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Going Screenless Rocks

As promised [1], I went screenless for last night’s game. As the proud owner of somewhere in the neighborhood of nine GM’s screens and a screen fanboy of nearly 20 years, this was big change for me.

And it was awesome. I felt more engaged with my players, I had more room to spread out my stuff, I didn’t feel naked because my players could see the major NPCs or my game notes — it just worked well across the board.

Part of that was probably because Burning Empires doesn’t require much Secret GM Stuff — no dungeon map, monsters awaiting their big reveal, etc. But it also worked because it’s a good approach in its own right, and I’m very glad I gave it a try. I’ll definitely be doing it again.

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#1 Comment By VV_GM On September 9, 2007 @ 8:45 am

I’ve been rolling in the open all of the time now myself, and the lack of a screen is actually quite refreshing. With the right game system you can really enjoy the scenario a lot more by removing the screen.

#2 Comment By Michael Huxley On September 9, 2007 @ 11:18 am

I also enjoy GMing screenless. Right along with what VV_GM says, Burning Wheel/Empires IS the right game system for going screenless. In fact, I feel like you detract from the system if you use a screen.

Glad you enjoyed it, Martin, I can’t wait to hear about your session!

#3 Comment By Yax On September 9, 2007 @ 1:03 pm

I move my screen up and down during games. I’d say it’s down most of the time.

When I can wing it, I keep my screen on a small side-table so I can hide rolls and maps, but the screen doesn’t come between my players and I.

#4 Comment By John Arcadian On September 9, 2007 @ 6:02 pm

I usually go without a screen, mostly because of the way my recent gaming spaces have been set up, but also as a matter of preference. You can always hide a roll behind a hand screen if you need, or on a side table. I think it makes you feel more connected with the players.

The only thing I miss about screens is all the useful information they contain. You can put all that information on a separate sheet, but it is handy to have it directly in line of sight.

#5 Comment By Robert On September 9, 2007 @ 9:08 pm

I like to go screen-less, though in saying that what ever is not directly relevant, and maps that need to remain hidden, sit on a chair beside me out of sight. Most players have enough decorum to not peer through your stuff anyway.

I also use a sheet of pregenerated d20 rolls, and I mark those off in order rather than roll the d20. It speeds combat up that little bit more (there’s no need to look up the ogre’s attack bonus when you already know that he rolled a three), and it adds to the feeling of omnipotence: I know what is about to happen.

It is tempting to make a spot check (3) then make the attack roll (19) when looking at the sheet, but that is just cheating.

The benefit of being able to cross off 6 attacks and quickly announcing that the ogres are having troubles fighting against your different style (the next 6 rolls were each very low).

Also, you can see immediately if a critical threat is confirmed. Circle that Hide check for later reference to an opposed Spot check. Use it as a round counter with a big X on the last NPC attack.

I also find I make more rolls with it at times, in a good way. When the PCs are Hiding for example, each round of action is easily, and silently, checked off against an opposed Spot check.

Diplomacy is also handled well with this. When my next roll is a 3 the Baron mumbles something vague about ‘for the good of all mankind.’ When it is a 20 I’ll pull out all the stops.

Grapple can be simplified too. If one of the next 5 rolls is poor (is that about right, 5 rolls just to make a grapple check?) I can announce that the grapple attempt against the PCs has failed.

#6 Comment By David Michael On September 9, 2007 @ 9:50 pm

I’ve never used a GM screen in 18 years of running. No deep and meaningful reason for it, I just never did.

I tried it a couple times, but I hated the cramped feeling. And I could never quickly read the small print in all those jam-packed tables anyway.

So … I think it’s just a matter of personal style, and don’t make any attempt to advocate one way or the other.


#7 Comment By Al On September 9, 2007 @ 10:32 pm

Keyboard tray on the GM’s spot. Remove keyboard, add map.

#8 Comment By Patrick On September 10, 2007 @ 5:27 am

I’ve been going screen-less for all of this past campaign, which as lasted 2 years now (with about 6 months of no play). I use a clipboard, since I play d20 and always have maps and critters.

It really makes you prepare ahead of time, actually. Once your players figure out that all of your prepared material is already on your clipboard, it breaks the suspension of disbelief when you have to reference too many books in a row.

#9 Comment By robustyoungsoul On September 10, 2007 @ 6:21 am

Going without the screen is great for some games. For old school gamist style stuff I still like to get behind a screen though (D&D, Shadowrun, etc.).

#10 Comment By Rick the Wonder Algae On September 10, 2007 @ 7:09 am

I’m not too worried about a screen, but I DO love the tables, etc… Especially since I’ve got one of those new fangled customizable screens, so I can make sure that my screen has exactly what I need.

#11 Comment By Rick the Wonder Algae On September 10, 2007 @ 7:09 am

I’m not too worried about a screen, but I DO love the tables, etc… Especially since I’ve got one of those new fangled customizable screens, so I can make sure that my screen has exactly what I need.

#12 Comment By Johnn On September 10, 2007 @ 7:24 am

Ditto what Yax said. I use the multi-panel Kalamar screen for urban gameplay, and a custom screen when the PCs are in the dungeon or wilderness.

I tend to pick my screen-of-choice up a lot during play and pass it around if required to help players find a chart quickly.

@Al: great tip! I just need to convince my wife now to install the tray under our dining room table. It will double as a place to hide broccoli.

#13 Comment By Frost On September 10, 2007 @ 9:39 am

I use a screen, but it set on a side table. I’ve probably been doing this for the better part of a year. The main thing it is used for is to hide my maps, minis, and dice tray.

Unfortunately, I have players who can’t help but look at my map if it is left out in the open.

#14 Comment By Al On September 10, 2007 @ 3:43 pm


I have a ‘Dutch Leaf Table’ which has horizontal leaf supports conveniently spaced to add/remove the tray. (Depending on whether I want dinner.) 😉

#15 Comment By Telas On September 11, 2007 @ 9:50 pm

No screen, but laptop. When I was GMing without a laptop, I used a screen a few times, then ditched it. My notes were in manila folders, kept closed when not in use.

However, I do roll dice in a cigar box when the roll is secret. Or when I’m screwing with the players… 😉