Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Screen or No Screen?

The gamemaster screen remains a stereotypical part of roleplaying games. Even members of the general, non-gaming public with popularized impression of the hobby view the gamemaster as a guy hunched behind a screen secretly rolling dice and consulting esoteric charts.* The screen became popularized as a seemingly required accessory by early editions of Dungeons & Dragons. Numerous other roleplaying games issued gamemaster screens; traditional ones still publish screens even today, when some might view the accessory as outdated. In today’s varied landscape of games new and nostalgic, are gamemaster screens still an essential part of gaming? Using a screen remains one of those choices individual gamemasters make; it’s sometimes helpful but certainly never required.

In my early days of roleplaying a gamemaster screen of some kind was essential. Goodness, how else would a gamemaster keep all the scenario information and die rolls absolutely secret from the players? Although I never owned the AD&D screen, I did acquire one for B/X D&D, AC2 Combat Shield and Mini-Adventure, more because I could find it a the local hobby shop when the stock of AD&D screens had already been bought up by die-hard players. It was nice to have various reference tables from the B/X rulebooks in one handy place. Besides, having a screen between the players and gamemaster was just how the game was played; obviously if I didn’t have a screen I just wasn’t playing the game right.

Yet the more I played the more I found the screen an impediment to a good game. Sure, it contained lots of useful information, but I used it more as a crib sheet for the rules rather than a barrier against the players’ prying eyes. The cardstock wall sometimes encouraged an adversarial relationship between the players and gamemaster; but I gradually set aside the screen for another, slightly lower barrier. In my growth as a gamemaster I eventually began enhancing my games with music from pre-recorded mix tapes of movie soundtracks and other appropriate cuts played on a portable cassette player with stereo speakers (commonly known as a “boom box”). I think this started when I was running Victory Games’ James Bond 007 Roleplaying Game; nothing accompanies 007-style espionage like the James Bond theme. Shortly after that, however, I immersed myself in West End Games’ Star Wars Roleplaying Game (first edition), which had a wealth of movie soundtrack material with which I was intimately familiar. Way back in the technological stone age of the late 1980s and early 1990s compact discs were just coming into general use, although recording to discs remained a rarity. Today I could just play some mpeg files on a laptop or music player, but back then I relied on tapes run through stereo boom boxes. (I’ve discussed using music in games before, both here at Hobby Games Recce and at the Griffon Publishing Studio website...scroll down to “Music in Roleplaying Games.”) While the music enhanced scenes during the game, the physical technology to play that music still served as a barrier between players and gamemaster.

I still used screens as tabletop references without setting them up as barriers. Perhaps it started with the Star Wars Roleplaying Game and the screen that came with the Campaign Pack (yes, the one with Princess Leia in the slave girl outfit with the airbrushed midriff). I might have used it as a stand-up screen once, but I soon tucked it under my scenario notes with the appropriate panel peeking out (usually difficulty numbers, but sometimes starship damage tables). I’ve long since discarded any barrier between me and the players, preferring to leave my notes and reference flat on the table.

My Ideal B/X D&D Screen

Since I like using gamemaster screens as reference sheets I’m considering pulling together a B/X D&D screen to use in my solitaire play exploration of OSR materials (and eventually group play...). Although I prefer player-specific information on character sheets so gamemaster reference can focus on other areas, this solo B/X project requires some merger of information; character-specific stats remain on the character sheet, but common information and gamemaster notes would go on a screen for frequent consultation.

What am I putting on the screen?

  • Ability score modifiers as a reminder (especially considering this varies among some OSR games).
  • Monster Reactions table.
  • A note about converting Armor Class (AC) to Ascending Armor Class (AAC) (I know, just subtract the AC from 19 to get the target number, but it’s nice to have a reminder when I’m juggling lots of information in solo play).
  • Armor values converted to Ascending Armor Class (AAC).
  • Combat Sequence notes.
  • Missile fire ranges table, which I’ve rarely used in the past but might give a slight edge to my ever-struggling characters.
  • Variable Weapon Damage chart.
  • Reminders about other combat factors like Surprise, Fighting Withdrawal, Retreat, Cover, Oil, Holy Water, and Morale.
  • Notes for whatever system I use to handle general skills. This is something I’ve explored before, though I’m looking at a modified, non-binary mechanic as discussed by Jonathan Becker at his B/X Blackrazor blog based on “How To Resolve Anything That Comes Up...” by Steve C at The Borderlands blog (where I also stumbled upon an excellent one-page reference sheet for Swords & Wizardry Whitebox). I’ll probably modify this into a much-simplified, five-result spread with “Does the task succeed?” results like “exceptional failure,” “simple failure,” “marginal success,” “clear success,” and “extraordinary success.”

Axe illustration
by Daniel F. Walthall
The real challenge is keeping all this information to one legible page. I’m tempted to toss in the cleric turning and thief abilities tables if the sheer volume pushes this to two pages, though my personal preference wants to keep those on character sheets rather than cluttering up the “common area” of a reference page with character-specific charts. Likewise individual character chances for opening doors, listening, finding traps, or noticing secret doors go on the character sheets (much as I’ve discussed earlier in “The Complete Character Sheet”). Besides, most of my B/X reference sheet focuses on combat (with a few bits on task resolution). So I started fiddling with tables and spacing and actually managed to fit everything I wanted on a one-page reference sheet...including an impressive-looking axe illustration by Daniel F. Walthall (from his Free Fantasy Stock Art collection) to fill some odd blank space.

This exercise serves as an example of how players make a particular game their own, whether customizing a character sheet or gamemaster screen with the information they see as most relevant or “house ruling” an existing system by cutting some rules and modifying others; it all focuses on the mechanics and approaches important to their particular play style. I’ve seen many such examples shared on the internet, particularly character sheets, gamemaster screens/references, and even modified or new classes. It’s a testament to the player-as-creator, do-it-yourself spirit of roleplaying games.

* Oddly enough, while searching for images from the original D&D episode of the popular sitcom Community to illustrate this post, I realized Abed himself does not use a gamemaster screen to hide his notes during the game.

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