The Physical Space Of The Game Part 1 – Understanding What The Space Means

A buddy of mine started down the road to GMing for the first time a few months ago. While the games he has been able to run have been very short and thrown together in the minimal spare time that our lives allow, they’ve been great fun and an even greater source of ideas. Watching him go through the trials and tribulations of a newbie GM, and watching his fresh perspective on gaming elements, unmarred by too much engrossment with one particular play style or rules set, is incredible and gives me lots of ideas for articles. The latest game we played impressed one idea on my mind in particular, the importance of the physical space shared between the players and the GM.

The Space Between Players Is Very Much The Space Where The Game Occurs, According To Our Brains
I’m going to get a ‘little’ sciencey with these next few paragraphs, but follow along. They’ll help you think about the process of the game in a much different way. When players and the Game Master sit around a table, or get Untitled-1together to game, they almost always sit facing each other and create a bubble of space in between them all. And this shared space is incredibly important in many ways.

Visually Important
This is shared space of the game, where most players and GMs eyes turn. Whatever ends up here, whatever they see in this area can’t help but modify their thoughts and be added to the miasma of things turning around inside their heads. When we imagine things, especially images, we tend to project them forward into the imaginary space where our eyes would naturally see. Try it. Imagine a large golden dragon with an incredible wingspan flying through the air. Do you feel  your mind positioning that image as if it were right before your eyes. Maybe on a movie screen or just floating. This is because our brains make use of the same processes and pieces of the brain to create images as they do to process images. This alone makes that shared space important. Anything placed here tends to exist in the same mental space as we imagine things, right before our eyes. That makes this area incredibly important. If it is cluttered with food and non-gaming stuff, the immersion gets broken. If everything here pertains to the game world, then the immersion factor is increased in the players’ minds.

Aurally Important
Even though we hear other’s words with our ears, we have a tendency to conceptualize it as coming in a straight line from our mouths. The space where all those words meet is between the players, and that increases its conceptual importance as the space where the “game” lives. Even though players will imagine it in their minds, they tend to envision it as being out “there” between them and the other players. When a person explains the actions of their character, it is somewhat like casting those words into the shared space to make them real. Until they are spoken and merged into that shared space, the actions don’t really happen. The characters don’t really do anything.

Connectively Important
Moreover, each player has his own little nook of books and character sheet on the table (or around it if you aren’t using one) that they consider theirs. Their area, inside their bubble of personal space is the staging ground for everything that happens from their perspective in the game. Their personal space bubbles are gathered around the shared space, and they overlap it. Tactilely, a player waving their hand or moving their mini in the shared space makes a connection between their personal space and the shared space. They push into it and affect the game world with their own bodies, not just their words.

By now you’ve hopefully started thinking about the physical space of the game in a different way. Let’s talk about how to modify that to modify the game going on.

The GM’s Space And How To Use It
Executives have big desks because they take up more space. These desks are also made in such a way as to emphasize the person behind it, promoting their importance and power. A GMs space can do the same thing as well, to positive or ill effect. The GM screen is designed to put a barrier between the players and GM, expand the GMs personal space, and give him a secret area from which to work (something the players don’t have. There are many other things you can do with the GM’s space.

  • Ditch the GM’s screen to be perceived more as one of the players than someone sitting above them. This also fosters a narrative element to the game.
  • Take up more room in your area with solid objects to present a feeling of impenetrability.
  • Raise your chair to sit above the screen and players. This helps present a better aura of control and importance, which helps give your words and descriptions weight.
  • Leave the minis you are going to use (and many that you aren’t) visible in front of the screen to keep the players wondering about what is coming next.
  • Keep many books behind and around you, and in view of the players, to present the fact that you have loads of material you could easily make use of. If these are setting books, this also reinforces your perceived mastery of the game world.
  • Remember, EVERYTHING in your space says something about your position as the GM.

The Players’ Space And How To Use It
The player’s space is more about the actual player inhabiting it than what it projects into the shared space. Everything here will be reflective of the player themself and t heir character. Use this area to reinforce player concepts and to help the players stay in character.

  • The more organized It Is, the more focused the player will be. Provide folders for each of them to keep their characters in and to keep their incidentals in. If too many things are just laying cluttered about in their personal space, the player tends to get distracted.
  • Ask each person to provide a small prop, one that is representative of the character and non wearable, that they keep in front of them on the table. This will help them refocus into character when they look at it.
  • Nametags and pictures set before each player will help others deal with characters, not players when they game.
  • Making sure each player has a dedicated mini that decently represents their character will give them something to focus on. Getting in the habit of taking the mini off the map and back into their space when it is no longer needed on the map will reinforce the tactile connection to the mini and will make them feel more as if they are speaking through it when it is in their personal space. Placing it out into the shared space again will reinforce their connection with it.

The Shared Space And How To Use It
We’ve already talked about the shared space and how important it is, so lets get right into the nitty gritty with things you can do to manipulate it.

  • Having anything representative of the game world in this space will increase immersion. ANYTHING, so long as it is representative of the game world. More on this in the next article.
  • Maps of areas, even during non combat encounters, will keep players minds focused on the terrain and spark their minds for ways to do things with the terrain.
  • The more 3D the shared space is, the better. Minis and other 3D effects in the shared space will engage different parts of the visual cortex and increase how the players think about the game world.
  • Physical props on a 1:1 scale (an actual cup to represent the chalice they are searching for, an actual letter that they find) will make the players engage the game world on a more 1:1 scale. Seeing the cup in front of them, and even picking it up and maneuvering it) will help them visualize the Orc or Alien they fight 10 minutes later at an actual 1:1 size. That is, until you bring out the mini for it….
  • Switching from 1:1 scale to a much smaller 1:64 or 1:100 scale will break the 1:1 mentality. Once the minis are placed, they will make the game world seem like an encapsulated bubble in front of the players. Give descriptions of things BEFORE you place the map out front.

Some of these ideas will work better with visual and tactile based people, but they are inherent to the ways that all of our minds work. Manipulating this perception of the physical space manipulates the perception of the game world being built inside the players’ heads. These are all tricks of basic perceptive psychology, but they really work on a fundamental level when implemented. Try some at your next game and see how it changes the way the game goes. Enforce a no pop on the table rule, or put a riser under the map to keep it up off the table and see how it changes the game. The advice mentioned above is just what I could think of while writing this article. There are many more perceptive space tricks that can be used in this way. So what ones do you instinctively use at your table? What physical space tricks help you run a great game?

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John Arcadian is a writer, gamer, art director, web designer, crafter, and kilt-wearer. You can find more of his writings on gaming over at For web-design projects, check out
  1. Rafe     | Reply

    Great food for thought. I love examinations of the social elements of gaming. Sometimes all it takes is a poor table layout to have a poor game. Hell, even just having a beer bottle on the table can mess with the shared space… or it can improve it, group depending!

    Again, cool stuff. Looking forward to the sequel(s) to this.

  2. evil     | Reply

    I’ve never been a fan of using the space for psychological tricks to cow my gamers. Normally I keep my area (the GM area) fairly open, or if I use a screen I keep it off to my left (I’m a southpaw). I do tend to use multiple vertical layers, though. Our tactical board is raised a few inches, with minis that are a couple inches tall, plus add on buildings and terrain that stand even taller. This helps make the action the center stage; it also becomes a place for maps or shared notes when not in combat.

  3. John Arcadian - Post Author     | Reply

    @Rafe – Glad you liked it. I’ve got at least two others in the series, but will probably do a few more after that if I get inspired again. There are so many ancillary things to the actual game that affect the gaming experience, and they always pique my interest.

    @evil – I hope the article didn’t come across as using the physical space to cow the gamers. There is a lot to be said for physical terrain. Having it, and making sure it is 3D, changes the dynamics of the space at the table. The next article in the series talks about it lack of 3D terrain and came straight out of an impromptu game experience.

  4. Bercilac     | Reply

    Hi John,

    First of all, best of luck to your friend! The idea of “green but creative” makes a lot of sense to me. A friend of my father’s is a (now-retired) mathematician. He said once that he rarely reads the literature before he embarks a problem. Sometimes, if he comes up with a solution, he finds he’s re-invented the wheel. But sometimes he avoids getting stuck in the same ruts that have kept other people from solving it.

    I liked the style of this article, and would love to see more like it (very pleased you’re planning a series around this theme). While I really enjoy a lot of the articles on the stew discussing practical suggestions, it seems like a worthwhile exercise to step back from the chair and say “So what are we doing here? Really?”

    Anyway, here are a few issues I think this essay raises. As you have a few more articles to write on the subject, perhaps these will be issues you’re interested in exploring.

    Restricting space: what do you do if you have a less-than-ideal playing space? Or even if you’re playing online? How do you organise a shared space space? Or in anthropologese, is there a bare minimum for the symbolic ordering of space?

    Defining a symbol: what makes a sign a sign? For instance, I have a symbol for a “dragon” that has to correspond to the imaginary thing “dragon.” How does that function? Does it have to suggest the appearance of a dragon (minis)? Some property, such as colour or size (which you mention)? Or is it how it relates to other symbols in the set (shares some property like colour or size with other signs for monsters; larger than other counters; noticably distinct from things belonging to other categories: pcs, doors)?

    Negotiating authority through space: Perhaps most fascinating is this idea that certain symbols (height, secrecy, symbols of knowledge) enhance GM authority in various ways, and their lack implies a more egalitarian relationship between players and ref (even the idea of “refereeing” as opposed to “mastering” or “moderating”). Are there different kinds of authority at stake (rules interpretation; inventing the story; defining the world; etc)? Are they negotiated through the use of different kinds of signs, or by manipulating different parts of the space?

    These are just some initial reflections. I’m very much looking forward to your further exploration of the issue. Some of my reading recently has dealt with these issues, so if I find myself feeling you’ve left something undone at the end (and I think the potential here is enormous), I may have a crack at it myself.


  5. DireBadger     | Reply

    This is certainly an interesting take on the subject. I feel like you left out an important item though: the table.

    I’ve played around the table with some groups, and without a table in lounging chairs. It’s very different. The table tends to focus the group on a task at hand. It’s useful for displaying maps and coordinating team tactics on it.

    Without a table, it’s different. People focus more on the people directly next to them, while the people opposite them are farther away. Politics and intrigue increase.

    Since someone pointed this out, I’ve used both settings. My main campaign is Vampire the Masquerade, and we rarely use a central table in it. In D&D on the other hand, we prefer to.

  6. Squeejee     | Reply

    Very interesting article – I’ve never given too much thought to the space my group games in, besides the fact that we never seem to have enough! I think player laptops are to blame for taking up the entire table, but that’s something I notice my group is moving away from.

    What is interesting is that, as a result, I’ve gotten into the habit of running encounters in most games without a battle map, even though we have a very good mat for them. I encourage players to keep their own maps of dungeons, and keep the real map hidden from view on my own laptop, which acts as my GM screen / pile of books.

    In the end it usually happens that our “shared space” is filled with notes and amateur cartography, and possibly chips.

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