A Session Zero Alternative

I’m always surprised at how divergent the opinions are on session zero as a tool for running a game. While there is a majority approval of the concept and supporting evidence of it being helpful to a game and avoiding future issues at the table, there is a vocal minority who seem to think it’s a waste of time. And I feel like part of that is because the definition of a session zero isn’t uniform. So maybe there’s an alternative to session zero that might work better. 

Problems with Session Zero

Because some DMs think that a session zero is an opportunity to lore dump their world building into their players’ laps. But, we all but the most dedicated storyteller and exploration-driven players don’t read any background document you send them on the world. Why would you think they’re interested in listening to you tell them about it in person? It’s the DM equivalent of being cornered by a D&D player so they can tell you about their Drizz’t clone they’ve been playing for the last two months. Other groups just use it as a get-together to build characters. As a player, I know the rules, I have the sourcebooks, I can build a playable character on my own time. 

Whatever you offer as a session zero or alternative needs to be engaging. Some Dungeon Masters will end the session zero with a throwaway combat, just so players get a little time in the driver seat for their new character. I think this works for a lot of people, just not me personally. I’d rather spend the last 30 minutes of a session starting the campaign and getting to the inciting incident rather than a throwaway combat. 

I’ve known other players who cancel when they learn about a session zero. They don’t want to waste their time listening to lore dumps or watching other people build characters. They just ask what type of character to build and show up with it on session one, ready to play.  Often I think this is because they’ve gotten burned by bad session zeroes and view them as a massive waste of time.

And, as adults, coordinating people to play is already difficult enough without life getting in the way. As A DM I don’t want to waste time with us all at the table that isn’t playing. Recently, I’ve been struggling to herd cats. Over the last month, we’ve played one of the five sessions scheduled. Still, I’ve personally seen the benefit of running a session zero for running anything more than a one-shot adventure. A session zero makes the game more cohesive and easier to get off the ground while ensuring the player characters in the game make sense for the setting and are grounded in the world. So, looking for an alternative to session zero, I’ve been running mini, one-on-one session zeroes with success. Let me show you what’s worked for me.

The One-on-One, Session Zero Alternative

Before going any further, I should warn you, this alternative to session zero saves everyone time EXCEPT you. But, if you’re a dedicated behind-the-screen jockey, I suspect you’re not afraid of a little extra time spent preparing your game so long as it’s meaningful. If you are pinched for time, well, I’d suggest running one-shots or using pre-gen characters to avoid the problems of running an ongoing campaign without a session zero. To start this alternative to session zero, begin scheduling players to meet over video conference. This method helps make it easier to schedule for you and your players.

First Come First Served

I’ve been running a first come first served approach to the session zero alternative. In my experience, rogues and sorcerers are the most common classes. Schedule your one-on-one mini session zero early and you’re more likely to get the class you want as a player. Also, those motivated to show up for a new campaign have a better chance of influencing the campaign’s direction. In these sessions I’m also learning about what type of challenges and adventures the player wants to face. Being first means I spend the most amount of time thinking about what that players wants in the upcoming adventure and larger campaign. 

For me, the best part about the one-on-one session zero alternative is it allows me to focus completely on a single player at a time and I find asking for preference and feedback is better in a one-on-one setting as the player isn’t worried about be opposed or judged by the other players. They don’t need to worry about having their ideas shot down. 

Session Zero, Alternative, and Objectives

Because session zero is a bit of an amorphous concept, I want to make my objectives for the one-on-one alternative to session zero very clear. I start each session by explaining to the player what we’re doing and why. Here are the objectives I have for my session zeroes and their one-on-one alternatives.

  1. Get Input & Understand What In-Game Experiences the Player Wants/Doesn’t Want
  2. Sensitive Subjects & Safety Tools
  3. Inform the Player of Big, Relevant Setting Information
  4. Inform the Player of Homebrew Additions/Revisions
  5. Cooperatively Build a Character the Player is Excited to Play, Fits the Setting, and is Adventurous

It’s pretty straightforward and lets players know what they should expect to get out of the session and why it’s important. So let’s jump into what I talk about in the first section, player input for crafting the game.

Player-Informed Game Experience

Right now I’m working with players for a new campaign and most of them are new to TTRPGs. So, the first order of business is to get an idea of their foundational knowledge. What do they know about the Fantasy genre, what about gaming, and what is their understanding of D&D? The player’s answers will help me frame their expectations for the game and what tropes I can lean on when running the game. 

For example, “The orc moves up to you and swings its morningstar, does 17 hit your AC?” Could be gibberish if the player isn’t familiar with terms like orc, morningstar, and AC. Most veteran players don’t need to cover this section unless they’re unfamiliar with the specific game or edition of rules you’re planning to run. If that’s the case, it’s worth going over some of the changes and nuances that may be different. 


Comical Adversaries

One of my favorite questions is what are types of adversaries your players want to oppose in the upcoming campaign. Nothing sucks quite as much as playing a character that’s totally wrong for a campaign. I speak from personal experience as someone who played a charm based wizard in a campaign that ended up being centered on constructs and undead. Pretty worthless character. 

I like to ask players to rank which type of enemy they would like to fight from most to least: supernatural monsters, natural creatures, and humanoids. Supernatural monsters cover everything from constructs and ghosts to devils and aberrations. Natural creatures include dire wolves, owlbears, dinosaurs, and dragons. Humanoids is self explanatory. This one simple question can tell me what sort of BBEG they are interested in fighting and gives me some insight on the type of adventures that they might like. A player that wants to slay dragons won’t be thrilled about an adventure busting up a devious cult unless they’re worshipping Tiamat or led by a dragon in disguise.

Pillars of Play

The second question I like to ask is another ranking exercise. And that’s rank the pillars of play by how much you want to see of each in your game. A player can show me whether they’re more interested in big boss battles, skirmishes, and chases, or bushwhacking through an uncharted wilderness to plumb the trapped, crumbling ruins of a forgotten civilization. Or maybe they’re interested in intrigue, dealing with the internal troubles of their character, and finding less-violent resolutions to their problems.

Together these questions give me a 3×3 grid of what types of adventures most appeal to the player and which do not.  The last question for player input is about the genres they’re interested in playing.

Genre Preferences

It may seem like an obvious question to which you already know the answer based off the first two questions and you may be right. But that’s not always the case. For example, a supernatural combat focused game can look very different according to genre.

  • Gritty/Realistic: Train to Busan
  • Investigation/Exploration: Aliens
  • War: Independence Day

Here are the genres I used with my players, but you can augment them based on rules system, type of game you want to run, and knowledge of your players. I ask them to identify 1-2 genres they are interested in pursuing and 1-2 they are not. 

  • Action/Adventure
  • Gritty/Realistic
  • Intrigue
  • Investigation/Exploration
  • War
  • Weird/Horror

By crossing together a player’s answers to the previous three questions and looking at the results compared to the rest of the players you should get some great insight into the type of adventures they will most enjoy and the types of adventure you may want to avoid.

One problem you may run into is the pleasing player, who says they’re OK playing whatever. Go ahead and push them for a preference. I appreciate players who are willing to play any type of game and any type of character (I’m generally one of them) but that’s not the point of this alternative to session zero. The entire point is to get the player’s preference so we as DM’s can create adventures and games made for you, so you will enjoy.

Sensitive Subjects & Safety Tools

Example of Safety Cards

Safety tools is a larger subject that deserves its own dedicated discussion. Suffice it to say, whether it’s lines and veils, cards, or another system of tools you want to employ, talk with your players if there’s any sensitive subjects or tools they would prefer or avoid. I personally don’t use any formal safety tools when I run because I generally steer my adventures away from para-realistic issues. If you plan on including themes of discrimination or experiences of violent or sexual trauma you should definitely go over these with your players in a one-on-one so you can handle it at the table in a manner fitting the appropriate sensitivity of the subject matter and the members of your group.

Session Zero Alternative DM-Presented Info

In this section I inform my players of anything they need to know about world or rules for the upcoming game. You may be tempted to dump world building or lore in this section, don’t. Generally, I only inform players of big difference in this campaign than the baseline fantasy setting of D&D. Highlight the most important differences and at most provide the player with your campaign setting’s elevator pitch, 2-3 sentences about what makes it unique and different. The rest they can learn organically while playing.

This is also the section where you should hit the players with your homebrew changes, house rules, and personal DM philosophy. In the current campaign I’m starting up I let the players know I plan to use average HP on level up, that I’m using a variant resting mechanic, what sourcebooks are allowed for the campaign, and that I plan to use a fate token homebrew variant of the inspiration system.

I actually didn’t give them any setting information, because I’m building the adventure setting off the PCs using the standard D&D setting as the baseline.

Session Zero Alternative: 1-on-1 Character Building

You may have noticed I sandwiched the DM-presented info between the player-focused information. I want to keep the spotlight starting and finishing on the player so they feel this is worth their time and that they are getting a say in the development of their D&D campaign. The character building section is easily the biggest section and takes the most amount of time to complete. 

Hopefully your player has been taking notes, but if not, make sure they’re ready to start taking notes now about their character. Some players come with a character already in mind or pre-built that they want to play. I have made the mistake of trying to work and existing character into this framework with middling results. My general rule of thumb is New Campaign? New Character. Often I overcome this by telling them we will build a second character using this time and then discuss which makes the most sense for the campaign. In my experience players are most excited about the character they most recently made, so it hasn’t been an issue for me so far.

This character creation session is less about the mechanical building of the character and more about creating an organic character. Generally I have veteran players put together the character sheet afterwards and for new players I transfer the input here to a character sheet for them. To help players I even make sure most of the choices here can be rolled randomly and I encourage players to roll randomly for options unless they have a strong preference. Rolling random characters is fun and I highly encourage all players to at least try it out a few times.

First, choose or roll for a race/ancestry. I keep the focus on the Player’s Handbook Races and provide an “Other” option on a 1d10 roll for less common races. I think it’s way too much to throw 80+ race/ancestry options at players upfront, so they gain access to this if they choose/roll other. Once they secure a race/ancestry I may talk to them about sub race/heritage, it really depends on the player and if I think a specific choice makes more sense for a character.

After choosing a race/ancestry I ask for the player to choose or roll for a birthplace location. The assumption is that a character is born in a small village in the corresponding location unless they choose or roll and land on the settlement selection, meaning they were born in a major city somewhere in one of the biomes. 

1d12 Birthplace

  • Taiga/Boreal Forest
  • Chaparral/Mediterranean
  • Cold Desert/Badlands
  • Prairie/Steppe
  • Highlands/Mountains
  • Hot Desert
  • Jungle
  • Temperate Forest
  • Tundra
  • Wetland
  • Coast [Roll again using 1d10]
  • City [Roll again using 1d10]

Continuing to discover the fundamentals of the player’s character, the next stop is determining the character’s socio-economic caste. They can choose or roll 1d10 to decide on their caste. On a 1-4, they are a commoner covering everything from slaves to serfs to free, unskilled laborers. On a 5-7, the character grew up as part of the middle class with artisans, craftsmen, and merchants. On a result of an eight or nine, the character grew up as part of the nobility. And by choosing or rolling a 10, the character is an outsider. Outsiders can include people that are barbarians, hill folk, foreigners, nomads, and outlaws.

The answer to these three prompts give us a strong start for the character. You and the player should already be thinking about who this person is and their experiences to date. Throughout the process it’s important to ask your player questions about the character and build connections between the different things you find out about the characters. Feel free to offer help and offer different ideas and audibles to the player if you think it might work better for the character. But, remember that unless it violates something about the game world or campaign you’re planning, the player should get the final say when fleshing out their character.

We continue to the next step, which is determining the character’s class. Again, I give the player the opportunity to choose or to roll for classes. To make things simple, I just use a 1d12 and haven’t been using the alchemist or third party classes like Matt Mercer’s Bloodhunter. A usual follow-up question I ask is how the player’s character was drawn into this role. How did they learn magic, why did they make a pact with an outsider, who taught them how to wield dozens of weapons proficiently?

The last point for the first section of the character building one-on-one alternative to session zero is to decide on ability scores. Now that we know the character’s race and class they can assign ability scores. For most 5e applications I use the standard array, especially with new players. I don’t want to bog them down with rolling a bad character or doing a MAD point buy. 

For new players I discuss where they should put their highest two ability scores based off the class archetype they envision and then ask them questions about how the ability scores might be used to give them insight on where scores should be assigned. I might ask something like, “do you see your character as being athletic or more of a bookworm?”

Already the player and I should be developing a good foundation on the character and who they are. The next section deals with the character’s upbringing and background.

Session Zero Alternative: Upbringing & Backgrounds

The most mileage I’ve gotten out of a 5e book is definitely Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. In addition to expanded player options, I love using the tables in the “This is Your Life” section. Even if you don’t plan on playing 5e, the section of tables that helps you ground a character in the world and flavor their backstory is useful for any serious RP-oriented player and game master, no matter your preferred system. 

I start with Childhood Memories (XGE, 64), it will tell us about the character’s experience as a child. Be sure to ask follow-up questions about their childhood. What made it a good or bad childhood and what sort of standout experiences do you think the character has?

Next, I have the player choose or roll 1d8 to determine their apprenticeship. An apprenticeship informs us about the character’s coming of age and what they spent their formative years learning how to do before becoming an adventurer. They are quite broad and vague categories that allow for plenty of interpretation. Resources, for example, includes everything from farmers and shepherds to miners and charcoal makers. Anyone who works in gathering and refining a resource. A noble caste, resource character might be from a family that owns a vineyard or tin mine. 

1d8 Apprenticeship

  • Academic
  • Criminal
  • Military
  • Performance
  • Politics
  • Religious
  • Resources
  • Trade

In the current game I’m running a player’s nomadic ranger character ended up with the religious background. Instead of going the traditional acolyte route, we decided it made more sense for that character to have grown up learning the ways of a shaman. This helps develop the character’s background.

Creating custom backgrounds in 5e is dummy easy and cobbling together a custom background for your players shows that you care and that you want the character to be ludo-narrative harmonious when it comes to the character sheet. Most often you can tweak one or two of the many already existing backgrounds published by WoTC into something that works for the character. 

So, for the aforementioned ranger, they gained training in Nature and Medicine from their shaman training as well as the herbalism kit and woodcutter tools. The player wanted the character to be able to craft arrows for their character as an expression of their wilderness lore. I copied the lizardfolk crafter racial feature and added 1d4 pieces of ammunition or other small item as approved by the DM as their background feature. All of which, took me about 10 minutes, most of which was looking up the toolset list and lizardfolk feature.

Family & Relationships

With the character’s  mechanical ABCs out of the way, we can dig into the questions about the player character’s family. Some DMs and players may be tempted to skip this, but I assure you this is one of the most important aspects of your alternative to session zero. The only way to ground characters in the world and make them care about it is to create relationships that exist within the world. Avoid the standard dead parents trope and keep your players from a head start towards murderhobo town. Below I’ve outlined the tables and the pages where they can be found in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. 

Relationship Tables

  • Parents 
    • Who (XGE, 63)
    • Status (XGE,73)
    • Occupation (XGE,72)
    • Relationship (XGE,73)
  • Siblings 
    • Who (XGE,63)
    • Status (XGE,73)
    • Occupation (XGE,72)
    • Relationship (XGE,73)
  • Significant Other 
    • Who (XGE,63)
    • Status (XGE,73)
    • Occupation (XGE,72)
    • Relationship (XGE,73)
  • Children
    • Who (XGE,63)
    • Status (XGE,73)
    • Occupation (XGE,72)
    • Relationship (XGE,73)

While it’s pretty uncommon for players to jump into having a significant other or children for their character, it is a nice addition to at least offer the option. Especially if you play with adults that have spouses and children of their own. You could build an interesting adventurer under the premise of a ruined noble that needs a lot of money to keep their two children enrolled at an expensive boarding school.

Session Zero Alternative: Character Detail Work

As we begin to wind down the character creation process, we turn our focus towards fleshing out the character’s personality and transitioning from their backstory to how they became a burgeoning adventurer. The final section here is a series of open-ended questions to help us detail the character. And we start with a very important question, “What is your character’s name?” I like to wait until this point so a player already feels an attachment to the character and they have a name that feels right for the character. 

Next, we want to determine the character’s age. We don’t need it down to years, but a general idea of their life stage is needed so we can roll on the Life Events table (XGE, 69). Work these new rolls from the table into the character as we know them. For example, the nomadic, shaman, ranger we’ve been using as an example thus far, ended up discovering they knew another adventurer. We discussed some different options and decided that the adventurer was an older sibling’s friend whose turn to adventurer and the stories they returned with from their journeys is what made the character want to become an adventurer in their own right. 

Why did you leave everything behind to become an adventurer?

Sometimes a player knows immediately what spurred the character to become an adventure. Other times they hesitate. If they hesitate I like to reframe the question. Remind the player that most characters turn to the adventuring lifestyle because they are running towards or away from something. Which do you think your character is doing and why? Pay close attention because this is fertile soil to sow the seeds of adventure and drama that you can reap later. Maybe that noble the character fleeced shows up to exact their revenge, just as the party is about to save the day and gets in their way.

I’m not much of a fan of the Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws system of D&D 5e. I appreciate the intent and I do believe it’s a step in the right direction for making personality a part of creating the character, but in my experience at the table they don’t work very well. It definitely feels tacked on and I find players and DMs constantly forget about them because they’re not integral to the character’s DNA. This entire system of an alternative to session zero is to make a player character’s background and personality more organic. 

That’s why after determining why a character has decided to become an adventurer I like to ask what is the one thing that always gets them in trouble. What is the quirk, flaw, or personality trait that always seems to get the character into trouble. Maybe they just can’t let it go when someone insults them or they can’t stop themselves from being curious. Something that whenever it comes up is always going to spell bad news for the character, not because it acts on the player character, but because they react to the stimulus. Keep a note of this and make sure to occasionally bring it for the player in session. Just make sure to offer a nice reward to offset leaning into a detrimental situation, like inspiration.

What are your long-term goals?

Having a personal goal is important to creating a well fleshed-out character that has a personality and something that drives them beyond the meta-game of being part of an adventuring group so we can all play together. And sometimes when you play a character with this in mind, they achieve their goal and it no longer makes sense for them to be part of the adventuring party. Most groups and DMs understand this and will help you create and introduce a new character to the game who has a reason to continue adventuring. 

Long-term player character goals are also great because they give your Dungeon Master great ideas for side quests and alternate adventure rewards that are tailor-made for your character.

The next question I like to use is, “how do you relax?” Being an adventurer is stressful, so it’s helpful to think about what a player’s character might do while resting in camp or during downtime to relax and recharge. Follow it up with helpful suggestions like, does your character have a hobby, a game they like to play, make things, practice their art, throw a big party, or maybe go on a full vacation or weekend getaway. Help your players learn about their character beyond active adventuring and you can help the group develop organic, low-tension role play scenes.

How do you know one or more characters in the party? What’s your relationship?

As a DM I can probably count on my fingers how many times I’ve started a game with the player characters as strangers meeting in an inn. I don’t like it as a start for any campaign. Not just because it’s a trope, but because I hate spending 10-30 minutes of players awkwardly circling each other and making up excuses to talk to each other before anything interesting happens. One of the biggest benefits to running a session zero is creating a party of characters that work together. For the alternate to session zero, I ask each player to tell me how their character knows one or more of the characters. 

It’s typically quite easy to create some connecting thread between two characters. It doesn’t have to be a close relationship or even a particularly friendly one. Two player characters that get on each other’s nerves or share a rivalry in a party (Ex. Gimli and Legolas) can often be more fun than a party that always gets along. In one of my favorite one-shot adventures, another player and I played elf and half-elf cousins who found each other frustrating. 

Using these created connections I can start the game with the player characters already accepting the adventure and at least every member of the party knowing at least one other member to ease the initial role-play growing pains of a game. Just make sure you get the green light from both players before cementing the connections. 

With the last question answered, we come to the end of the alternate to session zero. Depending on player creativity, their familiarity with the game, and whether they’ve done this process before, it takes about 1-2.5 hours per one-on-one session. It’s shorter than a normal gaming session for your players, but does require an extra time commitment from your end as the Dungeon Master. 

Session Zero Alternative: Player Homework

So far, I’ve never had someone decide to play their former character after going through the process. In my experience, a player’s favorite character is often the one they’re just about to build. Players get excited about their new character and feel like they already understand the sort of person they are. Before ending the session I hit my players with some simple homework assignments.

First, create the character sheet and send it to me. For absolutely new players, I typically just create the character sheet for them and share it. I don’t expect a new player to go through the dizzying process of downloading an entire rules system before their first game just so they can build a competent character. 

Second, I ask the player to write up a short (one page max) backstory based off of what we’ve discussed. I also let the player know that the backstory isn’t set in stone and we can always change it later if something would make more sense once the game starts. For me, I just want to get an idea of the character’s personality and where the player views their place in the world. Honestly, most players don’t actually write and send over a backstory, but that’s OK because I just helped build it with them so I already have a good idea of the characters.

Third, I ask the player to find me a piece of artwork that represents their character. This art can be used for tokens, a wiki, Roll20, or any other type of campaign management that benefits from a visual representation from the character. I also like it because we can share it at the start of the campaign and everyone playing is on the same page about the physical and aesthetic qualities of the other party members. 

Wrapping Up Your One-on-One Session Zero Alternative

That’s about it for the alternative I’ve been using to running a traditional session zero. After reading this and noting that this is a time intensive process, you may be tempted to just send the questions to your players instead of doing a one-on-one interview. I’ve done this before and I can tell you, the one-on-one sessions are more effective, fun, and improve your understanding of the characters. Once everyone has completed their session you can schedule the start of your next campaign as usual. So please, try alternative to session zero for your next campaign and let me know how it works for you. 

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