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GMing Screens: What Are They Good For?
Posted By Martin Ralya On June 2, 2010 @ 1:38 am In GMing Advice | 19 Comments
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.
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.
There are two big reasons to use a GMing screen:
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:
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.
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!
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:
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!
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