GM Screens: Don’t Hate the Tool

The prevailing attitude towards using Game Master screens seems to be negative. Game Masters are encouraged to remove this horrid relic of old school GMing that creates a barrier between them and their players. I understand the motivations behind this attitude. Bad GMs can hide a lot of sins behind the screen, after all, and who knows what they’re rolling back there? I definitely did some fudging of rolls under the cover of my GM screen when I was a young (teens/early Twenties) Game Master. I know I’m not the only one.

Despite its bad press, though, I still use a GM screen. Not lately of course; running games virtually means I’m already one screen removed from my players, I don’t need a second. But I have found the game master screen to be a useful tool for communication and organization. Especially organization, as I am often running a game at a table with limited space, even at home. A screen provides me with valuable vertical space to which I can attach notes that might otherwise get lost in a pile.

I don’t use anything special as a screen. When I ran a lot of Pathfinder and D&D I used the commercially available screens and then added to them. For other systems I will either pick up a screen if it’s available for that game, or I’ll clip what I need to an existing screen and run with it. I am also in the process of creating a multi-purpose GM screen that I can use for any game I run, just by switching out the inserts. You can find plenty of “how-to” videos and posts about making those for yourself. In fact I’ll be posting one myself at some point, once I’ve worked out the details of the one I am creating.

Besides the game information already available on the commercial screens, I add the following:

My Side

  • Character Summaries – I keep a series of index cards with character summaries on them, so I can make rolls or determine abilities without having to ask the players the same questions over and over. What I keep on them differs from game to game. For D&D, for instance, I record things like AC, HP, stat bonuses, skill proficiencies, any special abilities or weaknesses, and a reminder of any character motivations that might come up during play. This allows me to make rolls for the characters in situations where I don’t want to tip the player off to what is happening unless they hit the necessary successes.
  • GM Character Summaries – This is usually just one index card with bare bones stats and a few personality notes for an important GM character (GMC) or two. I also keep the other GMCs in a stack nearby so if I need to switch them out during play I can do that.
  • Name List – I keep a list of people names for those times when the players ask a random guard or bartender or shopkeeper their name. I keep them as gender neutral as possible so I can just use the next one and go. I also have different lists for different setting types, so I don’t have “Lyren Stormcatcher” popping up in my modern day spy game. When I use one, I circle it on the list to remind myself to start an index card for that GMC later.
  • Map – If the session is going to involve a dungeon or set location, I’ll clip a copy of the map to the inside of my screen so I don’t have to keep flipping between the map and the room descriptions. This is especially useful if I’m running a scenario for organized play or at conventions, as it keeps all the information in front of me at once and I look a bit more organized to the players.
  • Monster Stats – If I have an idea of what they’ll face in the session, I clip a copy of the monster stats to the screen so I don’t need to flip through books during combat. These are easily switched out as play goes on, so I try to anticipate monster stats I’ll need. If I need them on the fly I have some prepped index cards I can quickly fill in and go.
  • Dice and Dice Tray – Yes, I roll my dice on my side of the screen in a small dice tray to avoid losing dice to the floor. I try to only keep the dice I think I’ll need right at hand, but I do have a small tub of dice nearby if I or the players need extras.
  • Scenario – If I’m running a published adventure, I’ll have it either in print or PDF in front of me. If I’m using a PDF I’ll still have the print version in my bag so the session doesn’t have to end if I have a technical issue.
  • Notes – I always keep a way of taking quick notes on hand, whether that’s a pen and index cards or notebook, or Google docs open on my device. I try to never trust my memory, and take notes as quickly as I can to make sure I capture anything important or interesting that comes up during the session.

Player Side

I think this is where quite a few GMs waste the potential usefulness of the GM screen. While most commercially available screens come with setting art on the player facing side, they generally fail to take advantage of the player side of a GM’s screen beyond that. But used properly the player’s side can be every bit as useful as the GM’s side, helping to keep your players engaged. Here are a few things I add to my screen for the players to see:

  • GMC/Monster Pics – If I can, I provide a picture or image of the GMC or Monster with which the players are interacting. This is especially easy for organized play or published adventures, as they usually have art for these GMCs. Likewise, you can usually grab a monster pic pretty easy. Otherwise, I try to do an image search and snag a useful image that I think fits the GMC.
  • Effects – There are a number of effects (environmental, spell, and so on) that affect the players on an ongoing basis. Bless from D&D is a good example, but you might have ongoing effects from the environment, like a turn-based save against heat damage if you’re fighting in a volcano, for instance. I write the effects on a card and clip them to the player side of the screen so they have that reminder as we play. When the effect ends I take the reminder down.
  • Time/Turn/Other Resource Tracking – I’ll try to attach something on the player side of the screen to track important resources in the game. If time is an issue, I’ll make sure to track that so the players are aware of how much time they have (or don’t have). But maybe light is an issue, so I’ll track the number of torches the players have left. Maybe they’re trying to collect certain things, so I’ll clip some representation of that to the screen as they gain them (or take them down if they lose them).
  • Images – While the art on commercially available screens is excellent, I will usually try to cover it over with images specific to the campaign I’m running. I’ll switch these images out based on where the party travels, or what is relevant to the campaign at the time. I’ll sometimes change the pictures before a session without drawing attention to it, and without explaining when the players notice. When the players know that the images are always relevant, it’s a great way to build tension and anticipation.
  • Pronouns – Not so much for home games, but at conventions or in-store events I will clip my pronouns to my GM screen. It’s a small thing that may never come up. But it is a simple way to signal that my table is a space that respects pronoun usage. I also provide pronoun cards for players to display if they wish.
  • Safety Tools – Again, this is more for convention or public play, but if I’m using a particular safety tool I will clip a summary of it to the GM screen as a reminder to the players.

So that’s what my GM screen does for me. I don’t always use all of these things; sometimes time or resources just don’t allow it. For pick-up games, for instance, I’ll just use whatever is to hand and make it work. But when I can, the above is my ideal set-up for my GM screen. I find it helps keeps me and the players on track, and allows me to communicate with them quickly and efficiently.

So what does your GM screen look like? Drop a comment here or on Twitter to tell me your ideal set-up.