We’ve seen them since the dawn of Dungeons & Dragons. For every player, the sight of the Dungeon Master looming mysteriously over the Dungeon Master’s screen telling the precarious plight of the characters. Over the years people have started speculating on why to use the DM screen, it’s cheating to use the DM screen, or you have to use a DM screen to tell the story. Why the attitude change? What is the purpose of it, and why do we use it or not use it?
Purpose of a DM screen
I’ve run various games over the last 20+ years, using DM screens for various games, to the point where I collect them now. I have screens now for three generations of D&D, Vampire: The Masquerade, Pathfinder, and two for Savage Worlds. At one time I even built a custom DM screen, however, it didn’t survive the dog. Helpful tip folks, when building a DM screen don’t use scented markers. You’re just asking for trouble.
Today I want to have a chat about the pros and cons of DM screens, what they do, and we’ll even chat a bit about how to make your own. Now there are tons of custom screens out there you can get, I won’t be talking about them or modular screens. You will have to investigate those on your own due to them being way outside of my budget.
DM screens, storyteller screens, and Game Master screens are all the same family and same purpose. The screen is there to help create immersion for the players. It separates the DM from them and puts the GM in the role of the person behind the curtain. That’s not all the screen does though, because it really is a Swiss army knife-like aid to the DM. If you look at a DM screen, it comes with a conditions table, and some of them have name generators and basic item prices. Others like the specific one that came out for Curse of Strahd has maps of the area and Castle Ravenloft.
As a side note, if someone from Wizards of the Coast catches this can we get more Ravenloft please? Some of my players need more nightmares. [NERDITOR’S NOTE: There’s a wealth of 5E D&D adventures set in Ravenloft over at the Dungeon Master’s Guild!]
Finally, I find a DM screen helps create mystery and illusion. It hides the DM’s notes and rolls. Some people choose not to hide rolls because they feel it’s dishonest. I disagree with that, I think the honesty is all in whether you tell the true number or not. When you roll dice outside the screen the players see the 20 or the 1 and they don’t know what it means but everything stops until they do. If you roll behind a screen you will get the player who says, “Guys they rolled for something,” and panic will ensue, but it’s usually a productive panic. They’ll look to see what they stepped on, what else is in the room, etc.
I use an Easy Roller dice tray myself now, which is padded and quieter, and adds a new flavor of fun for me and sparks players to wonder if I just rolled — they think I did but aren’t sure. I love the panicked deer-in-headlinghts look my players get. What can I say, I’m evil.
Making your own DM screen or modifying current ones
Much like the books, a DM screen won’t have all the answers. What’s a DM to do? You have several options really. The first option is to modify an existing DM screen. This can be done a myriad of ways. Firstly, use sticky notes. These are an invaluable tool to any DM. You can put plot hooks on these, player notes, initiatives, passive skills, almost anything. If you’re using a DM screen with a section you feel you don’t need, put a sticky note over that sucker with info you do need. The nice thing with sticky notes is they don’t damage the screens, but you will have to be more careful with cardboard screens. If left on a cardboard screen too long a sticky note can become a forever note.
You can also make tents. No, we aren’t going camping. Trust me, D&D and camping never goes well. Something always lands in the fire. In regards to the game a tent is a folded paper that goes over the top of a DM screen or sits on the table. These usually give the players some info on one side and the DM info on the other side. These are used often for initiative. If you are going to use these for initiative I recommend coating the back side with tape, then you can use a dry erase marker to change the info as needed.
An alternate thing you can do is make your own DM screen. A lot of people do this and it’s not difficult. First you need either a couple of 1-inch ring binders (I prefer the ones with the plastic sleeves on the front and inside) or go to a craft or school supply store and grab yourself one of those three section science fair backboards. They come in all kinds of sizes now so it’s less likely you’ll have to hack it to bits. Next get yourself some of those metal paper clamps, usually a pack of 10 works. Then get yourself some plastic page covers. Grab as many of these as you want. I always have these kicking around for notes and storing character sheets.
This next part is easy. If you’re using the binders take four of the metal clamps and put the binders together so they open like a screen. There, hardest part is done. Then just type up or print off the tables you need for your game. If you need help making tables check out Chartopia. This is a great site with resources to make all your random desires come true. Put the tables in your page sleeves and now you can even mark on them with dry erase. If you went the route of the three-section divider, a bit of glue or those clamps will hold the page sleeves right to it.
At the end of the day it’s what ever you want to do. I use a DM screen myself for my games because it was how started and it’s how I continue. I mostly run homebrew games, so I use two DM screens — the original 5E D&D screen plus the revised one. Both screens are okay by themselves, but I find together they give me every quick reference I need. Everything else I snag from D&D Beyond or the DM binder I created for the campaign. I always liked the image of the DM looming over the screen watching the players to see what they do. It’s the quintessential image of the DM.
That’s my thoughts on it what’s yours? Yay or nay to the DM screen? How many of you have built your own?
Long time RPG enthusiast, I first started with D&D back when I was 7, then jumped back into it again at 14 when I could understand what I was reading. I’ve tinkered as a story teller in many different game systems from Gurps, to Vampire, to most recently in Savage Worlds: Rippers Ressurected, though I’ve never forgotten my love for D&D.