At the end of last week Rob Donoghue tweeted that one of the places where there isn't a lot of GM advice is about all the things outside the game that have influence on how the game runs and works. I wanted to jump in because my Table Craft tag was designed for exactly that, but ultimately I've done very little with it. However, I agree that it is a topic that can be just as important as anything else for in person games.
The thing is, there is a lot to talk about outside the game. This is just one aspect of it. But let's talk about your gaming space.
Home Games vs. Store Games
One of the first decisions you need to make when you decide to run a game is where you're going to run it. Most games in this regard break down into two broad categories: home games and store games. A home game I'm defining as any game that takes place in someone's home be they the GM or a player. A store game is any game that takes place in a public place. Most often this is in a gaming store, but there are also games that happen in bars, classrooms, and other locations.
The biggest difference between these two types of games? The kind of distractions that are going to be prevalent in that area.
Home Game - Strengths
The two chief strengths a home game tends to have are privacy and availability. By being in someone's home the game is more private. You don't have people coming in and out of the store. You don't have servers coming in. Unless there are people who live in the home that aren't in the game, you have literal walls between you and people not involved in the game. This enables people to focus on the game, and to feel more safe and less exposed if they're playing a character that requires reaching or moving out of their comfort zone.
Availability is also a strength because if someone hosts the game in their house, odds are you don't have to compete with other events for the space. You don't have to worry about the table being snagged for a magic release, or by a different group or game. You don't have to worry about a holiday closing the business. Of course availability can be in contention if people not in the game live in the house, but it is generally a lot easier to manage than the contest for a store table.
Home Game - Challenges
There are challenges to a Home Game though. I call them challenges because they're not weaknesses, just things to be aware of. The biggest challenge is the burden it puts on the host. Setting up the gaming area, cleaning up after game, and providing adequate furnishings and space can be big challenges. These can be broken up over the group - having everyone help clean up at the end of the night for example - but it is a burden that is there.
Distraction is another challenge. With a home game it is more focused on the host again. People coming to the door, friends wanting to drop by, children or other people who live in the house but aren't in the game. If the host is the GM these distractions can bring the game to a screeching halt for prolonged periods. If the host is a player, it can take them out of the game for a long time.
Furnishings can also be a problem. I'll talk about it in another post, but you want a physically comfortable space to play in. You want chairs people are comfortable sitting in. You want adequate table space for your needs. You need to be able to comfortably seat people around the space. And...odds are at some point something will break. Not out of malice, but just dumb chance. Someone will drop a glass, spill soda, lean awkwardly on a chair and snap a leg. At which point does that fall on the host? Or does the group help cover it?
Store Game - Strengths
The two biggest strengths store games have is the benefits of being a space dedicated for your game, and the freedom from most personal life distractions while the game is going on.
By a dedicated space I mean that the store game is at a location that you specifically go to for game. This means you don't have someone who is just at home - where they live the rest of their life - or visiting a friend. This can be a big help in mentality. Having a location, complete with time and day, dedicated in your mind for game can help get you into the right mindset for game just by going to that location at the right time. The space being a store and not a home also frees it of mental associations for other distractions, and can help contain the game to the table. In a home game a player might go and sit on a couch where they can hear the game and then end up mentally out of the game. In a store game you really can't leave the table without leaving the game...and so people don't wander as much (mentally or physically.)
Secondly, while store games have their own distractions (more on those later) you are ultimately free of personal life distractions. Yes, your phone can still reach you, but you are less likely to have random friends coming over, or people you live with walking through - or having people over. There isn't space for someone who wants to "hang out, but not play" to really be there, unless they are sitting directly at the table or close by. Everyone is at that location for game, so no one is at home where their real life can grab them.
Store Game - Challenges
The two challenges for store games though are noise and distractions.
I know, I said a strength was being isolated, but I meant by your life. In a store you have other people around. People will walk up and ask what game you're playing, or what is going on. They'll stand near by and listen. Even if they're being polite, their mere presence can distract players or the GM. If other events or games are going on there is also the chance someone sees a friend they need/want to catch up with, or an event at another table will pull everyone to it.
Noise is tied to distractions, but stores can be loud. They can be especially loud if other events are going on, or the store is full. Lots of people in a room makes noise. Noise can make it harder to hear what is going on at your own table.
My Personal Ideal
Honestly, if I could pick a spot I'd love to game, it would be a private room in a store. Somewhere where everyone is away from home and at a dedicated spot to play, but you're shut away from the store itself so you have privacy and can play without fear of not hearing someone. It is, in a lot of ways, the best of both worlds. It is also super rare in my experience, and - unless the store owner is in the game and willing to use it for that - can be expensive because space costs money.