter and make a difference in your game and do you allow evil alignments?
- How do characters know one another?
- What important things do the characters know about this world?
- This is also a good place to talk about what backgrounds work well in this campaign, what extra information can you give each background that is chosen.
- Do you allow feats? Do players get to start with a feat or is it selected at certain levels?
- Mounts and pets. Are mounts practical in this world, what would be common mounts, can characters have them? How about pets? How does it work in terms of taking care of mounts and pets?
Give your players a rundown of how experience and character growth works in terms of game mechanics.
How you do level up of characters? Do you level up together or individually? Do you level up after a rest, at the end of a session or during a session? Do players who miss sessions get the same experience points as the ones who were there?
System mechanics and home brew rules
I like to be super clear about some of the mechanics of the game. This is what I cover:
- Rolling a Nat 20 – what does it mean? For a natural 20 on the dice do you double the total including modifiers or just the core damage dice? Do you double the number rolled or the actual number of dice one gets to roll? Do you use Nat 20 rules for skills checks too or just combat?
- Rolling a Nat 1 – what does it mean? What are the consequences? Do you use Nat 1 rules for skills checks too or just combat?
- Ready an action – how vague can players get with their triggers for a readied action? Do you let them hold movement or just an action?
- Bonus action vs action – Do you allow potions to be taken as an action or bonus action? Do you allow bonus actions to be done in the place of an action and vice versa? Is drawing or switching weapons and action, bonus action or free action?
- Stealth and how that works in your game. Does the group roll? How many players need to pass the DC for the group to be stealthy?
- Hiding, Cover and the mechanics behind these.
- Invisibility especially in battle, does this mean that they will never get hit because they can’t be seen?
- Initiative and how you do it. Does the group roll the decide who goes in which order, do individuals roll at the beginning of battle or do you roll initiative at the start of the session then use that for the entire session?
- Repeated party rolls and how you handle things like travel checks. Do you allow multiple attempts at the same task? If so does the difficulty increase with each fail?
- How does inspiration and GM boons work at your table? Can you have more than one at a time? What does it grant the user? Does it expire? Can they pass on boons to other players? How about a party inspiration? Do you allow players to reward inspiration for a great piece of role play, for example?
- How advantage and disadvantage works.
- Using the help action and how that works
- How does resting and recovery work? What is a long rest, what is short rest, what happens if they are interrupted and how many of each can a party take per day?
- Will the game have downtime and if so how do you handle crafting and levelling up skills?
- Vendors and NPCs in this world. Do they tend to haggle or not? What can you expect to pay for gear, is it the base cost, slightly more expensive or does it vary by region and scarcity? How frequently are players likely to come upon vendors in the game? Is it worth stocking up in towns or will there be traveling merchants, roadside taverns with basic gear, army camps with folks willing to barter? Can you sell items you gain as a party and how likely is it that NPCs will buy things from you?
- Magic items in this world. Attunement and how it works. For example, does it reveal what an item is or do PCs need to have it identified before they can attune to it? Are there mages who do things like identify readily available in this world, if not where does one find them? Do magic items resize to fit the wearer?
- Spells and the rules around them. Do spells work regardless of their environment eg, fire or wind spells under water? Do you allow spells from unearthed arcana? Do magic users need to buy components? Will there be stores where PCs can buy components? Any spell tweaks that you a partial to – for example do you encourage your players to be creative and do things like make the grease spell flammable?
- How does death and resurrection work in this world? If it’s viable how is it done and what are the mechanics.
Go through tools
If you are using a tool to play online then go through some basics of that tool to help them with settings for things like dice usage, volume or how to use the cool things.
Your DM style
It’s good for players to get a behind the scenes peak at your DM style. Here you can talk about:
- How do you prep for games?
- Do you prefer to role play or let the dice decide?
- How into rules as written are you or do you allow things to happen because it’s cool?
- Do you prefer a sandbox style game or do you have a story you want to follow?
- Do you use a lot of traps, hidden things and reasons for the party to keep checking their surroundings or would you let them know when that’s needed?
Staring with a good session zero prepares players for what’s to come. Setting expectations up front also opens up lines of communication with your players so that they feel okay with talking to you about things.