I'm a member of a few D&D 5e groups on Facebook, including ones for DMs. I'm always amazed by some of the commentary, often by DMs, with complaints about their players behaviour. Sometimes it's also about DMs too, but the ratio does seem out of kilter with the ratio of players to DMs. Anyway, distribution aside, many of these comments are pretty shocking - players and DMs throwing tantrums, demanding certain things "or else", using their phones (for non-game related stuff) whilst playing - all sorts of disruptive behaviour that would generally be considered anti-social in just about any other setting.
There are questions on some home-brewed rules - a common one being critical failures. Many DMs have house-ruled that a natural "1" a player attack equals a dropped weapon, a broken bowstring, an attack that hits another player or some such. Cries of outrage are expressed - "My group would never tolerate this", "This slows down gameplay and fun for all", "You're destroying the rules" - all kinds of things are mooted and counter-argued.
Distilling down to the route cause of an awful lot of these, a huge source of these issues boils down to communication - or a lack of it. Some of these get so bad that players are excluded, forced out, or in some cases, groups even disbanded entirely. Now the group I DM is a pretty large one, yet we rarely have any of these issues. Not only that, but none of us knew each other at all this time last year...we were all strangers and got together through MeetUp. Surely we aren't that different? Why haven't we come across this?
Well, I think the reason is that we had a Session Zero - essentially a discussion between us all on our experience, how we wanted to play, what we thought was fun, what we didn't want, schedules - pretty much everything. Everyone had a voice, everyone agreed with what we decided and we had created an open environment where if things changed, we could bring it up. We did this before even rolling a single dice. When we did then roll for stats everyone had a clear idea of what the path ahead of them was - some chose to roll, some chose standard stats, and they also had the option to points buy - that was one of the agreements we made.
We covered things like;
- What style of play did we want? - minis, tiles, paper, "theatre of the mind" (we chose minis),
- How should the characters level up? (we chose needing a long rest after gaining the relevant experience)
- Regular sessions or ad-hoc? (We chose regular)
- Where to play? (A couple of the players offered their home dining room, which was great!)
- What was acceptable at the table - mobile phones being a primary topic. (we agreed phones could be left on in case of emergencies, but not used at the table unless for a D&D related app, like a stat or spell tracker)
- What classes/races, optional rules etc would we use - like Feats, for example (we agreed that we'd just use Players Handbook races & classes, and then expand out from that when we all had a bit more experience with 5th edition)
- What, if any, home-brewed rules would we use? (more below)
Now we use a critical fail mechanic, whereby a 1 in melee will drop the weapon, a 1 on a ranged attack risks hitting another creature in the way. As our party often takes risks in firing into combat, this has resulted in a LOT of very cinematic (and often hilarious) moments - to the point where the party has been named "The Backbiters". Does this mechanic slow the game down? No. Does it hamper the party in a way that breaks the game? No. Is it breaking the rules? OF COURSE NOT! This is D&D! Don't you remember Gygax's famous quote about rules?!?!?!
Now we're not perfect - no group of humans is - we've had some tense and/or uncomfortable points around the table before...but these weren't brought on by rules discussions or mechanics. In any case, they were aired and passed pretty quickly, and we moved on...everyone remained friends. Why? Well, I think we've got a good bunch of folks, which helps, but also everyone has agreed to a common framework in a group franchise - we're all part of this, and all have a similar understanding - in the main because of our session zero.
Everything we have done since that point has thus been an exploration together - everyone is there to have fun, and I'd say we're getting better at it all the time - the sessions we've had in the past couple of months have included some of the best sessions I've ever played - and I've had skin in the game since the early '80s....
So my advice to any group starting out in D&D, any DM looking for a new group or any existing players who want to get into another campaign - have a session zero. It might seem like a waste of time when you first suggest it, but in my opinion it forms one of the best foundations for building good sessions in the future that you can have. So what are you waiting for? Get together and get talking!