• Justin Handlin

How to Run Session 0 in Dungeons & Dragons

Updated: Mar 24

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Today we give you tips, tricks, and tools on running Session 0. This powerful tool will help ensure you kick off your stories with a bang!

When it comes to roleplaying games such as Dungeons & Dragons, there are many different aspects. This naturally means that each player is likely to want something different out of it. We’ve touched on the different types of players in the past. But there is more to it than that. Theme, story, combat, and more are all a part of the game. But in order to truly understand and run a fun and engaging game, everyone needs to know what to expect from it. Enter, “Session 0”.

What is a Session 0 in Dungeons & Dragons?

Session 0 is an aspect that the RPG community came up with to help both players and Dungeon Masters better prepare for a campaign adventure. In this episode, we will be discussing the variety of different aspects that should be covered in Session 0. This includes what to include, why you should include it, and how to leverage it in a way that everyone has a great time. Join us, and share your thoughts during the show. We want to know all about what makes your Session 0 successful, and what are some pitfalls that should be avoided.

Draw hard and soft lines in the sand.

When it comes to life, we all have our own unique experiences. Some of great, and some are bad. This means that there are some things that can upset or make others feel uncomfortable. Use this opportunity to make it clear what is and isn't allowed. Things that make the players uncomfortable. If something is needed, use the "fade to black" tool to avoid details.

Discuss the setting and any particular limitations.

The unique thing about roleplaying is that the worlds our characters visit are vast and unique. This means that some worlds won't have particular creations. A great example would be a world where dwarfs hunted elves to extinction. So the GM may decide that the elvish race is off the table. This way, a player doesn't create a character that is an elf.

Now, this doesn't mean a character can use the elf stats and features. It just means that you should ask the DM what race in the world could they be that would closely align with elves. Or maybe the character is just a variant of another race. This also expands to the world as well. Maybe the world has three suns and isn't that different from the planet of Tatooine in Star Wars. Nothing but pure desert. The players are going to want to prepare their characters to fit the setting. It wouldn't due to have four of the five players to have desert themes and one player show up who is from the arctic, especially when there isn't such a place.

Six Truths of the World by Sly Flourish

The "six truths" of the campaign. What are the major defining characteristics of the world that the characters know but the players may not?

Related Article: Player-Driven D&D Campaigns

Decide on a theme that everyone wants to experience.

Dungeons & Dragons and all roleplaying games can come in a variety of themes. Use this opportunity to decide what type of game the players want. Do they want a mystery, dungeon crawl, political intrigue, or perhaps a mix and match of several themes? This will help everyone get what they like out of the game.

Forge strong bonds with each character.

During Session 0 is a great time to talk and share character concepts. The best part about this is that it allows all the players to build characters and concepts around what others are doing. This means they can tie them together with familial bonds, past adventures, or some other link. This is much more effective than everyone showing up with their own character with no real tie to anyone in the party.

Identify the motivation for your character to want to go on this adventure.

Character motivation is the reason the characters do what they do. Defining these early can make the game far more engaging. Identifying that your character became an adventurer to find the villain that destroyed their village is a powerful identifier for your character. By defining this at Session 0, the players can have a better understanding of your character as well as the DM. This allows the DM to start early on designing hooks and adventures that fit your character's motivation and tie it with other events and characters in the game.

What aspects of your characters do you want the DM to focus on?

D&D characters can be simple or very complex depending on the player. Regardless of which the character is, a player will lean into what they consider important. Deciding on what this aspect is early on allows the DM to incorporate and narrow their focus on that detail. If a player's character made a huge mistake in their long backstory and tells the DM to focus on the redemption. This could help the DM in their prep work for the adventures and stories by narrowing their focus.

Will it be Rules heavy or Light?

This is a great detail to include. If the players know they are going to be going into a solid Rules as Written campaign or one that is a bit more flexible can really help decide how and what kind of character they play. For example, a player in a rules-light game may be more likely to play an illusionist than if it were rules-heavy.

How will unclarified rules be handled?

Session 0 is perfect for setting the process for situations where the DM isn't sure of a particular ruling. Will the game stop and books be opened to look for the ruling? Or does the DM write down the issue, make a ruling for now, and go back and check later and share the correct details with the players? This sort of discussion can help with potential rulings and slowdowns in the game.

Will the game be theater of the mind or a battlemap?

This is a pretty big detail to get out of the way early on. Do the players want a complex battlemap for every encounter? Or do they prefer theater of the mind? This is important as it decides a huge portion of the workload the DM will have. Battlemaps and miniatures require extra work and investment to set up and run. Especially when considering the amount of work it takes for theater of the mind...just your imagination. But there are trade-offs to each of these, Perhaps you do a mix? Deciding early can help the group know what to expect. If using a battlemap they might want to get a mini for their character for example.

Related Article: How to Run D&D Combat that Flows

Build a plan on what to do if a player can’t make it.

As adults, we tend to be extremely busy. Scheduling game time is hard enough, but sometimes stuff just comes up. It's good to have a plan in place on what the team will do if someone is missing. Do they just imagine them away? Send them away via story reasons, or does another player just run the character in the interim?

How will your group handle character death? Permanent? Slight inconvenience?

Character death is something that is inevitably going to happen in any Dungeons & Dragons game. Players can easily become attached to their characters. So deciding in advance on your game is going to handle character death is important. What if they all die? Do they wake up days later with a random druid healing them? Or do they bite the dust and the players roll up a new adventuring party to fill the role they failed at? Only to find the remains of their other characters picked clean by carrion?

What if the death is in the middle of the game and you still have a few hours of play left? Should the dead character's player have another one ready for the DM to drop in, or do they take on a co-DM spot running monsters, NPCs, etc until the session is over? Whatever the group decides, set the expectation at Session 0.

What about handing out treasure?

Does the DM decide? Or does each character have a say? Deciding this early can really help with making sure players aren't fighting over the DM's proverbial table scraps. Additionally, if the DM is deciding they can ensure they make sure each character gets fun magical items. Instead of one greedy character hoarding more than the rest of the group.

How do you plan to resolve disagreements?

No matter who you are, we are all different. This means we are certainly going to come to heated debates on a many good things. D&D games are no different. Set out in front the rules and details regarding how to resolve disagreements ahead of time. Defining a process can help keep players from getting too heated. Usually, the DM makes all the rulings in the game, but sometimes the players and/or their characters can't agree on something. I've found leaving it to majority rules helps reduce and disarm hostile players and/or characters. But your mileage may vary.

We hope this collection of details will help you and your roleplaying group have a great start to your new stories and campaigns. What are some details we didn't cover that you believe should be in Session 0? Share with us on social media @critacademy.

D&D Unearthed Tips and Tricks for DMs and Players

Character Concept: Amala Shadowdancer, Female Human

Description: Amala is a petite redhead who wears black leather with open laced gloves that run up past her elbows. Her face contains an intricate mask-like tattoo, the reminder of her pact. When she speaks her soft and enchanting voice belies the dark power she holds.

Personality: Amala is soft-spoken and a bit reserved. She has been hunted by would-be heroes most of her life. People who think of her as a shadowspawn. Despite her timidness, she is quick to conjure dark power to aid any who may be in trouble. This is doubly true for young children. She carries the skull of her mother and has an unusual and strange obsession with it.

History: She was “gifted” the ability to create undead guardians and access to magic granted by her pact. While her powers may be dark in nature, she spends her life using this darkness to protect others from threats. But unfortunately, this leaves her as an outcast. Her power is misunderstood and thus, is always hunted and mistreated.

Motivation: When Amala was young and forged her pact. Its sole purpose was to gain power so she could protect herself and others. She travels from villages to cities seeking to volunteer and paid ophanages. She takes on tough jobs and donates almost all her earned coins to the shelters in the area. All to ensure others don’t have to turn to darkness to survive.

Monster Variant: Defiler

Origin: Dryad

Lost or Altered Features: Languages (Demonic/ 1 Other), Spell List, Speak with Beasts and Plants (Speak with Dead), Treestride, Fey Charm

New Features:

Spell List:

Cantrip: eldritch blast, spare the dying

3/Day each: false life, inflict wounds, ray of enfeeblement

1/Day each: animate dead, darkness, vampiric touch

Devil Sight: The defiler can see normally in darkness, both magical and nonmagical, to a distance of 120 feet.

Soul Reap. When the defiler kills a creature with one of its spells it can reap life energy away from it. Once per turn when the defiler reduces a creature to 0 hit points with a 1st-level or higher spell, it regains hit points equal to twice the spell’s level. The defiler doesn’t gain this benefit from constructs or undead.


The defiler can interpose a demonic black void between itself and an attacking enemy. When it is attacked by a creature within 30 feet of it that it can see, it can use its reaction to impose disadvantage on the attack roll, causing a black void to flare before the attacker before it hits or misses. An attack that can’t be blinded is immune to this feature.

Encounter: On the Run

While the characters are walking along a busy road or through a town thoroughfare, a petite dark cloaked figure bumps into them recklessly apologizing with a soft “Scuse me!” Just seconds later twin armored swordsmen with an emblem of a golden hammer smashing a skull on their chests dash through asking if anyone saw which way the filth went. A successful DC 17 Wisdom (Insight) reveals that something is off. Why would a bandit bother apologizing after bumping them? A character with a successful DC 14 Intelligence (History) check recalls the emblem pertaining to a group of Paladin who hunt wizards to raise the dead known as a necromancer. They call themselves the Slayers of Darkness and believe it is a foul magic that goes against nature.

The truth is that the petite dark cloaked figure was a woman by the name of Amala Shadowdancer, a defiler (CA). She is a spellcaster who during terrible times when she was young she was forced into making a bargain to save her life. She is a force for good, but her dark magic implies otherwise too many who lack understanding.

The paladins seek to slay her as they only see her as one who walks with shadows.

Magic Item: Glamor Prism

Wondrous item, common - Credit by Vivid_Steel

A glamour prism is a crystalline prism that has been enchanted to project the image of one thing onto another. A glamour prism can be used to make a set of leather armor look like a summer dress or as a set of armor. You can use an action to glamor the image of an item in your possession onto another item in your possession, consuming the glamour prism in the process. The items must be similar in nature and shape to one another. The objects must be similar in type to one another. Clothing can be made to look like armor, an arcane book can be made to look like a cookbook, but a cloak could not be made to look like a book. The objects cannot be more than 5 feet on any side. The changes wrought by this item fail to hold up to physical inspection. If someone attempts to touch the glamoured object, their hand will go through the illusion and feel the item underneath. Once glamoured, the illusion can only be removed through using another glamour prism to apply a different glamor, casting Dispel Magic or similar effects on the object. This feature lasts until dispelled or if you use an action to apply this effect again.

Dungeon Master Tip: Well met on the Road

Do you PCs assume that everyone they meet on the open road is an enemy ready to attack them, kill them, or rob them? Perhaps that’s because most people they meet on the road do just that. But the roads of a prosperous nation should be filled with innocent travelers who are more likely to shy away from a band of weathered adventures or travel with them for added protection.

Some examples could include; a group of rural ranchers taking cattle to a butcher in the city, a young couple recently married on their way on their honeymoon, a horse-drawn caravan carrying the corpses of lost soldiers.

- Dungeon Magazine 121-

Player Tip: Urban Druid

This combo focuses on the multiclassing of Spore Druid + Battlesmith Artificer.

Circle of spores can do necrotic damage to a creature that moves within 10 feet of them or starts their turn there with a reaction. Additionally, it can increase damage with wild shape features and cause weapons to do necrotic damage.

The Battlesmith gets a steel defender that can take turns right after urs using bonus action. Can use intelligence instead of dex or strength with a magic weapon (which the artificer can create). This means you can use your action, bonus action, and reaction to do damage on your turn. Not to mention you can utilize the steel defender's reaction to impose disadvantage.

RPG Phatloot Giveaway: My Immortal Loneliness by Jessica Marcrum & Ally Sulentic

Characters investigate a decrepit mansion in order to cleanse it of necrotic energy and discover the occupant has unanticipated tastes. In this ENnie-nominated adventure for Best Organized Play 2020, unleash your inner gothic and take time to smell the bloody roses.

Winner: oregonpinkrose

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