As a long-term GM, one of the greatest challenges I’ve faced is dealing with novice players who are more than a little intimidated by joining a gaming group. In addition, many veteran roleplayers I’ve played with prefer to play in groups where they know they are welcomed and valued, and while I don’t think many GM’s host games just to belittle and exclude their players, it’s still crucial to consider presentation and readiness.
It’s surprising how much of human communication can happen or not happen without even being thought about, and there are a few things to consider when you first meet your players. Always make eye contact and smile when introducing yourself to players and when welcoming them to each session. If you’re playing online, you don’t necessarily have to do this, but be sure to maintain etiquette and acknowledge their presence after an absence (if playing in an IRC/PBEM/PBP format) or welcome them back when they come online (if using a video/audio solution such as Roll20).
Another thing to consider is your stance toward the players. As a GM, you are at least implicitly an authority figure. I’ve always considered myself the equal of my players socially (it helps that they’ve all been mature teenagers or adults), but as having a separate role in the game. I find that this helps us get along better, especially since I tend to game with closer acquaintances, but it can also be awkward when it’s time to get things going. Don’t be afraid to exert some authority, especially when it comes to keeping unruly players in check. Similarly, don’t forget that while it’s perfectly fine to be a friend to your players, and you often should be, you need to regard your GM duties as separate from that friendship for fairness’ sake. Besides, I’ve rarely had a player come to me and tell me how happy he was to have learned the next plot twist ahead of time or how much better he felt knowing the statistics of an important NPC. It’s perfectly acceptable for the GM to have some aloofness, and the ability to exercise Rule 0 (the ability to fiat outcomes and mechanics) is always a GM’s prerogative regardless of the social order.
Another thing to consider is the use of space. I have had a variety of setups over the years, especially since I had a lot of games in my university years that focused around sub-optimal conditions, but the traditional round-table works best, followed by a dining-table style layout. I’ve never had good luck with any combination of seating arrangements where not every player can see the others, whether or not we’ve been playing with a battlemat or with strictly narrative play. You want to have a setup where everyone is comfortable, can see each other, and, most importantly, can see you. As a GM you also need to be in a position where you can manage your players.
Consider, as GM, the rules and etiquette of the table. If someone gets on a cell phone, I suggest asking them to leave. They aren’t respecting the game or paying attention, and if they’re chatting they’re also interrupting play (one of my favorite things is when a player pulls out a phone, has a loud conversation that interrupts play, and then asks “What did I miss?”). Similarly, establish a variety of rules regarding what each player is to bring to the table. Sometimes dice can be a problem, especially if you have fidgety people. I speak from personal experience; you don’t want to have people messing with dice and interrupting your games, and it’s even worse to be the guy who interrupts the GM by accidentally launching a die behind the couch. Enforce minimal requirements of things to bring as well; paper character sheets and a pencil or other marking instrument is a good idea, unless you’re having people play off of some electronic device (laptops or even smartphones, if your players will use them responsibly). I’ve experimented with projecting peoples’ character sheets to a TV, but even HD televisions aren’t quite ready for that yet, especially if you’re trying to fit multiple characters on a single screen.
As a GM, your personal desk space also says a lot about you. Having a screen can create an air of mystery and awe, but it can also serve as a wall between you and your players. I personally use the rule of thumb of reference and hiding. I get a screen that serves as reference for my players, or else I put up just enough of a barrier to hide rolls that they’re not supposed to see the results of. If you have a paper copy of the rulebook, keep in mind that how you have it positioned will determine whether or not players will feel comfortable using it; if you have it at arm’s length they might assume you brought it for them, while if you keep it by your side they might think it’s some top-secret document. It’s generally a good idea to brief players on the availability status of your books; I occasionally have books that I don’t want them pawing through because they have sentimental value or are particularly rare/fragile, but it’s a good idea to share. Only a few games, like Paranoia, openly suggest hiding rules from the players, and you should be able to trust your players not to go to GM sections or such.
How much you trust your players is also a crucial indicator of how welcoming your environment is. I’m always open to help out my players with any character sheets and management, but I make it clear that I trust them not to cheat and to follow the rules, making me aware of things that I should know before they become an issue. This is almost always the best way to approach this, since it creates an open environment and allows players to do their preparation for the game on their own and not worry about having to come to you to do little things, but it also empowers them with a sense of responsibility and recognizes their dignity. Just be sure that you check up on novices to make sure they aren’t accidentally breaking rules that make their characters too weak or too strong for play.
When building a table environment, it’s important to consider the ways you approach your players. It’s important to be welcoming and friendly, using eye contact and a smile to open up your sessions, be friendly and fair but remember your role and authority, set up in a space that works for you, and make sure that you’re accessible. You should feel free to trust your players, and make their responsibilities theirs and not yours.