Abandoning the DM/GM screen is a bit like that - perhaps without the pretension that I packed into that last paragraph - and tears down a wall.
I’m currently reading Alexis Smolensk’s How to Run and he notes that he does not use a DM screen. His reasons for dropping the screen seem to align with my own when it comes to rolling dice in the open so, I thought I would give it a try sometime.
As fortune would have it, last week the FLGS was quite crowded with Warhammer40K players (a new thing at the store and what looks to be a another big draw for them, although not as big as Magic:The Gathering) and rather than the usual two tables, we were consigned to a single small table - which was fine as we had about half of our usual number. Even with just four of us, the table was pretty crowded with character sheets, dice, the abstract combat sheet and miniatures, not to mention my map book, dungeon key, etc.
It seemed like a suitable opportunity to try and run screenless, if only to save some table space.
Despite the authority I am assumed to have as the “DM”, the fact is that I am playing the game, too. My role is different than the roles of other players who are responsible for one or two characters (I let player’s run their hirelings and charmed opponents, unless I think the NPC would refuse or resist the action the player is having them take), but I am still playing the game. Although it's subtle, without the screen, I think there was a definite mental shift on my part, if no on the part the other players.
Was I worried that the others would see my maps? A little, but not because I thought they would cheat (I’m not really sure how you can cheat at playing an RPG).
Rather, when I am running a PC, for me, much of the fun is the discovery of the place; with the map in view (not in the middle of the table mind you), that might be jeopardized. More importantly, to me as a DM, now that I’m trying to give them successes when they roll as such, it makes it harder to modify the map when they find a secret door I didn't know was there.
But that raises the question, what am I afraid of if they see me add it to the map? That I will undermine my role as DM because I am supposed to be all knowing about the game world? (I don’t think that’s written anywhere) That they will know I improvise and that parts of the game are “made up” randomly determined? I don’t worry about this when there is dialog or reactions in combat or when I roll to see how an NPC reacts to a character with a particularly low charisma score, why then in this situation does it matter? Is the map sacrosanct? Is there a rule or unwritten social contract that says Thou Shalt Not Modify the Map in Play! (i don’t mean Quantum Ogring something. For that I think there is indeed a social contract that thou shalt not undermine agency even if you think the other players will never know).
Some people will point out that the screen is helpful not for hiding anything but because it has frequently used information for the DM. I would agree, except, I play war games and typically, war game rules do that on Quick Reference Sheets that are simply held in hand. Why is a screen, usually in a static location on the table, more helpful than sheets you can hold in hand and reference while moving about? (Ever since I played in a DCC game in DragonCon 2013 with one of the most animated GMs I have ever witnessed, I have, for the most part, given up sitting when running a social game.)
In my experience it’s not better, and it might actually be worse.
When I’m standing, reading items at the bottom of a screen is difficult to say the least. The same info held in hand is easily read. That said, I’ve started putting much of the relevant info for creatures, traps, etc. into my key, and memorized most everything else (b/x lends itself to this). Players are responsible for knowing their Saving Throw numbers, To Hit numbers, etc.
I’m running the next session of the Trelleborg dungeon on Friday night and expect to have more players in attendance. I will try it without the screen again and see how it goes.