The game before the game.

In every long-running D&D campaign, characters begin to develop personalities and goals. However, most players will have some idea of the story of who their character is long before their first dice roll. Others, especially newer players, will need help fleshing that story out in order to get the feel of the character they’ll be playing for weeks, months, or even years.  Today we’ll be taking a look at the prep-work before a campaign that can bring a whole new dimension to the game, and make the story resonate with everyone who’s a part of it.

The world is your oyster.

As a DM, you’re either creating a world from scratch, or playing in an existing one, and either way, you most likely have a good idea of the history, current landscape (both physical and political/historical) and even the future of that world looks like. However, the second the players touch that world, the moment they make even one roll, they change that landscape, and the future of that world becomes in flux. This means it’s incredibly important to know who your players are, what their characters might do, and how those actions may shape the future. By working with your players to understand their goals, you can better shape, predict and manipulate the world around those characters to give them stories that are unique, that intermingle into each other, and bring their characters to life. This is the primary advantage of having a session zero:

Planning the future.

Session Zero is basically the time you put with your players to work out what the game will be before it’s even started – while you probably have an idea of the rough play style of your players, you may not know what they have in mind for how they want to play the new campaign. There may be cases where you don’t know their play style at all, and you’ll need to discuss that as well. Knowing if your players are more interested in a hack and slash, or an epic to overcome a powerful enemy, or a web of political and interpersonal intrigue, will help you plan out your sessions, and also predict likely (and possibly otherwise unexpected) developments brought about by your characters’ actions. Having these conversations is also a wellspring of ideas that you can use to flesh out your world, especially if your character has an idea of some detail pertaining to their character – after all, whatever game style they’re interested in, a D&D campaign inevitably becomes a collection of character’s stories as they progress through it.

Knowing the characters – the real story

The character creation part of session zero tends to go one of two ways – a player has a very rough idea of what kind of character they want and needs help fleshing it out to fit with the world as well as how they go about creating that character, or they have a very well thought out idea for a character and they need help transposing that idea onto your world for it to grow and play out. In either case, being as involved as possible (or at least, as involved as reasonable without becoming obstructive) in this part of the character creation process not only helps the player become more attuned to their character, but also helps you understand them and give you fuel to add aspects to your campaign that will make it feel like so much more than just a collection of quests and objectives. It’s also one of the most powerful sources of ideas for details in your world – a character who’s a war veteran must have had a war in the past to fight in, which must have had some effects on the world. A character who has a dark past has left the consequences of that past throughout the world – changing both the people and the places in ways that no other story, or pre-published quest, could possibly create or predict.

It’s well worth fleshing out these ideas, backstories and events as far as possible. However, this can be quite daunting – Several players, each of which with vastly diverse characters, can amount to a lot of complicated information – the best way to handle this is to take notes, and focus on small areas at a time. The rest will play itself out in-game, and keeping up with their goals and fleshing out those stories will happen organically.

Keeping it simple.

You’d be amazed at how much story fuel you can get from just a few questions, across all of your characters. The same questions can also be a very solid guideline for players who are struggling to conceptualize their characters. Depending on how story-driven you want your campaign to be, you can ask more or less questions. The Hero-builder’s guidebook has a fantastic questionnaire for characters in development, but it’s a lot of information to deal with across multiple players for one DM, as it’s intended to help the players directly with the concepts. As an experiment, for my last campaign, I sent each of my four players a simple questionnaire about two weeks before we started playing. With just a few questions, I was able to get a solid idea of the four characters personalities, goals, and history, as well as a lot of useful and immersive additions to the world I would place around them to make the world more truly theirs, as well as making me resonate better with them.

The questions you should always ask.

Adventurers at the tavern
For every character meeting at the tavern, there’s a story behind them, how they got there, and where they’re going to.

There were two sections of questions that I sent to each of my players. These were designed to be applicable to any player, any character, and indeed, any game system:

  • The basics: Character Name, Race, Gender, Age (Both in years and whatever the human equivalent would be for races that have a longer/shorter lifespan), appearance. I’ve had just this information be a pondering point for players about their player’s goals – Questions like, if the campaign takes place in the Dwarven mountains, what’s an elf doing there?
  • Motivations and goals/In general, what do you hope to gain from your actions? This is a big core thing for players – it will tell you how to get them hooked on a quest, warn you of hooks that will not get picked up by players, and possibly hint at any unpredictable reactions they may have in certain situations.
  • “You’re currently travelling alone. Is this a recent development? What are the reasons? Is it expected to be temporary or permanent? Do you have a clan/squad/family that you were previously with? This one is a bit less generic but is applicable to almost any character in a game where the party has not met or officially allied with one another, or where two players are playing as siblings or close allies. It largely focuses on delving into and fleshing out a characters past, contacts, and where applicable, the events that led them to join the adventure.

With just those three questions, my players were able to turn generic character archetypes into unique beings with histories, turmoils, goals, and deep stories, which shone through their playing in the game.

The questions that are really relevant.

When I said that the questions were geared to any game system, I meant it – the campaign I tested this on was built in the Star Wars D20, which is a fairly heavily modified version of D&D 3.5, and it fit just as well as with the traditional D&D setting I usually play, and with the examples given. Some questions, however, will apply only to the very specific campaign you’ve designed, and the very specific circumstances you have in place for how the characters will come together to participate in the campaign itself.

A working example:

In the example I used, the campaign took place during the clone wars. The question boiled down to “The galaxy/world is going through X situation, and you’re currently going to Y place, which could be described as Z, in Q area – what brought you here?”

The aim of the question was to not only understand their character’s immediate position, rather than their overarching one but also to give the player a little bit of context about their world and feed the immersion before the game ever even started.

With this, not only did it help understand and motivate the characters in direct and personal ways, but also helped adjust any aspects in the campaign that would have otherwise not resonated with the players, which takes me back to the most important reason to have a session zero at all:

You’re in it to have fun.

Any campaign, in any system, is about having fun. In D&D, it’s also about living out a story in a unique world. The little bit of extra effort beforehand will make your players feel the world that much more. Get more involved, and you’ll have more fun exploring the lives of these adventurers with them for it. It’ll be easier to wing it when the players inevitably catch you off guard, it’ll make the risks scarier, the enemies more real, and the victories oh, so much sweeter.

It’s amazing how a game can come to life when you really get to know the characters, and your players can truly become them.

Go on, try it.

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Dylan Beckbessinger

App developer by day, Chaotic Neutral dungeon master by night, Dylan has been a DM for 10 years, and an avid fan of all things geekdom for far, far longer than that. Favorite class is eldritch theurge, because raw power doesn't need any limits.

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