Behind the Screen

It's role-playing week here at Siskoid's. What you say? An official week that starts on a Tuesday? That's OUTrageous! Yeah well, that's what happens when I think of it late. But it's true to say I've neglected that particular sphere of Geekery lately. Let's see, where to start?

Talked about dice already, but what about the GameMaster's screen? That cardboard wall that separates gods from mere mortals, the literal mists that obscure the hand of Fate herself... Well, that's taking it a bit far, isn't it?

And yet, that's what the Screen represents to players. The sound of rolling dice can create paranoia, but only if they fall outside one's eyeline. The Screen is mystery. Behind that screen is everything the players don't know. What number was just rolled. What the map of the secret complex looks like. What the exact modifiers for an action are (as they are often printed on the GM's side of the screen). It allows a GM to manipulate, change and fudge rolls. This at once protects players and the story, but should never be used to hose the player characters. For example, if the archvillain really needs to escape at a crucial point, you might roll courtesy dice, but allow that escape no matter what. On the flip side, no one needs to know Pépé the Paladin would have died right then if you'd gone by the dice. In my opinion, a good GM is in charge of pace and dramatic relevance - no one dies as a result of an anti-climax just because the dice fell wrong, and the story doesn't magically end the same way before it has a chance to build up.

As a tool for the GameMaster, the screen can also be used to clip documents onto, on either side, putting your information at your eye level, easy to find at a glance. Indeed, GM screens usually have relevant charts printed on the inside for you to refer to, and with some games, you really, really need those (where actions are resolved by cross-checking charts, for example). A technique becoming more and more common now is the use of one's laptop as a GM screen, creating the same kind of barrier, but with a lot more flexibility as to what it features. Charts, notes, maps, pictures, atmospheric mp3s, even dice rolls, all at the click of a mouse, and you can smoothly swivel the computer around to show players something. I was considering getting a cheap laptop just for this use (and writing Star Trek reviews without moving from the sofa), but it hasn't happened yet.

But what happens when you take away the screen? This has an interesting effect, especially on players who have grown used to one. I find that this opens the game up considerably by making the GM and the players simply different voices around the table. Yes, there's still one person interpreting the game, describing scenes and playing all the bit parts, but with that physical barrier down, so is the psychological one. There's a stronger sense of collaboration without the screen, and in games that are supposed to be more free-form (no published scenarios or extensive notes, or perhaps a focus on improvisation), it measurably helps. Players stop trying to deduce where a story is meant to go and just create. Worth a try, and you can always roll inside your cupped hand or on a lower side-table.

For me, to use a screen or not usually hinges on whether or not there are charts required to play the game, but since I can lay the gatefold flat on the table, it's not always an issue. If I use a published scenario, I'll always screen it to hide pictures and maps. If not, there's a good chance I'll open up the table, especially since I talk a lot with my hands and there's a real danger of the screen flying off it. I'd also use a screen in an "me vs. them" situation as created by some games where the GM must be ruthless, like Dream Park or Paranoia. The point is, I suppose, that each technique has its uses, and you shouldn't be afraid to use both as the situation warrants.


FoldedSoup said…
I love these "Devices of the game" entries you do. Really brings back my Geek nostalgia.

I'd be real curious to hear your take on those crappy lead minatures. I had a love / hate relationship with them back in the day...
Siskoid said…
Oh expect something on that this week for sure!
Anonymous said…
Let's be sad together. GG died.
Siskoid said…
Wow, that makes my choice of "Week" extremely creepy.
Anonymous said…
Plz do a George W. Bush week soonest.