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The Case of Screen v. Screenless

Art by Titus Lunter.

It's Tuesday night. The companions of the Caught in Galen campaign are split across the community of Vorici’s Rest. My notes are laid bare before me for tonight’s session. Luna walks the stone halls of a temple, unknowingly moving closer to a beholder-like beast. Flux jogs toward the Azure Graveyard, the bloodstone he needed to dispose of tossed in a nearby alley. Roy stalks toward the Faded Ember Inn with Skraw before coming face-to-face with a humanoid made of twinkling stars and eyes like radiant suns. 

Meanwhile, Jason and Ignis harry two warforged desperate to detonate the necrombombs in the cemetery. From the shadows, Jason expertly twirls bolas at one of the warforged’s feet! I roll to save: 4! The table cheers. With his pact-formed longbow, Ignis rains eldritch blasts on the other warforged. The disabled warforged attempts to remove the bolas: 1! The table cheers. Jason rushes to the fleeing warforged, stepping between Ignis’s booming blasts. The on-the-ground warforged tries to free herself: 3! The table cheers. The fleeing warforged reaches the cemetery and dashes beneath its grove. Alas, Ignis breaks through the trees and meets him in melee, while Jason pounces from the darkness. The tied-up warforged tears at the bolas again: 1! The table cheers.

Jason and Ignis surround the solitary warforged and spar with him for a moment, before Jason knocks him out with the pommel of his dagger. The prone warforged struggles still: 4! The table cheers and the warforged submits to her new home on the ground.

Why the Scene Worked

The scene described above unfolded spectacularly. Roll after roll, this poor warforged could not rip the bolas from her legs (sadly she had no weapons). My players thoroughly enjoyed this simple interaction and it made my night. Lots of cool encounters occurred (A beholder-like creature tunneled to the sewers in a temple!) but the suffering of this poor warforged tops my list of favorite moments.

Oddly enough, the source of this memorable scene is derived from a decision I made long ago: I do not use a Dungeon Master screen when I DM.

Forgoing a DM screen opens up the table and allows players a clear view of the dice a DM rolls. Some say this takes away from the drama, the intrigue, and the fun at the table. I disagree. At least for my players, the ability to watch the dice leave my hand, scatter across the space in front of me, and land on a number augments the experience. They love witnessing a critical failure and they moan when a tiefling wight scores a critical hit.

The scene of the warforged struggling to free herself from the bolas worked partially because my screen was gone. Sometimes, it does not matter how well you narratively describe an encounter: your players look to the sky, scour their character sheets, or, worst of all, open their phones. When dice physically hit the table and roll in front of them, they are more likely to pay attention and be engaged in the moment, especially if their character is absent or it is not their turn.

This is a difficult truth, especially for those who prefer to DM with a screen.

The Argument for Screens

Grimy lizardfolk assault a wooden raft, tearing apart poor adventurers using it to cross the misty mere.

A massive alligator breaks the mere’s surface and, mouth agape, tries to bite into the injured elf wizard. As the DM, you roll a critical hit. Quickly, you do the math in your head: this bite will spell the elf’s death, even if you roll minimum damage. Her player just started playing D&D, this is her first character, her first adventure. She tried to convince the party to ally with the lizardfolk instead of slaughtering their guards and stealing their raft, too! Now, her character is about to die. Her doom could lead to many possibilities: she could create a new character, decide D&D is not for her, desperately try to convince the party to save her character, et cetera. However, you know her. You know she will likely quit. She is attached to this elf wizard, she does not want it to die, especially after arguing against this course of action earlier. Luckily, you use a DM screen and can fudge the dice.

The alligator snaps at the elf wizard, but she’s able to narrowly duck below its maw! Moments later, the battle turns as the lizardfolk encounter a slew of bad luck. The adventurers barely escape with their lives and successfully cross the mere.

Utilizing a DM screen allows you to fudge the rolls. In the example above, the fudging favored the players, though you could fudge in the monsters favor as well. Many DM’s do this; I have in the past.

The screen also allows you to obscure your notes (on-the-spot down scrawling, important maps, and character cards), reference important, D&D-specific information located on most screens, and ensure the game stays fun. If the players experience a never ending string of bad rolls, you can force the monsters to join in. If a battle is taking too long, you can decrease the enemies’ hit points. If a boss fight is too easy, you can magically roll a few critical hits. The only requirements are that your players do not know you are fudging rolls and you do not do it often.

Sadly, it is a slippery slope.

Art by Nika.

Succinctly, a DM screen gives the DM cover for their notes, a shield to fudge dice rolls behind, and a concise layout of important D&D mechanics and in-session inspiration.

The Argument Against Screens

Without a screen, you are more connected to your players. There is no barrier between you and them — which is what the screen was originally designed to be. You can roll your dice in the open and your players can witness their results, which keeps them engaged in many situations, from combat to exploration. If you are worried about your notes being in the open, talk to your players. Ask them to avoid looking at the notes. After all, what’s the point of D&D if you know what might be upcoming?

Referencing maps is more difficult without a screen — that’s the only time I’d hop behind one. When using a map, pull out a screen, but only to hide the map!

Onto the main point: DM screens encourage a dangerous and unimaginative behavior: fudging.

D&D is a game about chance. There are plenty of deterministic and divergent paths in it: social interactions with friendly wizards, delves into ancient ruins, and vocal spars between companions. However, when everyone willingly decides to use the dice by entering combat, engaging in skill checks, or participating in some other chance-driven event, respect the dice.

If there is no need for the dice, do not use them.

If you use them, respect them.

Your game should remain fun no matter what the dice say. If you need to change the outcome of the dice for the game to continue to be interesting, something is wrong. There are plenty of methods to rig your game behind the scenes that avoid fudging completely. Design stronger monsters. Drop in reinforcements for either side. Introduce a new element to the encounter. Get creative with the story — do not fudge the rolls!

If you do, it might be hard to stop.

Fudging begins innocently. You want to save a player from death or make a combat more interesting. Yet, over time, you will discover yourself fudging more and more. As this use grows, the randomness of D&D disappears and it becomes a story you’re telling with the help of your players and their random elements. Effectively, you are railroading the game by not respecting the dice.

If you do not want to live by the dice and be forced to innovate, then only use them when necessary or play another RPG that does not rely on dice and randomness as a key storytelling element.

Fudging does not make you a worse person, player, or DM; it's a technique used by many. However, I think it does hinder and erode creativity. It can be used as an easy crutch, especially in situations when the game risks becoming a slog. With clever tactics and on-your-feet thinking, though, fudging becomes an unneeded endeavor.

True fudging can only happen behind screens. Remove the nudge to fudge by going screenless.

Leaving a DM screen beside the table removes a barrier between the DM and the players and lets dice be rolled in the open, thereby preventing fudging and forcing innovation.

A Mix of Both Methods

Of course, both methods can work in actual play. Keep the screen up if you want, hide your notes, maps, miniatures, and anything else you want to behind it and roll in the open. It keeps the best of both worlds: your players aren't snooping through your notes and you are rolling across the table, allowing everyone to see. Some people, like me, prefer the all or nothing gameplay of a screen or no screen, but whose to say you cannot appreciate both styles at once?

Lessons Learned

As you can probably tell, I am not an advocate of using a DM screen or fudging, but both have their benefits. People are free to use a screen at their table and fudge the dice. Let me be clear: it does not make you any less of a DM when you fudge the dice. It's just not how I prefer to play. 

Let’s recap both arguments:
  • Using a DM screen obscures notes from prying eyes and allows the fudging of rolls or other pertinent information like monster hit points. Use a screen if you want to ensure the game remains fun no matter what the dice say.
  • Not using a DM screen lets the players see your dice rolls, ensures the game remains based on randomness when it's supposed to, and forces you to innovate and introduce new ideas to the story if something goes wrong. Do not use a screen if you want your players to be more engaged at the table, you want to respect the dice, and be forced to innovate and create.
  • If preferable, mix both methods. Hide your notes behind a screen and roll in the open.
The art on DM screens is wondrous indeed, but they are the source of much trouble. Drop the screen. Open up the table. Stay creative.

I just released my first product on the DMsGuild. Titled Villain Backgrounds Volume I, it's a supplement dedicated to helping Dungeon Masters build layered foes with just as much personality and drive as the player characters. Check it out here!

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Comments

  1. I have my screen set up to one side, with notes and maps behind it. I roll in the open, in front of me unless it's a PC detecting traps or the like where it's in the interest of the game for the player not to know the result before planning their next move.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That is a perfect split between the two! I like your approach.

      Delete

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