Reasons to Use a DM’s Screen (and Why They’re Wrong)

EDIT: I’ve spent a fair bit of time today listening to Lindybeige and, as a consequence, all I could hear was the British accent as I wrote this post. I recommend the reader do the same.

Players won’t see your dice rolls.

This breaks down into several benefits:

First, hiding dice rolls helps build and maintain suspense. The players know you’re rolling for something but they don’t know why and, more importantly, they can’t see what dice you’re rolling or what the results were, so they can’t guess at the source. They can’t say, “Aha, 2d10, must be a random encounter roll;” all they know is that you’re rolling for something.

Second, keeping rolls hidden keeps the players from guessing at things they shouldn’t know. Every PC and NPC rolls a d20 during combat, and the players know their characters’ armor class scores, so when an NPC rolls really low to attack but still hits the heavily armored fighter, they players learn that they’re fighting someone with a significant bonus to hit. Maybe he’s high-level or has a lot of magic, or both, but they know something more than they did before they saw that roll. And, the argument goes, that’s something that they shouldn’t know. After all, these numbers are just abstract values, they don’t represent what really happens in a combat round except whether someone takes damage or not. Stats are abstract; numbers have meaning but no clear connection to abilities, at least not that we can articulate, so let’s not detract from the tension or the drama of the moment.

Finally, if players can see the die roll, they know something is happening. This is a reverse of the suspense argument above and, while not mutually exclusive, represents a different sort of view; namely, that the DM doesn’t want the players to change their behavior simply because she rolled a die. The DM has a lot of responsibility during a game. She has a lot to keep track of. There are a ton of instances where a die roll may be necessary, but if the players see them all, they’re just going to get bogged down by an irrelevant detail. Or, just as bad, they could become completely immune to very act of rolling a die, which makes the above benefit harder to achieve.

By now, I’m sure the reader can guess where I’m going with all of this: straight to the s#!++&%, because they’re all s#!++> arguments.

You can build suspense by rolling a die but it doesn’t matter if the players can see the result or not if they don’t know why you rolled it in the first place. And you’re under no obligation to tell them why. You are their eyes and ears to the game world, it’s true, but if they’re incapable of discerning the source of the die roll, then don’t tell them anything. Don’t answer their questions or their stares; ignore them entirely and move on with the action. Maybe make note of the result, like writing it down on a piece of paper and leaving that paper on the table where everyone can see it. Remember, we’re playing a game. Don’t expect your players to divorce themselves from that fact. Their grasp of reality is not that tenuous – and if it is, please stop playing and get them medical help immediately.

This addresses the second point as well: regardless of what people have to say about the abstraction of numbers in an RPG, the players know that each +1 to-hit or each 1 hit point means something in the context of the game and therefore, means something to the character. It’s patently ridiculous to think, for example, a fighter can’t guess at the relative skill and strength of another fighter by simply watching him fight. The same applies to all characters, especially with regard to their chosen specialty, and a great way to model this knowledge is to roll the dice in the open and explain what each roll means. (Assuming the character is present to witness the action causing the roll, that is.) In this way, rolling dice in the open helps the DM explain the action without having to resort to a bunch of fluff and word-play which will eventually be lost on the player because, “You take a mighty blow to the shoulder that knocks you off-balance, forcing you to drop your weapon and stagger back a few feet,” doesn’t carry the same punch as, “You take 15 damage, stagger back 5 feet and you’re stunned for 1 round.” The former is flowery language but the latter means, “Holy crap! I almost died from that hit!” because the player can see how many hit points he has left.

All of this lends itself well to the next rebuttal: that we want the players to change their behavior. We want them to fear for their characters’ safety. We want them to be confident that their plan will succeed and to be cautious as they execute it. But most important of all – and the real reason you should roll all dice in the open – we want the players to know that we’re playing fair. Hey, we’re all human, and even if you’re a decent one – especially if you’re decent – you’ll be tempted to “fudge” rolls if only because you don’t want to see a character die. The player is your friend. He worked hard on that character; he worked harder still to get where he is. Seeing him kick it is… well, it s?(|{$, and you should feel his pain; if you don’t, you have bigger issues to deal with. But the moment you give in to that temptation is the moment you say to the player, “I don’t respect my responsibility as the DM and I don’t respect your part in this game.” Not using a screen helps keep that temptation at bay.

The screen hides notes and organizes information.

It may be one thing to have your dice in the open. You can limit player knowledge just fine; you don’t have to explain the dice or give anything away if you don’t want to. But there’s a lot going on in the game world. You have ways to organize that information and you can’t have the players looking at it before the appropriate moment.

And there’s a lot of rules. Whether you’re using the latest and greatest from WotC… excuse me, I just threw up a bit in my mouth… or an earlier edition, chances are you’ve got your own set of house rules. That plus the tomes that are the PHB, DMG and MM, and you’ve got a lot to keep up with. A screen is really useful for that sort of thing.

But so is a computer. That anybody these days is not using a computer to run their game is beyond me. You can buy a new (or refurbished) system for under $200; and if you take care of it, it will last a long time. Microsoft offers its software for free now. PDFs let you dispense with the physically restrictive library, and they let you search your documents which is faster than paging through books. You can download mapping programs, dice programs and character sheets. And yes, there is a lack of really good supporting material for the game, but that just means there’s the opportunity to create your own programs, like an encounter generator that’s tailored to your world. (Which has the added benefit of teaching you how to use programs like Excel or how to code, which in this day and age is all but guaranteed to help your prospects at finding, keeping and moving up in a job.)


Finally, there’s one very good reason to not use a screen: you won’t look like an a$$#*|-&.


Because that’s what the DM screen does: it puts you on a pedestal.


6 thoughts on “Reasons to Use a DM’s Screen (and Why They’re Wrong)

Add yours

  1. Structurally, I’m not certain your argument is made. I see a good case made if your thesis is something akin to:

    “A DM’s Screen isn’t necessary”

    You put it well; tension is made with or without one. All the things a DM’s Screen achieves are not unique to its existence. Furthermore, your talk of modeling a fighter’s analytical skills through open rolling was something I’d not thought of before, and gave me more food for thought which is always nice.

    I think all of the above is not only correct, but insightful.

    However, your thesis for this post holds aggression higher than “a DM’s Screen isn’t necessary” if I’m reading your tone and word use correctly. You are making the argument “a DM’s Screen is detrimental and reasons to use it are wrong”, and the only point you really make in that vein of thinking is “you won’t look like an asshole”.

    My own stance is the former thesis – a DM’s Screen isn’t necessary. I don’t use one. I don’t use a laptop either, but if players want to read my notes quite frankly they can go ahead – all it does is sabotage their own fun, wonder and challenge, it’s no skin off my back. I don’t use the laptop because of personal issues with it that I could overcome with time, but have not bothered to.

    It’s hard for me to go from my stance to yours – I’ve yet to truly understand what really makes the Screen wrong, as I think you’re saying here. To use a similar argument to your earlier ones:

    You can put yourself on a pedestal with a Screen, projecting your voice out like the voice of god, hiding from players, fudging dice rolls, and holding yourself unaccountable. But you can easily do so even if you roll in the open. All the stats of monsters you made up can fluctuate. All HP values can fluctuate. A DM without a Screen, like it or not, is hardly handicapped at all in their ability to be an asshole or to put themselves on a pedestal.

    I’m not truly sure what all the fuss over the Screen is. It seems a circuitous path to tackle the root of the problem – GMs who think elevating themselves makes their game better somehow when all it does is make players roll their eyes at a transparent power play.

    Addendum: It could be that you’re not going for the more aggressive argument and I’m reading you all wrong, in which case apologies. But it does come across that way.

    1. What purpose does it serve? For each answer offered, I offer a better approach. You agree; other people agree; it seems that the correct action is to do away with the screen. But people continue to use it. What possible explanation remains for this?

      Well, there’s the manufacturer’s purpose, which is simply to make money. And there’s the corporate shills – though I loathe the term, it’s appropriate it here – who’s purpose is to toe the company line in order to make money.

      But the point I wanted to make – and this could be a bit more clear, perhaps – is this: how does it look to the player when you use a screen? Because the player is not stupid. He knows just as well as anyone that the screen is unnecessary; so why is the DM using it unless she’s trying to hide something?

      1. That does clarify matters, and introduces a blind spot I had not considered.

        I would still say that trust is bred through addressing behavior and personality rather than through props, but that does help explain your view very clearly.

        The props we surround ourselves with are clues to personality, and when playing with strangers maybe those clues are all you have time to see. Is that sort of in line with what you are saying?

      2. Yeah.

        I can see a bit better how people react like they do: “What do you mean? I’ve been doing this for years and my friends trust me to be fair.” Sure, you’ve built up that trust over time so run your game however it works.

        Of course… is it really working for you or do your friends only have one option?

        Regardless, new groups, new players or a new approach to running the game – in these cases I say you’re better off without it.

  2. I’d been using a screen for one reason: nostalgia (it’s a D&D 2E folder).

    My current set up is much more open: a large board to pin maps on, laid flat so everyone can see; a box to hold counters & ‘hidden’ information underneath it (such as the random encounter tables). All the die rolls are done on the maps where everyone can see. Like this:

    In contrast to the standard DM Screen, I have laminated handouts on the table, in front of the map, which anyone can handle and peruse during the game to solidify their understanding of the rules.

  3. Though it can be useful (depending on your style of computer – mine’s far too bulky and the screen is too wide to be useful at the table), I have been trying to get *away* from the use of my computer when running games. For me, running (or playing in) an in-person game is a chance to unplug, to get away from the head- and backache-inducing screens that surround me most of the day. If I’m going to be clicking around on a laptop for four hours, why not just run the whole campaign online?

    (Answer: Because of the aforementioned headaches, both literal and metaphorical, and the social interaction that happens when hanging out with friends in real life.)

    True, flipping through rulebooks can take time, and dragging a bunch of books to a game can be annoying; but I reduce the former by becoming more familiar with the rules, and the latter by using less “weighty” rules systems whenever possible.

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