One of my D&D groups just ended our 2-year campaign. After such an incredible story and really getting attached to our characters, it’s bittersweet.
Over the 2 years spent playing this campaign every week, it became the most fun adventure I’ve ever had playing D&D.
When I found myself reflecting on the adventure itself, I realized that the thing that made it so uniquely “ours” was baked into the story’s design at session zero.
I’ve already talked about session zero, what it is, and how to use one. You can read that article here.
But in running the session zero for this game, my group took a different approach. It’s certainly a very unique method of running a session zero.
However, I can’t argue with the results!
So today we’re looking at a new take on how to run session zero for your group!
Note: This works best for campaigns that are going to be homebrew.
While you could work in bits from published adventures (ours included sections from Descent Into Avernus and Frog God Games’ Rappan Athuk), they usually have enough structure to them that this approach would just make them overcomplicated.
That said, let’s jump into the exercise!
Background – What’s the Point of This Exercise?
This exercise uses an approach that’s often referred to as “design thinking.”
In short, it’s a way to solve problems creatively. In this case, the “problem” to be solved is that you want to create a fun and engaging campaign for your group.
Every single person at your game table wants something out of the experience. D&D is such a unique game in that it provides space for so many different interests and playstyles to all exist in the same story.
Your game should provide opportunities for everyone to engage with the story in their own way. This session zero exercise focuses heavily on figuring out what those opportunities might look like.
Because the group works together to generate creative and interesting ideas that the Dungeon Master can use to create the story, you end up with something that is entirely unique to your group. Everyone has been able to have input beyond just playing their character.
I would recommend that you check out our article on the different types of players. It will also help you get some ideas of what kind of inputs you can expect from your players!
Of course, the DM is certainly welcome to be a part of the exercise as well. In fact, that would be ideal! If you are the Dungeon Master, just be sure to also guide the process along in addition to engaging in it.
Fortunately, you don’t need many materials for this exercise.
You will need:
- Post-It notes for everyone to write their ideas on.
- Pens to write with, of course.
- Sticker Dots of at least two different colors. (We used red and green.)
You could do all of this on the table, but we used a tri-fold cardboard display board. Something simple like this one from Amazon is perfect.
Not only does it help you keep everything reasonably tidy, but it also gives you a cool relic as part of your group’s history. (I can’t lie, I’m sentimental and tend to get attached to things like that.)
With all of that sorted, you’re ready to begin!
Step 1: Brainstorming
We start this session zero exercise with the Brainstorming step.
Have everyone write down one liners on Post It notes to describe things that they are interested in seeing in the story.
There doesn’t necessarily have to be a limit to how many Post It notes each person has. If necessary, you may put a limit of 10 or so ideas. But the idea is to get a ton of ideas on the board.
The suggestions could be as simple and generic as “lots of magic items.” On the other hand, they may be very specific like “The Blood War” or “Ravnica.”
The ideas could be related to the story, theme, mood, etc. There’s no limit here, and the more ideas the better.
Put all of the ideas on the poster board so that everyone can see them.
You’ll be surprised at how much many of the ideas have in common!
This takes us to the next step.
Step 2: Grouping
In the Grouping step, you want to find topics that are similar or almost the same. Put them together so that they appear as one topic.
For example, if there are three notes that say “Pirates”, “Naval Combat”, and “Undersea Adventure”, you could reasonably group these together.
There are no hard and fast rules here. Use your head and agree as a group which items are “the same thing.”
Step 3: Voting
With the ideas now grouped on the board, it’s time to bust out the stickers!
Everyone gets some stickers. Our group of 7 (including the DM) did 3 green stickers and 1 red sticker for each person.
The green stickers are “up votes” for a topic.
People can put one or more green stickers on topics. If someone REALLY likes one thing they could put all of their greens on that one thing.
The red sticker is a “veto” for a topic.
When a red sticker is put on a topic, that idea, storyline, etc. is OUT and cannot be included.
Each person gets one veto and there is no arguing with it once the sticker is placed.
A person does not have to use their veto if they don’t want to. For the purposes of the exercise, it is simply an option that’s available to them.
Optionally, you could also give everyone one or two yellow stickers as down votes. These are not a veto, but they cancel a green “up vote.” I have yet to personally use “down votes” in this exercise, but you might find them useful.
What About “That Guy”?
Lastly, what do you do in the event that some tasteful person puts something stupid on the board?
This doesn’t mean they put something unpopular (“evil campaign!”) or out of left field (“…in space!”).
By “stupid” I mean someone who has decided to be “that guy.”
If someone decides to put ideas down for things that are blatantly problematic (“let’s play as slavers” or some other nonsense), I would bet that your group can figure out how to veto that without worrying about stickers.
For what it’s worth, it might even be warranted to boot the jerk from the group if they’re pushing for something awful like that. I’d at least talk to them privately about the group’s expectations for behavior.
Step 4: Decisions
When all of the voting is done, it’s time to start putting it all together.
Remove the vetoed items.
Pick any topic that has at least one green sticker on it. Rank them from most green stickers to least.
Looking over the voting results, talk as a group.
As the one guiding this exercise, the DM should ask probing questions to get more input from the players. While the players are throwing out ideas based on what’s on the board, the DM can start making connections that will form the framework of the story to be told.
How does all of this fit together? What kind of story can we tell?
Keep in mind that the DM and the most outspoken players have a lot of power here. Make it a point to avoid letting them dominate the group’s discussion. Everyone should be able to speak freely and propose ideas for how it can all be brought together.
The goal in this step is to agree on what the group collectively wants to do. You should look for ways to build connections, common interests and goals, etc.
Depending on how much the conversation flows, this may be the longest part of the exercise or the shortest.
By the end of Step 4, the DM should have a strong idea where the campaign can go (or at least start.) With the type of story to be told being agreed upon by everyone at the table, everyone will know what kind of characters to make that will “fit” the story.
While they begin to make characters, the DM can begin planning the adventure. What results is a homebrew adventure that is uniquely created by everyone in your gaming group!
When my group first used this method of running our session zero, I was pretty hesitant. However, it ended up leading to a 2-year game that became the best campaign I’ve ever played in.
Not only was it incredibly fun, it also led to the creation of my favorite character, Tabletop Joab, who would then go on to be the name of this blog!
I’m a huge advocate for running a detailed session zero. By getting the group’s reasons for wanting to play D&D and figuring out what they really want to see in the story, you create something that could almost never happen otherwise.
Above all else, it’s the memories with friends that I most love about playing D&D. Creating campaigns with this technique helps make those memories even more special.