Thursday, April 30, 2015

Don't Roll Them Bones Unless You Mean It!

Previously I shared some details about how to keep your game engaging and dynamic. I think it's about time I get into the nitty-gritty and lay out some of the rules I set at the game table to make sure I follow that core principle. The first one worth mention is of course:

Don't roll the dice unless failure would have a unique and interesting result!

This includes dice rolls made by the players. The basic reasoning behind this is simple: the dice are there to help you add an element of chance to the game. They don't need to be a crutch for game-running, decision making, or keeping players engaged.

Rolling dice too often can hurt your game in a number of ways:
  • It slows down the action.
  • It devalues the impact of the dice results on your game.
  • It places the core of your game on randomness instead of strategy.
  • It adds the potential for failure in cases that may pointlessly disrupt the game.

Automatic Successes and Failures

There are times when a dice roll may be required, but there are also times when automatic success or failure is the most logical choice.

Success should always be automatic when the result is either immaterial or crucial to the progress of the campaign. Sometimes a roll may be made to determine how quickly you find the vital clue that leads you to the next chapter, but it should never incorporate the possibility of not finding the clue at all. Each roll should have a distinct purpose, so rolling five times to find the clue is likely to leave your group bored and frustrated. Many systems use the "take 10" or "take 20" system to avoid this problem (In which you can choose to spend some extra time on certain tasks and automatically complete the task as if you rolled a 10 or a 20.) 

Automatic failure is a trickier matter, and should be implemented carefully. You'll want to use it more sparingly to avoid undue frustration and dead-ends for your players, but it still has its own appropriate time and place. It could be an instance of an obvious goofball move like grappling with an intangible ghost, or simply a contingency the DM has planned for, like a failsafe alarm if the heroes shut down a security system, but some things just can't be avoided. Don't roll dice if the task is impossible, just break the news to the group right then and there.

Being Prepared For Success or Failure

In any case, the roll of the dice should always be associated with two or more results, not a foregone conclusion. Dice rolling, especially rolling in the open, is the one way that action is allowed to take place out of the hands of player and DM, so it should generally be unnecessary to undermine it by vetoing the result. Try to have an idea of the possible outcomes in mind before you call for a roll, not after you realize that a failed spot check has derailed your game. (Same goes for unlikely successes.)

Also keep in mind that failure is not a bad thing! It is necessary for the suspense and challenge of a game campaign. Failure should open up new possibilities for a player just as often as closing them. Dropping to the floor at an enemy's blow, for example, leads in to a chance to roll out of the way of their next attack! And finally, keeping up a brief but evocative narrative of the action, whether provided by the player or DM, will help to keep things from becoming a slog. When the ranger casts out her grappling hook and fails a roll, it doesn't just end with "you fail." She sees the hook pull taught against the ledge, and it pulls loose a rocky outcropping and falls free, dropping a stone on the head of an angry troll beneath that snarls a vicious threat.  The overall aim of all this is to subconsciously convince your players that failure isn't the end, but the source of conflict and drama from which enjoyment is derived. The player should ideally be able to find enjoyment in the unfolding action and gameplay, regardless of a streak of bad luck. The average dice results should not dictate whether or not a player has fun.

Having Fun With Dice and Without Them

But why is it that players and DMs tend to roll dice excessively instead of leaving them for when they are needed? One of the main reasons for this is because it gives the player a sense of active participation in the action, more so than the abstract description of their character's actions. Being able to do something with your hands and crunch the numbers of a roll is stimulating and attention grabbing, whether it is relevant or not. Additionally, some pragmatic players prefer tossing the bones to detailed role playing or storytelling and it is their way of amusing themselves to pass the time.

Rather than punishing the players for this habit, which wastes time and possibly disrupts the campaign (A character who keeps making dexterity rolls and falling over their own feet, for instance) Your group should remember to include alternative methods to provide the same feeling of interactivity. Miniatures and maps are a start, kept within reach of the players so that they can move their avatar around to represent their actions. Tokens like FATE's fate points or Savage World's bennies provide an in-game economy built around player actions that can keep things moving along. Some players might also find taking notes or modifying character sheets a useful way to track progress and stay engaged with the game. Whatever makes your players feel involved is great!

The players are of course always free to have fun rolling dice whenever they please as long as it is not disruptive. There's never anything wrong with a joke roll to determine a character's current desert cravings or feelings about jazz music. But if it comes down to rolls called by the DM, dice being used to affect the outcome or continuity of the campaign, be concentious, be prepared for any result, and make it count!

To be continued...

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Dynamic Game Mastery Is More Fun!

Image by Scott Murphy for Wizards of the Coast

If there is any one word I would use to describe a fun and engaging tabletop experience, that word would be 'dynamic.' A really memorable game will have a sense of progress that doesn't slow down or stagnate, because it has the active guidance of a master storyteller at its helm.

Lessons Learned From Dungeon World

I have played and experimented with a lot of different tabletop RPG systems, and each one had its own strengths and weaknesses which taught me lessons that could be applied to any of the other systems. Dungeon World is the game system that really drives home the true nature of the DM's role at the game table. Instead of allotting turns to NPCs, Dungeon World lets the game-runner perform "DM Moves" whenever a player fails a roll. The move is up to the DM, but it could be allowing a goblin to close the distance to its target, activating a trap, putting an NPC in mortal peril, or anything else that drives the action and opens up new possibilities.

This concept can be applied to any game, and improves the way a game is run by changing your way of thinking about it. Every decision you make behind the screen is more than just a numerical value, or pre-set choice between two options. It is an organic tapestry of tactical and story-based decisions driven by your own creativity. Let yourself think of the reason behind every action you take as DM, and remember what people want from the game: fun, excitement, and the ability to make choices that matter.

This means you have a framework to build encounters around as well... terrain hazards, enemies, unexpected threats, these are all part of your toolbox and you are free to implement them as needed. If an encounter seems tedious or starts to drag, think of ways you can make your "DM move" next. What can you add or subtract from the scene to make it interesting? How can you present more challenges and possibilities to your players? Think beyond the basics and ask yourself what will make things fun for your group.

Crafting a Universe of Adventure!

This fluid way of thinking is the best way to improve your overall technique behind the screen. As you challenge yourself to think outside the box and keep things moving, you will get better at running games that are much more memorable. At the end of the day, players will get more enjoyment out of a fight that resulted in a boat chase, a fall out a window, and an ally turned enemy than if that same encounter had been a rote battle against a gang of minions in an empty warehouse.

As you get better at identifying what works well for your group, the dynamic style will become much easier. Just remember that each element you add to an encounter should prompt some sort of action and response on the part of the player. When running a dynamic game, the DM should always engage his audience, frequently asking the classic question "What do you do now?" Your players will become just as fast on that feet as you, and their decisions will sometimes challenge you just as much as the other way around!

To be continued!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Pixar's Rules of Storytelling

The classic four-man adventuring party (plus baby)
These storytelling tools from Pixar represent the kind of narrative techniques I encourage when I run games. Follow these principles to give your players something to care strongly about, or give yourself a boost of inspiration if you are a player yourself.

(Although the part about planning your story's ending does require some flexibility when it comes to cooperative storytelling.)


"#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes. 
#2: [DM advice] You gotta keep in mind what's interesting to you as an audience, not what's fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You'll feel like you're losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

#9: When you're stuck, make a list of what WOULDN'T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you'll never share it with anyone. [In the case of gaming, this means share it with the group. don't sit on an idea waiting for the perfect moment. More good ideas will come, but you need to use it or lose it.]

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it's poison to the audience. (How does your character feel about something? 'I dunno' isn't a real answer)

#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What's the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That's the heart of it.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don't succeed? Stack the odds against them.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it's not working, let go and move on - it'll come back around to be useful later.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can't just write ‘cool'. What would make YOU act that way?

#22: What's the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there."

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Player Expectations

"This isn't what I thought it would be"
There are a wide range of tastes and preferences among any group of individuals, and when it comes to RPG players, they are no exception. Knowing your audience and being clear about what your game is going to be is another way to put the principle of "DMpathy" into action. No tabletop campaign is the same as another, and if you give your friends the kind of game experience they like best, you will get the best out of them in return.

It is always a good idea to start any campaign with a discussion of what the players can expect. The discussion usually starts with the "elevator pitch" I have mentioned previously that sums up the basic concept of the campaign and some of the creative aspects you will include. But there are a few more fine details to consider before dropping the party into your newly created game world. These details will also help you decide which game system is right for the kind of game you are planning. If you already have a handle on what your group is into, great! If not, here are some important things to think about.

Tactical vs. Narrative Gaming

This is the first spectrum of gaming tastes your group is going to land on. Not everybody has to have the same preference to have a good time, and the most fun games are a combination of both, but it is important to know just what your group generally enjoys so you don't unbalance the game with a play style that they find tedious or annoying.

Tactical gaming is the type of game for players who want to overcome challenges. It is supported best by systems with very developed game mechanics. For best results you need quick thinking, organized notes, and some mathematical know-how doesn't hurt! I often compare this to the genre of tabletop play known as war games. It requires strategies, critical thinking, and solid design but provides a dynamic challenge for the competitive player.

On the other hand, some people just want to share the creative story-telling aspect of the game. Sometimes these have been called "Story-gamers" because they care little for the mechanics of the game rules and more for the tales they weave. This is the more 'cinematic' style, because it is more about the fast resolution of combat than the intricacies of the fight. But in the end there is a place for both elements at the gaming table. Finding the "sweet spot" of balance between the two is always worth the effort.

Setting and Genre

Your pitch should cover the main theme of the game you want to run, and give an idea of what genres of fiction your group will explore. It is important to be forthcoming about this, as it is one of the primary attractions to the game. Fighting the galactic empire or delving goblin-filled caverns may both be fantastical adventures, but are very different settings that appeal to different tastes and sensibilities. Mash-ups of multiple genres are excellent ways to spice things up and appeal to a wide audience, but that's not something to spring on your players unexpectedly. Sometimes it can work well, like chocolate and peanut butter. Other times it is more like peanut butter and mustard. Know the material you are attempting to blend and ask your players if it sounds good before you start remixing a setting like this.
Typical genre mash-up... cowboys in spaaaace

The Tone of the Game

The tone of the game is something that should be settled upon before things get started, but it is not set in stone. The tone of your game defines its 'flavor' and every player has a preference. Lighter and more humorous games are popular among people looking to hang out and have fun (this is called 'beer and pretzels' gaming after some of the most popular snacks.) On the other hand, some people like to get invested in the dramatic tension of the game like a good movie or TV show. Whether you choose to take a goofy or a serious tone, make sure all your players are on board and willing before you start the game, rather than making it an issue during the session.

Every game also needs an agreed-upon scale to balance realism and the fantastic. Is your action wild and frenetic like a John Woo flick or a pulpy adventure novel? Or is it gritty and realistic like Saving Private Ryan or a historical novel?  The players should also know what kind of power levels to expect. A magical realm could be inhabited by anything from magical fighters locking blades to god-like titans destroying mountains, so it is time to get specific.

The mortal dangers of the characters are another thing to consider. I will address lethality in gaming in a future entry, but for now just note that players should be aware of how brutal your game is going to be for their characters. Typically a player does not want to spend an hour conceiving the intricate backstory for an elven ranger raised by dwarves in a volcanic cavern just to get killed in the first passageway of your apocalyptic mega-dungeon. It's always better if your players know what they are signing up for so they can plan accordingly.

Lastly, there is the detail of adult situations. If you are playing with younger players this should be a no-brainer, but even adult players don't always agree on matters of violent or sexual content. Be sure you establish boundaries of what kind of behavior your posse is okay with. I like to use the old-fashioned movie rating system as a guideline, with statements like "This game is typically PG-13 in terms of mature content, but the players can use whatever four letter words they want." If your group isn't concerned about the content that's fine, as long as you know they are comfortable.

Making Sacrifices

Lastly, it bears repeating that if your gaming group is opposed to the concept of a game, don't force it on them. As much as you may want to run a certain type of game, it will be fun for nobody if your players don't feel like playing. Find out what they want to do, and identify shared interests that you would like to explore. Remember this previous entry about how you are writing and crafting encounters for the love of the game not just for your personal tastes. Once you and your players know it's the kind of game that you can all enjoy, that fun will start to spread across the game table. When you care about your players, they care about you. That's DMpathy!

Happy ventures!


-In which setting and genre will this game be classified?
-Will the gameplay be very tactical (rules-heavy) or cinematic (story-heavy)?
- Is the game going to take a light and comedic tone, or something dark and dramatic?
-Should the players expect realistic action or something much more fantastic?
-Are the characters at very high risk of mortality? How final is death in this game?
-What kind of adult content or situations should be expected?

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Adventuring Gear: The DM Screen

If you are a first-time player, or are testing a new game system, you might not need a DM screen right away. A propped-up book with some post-it notes could work just fine. But eventually you will want to invest in this essential tool that is a classic icon of the hobby.

image from

When purchasing a screen for your game, there are a number of things you want to consider. 
  • The screen should be unobtrusive, taking up exactly as much space as you need for your game mastering workspace while still concealing it effectively to keep notes and dice rolls hidden.
  • The screen should contain any information that you will be consulting on a regular basis, the most important quick references and tables to keep things running smoothly
  • The screen should have pleasing art or aesthetic design that fits the game you are running. It takes up a big chunk of space and your players are going to be staring at it for hours, you might as well make it look pretty.
(For more ways to use your screen, check out this article from Role Playing Tips.)

My number one piece of advice? If you are going to run more than one kind of game, get yourself a universal screen. These are screens that you can insert your own pages into as standard 8.5"/11" printer paper or card stock. There are two really good options out there, and either one could work well based on your preference and space limitations.

The Savage Worlds Screen  (3 panels, this is what I use. I like to keep my work area tight and organized)
DrivethruRPG Landscape Screen (4 panels, a rad premium option.)

You also may consider getting one of these general options instead of an official screen. Some screens sold as official published materials just don't have the best choices for what content to include. After all, every game-runner has their own style and may need certain tables or content that isn't included. I recommend previewing the DM side of any screen before purchase to find out if it will really be useful to you. I have my own custom Mutants and Masterminds screen that has actually saved whole campaigns by keeping things streamlined and fast-paced.

Tricking out and 'hacking' your screen is a fun and resourceful way to maximize its utility. Don't waste any space! With scotch tape paper and pen you can add flaps, side panels, and even include information on the player side if they want it. If it is something that you might have to consult frequently, don't waste time flipping through the book. Have it on hand. My Dungeons and Dragons screens are like this, and it is nice to know the information is literally at my fingertips.

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Now Playing: Welcome to Night Vale (Part 2)

This is part two of a series on tabletop games inspired by the podcast Welcome to Night Vale. Part one can be found here.

The game of Night Vale I ran was a one-shot, so it only took about three hours and left very few loose ends.

The Voice of Night Vale

Night Vale is best with some weird descriptions and elaborate prose, so I use a lot more detailed notes than most games I run. The story kicks off with the Night Vale theme playing behind an introduction to the mystery. It is important to remember that the Night Vale podcast narrator, Cecil, has the calm and lyrical voice of a public radio host. Night Vale is best when narrated in a similar tone. Speaking so clearly and at a steady pace allows the time to think up more details even as you speak. It also lets you draw out the imagery of each scene, as well as keeping the humor deadpan as it should be (Smirks or giggles would kill the jokes in this setting.)

Here is part of the script for the opening intro:

"The Nightvale Mall has seen a number of disappearances lately, after after opening its doors to early February christmas shoppers. Local residents are reporting that family members have insisted on continuing their bargain-hunting expedition well into the twilight years of their lives, as their bodies and minds wither away and the last bags of i-pods, fancy wristwatches and collectible ceramic figurines of kittens fall from their cold dead hands. Attempts to retrieve their loved ones have been unsuccessful, and resulted in the disappearance of the searchers themselves."

Assembling The Cast

Just your average accounting office employee

All of my Night Vale games put players in the role of members of the Historical Society, which allows a pseudo-explanation for their investigation into the bizarre affairs of the community.

The players start in the shopping mall and can't leave. The revolving doors defy time and space and take them right back into the building. This kind of limitation is not something I usually do, but I had already worked it out with my players that this would be a one-shot inside a mall, not all over town.

My players get a chance to introduce their characters, but of course their characters are already acquainted with each other through the society. The team consists of:
  • A baseball player who sees the ghosts of dead world leaders
  • A park ranger who randomly appears where he shouldn't
  • A scientist with mystic runes tattooed across his body (A poor choice he made in college)
  • A library page who can speed read fast enough to break the time barrier, reading things in the past and future.
Telling The Story

The nearly abandoned shopping mall bears immediate clues about its true nature, signs relating to Strexcorp. This is a sinister corporation from a neighboring town that is known for its sanitized consumerism as much as Night Vale is for its sense of community values. I included Strex promotions all over the mall, which I stole shamelessly from Veridian Dynamics, the unscrupulous employers of the underrated sitcom Better Off Ted.

Photo by The Caldor Rainbow
"Cheerful Female Voice: StrexCorp. Doing the right thing. It's important. What does it mean in business? We have no idea. We know what wrong is. Actually, no, we don't. Because we're a successful company, not some boring ethics professor. StrexCorp. Right and Wrong. It means something. We just don't know what." 

The shopping mall holds a personal appeal to me, as I love the idea of eerily abandoned urban areas. It's also a bit of an homage to the Dead Rising video games. In this mall, songs like Frosty the Snowman and Deck The Halls play constantly, with haunting record skips and reversals. The story that will eventually unfold involves the sale of defective blood stones which cause the "politically non-threatening secular holiday music playlist" to become sentient and lock down the building. It brainwashes the customers into "bargain zombies" and fills the building with its music and mesmerizing static.

Speaking of music, that is another aspect to this setting that is important. As an ambient soundtrack, I recommend very low-key electronica playlist of artists like Disparition, the composer/performer of the series' theme. And when you reach a mid-point intermission in your game, be sure to present "The weather" and play a particularly relaxing song. (A little inside joke for Night Vale fans.)

I will post some final thoughts on this particular game soon. Happy Ventures!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Adventuring Gear: Timekeeping Tools

A chess clock can be a useful tool for tracking turn length, albeit a pricey one.

Running On Time

Nobody should feel rushed when gathered around the game table. It's a time to relax and take it easy, to escape from the pressures and demands of the day-to-day into a fiction shared with good friends. Jokes are to be told, roles are to be acted out as you feel, and there isn't any particular pressure to 'win' the campaign within a time limit.

But there are times when some players will move at a different pace than others, and the campaign comes to a grinding halt. When trying to determine whether this is happening, one should remember that (in general) the players set the pace and the DM guides them based on what they are most comfortable with. If they are fine with preparing their plans carefully ahead of time, so be it. Only limit their time to add the challenge of a ticking clock scenario, the added drama of flying by the seat of the pants... don't push them because you're getting bored or annoyed. I always use these lulls in the action to my advantage. This is when I either take a bathroom break or review my notes and references. Better to use the natural ebbs and flows of the game to keep yourself on the ball than to have to call your own time out later.

The DM's part in pacing is to determine when the group has wrung the value from a scene and is ready to move on, then provide the opportunity. You are guiding the game forward, not forcing it.

The Basics

The first tool for keeping track of pacing is of course a clock. A wristwatch is an easy solution, though you may want to take it off and place it somewhere in your work-space and field of view, so it is easier to keep track. 

The "Buzzer"

The next tool is less of a time-keeper and more of an attention-getter, but its purpose is to help move things along, so I still include it on this list. A metal bell like this one is invaluable to your games if used properly. By establishing the 'ding' as a sign that you need everyone's full attention, you can bypass the awkwardness of trying to interrupt or yell across the table when a couple of players have started to get bogged down.  

The Countdown

A nifty addition or encounters and combat is a countdown device, like an egg timer or an hourglass. A countdown  application for your smart phone works best, and many phones come pre-loaded with one. I find this is a must for large groups and tactic-heavy games. Players will often take more time than they need to to think out every move, and it can hurt the overall enjoyment of a game when it takes two hours to fight a pair of goblins. 

By reducing turn time to a reasonable limit, you prevent any single player from bringing things to a halt. It also helps to encourage players to think about options for their move while their team-mates are making their own. Finally, it keeps things compelling and exciting rather than drawn out and excruciating. Rather than having a timer that starts at the beginning of each turn, I like to do this... after a minute or so has passed without the player finishing their turn, politely inform them that the clock is ticking (for their character, that is) and then start a timer of 15-30 seconds or so. This way the players don't feel like the time limits are over-bearing or obnoxious. As always, you want to keep things at a pace that the group as a whole enjoys.

Happy Ventures!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Don't Be A Player Hater

Don't be this guy just to prove a point 
So your players have completely derailed your campaign. They refused to follow your carefully laid plans, took the worst options for every key decision point, and mouthed off to all the NPCs. Now it is time for payback, time to show them who is boss. Spare the rod and spoil the child, they say. The gloves are coming off.


This is breaking one of the golden rules of gaming that is included in any number of published resources. Do not 'punish' your players!

Instead think: what brought you here? What happened to cause you to view your players as your adversary, or your children? That's the first step to finding the right way to resolve this situation without leaving hurt feelings or worse.

Often a disastrous game is the result of unclear communication. This can be a problem caused by you as well as the players. As a player, I have been guilty of not paying the attention I should. In one memorable case, after encountering a ledge overlooking some rocky paths, I said that my kung-fu master would hop down the side of it to get to the paths below. What I had failed to hear was the actual height of the precipice, making it a drop of hundreds of feet, clearly lethal!

The DM in this case pointed this out, and then asked me if I still wanted to jump to my doom. Surely not! This example showcases a key point about communication.

Don't say 'no,' but make sure the player knows the consequences of their actions when those consequences would be obvious to their character.

The players don't have a psychic bond with you, nor do they have the same vivid perspective that their fictional character would in the scenario you present. Take whatever time you need to sort things out. Use their character as the key to communicating the relevant facts. Here are some examples of things that are important to communicate before your players take action:

  • As you move to attack this orc, you notice that he is smiling and waving and you remember that many of the peaceful farmers in the area are goblinoids. Do you still want to attack?
  • The sign on airplane door says 'emergency exit' and cabin depressurization might be fatal for you. Do you really want to pop it open at this altitude?
  • Breaking the crown prince's arm will certainly incite an international conflict. Are you sure you are ready for that?

Don't try to trick your players into making a mistake by leaving out information. If they missed a vital clue, all the better to spring a surprise upon them, but remember that surprises are for fun and challenge, not retribution or stroking your own ego. And don't do XP and gold penalties. That's just petty.

This is happening because you took the idol. Of course it would be booby-trapped. Fly, you fool!
Finally, keep in mind that logical consequences for actions are not punishment. If the player tried to defeat a fire elemental with a bear hug and no asbestos, the burns they receive are not 'punishment' but a logical consequence of the action. The players should have the feeling that their actions have a rational cause-and-effect and above all be ready to deal with those consequences. And of course, no complication or consequence should lead to a dead end. Each development paves the way to take the story in a new direction.

It might not always be easy, but setting off the trap, getting arrested by the sheriff, or losing the Stone of Destiny can always be turned into the catalyst for a new adventure! Don't let the game stagnate. Present opportunities for the players to move forward.

To avoid some of these problems remember to talk ahead of time about what to expect from the game, and make sure that you and your players are on the same page. Perhaps your players are attacking everything that moves because they wanted to play something more combat-centric or maybe they aren't following the main plot because they wanted a more free-form story. Remember that communication is the key.

Happy ventures!

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Assigned Seating at Game Night

Lord Vader knows to keep his trusted partner at his side, and the guy he needs to force choke within easy reach.

Assigned seating may seem stuffy, but having a place at the game table can be quite inclusive and provide a better experience for everyone. The name tags I showed before should be used to remember a player's seat during bathroom breaks, but having them set up ahead of time also shows that everyone has a place prepared and to put people close to where they need to be for convenience and ease of play.

The terrific Dungeon Masters Guide 2 from Wizards of the Coast offers specific advice for seating arrangement of specific player types. I won't go into all the details here, but that book is a wealth of useful information and techniques for use with any game. The gist of it is:
  • Put players who instigate encounters and ask a lot of questions next to you, so they can have clear and easy communication with you.
  • Place actors and storytellers across from you, so they can make better eye contact, and they can spread the energy and enthusiasm across the table.
  • Set quiet players near the more involved participants and it will help to keep them engaged.
  • Have the tactical, war-game types, and the explorers sit with easiest access to the map, tokens, miniatures and visual representation of the action.
Your best seating situation will depend on your group, but I have a few of my own bullet points to add:

  • If you have players who tend to split off and create distractions, don't seat them together. You don't want your game night to break down into cliques, everybody should be able to enjoy the company of the whole group.
  • Place new players near yourself or someone they are comfortable with. Make sure they are near someone who can teach the game.
  • Don't force the players to sit somewhere if they don't feel comfortable. It's still just a game and you aren't the Grand Emperor. As long as people are happy, that's what matters.
Happy ventures!