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...|
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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