If you are lucky enough to have a regular game (and I am very lucky) you might even be lucky enough to do that gaming in person. Don’t get me wrong, online games on Fantasy Grounds or roll20 and Play-by-Post games can be amazing (and tend to have way better notes than a physical one). However, the traditions of tabletop are rooted deeply in the actuality of the physical table space.
There was a day in my post-adolescent arrogance I had the opinion that folks would just “deal with it”, I let people play in the squalor of a unkempt apartment any Otyugh would be proud to call home. Worse still I didn’t police my players physically at all either. They could leave anything, use anything, and sometimes even BREAK anything and I’d never comment (and sometimes rarely noticed). I would love to say this dark age was short (it wasn’t) or limited to me (it isn’t). So thoughts on the physical art of gaming spaces:
For GMs (or volunteer player hosts):
Get a play space that works. – This may seem obvious to some, but others aren’t really sure or concerned where they game. Your ability to control a play space is directly related to your ownership or influence over it. If you game at a LGS or Library at least ask if you can use a private room. You can control it more, adjust in the moment, and be generally rowdier if you have a private room. If you use a public room or open space, realize the limitations and be as respectful of them as you can. Have seating for those who want it and a defined surface as your “table”. I prefer to game in my own home but that isn’t always an option.
Survey the Perimeter. – Sometimes we are so caught up in the TABLE we forget really to consider around it. The table should have ample room for chairs around it if possible, and allow for a minimum of fuss if ANY player needs to get up to use the bathroom or take a call. Remove stumbling obstacles and arrange furniture so that people can shift to survey the entire surface for maps and battles.
Consider Maps, Sight Lines, and Player Spaces. – A map or battle scene can take a good portion of the table. Evaluate where seating is possible (check for table legs!!) and compare map edges. Consider that most people (at a minimum) are going to have a book or two, a character sheet, writing utensils, and dice. They also will need space to roll said dice. Is there enough room? If not, consider alternatives like TV trays or end tables (but again watch the perimeter for tripping hazards). Check sight lines, are seats at a level where the play surface is easy to interact with and see?
Be a host. – You don’t have to have dinner for everyone. But make sure you have water that people can drink and possibly at least one alternate beverage. Snacks are nice too. I recommend coffee at pre-game. I don’t recommend alcoholic beverages as that players who struggle to focus or had long work days might pass out before a game really gets its mojo running. If you feel it is not your job or appropriate to provide any sort of food or drink-please-communicate this with your group.
Clean a little. – I am not saying you need to bust out the scrub-brush everytime but a little maintenance is necessary even if it is just the play space. Stay on top organizing your miniatures or (like I often do) you will build to the point of a major project to re-arrange them.
When you need to, clean a lot. – If you HAVE let things go or have been survival cleaning while working a lot or between vacations, take the time to catch it up. Your players will appreciate it even if they never know how bad it was.
Be aware of your group. – If possible, learn your players quirks, preferences, and general state of health. Does Steve need to take medication regularly, make sure he gets a seat close to a sink? Does Monica have a special physical condition that makes it hard for her to move around? Take it in to account. Is Rachel pregnant? Make sure the bathroom is available easily (and clean, hopefully).
Hoth or Tattoine. – You are you. You like how cold you like to be. Which could be 15 degrees lower than Maisey. Watch for comfort levels, if sweat is beading on every brow, it is too hot regardless of your inner Gila Monster. If everyone brings a sweater to your game, it might be too cold. And if something is broken (AC or Heater) tell players ahead of time.
For visiting Players:
Respect the Lay of the Land. – Ask first. If your GM or host house has a set up that looks different than the normal dining room table set up, it was probably deliberate, don’t go rearranging or altering things without inquiring or requesting. Don’t do things that would damage furniture or detract from game play. All of this also goes for kitchens, dishes, and bathrooms. Know what is ok and respect what you are offered. You are a guest, act like it.
Minimize the Chatter. – Side talk, especially in the early game can derail games for HOURS. In our day and age, getting people together for a regular time commitment is an act verging on the miraculous. Don’t squander that time. More social groups won’t care as much on this one but get to know your friends. If Mark likes to play MtG with you and go out to the bar sometimes, he might not be looking for a 2 hour gossip session about the office at gaming time.
Phones. – It might date me but there was a time I would have blown my cork over the common use of cell phones today. That said, it is probably not reasonable to request people turn them off any more either. Regardless of your feelings on this, try to establish some ground rules. If you need to take a call, get up and leave the table. Try to avoid IMs, texts and chatting if possible at the table and for the love of the Gods turn your notifications down or to vibrate if possible. Another compromise might be to centralize at a charging station but ramp up volumes so all can hear. However, if you haven’t discussed this with your group, don’t just launch into a tirade at them over it. Dialogue and find a solution.
Laptops and Tablets. – Rules monkeys, bards and reference junkies (like me) find these devices invaluable. They also find them full of Candy Crush, reddit, YouTube and the rest of the app-laden interwebz. If you are a habitual browser, social media guru, or otherwise linkedin 24/7 remember that the person behind the screen has sunk hours into rendering their stories for you and to lose your attention to Bubble Witch Saga 2 is probably hurtful or offenssive.
Be a guest. – If you expect food at the host house, you should probably bring some. Double for non-water drinks. Some groups become variable smorgasbords of food and treats. Sometimes that invades the table and game time. Find a balance. Bonus points for knowing dietary preferences and allergies. If you eat, remember Mom and close your mouth to minimize noises during the game–especially if you eating something crunchy. And on the minimum side it is relatively safe to expect nothing and bring nothing.
Clean a little. – The old camping adage “Pack it out.” does apply here. Don’t leave food, empty wrappers, or beverage containers lying around. Ask where garbages, recycling bins, and the like are located. If you used dishes, rinse or put them in the sink. When possible—Do it as you go. If a game is running well, time can be lost track of, and post-game wrap-ups might run on short time tables.
Know When to Fold Them. – When the game is over–it’s over. Don’t assume the GM or host can stay up even if the rest of the group can. Communicate, and ask if people want to hang out post-game. Don’t assume. Don’t stop to level your character or ask questions about the story if the GM has stacked her books or zipped up his bag. Enthusiasm is awesome! So are manners. If you want to rave or chat up someone, ask if they have time first. If they had fun, but are running out of time before bed, they might feel awkward trying to cut you off even though they really need to.
Physical comfort, civility and organization makes the play space smooth, low-drama and easy to ignore. Immersion will be better, games will run smoother, and distractions will minimize with a little consideration and forethought. If you have a question or concern about the play space, ask.
We have Ogres to kill… don’t tell me we are out of toilet paper.