Table Roles in RPGs

I haven't watched much of the Acquisitions Inc. "C" Team actual play series, but last year I watched enough to be inspired by a clever idea Jerry Holkins deployed early on in the series as the Dungeon Master. The premise of the group is that they are essentially expendable employees of a breathtakingly avaricious corporation. To both make his life easier and play into the fiction of the game, Holkins assigned each player/character a duty or role. The roles were:

  • Documancer
    • Records notes on what happens session to session.
  • Hoardsperson
    • Maintains the party inventory.
  • Cartographer
    • Makes maps of the dungeons the party explores.
  • Decisionist
    • Makes decisions when the party is unable to reach consensus.

These roles somewhat blurred the line between the fiction of the game and the responsibilities of the player at the table. The characters were assigned offices with these names in the fiction, but the corresponding players also accepted responsibilities for note-keeping and (in the case of the decisionist) being proactive in keeping the game moving.

I'm really taken with this concept. I don't know that it always has to manifest in the fiction of the game as it did with the Acq. Inc. C Team, but I think there's a lot of promise in this idea of formally giving players responsibilities over and above just controlling their respective characters. I call these table responsibilities or table roles.

I don't think this is a new idea. For example, I think Dungeon Masters have been having players map out dungeons since before the game was called Dungeons & Dragons, and I can imagine DMs have been having players track initiative ad hoc almost as long. I found a Gnome Stew article outlining some table roles, and Matt Colville has two videos which effectively each describe a table role:

What I want to do here is provide a resource that players and Dungeon Masters can reference in introducing and incorporating the idea into their own games. If you'd like to link your friends directly to the listing of roles, just use this link. If you have any suggestions for table roles, feel free to leave a comment on this post!

What is a table role?

A table role is a formal responsibility a player assumes to manage or track some aspect of the group experience in playing a tabletop role-playing game. A player might volunteer for a table role or they might be assigned the responsibility by their Game Master. Table roles exist to speed up and facilitate the game, and address needs at a particular table, so not every group will find every role useful.

For games such as Dungeons & Dragons which place a special emphasis on combat, it can be useful to assign table roles specifically for facilitating encounters. It might even make sense to assign such "combat roles" in addition to other, more general purpose responsibilities.

Example Table Roles

The Decisionist: making decisions

The Decisionist is responsible for making decisions on behalf of the group when the party is unable to reach consensus on what to do. This can manifest as "breaking ties" when the party is split on what to do, or it might amount to choosing something, anything! in circumstances of so-called "analysis paralysis," where nobody can come up with compelling ideas of what to do next.

Just when the Decisionist should exercise this function also depends on the group. Nobody wants someone just stampeding over the interests of all the other players. Conservative tables might only permit the Game Master to decide when such a binding decision is necessary, while more relaxed games may allow the Decisionst to take the initiative, trusting them to use discretion.

The name "Decisionist" comes from the Acquisitions Incorporated "C" Team.

The Caller: representing the party to the GM

In the context of this list of roles, a Caller amounts to a "Decisionist on steroids", who not only handles those responsibilities but also becomes the single point of contact between the Game Master and the party. The Caller is a archaic player role from the original years of Dungeons & Dragons, when tables often had huge numbers of players. With so many players to coordinate, the Caller has the job of figuring out just what everyone wants to do, and relaying these plans to the Game Master. The GM, in turn, exclusively consults this player on what the party is going to do next.

Most tables are probably not going to find this a necessary or helpful role, but if a Game Master is ever overwhelmed with the sheer number of players he's coordinating, a Caller is worth considering.

The Hoardsperson: tracking party inventory

The Hoardsperson takes care of loot and inventory. This can mean a lot of things depending on the group. Maybe some parties need a Hoardsperson who maintains a master record of everyone's inventories, while others might just need someone to keep a list of party loot that hasn't yet been divvied out. The Haordsperson might even take on the job of deciding who gets which piece of loot.

But in my mind, however exhaustive the Hoardsperson's notes are, oftentimes the best thing they can do in facilitating most games is in simply reminding players of equipment they have that's relevant to the situation at hand. Someone just fall to 0 HP and the healer's out of spells? Good time to remind everybody we still have a few healing potions in reserve. Rogue just break his thieves' tools on the chest? Well, we can always try the crowbar.

The name "Hoardsperson" comes from the Acquisitions Incorporated "C" Team.

The Curator: keeping track of magic stuff

Hoardsperson can be an overwhelming responsibility if the party has them keeping track of that much stuff. Alternately, a table might be happy to let everyone manage their own inventories but still have somebody keep track of who has which magic item. This is where the Curator comes in, who maintains a record of all of the unique, important gear (magic or otherwise) the party has in its possession. Magic items obviously apply, but as Troy E. Taylor mentions in his Gnome Stew article, stuff like costly spell components are also likely something a party will appreciate someone giving special attention to.

The Mapper: drawing maps

The Mapper draws maps of the areas the party explores. These maps can take a variety of forms: a tactical-combat scenario on a gridded mat, or a dungeon layout on some graphing paper, or even landmarks of a whole kingdom on a blank page.

This is an obsolete office at a lot of tables, where the Game Masters either run such a tactical, combat-detailed game that it necessitates they draw the maps themselves, or instead run a heavy "theater of the mind" game where the details are so abstracted that maps are unnecessary. But even today there's still plenty of tables occupying a happy middle between these extremes where either a GM can benefit from outsourcing the drawing the map, or the players might enjoy the tactile experience of exploring a dungeon like a maze.

The Documancer: recording what happened

The Documancer is responsible for taking notes on what happens over the course of the campaign. This helps the game by ensuring the players are able contextualize their circumstances and actions. Over the course of a campaign, players are inevitably going to ask questions like "Why did we come here, again?" and "Why does this guy hate us?" and so on. This is where the Documancer steps in, and in providing relevant context they help everyone understand the significance of the decisions they have made, and the weight of the choices they have in front of them.

Nonetheless, the responsibility of recording everything that happens in a campaign can be a daunting task depending on the level of detail expected, so it might make sense for a group to spin off aspects of the Documancer into auxiliary roles, such as a Relationeer or Questmeister.

The name "Documancer" comes from the Acquisitions Incorporated "C" Team.

The Relationeer: remembering NPCs

The Relationeer handles keeping track of important NPCs—emphasis on important, as the prospect of remembering every NPC can be a hopeless task in many campaigns. Just which details the Relationeer needs to record is a question worth asking: some tables might just need a few sentences to remind the party of a given character, while others may need more extensive notes connecting the NPC to other characters in the story and campaign. The drama of any story happens between its characters, and if a Relationeer can help keep characters alive in the minds of players, all the better for the plot.

The Questmeister: keeping track of quests and clues

The job of the Questmeister is to keep a record of the party's outstanding quests and responsibilities, along with developments and clues found along the way. If that sounds similar to the Documancer, I agree with you. I foresee this table role as a complement to an overworked Documancer who is otherwise too busy keeping track of other stuff to worry about quest minutiae. The Questmeister focuses on alleviating two potential problems in particular:

  • Occasions where the party feels they have nothing to do, when in reality they have dozens of quests, promises, and obligations they've forgotten about.
  • Moments where the party feels stuck or stumped because they've failed to connect the dots between clues they've uncovered.

If the Game Master is regularly witnessing either of these situations, it might be useful to have somebody who can rattle off a list of things the party's forgetting.

The Timekeeper: tracking calendar and downtime

The Timekeeper keeps track of the passage of time in the campaign, and has the job of checking in regularly with any systems where the calendar matters. Many campaigns may never care about this beyond "did I regain my health points yet?", but if the party has stuff like business assets or the Big Bad Evil Guy™ has a specific date he's enacting his villainous plot, this might become something worth assigning a table role for.

The Initiator: recording combat initiative

The Initiator maintains the order of combat when the party's in a fight. When everyone rolls initiative, the Initiator is who writes down the final ordered list, and it is their job to figure out who's up next turn to turn. This serves the game in two ways. The first is that the Game Master has one less element of bookkeeping: combats can be very complex to run in games like Dungeons & Dragons, and anything that reduces the bottleneck of the GM helps. The second is that the initiator can assume the responsibility of motivating the next player in line to be ready to take their turn. This mitigates the common experience of players only beginning to consider their next actions once they're called on, which can result in easily doubling or tripling the time each turn takes—perhaps the most common source of slow or boring encounters.

The Hit Pointer

Where the Initiator assumes responsibility for recording the order of combat, the Hit Pointer has the job of tracking the health of enemy combatants—or the damage they've received, depending on your preference. Players are generally pretty capable of tracking their own health, but if they're fighting a lot of monsters at once, staying on top of which enemy is still alive and isn't can make for a lot of bookkeeping for the GM. To speed things up, the GM can consider letting the players track the damage they've dealt each monster. This way, the GM can simply periodically ask the Hit Pointer for the accumulated damage of a monster, and compare it to the monster's hit points. A monster is dead when its this total damage exceeds the threshold of its hit points.

I found this idea from Matt Colville, and his video on it remains the best detailed breakdown of the concept.

The Monster Wrangler

The monster wrangler is a player to whom the GM outsources controlling enemy combatants in a fight. This helps the most if there's a lot auxiliary monsters that aren't the thematic focus of a scene, where while their presence is ensuring the encounter is challenging, the minutiae of deciding what they do turn-to-turn isn't a great return on investment for the GM's time. It works best if the Monster Wrangler to begin with is a player who readily engages with the game on a tactical level, and is further someone who can comfortably distinguish between being a player and becoming effectively an assistant-GM.

Nonetheless, this is one of the more complex table roles. Virtually all of the other roles are effectively either (A) jobs that institutionalize note-taking the players should ideally already be doing, or (B) jobs that outsource bookkeeping from the GM. Neither are likely to disrupt the players' suspension of disbelief. The Monster Wrangler is something different, and runs a risk of undermining the players' engagement with the world and fiction of the game; like revealing the man behind the curtain when until now the party's been fixated on Oz.

There are plenty of tables out there where this isn't a problem, where the GM actively invites the players to help in crafting the setting and fiction of a campaign. (e.g. "Hey Jack, you're playing an elf. What do elves typically do at night instead of sleeping?" or "Hey Alice, what sort of deity does your cleric follow? What's his name?", etc.) If this is your table, I don't expect the role of Monster Wrangler will pose much of an issue. If it isn't, I would recommend some care and consideration in introducing it.

As with the Hit Pointer, Matt Colville has a video detailing his thoughts and experiences with the Monster Wrangler.