The GM Screen is Not Your Friend

Now, let’s start by saying I don’t mind if you use a GM screen. I’ve been known to use one myself at times. Nobody wants to go down the insanity of One-True-Way-ism as they used to call it on RPGNet, the idea that there is only one way to roleplay that is proper or mature or purposeful. The GM Screen is a tool, and if you find it useful, use it, and if you don’t, don’t. But like every tool we use it behooves us to examine how and why we use it, and what unconscious benefits and drawbacks are built into that.

As I previously discussed when I pointed out the character sheet is not your friend, the game space is divided generally into two areas: the personal, where we examine our personal information, our character sheet or player board or cards, which in some games is private, and the shared, where we focus our shared attention and energy. Chess is a game with no personal space, Battleship is a game with no shared space, Bridge is a game where the whole mechanic is based on trying to determine what is in the personal space based on what happens in the shared space.

The GM screen is part of the core dynamic of the traditional rpg which says that the shared space is imaginary (or, if mapped, produced on the go), and is created by everyone using the tool in front of them. The players get single actors in the universe, who uncover the shared space by their actions, while the GM shows what they uncover. That’s why he needs a shield, because there’s the assumption that the game is part mystery. And that’s fine, up to a point. There are definitely cool things to do where you want it to be a mystery and the players to uncover it. The problem is not everything works that way, yet we apply it to everything.

A lot of GMs don’t use a screen and suffer no loss of mystery, because there isn’t much visual to hide and because – and this is the important bit – WE DON’T REALLY LOOK AT ANOTHER PLAYER’S PERSONAL SPACE. We can and occasionnaly we might lean over and go “what have you got?” but this is actually a key element of character-based games: we play them as if we’re playing Bridge and our hands are hidden. It happens in Arkham Horror and Betrayal at House on the Hill and Dead of Winter and Last Night on Earth and every single board game where you have your character and they have theirs. It’s just how we operate as human beings. If there’s something in front of each person, that’s their thing, and we don’t mess with it and we avoid thinking about it because it doesn’t belong to us. And so we don’t care.

The best example I can show you of this is that there are some cultures in the world (and you’ll have to forgive me for not being able to name them right now) which consider the idea of individual meals on plates to be insane. After all, we sit at a table to share a meal, so why have something sitting in front of you that cuts you off from others, out of the central space? Food is in the centre, and everyone gets a fork.

Even without the screen, we cut ourselves off from other players and their character information. But the screen makes it worse because it encourages it all the more so. It tells us this is a simulationist world where we can only know each other in the shared imagination space. That I can only tell if Sally is playing a Karate Cop if she describes what she does and what she looks like and communicates thusly that she is a Karate Cop.

That. Is. Bonkers.

The GM screen’s typical orientation works the same way: rules on the inside, pictures on the outside. Rules are how we construct something but it is done personally and privately, the shared space is where we reveal that, but using only images and description. There’s a rule suggestion in the original Unknown Armies (no idea if it’ll make it to third edition) which suggests GMs should never tell players how much damage their characters took, so as to simulate the fact that injured people, unless they’re paramedics, have no idea how badly they are injured. The problem with that is that it forgets what numbers are FOR. Yes, they keep things fair but they also add random elements to the story that nobody can predict, and even more importantly THEY COMMUNICATE INFORMATION ABOUT THE WORLD. If you have 12 hit points, being hit for ten feels like a huge damn thing. Being told that your guts are hanging out after a hit may not, in fact, have the same punch – at least, not on its own.

Now, that assumes you think like that, of course. Some people do not think in numbers. And some people do. The point of using both at once is to accommodate both types of thinkers. The real sin, here, though, is the sin that the GM screen implies upon us: that the GM should do all the numbers, and the players should do all the imagining. The pictures are facing the players, the numbers the GM.

Now again, this can be important for some kinds of players. Some GMs love numbers and love doing all the crunching for players. Some players literally cannot take in all the numbers and love that when they play RPGs they just stay in character until the GM tells them what dice to roll and what it means, and they never have to learn the rules – they’ll even describe their character to the GM and get the GM to make up the best mechanical version of that. For beginners, that can be a great model to follow. But it’s not always the answer. If players want to communicate in images, why doesn’t the GM get to? Why do you even need numbers at all if that’s the most awesome way to share information? Why not make a system that’s about talking in descriptions, rather than make a system that’s full of numbers and force one player to use the numbers and everyone else to use descriptions?

It hammers home this idea that GMs are performers. That they are presenting a show to their players, who can move the story in different ways but are still engaging more passively, waiting to be entertained. Where there is less expectation for players to engage with the rules there will also be less expectations for players to engage in storytelling. Sometimes I’ve seen GMs see what the player rolls and then describe for them how cool they look. And again, that’s fine if that’s how you want to play. But understand the assumptions behind it. And if the GM is expected to do all that work, understand that he needs cool pictures inspiring him more than anybody else, so they should not be facing outwards.

For me, when I game, I’m all about energy. Whether GMing or not, I want to feel energy pouring into the table from all sides. Playing with people who show up to watch a show is not my idea of fun because it’s like putting on a Shakespeare play for grumpy teenagers. They lean back, they make jokes, they ask too many questions, they don’t attempt to buy in, they never send forth the energy. But of course they don’t – you’ve built a shield to hide all the energy from them, and you’ve told them they never should and never need to look beyond that shield. And then forced you to try and captivate them using only your ability to tell stories and present imagery. You’re not playing a game with your friends. You’re trying to do Hamlet in a school cafeteria. No wonder people are so afraid to GM, and so easily burnt out.

If you’re using dice and mechanics to build a story, you should consider if everyone should be part of that equation. Players should know the rules and look things up for you. And the information on the inside of the GM screen should be available to everyone, right in front of them. Maybe even in the shared space. And the pictures should be too, of course, because we’re not turning off our imaginations. That’s the opposite insanity, that numbers take you out of your Total Immersion Experience. I get it, you don’t want to break up an incredible dramatic in-character moment with having to look through an index for how to make a charisma check while on fire. But at the same time, your rules should be sitting there saying “do this cool thing with these numbers TO MAKE AWESOME STORY COME OUT”.

Imagine if in theatresports and improv only one player knew the rules, and he had to run around in the background making sure nobody blocked or wimped on an idea, but never used those terms because that would break the illusion of the shared scene for the other actors. It would be a disaster. And it would be massively unfair on that one player. Asking players not to use mechanics is the same idea. If you’re using a game, everyone should be playing the game. And that means rules on the outside, pictures on the outside. Or get rid of the rules altogether and just use the pictures.

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2 thoughts on “The GM Screen is Not Your Friend

  1. I beg to differ, Steve 🙂
    The screen is there to create the magic. There’s a magician at the end of the table, and he does mysterious magic tricks; he throws dice (maybe he rearranges the results), checks some tables, and tells you if you succeeded. like all gods or priests he performs behind a veil. There’s the magic! 🙂 That’s why the GM has to be the only one to know the rules : to tell a player that his character has nearly avoided death,
    While the GM fudges the rolls, the players look at him, and see the screen picture, which hopefully is inspirational and push them “in the mood”. When you compare this to a play, it’s exactly that ; in a play, you’ve got the décor, the costumes, sound, everything, and you want to be taken by that and not see what’s happening behind the scenes. Because that’s bo-ring 🙂 You wouldn’t give your grumpy teenagers the lines of the play or they’ll read it again and again and not listen to you.
    I’m not saying players should never have an abstract of the setting or the rules, Just hand it out to them, when the solution to the enigma is in there “the info you’re looking for is in the summary”, or when they compute the odds of, say the chance their characters have of surviving medieval neurosurgery 🙂 Just be sure to get the papers back when they’ve finished poring over it. 🙂

    pictures pinned up on the screen are more fun than rules and tables, but the worst is when players look up on your notes, which are reversed to them and hence just look plain ugly (if the nearest player doesn’t spot the trap on your “GM Map”) 🙂

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