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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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?
while you may not want to see the players too clearly, seeing your books and dice is always nice, bring overhead lights are best, if its a single bulb room and few cheap lamps around the room might be needed to read notes that you dont want to lay flat out on the table where players can read.
You are to get a few big guys when playing RPG, make sure you can some adult sized chairs.
sitting at a table for hours at a time is going to require a lot shifting around in your chair and a occasional leg stretch, get a table that allows room for you and your player to stretch out.
A pool table is great to game on, but sucks to sit at.
room full of big guys, bight lights, junk food, you’re going to what some air moveing, leave the door open and possible a rotating fan in the corner.
When we were playing at the GM’s place, we played at the table where he set up the terrain, and worked around it the best we could – books on the floor, using any space we could on the table to write, etc.
Our current game space is my condo. We set up in the living room for most of the session – it’s more comfortable for roleplaying and the like where maps and figurines aren’t too important. The players sit on the couches, which are in an L-shape in a corner, and the DM gets the “captain’s chair” (my desk chair) facing both couches. Though the chair isn’t big and high-backed, just being in it sets the GM apart from us plebes on the couches (I’m a player in this particular campaign). If any combat is planned for the session, the GM sets up his terrain on the dining room table, where it’s out of the way during our normal play. We’ve been using books or the coffee table as writing surfaces, but now that I think about it I may go buy some clipboards for everyone to use.
We were a living-room group in college too, so I’m used to running and playing this way…though when I ran, I pulled out a folding table in the living room so I could have a place for my laptop and books. I also focused less on the terrain, as I prefer the old-school visualization and abstraction, though we did have a battlemat for more complex combats.
Though the living room is comfortable and allows us to avoid fighting with the battle setup for tablespace, it does lack a certain formality and je ne sais quois that comes from everybody being around the table with the GM at the head. I think I will try an experiment sometime. If there’s a session coming up where there’s no combat (and therefore no terrain), I may see if the GM will run at the table. I wonder if it will have an appreciable effect on player focus. (We’re not a deadly serious group, we all joke quite a bit — and I’m as guilty as the next guy. I wonder if this can/will shift things.)
Great article. A few months ago, I did an overhaul to my gaming area at my house, and love the way it came out.
We should post tome pictures of our gaming spaces on the TT Boards. Show people what kinds of gaming setups for our games.
Ooooh, pictures would rock! That’s a great idea, Phil.
Music – I play movie and game soundtracks in the background and will (someday) break them up into “Combat”, “Spooky”, “Exploring”, and “City” playlists. It really helps with setting the mood.
Mobility – As DM, I stand up and walk around the table fairly often. It really keeps the chatter down when someone’s standing over you. It’s also handy to be fully visible when in character negotiations/roleplay take place.
Another available room – When Thog the Thoughtless charges through the magic mirror, but Cat the Cautious hesitates, it helps to take Thog’s player into another room.
Oh, I should have added – note that my chair is in a far corner away from traffic. I do like having the window beside me for natural light (and close ventilation…). Since it looks out on my deck and green space, there’s not too much distraction through it other than birds.
I also try and arrange it so it isn’t too hard for me to get out (nothing worse than the GM having to trip over everyone on his way to the loo – in the middle of a tense fight).
The main thrust of setting up your playing space is to focus your player’s attention on the game while keeping them from becoming distracted. Distracted gamers make for blah games, which are almost as bad as really ‘bad’ games. Here’s a few things I’ve learned over the years with various gaming groups:
1) A Table and Chairs – I’ve played on my fair share of couches and beds, and I’ve found that if you’re not all sitting at some sort of table, the game session suffers. Most living room and bedroom furniture is designed to encourage relaxation, which is great for unwinding from a long day or watching movies, but is really poor at focusing your group’s attention on the task at hand. A table just large enough for you and your players to sit at comfortably is ideal, but if you can’t swing that then I’d suggest getting everyone at least around some central location.
2) Food – I ask that my gamers eat ahead of time and ban food at the table, simply because it becomes a distraction that takes the focus away from the game and works against the suspension of disbelief your group is working so hard to create in-game. Nothing’s worse than listening to someone to your left chewing their way through a bag of Funions or trying to puzzle your way through cheese and oil stains on a character sheet.
3) Lighting – The lighting you use depends on the game and mood you want to set, but 90% of the time you want some sort of good overhead lighting. If you really want to change things up (this works well for horror games), try playing at night using candlelight. One or two hurricane-style lamps puts out enough light to game by, but also keep players remarkably focused on the game by keeping them in-character. I’ve tried experimenting with other things (blacklights, colored gels & bulbs), but anything other than bright lights or candlelight tends to distract the players from the game. Another word of caution: If people are playing with the candlewax, it’s because they’re bored.
4) Music – Much has been said on this site about background music in games, so I’ll just say that consistancy is better than coming up with the perfect song for every situation. If you can manage to put together a few pregenerated playlists on your MP3 player and switch between them for different scenes (bar, dungeon, nightclub, office, etc.) without breaking the continuity of the game, great. If you can’t, then you shouldn’t sweat over having to stop and switch CD’s. Just pick out a few albums that more-or-less go together, throw them into the CD / MP3 player, and hit the ‘random’ button. If you’re limited to one CD at a time, then just find one good one for the theme of your game and leave it on for the whole game.
Hmm, I didn’t think we were using most of these ideas until I went away, came back… and recognized our group in them.
We collude to make this happen– we don’t play at the GM’s place, as I think your article tacitly assumes. Still, most of what you write is important– for focus, clarity, and comfort.
Great feedback! There are so many ways you can improve your game just by taking soem time to improve the space you play the game in.
Since there have been past articles on related subjects, a good repsonse to this article it seems, and talk of pictures I suggest that maybe this be the first Wiki-a-Week project. What do you think Martin?
For those looking to save some money, most hardware stores sell whiteboard (though it might not be labelled as such) at a much lower price than a traditional “finished” whiteboard. On the down side if you just mount it on the wall you’ll up with whiteboard goo on your wall around the board.
Another trick is to cut the whiteboard material into 8.5″x11″ boards, roughly 1 per player. It can act as a defacto clipboard, but more usefully players can use them for temporary notes. We use ours heavily. Several people like to track heavily variable things on them (hit points, active magical effects, etc). The GM uses one for initiative order and monster hit points. When planning something we’ll use them to make tactical plans. We’re currently playing D&D, so we have a fair amount of inventory management; we often use the boards as scratchpads when selling loot. They’re probably be less wasteful than a pile of notepads for games that encourage secret player-GM communication. Sure, you can do most of these things with pencil and paper, but something about the whiteboards is just convienent. Part of it is probably that lines on a whiteboard tend to be thick and multi-colored, good for diagrams visible to the entire group. Doing the same on paper requires markers and a backing board to ensure that the marker doesn’t bleed through. Personally I don’t use them often, but the majority of the group I play with really appreciates them.
On the down side, note that white board markers (“dry erase”) and the markers used by most battle mats (“wet erase”) are not interchangable! We still occasionally joke, “I want to go into that cave over there,” when our GM draws terrain near a dry-erase cave drawn onto his battle mat years ago. My own battle mat has a big blue dot from a similar accident. If this does happen to you the best solution we’ve found is to promptly re-draw over the area with the same marker, then dab off with a paper towel. The marker obviously has solvent capable of taking up the ink. On the down side, this tends to bleach the battlemat in the area, doesn’t work on older marks, and only works okay.
Regarding dry-erase markers and battle mats: I once had a player grab a dry erase marker and start doodling on my battle mat while I was busy in another room. I was unable to remove the stain and was very upset. I told my wife when I went upstairs to grab a drink (mainly because I didn’t want to show that I was upset to the player since it was an honest mistake on his part), and she went a grabbed a fresh baby wipe and handed it to me. “Trust me.” she said “These thing will clean anything!” Sure enough, it removed the stain with a very faint belaching effect (you really have to look for it to notice).
More on the wet-dry controversy: Try the vinegar-based Windex, and don’t be stingy with it. It cleaned up my blurry battlemat in no time. Alcohol may also work (I suspect that was in the baby wipes), but may stain or bleach, so test first.
And if you make an entire table with a 4×8 sheet of whiteboard, then you da’ man!
This would make an excellent wiki topic, and I’ve added it to the list. Which one comes first may be determined by what potential structure(s) present themselves after a few more topics are added.
I love hearing how people set up their gaming areas. 🙂
One thing I found very handy was to take the grid from an entry pack of D&D miniatures and have it laminated.
The players can drop food or drink onto it and it won’t stain, and we draw out the map directly on the grid when necessary. White board markers wipe off easily, provided it’s not left marked for a couple weeks.
It’s flat, the laminating took out the creases and it stores fairly easily (I toss it behind the bookshelf)
Another thing that cleans off whiteboards, if you don’t have proper whiteboard cleaner is deoderant.