10 Table Culture Rules for Your Dungeons and Dragons Game’s Session Zero

I have ten rules for being at my table.

Some cross into some common mechanics, but most are about being the best player with me and with the group. I used to hand this out to new players, but now I go over these basic rules during the Session Zero.

Unlike with other sets of rules I may or may not run with, borrowing from various TTRPGs or from sources on the Dungeon Masters’ Guild, these rules are used in ever game I run.

1. Try to be Consistent

For games which are ongoing, we will meet every week (unless otherwise decided on) at roughly the same time. As long as we have at least three players, the game is on. I’ll do my best to communicate changes as far ahead as possible; please do the same. Your character is usually only present when you are and may miss out on advancement if they are missing. 

2. No Distractions

I put in a lot of effort in creating each week’s session and the overarching campaign. Nothing is less fun for me than when a player doesn’t engage because they are on their phone or tablet. Take part in the story. 

3. The ‘You’re not There’ Rule

If your character isn’t there, don’t try to interact with a scene. Likewise, if your character isn’t in a situation or conversation, your character doesn’t learn what occurred until they discover it– likely through talking with their adventuring partners! 

Also, if you didn’t say anything or do something at the table, it didn’t happen. If you didn’t plan at the table or talk to someone at the table, you didn’t plan or talk to them. 

Some of this might be delayed for more veteran players to give insights to newer players. (Within reason.)

4. Mostly Dark Fantasy Comedy with High Roleplay

I like my games to be challenging, my characters to have some moral ambiguity, and the decisions of players to matter. 

If you can play through games like Dragon Age, The Witcher, or other similar RPGs, you can definitely handle most of the themes I play in my game. Regardless of the setting I’m running, unicorns and rainbows exist, but they are not the norm and you should be on the lookout for what lurks in the shadows and in the hearts of those you interact with. Often, life isn’t fair; bad things happen to good people; and players should be aware that characters can, and do, die. 

Most combats are set to hard or deadly. Characters may find themselves in situations beyond their abilities and need to choose discretion over valor. 

Two of the most important things to remember as a player character in a game I’m running is that I want you to be the characters who give the world hope no matter how bleak the situations; while I like to have a layer of grit in my games, I want you to have a blast playing. Comedy is usually welcome to lighten the darkness.  

5. Fade to Black and Hand Signals

If there are any themes or topics you find difficult with at the table to play through, please feel free to call for a “Fade to Black” (if you are comfortable with the idea of the scene, but want less detail) or raise both of your hands if you are uncomfortable with the idea of the scene. I will do as much as I can to change a scene to work with you. Also, if it seems like there is going to be a recurring issue, talk to me in between sessions. 

An example of this is romance. I don’t mind that characters (whether PCs or a PC and an NPC) create a romantic bond. I don’t even mind playing it out to a point, but there is also a point where I will “fade to black” the scene so that the characters can have some privacy. No one wants it to go further than that point. 

An additional concern would be if you feel like you have not got the chance to speak when you wish. If this is the case, please raise one hand. 

Hard and Soft Limits 

When starting the game, it’s good to get an idea of the hard and soft limits players have with interactions at the table, whether they are in-game or out-of-game. If you aren’t comfortable expressing a limit aloud to the table, please message me and I will express it to the table. To quote Tasha:

A soft limit is a threshold that one should think twice about crossing, as it is likely to create genuine anxiety, fear, and discomfort. 

A hard limit is a threshold that should never be crossed (141). 

Sometimes things come up that we didn’t know existed at the table. If there is something that comes up that you were uncomfortable with, please let me know. 

6. You are Heroes of Fate

Going with the idea of dark fantasy: only so many people can be heroes. Your character has incredible abilities which most other characters have little or no access to. Your character, according to the lore, has been touched by fate. For this reason, your character gets death saves; most NPCs do not. 

7. Keep the Game Rolling

The least fun parts of a game are when little to nothing is happening. I try to do as much as possible on my end to alleviate this, please try to do the same. Along with not being distracted, try to come up with what you want your character to do when it’s your turn in combat or when the scene shifts back to you. 

If combat has slowed down too much, I might start a countdown which gives you ten seconds. If an action isn’t declared within that time, the character takes the dodge action and misses the rest of their turn until the next round of combat. (Though they still have reactions). Also: if you’re going to be out of the room, try to tell someone your plan so that they can have your character act without you or initiative will move to the next person as if your character held their action until you return. 

8. Support the Party

The adventure and/or campaign revolves around a whole party of characters with the ability to change the course of history as it unfolds around them. While everyone wants their chance in the spotlight, try to also think of how you can use your character to support and help the missions of other characters. If the druid is busy casting with a ritual, perhaps the bard can give them inspiration while the fighter keeps a lookout. If the barbarian needs to track a relic down for their people, perhaps the wizard can help by doing some research on its location. (This isn’t even to mention combat, where lives actively hang in the balance.)

9. Don’t be a Jerk

Don’t be a jerk to other players; don’t argue with me. 

While I’m happy to hear if I’ve made a different call than you were expecting, if I move on, so should you. If you want to discuss a ruling, please save it for between sessions. 

The Social Contract (Adapted from Tasha)

  • I promise to do my best to respect each player by running a game which is fun, fair, and tailored to each character. I will try my best to ensure that every character gets their moment to shine and contribute to the ongoing story.  
  • Players ought to respect me as the DM and the effort it takes to create a fun game for everyone. Players will allow me to direct the campaign, arbitrate rules, and settle disputes. 
  • Players ought to respect one another, listen to one another, support one another, and do their utmost to promote and preserve the adventuring party.
  • Players which disrespect each other or the DM may be dismissed from the group.

10. Have Fun!

This is the whole point. I try to make sure there are moments of laughter in the worlds of grit when I’m running games; I try to make sure your characters are well rewarded for their part of the story. If you remember that above all this is meant to be a game with friends or friends-to-be, in which you tell a story together, you’ll have much better experiences.

Most of these aren’t revolutionary.

Most Dungeon Masters have a variance on most of these rules; most TTRPGs have some kind of list like these. But these are the rules I hand to my players before any game starts so that as much of the actual playing runs as smoothly as possible.

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