Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Retrospective: Dungeon Master's Screen

I haven't used a referee's screen in many, many years, mostly because I rarely get the chance to sit at a table large enough to accommodate all the people with whom I play, never mind unwieldy gaming paraphernalia as well. And referee's screens are unwieldy, at least in my experience, none moreso than the AD&D Dungeon Master's Screen. This product consisted of not one but two cardboard screens, each being a three-paneled gatefold. The insides of each screen were covered with charts and tables from the AD&D rulebooks, while the outsides were mostly festooned with artwork (incuding a rare example of color Dave Trampier art), though one panel on each was dedicated to player-oriented charts, like weapon damage or experience point requirements for each class.

In my younger days, though, when we used to play D&D while seated at a ping-pong table, I used screens religiously and not just for the charts. Back in those bygone days, having a screen up conferred a weird kind of authority to the person sitting behind them and establishing one's authority was important. Heyday of the "imperial referee" it might have been, but it's often forgotten that one became emperor by making your players believe you were emperor. That is, simply being the guy who bought a module and was willing to run it for the group wasn't enough to make one a referee. At one time or another, all the players in my old crew did this. However, only I was ever the Dungeon Master and part of the reason why is that I did all the little things that conferred this august title upon me: I was flexible but decisive, tough but fair, and, above all, someone the players wanted to beat at his own game. And I had a screen. The combination of these elements was a strange alchemy that elevated me in the eyes of my friends and contributed greatly to the feel of the game and it was that feel that kept us playing almost non-stop for years.

The basement of my current home has this enormously ugly bar built into it. When I say "enormously ugly," I do not exaggerate -- it's a monstrosity of faux green marble and "stonework" paneling that I have a hard time imagining that anyone in the 1970s (when it was undoubtedly constructed) finding the least bit attractive. I've been meaning to destroy it for years, but, because it sits on top of a water turn-off valve, I know that eliminating it would mean moving the valve, making it a rather involved project. When I first moved into the house, I used to stand behind the bar when I was refereeing. It was my neo-Dungeon Master's screen. I could rest all my books back there and roll my dice easily. Like its cardboard predecessors, it was fairly unwieldly -- I had to walk over to the game table if I needed to inspect anything there -- but there was a certain "aura of power" about it that provided focus to our sessions, which was important since our group grew quite large.

Despite all this, I'm not sure I could go back to using a referee's screen. Somehow, the idea of it makes me feel self-conscious now. I'm not sure I can explain why, particularly given how readily I like to experiment with the Old Ways. And goodness knows I could use a handy collection of reference charts and tables rather than having to flip through books to find what I need. I just don't know if a screen is the way to go, at least for me. So, if anyone's looking for "dirt" to use against my old school credentials, enjoy!

48 comments:

  1. Hey James, who made that screen? It's amazing looking.

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  2. That's the AD&D screen made by TSR in 1979.

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  3. Yikes! It didn't drive you mad being away from the table? On the other hand, I can imagine how your basement geography would provide perfect ambience and staging for the ol' 'You meet in a tavern...'

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  4. A DM without his screen is little more than a vagrant with some dice. Why, he's practically no better than a (*shudders*) Storyteller.
    Denuding a DM of his screen is tantamount to depriving a wizard of his pointy hat. ;)

    I do like the AD&D screen, but my favourite is still the "Birthright" screen: 4 panels of quasi-medieval wall of violence complete with knights, grey-faced hobgoblins, siege towers, mountains and stormclouds. Good stuff.

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  5. What a pitch perfect post, the screen was definitely a key prop in projecting that aura of supposed authority back in the day.

    I was watching the climax of Judd Apatow's Freaks and Geeks the other day and besides it being overall one of the best dramatic renderings of the games many of us were part of circa 1981, it clearly shows a DM smug and secure behind his mighty screen. Clip can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hJAGxAeV7YU

    These days I guess I don't feel the need to have that projection either. And yeah, I could organizationally use the handy tables too. But I like the whole "hard, cold world" feel of rolling all the dice out front and resisting the urge to fudge combats and the like to benefit the players.

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  6. The 1st ed DM screen had 2x3 panels? Cool! I always needed the six panel to be comfortable as a DM... To spread out all my books, the adventure etc. behind it. Never understood why were they selling 3 or 4 paneled screens in the 2nd ed days. I used the official 2nd ed screen and the Ravenloft one to make it six.

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  7. My experience running 4th edition was, unsatisfactory to say the least. But the 4th edition DM screen is awesome. 4 panels of boardgame quality stock, and the best part is it is laid out landscape style, which means you can still use it to hide your rolls, but you can see over it!

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  8. I use that very same screen. It's just part of the aesthetics of the game for me, along with those crazy dice. I could ditch the screen, use an electronic dice roller or dice rolling program, etc, but it just wouldn't feel the same.

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  9. I've still got that screen in a box somewhere. I love it. It's still my favorite DM screen image-wise.

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  10. I don't know why Dungeon Master Screens have not evolved with the rest of modern technology.

    The modern DM's Screen should be kevlar reinforced and incorporate a loudspeaker and a taser.

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  11. I like the idea of DMing from behind an bar (even a hideous one). Maybe the DM screen could be replaced by a podium!

    Seriously though - do you do much 'secret rolling'? (This was the only reason I have ever seen for using the screen - and to clip the dungeon map up so it was easier to see...)

    These days I just stand a 3-ring binder up to serve these functions - tho the art of the 1e screen is one of my favorites...

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  12. I love referee screens, but for my money few get the balance right for including things I use all the time and excluding things I don't.

    The last GM screen I bought was for Silver Age Sentinels (Tri-Stat version) ... it was four-panels, landscape, and I had to MAKE four more panels to get the information I would use! That was a pain.

    After that, I bought a Savage Worlds Customisable GM Screen. Three panel, landscape orientation, shiny black vinyl with clear pockets on both sides. I've been very happy designing my own inserts for it, since I can use teeny print and get just exactly what I want and need on the inside, and I can get important stuff in larger print for the rest of the table to see on the outside. Landscape is definitely the way to go, as it's harder to tip over and doesn't obstruct the view quite so much. And if the Savage Worlds product gives you sticker shock, I know someone who can make an equivalent product for about $4 of supplies and a half-hour of effort.

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  13. I ended up making my own. Back in my salad days as a lowly frame-shop employee, I took advantage of my workplace and used matboard to make a six-panel screen. Then I drymounted a nice fabric to one side and customized the other with tables. I am hoping this inches me several notches up the geekdom ladder.

    Word verification: inkel, noun; the tiny but irritating dollop of ink that sometimes bleeds from the end of a ballpoint pen.

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  14. You know screens are important because even the old Milton Bradly boardgame Hero Quest provided a screen for the guy running the dungeon. It was a lousy screen utility-wise, but it was still a screen.

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  15. I also love Ref screens but increasingly I find that there is not one that is ultimately servicable for my needs. Ulimtately, I would like something customizable and the size of Hackmaster screen 10 panels of 8x11 sheets that I could load up and that publishers would update for a small fee (say less than $1) on Drivethrough.

    However, one thing that I find is a trend is the use of laptops in gaming. I find great advantages to that but there is still the lack of an aura that comes with a screen. So as much as things go high tech in gaming...I think the screen will always be one of mainstays of tabletop gaming.

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  16. I must admit that my taste for DM screens has waned a bit over the years (not as much as James', though): the drawbacks of fitting everything behind, and trying to see/reach over it yourself, are considerable. Also, as I evolve into streamlined OD&D play, my need for any tables at all is evaporating (and what tables I do want in front of me are not the same as any pre-published work).

    That said, the original AD&D screen discussed here is, IMO, the best of all time. Super-thick, stable, and beautiful artwork. (I look at the big fighter on the right as my idealized image of the D&D fighter; wary, charismatic, bold, a bit grizzled, well-protected, clever).

    I'll be using that very screen in another 2 weeks, as part of my AD&D game in an annual friends' mini-convention, running S1 (again.

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  17. I'm a bit of an oddball in the fact that I had never used a screen until quite recently. BITD the stack of 1e books provided cover for my secret dice rolls (and provided a sad commentary on the size of the library one was expected to have to play).

    Today, I've taken to making virtually all of my dice rolls in the open. (This scares the players much more than it scares me...)

    I want something to screen the map and other paperwork, and I like being able to reference the rulebook without the players seeing exactly what I'm looking at (such as when looking up spell effects or monster stats), so I'm not sure if I'm going to ditch the screen or not.

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  18. I was so motivated by the artwork I just bid on one from eBay...nobody bid on the next one up!!!

    DM screens were not a part of my repertoire at first but they became pretty much essential once I realized that having the map out all the time was too much of a temptation for my players.

    I am loking into doing a game with my old group over Skype...I would call that the ultimate DM screen!

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  19. I love screens and have a bunch including the old AD&D one pictured but for me the Hollow Earth Expedition screen raised the bar... http://www.stephendaniele.com/images/commercial/art/sda_com_art_HEX.jpg ...as well as being incredibly thick (I wouldn't be surprised if it was actually bullet-proof) it has the most setting-evocative and wonderful art I've seen on a screen...truly transporting you to the Hollow Earth!

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  20. But I like the whole "hard, cold world" feel of rolling all the dice out front and resisting the urge to fudge combats and the like to benefit the players.

    I do too. I always roll my dice out in the open nowadays. It helps distance me from the results, so that, if things go badly and a PC or beloved NPC dies, I can legitimately claim it was random chance, not my own malice, that decided it.

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  21. It's just part of the aesthetics of the game for me, along with those crazy dice.

    There is definitely something to this notion. I think people are much too quick to dismiss the importance of esthetics in creating our experiences, even when it comes to our hobbies.

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  22. Seriously though - do you do much 'secret rolling'?

    Not anymore, no, although I used to do it a lot back in the days when I used a referee's screen.

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  23. (I look at the big fighter on the right as my idealized image of the D&D fighter; wary, charismatic, bold, a bit grizzled, well-protected, clever).

    The hobby lost a lot when Tramp decided to move on, didn't it? That man was a genius.

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  24. Say what you will about 4e, their DM Screen is the best by *far* of any I've ever used for any game in any system. Constructed of heavy cardboard and encased in another layer of thinner posterboard, all with a glossy finish and four panels in size, it's a great product.

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  25. My friend's mom's basement has a similar 70s dry bar that we used to use for DMing. I often used a screen in addition to that. It was the judge's fortress!

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  26. I usually play via AIM, but when I play in real life I just don't feel right without a DM screen.

    Thanks, tendrils, I'll have to check that out. (Despite it beign a very different animal from any previous D&D, I have found 4e to be a fun experience and am looking forward to getting more out of it if I can ever find anyone else to freakin' play it. That's really the trouble when half your gamer friends are such great old-schoolers, and the others cling to the bloated monstrosity that is 3.5)

    Verification word: Cates
    Definition: the dust left over after filing or sandpapering something.

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  27. I always liked how thick and sturdy the 1e screen was. Most modern screens, with a few exceptions, are way too thin - the slightest breeze will tip them over. The 1e screen, by comparison, was something you could use to smack an unruly player with for 1d3 damage (1d2 vs large players).

    Word verification: 'ograin' (sounds like a tantric breakfast cereal)

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  28. I had the DM screen pictured years ago, loved it, then replaced it via ebay... and found my original... now I have 2! Mine has 1 large screen with the artwork pictured above, and another smaller one with the illo from the cover of the 1e PHB. I actually rarely stand them up, just keep them nearby to quick-find info.
    Most of the rolls I do in the open (like attack rolls) but I roll some things in secret (like secret doors, wandering monsters, etc., as well as the occasional dice roll for no particular reason to keep the players nervous (Player: "He's rolling dice again --- why is he rolling dice?")

    Word verification: 'Crant.' A detached dried dingleberry.
    "To my embarrassment, a crant rolled down my pantleg ond onto the floor as I introduced myself to the President of Bolivia..."

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  29. I have great respect for all the people who make their own screens. I'd do the same, but my Savage Worlds landscape customizeable screen saves me most of the hard work.

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  30. The power of the lecturn.

    When I was running my now-defunct 3.5/Pathfinderish game, I used a grey, pocketed vinyl thing in portrait orientation, and it did leave me feeling disconnected from the game, as if I were the computer, and the online players were looking at their monitors in synchro.

    In my Old School playtest game, I just use my hand to shade the few rolls I feel need to be blocked, and roll the rest in the open.
    ---

    * Gotalit: Buzzed, Mellowed, Tweaked.

    "No thanks, I'm already gotalit."

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  31. I'm using that old screen currently but it does detach me a little from the game. I could live with the rolls out in the open (and I have been moving towards that) but if you don't have a screen how do you hide the maps and other info from prying (innocently or not) eyes?

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  32. I have never used a DM's screen. I bought the official AD&D screen back in 1981, but I never had any use for it save to marvel at Trampier's wondrous piece of art.

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  33. I don't think that open dice rolling absolves the DM from squat nor does it provide any objectivity to the result. Who sets up the encounters? Who sets up the traps?

    If you are interested in the issue of power and disciplinary gaze look up Foucault and the panopticon. Not unlike the DM screen (I too used that same TSR one for years. I now use the 3.5 landscape screen). Hmmm, I should write that paper :)

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  34. I always use a GM's screen myself, whether I'm running D&D or Gamma World (my two favorite systems). I still have my copy of the 1979 DM's screen shown.

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  35. I like GM screens, but need them to be landscaped if at possible. Can move hands over minis and such in that kind of game, and they tend to cover more space.

    Plus, lots of handy charts and such right where I can reach em. (Plus many are good to scan and give them to the players as rules cheatsheets!)

    Best constructed screen I have is my New World of Darkness one, basically a set of hardback book covers connected.

    Most useful in play is my 5th ed Call of Cthulhu. Literally has every single chart I could need for normal play. One panel is mostly generic Mythos info that would be better replaced with optional rules stuff like hit locations, but other than that one panel, its 3 other landscaped panels of greatness. (And that one panel is still useful to some degree. Sample poisons, "How sorcerers get that way", books of the Mythos, and all the creatures listed as what they are. I would much prefer their stats over what they are classified as myself. I guess the supplemental pages that came with it cover stats though.)

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  36. I always use a screen, but never for the charts or anything... it's simply so I can have adventure maps and notes in front of me uncovered without the players peeking.

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  37. A question for the DMs who don't use screens: how do you prevent players from accidentally (or, depending on the maturity of your players, intentionally) seeing your maps and notes? As a player, I prefer DMs who use screens simply so I don't accidentally ruin the adventure for myself.

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  38. I use the landscape 3.5 screen with two additional portrait screens erected at either end to extend the screen completely across the table. The landscape format is fantastic, since it doesn't cut off my view of the battlemap nor the players' view of my body language.

    I don't use the charts. And I rarely care if the players can see my dice rolls. My goal is strictly to block casual line-of-sight to my dungeon map and notes.

    Not because I think my players are a bunch of filthy cheaters, but because my players are going to be looking in my direction. If I've got the maps laying out right in front of me in plain sight, their eyes are eventually going to inadvertently fall on them.

    Actually, like Akrasia, it's not even about "ohmigod they'll cheat" -- given the angles of where people are sitting, there are plenty of people who (if they wanted to) could easily peer over the screen and look at the notes anyway -- it's about not wanting them to inadvertently spoil things for themselves.

    I also like to spread out my material when I'm DMing: I actually use TV dinner tables to my left and right to hold my books, and then all of the material behind the screen are various notes: I can look simultaneously at my map, my map key, and a page of monster stats or general status information.

    It's why I've never been able to run from a laptop. Trying to flip from one piece of information to another is a major flow-kill.

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  39. Akrasia;

    Typically, if there's no notes or maps to see, players can't see them and hence it won't be a problem.

    When I used a map that I decided to keep unknown to players I used a laptop and kept it on a table close by but not on the gaming table, where it would just eat space and visibility.

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  40. Justin Alexander has perfectly summarized the role of the Screen in the groups I’ve played with for the past ten years. The DM uses them mostly to keep notes, maps, monster HP totals (etc.) secret, as well as miniatures for upcoming expected encounters, props prior to handout, and dice rolls as needed. I’ve tried running without one and I can’t stand having to actually open my notebooks, look in them, close them again, etc.

    I love the Tramp 1st ed screen, and own both portions. Its only true flaws are a) that it’s in Portrait rather than landscape, necessitating either a high seat or a standing DM, and b) that some of the charts (particularly on the second, non-Tramp portion) seem quite unneeded for quick reference. The 4th ed screen is the other top D&D screen. The art, while new-school, is among the better class of such. And the charts are obviously useless for old-school play. But the format (4 panel, Landscape) and the quality (heavy laminated cardboard, easily twice the thickness of the Tramp screen and more water-resistant) is unequalled in my experience. If I was in the market for an old-school screen I’d either use the 4th ed one and just paste old-school stuff over the rules on the back (easiest) or try to recreate its format using photocopied/scanned Tramp & Erol Otus art.

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  41. >basement of my current home has this enormously ugly bar built into it. When I say "enormously ugly," I do not exaggerate -- it's a monstrosity of faux green marble and "stonework" paneling that I have a hard time imagining that anyone in the 1970s (when it was undoubtedly constructed) finding the least bit attractive<

    James, if you drank or had friends over for drinks, you'd be loving that bar. If you drank AND didn't do this blog, you would probably spend all your time down there putting up neon booze signs and dark boards. Have a few boys over on a weekend to watch the game (sports game, not geekery).

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  42. >well as miniatures for upcoming expected encounters, props prior to handout<

    Heh heh, any old school player worth his salt (that still has the kid in them) shall somehow get around your paltry screen and get a gander at your monster figs!

    Everything else I have no problem keeping well hidden in my notebook.

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  43. I have a great group. They look forward to the big reveal when I put the monsters out. I'm careful not to peek when I play too. Though I'm not saying that there isn't a pause for oohs and ahs and occasionally some handling for closer admiration if a particularly nice or new figure comes out.

    I like being able to glance down at my notes continuously during the adventure without either a)having to open a book or b) leaving my notes open for all eyes to fall upon.

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  44. That is one awesome piece of art; captures all the magic and might of the game. Put me on the list of folks guilty of building their own screen... Still have it somewhere...

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  45. I don't think that open dice rolling absolves the DM from squat nor does it provide any objectivity to the result. Who sets up the encounters? Who sets up the traps?

    Perhaps but I can tell you from experience that my players are much more forgiving of TPKs and other misfortunes if they see the dice rolled before their eyes. Call it what you will.

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  46. A question for the DMs who don't use screens: how do you prevent players from accidentally (or, depending on the maturity of your players, intentionally) seeing your maps and notes?

    I hold my maps in my hand, as part of a small collection of notes, charts, and other pages I use in play. It's never really been an issue.

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  47. James, if you drank or had friends over for drinks, you'd be loving that bar.

    Alas, I'm pretty much a teetotaler when it comes to alcohol. My main exception is good champagne, which I'd drink in large quantities if I could afford to do so. Fortunately, I cannot.

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