In a tradition that dates back to the early days of role-playing, many Game Masters have become accustom to separating themselves from their players with that ubiquitous cardboard barrier known as the GM screen. Tradition is not always good.
GM screens, on their surface (literally), seem to be a useful tool. They are usually covered with a myriad of helpful charts, tables and quick reference material that allows the Game Master to have instant access to game rules without digging through a book. They also serve to obfuscate the Game Masters’ notes, dice rolls and NPC character sheets. All of these are important things, but they come at a price.
Being a good Game Master is all about connecting with your players. The one thing GM screens do best, is to separate the GM from the players. This is not conducive to good storytelling. Too many GMs use their screen (perhaps unintentionally) to hide behind. While this may be good for keeping the Game Master surrounded in the little bubble of his game world, it tends to leave everyone else at the table feeling like they are on the outside looking in. Would you want to listen to a story that was being told from the next room? How connected would you feel to a speaker who was sitting behind glass, like in a prison visiting room? As a Game Master, your number one job is to draw your players’ imaginations into the fantasy world you create. Role-playing is supposed to be interactive. A GM screen not only creates a physical barrier, but an emotional and psychological one that insulates the players and the GM from one another. It distances them. It provides everyone an emotional distance that will likely lead to distraction, and allows the mind to wander. As a storyteller, you want as little to distract your players as possible. You need to engage them and hold their rapped attention for every second, engrossing them and immersing their minds in your world through vivid description. The most fulfilling and memorable role-playing experiences are ones that connect with the players emotionally. To achieve this, you want as little to stand in the way of your communication as possible. Ask any public speaker, and they will tell you that eye contact with your audience is key. You just can’t connect from behind a cardboard fortress.
But you need all those ancillary benefits a GM screen provides, don’t you? You can’t be looking up tables and spot rules every few minutes. Won’t that be even more distracting? Let’s forget for the moment that as the Game Master you should be fluent with the rule system before you attempt to run a game for anyone, and let’s set aside the fact that you are supposed to be role-playing, not rule-playing (more on that in another post). You can still use the reference charts. Just don’t hide behind them! Having spot rules and hit tables handy does speed up game play, just leave the screen lay flat on the table if you need it for that. It will still work horizontally, I promise.
As for hiding your notes, can’t you just cover them will a blank sheet of paper? If your players are so immature that they have to cheat by looking at your materials, they are only robbing themselves of the experience. If you suspect that they have been peeking, you can always change the material during play. Having the wrong information is usually more detrimental than not having any information.
The same goes for dice rolls. You don’t have to hide them from the players. You don’t have to tell they players what they are for, or what the target number is, or if high or low is good for them. I rarely tell my players anything about my dice rolls. I make some of them in the open, and some I hide with my cupped hand or behind a short stack of books. Besides, dice are small and the numbers are smaller. It’s hard to read a d20 from across the table. By not telling your players what you are rolling for, or the parameters of the roll, you are free to make things up as you go. Ignore the result. Roll for things that don’t exist. Re-roll with impunity. Cheat. You’re the GM, you’re allowed.
If you absolutely must have a screen, make it a small one. By small I mean short, and by short I mean no more than six inches. That’s plenty tall enough to hide your dice rolls and should make reading your notes from across the table pretty challenging. It’s also big enough to print a few rules charts on, if necessary. For a time, I used a small screen I made from a cardboard box. It was about six inches high and twelve inches long, folded into thirds to help it stand up. It was just big enough to paper clip some 4×6 note cards to it to hold NPC stats. It worked fine, and was never in the way. I don’t use it any more. Now, I don’t use any screen at all, and I have never been happier.