Session Zero | Episode Transcript





Have you ever had a Tabletop Campaign go horribly awry? What happened? Were your players bored? Did the DM seem disinterested? Was there conflict at the table? Did something happen that everyone sort of swept under the rug till the group fell apart? How do you avoid these things? Did you even know that these problems were avoidable? Welcome to another reading from the Tome of Dungeoneering. I’m Justin, and in today’s episode I am talking about the session before the session, the epic tale before the tale, the mythical and the all powerful session 0!


Intro music


Session zero should be the most important conversation of the entire campaign, but why? Session zero is a chance to come together as a POTENTIAL play group and discuss what the next game at your table is going to be like. It’s the Dungeon Master’s chance to lay out ground rules. It’s the players’ and the DM’s chance to discuss what type of game is wanted, or what system would be most fun. It is a chance for the group to set boundaries and limits. Session zeros are vital to setting the standards for your campaign, so much so that the titan of the TTRPG market, Dungeons and Dragons, officially codified the session zero in their November 2021 book, Tasha's Cauldron of Everything. Took them a while to catch on if you ask me!


If you spend any time with me, you’ll eventually hear my spiel that Tabletop gaming is a deeply intimate experience. Which is always greeted with incredulous looks, but it’s true. You and a few other people, that you may not be very close to, have come together to spend on average 4 hours at a table every two weeks to tell a story that could take years to finish telling. The last thing anybody wants to do is get in 6 months and realize they are having a bad time. This can be avoided in Session zero. That is why it is so important to tabletop gaming. Not having session 0 is like going on a road trip with no gas in the car, or trying to cook dinner when you've bought no ingredients.


In a lot of ways, this tabletop podcast is actually a relationship advice podcast, and just like a relationship, many of the issues that could come up, stem from a lack of communication. If we as a community can agree to listen and speak earnestly and often, we can avoid some of the largest pitfalls of being at the table.


I always start session zero with my DM disclaimer. I want my players to know that if they are not having fun, for any reason, that they are welcome to come to me, and we will find a solution. I also use this as a chance to put forth my hard limits, as session zero is where you get everyone on the same page when it comes to boundaries. These are things that I do not allow at my table ... period. For me, this includes things like heinous forms of assault, players owning slaves, and that we will cut to black for steamy romantic scenes. I don’t care how eloquent you are, I do not need a description of what you do with the bar staff; especially if I am the one playing said barkeeper….


Next, I always open up the floor to the players to talk about their limits or triggers. This is important to figure out early. You don’t want to spend your entire session 0 planning an extreme survival campaign in the arctic, only to find out that one of your players has past trauma around frostbite and frozen corpses. If you have a phobia, such as of spiders and enclosed spaces, this is the time to voice it to your DM, privately if you prefer. It’s just best to figure out these things early. I also invite players to come to me in private if they have a limit that they are not comfortable making public, and I'll communicate it to the group anonymously.


Do you remember that time in school when you were taught how to communicate? Yeah, me neither. So how do you have a conversation about hard topics with friends, family, and probably some strangers? At its core: Listen, validate, empathize, and then respond. If your player says: "I'd prefer not to have frostbite in our arctic survival campaign, but I still want to have the arctic survival campaign." You as the DM can respond with: "No problem, let's work out what I should avoid in the campaign then. Rather than describing the effects of frostbite, what if I just say that 'you're taking cold damage from the extreme temperature'?" and just like that you now have a dialogue!


For me the hardest part is starting the discussion, and to help myself with that I use a consent checklist. For a long time, I used the checklist provided by the fantastic book Consent in Gaming. But In recent years, I have modified it a bit and tailored it to fit my playstyle.The concept is the same, and any of the checklists out there will serve as a wonderful gateway to this discussion. In early November, we will be diving deep into the concepts of consent, such as consent checklists and x-carding, in our first round table episode, featuring Ellie Collins from Atlanta by Night Actual Play and Sean K. Reynolds from Monte Cook Games.


In short, consent is about finding out what things your players are or are not comfortable being exposed to. Certain types of death, romantic relationships, various types of horror, and even physical or mental damage may be good for some players, but panic attack inducing for others. All of this and more is covered on a good consent checklist.


Okay all of that was very heavy and very important, but what else should happen during a session zero? This game can cover many different eras, genres, moods, and themes. Session zero is a fantastic time to discuss what you and the players would find fun. Do you want a Game of Thrones-esque political thriller that explores the politics and backstabbing in a single capital city? Do you want a fantasy setting with no magic or with lots of Magic? Do you want an adventure that spans a globe and saves the prime material plane, or do you want a shorter regional folk tale about undermining a local sheriff that abuses the locals. Any of these could be fun, and these are far from the only options. Figuring out the answer to this question as a group will make it easier for a DM to spend resources on making a game that the players actually want to engage with.


The other thing that you should use a session zero for is figuring out party composition and characters, and I don’t just mean making sure there is a balance of class archetypes, either. Maybe you discover that your players all want to play Wizards, Now you get to focus your efforts on running a story that wizards would want to engage in. Maybe you and your party are all wizards from Pigspimple, school of magics, and you are trying to acquire a powerful artefact before a rival school does. Or perhaps you are all fighters from the local militia. Your empire has left you to fend for yourselves while they are at war over resources in far off lands. The void in security left by the empire's army being absent has allowed for crime, bandits, and Flail Snails to plague the region.


In both of these examples it gives you all a chance to discuss what the ramifications of these choices are. Lack of skill Diversity by not having a bard or rogue could lead to perilous situations that would have otherwise been more easily avoided and/ or making sure that everyone is aware that without a magical healer they will need to find other ways to bolster their health and defenses. In the same vein, this also helps you as the dungeon master to not abuse your players inadvertently. If you have an all paladin party you are going to want to only occasionally throw stealth checks at them otherwise it could become miserable for the players. Moderation is key in those circumstances.


So what is left? Rules as written or Rule of Cool? Session zero is a great time to discuss how by the book the game will be handled. This will give the table a chance to discuss if it is okay to break immersion to check rules or if they would rather play through. What about homebrew? Are there any house rules that need to be considered like “quick potions” or “Stacking advantage”. Do you use the fear and stress mechanics that were introduced in Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft? It’s good to know the answers to the questions early so that the table can consent and potentially find compromise before the game begins.


Now, you have picked a setting, chosen characters, discussed limits and triggers and feel ready to get started. All is going great, that is, until a month later when a player or the DM accidentally hits a trigger or causes a disruption that contradicts the things established in session zero. Now what? I would suggest that you explicitly discuss during your session zero a social contract. I recommend writing it down and keeping them on display near where you play. I print a copy for each player to keep in their character binder.


I like mine to acknowledge that we should always be playing with empathy for others at the table and their needs, but sometimes accidents happen. When someone accidentally offends or makes an error, they should take the initiative... to acknowledge the mistake and make it right. In the instance that someone is actively trying to make someone uncomfortable or is ignoring limits that have been set, the social contract should have some guidelines about how to respond and possible consequences, up to removal from the table. Doing this sets expectations early and gives all participants at the table a fair understanding.


Now there will likely be an entire episode about choosing to leave a table. The act of setting and protecting boundaries is difficult and at times can be scary but I want to make my feelings on this clear. If you have ever been made to feel uncomfortable, your consent has been violated, or your table dismissed you or didn’t stand up for you. I am so sorry that happened. I truly hope it never happens again. If these things are happening at your table please don’t just endure it. Don’t hesitate to speak up, grab a friend to help you speak up or just leave. Playing a TTRPG is meant to be fun, and if you're not having it, something is wrong.

Thank you for tuning in for another reading of The Tome of Dungeoneering! We have made a Consent checklist that is freely available over at drivethruRPG.com. You can find the link in our show notes or at our website www.inthedungeon.com. I know it has helped at every table I have ever DMed and I hope it helps you too.


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