What is a session zero?
A session zero is traditionally labeled as a session that is held before the official start of a game. Hosting a Session Zero for my players before we start an adventure is such an important thing to this Dungeon Fox DM. It’s a time that you can give the basic lore of your setting and work on things together. I find that there is something very important with session zeros that is lost if you just go right into session one: the ability to create, ask questions and share creativity in a non stress environment. Session zero there is no expectation of knowing exactly what’s on the character sheet, there is (usually) no combat that players are waiting to get through and no initiative rolled.
Session zero is when a DM can give basic lore of the setting and talk about things out of character with players to decide what things Player Characters would already know, what things interest the players, etc. Find out what your players are interested in so you can build cool encounters and adventures. Back stories are great but it’s even better when players get a chance to work with the DM during character building and backstories to make sure that elements can be discussed and possibly added into the campaign.
I use my session zero to talk about themes and comfortably. Most of my players are usually up for anything but you never know what may cause pain for your players. I personally use a Red/Yellow/Green light chart where players circle the color of comfortability they have based on a variety of things. I usually see a lot of yellow and green but as a DM it is very important to take note of any and all red lights for players and respect them.
This is the checklist that I personally use, but there are many more out there on the internet and it would be easy to customize one to make it your own.
Once I get all of the check lists back for a group I make one master list where I put the lowest color of the entire group on each line so I know what I can and cannot add to my group (for example if one person put green for bugs, but one put red, I color my master one red).
It is important that what ever colors are given are respected. Session zero you can use to make sure that you also go into details with players if needed in private about the things on the check list. For Example, if someone put yellow in blood you can use session zero to ask if they don't want blood descriptions at all or if its bloody battles that they don't like. The game is supposed to be fun and comfortable for everyone. Asking questions during session zero can help with that.
During my session zeros I have a google form that I request my players fill out and usually there is silence and lots of thinking noises during that part as players think about answers. On this google form I have a few different sections (a picture copy is on the left and you can use as you like to add to your own session zeros). Besides the basics from their character sheets (name, race and intended class/classes) I also give them an unlimited space for them to write any backstory ideas they may have.
Beyond the character sheets I want to know what are character fears. I don't uses them in all the sessions I run, but I like knowing what things bother my players to make sure that they get some role play flavor in the future. I also like to know pet peeves to create NPC's that might get on the PC's nerves. With the question about regrets I like to make sure that if the players wish that there are redemption or background based sections about what is written there.
Questions 8-10 are my favorite to write about. The two rumors and lie are great to pull out for tavern scenes, or for when players are visiting home towns. Bucket lists are great for when creating one shot games, back story arcs and when creating those random games that happen when some of the party has to miss a session. I always want to here what existing enemies or rivals your players have in their mind for themselves. Even if they don't have names or specifics asking this question on session zero gets brains going and as players continue on into the game they may come up with more details to give to you.
I personally want to know how I as the dm can make the game the best experience I can for you. I want to know what game style or styles are the most important at the table. Know that it is important to make sure that everyone at the table has the things they like, but don't leave stuff out either. What I mean by that if someone enjoys killing things, let there be great battle moments but not at the expense of narrative stories or political intrigue if that is important to the others at the table.
The reason why I dedicate 20 minutes of our session zero to filling out the form is it gives time for players to private message me or have one on one conversations about character stuff and it also allows people to learn if people would previously know each other or have common things that they can share.
Communication is also very important for players to have with their DM’s. This should start at session zero and continue through all your games. It is important to receive feedback and to make sure that everyone at the table feels positive and welcomed. I ask my players for feedback and always end with “Any questions, comments or concerns” before we turn off the mics or pack up to go home. There are usually also 3 ways of communicating with me while I’m behind the dm screen as well (discord, text, email and messenger) that players know they can use to ask personal questions during the game or talk to me about something that is important at the moment that they may not want to share full table. As a DM I will admit that there is a lot going on at the table and many things that I am in charge of, I don’t always notice 100% of everyone’s facial expressions all the time and I get messages about personal emotions attached to the game and there are moments where players may just need an extra break to process what is going on or to take a mental break if real life is to much and relaxation just needs to happen. Session zero is where you get to meet your players, get to know what they like/dis like and sometimes you can even run short combats/encounters to make sure that the players are comfortable with your Dm style as well as the other players at the table. Sometimes in session zero a person may find that the group you are running for is not for them or that your style may not match their needs. It's easier to communicate this at a session zero and bow out from the game than do a true campaign session then leave.