The Alexandrian

GM Screen @ The Alexandrian

The use of a GM screen can be a surprisingly contentious subject in the running of a roleplaying game. The critics consider them superfluous at best or intrinsically damaging to the dynamic of the game (due to inducing issues of trust and social separation) at worst. But I, personally, find them valuable more often than not, and I’d like to share my thoughts on how they can be used to best effect.

First, I don’t like the older style of portrait-oriented screens. Their height does, in my opinion, create an unnatural barrier between the GM and the players. They feel like a giant wall, cutting off the natural expression of body language.

Landscape-oriented screens, on the other hand, don’t have that problem. As the GM, I can see everything that’s happening on the table and the players can freely see my body language. As long as you’re playing with a table surface, there’s no meaningful disadvantage to the use of the screen and, in my experience, there are two significant advantages.

SIGHT LINE OBSTRUCTION

The most basic function of the screen is to block the player’s line of sight to my notes and maps. This is important to me not because I think my players are horrible cheaters who are trying to peek at my notes; it’s because I consider it a common courtesy. If I’m inviting people over to watch a movie, I don’t hang a poster with spoilers for the movie next to the TV screen and ask them to avert their eyes from it.

The same principle applies here. In fact, rather than inhibiting a personal connection between me and the players, I often find that a landscape screen enhances it: When you don’t obstruct your maps and such, players will often avert their eyes from your end of the table in order to avoid glancing at them.

VERTICAL REFERENCE

I’m a pretty huge advocate of being able to simultaneously display multiple pieces of information in order to facilitate rapid referencing and cross-referencing while running the game. (This is also why I don’t like running games from a laptop: The search functionality can be useful, but being able to only look at one page of information at a time while GMing is like trying to run a marathon with your legs tied behind your back.)

Therefore, being able to position reference material in a vertical place (so that it doesn’t take up surface space) is, in my opinion, insanely useful. In addition, positioning persistent reference material for the system and/or game world on the screen creates a consistent spatial familiarity that makes referencing that material faster and more efficient. (Instead of figuring out where the cheat sheet packet is currently lying on the table, picking it up, and flipping through it, I instead know that I can reach out to my right, flip up a piece of paper, and look directly at the skill difficulty guidelines. After just a couple of sessions, I basically don’t even have to think about it any more. It becomes autonomic.)

My typical table arrangement when GMing is:

  • A customizable, landscape GM screen with four panels of information.
  • 2-3 pieces of paper displayed behind the screen.
  • One or more TV trays to my left side, which I use to hold my rulebooks and also display 4-6 additional sheets of information (which often includes one or more rulebooks flipped open to the appropriate page reference).

Without the GM screen, my quick reference material not only becomes less efficient, it also begins encroaching into the space I use for other reference material. This becomes a cascading problem, as useful resources get bumped out of circulation. With less information at my fingertips, it becomes more difficult to run complicated, interconnected scenarios.

MAKING THE SCREEN

GM Screen @ The Alexandrian

As useful as the reference material on a GM screen can be, the sad reality is that most published GM screens feature a lot of non-essential information while not including material that would actually be useful when running the game. As a result, I use a modular, customizable landscape (like the ones you can buy here or here).

IMAGES: Buying the PDF version of an official landscape screen is often a good way to stock the player-facing side of your screen. But in an era of Google Image Search, the whole world of art and photography is your playground.

Personally, I tend to avoid trying to find single mural-style images that will go across the entire breadth of the screen. Finding multiple images to make up a polyptych is easier, and it also gives you the opportunity to highlight multiple facets of the game / world / campaign. I also recommend finding images that depict things the PCs could theoretically see, rather than images of main characters who aren’t the PCs doing awesome things. (It’s more immersive and suggestive of the game world that way, while allowing the table to remain focused on the narrative you’re creating instead of some other narrative that’s being depicted.)

(In the past I’ve also played with stocking the player-facing side of the screen with player-relevant reference material. But I’ve found that reading the material at any meaningful distance is usually difficult and, for players (who usually juggle less reference material), it’s easier to just use cheat sheet packets. Your mileage may vary.)

REFERENCE MATERIAL: I design System Cheat Sheets for many of the RPGs I run, particularly those featuring complicated mechanics. These reference sheets can then be conveniently slid into the modular screen.

A major conceptual breakthrough for me was the Hackmaster GameMaster’s Shield, which included flip-up panels:

Hackmaster GameMaster's Shield - KenzerCo

Copying this same technique, I now use reverse-duplex printing to create sheets that I can tape together and flip up to reveal additional information behind them. This allows me to easily put 12 landscape-formatted sheets within easy reach. (And there’s no reason I couldn’t expand that to a third layer of information to give me 20 sheets, although I haven’t actually found a game so complicated that I would need to do that yet.)

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11 Responses to “Random GM Tips – On the Use of GM Screens”

  1. Jonathan Hunt says:

    As someone who (unfortunately) only games via Roll20 online, I am jealous just looking at the table setup!

    Despite having two large monitors, it is very difficult to keep track of the same volume of information, as you mentioned in the article. One thing I have taken to recently is breaking free of the “We are playing online, so all my stuff is online” mental block that I had.

    As such, I’ve began printing off lots of notes and having them to hand. My implementation is far from perfect, and it is being refined over time… but it would be fantastic to hear how others cope with it.

    As an aside, glad you are back and hopefully feeling better, Justin.

  2. Justin Alexander says:

    When I ran an online game from my desk, I used to set up TV trays to my right and left for holding reference books and notes.

    More recently, I’ve been setting up my Surface Pro along the long side of the dining room table pictured above. The Surface Pro sits back from the edge of the table a bit, which gives me room for a set of immediate notes in front of me (that the camera won’t pick up) and then plenty of space off to the sides for stacking books and stuff.

    For online gaming, I try to run simpler systems and less complicated scenarios, so I generally have less stuff to juggle. (The online interface adds an extra layer of complexity and a barrier between players, so I find it necessitates streamlining other elements.)

    This is in contrast to my D&D 3.5 Ptolus campaign, where I basically build a small GM fortress for myself: A set of screens in front of me. Three TV trays to my left which hold 15 game manuals and 11 binders of campaign notes. And another set of trays to my right which hold utility drawers containing miniatures.

    (Most gaming, of course, happens somewhere inbetween.)

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    That Ptolus campaign setup sounds crazy (in a good way!).

    Yes that makes sense, if you are restricted then instead of trying to fight against it you work with the limitation.

    For some reason the idea of a TV tray didn’t occur to me, even in spite of reading your post talking about using them at a table. It seems weird to think about using one at a desk, yet logically there is no difference at all.

    I shall purchase one and try it out for this weekends session!

  4. Andy P says:

    Both links for the GM screens appear to go to the same page.

  5. Andy P says:

    Wait – please ignore previous comment. Now they don’t, I’m just apparently incapable of clicking properly.

  6. Isikyus says:

    You’ve definitely sold me on GM screens.

    My regular group plays at a low table, so I usually just sit notes on the floor; but I hadn’t realised the value of the extra vertical surface area.

  7. François Uldry says:

    Nice ideas, but fall short on any narrative game. I have been playing without screen for the last 10 years or so.

    I avoid games that require maps and stuff like that, thus I have nothing to hide from my players. And well, if they peek, screen or not, it’s their pleasure they ruin, not mine.

  8. Justin Alexander says:

    Francois, you just got done talking about FFG’s Star Wars as a narrative game that you play.

    The cheat sheet for that game requires 12 pages of information. So your implication that “narrative systems” don’t have enough rules to require reference material doesn’t really make a lot of sense.

    And then you claim that GMs for games like FFG’s Star Wars would never have notes that would include maps. That’s a really bizarre claim. I’ve got a few of the published adventures for the system and every single one of them contains maps. In fact, I’m willing to bet that every single adventure they’ve published for the game has featured a map.

    (I’m ignoring your broader implication that narrative GMs never use any kind of notes. Because that’s so utterly ridiculous it doesn’t really merit any response beyond the purely dismissive.)

    As for your final claim that you shouldn’t show basic courtesy to your players because you don’t care about their pleasure only your own… Jesus. You realize that people can read the things you’re typing, right?

  9. Dan Dare says:

    I made the mistake of buying the 5th Ed D&D screen. Most of the real estate was pictures and very little useful stuff for play. (nice pic on the back) When I reviewed it on RPGGeek I got responses like François gave. You don’t need it blah blah blah. The only way that is true is if you don’t need the mechanics or consistency or you have a perfect memory. Still a waste of money.

  10. François Uldry says:

    I run my games with a notebook where I jolt down the info I feel requires noting, of course, as everyone should. But, I freeform / improvise a lot and suddenly maps aren’t required. Some maps in the Star Wars published material are totally irrelevant in a narrative game. Honestly, in the F&D beginner’s set extension, the text does not even fit the map (quoting from memory : there is one fight happening in a bare cavern, without any possible accessories/scenery, and for that scene the text reminds you to use existing scenery and obstacles to resolve advantages and threats, but there are none, I’m still laughing about that part of the adventure ;)) Some of the published material falls really short, some maps are really unnecessary. Nice artwork, but of no use to the actual adventure, of course, all of this is my personnal opinion.

    (Gosh having a conversation over 3 different blog posts a the same time is a bit painful, I’ll try to stay on topic here.

    Of course, 1 sentence, does not convey my full perspective, all depends on the game, the style of play you enjoy, and the fact that I’ve been playing with the same 4 players for the last 6-8 years. One member of my usual RPG group has been playing at my table for, gosh, 20 years, so he knows my style, and, well, he’s still there, so there must be some things I do right 😉

    I have been running lots of different games over that time, with different themes, play styles, and game systems (shadowrun, vampire, DnD 3, War 3, tried Champions (did not fit me), Runequest, etc etc etc), all those games are tools to tell stories and you don’t use them for the same stories. A good old dungeon with DnD2, or DnD5, requires maps, and requires a chair next to me to hide it from my players, but still, no screen to separate me from the other players at the table !

    All depends on the story and on the game, honestly, knowing that there is a secret door somewhere wont help your character find it if you fail the roll ! (This is to illustrate that knowing the map wont help you), and unless there is a change of circumstances or a clear indication that there is Something there, I won’t allow you a second roll, cause you’re using knowledge that your character hasn’t.

    Not using maps does not mean not having notes, I write down a lot of things, just to be sure I remember what my players know and where the story was planned to go… Even that, implies that the story is set in stone, it rarely is.

    I usually plan a start, some scenes that might happen, and a possible (or many) locations for one or many endings. Or, I use a format similar to the old Shadowrun adventures, where legwork and contacts were a fundamental part of the various adventures, assessing on extended skill checks, when they learn some information, right or wrong depending on threats/advantages/triumphs/despairs etc etc

    All of that can be built and used without a screen, a small notebook is all that is required 😉

  11. Dominic Richard says:

    I’d like to know what is a “narrative game” for you François.

    Because, from my perspective, every RPG is a “narrative game”, as in it narrates a story, build upon the actions of the player’s character and the reaction of the world that surrounds them.

    The only other definition I have in mind is the one The Angry GM implies often in his posts. One about a game where there is no consistency in the mechanics of the game, because mechanism are adjusted on the fly by the GM to fit the narrative he thinks is best.

    And I played with some GM that doesn’t follow published rules and as a Player I found it boring, because I had the impression that :

    A – My character, that I took time to build, based on the rule writen in the official book, with an expectation of how it would play at the table, was now blend because the mechanical choices I made were now irrevelent.

    B – It was also harder to actualy plan action, based on chances of success for my character, because the result could vary on whim of GM

    C – And in the end it got me thinking what was the point, if rules are always fiddle with and I can’t have any sense of predicting likely outcome for action, does my actions actually matters ???

    And indeed, that GM didn’t had any need for a Screen, simply because he didn’t had to look up for rules, he made them as he go. And he didn’t had that much notes, because he made the story has he go to, so he didn’t had anything to hide.

    I suppose you are not doing something like that if you have players that stick around for 20 years, unless maybe they just don’t care and are not at your table for the same reasons I would be.

    So that’s why clarification of the terms “narrative game” would be interesting to help understand what is different from you games.

    And just in finishing, if you do have notes, ones that players at your table could look upon, it would be a courtesy, to your players, to hide them behind the screen (as Justin pointed in is article and comment).

    Taking your secret door as an example, I, as a player, would found that really annoying to spot the secret door on your map with the corner of my eye while I was looking toward you because your the GM and thus I do care about what your saying, and then fail the search check but knows that I just miss something in your dungeon/area/what ever. Something you have taken time to prep, so I guess you wanted us to find it, but now I didn’t and can’t retry because it would be meta-gaming and meta-gamin is so wrong.

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