While my gnomie buddies have been duking it out over whether you should or shouldn’t use a gaming table, I’m going to attack the topic from a different perspective: you should set up your gaming area to convey the type of session you are about to play.
I touched on this topic in my very first Hot Button article. While I ruffled a few feathers (we gnomes are like that), the fact is that having the group sit around on comfortable chairs and couches in a living room with nothing but character sheets and dice conveys a different atmosphere than sitting in the dining room with a battlemat, markers, and miniatures.
You can really set the tone and ambiance of your session with how you arrange the gaming area. Here are a few ideas to consider:
Whether or not you use a table, your gaming room’s size will have a huge impact on your group. If the room is small, then even if the group is comfortably seated with no table they will be more focused than if they were sitting around a large room. Think about school or college; you were more likely to get distracted if you sat in the back of a large lecture hall then if you and a few students were sitting in a circle around the professor in a small classroom.
If you’re lucky enough to have two rooms available, you could switch rooms based on the mood. Perhaps the table-less living room is used for social scenes, while everyone moves into the dining room to resolve combat.
Playing by candlelight or using sound effects can certainly enhance the feel of your gaming area. You can also engage other senses as well by using appropriately-scented candles or changing the temperature of the room (don’t go crazy with this; just a few degrees difference is usually enough).
Your play area will have an effect on ambiance. Candlelight isn’t very effective if you’re playing during the day with sunlight streaming through the shades. Music can be distracting if everyone is sitting so far apart that you have to jack the sound up.
Table and Chairs as Props
You can use the table and chairs as props. If you’re playing in an aristocratic or wealthy setting, a fancy dining room table with a candelabrum makes an excellent prop. A thick wooden table with crates or stools works well for fantasy campaigns.
You can even get refreshments in on the act. Having everyone drink from goblets, wooden, or metal cups will convey a period feel.
In an Asian-themed campaign, as an example, you could use a low coffee table as the gaming table and have the group sit around it on pillows. Beverages could be drunk from tea cups.
Use the Seating Arrangement to Your Advantage
In a tradition that stretches back to the mythical King Arthur’s court, a circular table or seating arrangement is often preferred because it enables everyone to see each other and be more engaged with the rest of the table. By contrast, large gaming groups tend to use long tables because that’s what’s available. Unfortunately, the further down the table someone is, the less they are engaged.
Another way to engage players is to use a horseshoe design, where the GM can easily get into any player’s face. This is particularly effective in horror campaigns, where you can make a player nervous by walking toward her when it’s obvious you’re about to spring something nasty on the group. The horseshoe design also cuts down on cheating, as GMs can more easily monitor player dice rolls.
Shuffle the Players
Some games are notorious for long combats. Why not use it to your advantage? When the time comes to roll initiative, have the players switch seats in accordance with their rolls (if a game uses a static initiative, then the players have assigned seats from the start). You can use stuffed animals or other props to represent the bad guys’ initiatives and place them around the table accordingly. This gives everyone a visual cue of where they’re at in combat, and who can sneak off for some Cheetos or a bathroom run without forcing everyone to wait.
Witchcraft and Star Trek
I’ll end this off with two examples. In my first Witchcraft campaign (modern occult fantasy), I used a living room table lit by candlelight. We also had tarot cards, runes, and crystal-shaped dice. We drank from blood-red glass goblets I’d found on sale at Target. I had my laptop handy to play appropriate music and sound effects. It worked well at setting the tone, and the candle-lighting became the ceremonial start of the session.
I can’t take credit for this next one, but it sounded awesome. A GM running a Star Trek game set his gaming area up like a starship bridge. Each station had a chair and a tray (to hold character sheets, dice, and drinks) and the players sat according to their station. The GM faced them as if he was the main viewer (and I think he had a large screen TV behind him rigged into his computer for special effects).
While the set-up obviously worked better for “shipboard” scenes than away team missions, it still kept the flavor of Star Trek throughout the session.