Table Rules for Tabletop Roleplaying Games

The social contract defines how roleplayers interact within their dedicated groups, playing pickup games or D&D Encounters at their local gaming store, and when they drop into a game at a Con. We’ve certainly seen folks wield that phrase on message boards and gaming forums like it’s a leather bound, gold-gilded page, deluxe collector’s edition Bible that every gamer should know front and back.

It’s pretty surprising how many things go into the social contract that most gamers spend almost zero thought on before showing up to roll some d20s. Three of the things that crop up at every table are dice rolling, rule referencing, and distractions, and it pays to give them some consideration.

Socially Awkward Meme

Mine’s worse: I come up with how the conversation should’ve gone 2 days after I botched it.


Dropped, cocked, or disappearing dice are common problems at the game table. The easiest ruling is to call for a re-roll. Doesn’t matter who saw it, what number was rolled, or whether it bounced off the GM’s shoe or the cat’s flailing paws…RE-ROLL IT!

There’s really not much to this bit of the social contract, but when you have that one new player who doesn’t know better, or that one player who gets her first natural 20 in eight months of weekly sessions, it’s tempting to let one slide through. Frankly, it’s not likely to be damaging to anyone if that happens, but there is certainly something to the psychology of “if you let one person do it, you gotta let ’em all do it.” If it happens once, it’ll come up again.

Go with the flow of the gaming group, but erring on the side of “always re-roll it” is going to be a painless, sure-fire way to keep things under control.

Referencing the Rules

Having the pertinent RPG books at the table is a no-brainer, but at the same time, they are a tempting distraction (see the next section). They can quickly become a crutch if there’s a lot of rules referencing going on. It pays to consider how involved the game’s mechanics are, how to off-load some of the rules referencing to GM screens and other resources, and who is performing the referencing.

Mechanical Complexity. Games that are simple can usually be boiled down to a few cheat sheets, GM screen references, or notes on the character sheets, and thus don’t require a lot of rule referencing; consider keeping the books off the table, behind the GM screen, or otherwise out of the way of the players so nobody’s distracted.

RPGs like the various incarnations of D&D, Shadowrun, GURPS, and Star Wars — and so many others, besides — have a much higher level of mechanical complexity, and require a fair amount of referencing that might be unavoidable. If this isn’t a problem for you (maybe you’re already using some solutions in the sections below), that’s fine. If this becomes a problem, consider the solutions below, and also discuss with your players what the pain points are: maybe you can streamline what game options or books are in use, or one of the players can make a project of consolidating information into a “playbook” style format that includes all the necessary rules for each character type. The various Powered by the Apocalypse games do this, as does Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures and many, many more.

Reference Tools. The Game Master’s screen, the player’s character sheets, cheat sheets and loose rules references, combat cards; there are many tools that can simplify the task of referencing the rules that come up the most in play. But keep in mind that there may be some obscure or little-used rules that come up in play, and that’s where a good Table of Contents or Index comes in handy, so look out for those. Fans often make even more comprehensive ones, so take the time to scout for them on message boards and social media.

The Point Man. One way to solve this issue is by having a designated player that is the “Rules Coordinator,” the person who references rules at the table. Of course, they can’t supersede the GM’s decisions…but they can record them! Not only does this release the GM from on-the-spot page-flipping, but it gives someone else an opportunity to be involved outside of their turn, as well as tracking house rules for later discussion, perhaps between sessions to ensure maximum gaming time.

Look!!! A distraction

Look! Over there! It’s the oldest trick in the book!


There are a lot of potential distractions that might be present during game night, especially if you play in a public setting (such as your local hobby store), and when you play with new and rotating player groups, such as for D&D Encounters. Some of the most common distractions are:

  • Cell phones, tablets, and laptops
  • Children, roommates, or other folks not engaged in the game
  • Rule books, supplements, and other references for the game
  • Television monitors
  • Other gaming tables
  • Out-of-character (OOC) chatter

That’s right, even the rule books of the game you are playing can be a distraction! It’s not just with regard to referencing rules, either; maybe the book is new, so one of the players just wants to give it a skim when it’s not their turn to act.

While it’s tempting to limit these things as much as possible, even outright banning them from the table or gaming environment whenever possible, it’s not always realistic to do so, and it can be quite stifling in an atmosphere where the players really do have some downtime between activities that they must pay attention to.

Simply put, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to how to handle distractions, but first and foremost, the GM and the players need to keep the lines of communication open, friendly, and understanding so that the right call is made, whether it’s an outright ban, specific Player Roles, or a more lenient style. Keep an open mind, because some people face real struggles like ADHD, or less serious but no less easy-to-shake issues like simply being fidgety, all the way up to having family in the hospital and needing to check their cell phone every couple minutes for an update. Be realistic, be understanding, and treat everyone like an adult.

Everybody looking at cellphones

If global warming doesn’t end us, our horrible neck problems will.


Let’s take a more detailed look at tabletop technology used during a gaming session, specifically cell phones, tablets, and computers.

Some GMs make significant use of technology…but is it okay for players to do the same? Is it okay for the GM to ban technology because they might expect cheating, or because it may be more difficult to police an electronic character sheet for correct equipment lists, encumbrance values, and hit point tracking?

As mentioned earlier, there’s no single, right answer. Even more so for technology, the GM and players need to remain open-minded about the comfort-level and learning style of different people, because these traits will factor into what works best from one player to another when it comes to recording character information, referencing rule books, and tracking information and events at the game table. It pays to understand an individual’s needs and preferences, so open the lines of communication in a friendly manner to do just that: banning a laptop for someone who needs Excel to run their attack and damage modifiers is only going to slow the game down and cause hard feelings as you reveal that player’s weakness in on-the-fly math.

If the GM has realistic concerns about technology at the table, whether it’s with a single player or the entire group, consider what alternatives can work for the group outside of a blanket ban on devices. Perhaps certain information should be recorded in handwritten form: hit points, encumbrance, ammunition. Index cards can be used to track temporary things from one session to the next, and can even be handed into the GM at the end of each session, ensuring there’s no altering of the information between sessions. Counters are another option to handle the same temporary information. Finally, consider the Player Roles that we’re incessantly linking to, and you can even consider expanding them to include someone who tracks damage, or hangs onto photos of current counters or sheets of recorded temporary information between sessions.

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neuronphaser is an editor, eCommerce consultant, web producer, and analyst living in sunny Hollywood, CA. He’s been playing tabletop RPGs of all kinds since 1985.

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