Tabletop Rituals

Merrily, merrily, merrily. Shipwright.

It’s the season of Advent. My brother, grandparents, and I have been doing Advent devotions after each dinner. We clear the table, dim the lights, and light the required candles in the required order. Then my grandfather reads the Word aloud.

It’s a fun ritual.

When I pointed out how much I’ve enjoyed the atmospheric repetition of ritual, my grandmother said, “Ritual? What, do you think we’re gonna start chanting?” and she waved her arms all mystic-like. 

But there’s something to it; the familiarity that relaxes expectations and draws you into the game faster when the mood is set.

Do you have rituals at your gaming table?

I’m not talking about superstitions, where players put their dice in time-out or only roll “not-naughty dice.” I’m also not saying the room has to be primed for a game of Call of Cthulhu every night.

But do you chatter a bit before? Are the dice and character sheets in the same place every time? Are the minis arranged the same way? Does one person often elect themselves to hand out the materials? Does everyone pledge to turn their phones off or put them in a space where they’re not a distraction? Does one player get everyone drinks? Who has the same snacks every time? How do you know the game is starting? Does the GM clear their throat to get the other players’ attention? Or do they simply fall silent and wait for the other players to follow suit? Does the GM give a recap? Do you just open right into the action? 

What about during the game? How does the GM signal that it’s time to roll dice? Do you mark experience after each encounter? Or do you wait until the end? How do you know when the session is over? Is there a final scene narrated by the GM? How do you know where and when to get back together to game again?

Rituals spell out what people have come to expect. “We always…” “We never…” “Well, usually…”

In my open table Maze Rats campaign, upon which my game Skorne is based, I would open every session with this:

In a time fondly remembered, King Duncan the Just ruled the peaceful city of Bastion, a bulwark against the darkest evils. Then LORD SKORNE broke through the walls with his deadbone soldiers, murdered King Duncan, and devastated the land. For thirty years now, the tyrant Skorne has been rebuilding the city in his image, oppressing its citizens, and indulging himself in the spoils of his victory.

You live in this downtrodden city. By day, you keep your head down and avoid the cruelty of Skorne’s minions and the demands of the dreaded Lords of the Districts. By night, you are a MAZE RAT, a scrappy, devoted hunter of artifacts and allies to aid The Reclaimers of Bastion in their efforts to save the city from total enslavement. The world is bleak and full of death, but there is hope on the horizon. 

Can our heroes overthrow Skorne and save the world? Or will darkness overtake them?

And that’s how it was for 18 sessions or so. A familiar mantra to get players in the mood. I even practiced saying it EXACTLY the same way, just to breed that familiarity, drawing them deeper, right to the same mindset, time after time.

Then after many sessions of play, I broke the ritual to signal the final act to the players:

In a time fondly remembered, King Duncan the Just ruled the peaceful city of Bastion, a bulwark against the darkest evils. Now, you, the Maze Rats, are all that stands between Lord Skorne and his Lords of the Districts and total tyranny.

The world is more bleak than ever, and full of death.

Can our heroes overthrow Skorne and save the world? Or will darkness overtake them?

I read that first line as I always had. Then I paused. And then I read the line that followed. And their faces were in total shock.

I can still hear it now: “Oh my gosh! He changed it! Here comes the end! It’s finale time!”

The ritual: start, middle, and end. Consistency breeds familiarity. Players relax when they know what to expect. You lose that nervous edge when things are rote, sending you deeper. The world comes alive when you awake in it the same every time.

How often have you awakened the same way every morning in this world?

Is it familiar yet?

6 thoughts on “Tabletop Rituals

  1. Sam! What a beautiful post! Yes, we do have rituals at the table. First, we chat, about everything and anything. This can take half an hour, easily. Then, we recap last session, or (if we start a new campaign) I get my players in the mood by dimming the light (if possible), playing music and telling them about the world. When game night is over, I ask my players what they liked and disliked, and what they hope for, for next session. Then, usually, another round of drinks and shooting the shit before we all leave, with big fat grins on our faces 🙂

  2. Oh wow, that technique with the same opening every time is amazing.

    I guess that’s why shows have intro sequences. I’ve never thought about that, why intro sequences even exist, I just always skipped them 😀

    Or when in the cinema the lights dim and there is this feeling of “Oh here we go, it’s starting.” It’s a pretty cool feeling.

    Parlor/nordic LARPs use rituals a lot more to get people in the mood than ttrpgs, though I’ve only read about it. Also reminds me of Ten Candles, where between each scene you have a small ritual section where you tell truths and then repeat a short mantra. Powerful stuff. Especially for a horror game I think, where sometimes it might be harder to get into the headspace than for an adventure game.

    Also actors in general all have their little rituals for getting into and out of a role.

    I do a small personal ritual. I do a few minutes of voice exercises every time before a session. No matter if I am a GM or a player. Not sure it actually helps though 🙂

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