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The Perfect Gaming Environment

RoleplayingTips Weekly Supplemental #4

Here are numerous tips, stories, and comments about Issue #56's request for advice and experiences about gaming environments.

Johnn Four
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From: Rick

  1. Turn the TV off!
  2. Put players who are known to talk off topic more than the others closer to the DM. In my games this increases their attention span.
  3. Minimise distractions by playing in a room without a phone, TV or radio, or in a room that isn't a thoroughfare through the house.
  4. When playing spooky scenarios try using theme music and/or a little scenery dressing. I have a (plastic) skull goblet and some old looking candlesticks which worked quite well. You can also buy fake cobwebs in a spray can.
  5. Consciously involve PC's whose players are furthest away from the DM, especially when they are being distracted by something or are talking off topic.

From: Kender

I've actually spent many years trying to come up with the perfect gaming environment, and although I have not achieved said perfection, I have one pretty good so far.

We have an area (within 10 feet of the kitchen, in case someone needs a Mountain Dew) about 15' long, 9' wide in which is "The Table". This is a massive oaken table surrounded by chairs. At the back of the area, against the wall, is the GM's seat. To his right, is a bookcase full of reference materials, and gaming manuals. In front of him, are all his smiling players. (This has the added benefit of, since the GM can't get out without displacing a section of those seated at the table, people bring him drinks. :))

Behind, and just over his seated head, is the white-board which he can diagram maps, battles, and such. The light over the table is a dimmer-kind which allows mood lighting if need be.

Now, just to get the GM his own mini-fridge....
From: Dark Druid

I have found that it is a good thing for the GM and the players to sit on the same level... the physical special relationship seems to mentally bring the players into the world. However, I have found that classic "table-top gaming" is often awkward for me for two reasons...
  1. Unless you have a separate gaming or recreation room, family members and friends will wander in and out at will, thus creating a distraction and often times prompting younger siblings to ask, "What are you playing? Can I play??" ...and
  2. When people sit on the floor in my family room, they seem both casual and involved at the same time. Sitting on carpet really isn't that bad, and when a player is not needed in a certain scenario, they can simply go and sit on the couch... comfortable and distant but still close enough for them to listen to the story.

From: Martin S.


I read about the Perfect Gaming Environment problem and have experienced something similar. I dare to say that brightly lightened rooms do disrupt any atmosphere. So I would recommend candles (If available and usable without dangers), or a table with a low-hanging or dimmed lamp. As there is usually less to see than normal, players will automatically get more into the gaming atmosphere.
From: Rick K.

I have decided to write again to discuss the perfect gaming environment. I think when people are a little packed in it is best. For some reason, being a little close, and not being aware of much beyond the table makes it easier to focus on the game. For example, the best games I've ever run were in a seahut in Kosovo. We could only use about half of it, and had beds, lockers, a tiny table, and a TV packed into the area. We also had a chair for each person and, at one time, as many as 7 players. The wall lockers sort of hemmed us in, further reducing distractions, and there were no non gamers present, except Hassan, the Nigerian Tiger, but he was always asleep, anyway.
From: Logan

ALWAYS around a table. That is one of the most basic premises - always around a table. Intensity is for $%#$^ if you are not around a table.

To get to a more detailed answer: The table size and shape are very important and vary widely. The best table is one that gives the players some room while keeping them fairly close to the GM. I have always envisioned a half circle table with the players sitting around the curved side with the GM sitting on the straight edge - but who has money to go blow on a big table like that?

So you have to make do. The players need to be close enough together to keep intensity up but not so close that they move into OOG territorial disputes; it WILL happen - I just toss in a knife and let them fight it out. I personally like my computer at the table with me - both for making/consulting notes and playing songs at the appropriate times. [OT: Speaking of songs, any GM who has not downloaded a LOT of stuff from Napster (etc) is really missing the boat. Morality/ethics questions aside, it is a hot resource for building intensity.]

And that is what the table set up (eg get off the couches/floor/separate chairs scattered around the room) is all really about - building intensity.

The chairs and room around the table should also be noted - the chairs should be semi comfortable at least (not a lazyboy but not a metal folding chair either) and there should be enough space for the players to get in and out from the table for all the bathroom breaks, kitchen runs, etc.
From: Garry S.

My perfect gaming environment...

A local hotel has hosted several gaming conventions, the perfect environment is one of their conference suites. You have a large table, comfortable swivel chairs, a bathroom steps away, and a small fridge for pop and snacks.

The comfortable chairs mean a long session is not fatiguing due to player and GM discomfort. A large table means you are focused, but not pressed for space, you can spread things out. The fridge and bathroom mean that you do not lose time to overlong breaks while people seek food or relief.

While my games are sprawled around the living room due to space constraints, I long for such a game room and have plans to build it in my basement. The only things I would add to that setting would be a white board for sketching things out, and light controls handy to the GM's seat. Variable lighting would be a wonderful feature to have. So much in the way of mood altering can be done simply by changing the lights in a room.

My main problem with changing the lighting, for example, candlelight for a dark mood, is that both my players and I are getting up in age, and we like lots of light for reading. Setting the room with candles might set a mood, reading the dice with a flashlight so destroys that mood. Light fixtures that would allow me to change from normal white to yellowish lightly, or even flicker bulbs and to vary the lighting would allow the mood, but allow the mood to move on. As the party moves into the evil would you can slowly lower the light, and set the mood. When they move from the evil wood you bring the lights back up indicating that the evil has passed.. Multiple lighting is a dream option. Expensive to set up. But a remote controlled rheostat can be had for much less money, and might be a good investment in room used largely for gaming.
From: Serge C.

Hello Johnn,

In all those years of gaming, the best experience that I had were when the environment were close and empty of anything that could take us out of the games. I remember a cellar that one of my friend were renting. It was so low (5'-9") that we had to move bend in half to move. There were a wall of old rock and no electricity. We had to play with candle all the time. It was the best place to get into a game.

I was the game master in a LARP (live action role playing) of vampire the masquerade. And with a few players, we decided to make a game at an old house in a remote place. We got there early in the day and got the house all set up in the gothic mood we didn't use anything else then candle to light all the house (and you have to be careful with that).

When a player got there, the whole house was in game. We were 14 in that house. Where-ever you walk in, there was a special mood and someone to talk to. It was great. We had 6 hrs of intense gaming that time and it was one of the best LARP events that I ever went to.

When there's nothing to take you back into reality, you'll be more involved in the game.
From: Sean H.

Hey Johnn,

First and foremost, thanx for doing this newsletter. I look forward to getting it each week to get me inspired for our tuesday night gaming sessions. Especially because it's my turn to GM for the next few months.

You asked for gaming environment tips. Here's some stuff that's always worked out well for my group that's been running for the past eight years.

We always play out in the garage, for starters. It takes us away from the distraction of room-mates and/or family members traveling through the gaming session. I also find that it gets players more into character because they're not worried about what the *other* people in the house are thinking of them when they are speaking in character and whatnot.

Add to that garage a really large table that would not fit comfortably anywhere else in the house. Our current gaming table is a massive old thing from a local thrift shop that we refurbished. It comfortably seats the GM at the head of it, two players on a side and one at the far end. Not only does this give the players enough room for their required gamestuff, but also has plenty of space for the snacks and drinks that are essential to any good gaming session. Also a CD player with suitable music played at a non-distracting level is almost a necessity. Oh and most importantly... no phones. The house phones are inside and left to the others in the house. Cellphones are to be turned off at all times during the session.
From: John Taber

Hi Johnn,

Wanted to add a comment about your perfect gaming environments. I have to say that right now I have a really great gaming environment. I just bought a house that has a small cottage in the back. My wife and I had no idea what to do with the place...gaming! I know this is not feasible to a lot of people but the way I set it up might be. I've added a white board, a pin board, a beat up CD player that I got from a garage sale, and a nice school type table. I picked all of this up really cheap. The white board is great for fast pictures of layouts or riddles and such that you want everyone to see. The pin board is wonderful for charts and rule reminders. I play Hero system games so we have things like speed charts and range modifiers on the pin board right now. The CD player adds mood music. The school table is nice because it is not too big. In fact it is just narrowly larger than the thin side of our megamats. I think a smaller table forces people closer and to interact. It really makes a difference. Keep up the good work! John T>
From: Nick M.

I am a DM who travels a lot, from my hometown to where I study and back, and that's an 8-hour drive. So, I have two different groups, one "here" and one "there". With my hometown group, we usually gather at someone's home, and sit on the floor, on mattresses on the floor etc.

This means that some people do indeed fall asleep during the sessions.

With my "there" group, we play at the lounge of a hotel. Many irrelevant people come and go, and there's usually a tv playing, yet I've found that for the players, this means making an effort to lean forward and listen to what I and their partymates say. In essence, these outside distractions only distract them from making irrelevant remarks and bad jokes.

Hope this makes some sense to you, because it baffles me...
From: Ed W.

Hi Johnn and all,

You asked about perfect gaming environments. Normally our group meets in an unused room in a friend's house around a large tabletop with all our gaming needs in easy reach and the kitchen just through the door but while good, this does not match the one we used about 4 years ago. At that point we had a large basement with a long wooden table. The table was covered in cloths sporting interesting muted patterns. Incense filled the air and the lighting was supplied by many candles on the table each in an interesting candleholder, everything from skulls to fairy statues holding the candles. A small stereo was near the Referee to allow mood music to be played at just the right moment and a small laundry room just to the side allowed for secret conferences. It was the best. You could really get into the feel of the game with the altered environment.
From: Casey D.

I'm sure this will come up, but taking the game "outside" is a nice change of pace if properly planned.

I had a game in which the players had to move through a cemetery. Now, I didn't take them out to a real cemetery, but I did move the game outside. It was chilly but not cold, and we had a fire and some nice "camping" food. I had a table, and a few candles but also some generator lights so lighting wasn't an issue.

It had a great "mood" but I must warn that we'd been playing for many game sessions. Be careful not to do something like this too soon, else risk "cliche" or "corny" or just plain weird and loose players!
From: Anne W.

I'm in several different games and I think the environment really has to fit the group. In a live-action game we always used to meet in a park - it really encourages staying in character since you can't plop down in front of the TV or a computer or video game or something.

Unfortunately due to stupid bureaucracy for real around here the park management won't let us do this anymore. Since we stopped, in-character involvement has gone down dramatically.

In a separate game with much much smaller numbers of players, we play at a table away from the TV and gaming systems [one player of mine keeps wandering away and playing, until I started making his character have to deal with *big* problems for just walking away from a king or something....]