Apart from the actual game itself, what is involved in my ideal session? This has evolved over time and, although I have less time than ever, my expectations are higher than ever.
First off, I have completely gone off theatre of the mind and now expect miniatures and battle maps. I’m not a wargamer at heart, but a very visual person. I dislike having the confusion of where everyone is in a combat or even an action scene, so like to have it all laid out in front of me. I’m even moving increasingly toward 3D set ups, where I can using game terrain. I’ve found that the third dimension adds even more to the game, as we’ve had some amazing multi-story battles and even fights with combatants in trees that have added atmosphere to the game. Where I can’t get the appropriate terrain, I’ll use full colour battlemaps that are appropriate to the scene. I’m off using the gridded maps that you draw on completely now.
I also need some good visuals, so would want images for all PCs and major NPCs. Face cards are a great addition to the game and I typically will provide tent cards to my players showing their picture and name (possibly class/occupation) so that everyone can see clearly who/what everyone else is. I will also use face cards for my major (and sometimes minor) NPCs so that people can associate a face with a name. Again, I’m a visual person, so this is important.
I like thematic elements too, so if using a game with playing cards, will try to find a deck that suits the theme, as well as images for a GM’s screen that suit the game/setting. If I’m playing at home, I’ll try to have music in the background that fits the game.
Finally, it’s important that everyone’s focused on the game itself and not anything else. I find that the visual elements help do that. While some might say it’s distracting, I think it’s actually more immersive to see who is who, what is what and where everything is in the game. Especially if you have well-painted minis and awesome terrain, people will be drawn into the game completely. Even outsiders will want to join in, if only to play with the cool stuff.
To go with my miniatures, I try to have appropriate terrain or features (like in the picture above, I printed out a chaos symbol for the floor of the Chaos Temple. As well, I like to use the miniature markers (available here on the Stuffer Shack!) to mark conditions on characters (Shaken, etc.) as well as number grunts when it becomes important.
Finally, and still more work, I like to have cards for gear (showing what it can do, or at least for inventory purposes) as well as cards for important clues in a game featuring a mystery. The last one is something that I’ve discovered and is particularly useful when your mystery spans several game sessions that might cover months of real time. It’s a way for players to easily reference what they learned and piece it together.
I realize my ideal session is not for everyone, but that’s what I like.