6 Ways To Perfect Your Gaming Environment

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0057

  1. Choose A Good Gaming Table
  2. Create Close Quarters
  3. Prevent Distractions
  4. Change Your Lighting
  5. Use Visual Aids
  6. Modify Player Positioning

Readers’ Tips Summarized

  1. 27 Gaming Environment Tips
  2. Bureaucracy Comments
  3. The 12 Tasks of Asterix (Bureaucracy related)
  4. Bureaucracy Warning

A Brief Word From Johnn

Thanks To The News Sites

I’d like to say thank you to all the web sites who posted news about Roleplaying Tips Weekly issues in 2000. Thanks to them, there are now 4,000+ of us, from 83 countries, tuned into this ezine and sharing our tips and GMing experiences.

When you are surfing the net for RPG and gaming sites, I recommend you stop by these ones. And, if you have news about your gaming company, product or RPG resource web site, then feel free to contact these sites by email to see if they would be interested in telling all their visitors about it.

Supplemental #4 Available

I received a number of great responses from last week’s request about perfect gaming environments. There were enough tips in your advice, plus my own two cents’ worth, that I decided to devote this week’s article to the topic.

I have also put your emails into a new Supplemental issue (#4), which you can read online.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

6 Ways To Perfect Your Gaming Environment

Choose A Good Gaming Table

While a few subscribers wrote in and said they prefer not to play at a gaming table, the majority of you said a gaming table was essential for good roleplaying.

Remember, there’s no absolute right or wrong answers here. Every group should play in a way that’s comfortable for them, but I prefer a nice, solid gaming table too.

  • It keeps everyone focused
  • You can control player seating better, if desired
  • Creates less back strain in the long run if you have good chairs
  • Charts, maps, mats and papers can be spread out on a stable, flat surface for everyone to view easily
  • You can pass things around easily (i.e. handouts, food)

I would even go so far as to say that a gaming table encourages team/cooperative play more than other environments. This observation is based on my past experiences though, and I have no scientific data to back that up.

Regarding table shapes, does anyone have an opinion of a perfect one? I have two favorites:

  1. In university I had the privilege to play at a sturdy, oak executive table. It was oval in shape so everyone could sit in a rough circle. But because it was oval, I could sit at an “end” and GM.I feel it’s important that a gaming table have an end where I can GM from. It’s easier to maintain player focus from that position. And being at the “head” of the table creates an added level of authority which carries over to my NPCs and intelligent monsters when I roleplay them.
  2. Jeremy, one of my players, made a solid, square table that stood about 24? high. He painted it green and gave it tough, study legs. You could jump up and down on this table and it wouldn’t give an inch.This table was exceptional because it was small, so we had to play closer together (see Tip #2 below). And it was low so we all could lean in (tall tables can force players to lean back and away which results in less intensity). Plus, it was homemade so it had sentimental value. (It was worth at least a 1,000,000 EXP bonus for making it for the group, but don’t tell Jeremy that!

Create Close Quarters

I didn’t think of this tip, but many of you wrote in and said that close quarters enhances roleplaying. And you’re right! Reflecting back, many of my best sessions have been around card tables and other small tables, or in small rooms.

I think the closeness creates focus and intensity. It gives you feelings of coziness, friendship and camaraderie.

From a player’s perspective, having the GM right in your face the whole night probably keeps you tuned in and makes it easier to get his/her attention when you need it.

“Out of sight, out of mind” is absolutely true when GMing. There’s so many things a GM must think about and so many questions and statements to answer from the players. Most GMs get too busy to notice quiet or non-participative players. And players at the far end of the table have a tougher time getting the GM’s attention than players sitting beside him/her.

So, having everyone close together probably lets everyone participate on a more equal level.

Prevent Distractions

This is an obvious, but extremely important tip. When my game gets disrupted from a distraction, I can almost feel the mood, focus and fun drain away from the table.

A distraction is like a game master rolling a critical miss. So, before your next session, run through this checklist and eliminate as many of these distractions as you can before the game:

  • TV
  • Computer
  • The public
  • Friends and relatives
  • Visitors
  • Cluttered table
  • Phone, cell phone, mute the answering machine
  • Video games, console games
  • Dinner or lunch
  • Snack food purchases
  • Player socializing

If any players are expecting calls or visitors, make sure they can leave and re-join the game table easily (and perhaps, put them at the far end of the table). The same with players who need to cook, smoke, go to the washroom frequently, etc.

Change Your Lighting

several lamps placed around the gaming area. Bright light keeps the group alert and the ambient lamp light doesn’t glare like overhead lights can.

Your needs may vary though, and it pays to experiment every so often.

Example lighting options:

  • The sun (i.e. outside, through the windows)
  • The moon
  • Dusk, sunset
  • Cloudy day
  • Overhead lighting
  • Lamps
  • Candles
  • Variable lighting (i.e. dimmer switch, lamp combos, different light bulb wattages)
  • Colours (i.e. coloured light bulbs, coloured lamp shades)
  • Curtains and blinds–adjust to preference

It’s also possible to use your lighting for atmosphere enhancement:

  • Novelty candles (i.e. skull candle, dragon candle)
  • Neat candle holders (i.e. gothic style, gnome-shaped)
  • Odd lamps (i.e. lamp base is a gargoyle or tree)
  • Odd lamp shades (i.e. cut monster shapes out of black construction paper and wrap around lamp shade–be careful of fire hazard!)

See The Readers’ Tip of the Week section in Issue #39 for more lighting effects tips.

Use Visual Aids

Visual aids can be used to enhance the atmosphere of your gaming environment. Provocative colours, images, designs and patterns can help create a certain mood or tone. They can also reinforce the themes of your stories.

Examples of potential visual aids:

  • Posters
  • Art and art prints
  • Wall hangings
  • Carpets
  • Wallpaper
  • Table cloth
  • Lamp shades and stands
  • Mobiles (those things you hang from the ceiling)
  • Curtains
  • Binder and book covers

Ultimately, I guess you can basically join together any surface and a Martha Stewart trick and it’s a potential gaming environment aid.

Another type of visual aid is a presentation aid. Sometimes you want to leave things 100% up to the players’ imaginations. No presentation aids needed there.

But, at other times, you either need to:

  • create a very specific visual (i.e. battlemap) to maintain group organization and moderate game play better, or
  • transfer what you are picturing in your mind into the players’ minds so that you are all “on the same page” with what’s going on currently in the game.

Presentation aids can help with both these situations.

Examples of presentation aids:

  • Pad of paper and crayons (get the 64 Crayola color box with the built-in sharpener. A personal favourite!
  • Easel & pad of paper (spend the extra $15 to buy an easel with retractable legs for easier carrying–it’s worth it!)
  • White board (you can get small sizes for “laptop” drawing or big sizes to mount on walls)
  • Cork board (to pin drawings and pictures to)
  • Computer (we’ve had great success with one at the game table for visual aid purposes–more info in a future issue)
  • VCR & TV (go to your library and look at their VHS collection; if you have 2 VCRs you can dub lots of stuff and play/pause at the game table; i.e. national geographic stuff, aerial views of terrain, documentaries on medieval life, etc.)

Modify Player Positioning

Finally, you can modify your environment through the actual seating positions of your players. For example:

  • Put players who are known to talk off topic more than the others closer to you so you can help keep them focused
  • Place loud players at the far end of the table
  • Let shy or quiet players sit close to you
  • Put rules lawyers at far end of table
  • Don’t seat loud players with a wall behind them as that will only make them louder–put them with their back to the most open area of the room
  • Put players who get up often in the most accessible spots

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

27 Gaming Environment Tips

From Peter Whitley

Hi Johnn,

My group has been gaming together for about 3 years. We’ve had several locations and have learned a few things along the way. Perhaps you will find some of these useful.

  1. Smaller, intimate spaces are good and encourage players to coordinate their ideas as well as keep the volume of their voices under control.
  2. Card tables are great for “shrinking” the size of a large room while offering more space for putting stuff.
  3. A small table with a screen can often be handy for a DM who uses a lot of notes and reference.
  4. Larger spaces can encourage people to raise their voices and can often alienate the person(s) sitting farthest from the DM.
  5. Have the most vocal, active players (or the party leader) sit farthest away from the DM so that everyone can hear.
  6. Quieter players should be encouraged to sit near to the DM where he/she can assist with minis, passing notes, etc.
  7. An open space for demonstrating maneuvers and body language is good, though usually (in my games) unnecessary. If someone is getting groggy it can help to have them physically demonstrate a particular action.
  8. Gaming in public sucks, especially for shy players (avoid putting shy players in places where non-gaming people may be watching).
  9. Candies or salty bits should be served in the bags they come in, not poured into bowls…bowls are big and become a barrier to players sitting opposite.
  10. Avoid putting anything not directly game related directly in the middle of the table.
  11. The main gaming table should be sturdy enough to accidentally bump without disturbing the drinks.
  12. Position your battle mat and other important stuff wherever you want your players to congregate.
  13. A little clutter is good and emphasizes importance and magnitude.
  14. A lot of clutter is bad and can be distracting to a game.
  15. Use a dry erase board positioned where everyone can see (over your shoulder, preferably) for quick visual explanations, marching order, initiative, and so on.
  16. It is important that all the players need to consult one piece of paper and that that piece of paper stays on the main table (unless their maps need to be different).
  17. Big visual items should be placed where the players need to physically turn to refer to. A little movement will keep players awake.
  18. Plenty of writing surfaces are essential.
  19. It is often better to not take breaks for smoking, bathroom, pizza, and so on. Just play through the smaller disruptions to encourage players to keep thinking about what they’re doing. Anything can be a disruption if you allow it to be (like off-topic chat)…so work through even the necessary breaks.
  20. Tables are better than clipboards and hardcover books for writing on because it centralizes the game and keeps players closer together.
  21. Have all reference material, visual aids, and special devices (like miniatures) available and within reach.
  22. Invest in some small bookshelves that you can position near where you’re sitting.
  23. Too many lights can heat up a room and make players groggy.
  24. Too few lights makes it difficult to read (and can make players groggy).
  25. One strong light over the snacks or battle mat and one smaller lamp for the DM should do it.
  26. No computers in the room! If someone is playing Quake in the same room, all the players within eyeshot of the monitor will be watching Quake.
  27. If someone is walking around who isn’t gaming it can be distracting for less comfortable gamers.
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Bureaucracy Comments

From Joe Wichmann

I enjoyed your tips on bureaucracy. Once the organizations and obstacles are in place, the dm can provide plenty of story hooks and role-playing opportunities through loopholes in the bureaucracy. A powerful but sympathetic character or a conniving bureaucrat or a sneaky and clever outsider who knows how to bypass the bureaucracy (legally or illegally, through graft and corruption or forgery) can all provide interesting and exciting ways around and through officialdom.

Of course, there can be many catches and problems – these people expect much in return and often can’t deliver on their promises. And if offended or rejected by the PCs they can turn on them, possibly having them arrested and subsequently testifying against them (truly or falsely) or having them shanghaied and sold into servitude. There can also be a bureaucratic trap – an insider, apparently sympathetic, who guides the PCs through the bureaucracy only to recruit them, under duress, for a secret and very dangerous mission.

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From Jason D.

In the animated film, for one of his tasks, Asterix has to get a special form from an accounting place.. the bureaucracy is so great that no one has ever returned from there… [Johnn: GMs, this is a great example of a bureaucracy rumour/warning/clue to sew into your campaign. Try to think up a few more and then add them in during play, every session or so.]

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Bureaucracy Warning

From John M.

Yes, it’s a _very_ effective tool to delay, harass, annoy, etc. the characters and the players.

That’s also the main problem.

Just like in real life, the characters and players will get very frustrated at what they regard as arbitrary rules solely intended to make their life hard. Unlike real life, they will know _exactly_ whom to blame, and where the person responsible can be found (across the table sitting in the GM’s chair).

Do not use bureaucracy if you have a bunch of escapists. [Johnn: Great warning John. GMs, always take pulse checks on your players. If they aren’t enjoying themselves then move on. Bureaucracy roleplaying is not everyone’s bag.]