A few weeks ago, I was contacted by Benoit, a regular reader and occasional commentator here at CM, who has translated a couple of my articles into French for a wider audience. He had noticed an unusual phenomenon during a recent game and was wondering if… well, why don’t I simply quote his email?
In a recent session, I noticed that the place of the gamers around the table was very important. For example, when two players disagree about what to do, the discussion is harder if they speak face to face (as if it was a kind of confrontation) whereas, if they are just on the same side of the table, it is softer.
In another group, I saw I had to put the shyer players next to me so that they can whisper their wishes and not be overwhelmed by more charismatic players who take a broad part of the time of play.
Therefore, I was wondering if, in all your posts, you dealt with that topic of how the place of gamers around the table has an influence on the pace of gaming.
(No, that’s neither myself nor Benoit in the illustration, at least as far as I know. But it’s a scene that would not look out of place at any tabletop game.)
Today’s article will be an expansion of the reply that I sent, because this is a subject of potential interest to a great many GMs, and because I’ve had one or two (hopefully) original thoughts on the subject. Johnn and I had actually discussed this issue with the intent of doing an article on the subject, though I’ll be darned if I can find that discussion despite having email archives that run all the way back to 1993 – so I’ll be starting from scratch. If some of the initial thoughts seem a little elementary, it’s because I’m doing my thinking out loud…
The Significance Of Seating
Where people sit can have an influence over game play that is both profound and subtle. An array of subtle consequences and minor influences battle for supremacy and some cascade into a substantial impact on the emotional states and even the attitudes of the players concerned. This article is going to attempt to take a comprehensive look at the different factors that go into deciding where people sit at the gaming table and how those positions both reinforce existing personality traits and trends and mitigate them – and at least give the GM a greater awareness of the influence these factors can have. I hope I can get through it all in a single article, as I think the discussion will be weakened if I have to split it up! In an attempt to do so, this will be a relatively shallow analysis – I’m striving to be comprehensive, not deep, this time around.
Considerations of Seating Position
The place to start is by asking the question “why do players sit where they do at the gaming table?”
I’m sure that every GM who games with the same players for multiple game sessions will have noticed the phenomenon – and in some cases, may have noticed subtle differences depending on the game that is being played, and the in-game roles of the characters portrayed by the players.
There are more than 19 factors that combine to give an order of preference to the choice of seating location. The most dominant and assertive personality amongst the players will take his preferred seating position, the next most assertive will then take his most-preferred from amongst those that remain, and so on.
1. Shy/Quiet Players
It follows that the player who is quietest and most shy, most introverted, will tend to get shuffled into the least desirable seating location on a regular basis. Since these players tend to be relatively soft-spoken, sometimes having difficulty raising their voice above a whisper, that can make them hard for the GM to hear, and they can often get sidelined within the game – which sometimes means that players and GM don’t get to hear valuable contributions to the discussion. There is a natural temptation for the GM to move such players closer to themselves to encourage communications with that player. This can sometimes work, but it is fraught with potential difficulties.
Firstly, by elevating the shy character out of his position in the pecking order, you can make the player uncomfortable – sometimes to the point where they will leave the game, and frequently to the point of reducing whatever enjoyment they get from the game. Second, by accommodating their personality handicap, you encourage it. Third, by permitting the player to speak softly and still be heard by the GM, you are effectively saying that it’s OK if the other players don’t hear what he has to say, so long as you do.
A better solution is to permit the player his preferred seating, but shine the spotlight in his direction early and often – and insist that he speak up, repeating himself if necessary. Get the player to state his actions before giving the more dominant players any opportunity to make the choice for him – and if it’s an uncustomary direct and responsive action choice (it often won’t be) you can even shade you rulings just a little in his favor to encourage him.
I was an extremely introverted child, and emerging from that took several years and a number of experiences both painful and exhilarating. RPGs completed the transition from shy kid to occasional extravert in far less than a year, thanks to GMs who followed this exact prescription.
A lot of gaming environments are noisy, and very often this factor is not taken into consideration. Some players are more sensitive to noisy environments than others and will tend to place themselves as far from the source of the noise as possible.
Practicality states that the GM should attempt to locate himself in the quietest position at the table. Not only do all the players have to hear more of what he has to say, more often, but he also (generally) has more that has to be said than anyone else – and talking over a lot of noise requires him to raise his voice, which can result in a sore throat and even full-blown laryngitis at the end of a game session. (Hit tip: some of the sports drinks out there, especially the ones designed for tissue rehydration, can MASSIVELY mitigate this effect. I could not GM for more than about 5 hours without a Powerade Blue to preserve my voice – the other flavors don’t seem to work as well, and neither do several of the other leading brands. The flavor name is technically “Mountain Blast” or something like that. It’s way better than a throat lozenge.)
A related question – especially if your player population is aging – is the acuity of their sense of hearing. I have tinnitus in one ear, the legacy of a nasty cold. I don’t want a quiet player to sit on that side. Similarly, some players will have better hearing than others – they should sit further away.
Usually other factors take precedence over this one – which means that you’re stuck with these issues, however they manifest at your table. This effect can easily compound with a tendency to speak quietly – sometimes the “introvert” doesn’t speak up because he can’t hear you properly.
If you game in a public place such as a game store, library, or convention, you will almost certainly have to content with traffic. So long as the accessways are not so narrow that someone has to stand up to let such traffic past, it’s simply another source of noise, and everything that needs to be said was covered in the previous section. As soon as traffic flow reaches the point of disrupting the game, however, it becomes a consideration in its own right.
Practicality, at first blush, suggests that the GM be in the position that is most removed from the traffic; he is the central figure of the game, the person who is involved in every PC conversation, every character action, while quite often this interaction is one-on-one with an individual player – meaning that the game will be disrupted less frequently that way. But there are other considerations, in particular mobility. I have to use a cane, and cannot take the physical stress of repeatedly standing up; the same could be true of anyone at the table. Heck, there is no reason why one of your players can’t be in a wheelchair, or have a leg in a cast! Anyone so affected should NOT be placed in a position near heavy traffic – at least in theory.
But there’s a contradictory factor here – quite frequently, these spaces are the ones with the most empty space around them, and that can make it easier to get up when you have to. In fact, there are so many permutations under this heading that every situation will be different – and moving a table a couple of inches this way or that can make a huge difference. So all I can really do regarding this category is to raise awareness of the issue and leave each individual to prioritize and accommodate the circumstances under which they game.
4. Interactive Space
Players whose characters interact with each other should sit together to facilitate that interaction – but this is rarely a high priority when choosing seating at the table, often to a game’s detriment, as the alternative is speak across the table, making communications more difficult. It means that a player can either face the other player that he is interacting with or the GM – not both.
Why are people left- or right-handed? I don’t know – but its a fact that people usually are, and that this has a lot of influence over their lives in a miriad of subtle ways. For example, when you write, you need space for your elbow; in a confined space, that makes it necessary to twist the body somewhat; and that can force a player who is incorrectly seated to turn away from the GM when doing so. A player’s “work space” will tend to favor their handedness as well, while their “storage space” will favor their off-hand – so a right-handed player will usually place their character sheet to their left and leave space for die rolling, making notes, drawing maps, or consulting rulebooks, in front and slightly to the right. The player occupies an asymmetric space.
People more often look to their hand side than their off-hand side. Correct positioning means that they will be looking at the battlemap or the GM when they do so; incorrect positioning means they will be looking at the walls, the bookcase, the TV, or whatever.
People naturally interact more casually with a person placed at their on-hand side than their off-hand side. They also tend to pay more attention to people placed at that side when they are speaking.
In addition to these direct effects, handedness can therefore interact with the notion of interactive space and other influences in very complex ways. Placing the more dominant player to the off-hand of a less-dominant player when the pair share an interactive space can equalize their respective influences within the interactive space – but can also elevate one player’s degree of interaction with the GM over that of the other, by virtue of Proximity. (Are readers starting to glimpse the complexities of the subject?).
6. GM-Player Interaction
That, of course, brings up the question of GM-Player interactions. If it were possible, the perfect place for the GM to be is in the middle of the table – not the middle of one side, but the exact centre – at least some of the time. That placement doesn’t work (even in theory) when the GM needs to address the entire group. It follows that the perfect table shape for gaming is a horseshoe or Omega symbol. The players sit around the circle (on the outside) and the GM has both the wings for his stuff – he can sit behind them to address the group or move to the centre to deal with one or two players individually.
Now that I’ve dispensed with that particular flight of fancy (though I’ll come back to it later), let’s get practical. There are three considerations concerning proximity to the GM that may play a part in seating arrangements:
- Players who interact more frequently with the GM may need to be closer to the GM;
- Players who are more interested in the game should be closer to the GM;
- Players who need to pass frequent notes to the GM may need to be closer to the GM, especially if the fact that a note has been passed is also to remain a secret.
It’s entirely possible that absolutely none of these factors produce a preferred seating arrangement that agrees with any other.
7. Electrical Constraints
These days, I use a laptop as a GM. So does one and occasionally a second of my players. Unless the table is to be festooned with electrical cables running in every direction and through the mapspace or the personal space being used by all the other players, we need to sit more-or-less adjacent to each other, and close to the outlet.
8. Physical Constraints
Physical constraints can also play a big role in where players sit. You don’t have to give the photo of my deceased friend Stephen (Remembering Stephen Tunnicliff, June 4 2012) to realize that he was a very large man. If a table was large enough for two to a side, he generally needed the end of the table all to himself.
Nor is that the only possible physical constraint – as was suggested under “traffic,” above, anything from wheelchairs to broken legs may have to be accommodated at different times.
I once gamed with a guy with a broken arm and couldn’t pass this point without mentioning that it takes more table space to do things with your off hand when you aren’t used to it – make appropriate allowances when necessary!
Here’s another practical consideration: some players need more space simply because they have more “stuff”. Quite often, only one or two players will be providing rulebooks for the table, for example. And even if you don’t need to run a laptop from an electrical outlet, it still takes up a significant amount of table space.
These considerations alone can dictate how many people can fit along one side of a table.
10. Ease Of Extraction
I also hinted briefly at this consideration when discussing Traffic. Quite simply, some players need to get up from the table more often than others – because of medical conditions, for example. In addition, some GMs prefer to take players aside for private discussions away from the rest of the group – something that is a lot easier if they are in a position with greater ease of extraction. Some characters may require this treatment more frequently than others, or more predictably. If the GM can anticipate it, he will usually want to factor it into the seating arrangements at the table.
11. Access to storage
The GM will generally have greater need to be able to access storage than any of the players, but storage space is generally not evenly distributed around the table – which means that this is a factor in determining the preferred seating position for the GM. And, since a player cannot occupy the same table space as the GM, this inevitably denies a particular table position to the other players.
12. Natural Preference
Some people are uncomfortable with their backs to a doorway or open space, while others prefer it. While those with severe Agoraphobia and Claustrophobia will undoubtedly be receiving treatment and probably not able to attend a game regularly, these – like most conditions – can exist in a range of degrees from extreme to discomfit. Problems of this sort, even in mild form, are very real and may need to be taken into account in determining who sits where.
Another point to consider under this heading is that some players simply like to be able to look the GM in the eye.
13. Positive Game Interaction
Characters who interact with each other or as a team should have their players closer together. This consideration is an outgrowth of “interactive space”, above – but where that item concerned itself with a player interacting with another player, this is all about players being able to interact as a group with the GM and vice-versa. In the Pulp campaign at the moment, the players have divided into two teams – putting the members of those teams side-by-side means that the GMs can more readily speak to both. As I said under “ease of extraction,” if the GM can anticipate it, he will usually want to factor it in.
Another factor that should be taken into consideration is team leadership – if this matters to the internal logic of the campaign (it does in a superhero team, for example, or in an AD&D game where one or two of the characters are nobles), these character’s owners might be better placed right next to the GM.
14. Negative Game Interaction
Sometimes a GM wants to alter the table arrangements to impede “negative interactions”. This can be anything from breaking up cliques, to making it more difficult for two players to conduct side conversations, to simply separating two players with a dispute (for example, a case where one keeps intruding on the “other’s” space).
The problem with this goal is that it sometimes makes matters worse. Side conversations that were quiet murmurs between two players seated side-by-side can become a louder conversation across the table – or (perhaps worse) two side conversations at once, distracting not only the players originally affected but two players who were previously able to pay attention to the GM.
If you’re having a serious problem with negative game/player interactions, rearranging the seating can be a worthwhile experiment – but don’t be afraid to validate the results of that experiment after an hour or two, and further reshuffle things as necessary. Once (back when we had plenty of room), I was even forced to exile one player to a completely separate table to deal with this sort of thing – but I’m not going to name names or go into details of that just at the moment.
15. A caveat
While we’re on the subject, any alteration in seating intended to achieve a positive effect can have the reverse effect under the wrong circumstances – you’re dealing with people, and people are not always predictable. A change intended to reinforce good behavior or mitigate bad behavior can simply place the offender in a position to teach a good player some bad habits.
For that reason, seating positions should never be altered capriciously. Instead, changes should be made with a clear purpose in mind, and GMs should be ready to change the arrangements immediately it becomes clear that this purpose is not being achieved by the change. It can be better to call a ten minute break and rearrange the seating (inducing a temporary disruption within the game) than to have several hours of mid-level continuous disruption while you’re trying to play.
16. Characteristic Sequence
If you’re running an adventure with a lot of combat, you could do worse than to rearrange seating into initiative sequence. If you’re running a detective/analytic adventure, it’s at least worth contemplating putting the players into the sequence of Intelligence score. The advantages should be obvious; with all else being equal, this would be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, as this article has shown quite clearly, all else is definitely not equal.
Through all of this discussion, I’ve been focusing on reasons why people might be seated elsewhere than their “natural” locations – while never addressing the question of why people choose the default seating position they normally occupy. The closest I’ve come was in talking about the most dominant character having first choice, and so on.
Preferred seating positions tend to reflect a blend of player and character psychology. It was the difficulty in trying to assess this element that has delayed the appearance of this article for so long, but at last I think I’ve gotten a handle on it. Consider the diagram to the right.
- Position A is the GM, as the person with the greatest level of authority at the table.
- Position B1, adjacent to the GM, is “The Cooperative Position” – it is conducive to friendly conversation, cooperation, and negotiation.
- Position B2, opposite the GM, is “The Competitive-Defensive Position” – it can either reflect a defensive mindset on the part of the player or a desire to control the game; it reduces the chances of cooperation & collaboration and increases the chances of formality and rivalry. It also promotes an attitude of independence. Proximity to the GM enables direct confrontation or an aura of shared authority if the GM agrees with the player seated here. Don’t be surprised if your most problematic player or rules lawyer chooses this seating position.
- Position B3, beside B2 and as far removed from the GM as possible, is “The Independent Position”. The most extremely independent position, it is more aloof and less confrontational than position B2, though it emphasizes and aggressive level of independence and sense of competition. This is also sometimes described as the “Competitive-Aggressive” position, and if the rules lawyer doesn’t take B2, this is where he will prefer to sit. The difference is that at position B2, the urge is to get the GM to agree, at B3 the urge is to overrule the GM when the player thinks the GM is wrong. However, it is also sometimes chosen by those who would prefer to avoid confrontations of any sort because it is the most removed position from the firing line. I prefer the term “Independent Position” because how the player chooses to exercise that independence is an individual thing.
- Position B4 can be either beside the GM (as shown) or at the opposite end of the table to position B1, and is the “Ally Position”. It enhances agreement between the GM and the player, cooperation, and a united front against positions B2 and B3. However, any tension or disagreement between the GM and this player has an increased propensity to escalate beyond the game and turn nasty.
This behavior is conserved with rotation and reflection – B2 is always opposite the GM, B1 is always at the corner to the GM, B3 is always alongside B2 or at the opposite corner to B1, B4 is whatever’s left. However, there is a bias resulting from handedness – the GM will usually have B1 on his off-side, which means that if both are right-handed, B1 will have the GM to his handed side.
Note that these are preferences based on the existing psychology and attitude of the players concerned – these are the positions they will gravitate toward if left alone to make their own choices, and usually without even thinking about it.
There are a couple of other aspects of seating psychology that are worth mentioning: Sharing a side of the table represents sharing power, and diminishes individual authority, while having one table-side to oneself conveys a subconsciously-perceived air of authority and command.
And yes, there are specialists and consultants who are experts at this kind of thing who work out the seating arrangements for major political functions, White House dinners, etc. This was (deliciously) spoofed in a Yes, Prime Minister episode where someone arranged the seating for dignitaries at an official function alphabetically – “Iran, Israel and Jordan all in the same row – we’ll be in danger of starting World War III” (or something along those lines, I don’t have the exact quote to hand).
18. Behavior Induction
Placing players in specific seating positions can induce a shift towards the psychological traits associated with the position. GMs can seek to reduce the intensity of confrontations with a rules lawyer by placing them in position B1, for example, or can acknowledge his mastery of the game mechanics by placing him at B4 and assuming that he is almost always right in his calls. A shyer character can be placed in positions B2 or B3 and deliberately spotlighted by the GM early and often (B2 is probably preferable, since the player is unlikely to speak up and the GM may forget to engage him within the game if he is not directly in the GMs eye line to act as a reminder).
There are a vast number of possible seating configurations possible. But playing around with seating in an attempt to induce or modify behavior is chancy and often has undesired consequences; it’s better to analyze the existing seating positions after all the other factors listed in this article are accommodated as a guide to the possible psychological impact of the seating position – then making allowances and modifying your tone, and behavior as a GM, accordingly.
The illustration to the right depicts just a few of the possibilities – there are two four-player examples and two five-player examples.
Option 4-1 places the GM at the head of the table and the four players down each side of it. This places both B1 and B3 in Cooperative positions and permits them to ally against B2 and B4 – both of whom are divided by the table.
Option 4-2 gives one entire side of the table to the GM, placing B1 and B2 in weakened Cooperative Positions (proximity to the GM matters). B3 and B4 are both in Competitive-Defensive positions, and the GM can move from one end of the table to the other temporarily to place one in the more negotiation-friendly position (at the price of temporarily emphasizing the independence of the other).
Option 5-1 is essentially the same as 4-1 but with an extra player seated at the end of the table. This creates two “independent” positions but with the right players can work very well, since it encourages alliance between B1 and B2 on one side of the table, B3 and B4 on the other, and inclines B1 and B3 to cooperate/collaborate with the GM while encouraging B2 and B4 to cooperate/collaborate with B5. This is the natural seating arrangement for collaborative meetings, though a power struggle can emerge between the GM and B5 at the far end of the table.
Option 5-2 again gives an entire side of the table to the GM, especially if B1 is right-handed and B5 is left-handed. It places B2, B3, and B4 in clearly subordinate positions to the GM, and virtually eliminates the fully-independent seating position in favor of an additional pair of Competitive-Defensive positions.
19. Size matters
Table size may leave you with little option. I use arrangement 4-1 a lot when gaming at the Games Store because that’s the amount of table space available there. At home I have a much bigger table, and generally use the end of it for storage of game materials, while I adopt a lopsided 4-2 or 5-2 configuration (eliminating the B5 position).
If the table is too large, it is better to reduce the amount of space available than to permit isolationism to occur. To explain what I mean by that, I have to start with a couple of extracts quoted from the Wikipedia Page on Personal Space:
Personal space is the region surrounding a person which they regard as psychologically theirs. Most people value their personal space and feel discomfort, anger, or anxiety when their personal space is encroached. A person’s personal space (and corresponding comfort zone) is highly variable and difficult to measure accurately.
- Intimate distance ranges from touching to about 18 inches (46 cm) apart, and is reserved for lovers, children, as well as close family members and friends, and also pet animals.
- Personal distance begins about an arm’s length away; starting around 18 inches (46 cm) from the person and ending about 4 feet (122 cm) away. This space is used in conversations with friends, to chat with associates, and in group discussions.
- Social distance ranges from 4 to 8 feet (1.2 m – 2.4 m) away from the person and is reserved for strangers, newly formed groups, and new acquaintances.
- Public distance includes anything more than 8 feet (2.4 m) away, and is used for speeches, lectures, and theater. Public distance is essentially that range reserved for larger audiences.
Personal space is highly variable. Those living in densely populated places tend to have a smaller personal space. People make exceptions to, and modify their space requirements. A number of relationships may allow for personal space to be modified and these include familial ties, romantic partners, friendships and close acquaintances where a greater degree of trust and knowledge of a person allows personal space to be modified.
Isolationism occurs when an activity is carried out at a distance greater than that at which it would normally occur. When we see this take place, we often place an imaginary wall between the participants; it is as though they are going through the motions of pretending to have one level of intimacy with each other while actually having the more removed relationship.
The same thing happens in terms of roleplaying collaboration and cooperation when players are seated too far apart – as though the characters were pretending to be a party while they are nothing but chance-met travelling companions. Gaming is a social activity, and that social factor is strained or lost entirely if participants are at Social distances or more removed from each other.
The other extreme is better, but just barely. While it is principally carried on in the imagination, Roleplaying is a Table-top activity, and does require some table space – at the very least, enough to have a rulebook open, a notepad at the ready, and space to roll dice. If that’s all there is, though, players will feel claustrophobic even if not normally so inclined. Continually-bumping elbows will fray even the most even of tempers. If the table – such as a card table – is too small, it is actually better for the players to sit on the floor or on a couch and leave the table exclusively for GM use.
Round Tables – a new headache
People often have the strange notion that the area of control of someone sitting at a table is semicircular. Certainly, the focus of attention is a semicircular area – but books are rectangular and project outward from that focus-of-attention area, as shown by the diagram above. This can cause problems at a round table (or even a shape that is only more or less round, as shown to the right – the areas of each player overlap, which means they are getting in each other’s way, as shown to the right.
A large enough table can avoid this problem, though such tables are rare. A slightly larger table than the one illustrated could satisfactorily seat half the number of players shown (i.e. three); a more rounded table of that size could just about cope with four players and a GM.
How were the areas of attention set in the example?
The right-hand side, inner corner, is as far as the lefthand can reach while seated; the left-hand side, far corner, is as far as the right hand can reach. It’s that simple, really.
New Players – a special case
A lot of the undesirable behavior described above becomes not only acceptable but encouraged when introducing a new player, especially a player who is new to the game system or to roleplaying in general.
It’s often a good idea to partner such players with a more experienced player who can explain the rules as necessary and advise against actions that might be newbie mistakes, for example. This side conversation is not only understandable, it’s desirable – when the alternative is the GM interrupting the game to make those explanations.
It follows that the placement of new players at the table of an existing game requires very careful consideration. You want them close enough to be able to interact with the GM, and with the Mentor chosen – but at the same time, sufficiently distant that quiet side-conversation will not disrupt play. They will probably need to access rule books more often than an experienced player, possibly even more often than the GM. For every scene, location, or individual that the GM mentions or name-checks, there will be a backstory that the new player won’t know – once again, either the GM interrupts the game to explain the context, or relies on another player to do so. At the same time, at least initially, everything the new player does will need to be monitored while he is learning the system – everything from rolling the right dice to applying the right modifiers to finding the right numbers on the character sheet. Correct player seating can make all of this easier and less disruptive, or it can impede both the learning process and gameplay.
There are so many factors to take into account in determining the best seating arrangement that any attempt to preplan a configuration are almost certain to fail. Change one seating position to address one of these factors and you also alter half-a-dozen others, making it practically impossible to predict the outcome.
Prioritizing one factor of special significance can yield an operational plan that will at least enhance the game in that respect. Recognizing that nothing comes without a price tag, at least this article can permit the GM who is willing to experiment (or who has no choice) to analyze the consequences and refine his choices. At least we won’t be working in a state of ignorance!