June 4, 2023

Spending Time at the Table

Time to Talk

When sitting down to play a game, whether you’re playing a boardgame, a Collectable Trading Card Game, or a TTRPG, you are required to talk with the people you are playing with.

At a home game you probably know the people sitting down to play. There is a shared understanding of the people sitting around the table. Shared understanding of each persons safety. Consent is so important when playing games. With my regular group of people playing around my dining room table on Wednesday night, I know when someone has had a rough day just by looking at how they sit down to the table. I know how to engage with that player to let them get out what they need to before they can come to the table to play. Another person in my group often needs to just start playing to escape the days stuff.

These are things I know about my groups because of the 6 year relationship with one party member, 15 year long relationship with another and the third party member is now over 20 years. Not all of this time has been playing RPGs, a lot of it is just knowing them as friends in my life. I understand these folks sitting around my table. We can play a card game, or a board game, and some nights we are in a space to play a TTRPG.

The time spent at the beginning of any night (or whenever your session is scheduled) is important. It sets the tone for the evening. I am referring not to how I converse with my friends before people have arrived, I am referring instead to how I communicate the plan for that night’s game. These hold true for online games as much as in person in my experience.

How Can You Start a Session?

There are any number of ways to start a game night”, here are a couple I will briefly explore. This is by no means an exhaustive list and I am sure every table may differ, but the following is a short list that probably encompasses the major styles.

Jump Right In

This is a method I do not recommend unless you have built a firm practice with a group. Jump Right In assumes that you know your players and have maybe spent time planning through the week or days leading up to game night so everyone already know what is going on. Maybe this method could be good for an ongoing game or if you are setting the mood with an old group where they players enter your basement that has been decorated like the inn that your game starts out in.

I would be cautious of starting any game however without talking to your players in some sort of fashion first. Again, Unless you have some sort of agreement before play, forgetting to address some simple things especially for a group who are not your every week group, whether you are running at a Con, local game store, or even just bringing a new player to your table, it is important to share some things before hand to help set up expectations.

Informal Introduction

Sitting around the table and shooting the shit for a bit before starting game night is almost a given for most games, whether your waiting for your gnome druid to show, or your friend forgot it was game night and is rushing over and will be right there. You tend to have pregame banter at the table. This is different from having a information introduction to game night.

Starting the session is always my nervous point of the night.

How do I start the game?
Where did we leave off last week?
How will I make sure my players are engaged with the game?
How can I make sure my players feel comfortable at the table?

These are some of the things that flash through my mind when I set out to start playing statistics and storytelling games (a silly name we came up with in college to describe our class we were studying for when we didn’t want other to know what we were doing.)

Telling your players briefly what happened previously or the goals that you have in mind for the night will help to alleviate this feeling. Remember letting the players have input helps greatly with their engagement, as mentioned in my Worldbuilding article from a few weeks back. Getting the pulse of how your players want to start the game and just having a good old conversation with them will do wonders to ease your pregame jitters, I know it does for mine.

Make sure you are asking for answers to these questions as needed, a group you game with regularly will be happy to help out with this is they are worth their time at the table.

this method is great for picking up where you have left off when playing with a regular group or might be appropriate for bringing in a new person to the group during a multisession campaign. Each game is as different as each group. If you are playing the same game with your same group that you’ve been playing with for a decade you’re probably okay to continue starting play like this. It is a great way to help break the tension and get into the game and remind people of the safety tools that may be available to the table.


Have you ever run or played in a game that was not what you expected? I have sat down at virtual cons and been throw into a game that made me feel uncomfortable, or not known what the expectations were of the group or referee. Nothing bad has happened to me yet, but it would not take much for something to go wrong or someone to say something that could make the entire table feel very uncomfortable and ruin their gaming experience.

CATS is a formal system that was developed (by my limited research, if I am incorrect please feel free to let me know) by Patrick O’Leary for a 200 Word RPG Challenge in 2016. It has since been expanded upon and adapted some communities as the standard for playing games, especially in online circles.

In the simplest of terms CATS is an acronym for a set of tools to help every referee be successful in encouraging a group to abide by a set of expectations at the table and give everyone at the table a voice in protecting themselves.

CATS stands for Concept, Aim, Tone, and Safety.

Concept is a pitch for the game at a high level, most people sitting down to a game have probably already been made aware of this, but it never hurts to mention it briefly in case there is any confusion.

Aim is the goal of the game session; this does not need to be so specific as we are going to find the treasure of Dargmoth and fight the beast that is guarding it”, though it could be that. Typically this is talking about what the groups is doing in general, Tonight our adventurers are continuing their exploration of Dargmoth’s Tomb, your goals are to explore and engage with the environment in a fun way. Your ultimate goal was to find Dargmoth’s treasure, but as with any of our game nights any number of things could happen…”

You are opening the door to talk about past sessions, and how the game can move forward. This is also a place where you might emphasize whether combat or exploration is encouraged. You can leave this as open and generic as you like but providing a small bit of scope can encourage a positive experience for all.

Tone is how the game session should feel. What type of game are you expecting to experience? Are we having a funnel session in a funhouse where we should expect lots of laughs or will the game be a serious conclusion to a long awaited adventure? This is an opportunity to let your players know that you are expecting the tone of the game to be serious and there is a horror element to the game. This helps to set the expectation that the night will be serious in nature, and you can reference back to this when one player forgets and starts talking about running around and pushing all of the buttons everywhere just to see what happens.

Tone can be expected by the referee, or it can be decided on as a play group, maybe there is some leeway that is given to make the game not as serious because the group is unable to engage in that way, that is okay and you should allow your group to talk and express their feelings about the tone.

Safety last but maybe the most important is talking about what the players and referee have available as safety tools during the game. Different groups may approach this is different ways, but as the safety of the TTRPG community has come into more focus over the years and here is a small list of the current standards.

An Open Table Policy, where anyone can come and go as needed. Lines and Veils allows people to put a list of the things that they would not feel comfortable being included in games at different levels. The X-Card which allows any player or referee to stop a session if something needs to be avoided or talked through because of an issue with the current content. More information on safety tools can be found here along with a list of further resources that can be used at the table linked at the bottom.

Here is a template (create a copy and save for later use) that can be used to fill out in advance and share with players either virtually online or at the table together. Garrett also has put together a Blog Post with more information about CATS at the table.

CATS is a wonderful tool for creating a safe space especially at the beginning of a multiple session campaign or as a one shot night. Once an ongoing game ahs been started CATS is actually very quick to do at the beginning of a later game session as you are reminding the players of those quick concepts.

This is by far the preferred method for starting a game night. If you have never seem or heard of this I was first introduced to the concept of CATS by Jason Cordova of The Gauntlet, his YouTube Channel is a whole series of online games he has played and is currently playing with people from around the world. Check out any of those videos to hear CATS in use if you are unfamiliar.

So Where Should I Start?

I do not always start with CATS but I do find that when I do the games tend to be very successful in holding up to the expectations of both myself and the players. It works well especially with online games and in person games with people I have not played with before. It also helps to make sure that my game group is aware of the type of game we are playing and can help to direct my players towards a different atmosphere of play.

This became a much longer post than I originally had thought. Thanks for holding strong through it and I hope you learned something through it. CATS is a wonderful tool and you may find it works for you or maybe not, but I think the main goal here is to help you make sure you are keeping an open mind towards your players, as this will ultimately give you and everyone a better experience at the table, keeping new players coming back and encouraging them to bring other new people to play games with you.

Lastly, I want to thank anyone who reads and shares these posts with anyone across the game space. You keep me writing and I hope that you gain something from this or help someone else grow as a player or referee. I started this blog almost two years ago, never expecting to have more than a few dozen readers or views each post and you consistently drive my number of readers up each week. Thanks!

Derek Bizier, the Ever Grateful Halfling Master

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