Patrick Benson (AKA VV_GM), the author of three previous TT guest posts (genre advice for supers, horror and espionage games), wrote this guest post about something GMs often take for granted: the place where you game.
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Imagine the following scenario: You have an amazing and original adventure that you are positive that your players will love. You do all of your prep work (no really, you do the prep work!), plan for every aspect of the upcoming session that you can think of in detail, and you have mastered your knowledge of the rules to the point that you can cite from memory which pages of the rules book has typos.

Now what could possibly go wrong?

Well to begin with you keep kicking your books, because since you don’t have enough available table space, you plopped them all down on the floor around your chair. Your players are distracted every time someone goes to grab a drink from the kitchen because they have to pass your chair both on the way out and on their way back. And your GM’s screen, no matter where you put it, seems to be in the way as you try to present your storyline.

These are the types of problems that GMs can avoid by planning their game space for delivering effective presentations.

Start Off Right — Clean Up

First find the largest space that you can for running your games, where everyone will be comfortable sitting for a long period of time. For me this is the unfinished basement of my home. It may not be the prettiest room in the house, but it is large with plenty of room. Functionality should come before décor in this case.

Now clean that area as best you can. Nothing is more distracting than clutter, so remove or at least organize any items that are out in the open. Clear everything that you can from the tabletop even if you will be using it during the game at some point. The rule for the tabletop is that if you don’t need it at that time, or if it is not a required item (dice, pencils, etc.) it should not be on the table.

Show Them Who the Boss Is

Next arrange where you as the GM will sit. You want your back facing a wall if possible with no windows or doorways nearby. If you do have to sit by windows pull the shades down or close the blinds. If you must sit by a doorway choose the doorway that will receive the least amount of traffic during the game session (i.e. no bathrooms and kitchens). Ideally you want to be the sole source of motion so that you can easily grab your players’ attention with simple gestures and body language.

Find the largest chair that allows you to sit comfortably at the table and set it in the location that you have chosen. This is not for reasons of vanity, but because it establishes you as the leader of the session. Just like the judge in a courtroom, you want your seat to convey a sense of authority to those who enter the room.

I like to use my office chair because it has a very high and wide back with a large padded headrest. The combination of the large size, comfortable form, and classic look helps me GM by establishing my seat as a focal point for the session.

Tools Out of Sight, But Still In Reach

If you have a spare end table, a TV tray, or small set of shelves place them to the side of your seat at an angle to the table. If you have enough room, set one up on both sides of your seat and begin placing any items that you might need during the game to either side of you.

The ideal piece of furniture will be slightly lower than your table so that they are out of sight to someone at the other end of the table. Don’t worry about players sitting to either side of you as their attention will be drawn to the space in front of them naturally.

The purpose for this is to balance keeping clutter off the tabletop with having the tools of your trade nearby and within easy reach. Think like a carpenter in his or her shop would: put your tools around you, but keep the project right in front of you.

The game session is your project and it takes place in the area of the tabletop, so don’t let anything get between you and where the game is taking place.

GMs Screen — Friend or Foe?

I love the GM screen as a quick reference tool, but I hate it as a tabletop decoration — which is what it often becomes during a session. Think about it: How many meetings have you gone to where the point person had a piece of cardboard between him or herself and the rest of the participants?

If you don’t think this is a problem, then by all means keep your screen set up as is. But if you are like me and like to have as few items as possible between you and the players then this section is for you.

If you have tables off to either side of you as described earlier, see if you can place your screen on one of them. You can still roll your dice behind the screen, and can quickly grab it is a reference as well. I have also found that by simply laying the screen flat on the table in front of you, you have an reference tool that’s easier to read — if you don’t mind losing the ability to hide rolls with the screen.

But what about hiding your dice rolls, notes and reference materials from the players? One word: clipboard. Hold it upright on the table in front of you to shield your dice rolls from nearby eyes. Place your materials in the clip and lay it face down in front of you or to the side when you want to hide something.

In fact, I recommend that every person at the table be provided a clipboard with a pencil attached to it in some manner. It makes the game run smoothly when instead of having loose sheets scattered across the table, everyone is able to quickly flip through a few pages to find what they need.

Whiteboards — Not Just For the Office Anymore

If you have the space for it, buy a decent sized whiteboard and an easel for your games. There are few tools that are as useful as a whiteboard for presentations.

You can sketch out quick maps for all to see. If you have artistic skills you can draw the symbols and diagrams that the PCs encounter during the session. I’ve even allowed the players to use the whiteboard for their own planning purposes before a big encounter, or to list clues that they have found for all to see when appropriate.

With a variety of different colored whiteboard markers on hand you will be able to address a number of game needs quickly and easily.

Do What Works For Your Situation

As always, use the tips here that will apply best to your situation. If you don’t have a lot of room (perhaps you don’t even game at a table) try using the clipboards. If you don’t have a way to keep your GM aids out of sight, then just leave them out in the open.

The real point of this article is to get you thinking about your game space and how you can tweak it to best suit your particular needs.

If you think a small bookshelf might help you run a more effective game go out and get one. If one of the chairs people use is uncomfortable get rid of it. Do whatever works to make your game space the best it can be. You’ll know you have set up a good game space the moment you no longer notice it at all.
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Thanks, Patrick!

Several TT blog and forum posts dovetail nicely with Patrick’s article, if you’re looking for more ideas about how to set up your gaming area: GM comfort and Proxemics and gaming environments on the forums, plus The GM’s Side Table and Use Two GM Screens (an alternate perspective).

What do you think of Patrick’s tips? And what do you consider when setting up your own game space?