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Do You Use a GM’s Screen?

In my experience, the decision whether or not to use a GM’s screen seems to be based on 5 factors (listed here in order of importance):

How about you: Do you use a screen? Why or why not? And what are your screen quirks?

Personally, I love GM’s screens. I own at least 6 of them (more may be lurking on my shelves somewhere), and I almost aways use one when I run games. My preference is for wide, short, 4-panel screens, and I don’t mind if my screen isn’t designed for the game I’m playing as long as it has those properties.

For most games, I use my long out of print Call of Cthulhu screen (which I think came out around the same time as the 5th edition of the game). Where traditional screens have tall panels, this one has wide panels — which means it’s longer and lower-profile than normal, thereby hiding more stuff and letting me get a better view of the table.

If I’m running D&D, my most recent favorite is the Eberron DM’s screen. It’s a bit flimsier than my CoC screen, and the two outer panels are a bit too short for my tastes — but it makes up for it by having the best selection of interior data I’ve ever found on a D&D screen. (Can you tell I’m picky about my screens?)

When I was running my Selgaunt campaign [1], our gaming table was packed — the game started out with 7 players — which meant that a low-profile screen wouldn’t hide my notes very well. For that game, I paperclipped together two D&D screens (my Forgotten Realms screen and the free screen that came with Dragon #310) to make one 5-panel uber-screen.

For me, paperclips are an important component of any screen. This is one reason I don’t mind if my screen doesn’t match the game — I wind up clipping so many things to it that I can hardly see any of the stuff that’s actually printed on the screen. I’ve contemplated getting a MasterScreen (which appears to be out of print) for exactly this reason, since it’s designed to accomodate custom sheets of data — but somehow, I always come back to the paperclips.

That’s my screen usage in a nutshell — how about you?

25 Comments (Open | Close)

25 Comments To "Do You Use a GM’s Screen?"

#1 Comment By Vaxalon On November 12, 2005 @ 11:31 am

I only use them for DnD. Any other games I play (Dogs in the Vineyard, frex) have no use for them.

The one I like best is the OOOOOOLD 1e DnD screen with four panels. The Trampier art is superb, and like you I could care less about the tables on the inside. Three panels just isn’t enough for me.

#2 Comment By David Michael On November 12, 2005 @ 12:29 pm

The D&D 3e screen was the first time I tried to use a screen. It was too tall to see over, so it became a folder I carried session notes and character sheets in. The new D&D GM screen is shorter, and looks like it could be useful. But I doubt I’ll use it when I start GM-ing again. I don’t feel the need to isolate myself and my rolls from the players so much. Screens make me feel like some kind of evil mastermind hatching a plot…when I see myself, even as GM, as more of a participant.


#3 Comment By Martin On November 12, 2005 @ 11:07 pm

(David) I donโ€™t feel the need to isolate myself and my rolls from the players so much.

I roll in the open 99% of the time, so screen space is mainly used to hide my notes. The evil mastermind thing is just a fringe benefit. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Vaxalon: I’ve never played DitV, although I know a fair amount about it. What specifically makes it a game that doesn’t require a screen?

#4 Comment By Helgraz On November 13, 2005 @ 12:47 am

I use a screen my father made back when he DMed for us back about 22 years ago – it’s a clue board, cut in half, then taped together so it forms the four-panel low effect, and it’s sturdy enough that it takes a good force to knock it down; the inside is full of 2nd ed charts I never bothered to update to 3.0/3.5, but that’s not what I use it for anyway. The outside has various bits of pc’ed artwork. (And for the curious, the black [back] side of the gameboard is the side that the players see.)

#5 Comment By miyako On November 13, 2005 @ 1:44 am

I usually try not to use screens to hide rolls because I think that having things out in the open makes it a bit easier for players to accept misfortune happening to their characters. If they can see you roll a series of 20’s, it seems less personal when a character is severely injured or killed. It also helps to build up suspence. If something big is going to happen (or you want them to think it is) then give the players the shifty eye and roll some dice behind the screen. Of course my DM style tends to be very open. If players are skilled enough to seperate out the difference between what they know and what their characters know, then I have no problems letting them see notes I’ve prepared for the campaign. When players seem to have trouble with this them sometimes I’ll create false notes to mislead them.
That said, I do find that GM screens can be useful for reference. Since I recently switched over from 2nd edition D&D to 3.5 edition I find the charts useful since I don’t have my new books as dog eared, nor as many of the charts memorized.

#6 Comment By DM T. On November 13, 2005 @ 2:10 am

I use 2 screens when the game table permits it. The D&D 3ed & the 3.5ed shipped with Dragon #310.
I love the four panels each of them provide, to cover enough grounds for my adventures and many of my notes.
What I don’t like about the screens is the information WoTC decided to print, so I photocopied some of the tables and glued them over the information in the screens.

#7 Comment By David Michael On November 13, 2005 @ 9:14 pm

Miyako: “If players are skilled enough to seperate out the difference between what they know and what their characters know, then I have no problems letting them see notes Iโ€™ve prepared for the campaign.”

I couldn’t have said it better. That’s me exactly.

It’s a combination of GM-as-participant and Battlefield Arrogance (“I don’t mind you knowing my battle plan because I doubt it will help you”). ๐Ÿ˜‰


#8 Comment By Pedro On November 13, 2005 @ 9:32 pm

I don’t use a DM screen anymore. I used to, but when we moved to 3rd ed I stopped. I use a laptop during game sessions, so that blocks my notes and things I don’t want the PCs to see. But, the rolls are done in the open.

#9 Comment By Martin On November 13, 2005 @ 10:32 pm

Based on these comments, I’m going to have to try not using a screen and leaving my notes out in the open sometime. It’s fascinating that that approach seems to be fairly common — I’m still having trouble getting my head around the “leaving the notes out” bit! ๐Ÿ˜‰

#10 Comment By DM T. On November 14, 2005 @ 1:22 am

I think that if I had a Laptop, then I wouldn’t use a screen either.
If I had a published module, I could always scan it into the computer (for personal use only) and “Travel light”.

#11 Comment By Crazy Jerome On November 14, 2005 @ 9:03 am

I’ve handed the players copies of the monster notes, complete with tactics. The expectation is that they run the monsters as well as their characters, in the interest of play speed. (Granted, I don’t usually do this when they meet something for the first few times.)

So it probably comes as no surprise when I say that I never use a DM screen. A screen is just another thing that gets in my way. For those very few rolls that I feel compelled to hide (fewer every year), a cupped hand is usually sufficient to shield it. Even then, I’m usually shielding to create paranoia, not because I really care whether they see the roll or not. I do some “pretending to roll for wandering monsters when I have zero intention of slowing down the pacing with an encounter right now” rolls behind my cupped hand. ๐Ÿ™‚

#12 Comment By Frank On November 14, 2005 @ 10:49 am

I used to use a GM screen very heavily back in the 1e days when the GM needed to figure out the players chance to hit (back before someone discovered THAC0). I made my own screen using the game board from Avalon Hill’s Midway Game and taped photocopies of all the tables to it (so I had a very large 4 panel screen). Back then, I did a lot of standing (actually I still do, or I sit on the floor right next to the table), so seeing over it wasn’t a problem. I have a “generic” GM screen which is 3 8×10 panels (tall, not wide) which I used some in college. But then I started to play in the living room instead on a conference room or dining room table.

One apartment I lived in had this fairly comfortable chair with flat (but upholstered) 8″ wide arm rests. It was perfect for laying out game notes. I also had a plywood board I held in my lap. During this time, I was running Cold Iron which has one sheet of reference charts, which easily fit on a lap desk (or on the arm rest) along with a sheet of scratch paper to keep track of the opposition’s hit points and such (and a quick write up of the less than 10 stats that are most used in combat).

During my D20 Arcana Unearthed/Evolved gaming, I used the 3.5 screen from the Dragon, but I had it on a TV cart to my side, and almost never referenced it. In my most recent campaign, I sometimes didn’t bother setting it up (the TV cart I use is a homemade one I got at a yardsale – it has a 3″ tall “fence” around 3 of the 4 sides – makes a great place to keep GM notes and the sides contain dice rolls).

I have felt less and less need to actively hide my notes, probably partly fueled by more mature players who don’t try to sneak looks at them.

I still haven’t transitioned to open rolling though.


#13 Comment By Sampy On November 14, 2005 @ 1:10 pm

I use a screen but I almost never hide behind it exclusively ๐Ÿ™‚

I play in a conference room at work so I can have access to a whiteboard and free drinks. At the end of the table where I sit there is a large TV on a 5′ stand and I often place books and roll dice on the parts of this stand not covered by TV (I can’t sit still when DMing to save my life). Also, the whiteboards have pen trays that also have the whitboard material on them so they are great to keep track of hit point totals and other secret stuff.

#14 Comment By ScottM On November 14, 2005 @ 2:28 pm

I’m erratic about it; as you mentioned in #1, the specific game affects things. For Mage I’d often have a screened off area for keeping track of critter health and the like, along with 3×5 “what’s going on” cards for keeping track of bad guy stats, notes, etc.

Martin, the reason you don’t use a screen in DiTV is twofold. First, all dice rolled are rolled in clear view; the see/raise mechanism requires that everyone be able to see all the dice on both sides. Second, the book urges you again and again to actively reveal the town and its problems. You don’t have NPC stats to keep track of, just people (many who want you to interfere, and a few who don’t). The rest of the town will usually tell you about the people who don’t want you to interfere…

#15 Comment By Martin On November 14, 2005 @ 4:36 pm

(Frank) I have felt less and less need to actively hide my notes, probably partly fueled by more mature players who donโ€™t try to sneak looks at them.

I don’t think this is always a question of maturity, although a lot of times it is. For example, as a player I find the area behind the screen to be a place of compelling mystery, and even though I take precautions not to see anything behind it, my eyes are drawn there — and if something slips out, I’ll notice it. ๐Ÿ˜‰

(Scott) Martin, the reason you donโ€™t use a screen in DiTV is twofold.

Chalk this up as two more reasons why I really need to play DitV — that sounds like a lot of fun!

#16 Comment By Frank On November 15, 2005 @ 9:31 am

Good point on the “attractive nuisance” bit. I have noticed that a bit in the past, but with my current group, I haven’t noticed any significant reaction to exposure of the notes.

I do have my area set up so the players aren’t too close to my seat and that probably helps.

At one point in my first Arcana Unearthed campaign, we had so many players that one player was sitting right next to my cart – and could easily see over the screen.

I’ll often put something over maps which are the easiest thing to get information from a sneak peek.

Way back in the days, I once had to contend with a player who had his own copy of the module. I think I ended up teleporting them into the middle of one of my own dungeons when I discovered that (and realized how much he had been using it).

I have taken up Robin Laws suggestion that the campaign setting be shared with the players, but I’m not quite ready to share the module prep with the players.

Of course there is a factor with the way I ran Cold Iron and Rune Quest where I didn’t use large dungeons. In those games, my prep material was pretty minimal and easy to keep hidden.

I also set up my room so the players don’t have to walk by my seat (which does leave me climbing over players sometimes).


#17 Comment By adamH On November 15, 2005 @ 12:50 pm

i never use a screen for any game. It might be that we play around a fairly large and low table, when we have a table. On top of that, i have no problem shoing players my notes because they are all hard to read half-thoughts and backwards logic in poor handwriting.

#18 Comment By Judas On November 15, 2005 @ 1:13 pm

I use a single, 3 panel screen and my laptop as the other “screen”. I do find it somewhat distancing (and I end up standing alot) but I do like to hide my notes and maps. Not because I think my players are a bunch of cheats, but because I think it would spoil the surprise if they, for example, saw the complete map. I like using maps, and need to use them to keep things organized.

In the current game I am playing, the DM is using an interesting “half-height” screen I might acquire. Its just tall enough to hide a map, notes, or rolls, but doesnt create the “Iron Curtain” effect.

#19 Comment By Martin On November 16, 2005 @ 11:05 am

Judas, by “half-height” do you mean a laterally oriented screen (as opposed to a vertically oriented one), or a screen that’s literally 6″ tall?

#20 Comment By Judas On November 16, 2005 @ 11:08 am

Its a screen thats about 6 inches tall. I believe it was 4 panels in size. Horizontally, it is about the same size as other screens I have seen. I will get a good look at it tonight since it’s game night. ๐Ÿ™‚

#21 Comment By Judas On November 16, 2005 @ 11:09 am

PS: Another description: It looks like a standard screen someone simply cut in half.

#22 Comment By Martin On November 16, 2005 @ 5:25 pm

Judas: Wow — that wouldn’t hide anything but a die roll at any table I’ve ever gamed at! I can see how it would work in certain situations, though.

#23 Comment By mcv On November 22, 2005 @ 3:48 am

Our screen usage varies a lot, mostly depending on whether the GM has anything to hide. If you have lots of maps, sheets and handouts, a GM screen is useful, but if the game is mostly roleplay and improvisation (like with my recent Fudge campaign I mentioned elsewhere), I don’t see the need. I often used one when I GMed WFRP’s The Enemy Within, for example (it has lots of maps and handouts), and our other regular GM often uses one for Earthdawn (but not always).

And the screen usually just screens off a corner of the table with all the secret but easily recognised stuff, and the GM himself isn’t hiding behind it. As soon as there are no secrets to hide (a stack of written notes, a book without spoilers on the cover), there’s no need for a hiding place.

A more important use for GM screens is their nice summary of important rules and tables, but those could just as well be on a sheet of paper or in a booklet (depending on the complexity of the game system).

#24 Comment By Martin On November 22, 2005 @ 9:40 am

(mcv) And the screen usually just screens off a corner of the table with all the secret but easily recognised stuff, and the GM himself isnโ€™t hiding behind it.

I’ve seen this approach before, but my gaming area has never been set up in such a way that I could give it a try. Most of my gaming tables have been long and narrow — although I suppose a small card table would do the trick.

Thanks for reminding me about this one, mcv!

#25 Comment By Jeb On November 30, 2005 @ 1:07 pm

There have only been a few games where I have consistently used a GM’s screen. I used one when I first ran AD&D, I used the screens for Bushido, Aftermath, and Daredevils, and I used one for a Feng Shui game. But, that’s about it.

For many years, we played in the “lounge around the living room” format where the GM has enough physical separation from the players that a screen isn’t needed for privacy.

For Feng Shui, I made my own screen by overlapping and stapling two file folders together into a tri-fold screen. I copied tables and images out of the rulebook and pasted the tables inside the screen and pasted the images on the outside as a collage. It was fun and useful. But then, Feng Shui has so few mechanics to reference that just about everything that you could need can be included in a screen.

Recently, I have been running d20 Modern, and although I have a screen, I rarely use it. The information in it is difficult to reference and of limited usefulness. Generally with d20, we go to the books. Were I to run d20 M again, I might make a screen with key rules for grappling, autofire, action points (my amended list of uses), and skills where the DC descriptions are needed.

To keep my notes private, I generally cover them with a blank sheet of notepaper or the sheet where I track initiative and NPC damage.

Many times, the screen just gets in the way, obscuring my view of the battlemap and/or taking up valuable table space.

#26 Pingback By Treasure Tables » Gifts for GMs, 2005 Edition On December 2, 2005 @ 7:43 am

[…] Not everyone digs GM screens — but some GMs love them, myself included. I’ve included three different 4-panel screens here, all of which I can recommend based on my experience with them. […]