Saturday, March 28, 2015

Should You Use A DM Screen?

Typically during crunch week I present a post on a specific rule, or a character build. This week though I'd like to talk more about rules in general, and about one of the popular tools to help keep the difficult balance of rules and storytelling dungeon masters often face. Where do the numbers and formulas stop, and the overall narrative begin?

Behind the DM screen, if you're using one.

The Dungeon Master Screen: What Is It For?

For those of you not familiar with the DM screen it's a fairly simple piece of equipment. It's a tri-fold piece of cardboard that hides the DM's die rolls and monster stats from players, and which has handy charts and cheat sheets on the inside so the DM doesn't have to constantly crack books and look up obscure things like grappling rules or climb check difficulties.

It also has charts with appropriate punishments.
A DM screen is not a necessity. In fact I've played with very few DMs who actually use one. Generally speaking they're seen as a useful tool in some circumstances, but they're often ignored because of space restrictions or because there's just no reason to clutter up the table with one more accessory.

I'd like to posit that whether or not you use a DM screen might actually say something about your style as a storyteller, though.

To Screen, or Not To Screen?

For a lot of storytellers, and even players, the mystery of the screen leads to suspicion. Did the DM really just confirm a critical hit against you, or did he want to lay out the cleric to up the danger in the fight? Did the monster truly roll a natural 1 to attack the wizard, or was that a pity-out so the new guy doesn't lose his character in the first boss battle? With the screen in the way you don't know, and that is kind of the point.

Yes you hit. Roll damage already.
Some dungeon masters want to avoid the potential distrust of the screen, and so they roll their dice out in the open where everyone can see. On the one hand this does mean that when you crit, or fail, everyone gets to see it. It also means that you don't have the power to re-direct the narrative in the event the dice say something you'd rather not have happen. After all, everyone just saw how well you did.

That's part of the problem, in many cases.

You see the DM screen is more than a piece of paper that helps you run games more smoothly, and which lets you fudge the occasional attack. In a very real sense it represents the unknown. Anything could be brewing behind that screen, ready to come out and attack the party. You don't know, and as a result you need to stay on your toes.

A Barrier Against Metagaming

Metagaming is one of the cardinal sins of roleplaying games, but even the most grizzled dice cup veteran sometimes can't resist. Sometimes it isn't even on purpose; you look over and catch a glimpse of a picture of the monster in the campaign guide, or see something you shouldn't in the DM's notes. You spy a total of how much damage the creature has taken, and you get a look at its full hit points. Maybe you didn't want to, but now you're stuck trying to forget that information even while your brain adapts your battle plan to include it.

Can... not... unsee...
In addition to keeping your battle plans hidden though, a screen means that players can't watch the action unfold right in front of them. A screen, when used as a tool, creates tension in a way that makes you pay attention. For example a DM might roll an attack behind the screen, nod, and turn to player A to ask, "what's your AC?" Player A says, "22?" Then rather than giving the amount of the attack the storyteller says, "The skeleton swings its rusty scimitar at you, but the edge squeals off your breastplate. Another few inches and it would have cut your throat."

You see what that does? Players have no idea what's coming at them, and all they have to work with is a description of the fight. That means they react more in character, and the reliance on numbers is pushed into the background. Why? Because the only numbers they know are their own! This style of DMing may also include actions like giving descriptions of monsters and making PCs figure out what they are, forbidding the discussion of wounds in terms of hit point totals (at least without a heal check), and putting an ax on non-relevant discussions during combat. A screen, you see, is like a hole card in a game of Stud. Even though you're pretty sure you're going to win, there's a tenseness about that face-down potential that keeps you riveted. Even if you're pretty sure you're fighting just a random skeleton, you just don't know.

It Isn't For Everyone

The DM screen, when used properly, can be a great tool to keep players invested and paying attention to what's happening. It can be a great method to give you more control over what events do and don't transpire, and it makes sure you keep your side of the screen secret from anyone who shouldn't be seeing what you're doing.

It does take work though.

A lot of storytellers find it easier to dispense with the smoke and mirrors to let the game play out how chance dictates. After all they can always reduce a creature's numbers without the players knowing, or lower a check if it's dramatically appropriate (assuming the DC isn't known to the table at large). The onus in these cases is on the players to deal with whatever comes their way. There's nothing wrong with that.

But you might want to set up your cardboard castle all the same and see how it makes you feel. See if it changes your game, and if it changes for the better or not.

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  1. When I started GMing in 1978 I had my GM Screen, and it served the purpose exactly as you stated. In fact I played this way for many years, and I made a few pretty jazzy GM Screens along the way. Yes, they give the GM Power. And that's not a bad thing. However, there is an aspect that the GM Screen also deprives the game ... and that is the tactical planning that would come into play when Players have more numeric information to deal with. I started down that road back in the 90's when I started playing with grid maps and putting hex war counters on them for player characters and opponents. I set movement values for different terrains, and each race has a certain number of movement points. We played a hybrid approach for a decade or so where I used the GM Screen and the tactical maps. My Players enjoyed the tactical side of the game quite a lot, as it allowed them to plan out their attacks in a more organized fashion. Frankly, I felt the Players prefered this mode of play as they had more control over what their characters are doing in terms of combat tactics, and this felt a bit more realistic to them. On the down side, there was a lot more Out of Character conversation, and role playing during the planning took a hit. In fact it's hard to maintain the role playing mood when it's interspersed with conversations about points and tactics. Just something I noticed. Anyway, later on I began play testing my latest revision of my original rules - the Elthos "One Die System" which is a highly distilled version of my original rules, designed for fast play and light-weight games. For the play test I abandoned the use of the GM Screen entirely as I want the Players to know all the numbers and help me determine if the rules are well balanced and working nicely. Good bye GM Screens. This mode of play has some Players more involved with the numbers and the crunch side of the game as they know what their chances to hit are and the monster's stats and so on. We played like that for a good long while, and now that I'm reasonably satisfied that the rules are working I am slowly migrating back in the direction of hiding monster stats. I expect I may even go back to using the GM Screen sooner or later.

    Both styles of play have their good side and bad side. And frankly I enjoy both ways. I guess I can leave it up to group consensus, but I have a feeling that given a choice most Players will say they prefer to know the numbers. Except for Chris. He's a real old school kind of guy, and his view is that not knowing makes the game better. Hah. So there you have it. My experience with GM Screens. Thanks for the great post. :)

  2. I usually use an screen, taking just some rolls in plain sight (mainly creatures saving throws). And sometimes I do both: when the hidden result is too good or too bad, I lift up the screen for the players to see the dice roll result. In that way, they do not suspect about the critical hit (or hard miss), and they don't get too much info about the enemy stats (because a 19 or 20 is always a good number after all, and a natural 1 is self-explanatory too).

    Good post, man! Just found your blog :D

    Greetings from Argentina!

  3. I generally use a screen too. As much as my players may frown at times I cheat in their favor far more than I ever do in my own. I don't want a series of lucky rolls to spoil a quest set or to have big bad bosses epically fail.

    I also am a GM that stages the next part of the game. This can be a constant spoiler without a screen. I have even been known to prep a few fake mini and dice sets to keep them guessing.

    Along with those reasons I also write down a lot and often build on the story as I go. I don't want wandering eyes to find my notes for NPC secrets, names, or associations.

    Thanks for the great post!