Since I moved a couple of years ago, I have dedicated the larger bedroom at my new apartment to the purpose of being a game-room/library, and it’s there that the bulk of my gaming now takes place. My location is conveniently close to snack shops and several sources of takeaway food, and the players have to pass several more on their way here, so we are well catered-for. If there was more/better parking available, all my games would probably take place there for one simple reason: It’s quiet.
But once a month, I co-GM the Adventurer’s Club campaign, and one of the players uses his own car to get around instead of public transport, and since parking at my apartment is limited, for that campaign I return to where 90% of my GMing took place prior to the move: A game store which offers free facilities for games, and which on any given weekend, has 20 or more CCG games in progress, and at least 1 other RPG campaign (sometimes 2 or 3), all in a relatively crowded space the size of a typical classroom. Crowding 100-120 people into a space that small (including hangers-on and kibitzers) makes for a particularly challenging gaming environment.
I’ve seen games being run at conventions a number of times, both in person and in photographs, and each game has at least 50% more space in the typical con games-room. On one occasion, we were reduced to playing one RPG at one end of a 12-foot table and another at the far end, but things are rarely that confined. It’s a far cry from our previous facilities, where we had one, perhaps two games at most, in each of a number of individual rooms, and it’s an arrangement that has given me some pointed lessons in how to game in a crowded, noisy setting. Today’s article is to share some of the secrets and techniques that I have gleaned over several years of gaming in that crowded environment.
Use Two Tables if you can
Most of the tables that are good for CCG games are longer and narrower than the typical kitchen/dining-room table. Two tables side-by-side make an effective table-space that is closer to square and which leaves room in the centre of the table for maps, game props, etc. Without this measure, there’s no space for these items without making spaces by reducing the number of players.
The shortest distance between players and GMs is the right distance
There are usually several different arrangements of seating possible. Having tried just about all of them, I can state unequivocally that reducing distance from GM to players to an absolute minimum is the most critical need you can face. Just about everything else can and should be compromised to achieve this outcome.
Compromise on Personal Space
In particular, everyone will usually have to compromise on the amount of personal space they have available, because there simply isn’t enough to go around. You don’t have room for a character sheet AND dice AND a rules book AND a soft drink AND a space to actually roll dice. Put the rules book away and have one copy in common at the table. Put the character sheet in front of you and roll dice on it.
There are more physical-environment tips for consideration in another article, The Arcane Implications of Seating at the Game Table.
Compromise on GM Resources
To GM in such narrow confines is challenging, to say the least. The GM will have more resources that he needs to deploy (including the community copy of the rules). Ideally, the GM should have as much space as 2-3 players, and will often STILL feel cramped. To make this work, it will be necessary to compromise on the resources that you bring to the table. You can have a reference library – but it should contain only the items that are likely to be critical. If you don’t bring something that is needed, wing it. Big binders are a no-no, to be avoided wherever possible. Your entire adventure should occupy a single stack of pages. Don’t expect to be able to read it AND take notes or roll dice at the same time. Battlemats and Miniatures are a luxury, to be used only when absolutely necessary; quick hand-drawn maps on a pad, in which players make marks with a pen or pencil to show their positions, take up 1/4 the space.
Expect to have to speak at high volume all day. I can’t speak to anyone else, but my throat is raw and my voice obliterated for two days after a five-to-six hour gaming session. Or, at least, it was until I discovered the wonders of a suitable rehydrating sports drink. The one that I have found most effective by miles is Poweraid Blue aka “Mountain Blast”, but this might not be available (or might have a different formula) elsewhere in the world – so be prepared to experiment until you find one that works for you. Note that other flavors of Poweraid are less effective, and so are other energy drinks that I have tried – so subtle differences can have a big impact.
Sipping such a sports drink (cold) is better than anesthetic throat lozenges or any pharmaceutical sore-through treatments that I have come across.
It probably doesn’t help that I don’t need to use my voice much during the week, so I may be more susceptible to this problem than other GMs. But everyone should benefit to at least some degree.
Exhaustion Is A Factor
Listening closely to what someone else is saying, when in a crowded, noisy situation, is exhausting. Expect your players to get tired. Creativity can suffer, and nerves can fray. Make allowances accordingly.
GMing in such an environment is much harder than playing. It’s easily twice as much work as GMing in a quieter situation, which is already several times as much work as playing. Prepare yourself.
In particular, make sure that you are as well-rested as you can possibly be. It’s often better to skip the last half-hour of game prep the night before in favor of a half-hour’s extra sleep.
A related tip is to avoid caffeinated drinks in the early part of the game session. You can have one before you start to boost alertness, but then no more until at least half-way through the game session; you can build up a short-term tolerance that makes these less effective when you really need them, otherwise. It’s as though you only have so much capacity for chemical stimulation of this sort; so target the periods when you know your energy levels will be flagging.
Finally, allow yourself some wind-down / recuperation time after a game session in a crowded, noisy environment, before operating a motor vehicle. No game is well-served by the GM, or one of the players, being in an auto accident.
A Quiet Place
No matter where you are, there will usually be somewhere that’s quieter than the general noise (rest rooms are not suitable). Make an active effort to find such a place and decompress. Just being in a noisy environment is stressful, and is one of the causes of the exhaustion I was just going on about. When you find your creativity waning, when it becomes an effort to comprehend the quite straightforward question you’ve just been asked, or when events in the game have just taken a left-turn into the unknown, take a break and go to such a place. Heck, I’ve found that even busy street traffic is quieter than the wall of sound produced by a number of simultaneous games.
The reason for this is simple: In an RPG, it’s normal for only one person to speak at once. In a CCG (or any beer-and-pretzels game, for that matter) it’s not unusual for there to be several conversations taking place simultaneously. And there’s an exponential factor involved – the more conversations, the louder each conversationalist has to speak to be heard by the other participants. That in turn requires everyone else to raise their conversation volume. There is a natural tendency for these environments to progress to full volume.
Regular, Longer Breaks
In a quiet gaming environment, I expect to take 5-10 minute breaks every 90-120 minutes. In a crowded environment, just getting up from the table can inconvenience others, so there is a natural tendency to take more infrequent breaks, even though the noise makes the need for these breaks more frequent. Add an extra 5-10 minutes to the break length when you do take them in order to compensate.
Air-Con Calamities: Dress Appropriately
It’s astonishing how much a hundred people in a confined environment can raise the temperature. Adding thermal stress on top of everything else can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, then jumps up and down on it out of sheer malice. T-shirts with light jackets are appropriate attire in a winter situation – with a second, heavier, jacket for when you go back outdoors. As a general rule of thumb, I dress for conditions 8°C (14°F) warmer than the outside temperature, then cover up with as much additional, removable, clothing as may be needed for outside conditions. But that’s for 60+ people – adjust accordingly.
There are times when this overestimates the amount of heat generated, and times when it underestimates it – but it’s a good rule of thumb.
The heat generated by a large group of people puts huge strain on air-conditioning systems, never mind the increased likelyhood that there will be one person in the crowd who is too lazy or forgetful to close the door. Expect the air con to break down and take that into account when choosing your apparel. You can always choose not to take something off, but there’s a limit to how much you can remove in public.
Adjustments In Style: Shorter narrative passages
Writing narrative for reading in silence is quite different to writing narrative for reading aloud. You will take your eyes off the page more often and look elsewhere – at a player, at a die roll, at a notepad, or whatever. If your narrative is in one big block, it can be hard to find exactly where you were up to. For public delivery, then, shorter passages work a lot more effectively. I will sometimes put a tick next to a passage when I’ve read it to make life easier.
Build in more opportunities, brief intervals, for the players to react. This gives you natural break points in your narrative.
Adjustments In Style: Simpler narrative passages
Truncate your vocabulary. Longer words are more easily confused. If you must use them in order to deliver flavor, tone, or mood, put them in a note to the player(s) where they can read them instead of having to interpret some mumble. Instead of saying something like “truncate your vocabulary”, tell the players “he uses longer words but the meaning is ‘use shorter words’”.
Adjustments In Style: Forget Nuanced Delivery
I love using variations in vocal delivery to deliver nuance, mood, and characterization. In a crowded situation, you can forget 90% of that. The simple need to deliver your communications clearly requires greater volume, and that reduces the scope for variation. Expect instead to explicitly state what the mood and characterization are supposed to be. “In a creepy voice, he says…” “He winks seductively and whispers…” “Her voice lisps strangely…”
Adjustments In Style: Overact even more than usual
GMs usually overact a little, just to be sure that the message they are trying to convey is received correctly by the players. Be ready to take it up several notches when in a crowded situation. There is a natural tendency to be more conservative in such situations for a lot of people; learn not to give in to it.
Adjustments In Style: Read More Loudly
Most people, when they are reading something word for word, speak more quietly than when they are actually talking to someone. I attribute this, at least to some extent, to the absence of audio-visual feedback from the people you are speaking to – you’re too busy keeping your eyes on the page. Make a deliberate effort to speak more loudly and more concisely when reading aloud. Presumably, the information is important or it wouldn’t be there in the first place – so treat it accordingly.
My final advice for gaming in a crowded, noisy environment is this: stretch every now and then. It’s normal to be more confined and cramped in such circumstances that you would normally be, and that makes many of the problems addressed by the preceding sections of advice worse. Combat this by occasionally stretching. It doesn’t do much by itself, but it makes everything else just a little bit better, and therefore makes every one of the tips I’ve offered that little bit more important.
The objective is always to have fun
Treat anything that gets in the way of that objective as a problem to be solved. The solutions I’ve offered above might not work in your specific circumstances, or might not be available, so use these as a starting point to finding your own solutions. And if you find anything I haven’t mentioned, feel free to share it in the comments!
On a completely unrelated topic:
Over the last 36 hours Campaign Mastery has received more than 3000 spam comments, all originating from about 25 IP addresses. I doubt that I am the only site being hit in this way, it seems unlikely that Campaign Mastery would be singled out and 3000+ in 36 hours doesn’t seem high enough for me to be the recipient of these spambots exclusive attentions.
I have reluctantly taken the unprecedented step (for me) of blocking access to the site by those IP addresses, and hope that this does not impact any legitimate reader. The owners of the networks in question have been advised of the problem, but after 24 hours had not yet fixed the issue.
I have no reason not to give the networks in question the benefit of the doubt, and so I assume that this is the result of a security violation of those sites. For this reason I am not going to name the sites, provide links to them, or quote the affected IP addresses.
At some future point I will unblock those IP addresses (not saying when) one at a time and see if the deluge resumes – and if it doesn’t work, you can bet that I’ll have unblocked them by the time you read about it all. In the meantime, if you are unable to access Campaign Mastery as usual, this is probably the reason, and you should contact your site hosts / ISP about their security. I do apologize to any user affected.