Tales of the Screen

I used the new Dungeon Master’s Screen (Reincarnated!) the other day. I referred to it about as much as I usually do – I looked at it once to find the distance a group of monsters started away from the party. But that was it.

It wasn’t always that way. Back when I was playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (first edition), I referred to my DM screen constantly. There was a reason for that: All the monster attack bonuses and saving throws were on the screen. The monster had one number – its Hit Dice – from which most of its other important statistics were derived. So, the DM screen was something you used constantly.

Referring to the screen started slipping out of the game as new editions of D&D were produced. The AD&D 2E introduced a THAC0 score (the precursor of our attack bonus), so the combat tables were no longer needed, just the saving throws. D&D 3E gave much more complete stat-blocks, with attack bonuses and saving throws, but the screen remained helpful for reminders of the plethora of bonuses and special cases that could affect the game.

It was the fourth edition that made the DM Screen almost irrelevant. In my days of running 4E (two campaigns to level 30!), the one part of the screen I used was the section explaining what the conditions were. The rest? Not that much. Interestingly, 4E also premiered the first of the new-model screens – ones which were set up in “landscape” mode rather than “portrait” mode. These new screens were wider but shorter, allowing DMs a better view of the tabletop and their players. After using this version, I don’t want to go back to the taller screens.

The 4E model also informs the fifth edition screen – and its “reincarnated” version. For me, the most useful part of it is the reminder of what the conditions do, which take up most of the centre panels, although I also use the random distance tables from time to time. The left-hand panel has a summary of the actions combatants can take, along with reminders of the rules for jumping, suffocating, spell effect areas and concentration. The summary of actions is really, really good for new DMs. The other reminders save you looking up rules in the book when those occasions arise. In the last version of the screen, there was information on creating NPCs, so some of the role-players who used that for inspiration will find this not as good.

The right-hand side of the screen has a bunch of nifty quick reference charts, which likely will come in handy at some point. Things like Object AC and HP, Random Encounter Distances, and other miscellaneous tables. Upon showing it to my friends, they were taken by how it listed the costs of Food, Drink and Lodging, things that they assume have meaning. Well, they do, but adventurers tend to be rich enough to ignore that after the first few levels – it just becomes busywork. As opposed to Travel Pace and Encounter Distance, tables that contain information I sometimes need to know.

For a new DM, this is an excellent screen. For an experienced DM, it has its moments. So why did I gleefully buy it?

Mainly for the two other functions a screen has: Hiding my notes and hiding my dice rolls.

I don’t like players being able to see the adventure – and especially the map – when they’re doing a dungeon exploration. If I’m using a laptop to run the game from, something I do from time to time, I can dispense with the screen for that purpose. However, typically the adventure lies behind the screen, and the players can’t see it, except for those nosy ones who sit beside me and peek over the top.

The other matter, that of hiding dice rolls, is one that can provoke some controversy. I’m a fudger of dice. If I see a result that will work against the story of the game, I’ll change it. The dice are not the boss of me! However, there’s something to be said for the open game where you make every die roll in the open, and the players have no filter against the result of their poor decisions. (Like choosing to sit down at the table of a known Killer DM. That’s a big mistake for those who love their characters! Seriously, did anyone playing Tomb of Horrors with Gary Gygax think they could survive it?) I don’t change many die roll results in the game, but there are a few that I will, and I don’t think I’ll be changing anytime soon.

Of course, for my players, it gives them a new image to look at. The painting on the players’ side is a marvel of restraint. One red dragon in the foreground, a burning island dwelling in the background, and a few clouds over the sea. They may be clouds of smoke, thinking about it. It’s a brilliant, elegant painting. Many, many kudos to Tyler Jacobson for painting it. It was originally used as part of the Tyranny of Dragons campaign, and it looks wonderful on the screen. (The full picture is even bigger and more amazing).

I can run games without a screen, but I don’t like doing so. Although not everything on this screen will be useful in every session, I do think it an excellent design, and one I’m happy to possess.

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One Response to Tales of the Screen

  1. François Uldry says:

    I used to have a GM screen. Then suddenly I switched to a screenless mode. I won’t go back; this for multiple reasons :
    – RPG is not a conflict between players and DM, it’s building a story together, the screen creates a barrier which I dislike
    – Cheating at dice rolls is not interesting. Having characters die is not bad, it’s a twist in the story. My players KNOW that I don’t cheat unless they see me doing it (yes it does happen) and when I do it they know it’s for the game. For example, I saved an big evil baddy to die on the first die roll of the combat, as it fumbled a Warhammer 3rd edition casting ending the combat before it started. Nevertheless going with it could have been fun, but at that time I was not in the mood of going with it.
    – I have multiple other ways to make things happen, you can fudge a combat by voluntarily using bad tactics, as sometimes the opponents will make bad calls or just being idiots. Other times, the opponents DON’T have tactics. My players have learned to use these oportunities to shine.

    I do use reference tables, I have small post-its on those pages naming the table for those cases when I want to refer to it.


    There are other reasons of course, but those are the most important ones 🙂

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