Wednesday, 1 February 2012

I scream, you scream, we all scream for GM screens

I listen to Fear the Boot every now and then; I'm not a regular by any means, but it's one of the few RPG-related podcasts I can listen to all the way through without wanting to gnaw my own face off. Last night I was on the look out for something to listen to in the gym, and came across their recent interview with Ken Hite (handily transcripted here); it made for interesting hearing, especially when it came to the future of the RPG industry.

But the issue of GM screens came up on a tangent during the course of proceedings. I was glad to hear that Ken Hite doesn't use them, and felt vindicated about that, because as a long-term naysayer about GM screens I sometimes wonder if I'm from a different planet to most people engaged in the hobby.

The case against GM screens is as follows:
  • It creates an artificial psychological barrier between the GM and players. I like to think that I'm gaming with friends, not teaching a group of schoolkids.
  • It makes the players wonder whether or not the GM is fudging. I roll all my dice in the open, and frequently tell the players what an NPC needs to score a hit or succeed on their roll. It's way more tense that way, and it keeps me honest. Rolling dice in secret would make the players suspicious I was cheating, either in their favour or otherwise.
  • Related to the point made above, a GM screen provides a constant temptation to fudge. If they players can't see the dice, there'll always be a small part of you that wants to change the result despite your better judgment.
  • On the rare occasions in which you want to roll secretly - for instance, if you don't want a player to know whether something has succeeded or not - you can just do it behind your hand, for Goodness' sake.
  • It sends out the unfortunate message that in order to GM you have to be some sort of all-powerful, pontificating svengali figure, pronouncing judgments from on high and subtly manipulating everything behind the scenes like a puppet master. Instead of just, you know, facilitating a game.
  • I was involved in a Call of Cthulu game with the least frightening GM screen ever invented. Me and one of the other players had a running joke that one of the sinister Cthuloid entities on the front looked kind of like the Blue Peter tortoise. It totally ruined the mood.
  • The table I use is a bit too small to set one up.
  • If you game in a public area, like we do, you look like a total nerd. Being an RPG nerd is bad enough without drawing attention to it.
The only case that can be made in their defence is:
  • They have pretty tables and charts on the back for handy reference.
Which certainly does not outweigh the points against their use.

Your honour, the case for the prosecution rests.


  1. I'm with you on this; I hate the feeling of a barrier between me and the players; it's never felt right to me. There's already a bit of psychological distance in the GMing role, that can feel quite lonely - I don't want to exacerbate it.

  2. i'm with you.

    i think it's just like extra dice fetishism, dice bag fetishism, custom character sheet fetishism. it's A Thing You Can Buy With Things On It. so people do/

    though i was pleased to discover that the only part of the AD&D DMG that I ever reference was reprinted in the official TSR DM screen, so I take it with me when I travel in case someone makes me run a game.

  3. I had used a screen for 30 years. I have been reading the reasons for not having one on the OSR blogs and thought I would try it.

    I love not having it for all the stated reasons. I use my hand for rolls that must be secret (find traps mainly).

    Yes, the charts on the screen are useful. I lay it down flat in front of me as a rolling surface.

  4. A big point in favor of DM's screen for me is being able to lay out my maps, monster stats, etc without them being in plain view of the players.

    Also, it makes it easier to roll in secret when necessary. I'm pretty sure rolling "behind your hand" (?) doesn't belong in the "pro-screen" column. I've never done that myself, but all the mental pictures I can conjure of the physical scenario look really silly.

    Lastly--if I may tease a bit-- reasons 1, 2, 3 and 5 all seem to be based more or less on the same extraordinarily-sensitive perception of game table psycho-social dynamics (suspicion engendered! paranoia vindicated! feelings of inferiority produced!). I'm going to go out on a limb and say that my players don't feel like by erecting a flimsy sheet of cardboard to hide my maps from view I am setting myself up as to be an "all-powerful, pontificating svengali figure" etc etc. (at least, not anymore than a DM should).

    If we're going to be that sensitive to psychological signals we're sending players, do we have to call ourselves something like "non-threatening facilitator" instead of "Dungeon Master"? ;)

    I'm now picturing you as Rimmer from that episode of Red Dwarf where he gets his anger sucked out by the polymorph. Ha! ("I hope no-one thinks that I'm setting myself up as a self-elected chairperson ... just see me as a facilitator")

    (PS. Much enjoying the recent spate of posts).

  5. I use the screen to get more display space for notes, maps, etc. by paperclipping stuff to the inside. When I don't need it, I don't use it. Every so often someone will notice and say "Wait a minute, you're running this out of your head?" in shock, and I just grin and puff on a cigarette dramatically.

  6. Another con against DM screens: they tend to fall in the chip dip.

  7. Never use it, worst I'll ever do (or used to do, not anymore since I hated it) was have a reference book open.

  8. What Ivan said. In particular, I always have maps and such out, and a solution to that issue (aside from memorizing every inch, which is absurd) has yet to be brought up. Feel free, since I'd like to get rid of that barrier. Not a social barrier, mind you - I've never felt that on either side of a DM screen. No, it's a barrier to smooth storytelling. As for the rest... Meh. What Ivan said.

  9. I agree with you on this. When I first started GMing 17 years ago I tried it and hated the damned thing. As you stated, I just felt it was a barrier between my players and myself.

    I dig the charts and tables on there, but I have most o' em printed out anyways, so I just quickly look for it in my binder or have it laid out on the table.. Or, sadly, I have most o' the rules memorized.

  10. You forgot the minor pro of sometimes you roll dice that you might not want the players to see the results of, like checks for traps or secret doors.

  11. Ya I find it's not so much the about obfuscating the dice rolls as the maps and monster notes I have. I have the savage worlds customizable screen which I an slide tables and maps into but it is a bit big. I think my dream screen would be actually two panels and half as high. Maybe something made out of CD cases and duct tape. Just high enough to keep eyes off the secret doors and trap icons. Something like this one

    Or a pair of tablets, one apple and one android :)

  12. Absolutely agreed. One of my players is astounded when I refuse to use a GM screen, but then he's very much of the buy-every-available-thing-in-the-product-line crowd.

    Since I tend to run fairly rules-light games, I don't even need them for reference. They're just another thing to take up space.

  13. I frickin love GM screens. Like Todd, I have the Savage Worlds customizable screen. It uses a landscape format so it isn't as much of a barrier as one that has a portrait orientation. I've also developed the habit of setting up a tv tray or two next to the table for my screen. They're usually at least six inches shorter than the table, so the barrier effect is lessened substantially. The SW screen allows me to design my own screens - which I have done for every game I play. I really like/need the crutch of having important charts available. It saves me a lot of page flipping. I still always roll all dice in the open. Only maps and adventure notes are behind the screen.

  14. Count me in as another screen-less DM. I find it just gets in the way because I constantly have to stand over it/move it out of the way to get to the map/miniatures/baked goods.

    I have all my notes and maps in my notebook, which is fairly easy to keep private and if my players are immature enough to try and sneak a peek, eff 'em.

  15. I use a DM screen for the handy charts, but I don't actually set the thing up like a barrier... it is simply a folder I have laying in front of me with my other papers. I also use it to stuff my map inside, hidden from players eyes, but quick to access for me. And, finally, it is there to pick up for those occasional hidden die rolls.

  16. I don't typically use a screen. But, I'm surprised no one mentioned the freaking awesome artwork on the back that the players see. Which should help set the tone and mood of the game. esp useful at cons.

  17. Can't recall the last time I used one myself.

    I remember as far back as 83'-84', playing on the camp bus during the summer and basically realizing there was no way to use the thing on a moving vehicle.

    After that it just didn't remain part of the experience.

  18. I use screens to hide my notes, the pages I'm referencing in monster manuals, and to have something to which I can clip my home-made charts/reference tables. It's very practical. Does it sometime create a barrier between you and the players? Maybe. But it all depends on your overall relationship with your group. If you've cultivated friendship and respect, they won't feel you're cheating them. But if you're consistently playing with strangers, I can see how they might distrust you behind that screen. I've considered running without one if I ever branch out and game more often with strangers.

  19. Ive never used one and in fact one of the most enjoyable - funniest - games I played in was an impromptu session in a pub without dice, books or pens. To others in the pub we were just chatting and laughing rather loudly. In general though I need a large amount of space for maps and my notes so I can see how functional the screens are but frankly Id be embarrassed to sit behind one. It would be like wearing a dorky baseball cap with a luminous skull or something to signify I was the boss.

    As it is I tend to be introduced to wives and girlfriends of my players with hilarious irony as Kent the Dungeonmaster. These tend to be mock reintroductions to women Ive known for many years.
    I don't like to attract special contemptuous glances from the ladies of the house by visibly distinguishing my role at table.

  20. As a non-screen GM, I did once get annoyed by players who said: "We can see your notes! We can see your map!" - as if I had a duty to hide the GM stuff from their greedy eyes, but they had no duty to avoid looking at my notes!

    Re psychological distance etc - I don't worry that a screen makes the players feel distanced from *me*, I worry that it makes me feel more distanced from *them*.

  21. I have a MEGA Master Screen (actually a fusion of D&D and AD&D master screen). I don't play D&D so the tables on them are useless for me.

    I never roll hidden dice excepts for random things. However if there a reason I roll a dice under the screen is bacause I don't want to stand up from my sit :)

    I use Master Screen to hide maps, monsters, NPC and notes. I use it to place on it (with a paper clip) the "AVATARs" of the NPCs that are with the group in that moment (yes, I often forget recurring NPCs if I don't use this).

    I use it for some funny jokes:
    "Okay, it hits you. Let see the damage."
    Then I roll about 10d12 all together, often humming some song of death :D

    Okay, it's a nerd joke, but I find it so fun...

  22. I'm with you about screens creating a divide between GMs and players, but something like The World's Greatest Screen (TWGS) can work to maximise space. TWGS is a screen with plastic pockets on either side. Not only can you have a bunch of details about the adventure, setting, and system printed up and dropped in the pockets facing you, you can have scene-setting illustrations printed out and dropped in the pockets facing the players. And you can change them as needed - move from city to forest to dungeon - well, change the atmosphere setting illustrations each time while someone fixes you a cup of tea. And at the same time, change the sheet of random tables and encounter stats on your side.

  23. By the way, I don't work for the manufacturers of TWGS, and I am currently working out how to produce an equivalent using A4 polypockets and cardboard.

  24. Ivan: It's not about being "threatening" per se - it's just that physical barriers do also create psychological ones. I don't think that's a particularly controversial statement, and definitely noticeable in play. I've GMed with a screen and been in games where the GM has used a screen, and I've always felt that there's something about it that isolates the GM from the players in some way. It's definitely noticeable how much more involved and open you feel without one.

  25. The GM screen that came with my Villains and Vigilantes books is too flimsy to stand upright without a lot of hassle. There's a lot of nice things on there though so I just keep it in my pile of notes and charts.

    I'm pretty happy with this. If it weren't for the fact that I couldn't use it I would have used it and may have never realized how much nicer it is without a screen. Mostly for the reasons already listed.

  26. I've played with a GM recently that uses his laptop as a screen and it produces that same barrier effect.

    I pretty much run everything off my laptop as well, but I try to have it slanted "/" to create an open area towards the players and not cutting them off.

  27. I haven't used a screen for the past 5 years or so. I like the open space.

    I may use one off to the side for the tables, or to hide miniatures.

  28. I use a GM screen as spoiler protection. I could care less about my dice rolls being hidden, but when I'm running a proper campaign my notes will spread out.

    For example, I'll routinely have the dungeon map; the roster of dungeon inhabitants; the dungeon key; and the notepad where I'm keeping notes (initiative order, hit point tallies, etc.) all laid out in front of my behind my screen.

    And it's not that I don't trust my players "not to look". It's that over the course of an 8 hour game session during which the players will spend most of their time staring at me, expecting their gaze not to drift down onto the notes at some point is unreasonable.

    And my players don't want to be spoiled. So I tuck that stuff out of sight.