Over in the Suggestion Pot, Stew reader AquaFox said:
I haven’t seen many articles that give good insight on the GM screen. Its usefulness, what it’s there for, what its alternatives are. I would love to see an article like that on Gnome Stew, since I have not seen anything similar anywhere else.
I’m our resident screen fetishist, with around 10 screens in my library — I love GMing screens (sometimes called “GM’s screens”), and usually buy the official screen for whatever I’m running at the moment.
I’ve also been known to paperclip two four-panel screens together to create a five-panel screen, because four panels just isn’t enough. On the flipside, I’ve run plenty of games with no screen, and I like both approaches for different reasons.
Let’s talk turkey.
Anatomy of a GMing Screen
There are basically two styles of screen: landscape and portrait. Landscape screens are lower and wider; portrait screens are taller and narrower.
Most screens have three or four panels; a few have five, and a few are just plain weird (Kingdoms of Kalamar and HackMaster come to mind…). Three-panel screens tend to tip over easily, particularly three-panel portrait-style screens. Four-panel screens are stable and give you more real estate to work with.
In terms of materials, screens are usually cardstock, sometimes hardcover — a glorious thing! — and occasionally something else entirely. Cardstock is kind of flimsy, but it’s light, takes up less space, and is cheaper. Hardcover screens can handle a lot of wear and tear, but they’re bulkier.
“Other” includes screens like this customizable screen, which is made of vinyl with a cardboard core (like a three-ring binder) and features clear pockets on both sides where you can slide in rules, notes, artwork, or anything else you like.
Why GMing Screens Rock Your Ass
There are two big reasons to use a GMing screen:
- To hide stuff from your players. For most GMs, this means die rolls and adventure material, but even if you make your rolls out in the open you still need a way to hide your notes, maps, printed adventures, etc.
- To give you ready access to frequently referenced rules. Screens have charts, tables, and other handy mechanical stuff on the inside (the side that faces you), saving you from hunting for them in your books. Some also put player-oriented data on the outside, but most cover the outside in evocative artwork instead.
Depending on how you GM, you might find that both of these purposes matter a lot to you, that one matters and the other doesn’t, or that neither of them matters at all. If you use a screen, chances are it’s because at least one of these purposes is important to you.
For me, it’s hiding stuff. I usually roll behind my screen, though not always, and I like to take notes and lay out adventure material that could spoil the game for my players if they happenened to see it. I also like to stage miniatures behind my screen, setting up what I’m going to need that night ahead of time.
In terms of putting useful rules at my fingertips, I find that every GMing screen falls down in this area. At least 25% of what’s on the inside of the screen is usually crap, be it filler, less-than-essential charts, or empty space. In fact, I usually just use the screen I think will work best and ignore what game it’s designed to accompany — that’s how useless the interior tends to be. YMMV, of course: One GM’s crap is another GM’s treasure, but this isn’t why I buy screens most of the time.
I’d say there are also three smaller reasons, as well:
- Because screens create a separation between the GM and players, representing the fact that while everyone is there to have a good time, your role is different
- To set the mood through the artwork your players see during the game
- To give you a handy spot to clip notes and other useful bits of paper
I disagree with the first of the smaller reasons philosophically: I understand that GMs and players do different things, but I don’t need a little wall to remind everyone of that. This is a personal choice, though — depending on your GMing style and philosophy, you and your players might like that division.
I’m all over the second reason, though. When I’m a player, I stare at the art on the back of our GM’s screen for several hours a week for months or years — for good or ill, the screen artwork is linked to the game and the campaign pretty strongly for me. I dig that.
Ditto with number three: I love clipping customized notes, reminders, and other game-related stuff to the inside of my screen. It’s generally a lot more useful than what’s already printed there, and it works for me.
Why GMing Screens Suck Halfling Hairy Toes
Try running or playing a session with a screen and one without, and you’ll see the difference right away: Having a screen on the table makes the game feel slightly less intimate and casual and slightly more formal.
It’s usually no big deal, but it does help set the tone of the game. Most GMs I know (myself included) find that one approach — using a screen or not using one — feels better to them than the other, and tend to default to that style.
If you want to create an intimate experience, or connect as easily as possible with your players, don’t use a screen. That’s not to say you can’t have amazing, intimate, powerful gaming experiences with a screen on the table — I’ve had them as a GM and a player. When it rocks, it rocks; the screen’s presence or absence is irrelevant.
On the more practical side, screens make it harder to see everything that’s happening on the table, and (depending on your setup) they can be annoying to work around. Particularly if you play any of the last couple editions of D&D, or any minis-heavy game, reaching over or around a screen to juggle minis and tactical movement is a real pain in the ass.
I smell another list coming!
- Just don’t use a screen. Really, it’s OK — they’re not mandatory! Try running a couple sessions with one, then without it, and see which way you have more fun. Your players won’t care, and neither will anyone else — the screen is a tool, to be discarded if it isn’t working for you.
- Use a small screen, and set it to one side. I love this option because it gives you the best of both worlds. You have a spot to hide notes, minis, etc., but you also get the intimacy and convenience of not having a barrier between you and your players. You can take a normal four-panel screen and just clip together one or two panels to create a small screen; standing up a three-ring binder works in a pinch.
- Use your laptop instead. If your adventures, monsters, NPCs, and other campaign material is all on your laptop, there’s not much left to hide. Stage your minis elsewhere and just roll dice behind your cupped hand or on the keyboard of your laptop itself.
Why so few alternatives? Because if you need a screen, there aren’t that many ways to get around that need — and if you don’t, you don’t.
If you primarily use your screen to hide stuff, find different ways to hide it, make some rolls out into the open, bring your laptop to games, or use a smaller screen set to one side.
if you primarily use it for the rules references, bookmark your books, create or download quicksheets for your system of choice, or use another method to identify and highlight the rules you reference most often.
Whether you need an alternative to a GMing screen is a personal choice, and depends entirely on what you want to get out of your screen or that alternative. The best solution is to experiment and find the approach that works best for you.
I added this section because there are so many great ideas for screen alternatives in the comments. Thanks, everyone!
Need more alternatives to a traditional screen? Try these on for size:
- Hide minis in dice bags, make secret rolls in a small box (like a cigar box), and just put a cover sheet over your notes (Telas).
- Fold your screen flat so the charts you need show, and just lay it down for reference (amandaesque).
- Use the player-facing side of your screen as a bulletin board for NPC pictures, etc. (Plastic Sun).
- Buy a clipboard with a storage box built in, like contractors carry (evil).
- Go all hardcore DIY and build an uber-screen out of MDF, and use a felt-lined CD box for secret rolls (Roxysteve).
- Stand the cover of a boxed set up on end, put something heavy on the bottom flap, and use that instead (Lonesome Luddite).
- Put your laptop in front of one panel, so you get all the benefits of a laptop AND a screen (Vance).
This Piece of Cardstock Really Reflects My GMing Philosophy?
Sure, if you want it to — but at the end of the day, it’s just a piece of cardstock. You can run great games with or without a screen, and shitty games with or without a screen.
To the extent that if facilitates running a better game, saves you time, or otherwise makes the game more fun for everyone at the table, it’s an awesome tool. But if you find that it detracts from your gaming experience, ditch it.
Or better yet, send it to me — I can always use another screen!