Ditch the Screen: Open Metagaming Is Good For Roleplaying

"Gaming screens are the metaphorical vault door to all the GM's secrets."

Lots of roleplaying gamers play using a screen. Wizards of the Coast makes them for Dungeons & Dragons. Pinnacle Entertainment Group also makes a cool customizable one for any RPG. Some people make their own. And if you can afford it, there’s one that costs over $1500. Heck, game master screens are one of the icons of RPGs, there’s no denying it. Gaming screens are the metaphorical vault door to all the GM’s secrets.

But do you need to use one?

I would argue that not only do you not need to use a GM Screen, but that using one actually hinders player engagement. I would argue that the screen sets up an adversarial margin between the players and  the “game master” that inherently makes the the GM not a player. Using an old school term: they are referee. With a GM screen in play, and all the associated metaphors it carries with it, the GMs are pushed outside of the game at hand. They are there to adjudicate, set up challenges, and enforce rules and story arcs.

I believe GMs should instead ditch the screen completely, and all the associated B.S. that it includes, and embrace something else entirely: Open Metagaming. Whether you are a story gamer or a power gamer, ditching the screen and keeping things in the open helps everyone have more fun.

What Is Open Metagaming?

Open Metagaming is the idea that nothing mechanical is hidden from the players. Everyone at the table (virtual or otherwise) has access to all the mechanical details of the game at hand. Want to know what the dragon’s resistance is to cold spells? Just ask. Need to know the Toughness (or AC) of that troll? Just ask! Heck, just grab the statcard (if you use them) and look. Want to know how hard it will be to convince the king to hand over the prisoners? Again… just ask the GM. Can’t figure out why your weapons aren’t killing that werewolf? Ask!

Before you call me a heretic or think I’ve fallen off my grognard rocking chair, allow me to elaborate.

Crunch Is for Everyone

With all the game mechanics—the crunch—in plain view there are some interesting downstream effects on game play. For instance: the lack of privacy for game mechanics allows the players to plan better and to have the freedom to translate metagame information into actionable character choices without the need to rely on GM narrative talent.

For example: suppose the players are up against a really tough troll. A special one — perhaps it’s an Elite (4E) or Wild Card (Savage Worlds). With the mechanical details hidden from view, it’s completely up to the GM’s ability to translate the stats into character perception of how badass the troll is. “This troll is really big!” The burden is on the GM to translate those mechanical stats for the troll into actionable descriptions. Thus, there’s a quandry for the players: “Hmm, how bad ass is this troll? Should we run? What does ‘really big’ mean in game terms?”. If the GM doesn’t say, then the players are left to judge the situation for their characters based on the narrative skill of the GM. However, if the mechanical details are instead put into plain view, then the players have the opportunity to immediately take direct action (“Holy crap! That troll’s got a Toughness of 20 and is immune to everything but Fairydust Cannons!“) There’s no need for the GM to be Tolkien. The story moves forward and the characters take actions that are exactly appropriate for the situation (“RUN!!! Do see the size of that troll!?“).

Player Knowledge Empowers Roleplaying

Part of playing a role is knowing that you know things your characters don’t. This player vs. character conundrum has been the topic of many many blog posts (even recently), so I won’t dwell on it directly. Instead, I’ll just say that ditching the GM screen and keeping all the mechanical details of the game in the open puts the barrier between player vs. character knowledge into focus for everyone, all the time. This sets up an important tension at the game table—the players know everything and are therefore forced to play a role. I’ve found that players are more willing to play their role if there’s a mountain of information in front of them that their characters obviously shouldn’t know. OK, some people would argue this is open for abuse by players—especially power gamers. At some game tables that may be the case,  but I’m talking about game tables where everyone is interested in playing a part in a compelling story. If you were interested in playing a role, then merely “winning” the encounter becomes secondary. It doesn’t matter that you know that the werewolf can only be hurt by silver weapons. What matters is that your characters don’t, and that the players can better play their character’s roles knowing from the start.

Power Gamers Have Fun Too

Keeping all the mechanical details on the table helps move the game forward faster. Even if you don’t care about playing roles or creating compelling stories at the table, and all you want to do is roll dice, kill bad guys, and “win,” then Open Metagaming is also something that will add to your fun. It’s a game after all. Gamers who are part of the power gamer tribe will benefit from Open Metagaming because they’ll know exactly what skills to use and when. They’ll know when to run away or when to use their super reserve powers. In my experience, power gamers at my table really appreciate the OM mindset because it keeps the hippy story-gamers from taking 20 minutes to decide their actions. Plus, there’s no fudging of the dice. The GM can’t roll secret rolls behind some screen to see if some die has some result just for their eyes only. Everyone benefits and has fun.

The GM’s Secrets Are Not For Everyone

The Open Metagaming play style doesn’t include throwing everything down on the table. The GM still has plots, character motivations, story arcs, and other tricks up their sleeves. They still have the element of surprise, and I’m not advocating that the role of the GM be completely eroded. GMs and their hidden agendas play an important part of any compelling story that comes out of playing RPGs, and we shouldn’t forget that. The game mechanics should not be held behind a screen. They should instead be where everyone can see them: on the table where they belong.

What do you think? Are you willing to ditch the screen and open up the books?

Edited by Shaun Welch

13 thoughts on “Ditch the Screen: Open Metagaming Is Good For Roleplaying

  1. I only use a laptop to keep track of initative and conditions. All my rolls are out in the open sometimes to my chagrin as unlucky things abound (dragon missed first 14 attacks). Or chagrin of my players 5 crits in a row. I think if you list the to hit values of monsters it also may speed up play.

  2. It’s an interesting idea for some playstyles, but I don’t think it will ever work for me. I’m a big fan of the ‘rule of cool’ and that means occasionally fudging some rolls. The players know that I do it now and then, but they’d be disappointed if they knew EXACTLY when – knowing that I care more about coolness and story is different from knowing that their awesome finishing move only succeeded because I knocked off a few extra HP from the big bad.

  3. Interesting thought, but I doubt it would work for me. Even when I am a player I don’t want to know how hard the difficulty is, or what the stats of the monster are. To tell it in Han Solo’s words: “Never tell me the odds”. I believe the game is more exciting for me and my fellow players when not all things are out in the open.

    • I agree with you on this one. Even the GM just flat out giving me a target to hit number in combat can break the mood for me a little. I like a bit of mystery, and don’t mind if the GM feels the need to fudge every once in a while. I trust them to do what needs to be done to tell a great story.

  4. I’d echo what Swordgleam and Stargazer said, and add that in my experience there is too much crunch at the table already. Playing the mechanics of the game is different from playing the game. 4e skill use is a painful example of this. Players now often say to me, “I got a 23 on my Dungeoneering. What happens?” Knowing, for example, that a secret item would be revealed by a 20 on a Dungeoneering roll, the narrative becomes “I succeeded. Give me the idol, senor.”

    That’s extreme, but I prefer to emphasize mystery over mechanics.

  5. While I find this approach conceptually appealing, I don’t always consider it practical. I think transparency definitely helps a game, but depending on the system being used, it can very easily lead to information overload – 4e jumps right to mind in this regard. I’m much more comfortable with open information in a game where things can be assessed without breaking the flow of play.

    -Rob D.

  6. Good point Rob. 4E may be the worst offender in that regard. Perhaps ditching the screen back when I played 3E was OK- but I wonder if this is why 4E was (at my table) so poorly received. Savage Worlds is my current flavor of the day – and the lightweight aspects of that game make this approach pretty smooth. Of course – the players have to be told up front “hey, keep you player knowledge out of the character’s heads. Try _roleplaying_, it’s fun” or something like that. Seems to work well.

    On another note – it seems like this post caused quite a trollflame over at REDDIT.

    I may have to follow up this post with another to better clarify wtf I’m suggesting by “Open Metagaming”.

  7. Way ahead of you. I try not to overload my players with information, and I try not to put in a lot of situations such as hidden traps that might strain their ability to craft plausible narration for their characters, but I’ll generally tell them mechanical game information.

    The key reason for this approach is to aid their calculations and decision making. I try to give them the range of defenses in an encounter, so they can roll and go. For some reason, they still seem to want to add it up, even when they’ve got a 19 showing. In terms of decision making, I don’t want them to have moral quandries over using a particular character feature that would be really, really good in a given situation. I just want them to do it.

    I think a lot of people assume that this approach means that description goes out the window. I could, but it can also augment description, which is how I use it. A DC is worth a thousand words.

    I mainly run 4E, but I’d do this for any game.

  8. “I think a lot of people assume that this approach means that description goes out the window.”

    @pdunwin – I think you are right here. At least, the huge thread that this post spurred over on REDDIT seemed to indicate lots of folks were missing the forest for the trees. Its actually quite the opposite: leave the crunch on the table so you can focus on the story / description / roleplaying aspects of the game.

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  10. The biggest problem I see with ditching the screen is that it eliminates one of the biggest suspense-building tools at the DM’s disposal… rolling a random die, looking down at the result, and giving a sly “I know something you don’t know” smile to the players, all for no real reason other than to keep them wondering what might be going on. Did a hidden enemy just succeed on a stealth check? Did a dragon in the next, supposedly empty, room make it’s listen to hear them coming? Although to be fair, I suppose you could still hide this kind of roll behind your hand or something.

    Now, I do think all combat rolls should be made openly, and let the dice fall where they may. It’s the best way, in my opinion, for the players to truly feel the heroic victories or epic defeats. If as a DM you get caught fudging once, you’ve potentially forever bled the game of its awesomeness. At the very least you have a big uphill battle on your hands to get your players reinvested.

    I don’t think that it’s necessary to come out and give all the crunch though.

    I’ve never found it very difficult to bring the crunch in through description in the first few rounds of combat.

    “Your blow, though mighty, sends a jolt through your arm like you struck a steel wall, and the enemy laughs condescendingly at how ineffectual your sword was,” or “the enemy starts to twist out of the way of your blade, counting on his armor to turn it aside, but the keen edge of your katana instead just manages to slice through and draw blood.”

    In the first instance it’s clear that quite a bit higher roll will be needed, and in the second they know they probably hit the number right on. If you use the same idea with all defenses, within a few rounds the target numbers are pretty much established.

    This allows again for the suspense of combat to be maintained. To me, at least, there’s a big difference between starting combat knowing a 17 is needed and trying to roll one versus rolling a 17 and waiting that second or two for the DM to confirm or deny a hit.

    One of the big arguments in this article for having total transparency is so the players know whether to run into combat or away from it. I guess I’ve always been in groups where there’s a bit of a social contract between DM and players so that, in general, obstacles won’t be put in the players’ path unless there is some way of negotiating them.

    If it’s waaay over the player’s head, generally one of two things is true. Either it’s for story reasons and the DM can pretty easily make it clear with some version of, “you get the idea that this challenge would be far beyond your current abilities but watch or listen to this cool bit of information” or the players have done something stupid to get themselves in the situation and are pretty much begging to get wiped out. :)

    Sorry if I’ve rambled on; it’s pretty late and I’m a little delirious.

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