Wednesday, October 15, 2014

To Screen or Not to Screen?

One of the things that drew me to punk rock was the idea that the stage isn’t a sanctified space for the performers to deliver their message from behind an imaginary barrier, and upon which the audience could only gaze in adoration. Rather, the stage is just another spot in the room, and there is no barrier, real or otherwise, band and audience blend together until it becomes impossible to determine who or what the performance is and who the audience is. (As a side note, it doesn’t usually work that way. People are conditioned to the audience-performer divide and often play their conditioned roles.)

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.


  1. Yeah, who says the DM/GM map as to be all-inclusive and authoritative? I haven't GM'd multi-player games so I don't have any experience to draw on, but my gut feeling is not being all-inclusive or authoritative could work just as well (or even better) than the opposite. I think more depends on the GM, as is pretty much always the case when it comes to multi-player rpgs. Have fun!

  2. One of the things that I use a screen for is to prevent everyone from reading the notes I write to players. But note that I do roll my combat dice in full view of the players so that they know I am not fudging them.

    That being said, I roll other dice behind the screen . . . sometimes for no reason at all except to help create tension . . . so I use (and don't use) a screen at the same time . . . but I have no difficulty with any GM who chooses to not use a screen OR one who uses one either.

    -- Jeff

  3. Back in my 1st ed. AD&D days, I loved the DM screen, but mostly for the tables. It was good for hiding one's notes if you were playing outside on someone's porch or at a small table, but I always put it to one side so I could see the players. A barrier would have been counter-productive, but keeping stuff behind it meant they wouldn't haveto worry about accidentally seeing things which would spoil the surprise. If there were a big enough table that they couldn't read my notes acrossit, the screen usually got opened flat on the table or thrown in the middle somewhere for everyone to consult as needed.

    A propos of (post-)punk rock and breaking the audience-performer divide, if you ever get a chance to see Cold in Berlin play, I would recommend it. The lead singer sometimes goes for a wander through the audience with her microphone whilst she's singing. The energy at the gigs that I've been to was amazing, but some people were practically horrified when the singer walked right up to them.

    1. If I was playing something complicated (well, what I consider complicated) like 1st ed, i'd definitely need the tables. But using b/x i find all i really need, I have memorized already (what would be really helpful would be some sort of quick reference for spell effects, but now i just make the players tell me the effect). As i mentioned below, i ended up using the screen last time because there were too many of us at a small table and i felt like looking at my notes and map would be unavoidable for the player, and i needed some space of my own.

  4. Despite my best intentions, i ended up using a screen at the last session for my notes because the table was tiny and i had, by the end, 9 players. We were a little too close for comfort and it was all i could do to claim a spot on the tabletop as my own!

  5. I can see the importance of using a screen in the beginning of one's play - because, as some say, the tables are needed for reference. But then the screen should be seen as something that can be discarded in the future.

    As far as images and tables, I don't see why people are resistant to put them on their phone. As the author of the post says, having the thing in your hand is more practical, allows more mobility and is generally 'friendlier.' Instead of the screen on the table, why not keep all that important information on the screen in your hand?