This past week I was at Gen Con, and ran a few sessions of my fantasy world, Elhal. Convention games are always tricky, and something that we have talked about many times here on the Stew. This time around, I ran the same session of Elhal in both Fate and in Savage Worlds. In doing so, I realized all the physical implements that go into running these games, and how scarce space can be at a full table. In order to keep everyone’s focus and keep the game flowing well, I realized just how important it was to have everything on my side of the screen organized.

Put In Place

Recently ran an article about a technique called mise-en-place, which means “put in place”. This is a technique/philosophy that Chefs learn to keep an organized kitchen, and to be able to prepare the most complex dishes in the most efficient way possible. The core of this technique is about organizing and arranging all the ingredients and tools needed for cooking. A Chef who embraces mise-en-place has their work area organized in a consistent manner, such that they always know where every knife and implement is located, and can reach for them with ease. Each Chef organizes their area to their needs and their style.

This philosophy is not unlike my graduate training in Molecular Biology. In many ways working in a lab is not unlike cooking. You have numerous ingredients and tools, and are often under a time constraint when conducting an experiment. Several years of graduate school taught me this philosophy, and without realizing it I perform this technique when I cook, at my desk in my office, or in my home.

What does this have to do with GMing?

In many ways GMing is also like cooking. Depending on the game you are running, you are going to have a number of implements for your game: dice, miniatures, session notes, cards, maps, etc. You are also under a time constraint. You are working on keeping the pace of a game, and keeping the attention of your players.

It stands to reason that when we run a game, the more organized we are with the implements of the game - and the more efficient we are at our ability to find and utilize those tools - the easier it will be to keep the game moving along and to keep the attention of everyone at the table. One of the things I do when I learn a new game is to figure out what implements are going to be required, and before the first session take some time to arrange my GM space. Often it takes a session or two to get things organized properly, but once in place I have everything I need at hand, and can focus my attention to the gameplay.

Practicing Mise-en-Place

To implement mise-en-place in your games there are some simple techniques you can perform. Chances are, if you find yourself organized at the table, then you are likely doing this without realizing it. If you feel like you could use a little more organization behind the screen try these steps:

  • Inventory your implements – Go and find everything you need for running your game and put it out on the table. Get a feel for all the things that are required to run your game and how much space they take up.
  • Trim where possible – For each item, make sure that you really need this implement to run the game. If you have some item and have not used it in months, consider dropping it. The fewer things you have, the easier it will be to organize.
  • Evaluate your GMing space – Take a look at where you are GMing and get a feel for how much space you have available. Sit in your chair and reach out. Everything you need should be an arm’s length away.
  • Lay out your tools – Outside of a game, take a few minutes to try laying out your GMing space. Keep in mind that the things you need most need to be closest to you, the items you use less can be farther away.
  • Prep your ingredients – Chefs will prep an ingredient into a small container, so that it can be readily picked up and used while cooking. The same holds true for your games. If you use minis take the time to gather the minis per encounter so that you can efficiently get them to table, rather than fumbling through a box of minis at the start of an encounter.
  • Embrace containers – In most cases your GMing space will be somewhat limited, so look for containers which let you sort and organize your implements and allows them to be efficiently organized and stacked. Things like a rolling cart, or a tool box, can keep numerous items easily at hand.
  • Increase surfaces – If possible look for additional surfaces you can put next to or behind you to increase the space you have to lay out your implements. My GMing area has a 3-drawer rolling cart to my left and a small cubby just behind me, both in arms reach.

A Place For Everything…

The mise-en-place philosophy is one that embraces organization to make the Chef a more effective and successful cook. The same can be said for GMing. A well organized space, allowing a GM to quickly utilize the necessary tools, helps the GM to be more effective, and keeps their focus on creating the best experience for their players.

What about your GMing space? Do you practice mise-en-place or are you more chaotic in your GMing area? What games are the hardest to arrange? What implements are the hardest to organize?