More people are playing Dungeons & Dragons than ever. Even in a pandemic. And many people are playing for the first time. It's serendipitous then that the owners and publishers of the game, Wizards of the Coast, have just released a revolutionary set of guidelines that make learning the 46-year-old fantasy game a lot easier.
In Tasha's Cauldron of Everything, a new hardcover book containing supplemental options for the current Fifth Edition (5E) of Dungeons & Dragons — the popular game where players make up sword-and-sorcery adventures as seen in Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones — there is a brief but crucial three pages that outline the all-important "Session Zero."
A colloquial term born out of the game's fandom, a "Session Zero" is an open forum where players meet, introduce their characters, and discuss expectations, all before the dice rolling begins. While it sounds like work for what should be, you know, a game, veteran Dungeon Masters — the players who host, referee, narrate, and "direct" a game of D&D like a movie — can attest how far a productive Session Zero can take players (often called a "table").
"Session Zeroes are the foundation of any good campaign," Brandy Camel, Community Manager for Dungeons & Dragons, tells Inverse. "It's an opportunity for players to come together, understand the rules of engagement, establish a social contract, and make sure everybody kind of knows what sort of rules they’re going to be following."
Dungeons & Dragons players have been running their own Session Zeroes for years. But Tasha's Cauldron of Everything (available now at retail) is the first time that the game is openly acknowledging the concept. It even provides a comprehensive guide on how to run them. Wizards of the Coast surveyed a vast number of players, and based on comments about how they conduct Session Zeroes, and the results helped dictate the sorts of guidelines that appear in Tasha's.
"A lot of it comes from personal experiences within the company of writers and Dungeon Masters," Camel tells Inverse. "A lot of the folks I've played D&D with at the company have made a point to run a Session Zero. Even when we do online games, a Session Zero is common. It can be valuable to make sure everybody understands what the guidelines are."
But Tasha's Cauldron of Everything introduces guidelines that even experienced players may not have thought to consider, which may make the book a game-changer as DMs welcome more newcomers to their tables.
"The Social Contract"
As suggested in Cauldron of Everything, the goal of Session Zero should be to establish a "social contract" where players agree to boundaries. This is where players make it clear what is okay and not okay for a tabletop role-playing story. Limits cited in Cauldron of Everything include "themes or scenes of sex, exploitation, racial profiling, slavery, violence toward children and animals, gratuitous swearing, and intra-party romance."
The book also calls out out-of-game behaviors like "unwanted physical contact, dice-sharing, dice-throwing, shouting, vulgarity, rules lawyering," and more.
The wrong plot point in a game of Dungeons & Dragons can trigger unwanted, real-world trauma. And Dungeons & Dragons is, at its core, an escapist fantasy where players want to be comfortable being someone else. While the game has plentiful therapeutic benefits, it's still up to the players themselves how much they consent.
This, Camel says, is "the biggest emphasis" in the Session Zero guidelines.
"This is something personally I'm a big fan of," Camel says. "This is a decision the DM and the players should be making at every table. And it sets you up for success, so you never hit a point where everyone's uncomfortable."
Tasha's Cauldron of Everything explains social contracts on page 140:
"Session Zero is the perfect time for you and the players to discuss the experience they're hoping for, as well as topics, themes, and behavior they deem inappropriate. Out of this discussion, a social contract begins to form. Sometimes a social contract takes shape organically, but it's good practice to have a direct conversation during session zero to establish boundaries and expectations."
But how can players accomplish this? It can be hard asking a table — be it all friends, total strangers, and in-between — what is and isn't triggering. The book suggests something deceptively simple: note cards. Players write down what they're not comfortable to role-play. The DM is instructed to read and study the cards and apply them to the game.
It's simple but effective. And it goes a long way to foster not just a happy table, but a welcoming one. Especially to those who are new to Dungeons & Dragons and do not know what to expect.
"The idea of handing out note cards and outlining things that are uncomfortable appealed to me," Camel says. "Sometimes people may be uncomfortable talking in an open setting. So being able to write it down and have your DM read them without attributing them to a specific person goes a long way to setting up a social contract."
The outlines in Tasha's Guide to Everything are more like guidelines than hard and fast rules, Camel clarifies. "They are definitely broad," she says. "They are examples of what you may have experienced in a session zero before, or if you've never run one, bullet points where to start."
With two decades of Dungeons & Dragons under her own belt, Camel is still learning new ways to play the game. And the barrier to entry has never been lower.
"I've been DMing for two decades, and I still find myself asking after every session, 'Did everyone have fun?'" she says. "D&D is a collaborative experience. Because it's the nature of collaborative storytelling, you have to get everybody to exchange those ideas and spitball new things you didn't plan. You are getting everyone on the same page from the get-go. You know what they want to experience and you know the journey they want to take with you."
Tasha's Cauldron of Everything is available now.