Does the GM Screen deserve to go the way of the Dodo?

I always tell myself I’m not going to buy it. But I always do and I’m consistently underwhelmed or outright disappointed!

There was a time when I had a use for Game Master Screens. They offered cardboard-based defense technology from the prying eyes of my players as well as tactical displays of essential information. When I played AD&D and AD&D 2nd edition the DM Screen was a boon. It had all the necessary tables and I could pretty much run the game without opening a book unless I was referencing a spell. One of my players even prepared a special extra large DM screen he put together containing all the 2nd edition rules and tables I could EVER use, constructed with cardboard and tape.

As time went by I discovered the joys of game mastering without a screen, more direct contact with my players, easier to play in different configurations, no longer was I bound to one corner of the table, I could move around the room, act out NPCs while walking to and fro.

Back when I was playing D&D 3.5 we had a big group and a sweet gaming set up with a large table so I hesitantly went back to the screen. The four panel D&D 3.5 landscape screen was probably the last one I was actually impressed with, it came bundled with issue #310 of Dragon magazine, and I personalized it by attaching laminated maps to the outside (player’s side) and campaign specific notes to the inside (DM’s side).

These days I run most of my games from my laptop. I have the books for reference, but I use a combination of the Pathfinder RPG PDFs, the SRD and my notes (in Word and Excel mostly) and rarely open the books.

Today I went to the Paizo website to buy the electronic version of the Pathfinder Game Mastery Guide (more on this one another post) and on impulse brought the Pathfinder GM’s Screen PDF. I figured that I could either use it on the customizable screens I purchased, like this one for Savage Worlds (I own both a regular and a landscape version), or print it out as a reference for me and my players.

I cannot say I was disappointed by my purchase. The information in the screen is well laid out, and useful, but nothing I could not have put together myself. The player’s side was just art, pretty art at that, but nothing useful since I don’t plan on using the screen in a traditional way. I guess you could say I paid $4.99 to not pass the trouble of compiling this information myself. Not a bad deal, but nothing to write home about.

This brought about my pondering… Do I really need a Game Master Screen? I think that for me, the answer is no, not the way I run my games anyway. Your experience may be different. What do you think?

Welcome reader, thanks for taking the time to find out just who I am! My name is Roberto, although in the Internet I usually go by the name of Sunglar. Long time pen & paper RPG player, mostly a GM for the better part of that time; some will say that’s because of my love of telling a good story, others because I’m a control freak, but that’s debatable… I was born, raised, and still live in Puerto Rico, an island in the Caribbean, with a small but active gaming community.

I’ve played RPGs for 30 years, and for most of that time I played D&D in all its various permutations, including Pathfinder and I'm currently playing D&D 5th edition. Other games my regular gaming group has played over the last few years include Mutants & Masterminds and Savage Worlds, but I have played many other games through the years, and plan to play many more. I am a compulsive homebrewer and rarely play a campaign I have not created myself.

You can follow me on Twitter as @Sunglar, and find me in Google+ also as Sunglar. I'm very active in Facebook where you can find me posting regularly in the Puerto Rico Role Players group. Looking forward to hearing from you!

12 thoughts on “Does the GM Screen deserve to go the way of the Dodo?”

  1. I like using a screen and I never let it confine me, as far as moving around and the like goes.

    That said, when I'm making a screen purchase, I always dig it if it's got a booklet packed in, either with adventures, or optional rules, or what have you. Those can make the entire purchase worthwhile for me.

  2. I should clarify: It helps me with moving around the room because it lets me do so without worrying about nosy players, say, taking a peek at my notes, or what page I have a book open to, etc.

  3. “Do I really need a Game Master Screen? I think that for me, the answer is no, not the way I run my games anyway. ”

    I think you do, even if you don't know it right now 🙂

    Look at your setup. Would you trade your laptop for a wall touchscreen, or maybe a TV, just aside your gaming table?

    Probably not. But why? It would be bigger than your laptop, more accessible when you pace around the table…

    Your laptop is your GM screen.

    What does a GM Screen? Two things: give you privacy for rolling dices, notes, maps, adventures and such things players can't see; and access to the most used data (tables & the like).

    Your laptop does both. It's as simple as that. You aren't without a GM screen, you just use an electronic one 🙂

    As for the commercial product of a GM screen, I agree. Apart from the object itself when I need it (I don't use yet a laptop at my gaming table), I never buy a GM screen and haven't for many many years. I always draft the tables and the like myself, the result is each and everytime better than the commercial one. I buy a GM screen for the art (when it's good), and for the cardboard. Nothing else.

  4. It's probably why they often bundle an adventure or other product with the screen, for added value (although I did buy the Doctor Who screen, which is the strongest, most solid I've ever seen, but had nothing bundled with it).

    I think there's value in both techniques (or all three if I could the laptop screen option). I wrote about it HERE if you're interested in more opinions.

  5. I've played without a screen, and with one. It depends on the game really. Right now, in my 4e game I do use the 4e screen. Mostly it's to keep my notes behind, and to have quick access to the tables on it. I generally roll my dice in front of the players, so its usually shuffled off to the side while I only look over to it as needed.

    I like the 4e screen because it's landscape. I always found the taller ones to get in the way.

  6. I hate myself for using a laptop at the table but it makes the job of initiative tracking so much easier. For that I only use excel. I love my GM binder for times I can not have my laptop with me. If initiative tracking was easier or faster on paper I would just lave my laptop at home.

  7. GM screens are integral if:

    1. You're the type of DM who needs a physical object to block your players from seeing your dice rolls, notes, and maps.

    2. Information presented on the screen is for rules-heavy systems where having access to critical tables, conditions, etc. is important than looking up the rules in the 400 – 600 page rulebook.

    Granted, a lot of GM's screens are very poor in what they consider important information and what the GM will use. I think Pathfinder does a decent job by listing all the mechanics and conditions, common things that the GM will need when running a game.

    I'm a big believer though that with every GM screen there should be a toolkit to go with it. Warhammer FRP GM screens are perfect examples. Not only you had the GM screen, but you had maps, other tables, and some general information to continue with the feel of the game. A packet of everyday NPCs for the GM would also be nice to add to any toolkit, but at least with Pathfinder, they address that with their Gamemaster's Guide and NPC book.

    For me personally, I no longer use GM screens. My dice rolls are out in the open and I use a laptop to keep track of my notes and maps. However, I will buy PDF versions of them as I prefer to look up a condition there instead of rummaging through the core book.

  8. I hate to say it, I love my GM Screens.

    I use a combo of my laptops for mostly keeping track of adventure notes (and in the case of 4E, handling encounters and game maps) while I usually keep the screen for a quick and dirty reference. I hate thumbing through the books or PDFs too much during combat.

    Although, I don't usually prop it up and hide behind it. I keep it to the side, easy to be grabbed. If I don't have an official screen for the game, I bought one of those "World's Best Screens" or whatever they're called…print out the tables I need, and put them in the order that I can quick reference by.

  9. I find that both laptops and GM screens put too much of a barrier between me and my players. However, in games where I want to conceal rolls (you could do an entire post about concealed vs open GM rolls), I use a half-height GM screen to obscure the dice.

    As for secret info the players aren't meant to know, I either keep it on index cards that I can easily keep in my hand or lean up against a stand, or use a sideboard for those sheets (a TV tray works great for this).

    Here's a good question: Does everyone here play at a table? We've done both dining room table and living room couches for years, and while the dining room table focuses people on the game more, the living room allows me to sit apart from the players a little, in an arm chair with sideboards, which allows me a little more authority…

  10. We used to be all about the living room gaming…most of us got started by playing around my bedroom…but last year my wife bought a big new dining room table, partially for the purpose of allowing us a larger gaming space.

    This came after I got into Savage Worlds and started using maps and minis for the first time ever.

  11. Regarding screens – I don't use a screen to obscure my dice. Since we play in my living room, it's easier to keep my notes out of view.

    Regarding laptops – I use one, it sits to my side so as not to be between myself and my players.

    Regarding couch vs. table – we've played in my living room for years, though there are times I miss the table. But even if I had room, some of my players have gotten too large and/or too old to be comfortable sitting at a table.

  12. @Tommy Brownell I understood you… For some reason when I started playing I felt the place of the DM was behind the screen, and although I broke that idea early on I find myself staying behind the screen more if it’s open on the table. I guess it can be psychological.

    @Jérémie, right you are, I have my own electronic “GM screen” it’s not a screen between me and the players, but does indeed do many of the same things. I even have a new tool that makes the computer even more of a GM screen. I’ll write more about this in upcoming posts.

    @Siskoid, loved your post about this matter…

    @David, I agree that landscape screen are better that traditional ones.

    @Youseph, it was REALLY hard for me to make the transition from paper notes to using the computer as my main GM tool. It was a learning curve and I had to change certain elements of my GM style, but overall it’s been for the best.

    @Yongkyosunim, I think the lack of anything beyond the screen itself is a big drawback of the Pathfinder RPG screen!

    @ Rev Lazaron, those do it yourself screens are the best, and oftentimes fan made screens are much better that commercial ones.

    @RT, through my gaming life I’ve played both at the table and on the couch or other configurations away from a table. For many years I used to prefer gaming away from a table, I find it more conductive for role-playing as I did not play with maps or miniatures. Once D&D 3rd edition came around and I embraced a more tactical gaming environment we’ve moved back to playing around a table. The room where we game is small and fill sup with the six players and myself so se huddle around the table but we don’t all sit at the table.

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