This past week I was at Gen Con, and ran a few sessions of my fantasy world, Elhal. Convention games are always tricky, and something that we have talked about many times here on the Stew. This time around, I ran the same session of Elhal in both Fate and in Savage Worlds. In doing so, I realized all the physical implements that go into running these games, and how scarce space can be at a full table. In order to keep everyone’s focus and keep the game flowing well, I realized just how important it was to have everything on my side of the screen organized.

Put In Place

Recently ran an article about a technique called mise-en-place, which means “put in place”. This is a technique/philosophy that Chefs learn to keep an organized kitchen, and to be able to prepare the most complex dishes in the most efficient way possible. The core of this technique is about organizing and arranging all the ingredients and tools needed for cooking. A Chef who embraces mise-en-place has their work area organized in a consistent manner, such that they always know where every knife and implement is located, and can reach for them with ease. Each Chef organizes their area to their needs and their style.

This philosophy is not unlike my graduate training in Molecular Biology. In many ways working in a lab is not unlike cooking. You have numerous ingredients and tools, and are often under a time constraint when conducting an experiment. Several years of graduate school taught me this philosophy, and without realizing it I perform this technique when I cook, at my desk in my office, or in my home.

What does this have to do with GMing?

In many ways GMing is also like cooking. Depending on the game you are running, you are going to have a number of implements for your game: dice, miniatures, session notes, cards, maps, etc. You are also under a time constraint. You are working on keeping the pace of a game, and keeping the attention of your players.

It stands to reason that when we run a game, the more organized we are with the implements of the game – and the more efficient we are at our ability to find and utilize those tools – the easier it will be to keep the game moving along and to keep the attention of everyone at the table. One of the things I do when I learn a new game is to figure out what implements are going to be required, and before the first session take some time to arrange my GM space. Often it takes a session or two to get things organized properly, but once in place I have everything I need at hand, and can focus my attention to the gameplay.

Practicing Mise-en-Place

To implement mise-en-place in your games there are some simple techniques you can perform. Chances are, if you find yourself organized at the table, then you are likely doing this without realizing it. If you feel like you could use a little more organization behind the screen try these steps:

  • Inventory your implements – Go and find everything you need for running your game and put it out on the table. Get a feel for all the things that are required to run your game and how much space they take up.
  • Trim where possible – For each item, make sure that you really need this implement to run the game. If you have some item and have not used it in months, consider dropping it. The fewer things you have, the easier it will be to organize.
  • Evaluate your GMing space – Take a look at where you are GMing and get a feel for how much space you have available. Sit in your chair and reach out. Everything you need should be an arm’s length away.
  • Lay out your tools – Outside of a game, take a few minutes to try laying out your GMing space. Keep in mind that the things you need most need to be closest to you, the items you use less can be farther away.
  • Prep your ingredients – Chefs will prep an ingredient into a small container, so that it can be readily picked up and used while cooking. The same holds true for your games. If you use minis take the time to gather the minis per encounter so that you can efficiently get them to table, rather than fumbling through a box of minis at the start of an encounter.
  • Embrace containers – In most cases your GMing space will be somewhat limited, so look for containers which let you sort and organize your implements and allows them to be efficiently organized and stacked. Things like a rolling cart, or a tool box, can keep numerous items easily at hand.
  • Increase surfaces – If possible look for additional surfaces you can put next to or behind you to increase the space you have to lay out your implements. My GMing area has a 3-drawer rolling cart to my left and a small cubby just behind me, both in arms reach.

A Place For Everything…

The mise-en-place philosophy is one that embraces organization to make the Chef a more effective and successful cook. The same can be said for GMing. A well organized space, allowing a GM to quickly utilize the necessary tools, helps the GM to be more effective, and keeps their focus on creating the best experience for their players.

What about your GMing space? Do you practice mise-en-place or are you more chaotic in your GMing area? What games are the hardest to arrange? What implements are the hardest to organize?

About  Phil Vecchione

A gamer for 30 years, Phil cut his teeth on Moldvay D&D and has tried to run everything else since then. He has had the fortune to be gaming with the same group for almost 20 years. When not blogging or writing RPG books, Phil is a husband, father, and project manager. More about Phil.

13 Responses to Put In Place Your GMing Space

  1. John Fredericks

    Phil, this is a great article. In fact, it made me think about maybe having some kind of open tray on the table at my next Con game. Something like a Plano box or even an egg carton or something.

    I need spots for:

    Index Cards
    Poker chips
    Tokens (I don’t take my minis travelling)

    I could set my session notes and rules cheat sheet next to it.

    Anyone have any thoughts on what kind of container might work? I don’t use a screen also to save space, but maybe a short one might still help me cordon off some room.

    • Great article Phil. As I was reading it I realized I was doing most of this subconsciously already, but I think I need to add your Trim Where Possible step and see what comes of it.

      John – You might look for the display shelves that are sold for porcelain collectables and knick-knacks. They are usually of a sturdy wood and often have felt lined compartments. They are shallow and if laid flat could be used to hold writing instruments, index cards, dice and even have an area where dice could be rolled in.

    • I’m a Plano fiend, and I love the idea of consolidating some of the things I currently carry in separate containers into one Plano.

      For your list, the tricky item is index cards. Many Planos don’t have an open compartment that will hold 3×5 cards, but I bet if you poke around on their website you would find at least one or two options.

      If you’re handy with an X-acto knife, you could also trim out partitions you don’t need from a size you like in order to create an open compartment.

    • If you are running low on room and can’t find a great organizer, use your players! Minis and Tokens can’t often be delegated, but poker chips/hero points/FATE points/bennies can be. Let a player (who won’t cheat) control handing them out and collecting them. This gets it out of your way. Players rarely need as much space.

  2. Walt Ciechanowski

    I tend to run “component-light” events at GenCon, like Doctor Who or Victoriana, where I can get away with minimal space. I’ve also found that transparency eliminates the need for a lot of space.

    For example, I keep a clump of dice in the center of the table (in case anyone else needs them). I grab from this pile as well and, since I roll in the open, I don’t need a space for that right in front of me.

    Also, I put as much rules info as I need on the character sheets, embedded in my adventure outline, and on a one-page cheat sheet that I give to the players. This enables me to use the rulebook as a “prop” that the players can peruse, also getting it out of my way.

    Since I usually run 6 player games at 8-person tables, I use the extra chair to rest my adventure outline on as well as any “extras” I may have. Since I don’t tend to use a GM screen, this hides stuff well enough. I also use small fonts for my adventures to keep people from gleaning too much if they happen to glance at my outline while I’m perusing it.

  3. A few years back when I was Gming at other peoples places (before my home became the preferred gaming meet up for my new group,) I used to bring along a couple of brief cases I used for gaming.

    One of them I had divided up for actual paper work, game notes, maps and such, with writing/drawing tools and even a small white board. (with enough space left over for 3-4 game books depending on the setting.)

    The second one I customized the interior of by gluing in some balsa wood dividers and splitting up the interior into a section for dice, a larger section for mini’s and another smaller section for counters and any miscellaneous stuff I needed for a session.

    Being able to just open the briefcases and have what I needed where I needed it made set up a snap, and kept things from becoming too bulky and time consuming to quickly game outside of the home.

  4. Setting things up for easy access is great advice for newer GMs and veterans alike! I’ve been happy using this principle for many years, and I apply it to information as well as physical items:

    – Dice. Many of us have huge collections of dice. Different styles, colors, sizes. Some carry hundreds of dice in a single pouch, others sort them in the type of boxes used for fishing or sewing gear. But picking out the right combo can be a mess. When I’m starting a session I always set aside just the dice I expect I’ll need. That includes things like having two d20s and four d4s, color coded, when I know a monster attacks twice per round for 2d8+10 damage.

    – Miniatures. As with dice, many of us have huge collections of miniatures. I’ve got a few hundred of ’em, many painstakingly painted, sorted into 5 padded carrying cases. Trying to have all those minis readily available at the table is absurd, though. The trays take up a table of their own! Before the game I’ll pull out just the dozen or so minis I expect to use: PCs, major NPCs, and monsters. Plus maybe a fierce looking dragon to scare any players who assume that just because it’s on the table means it’s in the game. 😉

    – Rules. It’s not just about making physical stuff, like dice and minis, handy. It applies to information, too. When there’s a special case rule that applies to my game, I include a brief version of it in my notes. For example, one of the encounters is a nighttime ambush by wolves who are stalking the party. My notes will include the rules for sneaking up/hearing the wolves as well as the rule for waking up in the middle of combat.

    – Common Spells. I’ve printed an index card sized summary for each of the most common extended-duration the PCs (or their opponents) like to cast. For example, what bonuses does a ‘Prayer’ provide and how long do they last? It’s printed on the card so everyone can see it, and we can put tick marks on the card to track its duration.

  5. My suggestion is to pay attention to where you are at the table, too. Most of our games are played at a long table, a.k.a. the dining table, and the DM traditionally sat at one end.

    Last year, I figured out to sit at one of the long sides, where I could put a TV tray for my screen off to my left. That left the table in front of me for index cards, planning notes, and dice. Reference books and minis boxes are on the floor, either to my right or underneath the TV tray.

    Just as importantly, I could reach all of the battle-mat in front of me, either to mark in new information or to adjust miniatures. All of the players are within sight and earshot of the DM, too. When we are playing Savage Worlds, I can see all of their initiative cards easily.

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