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GMing Screens: What Are They Good For?

Over in the Suggestion Pot [1], 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 [2], 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

  1. 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
  2. To set the mood through the artwork your players see during the game
  3. 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!

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.

Reader Suggestions

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:

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!

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "GMing Screens: What Are They Good For?"

#1 Comment By theEmrys On June 2, 2010 @ 5:47 am

Interesting article. For me, I like using a screen. Now I’m currently mostly running HackMaster Basic so there’s no screen out for it yet, so I use my old Kingdoms of Kalamar one with some HMB specific stuff paperclipped to it. I don’t use it as much right now for referencing as I do to screen my notes from the other players. (We don’t have a large table so everyone sits a bit close). I make 99% of my rolls in the open so that’s not an issue, but keeping the maps and monster stats hidden is useful.

Back when I was running D&D or the original HackMaster I found it very useful for the data… especially with Hackmaster. I am one of those who loved the details and crunchy part of the system, so having those details at my fingertips really helped… especially the critical hit tables.

I definitely agree with you though that they aren’t necessary depending on your style of play, but they’re something that will always have a place at my table.

#2 Comment By subfuture On June 2, 2010 @ 6:10 am

Having just got back into GMing with a Pathfinder game, my favourite use for a GM screen is to deal with invisible or concealed enemies. I keep a folded over grid mat as a base for screen and I can then draw in sections of the overall map on it and move invisible enemies there, or draw an area of effect for a concealing spell. When the players are next to an invisible enemy i drop a counter on the board, or if they look for them by sound or similar I will give them a direction.

#3 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On June 2, 2010 @ 8:48 am

Some options for running screenless:

Hide tonight’s minis in boxes or dice bags. I use color-coordinated dice bags. Demons are in red, spiders in black, goblins in green. When the encounter hits, grab the bag you need.

Hide secret dice rolls in a small box with a lid. Small high-end cigar boxes work great, but craft shops have little wooden boxes too.

Use a coversheet for your notes, or just close your notebook when you’re not using it. I take notes on a legal pad, and fold the older sheets down when not using it.

With the upcoming tablet PC releases (and the magical and revolutionary iPad), we are one step closer to my goal of a wrist-mounted computer. A pocketful of dice, and I’m completely mobile – free to stand over my players and intimidate them without having to run back to my notes. Mwa-ha-ha!

#4 Comment By amandaesque On June 2, 2010 @ 9:37 am

After running some 4e, I found the screen was way too cumbersome while running the minis around. Fortunately, the 4e screen folds back and forth on each fold, so I was able to configure it to have the relevant info I needed visible and flat under my notepad. I ask that the players roll where I can see the result, and I do the same. They know that I’ll occasionally need to make a “secret” roll, but don’t question what I’m up to and don’t get nosy on my unannounced die rolls.

#5 Comment By Nojo On June 2, 2010 @ 10:49 am

Stupid Screen Story: I was GMing a game with hit location, and the screen didn’t have it. EVERY hit I had to ask my players what part got hit.

I GM’d Dark Heresy for a YEAR AND A HALF, asking my players (who had the hit location on their character sheets) where I hit them. No, I never got around to paper clipping the chart to my screen.

ON THE LAST GAME I noticed that hit locations were right there in front of me, on the screen. I am such an idiot. I was remembering the lack of hit location for a totally different game’s GM Screen. πŸ™‚

#6 Comment By PlasticSun On June 2, 2010 @ 10:56 am

Another great use for a screen is to have a surface that you can put NPC portraits, scenes or other art from the game on rather than having a handout that gets passed around and clutters up the gaming surface. I use the player facing portion of my screen as sort of a game bulletin board so that the players get to see who they’re talking to or what a particular magic item looks like.

#7 Comment By BryanB On June 2, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

I like screens when they convey useful information in an easy to glance at manner. There can be too much on a screen though. When a screen needs an index, then it has too much information on it. πŸ˜€

I consider the Star Wars Saga Edition screen to be ideal. It isn’t too tall, so you don’t have to rise out of your chair to see everyone and everything. It has useful tables in an easy to read format. It is wide and sturdy. The player side has art showing iconic characters from the Star Wars movies, which provides a nice backdrop for the game going on at the table – a mood setter of sorts.

Let’s face it. We don’t always play at tables that have no players that won’t look at your notes or stat blocks. So the screen provides security or at least minimizes the chance of player shenanigans.

#8 Comment By evil On June 2, 2010 @ 12:41 pm

This article reminds me once again of why I’m falling in love all over again with Excel. I’ve given up the screen in favor of putting all my charts on a handy Excel spreadsheet, from the character sheet to maps and everything in between. After having my stupid screen fall down enough times and my players going “oh, that’s what the dungeon looks like” I’ve pretty much decided to never use them to hide important things.

Another idea (if you’re a low tech GM) is to check out clipboards with attached storage areas. These are usually found in engineering or construction settings and have an 9.5″x12″ surface to clip your papers, as well as 3 or 4 inches of space to stack things that can be hidden from players. I’ve used these before, and they allowed me to move around without much hassle (as long as you only need to carry paper and no books).

#9 Comment By AquaFox On June 2, 2010 @ 2:02 pm

Thanks for doing this article for me :).

I think the mini problem and the intimate problem can be solved with a landscape screen. There is less blocking you from your players. I use a landscape screen (a bit harder to read, but it’s not like I reference it too much).

#10 Comment By Roxysteve On June 2, 2010 @ 2:59 pm

There’s another reason for having a screen, but your over-the-counter versions, for all their artwork are not fit for purpose. I’ll come back to this in a second.

The main problem I have with the beautiful (and sometimes not) GM screens out there is that they never have the really useful stuff I need on them yet are packed with bizarre lists of stuff anyone *not* a drunken hedgehog can remember.

Example: The Conan D20 screen has beautiful and evocative art on the player side, but useless info on mine. I need to know the stuff that doesn’t come up from one game to the next, like a summary of the grapple rules or how poisons work, not an effing alphabetical list of feat names (talk about your useless space-filler information!).

For Call of Cthulhu I went back to basics and made my own, but I eschewed namby-pamby cardstock (and *why* are the damn things getting thinner every year? GM Screens used to be made of sturdy card like you get backing expensive legal pads. Now, you can almost see through the wretched things).

No, I built *my* Call of Cthulhu GM screen from 1/8th inch thick MDF. I painted the -v-i-c-t-i-m- player side with a green, formless fog by sponging various shades of green over a dark green base coat, and my side black. The legal-pad sized portrait panels (4 off) are joined with ornate brass hinges. I can customize what’s on each side with bulldog clips (I’m thinking of going with clear wallets like the Savage Worlds screen though).

So now I have a GM screen that serves two other important purposes that the over-the-counter screens cannot: A) It is hefty enough for me to take refuge behind as infuriated players hurl 15mm dice at me, thereby avoiding GM Injury due to unpopular ruling, and 2) When folded it can be used to club a player into insensibility with little GM effort, thus saving valuable melee energy for the next wave.

DIY lads, DIY.

#11 Comment By Roxysteve On June 2, 2010 @ 3:15 pm

Oh, and dice-rolling trays? I made one (totally stole the idea from someone running a game of Risk:2210 at I-Con one year) from one of those CD storage boxes that look like 5 inch square attache cases you can find at Staples. I junked out the cd wallets leaving me with a case that opens into two felt-lined trays perfect for that secret roll (or that fistful of Wonkhammer 401K dice that you don’t want going all over the floor).

#12 Comment By Lonesome Luddite On June 2, 2010 @ 8:26 pm

I used to use the old D&D boxed sets for GMing screens. I’d stand the cover up and use the bottom to prop it up/weight it down. The bottom doubled as a dice rolling tray. The sets were hardly ever full to the top so there was usually room for a notebook, pencils, and other essentials to be stored inside between games. Good and setting appropriate artwork was a bonus.

#13 Comment By Scott Martin On June 3, 2010 @ 10:35 am

I haven’t used a screen as a screen in a while, but I do occasionally lay the screen on the stack of reference books– sometimes their charts and tables are perfect for quick reference. That’s rare enough that I don’t buy screens often, but I’ll use them if they’re around.

#14 Comment By Vance On June 3, 2010 @ 2:22 pm

I made my own screen, with a twist. It’s basically the D&D 4E (5 panel landscape) screen, but with the middle section missing. (I didn’t need that data handy anyway.) In it’s place, I use my laptop screen. I’m constantly folding down my laptop screen when I’m not using it, so I can see the minis and the map, etc. All of my “secret” info is stored on the laptop, so the players can’t see anything they shouldn’t when the laptop screen is down.

If you do this, though, keep in mind one thing. There should be a setting on your laptop to disable the “sleep” function when closing your laptop.

I also use the PC-side of the screen (or laptop) to display the initiative order. I just hand write it on a scratch sheet of paper and tape or clip it to the screen. It gives the PC’s great pleasure to scratch out the names of the foes they defeat!

#15 Comment By Martin Ralya On June 3, 2010 @ 9:28 pm

I added a section in the article for reader suggestions — thank you, everyone!

[3] – No problem! I had fun writing it. We tend to write Suggestion Pot articles when inspiration strikes, and while it sometimes takes a while for a particular suggestion to strike a spark, yours went straight to my keyboard. πŸ˜‰

#16 Comment By valadil On June 5, 2010 @ 5:06 pm

I recently gave up the screen. I was running an RP heavy session and didn’t want an extra barrier between me and the PCs. I found that I really liked letting them see my die rolls. I was having a very weird set of rolls and they’d have thought I was fudging badly if they didn’t see the dice. Ditching the screen frees me to use those weirder die rolls.

I’m of the opinion that the big advantage of a screen is hiding your dungeon. It’s all too easy to glance at the map and see where the treasure is. Since I don’t do a lot of dungeons, I don’t miss hiding my map.

What I do miss is the charts and notes. I need to find a way to replace my random name lists. Probably gonna print and laminate a cheat sheet of sorts for myself.

I also saw a use for the screen that I never had to try out. Initiative tracker. You write out each PC and NPC on both sides of an index card. Then fold that and drape it over the screen. Lay out a card as combatants enter initiative. Pop one of the right and push it to the back of the queue. This lets you and your players see the entire initiative. I’d used a stack of index cards for a while because it let people delay and re-enter init without leaving confusing arrows. This is better because it’s transparent to the PCs.

#17 Comment By scruffylad On June 20, 2010 @ 6:24 pm

Lots of interesting opinions here. πŸ™‚

While screens can get in the way, they can also be fun. Hiding behind it a little, peeking out, cackling evilly, and rolling dice without telling your players what’s going on is a nice way to play up the theatrics, and build a little tension into the situation.

And frankly, I do usually need a place to hide my minis, tokens, notes, whatever.

But I’ve also had screens get in the way (can be hard to reach over to move minis on the map, or what have you), and most of the commonly used stuff is in my head already anyway, so I end up looking up the funky rules in the book no matter what. Still, having a place to keep it all together is nice. (I once made a booklet of useful tables by photocopying the ones I needed and taping them to the pages. Likewise, I’d sometimes paperclip copies of tables I knew I’d need during a session to the screen, just to have it handy.)

#18 Comment By Argonnosi On July 8, 2010 @ 2:25 am

Bonus #1, as listed in the article, is my bad #1. It hides stuff from your players. Specifically, it hides you, and tells them that you want secrets. Not exactly a trust-building device.

#19 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 8, 2010 @ 8:58 am

[4] – I have heard that from others as well, but I disagree. Not having a screen does not build trust either. Having a screen does not prevent trust from being built.

If I have a GM’s screen and I hide something behind it that is not being dishonest, nor is it being deceptive. I might have a surprise for the players that they will find enjoyable (such as the miniature used for an ally NPC that they are fond of).

I believe that having the screen actually promotes trust building. It is a tool for me as the GM that may be abused. You as the player will have to trust me not to abuse it. Having things out in the open just eliminates the ability to hide something. That doesn’t build trust, but instead just encourages the GM to use other tactics.