Playstyle 101: The Game Master’s Side of the Screen

For some Game Masters, getting into the hobby is as simple as picking up a game, reading through it a time or two, and gathering some friends. For everyone else, there’s a million different ways to dive in, or dip your toes. Some learn by sitting in on a game, others by watching videos of sessions on YouTube or Twitch. Still others log more hours hitting forums and Google searches than they will reading adventure they are about to run. It’s the nature of people to have different learning styles.

So too do we have different playstyles. Whether you’re a wet-behind-the-ears newbie to GMing or a 30-plus-year veteran, it pays to give a little conscious thought to your playtstyle.

Here’s a look at some of the most important playstyle choices a GM can make that directly affect the players, too.

DM's Keep Dungeon Master Screen

I think the nerd meter just hit “Overload”

The Game Master Screen

Game Master screens are ubiquitous, a must-have accessory for many people and often one of the first supplemental products printed for any particular roleplaying game.

But what a lot of people don’t ask is when is it best to use them (or not), and how do you best make use of the one you have?

When?

Think about the nature of your game, and about the need (or lack thereof) for secrecy. You may find that a GM screen impedes your view of the game table and all of those lovely minis, battlemaps, and tokens you invest in. On the contrary, you may find that the players’ expectations and general tension level change dramatically when they can’t see what devious maps, puzzles, or props lay behind your screen.

Most important of all, consider how useful of a reference tool your GM screen is. If it has charts, tables, and information you rarely reference, it’s just a barrier. If it has the right info on it, you may find it useful to have handy even in a game where your dice rolls are “public” to the players, as it provides a quick-reference that saves you from paging through a reference tome designed to knock out a Cave Troll.

How?

Since you’ve already thought about the Why?, now it’s time to consider the How?

Table Real Estate. Do you need to cover up everything you reference, or just a map? Or just the dice rolls? Table real estate being what it is, you need to consider whether you’re building a small shield from prying eyes or the Great Wall of China.

GM Screen Ergonomics. How do you reference the information on the screen? Ergonomics is a thing that is for really reals, and if you’re craning your neck and squinting your eyes to reference the screen, you might be better off referencing a rulebook, or some loose-leaf print-outs that are easier to manipulate and lighter to lift. Give careful thought to your comfort.

Reference Materials. What are you referencing on the screen? As above, you want the screen’s real estate for useful, short snippets of info so you can comfortably reference it. Or you want to use the screen as a tool for providing player-facing info, in the form of evocative artwork, Quest cards, equipment tables, and the like. There’s a lot of DIY screens out there, and through the magic of places like DriveThruRPG, you can find a lot of people’s custom screen inserts. Choose wisely, and revise as you get used to the setting, system, and choices of the players.

Screens of Choice

Everybody’s got different tastes and needs, but there’s a few screens that take that into account, giving you the flexibility to do your own thing.

Dice Rolls

Some GMs hide all their dice rolls from the prying eyes of players, whether it’s to keep up the tension, allow for some fudging, or just OCD privacy. Others make all their rolls visible: there’s a certain tension in seeing that Ogre score a natural 20! Many more mix and match based on what they perceive as the player’s potential to benefit from metagame knowledge regarding the success or failure of a roll.

Consider some of the following when determining what works best for you.

Visible dice rolls. Showing your dice rolls suggests fairness, perhaps first and foremost, and it also has the added effect of having the players engaged in routing for or against your dice (whether you’re rolling for allies or enemies, respectively).

You won’t be able to fudge the rolls as easily: when you do, you’re most likely fudging the numbers/stats of the monsters, and that could cascade into other related abilities also having to be increased or decreased by the same amount, or else it’s obvious that something’s up to knowledgeable players. It’s often best to simply not fudge dice rolls when they are visible. We’ll talk more about this shortly, under Cheating.

Hidden dice rolls. Hiding the dice can add a bit of tension, but really only when it’s not immediately obvious to the player character (not just player, here!) what the results of such a roll might be. For example, hiding a to-hit and damage roll is really useless, since the player has to record the results immediately, but hiding an enemy’s Perception check means that the player doesn’t know if his character actually is all ninja-stealthin’ up in here, or if their a klutz that just alerted the entire keep that they’ve broken in.

Hiding dice rolls allows for plenty of fudging, but that has some negative effects we’ll discuss in the next section. A key thing to think about when you consider hiding your dice rolls is that no players will be able to point out errors in your math, and that’s a bad thing if you have trouble with it on the fly, or if you forget circumstantial modifiers that crop up. You’d be surprised how many players will actually point out a forgotten bonus when you’re swinging at them; honesty is a good thing.

Cheating

“Cheating on your players is worse than cheating on your girlfriend because there’s more of us, we own lots of DIY weapons, plus we have several dozen d4s we can use as caltrops to slow your attempted escape.”

Is player cheating directly proportional to obvious or perceived DM cheating? I’m no sociologist but a whole lot of anecdotal evidence suggests that the power of honesty on display is going to lead to a lot more honesty in return. In other words, if you reveal your dice rolls and don’t hide your numbers, players aren’t going to be trying to second-guess you…pretty much ever. And that’s a good thing.

Cheating is badwrongfun, because roleplaying games are (rarely) about winning, and more about stories that develop and unfold from the events that trigger the dice rolls, and the results of those rolls. Any one, single dice roll isn’t going to be a “winner” or “loser” (though it may feel that way!), but the tales of the campaign that develop over time will certainly be either remembered (#winning) or forgotten (#notwinning).

Tiger Woods cheating meme

My girlfriend asked me to take this poster down from our bedroom shortly before leaving me for Tiger Woods.

Cheating requires subterfuge in two major ways: physically hiding stuff (the dice roll, the numbers on the character sheet, the situational modifiers), and lying. That’s two big, sucky things that require a lot of brain processing power, which is something most people trying to have fun aren’t going to want interfering with the experience. Hell, having people watch your rolls and help out with the math can sometimes catch fundamental mistakes in your understanding of the game system. That’s a nice correction to have someone make!

This is kind of a bizarrely long-winded way to say that it’s simply easier to enjoy the game and have fun — let the dice fall where they may — than it is to hide dice rolls, fudge results, and try to trump the random element of the game to achieve some selfish interpretation of what a “good” roleplaying game ideal is. If you find yourself instinctively trying to fudge die rolls often, you may want to reconsider the game system your using (or consider some house rules for it): maybe it’s too deadly or difficult for what you want to play.

Optional: Player Roles

Over at The Retired Adventurer, a post titled Roles and Tasks for PC Groups does an excellent job of detailing several roles that individual players can take on to lighten the load of the Game Master, or even the entire party. Some of this is based on “old school” roles that were often carried over from the wargaming roots that informed early roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, but others are modern twists that take typical tasks performed in every roleplaying game and codify ways that one person can take responsibility for them.

These roles include:

  • Caller: coordinates and announces party-wide activities to the GM, keeping cross-chatter to a minimum.
  • Mapper: creates, labels, and updates the campaign or adventure-site maps.
  • Quartermaster: keeps a master record of all loot and party gear; tracks encumbrance.
  • Timekeeper: keeps track of in-game and out-of-game calendars, and also tracks consumables based on time (lit torches, for example).
  • Rules Coordinator: references the rulebook as needed, and records on-the-spot rulings for later reference.

Seriously, go read the article for more information. It’s amazing.

I’d consider adding the following:

  • Initiative Tracker: records initiative ratings at the beginning of combat and calls out the order as actions are taken.
  • Co-GM: in lieu of running a player character, you can have this guy run henchmen & hirelings, as well as minor NPCs and monsters during combat.

Note that all of these roles — the ones in that original article and the ones I just added — can be combined or ignored to your heart’s content in order to get the right mix for your group.

Use these roles to lighten your work load: keeping track of a campaign, story elements, monster stats, and whatever else is a big process, and this will certainly help you focus on that important stuff. Use these roles to keep players focused: if a player is prone to checking their phone, wandering off, or otherwise not engaged in certain parts of the adventure, giving them extra responsibility may help out. It might also speak to certain personality types: if one player is known as the “spreadsheet” guy, they may be perfect as the Quartermaster, tracking all the loot, gear, and current encumbrance states of all the player characters.

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neuronphaser is an editor, eCommerce consultant, web producer, and analyst living in sunny Hollywood, CA. He's been playing tabletop RPGs of all kinds since 1985.

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2 comments on “Playstyle 101: The Game Master’s Side of the Screen
  1. John Bell says:

    Hey, I wrote something about referee screens last year. Don’t know if you’d find it interesting or not, but just in case you didn’t see it: http://retiredadventurer.blogspot.ca/2015/12/organising-referee-screens.html

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