In thinking more about last week’s piece on mise-en-place, I realized there was one more thing that I often do for the games that I run, that involves setting up a specific space for maximum effect: creating my GM Screen for the game. I don’t buy pre-made screens, rather I prefer to craft my own to ensure that it will have everything I need, where I need it.

To Screen or Not To Screen

There is some debate about having a GM screen vs. GMing au natural. I am not overly passionate on this topic, as I run plenty of games from behind a screen, and am equally comfortable running them without a screen. For the sake of making this article as inclusive as possible, I would like to expand GM screen to also mean other types of reference materials: cheat sheets, secondary monitors, etc. Because I am lazy when I type, I am going to just type GM Screen, but you and I know it means more. Cool.

Advantages of A DIY Screen

Many games have their own pre-made GM screens, full of tables and adorned with fancy artwork. Those just don’t do it for me. I like my GM screen a bit less fancy and a bit rough around the edges. I am not some kind of Hipster GM looking down on those products, but rather, I can’t guarantee that the screen will have the tables I need, let alone have them where my eyes naturally fall when I am behind the screen. For this I would rather lay out the screen myself.

When I do lay out my screen I follow these principles:

Things I Use Often

There are some parts of a game that I need to use all the time, such as the Ladder in Fate or the XS table in Corporation. I want that info somewhere to the left of center on my screen (because I am left-handed and my tendency is to look left when looking for something). This kind of information becomes easily available, allowing me to refresh myself at a glance while running.

Things I need help remembering

There are rules or tables in the game that I have trouble remembering, but I know they are useful and come up in the game with some frequency that warrants me being able to find them at a glance. Things like the Toughness of objects in Savage Worlds, or the Cover modifiers in D&D 3.5. I want those to my right, so that I can find them when they come up, without having to go to the rules.

Things I want the players to be able to see

Having evocative art on the player-facing side of a screen is nice, but there are often things things that can be on the outside of a screen that the players can use for reference. It might be the Ladder from Fate, or the rules for Soaking damage and removing Shake conditions from Savage Worlds. Why not help the players out with some useful info as well?

It helps me learn the rules

Another advantage to making your own screen is gaining knowledge about the system. Having to determine what things I need to go into what parts of the screen, and then cutting and pasting or transcribing the rules, helps me to learn the game. In addition, all that work also makes me more familiar with where things are in the rule book, so that when I do have to go to the book, I have a much better idea where a specific rule or table is located, and that makes my game run smoother.

Tools and Materials

When I create a set of reference materials for a new game, I have three platforms I use:

  • GM Screen – For this I like the Hammerdog Games The Worlds Greatest Screen (TWGS). My preference is the mini, which is a 4×6 screen. It gives me the ability to have a screen and still see my players. The TWGS allows you to create inserts which you slide into the screen, thus allowing the screen to serve for several different games.
  • Reference Sheets – For this I like normal paper, printing in color. To make them durable I will either put them into a report cover, or run to the office supply store and get them laminated.
  • Digital Sheets – For this I will create a PDF and display it on a second monitor, facing both the players and I, so that all the information can be seen.

When it comes to creating the pages themselves, I rely on a few tools:

  • Analog – In the past, I would photocopy pages from the game book, then cut and paste them onto a fresh sheet of paper; recalling my middle school newspaper layout skills (yes..layout was once done with an x-acto knife and glue stick, go ask your parents).
  • Digital Capture – I have a go-to program for being able to snip out parts of PDF’s and that is Skitch. I use Skitch to capture all the snippets that I want to work with and then…
  • Digital Layout – I have in the past utilized all types of programs for creating these pages. I find word processors to be the least helpful, and prefer vector drawing programs like Visio, OmniGraffle, or Google Drawings.

Using those three tools, I can create reference material for any of the three platforms above.

At A Quick Glance

Every GM benefits from having reference material close at hand, be it the classic GM screen or just a few laminated tables laying next to your session notes. Commercial screens can be fine, but they are not tailored to your style of play nor your aptitude with the rules. Reference sheets, when a publisher produces them, have the same issues. With a few free tools, you can craft your own reference material and make exactly what you need.

Do you craft our own reference materials? What kind of platform do you prefer? What tools do you use to create your materials?