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The GM’s New Clothes – Gaming without a GM Screen


Kyle MacKay has been GMing for years with a GMs screen, and in today’s guest article he talks about his process of getting rid of it. While GMs screens are a staple of more conventional types of role-playing, and I love mine for certain games, Kyle makes some good points about ditching it for the traditional games — This Machine Kills Min-Maxers John

The Gamemaster’s Screen is as an iconic a symbol of our hobby as the strange little dice we use. Behind that barrier of cardboard, covered with a collage of brightly colored heroes, wizards, and dragons, a GM riffles through their secret notes, conceals the figurines that the characters will encounter later, and smirks with glee when they roll a particularly devastating attack. But a little over a year ago I began to wonder: is my GM Screen actually doing me any favors? Would my player’s gaming experience be improved if I removed the screen entirely? I decided to conduct this experiment and after a year’s trial I can unequivocally say that it was a resounding success. I completely understand that what works for me and my gaming group may not work for everyone, but let me try to convince you that getting rid of your screen may be the best thing for you and your players:

Helpful tables

 I completely understand that what works for me and my gaming group may not work for everyone, but let me try to convince you that getting rid of your screen may be the best thing for you and your players: 
Most GM Screens are filled with a wide variety of tables so that a GM doesn’t need to go scrambling through his books to find the relevant information. Honestly, I’ve never used these tables much to begin with, although I’ve known GMs who rely on them. Luckily, there are a few easy ways to solve this problem. First is to utilize your tablet or smart phone. There are plenty of websites for Pathfinder, 5th Edition, FATE, and others that allow you to cue up the exact rules you need and can be easily searched. If you are old school it is easy enough to just photocopy whatever charts, tables, or graphs you need. Keep them in a convenient folder nearby in case you need to reference them.

Hiding your notes and maps from the players

When you first start off in this hobby some people have the temptation to look behind the GM Screen. A few players even succumb to it. But ask yourself: do the players you play with really want to cheat their way through the game? As the GM, do you leave all of your notes behind if you have to leave to go to the bathroom? Do you actually trust your gaming group? If the answers to the above questions are yes then a GM should not be concerned with having pages left in the open. If the answers are no you’ve got some bigger problems, like seeing how expensive it would be to set up CCTV cameras around your table.

Concealing figurines

This one took me a while to figure out. I didn’t want to set out six Ogres and a Medusa fig before the game began for all my players to see. It ruins the suspense! But I soon figured out that it wasn’t as big a problem as I thought and could even be used for my benefit. Let’s face it, more often than not, your players sort of know what to expect anyway. Did they end last game about to go into Orc infested territory? I doubt any of them would be surprised if you placed Orcs on the table. Also, I don’t know about everyone, but I do not have multiples of many of my monsters. If the group is fighting four Owlbears, I am likely using my one Owlbear fig and three other vaguely Owlbear-like figs. The players don’t know which of the four on the table is the monster they might be fighting.

The trick I like the best though is to put monsters on the table that the characters aren’t going to fight. Set a Huge Treant fig out when they are travelling in the forest and they will be super careful about approaching any tree. Another fun trick is to put out either many more or less figurines than will be making an appearance. Is the group going to be fighting twenty Goblins? Put forty out on the table? You can play mind games with the players before the game even begins!

Being able to cheat (fudge) your die rolls

This is the big one. Letting your players see every roll you make. Every. Single. One. No more concealing those 20s when the party is on the brink of death. No more pretending to make a crucial saving throw that would have defeated the campaign’s major villain for good. Complete transparency. This can be a scary proposition. I was very nervous the first few times I tried it, but you would not believe the difference open rolls make at the gaming table!

To begin with, the tension that you can build throughout the game is amazing! I will often announce the target number that the monster or NPC needs to hit (“The wizard needs an 8 on the die to succeed on your Charm Person spell”). As I begin to roll the die, my players will all lean forward in anticipation, some even rising to their feet, to see the outcome of the roll. The die hits the table (“I rolled an 8. He seems almost taken in but shakes it off at the last minute”) – and a chorus of groans is heard. Players slump back in defeat, a golden opportunity wasted. But let’s say the die landed differently (“I only roll a 5. The wizard looks at you with trusting eyes”). The table erupts in cheers, everybody celebrating defeating a powerful opponent with a single spell. Now, I don’t necessarily do this for every die roll (usually just the ones that have high stakes), but I do roll everything in the open. If the fighter is being attacked 5 times I’ll roll all the dice, right in front of the player who controls the fighter if I can. They can see exactly what I rolled. I can see the same level of joy or chagrin in their eyes after each roll.

The main benefit of rolling all of your dice in the open is to build trust between you and your players. How many times have you been playing in a game when the GM inexplicably rolls several 20s in a row? How often has a player been on the brink of death when the monsters seem to miss with every attack? Even if these outcomes ended in the character’s favor it feels like you’ve been cheated. The character’s decisions should always matter. If they decided to get into a fight and lost (fair and square) that is on them. Building trust between yourself and your players can go a long way in mediating disputes, weighing in on rule interpretations, and a host of other issues. The players know you are not hiding anything. That you have no agenda other than allowing the players to tell a great story and everyone having a good time. That you are completely impartial.

There you have it, my breakdown on the benefits of doing away with your GM Screen. Have any of you attempted this before? Was it a positive experience or did it turn into a total train wreck? Leave a comment below. I’d love to hear about it!

Kyle MacKay had been gaming for 25 years and a GM for 20 of those.  He compulsively buys old gaming books and never plays them.  He just enters them into a spreadsheet.  He lives in Canada.

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "The GM’s New Clothes – Gaming without a GM Screen"

#1 Comment By John Fredericks On August 26, 2016 @ 8:54 am

Great article, Kyle, and I’ve run without screens with great success as well.

Though usually I do hide a few figures in a box under the table to keep some surprise their. Though I like your idea of mis-direction with other figures.

Great article all around.

#2 Comment By Silveressa On August 26, 2016 @ 5:40 pm

Depending on the system I’ve found during interaction scenes when players are rolling sense motive, bluff, diplomacy etc checks rolling for the opposition openly (in rule systems with opposing rolls) can really kill tension and change the tone from roleplaying to roll playing the scene.

#3 Comment By black campbell On August 28, 2016 @ 8:58 am

I don’t usethem anymore, but that’s more be ause I tend to keep my notes on a laptop, and use a dice app. When I do use them, it’s as a faster reference on a rule than opening the bok.

#4 Comment By MuadMouse On August 29, 2016 @ 8:06 am

Good article!

The only reason I ever use a screen is when I’m handling maps that I might fumble with. I trust my players perfectly, I just don’t want them to suffer from spoilers because of my clumsiness.

I tend to gravitate away from games that would require the use of tables to the extent that I’d need them on a screen. The greatest exception to this is The One Ring RPG with its Loremaster’s Screen: it’s a wonderful system with terrible organization of information, and having NPC abilities listed and described on the screen is a life saver. Besides, the unassuming vista of Lake Town it presents on the player side is so great that it’s the one I use for all my medieval fantasy games – I dislike the EPIC00LZORZ!!!1 artwork on most screens.

As for public dice rolls, I’m with you all the way. While I might roll more routine checks behind the screen to save time, whenever the stakes are significant I roll in front of everyone. It helps to emphasise the seriousness of the situation.

#5 Comment By themensch On August 29, 2016 @ 12:37 pm

I’ve had great success running without a GM screen for the past several years, although my laptop’s screen sometimes fits that function when needed. I try to keep all the play materials digital and I’ll use an online dice roller if I really need to keep something secret from the players, but for the most part everything is out in the open. I rely on sportsmanship over gamesmanship, and while I know I’m fortunate to have a group that believes likewise this may not be the case at every table. However, I’ve found that encouraging that sort of play style has been its own reward.

#6 Comment By Shelby Dawg On September 18, 2016 @ 9:54 am

As most of my world sits in my head, hiding it is easy. I pawn off the chart work, rules drawing etc., to players fast, half hour into a new group being the current record. As my players have the figure (now Pawn) collection to hand, they can assemble the hordes much faster than I.

My sole reason for a screen is concealing the dice. Most of my groups have run into one of my hot nights and want me to fudge die rolls. I remember one crew mandating this after a trivial, -2 CR encounter had me pulling punches and implementing a rescue to avoid a TPK5 confirmed crits on round one.

I can go either way and prefer to move around the table, often standing by the active player. Some get nervous, others prefer the ‘intimacy’ and can role play better with ‘just me’ instead of a half dozen in the conversation.