Dungeons & Dragons Online

Session Zero for New Players

I'm about to run Lost Mines of Phandelver for 3-4 brand-new players, and I was looking for advice on what to do in a Session Zero. I read SEVERAL posts from this sub, and tried to synthesize a lot of advice into a nice, SHORT, general checklist/guide. Here's what I've gathered (remember, these are for NEW PLAYERS specifically, but may apply more broadly).

<Here is a link to the doc I made, where I essentially copy/pasted individual lines of advice, sorted them into groups, and then gathered my thoughts on each group into the maxims below. The doc also links to all the threads/outside resources I looked at. It is sloppy but the links are there.>

First, what is a Session Zero? In a Session Zero, you do the following:

  • Create/finalize characters (alternatively, there is lots of advice to run a tutorial with pregens first if your players are new).
  • Establish an understanding of good play and in-game rules.
  • Establish session rules.
  • Establish the mechanical rules (including house rules).
  • Gather info about what players want and expect from the game.

Start with a one-shot/tutorial, or an otherwise small, contained beginning. This helps new players get an understanding of the gameplay before making decisions that affect gameplay. If you start with pre-gens or a rudimentary build first, it also gets them playing almost immediately. In any case, a simple on-boarding point stops players being overwhelmed when they are just learning how to play. At the very least, maybe run a non-canon combat tutorial to establish mechanics and the action economy.

Guide players in character creation. Consider distancing them from the nitty-gritty of goals and bonds and stuff, or even class and race, and interpret for them to end up with a three-dimensional "character." Emphasize the importance of a character who's willing to cooperate and pick up hooks, and isn't just a self-insert or edgelord power fantasy (this has a lot of overlap with the rules of good play). Keep them limited to PHB or official stuff while they're new, but allow them the opportunity to adjust build–or even switch class–after they've got some experience playing. Encourage pre-existing relationships between characters, as well as solid motivations and nuanced backstories.

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Establish understanding of the nature of the game and good play, and make sure everyone is on the same page. I group all this stuff together because it all feels like "warnings" and affects how people enjoy the game. DnD is a group cooperative storytelling game, not a solo video game. Establish rules on how players treat each other (PvP or no? Agreement before action?), and what things will or will not be featured in the game (sexual violence, sex at all, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.). Make sure everyone understands the consequences of their actions in-game, including their treatment of NPCs, up to and including player death, and what that looks like. Agree on the tone of the game. Establish the role of yourself as the DM, and make allowances for different "types" of players. Consider writing this stuff down, or using a form or other physical representation of agreement on these premises. (Since I am running a module for the first time, I also want to talk about my expectation that they will at least try to pick up story hooks, while making sure they know there are other styles of play.)

Determine session expectations. This includes all the meta-meta stuff. How often will you play? How will you schedule sessions? Who brings the snacks? What will happen when someone can't make it? What are phone and attention expectations? How late will you play? How many sessions are players "committing" to? (On the flip side, how long do you expect the campaign as you have planned it to last?) Establishing this beforehand makes it easier when things come up.

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Start with basic rules and mechanics, and expand from there. Everyone has different priorities on what "basic" rules entail. Many advise having players stick to the PHB or RAW for character creation. Establish house rules. The most agreed-upon "basic rules" appear to be:

  • Explain Theater of the Mind vs. grid combat, and how both are based on rules of physics and combat.
  • Explain combat basics and action economy. Consider cheat sheets for Action choices.
  • Explain abilities, skills, modifiers, and dice rolls, but consider saving most explanation for later, during play. Consider having players put away all dice except the d20 and whatever they will be using for damage. Consider setting them up and handholding them through some of the more nuanced rolls during play (Insight, etc.)
  • No getting around it–if you have spellcasters, you need to learn their magic systems with them.
  • Write page references on their sheets for spells and abilities.
  • Explain the different ways they can roleplay (third vs. first person, passive vs. active, etc.)
  • Start them at Level 1.

Determine player expectations, preconceptions, preferences, and media taste, and use that to help inform your building of the game and world. Really, this should probably be at the top, or even happen before Session Zero, and should continue the whole time you're playing. Find out about their baseline knowledge of DnD and RPGs, and especially if it is low, ask them about what media they enjoy/prefer (e.g., LOTR vs. Discworld). Ask them what kind of things they want to do in the game. Determine what "type" of player they are. Keep in communication with them after beginning to play about what things they enjoy, which things they don't, what they'd like to see more or less of, new ideas they've had, how they feel about the direction of the campaign, if there's anything they want changed, etc. And always encourage them to be creative and implement new outside-the-box ideas, roleplay, and tactics.

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I wasn't sure what to mark this as, since by presenting this I guess I'm GIVING advice, but I am also asking for advice. Obviously there's more nuance and more specifics to drill down into than what's represented here (and I welcome you to share them), but are there any huge things I'm missing? I welcome any input at all.

And remember, I put the links to the older threads I used in this document, and there are also a couple solid third-party resources in there.


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