Posted by: markfender | July 5, 2011

GM Screens

I’m all about accessories, especially for gaming. But I draw the line at GM screens.

I find them annoying. They’re (mostly) too tall and almost never have the actual charts/tables on them that you actually need. In fact, there’s a bunch of reasons I don’t care for them.

– intimacy killer. I want to be able to talk to and see my players. Putting up a wall between me and them feels antagonistic and just downright ’70s. In general, I’m trying to involve everyone at the table in creating a story (or, at worst, getting these other people to be excited about my story). At no point am I trying to kill them, beat them, or otherwise lord my terrible GMing powers over them. We’re in this together and putting a literal wall between me and them is great at building that metaphorical wall between us. So I don’t do it. The newer style landscape GM screens are better at this, but they still have problems.

– mood destroying. Official GM screens usually have some nice art on the side facing the players. That’s cool, but it can often be the wrong sort of art for the tone I’m going for. For example, the generic Wizards of the Coast D&D landscape screen for 4e has a nice dungeon scene on it. Which isn’t right for Dark Sun at all. Something like GURPS has so many different genres and moods, the generic art on their GM screen doesn’t work for, well, anything I’d contemplate doing in GURPS. Something like Shadowrun is a little better, since its for a specific world, that I happen to be running in. Except it offers a spectacular view of Seattle, complete with Space Needle. But my game’s set in Chicago… Some of the customizable GM screens out there allow you to slide your own artwork in, which can certainly help.

– wrong/bad information. Games are made by small, dedicated fans of the craft, and as fans with more zest and gusto than professionalism, they often make mistakes. Mistakes like forgetting to put the ranged modifiers on the GM screen. Or including useless charts like equipment prices instead of more useful charts (like ranged modifiers). Or just having to issue errata for certain rules in the game and not incorporating that information onto GM screens. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a GM screen that had everything I’d want to see on it. Part of that is just space constraints. Which is why I just tend to print out those charts and have them in my GMing notebook instead. Again, these customizable ones are better, as you can either make your own tables/charts, or get updates from other dedicated fans if something in the game rules changes.

– hiding. Whether you’re hiding your dice rolls or your adventure notes, this is actually my largest pet peeve. Why are you hiding information? I’m one of those hippie “let the dice fall where they may” sorts who believes that you resort to dice when you’re comfortable with any result you might get from them. If you might die in combat, maybe you should compromise with your opponents instead of stabbing them. If you roll well and I roll a gazillion ones in a row, then you should get the thrill of watching your opponents fail miserably. I instinctively don’t trust GMs who hide their dice rolls – it just seems antithetical to the whole idea of a roleplaying game (we could sit around a campfire and make Smores if you’re just gonna tell me a story). Likewise, I’m not fond of hiding my GM notes. Again, I’m trying to be an adult here and I would hope my players are all adults as well. If you look over at my notes and see that NPC X is going to try to blackmail your character, you’ve just ruined the adventure for yourself. So don’t. I should have enough trust in my players to trust them with seeing my notes, just as they should trust me enough to not just slaughter their characters outright. We’re in this together, right?

You’ll notice that a couple of those points can be overcome with modern GM screens (mostly the landscape customizable ones), but not that last point. Which is why I don’t use ’em. I try not to even use a laptop at the game table for the same reasons. In fact, I got a convertible laptop for the exact reason that I can lay the screen flat and not create an obstruction at the table, if I absolutely need a laptop (sure, an iPad like device might be better for that, but they didn’t exist when I bought the laptop. Plus, I’m a poor college student who can’t afford Apple products).

So, GM screens. Bleagh.

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