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Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #411

How To Host The Perfect Game



This Week's Tips Summarized 

How To Host The Perfect Game

  1. Gaming Garage
  2. Gaming Cottage
  3. Playing in a Public Place
  4. Outdoor Gaming
  5. Space and Lighting
  6. Low-Tech Locations
  7. Seating Levels
  8. Arrangements Around the Table
  9. Decreasing Distractions
  10. Atmospheric Environment
  11. Group-Specific Environment
  12. How to Host the Perfect Game

Readers' Tips Summarized 

  1. Campaign Cartographer 2
  2. Switch Your Binders For Web Pages

Johnn Four's GM Guide Books

4E D&D Adventure in the Feywild

Join Wolfgang Baur and the patrons of Open Design as they build a challenging adventure for 4th and 5th level characters who face the Wrath of the River King! This adventure contains a dozen new monsters for 4th Edition D&D and --- like previous Open Design projects --- it is being written with input from patrons whose donations support the project. Join today and help craft a better breed of D&D adventure!

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A Brief Word From Hannah 

Clockwork Heart is Great Steampunk

I thought one of the names in this week's tips looked familiar, and then I realized where I'd seen it: on the cover of the book sitting on my desk. I finished Dru Pagliassotti's novel Clockwork Heart a few weeks ago, and it's fantastic.

Steampunk fans will love the setting, which runs on clockwork and a lighter-than-air metal called ondium. I really liked the caste system, with its mix of privileges and burdens for each class. The plot is full of twists and turns, with some very sweet moments here and there.

I've never run a steampunk game before, but the book made me want to give it a try. If you're already a fan of the genre, you'll definitely enjoy it.

Clockwork Heart

WoAdWriMo Finished

It's August, and World Adventure Writing Month is finally over. I managed to finish my adventure, and I even surpassed my personal goal of 32 pages. There are fewer illustrations than I'd hoped (none), but I might be able to remedy that later.

WoAd certainly helped me appreciate GMing more. I tend to improv most aspects of my games, so it made me realize just how much planning can potentially go into one session's worth of gaming.

Of course, most GMs' prep work doesn't include instructions for complete strangers who might want to run that session. Having to clarify things gave me a lot more insight into which aspects of the game my group and I tend to gloss over.

I'd definitely recommend at least giving WoAd a try; even if you don't complete your adventure, you'll still have learned something.

A few people had to drop out, but most people did finish their adventures in time. They should all be available for download soon, so if you're looking for awesome free adventures, or just inspiration, go check them out.

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Campaign Coins - Treasure Worthy Of Your Greatest Adventures!

Introduce extra depth to your role-playing experience with Campaign Coins - the universal RPG and LARP money system.

2008 ENnie Award Nominee

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How To Host The Perfect Game  

Here is a collection of tips from readers on how to create the perfect environment for gaming. Some offer advice to the age-old problems of eliminating distractions and establishing atmosphere, while others describe unique and inspiring gaming setups.

1.Gaming Garage 

From: Sean H.

Hey Johnn,

First and foremost, thanks 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. It takes us away from the distraction of roommates and/or family members traveling through the gaming session. I also find 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.

Added to that, the garage has a 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 game stuff, but it also has plenty of space for snacks and drinks 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. Cell phones are to be turned off at all times during the session.

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2. Gaming Cottage 

From: John T.

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, and then it occurred to us: 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 from a garage sale, and a nice school- style table. I picked all of this up 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 and 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!

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3. Playing in a Public Place 

From: Nick Mavrantzas

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 party-mates say. In essence, these outside distractions only distract them from making irrelevant remarks and bad jokes.

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4. Outdoor Gaming 

From: Casey D.

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 you that we'd been playing for many game sessions. Be careful not to do something like this too soon, else risk "cliché" or "corny" or "just plain weird," and lose players!

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5. Space and Lighting 

From: Garry Stahl

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 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 wood you can slowly lower the light, and set the mood. When they move from the evil wood you bring the lights back up indicating 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.

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6. Low-Tech Locations 

From: Serge Cote

Hello Johnn,

In all these years of gaming, the best experiences I have had were when the environment was close and empty of anything that could take us out of the games.

I remember a cellar one of my friends was renting. It was so low (5'-9") that we had to walk bent in half to move. There was a wall of old rock, and no electricity. We had to play with candles all the time. It was the best place to get into a game.

I was the game master in a LARP of Vampire: the Masquerade. And with a few players, we decided to hold the 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 other than candles to light the house.

When the players got there, the whole house was in-game. There were fourteen of us in that house. Wherever you walked, there was a special mood and someone to talk to. It was great. We had six hours of intense gaming that time, and it was one of the best LARP events that I ever attended.

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

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7. Seating Levels 

From: Dark Druid

I have found it is a good thing for the GM and the players to sit on the same level. The physical spatial 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?"
  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.

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8. Arrangements Around the Table 

From: Kender

I've spent years trying to come up with the perfect gaming environment, and although I have not achieved said perfection, I have a pretty good one 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, a bookcase full of reference materials, and gaming manuals. In front of him, 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 on which he can diagram maps, battles, and such. The light over the table is a dimmer, which allows mood lighting if need be.

Now, just to get the GM his own mini-fridge.

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9. Decreasing Distractions 

From: Rick

  • Turn the TV off!
  • 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.
  • Minimize distractions by playing in a room without a phone, TV or radio, or in a room that isn't a thoroughfare through the house.
  • 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 that work quite well. You can also buy fake cobwebs in a spray can.
  • Consciously involve PCs whose players are furthest away from the DM, especially when they are being distracted by something or are talking off topic.

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10. Atmospheric Environment 

From: Ed W.

Hi Johnn and all,

Normally, our group meets in an unused room in a friend's house around a large table, with all our gaming needs in easy reach and the kitchen just through the door. While good, this does not match the setup we had about four 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 candle holder; 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.

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11. Group-Specific Environment 

From: Anne W.

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

Unfortunately, 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 smaller numbers of players, we play at a table away from the TV and gaming systems. One player of mine kept wandering away and playing until I started making his character have to deal with big problems for just walking away from a king or similar important figure.

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12. How to Host the Perfect Game 

From: Dru Pagliassotti, The Harrow: RPG Columns

I can't count the number of times gamers have written to me with this plaintive cry for help: "Dru, you have to help me! I'm expecting eight of my gaming friends over tomorrow and I simply don't know what the proper etiquette is!" Well, never fear. Here is your answer at last.

Cleaning House

The first thing you're going to be concerned about before hosting your little RPG soiree is the condition of your house, apartment, or half of a dorm room. For most gamers, nothing short of an emergency call to Merry Maids Cleaning Service will do - and tell them to bring their haz-mat suits. If you can't afford a cleaning service, then you'll have to brace yourself for an inspiring hour or two of housework.

Think of it as an adventure. Your goal is to unearth the carpet, discover the true color of your bookshelves, and solve the Puzzle Box of Bedmaking. Along the way you're likely to run into a variety of slime monsters, dust bunnies, creeping dooms, and long-lost kids' toys.

But never fear - you'll be facing them with your Scrub Brush of Cleansing, your Spray of Antibacterial Doom, your Dusting Cloth of Obliteration, and your Broom of Sweeping.

If you have kids, spouses, or roommates, you have a pretty good chance of shanghaiing them into being your adventuring companions, too.

Stick a colander over your head, put on some rousing battle music, and go forth to Fight Evil And Greasy Kitchen Stains. Don't forget to use a lot of heroic one-liners, too (e.g., "Take that, dirtball! Die, scum-bucket! I'm going to wipe you off the face of the earth, slimer!").

The end result should be carpets, chairs, sofas, beds, and toilets that your guests aren't afraid to sit down on, and kitchen counters and a refrigerator that they aren't afraid to set their food down on.

Other Preparations

First, remove easily broken family heirlooms from the party space. We're not saying gamers are clumsy, but several hours' worth of unbroken caffeine, sugar, and salt intake, combined with the tension of battle, does tend to make most people a tad hyperactive.

If you have swords or guns on the wall, you may wish to remove those, too, for similar reasons. Even fireplace pokers should be regarded with some thought, as overexcited gamers have been known to duel with the fireplace tools, to the detriment of each other, the furniture, and the carpet.

Second, make sure there are flat, out-of-the-way surfaces upon which your guests can set their food and drinks, away from feet and flailing elbows, and on surfaces that won't be irrevocably damaged if something damp or hot is set or spilled on them.

If you're sitting around the dinner table, of course, this is less of a concern, although spilled drinks still pose something of a hazard both to the carpet and to the character sheets and books sitting on the table.

Third, remove any kiddie or pet toys on the floor that might cause unsuspecting guests to break their neck when they step on them.

Also, go outside for ten minutes and then walk back in and take a deep breath. If your party area smells like used diapers or dirty cat boxes, remove the offending objects and spray a strong disinfectant/deodorant around the area.

Lighting scented candles or spritzing the room with your favorite aromatherapy spray is optional, but likely to be appreciated.

Fourth, get rid of any nonparticipating children, pets, spouses, roommates, and so forth. If you can't just lock them in the backyard or a spare room, fob them off on a sitter or bribe them away with a movie pass, if that's what it takes. There, doesn't the place look so much better without them cluttering up the room?

Fifth, turn off any electronic devices you don't plan to use as part of the game. That includes, yes, televisions, stereos, and even (gasp) computers. They are distractions, and you want your RPG party guests to pay attention to each other, not your nifty new DVD player, right?

Asking guests to turn off their cell phones and pagers is a bit tricky, etiquette-wise, but asking them to set the machines to vibrate is usually an acceptable compromise - and sometimes has pretty humorous consequences when the machines go off and your guest leaps a foot out of the chair.

Sixth, take a moment to place brand-new, empty trash bags into the trashcans, and make sure you have a wastebasket in the bathroom if you're going to be gaming with women. Tsk, don't ask why, boys, just listen to Auntie Dru and do it. Ah, there we go. There's nothing like nice, empty trashcans to add a touch of class to a get-together. Don't worry. They'll be overflowing again by the end of the game.

Decorating House

What is a party without party decorations? This is where you should let your imagination go wild! I suggest stone- flecking your walls with those nifty little spray cans you can purchase at most craft stores.

Oh, very well. If you must have something easier, then so be it.

As RPG host, you have two decorating choices: Make an Effort or Easy Cleanup. Which you prefer will undoubtedly depend largely on how often you host games, how many people you can rely on to help you clean up afterward, and how much you trust your gaming friends around your good stuff.

For Make an Effort decoration, you will be working to capture your game's ambiance. If, for example, you are hosting a fantasy RPG, you might pull out your heavy glass beer mugs to serve drinks in, drape the sofa or chairs with velvet blankets, set your good brocade holiday table runner across the table, and set out a few candles in heavy brass candlesticks.

For a science-fiction RPG, you might serve drinks in clear plastic or colored aluminum cups, cover the furniture with sheets so everything is grey, black, or white, and remove everything but your most modern-looking chrome objects d'art. You may choose to be as classy or cheesy as you want and/or can afford to be.

The drawback to Make an Effort decoration, of course, is that it takes time and effort, requires ownership of at least some props, and will need to be cleaned up after the game.

For Easy Cleanup decoration, you're going to try to catch the mood in the easiest way possible. The fastest way to do this is to stop by the local party store and buy paper plates and cups in a suitable color or design for the type of RPG you're running.

Yup, Cinderella for your fantasy RPG, little rocket ships for your science fiction RPG, Halloween stuff for your horror game. Party hats and noisemakers are optional.

The best part about Easy Cleanup is that you can throw away the cheap plastic or paper plates, cups, and flatware afterward, to avoid another round of Cleaning House.

Food and Drink

A good party requires good food and drink. Again, some effort must be made to capture the game's ambiance. For a fantasy game, I suggest you buy a roasting turkey, about two pounds per guest.

You people have no interest in working at this, do you? Very well. A proper game requires that the host provide hors d'ouvres in the four basic food groups: Salt, Caffeine, Sugar, and Grease.

Offer some variety here; for example, not everybody will enjoy Cheetos. Provide some Sour Cream and Onion Doritos, too. Red Vines are perennial favorites, as is anything containing chocolate.

An older gaming group might tolerate a bowl of grapes or a plate of carrot sticks and dip, but don't overdo the healthy stuff - unlike the chips and candy, if these items don't get eaten, they won't last in the cupboard until the next game.

Drinks should come in combinations of Sugar, Sugarless, Caffeine, and Caffeine-less, unless you are absolutely certain what your guests drink and can cater specifically to their preferences. I have found as a general rule that the more women and the older the group, the more likely that there will be a request for sugarless and caffeine-free drinks.

The party host serves alcoholic beverages at his or her own risk - keep in mind the age of your guests, their likelihood of getting into a crash on their way home if they drink, and how much damage they may wreak on your house after a few beers on top of all that sugar and caffeine.

Don't overlook Kool-Aid! Red is essential to those vampire/goth games (it stains lips and tongues so well), and blue or green are excellent science-fiction colors. Plus, Kool-Aid is cheap and plentiful. Tang works well for sci-fi games, too.

If you wish to exert some effort, choose snacks that reflect the game. Gummy treats come in shapes to suit any gaming need; Old West games require BBQ-flavor chips; and cyberpunk games are nothing without Mountain Dew and Jolt and Pop Rocks.

For those running Call of Cthulhu or other games involving twisted and strange events, I suggest ambling through the fruit and vegetable section of the grocery store for snack ideas. Lychees, cheremoya, baby eggplant, blood oranges - there are all sorts of weird-looking fruits and veggies in those aisles that you could use as a centerpiece for a horror game. Heck, lima beans alone would be enough to send some people screaming.

For actual dining, a good host should offer an array of menus from restaurants and pizzerias that deliver in the area. Etiquette demands that the host make the call (since the host knows how to give directions to the house or apartment), but that everybody pitch in for their share of food and the tip. Don't forget the tip. Those poor saps are working hard for their money while you're sitting on your butt gaming, after all.

Should the host decide to cook for the group, food that captures the flavor of the game is best - roast beast for a fantasy game, jambalaya for the gothic New Orleans horror game, nuke'n'puke TV dinners for the cyberpunk game.

Cooking should not be permitted to interfere with the flow of the game, although in extreme cases, such as when one is elbow-deep inside a turkey while stuffing it, cooks may politely request somebody else make a die roll for them.

The host is not obliged to check with guests about any eating restrictions such as allergies, religious prohibitions, and so forth, but it is considered polite and may prevent unexpected trips to the hospital from disturbing the game flow.

In general, however, it is the guest's responsibility to protect his or her own life or eternal soul by notifying the host when the invitation is extended.


Music should suit the game's genre and mood and be quiet enough to talk over. Guests should be given some input into music selection, as it isn't fair to argue that your entire K.D. Lang collection is more than suitable for the swords and sorcery game you are hosting.

During the Game

The perfect host will make sure that all of the guests are having fun and eating and drinking well. Gamer hosts, however, may be satisfied with simply drawing a map to the refrigerator and the trash can and letting everybody fend for themselves thereafter.

After the Game

Alas, a hint or two about helping with the dishes or taking out the trash on one's way to the car is enough to make most gamers vanish without a trace. Thus, it is often up to the host to shoulder the post-party clean-up.

The host may wish to go to sleep and deal with the mess in the morning, hoping that perhaps a miracle will occur and spouses, children, or roommates will magically whisk everything away overnight.

Hosts with money may wish to make a follow-up appointment with the Merry Maids they hired for the pre-party cleanup. Others will simply need to follow step one - Cleaning House - all over again.

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Expeditious Retreat Press at Gen Con Indy

Expeditious Retreat Press is making its annual trek to Indianapolis for Gen Con! Come join us in the hilarity! We'll be at booth 511 with copies of our books for sale, including any remaining MMSWE hardbacks still in stock.

Stop by, say hi, & get ready for the best 4 days in gaming!

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Readers' Tips Of The Week: 

Have some GM advice you'd like to share? E-mail it to - thanks!

1. Campaign Cartographer 

From: Chris Heismann


I just read through your map tips, and I think you might be missing the GM's best mapping tool out there: Campaign Cartographer by Profantasy software.

Using CC, I can make highly detailed GM maps, and then selectively print what the players need - without the details that can get in the way. Overlays and different versions are easy to create without a lot of redrawing, and techniques like changing the grid alignments (as per your suggestion) are very easy to accomplish.

But the best part of using CC for me is I have gradually compiled an atlas of my roleplaying world that is easily organized on the computer.

I have a major map of my world, and as I need to detail more areas, I simply "break" the appropriate section from the master map and detail it. I've done this in several areas, all the way down to floor plans.

I've also used it with great success in reverse. Due to my GMing style, I often find myself creating a whole locale, or building floor plan on the spur of the moment - usually on a piece of scrap paper, or even a dry erase mat.

To keep things consistent should my players end up in the same location, after every session I use CC to recreate these quick and dirty maps. Since the maps are crude to begin with, it doesn't take very long, and several times providing further detail to these maps has actually inspired new story and adventure ideas.

Check out the demo at to get a better feel for the program.

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2. Switch Your Binders For Web Pages 

From: Clint Shulenski

One very easy tip for binders is to build a web page.

I used to use a four volume GM binder (one for PC Info, Campaign Info, Current Adventure, and NPCs), but now I've combined all of them into a web page.

This works great for my group as we are all web heads. No matter where we end up playing, we have access to a computer. If we need to look something up, it's just a few clicks away.

Plus, you can usually build a page for free. I use Yahoo, just because it's easy.

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Johnn Four's GM Guide Books 

In addition to writing and publishing this e-zine, I have written several GM tips and advice books to inspire your games and to make GMing easier and fun:

Inns, Taverns, and Restaurants - new

How to design, map, and GM fresh encounters for RPG's most popular locales. Includes campaign and NPC advice as well, plus several generators and tables

Adventure Essentials: Holidays

Advice and tips for designing compelling holidays that not only expand your game world but provide endless natural encounter, adventure, and campaign hooks.

GM Mastery: NPC Essentials

Critically acclaimed and multiple award-winning guide to crafting, roleplaying, and GMing three dimensional NPCs for any game system and genre. This book will make a difference to your GMing.

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