What Is a DND Session? (Explained for Beginners)

There are a ton of terms in DND, or Dungeons and Dragons—player characters, dice rolls, armor class, Dungeon Masters, and sessions (to name a few).

What is a DND session?

A DND session is a single episode of Dungeons and Dragons gameplay. A Dungeon Master prepares for each session. Players attend the session and roleplay a group of fantasy characters. Sessions include preparation, group interaction, rolling dice, fictional challenges, and fun.

In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know to answer the question, “What is a DND session?”

What Is a DND Session? (Official Answer)

(This post may have affiliate links. Please see my full affiliate disclosure)
People Playing DND—What Is a DND Session
Image by the author via Canva—What Is a DND Session?

In DND, a session is a time-constrained sequence of related events.

Basically, it’s like one episode of a TV show or one chapter in a book. Each DND session includes a location, time limit, Dungeon master, players, purpose, and adventure.

Another way to talk about it is structure.

DND sessions provide place structure, time structure, game structure, and group structure:

  • The location is usually someone’s house, apartment, dorm room, or seaside castle (if you have one handy)
  • Each session takes a pre-planned amount of time
  • Each session follows a story, adventure, or mission
  • Each session includes the DM and players

At each session, there is a:

  • Goal (Why are we doing this?)
  • Being or force that opposes the goal (the bad guy or gal)
  • Setting (Where are we?)
  • A mix of encounters (What happens in the game?)
  • Narrative roleplay (The DM guides the story while the players make scene-by-scene decisions)

Here’s another way to answer the question, “What is a DND session?

A session is the group meeting or get-together where you play DND.

During a session, the players make decisions for their characters. They will roll dice to determine whether their attacking moves will miss or hit.

They also roll dice for ability checks and saving throws to see if they survive a situation.

For example, whether the characters successfully roll away from being struck by a magical bolt of lightning, scale up a jagged cliff, or successfully pull off some other challenging task.

Essentially, once all the players make DND characters in the first session, they stir up a collaborative story using dice rolls, imagination, and improvisations.

The Dungeon Master (DM) has a special role during all of the sessions.

The DM is responsible for:

  • Guiding the group
  • Describing the fantasy world
  • Overseeing the rules and expectations
  • Playing all the non-player characters (NPCs)

Types of DND Sessions

There are several different types of DND sessions:

  • Session 0
  • One-shot session
  • Campaign session
  • Online session

DND Session 0

A DND session 0 is when the entire DND group gets together before the game to discuss the upcoming campaign.

Session 0 is a time marked out to get ready for all future sessions.

The purpose of Session 0 is to gather everybody on the same page regarding the whole gameplay and the campaign you plan to run, figure out your characters, the set of expectations during play, and how all of this fits in the DND fantasy world.

Typically, the DM is responsible for running Session 0.

They will explain to everybody the basics of the campaign and the setting. They might also mediate discussions on acceptable table etiquette.

Session 0 is best for beginners.

That’s because this introductory meeting gives them a chance to:

  • Understand DND gameplay
  • Meet the other players in the group
  • Create a unique and personalized character to roleplay
  • Get a sense of the scope of the entire
  • Learn the expectations of the players (based on group norms and agreements)

DND One-Shot Session

A DND one-shot session is typically just one single DND session.

It is self-contained and includes a complete adventure from beginning to end.

Even though some might split one-shot sessions into multiple sessions for logistical reasons, the majority of players and Dungeon Masters complete the micro-adventure in a few hours.

Or, at least, on the same day.

One-shot sessions are excellent as they tend to give novices a taste of Dungeons and Dragons without any long-term commitment, introduce new players to the game, and serve as an interesting way to experiment with new characters.

It’s also an exciting way to try new playing techniques and styles or classes within an established group who are still new to the game.

Preparing for one-shot DND sessions will likely entail a collection of 3 to 5 concretely developed scenes (or encounters) with a relatively straightforward and short storyline.

DND Campaign Session

DND campaign sessions comprise a series of intertwined explorations set out in the same world of make-believe, for which DMs create backstories amid enjoyable settings.

Settings such as forests, swamps, or cities.

During these sessions, the players seek help from fun-filled non-player characters (NPCs) to help the story move forward.

A DND campaign session can unfold over a few hours once or more times per week.

Campaigns, themselves, can last for weeks, months, or even years.

When prepping for an ongoing DND campaign, it is crucial to factor out what exactly happened last time in the game, such as:

  • Where did you leave the party at?
  • What was the main villain up to?
  • What main quest was the party working on?
  • What is the status of the players? (Low health, full health, etc)

If you are a novice DM, it is advised to not write an incredibly long campaign.

Start with a smaller campaign of 3-5 sessions to get your feet wet. Three is a nice number because it follows the basic story structure of beginning, middle, and end.

DND Online Session

What is a DND session that takes place online?

A DND online session is a similar to live action-based roleplaying game except that the game occurs through the internet.

Most of the time, the DM and the players all play from their respective houses or apartments.

You can play online DND games through:

  • DND Beyond
  • Group Video apps (like Skype)
  • DND dice roller (virtually rolls dice for you)

What Should Happen in a DND Session?

Each session of a Dungeons and Dragon campaign is crucial.

Even though it is not as integral as session 0, the opening session of any campaign should accomplish the following objectives:

  • It should introduce the setting
  • It should unite the characters
  • It should kickstart the story
  • It should present a villain
  • It should help advance the characters to a higher level

That doesn’t mean the characters should go up a level each session. Just that they should make progress toward the next level.

After session 0 and the introductory session, certain things happen in each session.

1) Introduce the Setting

The initial moments of a DND session must give all the players a firm idea of the area, setting, and arena of the story

In other words, let the players know where they are and what’s around them.

There’s no need to write a superfluous description as the players prefer to get started right away.

I’ve found it helpful to provide 3 essential points about the setting to initiate the DND session. 

2) Ground the Characters

One of the most crucial parts of any DND campaign’s introductory session is to unite all the characters.

Without this vital step, there won’t be any adventure or campaign—unless it is a solo party.

This crucial moment must be plotted beforehand, determining if they will meet in the middle of combat with goblins, in a tavern, or be locked away in the burning prison.

Players often ask questions about what’s happening at the start of an initial gaming session.

For instance:

  • Who will take the leading role in the group?
  • Will the quest lead the players together? 
  • Are some of the players already aware of each other? If so, how will this affect the other players in the group?

Often, the introductory section can be a tad awkward, especially when the players do not know what to say or when to talk.

This is where the DM can really help.

As a DM, you can encourage everybody to interact, roleplay, and ask informative questions.

Establish connections, but keep them minimal.

Empower all the players and make sure everybody gets a proper introduction.

Once everybody is properly acquainted, they can get forge a group with a unified purpose. This unification of the characters will ultimately kickstart the story.

In all the following sessions, it’s still important to include a mini-grounding for the players.

After all, they need to know the context of the adventure.

3) Kickstart the Story

The adventure can begin in numerous ways: a giant meteor crashing into a nearby forest, a battle with a raving madman, or an edge conversation with a brutal lord.

Whichever method it is, the story must be captivating enough to lure in the characters and players.

The players should take an interest, and the characters must find a reason valid enough to care about it. Or they must, at least, create reasons to make their respective characters care about it.

One trick is to draw inspiration from various sources, such as:

  • What do the players particularly enjoy?
  • What would appeal to their characters?
  • How can you associate the different characters of the story together?

The kickstart of a session is the inciting event that gets the story rolling. In a murder mystery campaign, this is usually the murder.

In an action-adventure, the kickstart could be a chase scene.

Basically, start the session in a way that matches the tone of the entire adventure and campaign.

4) Insert the Big Bad Guy (or Gal)

As the story kickstarts, it introduces a villain.

Now, it doesn’t have to be the campaign’s villain. Instead, it just needs to be a person or a thing that the players and their individual characters can latch onto to thwart or destroy.

The players need a solid “face” to pursue.

It can be a pixie or a fairy with a fiery dagger, a proud and arrogant goblin prince, a dretch with some ferocity and intelligence, or the like.

Keep it simple in the beginning.

Later, you can incorporate shadowy, nuanced villains that hint toward more significant threats. 

The big bad guy or gal (BBG) doesn’t need to physically show him or herself in every session. Just remember to remind your players that the BBG it out there, actively working against them.

5) Experience Points, Rewards, and Advancement

It’s important to reward players at the end of each session.

This not only keeps players engaged but also helps to ensure that characters advance at a moderate pace.

Experience points are the primary way that characters level up in D&D.

Awarding experience points at the end of each session is a good way to keep players invested in their characters’ progression.

However, experience points are not the only form of rewards that can be given out.

Treasure, items, and the satisfaction of accomplishing something challenging are all excellent rewards that help to keep players engaged.

Ultimately, it’s up to the Dungeon Master to decide what rewards are appropriate for each session.

However, whatever rewards are given out, they should always help to keep the game fun and engaging for everyone involved.

How Long Is A DND Session?

A single DND session can last anywhere from 2 or 2.5 hours to one whole day.

It can be a real challenge to accomplish a fair amount of roleplaying in less time.

If you play a one-shot DND session, you can expect the game to be wrapped up in just one session. However, with an ongoing DND campaign session, you are likely to carry on over several sessions.

How long will your session take?

That depends on a few things:

  • The breadth and complexities of the story (regardless of whether it comes from the Dungeon Master’s mind and creativity or from a pre-made DND campaign book)
  • How many breaks you take
  • How long each round takes
  • The number of distractions (cell phone calls, bathroom breaks, snack breaks, interruptions, etc)

Depending on how frequently you play, your DND campaign session can even last several years.

The session and campaign length should all be laid out during your DND Session 0.

Can You Play DND in an Hour?

It is possible to play DND in an hour.

The truth is you can play DND in 10 minutes—you just won’t get much done.

To make one-hour work, you’ll need good preparation, a cooperative group of players, structured gameplay, and a rapid game pace.

Can You Play DND in 3 hours?

The majority of players can complete a single session of DND in 3 hours, provided the storyline is concise and straightforward.

Most of the DND I’ve ever played ranged between 3-5+ hours.

How Do I Prepare for a DND Session?

Sometimes, being the DM can feel incredibly stressful, burdensome, and overwhelming.

This anxiety may be caused by wanting to create the ideal DND session for everyone playing.

Still, nothing is ever 100% perfect, especially plans for an epic session of Dungeons and Dragons. Here are 6 essential steps you can follow to prepare for a stress-free DND session. 

Step 1: Review Previous Notes

In an ongoing DND campaign session, you’ll often need a few minutes to review your notes from the former session.

This enables you to enter the DM mode and get your and all the other players’ creative juices flowing.

Hence, I highly recommend taking notes during the current session and jotting down important bullet points for the next DND session.

I typically take quick notes on a free DND note template during the game.

And then, at the end of every campaign session, I’ll take a few minutes to sketch out longer notes.

Step 2: Make Long-Term Notes to Yourself

I also use these note templates to keep track of details I might need for the rest of the campaign.

It could comprise anything from tiny clues from previous sessions, the number of remaining artifacts, or unique information that you made up on the fly about a non-player character (NPC).

These specifics depend on what is going on in your campaign.  

Step 3: Encounters

Another step to prep a winning DND session is to come up with multiple different scenes the party will and might encounter.

Sometimes, things don’t always go as you had initially planned in a DND session.

It is always better to prepare a flexible DND session with flexible content that can be easily adapted to the current situation.

These “scenes” can entail bullet points for easy scanning of any details.

They could include unique features of settings relevant to your storyline, clues to a puzzle, or “pocket scenes” that you might need if you find that your session is too short.

Step 4: Combat

Since your party is likely to engage in combat, it might be vital to read over the stat block for all the monsters involved in your session.

Many DMs create a “monster cheat sheet” with the basic facts about the main monsters.

You can jot down the most fundamental features in a notebook or on your electronic device for prompt reference.

These notes typically include things like AC, HP, and their basic attacks. 

Step 5: Map Version

Map creation is another crucial step in prepping for a successful DND session.

Here, we’re not referring to creating a fantastic and out-of-the-ordinary artistic creation. Instead, we’re referring to creating an incredibly minimalistic and straightforward version of the dungeon map for the DM to use.

You can simply sketch a pencil drawing or find a free digital map online.

These maps give you, for example, information on a room’s size and the relationship between the corridors and the rooms.

The sketch might include a few desks here and there, fireplaces, or chests.

If you want, you can also mention if there are any hidden treasures, rooms, or traps. Creating a simple map for important locations in your adventure has been a game-changer for me.

However, it’s really only helpful if you plan to explore an area, such as a mansion, cavern, DND forest, or a literal dungeon.

If the party is in the middle of a town, and players aren’t likely to venture out, there is no need to make a map.

Step 6: Gather Your DND Resources

For each session, you’ll probably need a few resources, such as the Dungeon Master’s Guide, Player’s Handbook, and Monster Manual.

You probably also want to make sure that you have dice, your DM screen, and other materials.

Here is a chart to help you prepare your resources:

Recommended D&D ResourcesPrice
D&D Core Rulebook SetCheck the latest price
D&D Rules Expansion SetCheck the latest price
D&D Dice SetCheck the latest price
D&D Accessories BagCheck the latest price
Recommended D&D Resources

DND Session Checklist (Free Download)

Download my free DND session checklist here:

Here is a rundown of what’s included in a good DND session checklist:

  • Choose a location
  • Set a time limit (1-5 hours)
  • Send a 1-Day reminder of the date, time, and location of the session
  • Recruit players (in needed)
  • Notes from the last session
  • Note template for this session
  • Character sheets
  • DM books
  • DM screen
  • Dice & dice ball
  • Pens & pencils
  • Paper
  • Map sketches
  • Monster stat cheat sheet
  • Session plan (beginning, middle, and end)
  • Create props and handouts
  • Create a cool opening
  • Outline the encounters
  • Create a few “pocket encounters”
  • Define any secrets and clues
  • Develop fantastic locations
  • Outline important Non-player characters (NPCs)
  • Choose relevant monsters/villains and encounters
  • Select any player rewards
  • Snacks & drinks
  • Background music
  • Debrief at the end of the session

Did I leave anything off the checklist? Let me know on Twitter: @RoleplayingLab

Final Thoughts: What Is a DND Session?

The most important thing to know about DND sessions is that they should be organized and fun.

That’s what DND is all about.

Related posts: