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