The prior title of this article, “Session 0 is a Scam,” was a shot across the bow of lore-dumping grognards, more interested in novelizing their world than creating emergent stories from play. What I failed to realize is that Session 0 is not only a venue for safety tools that can be moved to Session 1. In many cases, it is a safety tool itself for folks that need to gauge their comfort level with strangers. The new title more accurately reflects the spirit of the article.
One of the biggest failings of D&D is that you often don’t play the game the first session.
This is a poor way to introduce someone to a game. There’s a couple reasons why:
Time is precious. You’ve spent an evening of the new player’s time investing a lot of mental energy into an activity they might not enjoy. If they decide that D&D isn’t their vibe, you’ve both wasted two days figuring it out!
Ending on a good beat. “Sorry, we don’t have time to play” is a dour note to end on. It’s not exactly the send-off you want to get people hyped about the next session. It has all the impotent glee of leaving a new toy in the box.
People think they need to run a separate “session 0” because there’s a lot of accepted wisdom about things that need to happen before you can start playing the game. But, very little is truly essential. We can trim a lot of frills to get players rolling and role-ing.
Note: if your experienced group wants to get together to roll up characters, make a party together, and dive into a campaign world, that’s a fine way to spend an evening.
There are some incredibly important things that you need before you start a game of D&D:
- Safety Tools
- A Character
Safety tools make sure all your players are safe. There are numerous tools available to ensure that you don’t tread into topics that might be traumatic for your players. While a gaming consent form is a useful tool, avoid sensitive topics if you’re running a first session. Address player safety with a candid discussion about the social contract of the game.
A character is typically something we create during a session 0. But, it’s a very time-consuming process. Especially for a new player. Pre-made PCs can really come in handy here. Let the players choose from among a few character sheets. Stick to the basics.
Some things you don’t need to learn before you start playing D&D:
Mechanics are essential to mastery, not play. When you start a player focusing on the mechanics, they can get stuck looking for answers on the character sheet. Keep them focused on the narrative. When they ask how to do stuff that requires a roll, show them where it is on the character sheet. Give them a d20 and say “roll this one unless I tell you otherwise.” Explaining things as they come up means you don’t overwhelm the player with information they don’t need right away.
The truth is that most players aren’t going to grasp and retain the mechanics the first session. But, they’re going to understand it a lot better trying to do it than having it explained in the abstract.
Story is something players enjoy discovering through play. Even if you’re telling the greatest story in the history of fiction, people who show up to play a game are going to (rightfully) look at you cross if you spend an evening reading them a book. Skip the lore dump. Build it into your world.
You can communicate the genre (and premise) when inviting someone to play. Provide actionable plot details to the players when starting the game. You don’t need more than that to get going.
Starting Session 1
Here’s some pre-game steps when running D&D for new players:
- Genre (e.g. “medieval high fantasy game”)
- Premise (i.e. “rescue the blacksmith’s kid”)
- Player Safety
- Discussion about social contract
- Safety tools
- Pick pre-generated characters
- Establish connections between player characters
- Explain Mechanics
- “This is the d20. Roll it unless I tell you otherwise.”
- “You get one action. You also get a bonus action if something says you do.”
- Start the Game
- Set the tone with actionable plot details
- Set the scene with environmental details
- Call to action!
After Session 1
We ended on a high beat! Now you’re hooked. You want to play again.
- Are you ready for a full campaign? We might explore more sensitive topics. Let’s go through these safety tools together.
- Did you like that character? Do you want to bring them to the new campaign? Any changes you want to make now that you know the character a little better?
- Do you want to make a new character? Creating a character is one of the great joys of D&D. Now that you have an idea of how the game works, you’re informed in your character choices.
- Do you want to understand your character better? We can go through your sheet (and your spells) together. We’ll work on some strategies and synergies.
- Do you want to dive into the nitty gritty? Let’s go read some ThinkDM.
Thanks to all our supporters on the ThinkDM Patreon who make these articles possible! If you’re running a game for new players, make sure you’re using the Player Screen to help them out. If you’re just here because you like the number zero, check out last week’s article on DC 0 Checks.