This blog is mostly going to contain information for the GM end of a game. One of the things that will come up frequently are the tools at a GM’s disposal. For this first example of that I’ve chosen a simple tool so I can talk about tools in general and still have time left to discus the specific example without this post becoming overly long winded.
So most of you read the title and thought to yourself, “The Table? A table isn’t a tool. It’s a piece of furniture.” Incorrect. A tool is anything an intelligent creature uses to accomplish a specific end. Let’s repeat that last bit for emphasis: to accomplish a specific end. This means you should know what you’re getting out of the decision to use something before making the decision. When you’re choosing the tools to use in your game, you should keep in mind what you’re trying to accomplish.
No tool is useful in all situations or for all ends (unless, of course, you have a sonic screwdriver).
When it comes to tables, most GMs either use them for every game or work without a table for every game. This is silly. Do you use a fork to eat every dish? No. Of course not. You don’t eat cereal or soup or yogurt with a fork because the end your trying to accomplish requires a different tool; a spoon in this case.
The first thing you should do is look at what this specific tool can accomplish for you and then look at your situation and decide if that end will get you what you want. Now what does a table do for a GM? Hold things off the floor? No. Your hands and lap can accomplish that end just fine. What does the table uniquely add to the scenario? It defines space. It pulls your players into a defined arena and forces them to all sit facing each other. It also holds their character sheets and dice (and the game map/board if you happen to be using that tool as well) right up to their faces. A table is the perfect tool to keep a group prone to wandering off topic on task.
Do you find yourself struggling at every session to pull your group back from conversational tangents? Do your players frequently surf the Facebooks on their phones in the middle of game? Well, if you have a couple on the couch and another lounging on the floor and a third reclining in the recliner, perhaps a good idea would be to add a little formality to your game and group them all around a table.
Next we must decide if what this tool can accomplish is what our game needs. Just because a tool is useful doesn’t make it useful in all situations. A table is great for groups who have trouble focusing, but with groups that have no such troubles using a table is unnecessary at best and in the way at worst. Keeping people’s faces oriented on their character sheets tends to focus their minds more intently on the numbers behind the game rather than the flavor of it. If they have no trouble staying on task, a more informal setting, in my experience, tends to yield more creative solutions to game problems.
We are visual creatures and consequently our brains tend to focus on what we’re looking at. This is the reason when you ask someone to picture something, their first instinct is to close their eyes. Is your game plagued by rules lawyering? Do your players have trouble letting go of the minutia of the game in favor of the broader story? Do they tend more toward rule-playing rather than role-playing? Well if they’re all clustered around a table every week combing over numbers and maps, perhaps removing the table and letting them spread out in a more informal configuration will free them to see the game with their minds rather than with their eyes. I mean engaging our imaginations more and relying less on the rules is the pie-in-the-sky goal with role-playing. Right? So if you think your players can hack it without the table, then this particular tool is simply getting in your way and you’d do well to get rid of it. True they can just take the book and their sheet over to the couch and continue to comb the numbers, but then its your job as the GM to see what their doing and ask them to stop and pay attention to your game. Some people find letting go of the real world difficult, but all they usually need is your permission to relax and close the book.
I hope this illustrates the sort of thing I’m talking about when we discuss ‘GM tools’. Every tool has a use and you should make sure to take a step back and really think about whether you actually need a given tool before including it in your game. A cook doesn’t just add salt to every dish because salt is awesome. Taste the mix first, then add the salt only if it needs it. And by “taste the mix” I mean “examine your Players and their PCs” because all (and by “all” I mean “100%”) of your decision making starts with your Players and their PCs. That, however, is a topic that deserves its own post so I’ll save it for another day.