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Game Without The Table

Posted By John Arcadian On February 23, 2009 @ 3:25 am In GMing Advice | 16 Comments

This article is part of a three part series on gaming spaces by 3 different gnome authors. You can read the second part here, and the last part here.

It all started with a giant game of chess . . .
In one fantasy themed game that I ran the group encountered a giant chess board inside a hidden city. In order to get past the chess board they discovered runes saying they had to play out a game with it. To simulate this in an interesting way I actually found a Garden Sized Giant Chess Set which we set up in the living room and all stood around for the scenario. (They didn’t actually get to play chess, as once the first move was made, the pieces moved themselves in a predestined way each round. They did however have to fight off hordes of creatures which descended from the ceiling while climbing and jumping between chess pieces.)

This was one of the most awesome gaming moments I’ve ever had. Aside from the battlefield being a giant chess set that we used the miniatures on, and playing loose and fast with movement rules so that players could pull off awesome things, the biggest change was that we weren’t playing around a table, all sitting and waiting for something to happen. Gaming while standing and having to move to get to the tactical ground made everyone feel like they were more involved. It also upped the energy level in the room, made it feel more interactive.

Recreating The Effect
Now, understanding that the unique dynamics of the chess board might have had some effect, I decided to recreate the experiment. Instead of the usual 6 foot table, I got one small table that was used for the map and the minis, then had everyone sit on couches or chairs around the room and roll on small side tables. This changed the dynamic somewhat during social interactions and downtime, but it really changed it and got back to that same level of excitement when everyone had to get up and move around the table (with a pretty standard map) in order to move their characters. Players would stand there looking over the map and trying to decide positioning and movement. They would pace around waiting for their turn instead of sitting back down. At one point no one was sitting and we all looked like generals hovering over a tactical war map.

Now, I fully agree that this won’t work with all games and with all groups. My group switched back to table gaming for most sessions after that, but we’ve constantly gone back to standing and moving around for a few scenes, or when I bring some unique prop that we wanted to interact with. Geeks, by our nature, are fairly lazy and standing and moving for 6 to 8 hours for a gaming session can get tiresome. It can however change the dynamic for some situations, bringing an extra amount of energy and involvement to certain scenes in your game.

Pros To Getting Away From The Table:

  • The table inherently puts some distance between the players, removing it removes a mental barrier to interaction.
  • Less distraction as everyone focuses on the central element, and not on what else is on the table.
  • If some gaming is done at the table, and some is done away from the table, it changes the dynamic between the scenes and makes some elements feel more important.
  • Players tend to roleplay and get into character more while standing.
  • Works really well for games where conversation or roleplaying is the primary element.

Cons:

  • Have to get up, and sit down, and get up, and sit down. It can get to be like playing Musical Chairs and might disrupt the flow of some scenarios.
  • Harder to monitor rolls happening on side tables.
  • Less space for materials without a central table.
  • If a player tends to burrow into the RPG books at the table while gaming, they might find themselves more prone to doing so.

Places where it seems to be most effective:

  • When using a prop or large set piece for the game.
  • When getting closer to the larp end of the spectrum.
  • When running a game that doesn’t require a map, but uses some central device (i.e. the Jenga tower in dread).

So, have you ever gamed without a table? I’d suggest trying it at least once. If you have, what was your experience like? What pros and cons do you see with the setup, and what situations did you find it most useful for? Come and sit down at my not-table and share.

About  John Arcadian

John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.




16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Game Without The Table"

#1 Comment By Rafe On February 23, 2009 @ 5:53 am

It’s funny — I consider your first two “cons” to be “pros.” It’s a really good idea to be getting up and moving around, especially if you play for 5 or more hours. It gets the blood flowing and changes play from static (all sitting) to something different (sitting and standing).

As for the second “con,” I shouldn’t say it’s actually a “pro.” However, I don’t think it’s a big deal. Most groups who’ve played together trust one another enough to not have to see every single roll. Regardless, chances are that rolls, wherever they are, WILL be seen by at least one other person, even if that person isn’t the GM/DM.

I’ve gamed without a table and it’s generally worked well. My old group did it on occasion. The issue can be for long fights. Standing around for 2 or 3 hours (or 4 hours) can be tiring, and combat for D&D can take that long, depending on the scenario and group playing through it.

#2 Comment By xero On February 23, 2009 @ 7:48 am

I recently moved our game from a traditional “chairs around a large table” set up to my living room. I set up the same large table (actually two card tables next to each other) right where the coffee table would be, and everyone lounges in their respective couch. It’s more laid back, more comfortable, and it puts the map and minis/tokens at eye level… which means the players usually have to stand to get a good view of the board and move their PC.

I wasn’t sure if it was going to work when we tried it, but everyone seems to love it so it’s here to stay.

#3 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On February 23, 2009 @ 10:22 am

Way to spell my name wrong John! :p

I’ll admit, despite my love affair with tables, the rest of my group prefers table-less play, for many of the reasons you give above. In my mind, it’s one of those “try both ways, see what works for you” things, or at least one of those “different approaches in different circumstances” things.

#4 Comment By JackSmithIV On February 23, 2009 @ 11:12 am

I’m not so much trying to get away from the table at my games as I’m trying to make best use of the table. I find gaming at the table an incredible way of keeping players actively involved. It’s semi-formal, engaging, and central, with the battlemap as the centerpiece.

I’m always trying to add more, however. I use music in all my campaigns, and sometimes for a deep cavern-crawl or casting a ritual in an old cellar, we’ll light the room with candles. I suppose it’s just the tradition of it, really :-P. I’ve been thinking about some away-from-the-table gaming, though. Just waiting for the right device in order to do it. There are alot of good ideas being thrown around here, though, and I’ll probably keep checking back.

#5 Comment By John Arcadian On February 23, 2009 @ 11:38 am

@Rafe – Yeah, I’ve got no personal issue with a little movement during game. In fact, my personal preference for gaming space is to have lots of room so I can get up and pace. Try that during a big social interaction that is supposed to be tense and focused.

Getting up and walking around can contribute to the distraction fac . . . ooh shiny, what was that?

@xero – I’ve always preferred low tables so that the minis are seen in a kind of birds eye view way.

@Matthew J. Neagley
What are you talking about? I don’t see any typo!! Can’t wait to see the rebuttal tomorrow, just based on the tags ;).

@JackSmithIV – Table-less play works really well for props and the like. A great thing that I once implemented (aside from the giant chess set) was an old action figure playset. I think it was batman … maybe? Its size compared to the mini size was excellent. Gave it some incredible depth. Another interesting idea is to use jenga blocks for mapping. I bought some jenga blocks (and later cut some much cheaper wood pieces myself), spray painted them gray, and then did some lines across them in black to make stone walls that I could build on-the-fly dungeons out of.

#6 Comment By Rafe On February 23, 2009 @ 2:32 pm

@John Arcadian – Yeah, it could definitely lead to issues during a social interaction. That said, it can also focus the group’s attentions… if it’s only the GM up and moving. Their eyes have to follow and that constitutes enough activity to keep them engaged mentally.

Though I’m wondering why everyone would be standing off around something for a social interaction. What would the focus of attention (ie, the reason for getting up and moving to another spot) be? A puzzle, perhaps?

#7 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On February 23, 2009 @ 3:04 pm

My ultimate GMing “dream” is a PC I could strap to a forearm and a beltpouch full of large dice. I’d strut around the table, intimidating the hell out of the players as I stood over them, rolling wherever I wanted, and changing the visual focus of the game as often as I liked. This could work even better without a table.

OTOH, we just bought a massive coffee table for the two-sofa-sectional we have. I may just take the opportunity to use it as a gaming table.

#8 Comment By Swordgleam On February 23, 2009 @ 3:06 pm

Last session, I honestly considered getting us all a bunch of cheap walkie-talkies, and going off upstairs. There were so many secret conversations around, and I was getting so sick of writing notes, that I still maintain it would have been a better solution.

Now that it’s occured to me, I’ve been playing around with the idea of doing something like that. Face-to-face gaming is fantastic, of course, but every once in a while, for certain scenarios, it could be cool. Have a ‘Charlie’s Angels’ sort of vibe going on.

#9 Comment By Scott Martin On February 23, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

I don’t mix up seating and standing very often, but I usually enjoy it when it occurs. [I am such a creature of habit.] A few times, it’s been neat go go drive to a location that matches the real life version of a game scene– a river bank at night, or pointing out the window at a “suspicious building”. While the “on location” gaming is often short, it really immerses you in the world. And helps you remember that a cold night is annoying to wander around in… there’s no cocoon of 70 degrees, unlike the players who get to enjoy climate control.

#10 Comment By DNAphil On February 23, 2009 @ 3:51 pm

Before D&D 3.0, my group almost always gamed away from the table. Most of our games were done in my living room on couches and chairs. It was quite enjoyable. We never used battlemats, just some paper and a pen, a good description, or small dry erase board.

After 3.0 came out, we all moved back to the table, where we play to this day. My game room has enough room for a table and chairs, but not for enough couches for a whole group.

Having played at the table so long, I am starting to long for playing away from a table.

#11 Comment By Tommi On February 23, 2009 @ 3:54 pm

This idea is something I might try in my upcoming Ars Magica rip-off game, though a student flat is not ideal for people moving around.

#12 Comment By John Arcadian On February 23, 2009 @ 5:28 pm

@Rafe – “Though I’m wondering why everyone would be standing off around something for a social interaction.” Well, the experience that I had was that often times one person took over the social interaction, especially if he/she was the talky character. If it continued in that vein for a while, people got up and moved around just to not be sitting.

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – That would be an awesome setup. I could see it working well with a dice dispenser belt, ala the coin dispenser belts. Oh, why can’t the future be here now!

@Swordgleam – Notes are not optimal for secret conversations. We’ve taken to using text messages, and used to have multiple laptops (BAD IDEA) to pass info.

@Scott Martin – I turned off the heat in my apartment and threw on some fans, in the middle of winter, for a game that was set in a cold climate. Made the players really understand that it wasn’t so easy to go climbing up this sheer cliff willy nilly in the cold weather.

@DNAphil – Table or no table will really depend on the sort of game you are running. Some games it will work better for, some it will really hinder play.

@Tommi – An American student flat is by no means big. A french student’s flat is even smaller. I can’t begin to guess how a Finnish flat would compare.

#13 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On February 24, 2009 @ 9:00 am

Now that my article is up, I can say without giving anything away, that your article is by far more unbiased and balanced than mine.

#14 Comment By BryanB On February 24, 2009 @ 10:37 am

I need the gaming table. I’m with Matthew on this one.

And if anyone ever turned off the heat and had fans blowing in the middle of Winter, just in order to simulate the climate conditions in an RPG, I’d go have a pizza where it was a nice 70 degrees and forget all about the game. There is such a thing as too much realism! :D

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#16 Comment By Bob On March 8, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

Apart from a 2 year stint of using a table at the local gaming club we’ve always used the floor of the livingroom or a bedroom to game on. Couches and beds to sit on if you don’t fancy the floor and floors and books to roll dice on. Always worked.


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