I’ve been a DM for a while now, and I often get asked for advice from new and experienced DMs alike. I also just like the sound of my own voice, even when it’s entirely in my own head, so here goes.
Using your DM screen
For people using online platforms like Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds, the use of a screen might seem an odd topic, but I still think that there’s a number of skills that should be fostered, and attitudes that need to be discussed.
And I really mean that. The use of a DM screen is an attitude, and it’s one that can be easily transmitted to virtual tabletops.
Obviously, in the first instance the DM’s screen could be considered a barrier between DMs and the players, an attitude that I have seen people discouraged. I disagree with this. The DM’s screen is a much more important tool, but like all of the other parts of being a DM, it’s a tool that requires practice to use appropriately.
Let’s take the notion of it being a barrier first. You and the other people around your table are all players of the same game, true enough. You’re there to have fun, same as the others, but you are something different.
You’re the Master of this game, the arbiter of fate, the will of good and evil and the creator of gods. And you get the best chair.
That screen is a barrier, and a necessary one, because it hides the inner workings of a universe, your universe. But I don’t think I’ve told you anything you didn’t already know. Yet.
So let’s talk about using the DM screen. Firstly, the basics. Most DM screens are packed with useful information about the system you’re using or perhaps the module you’re running. And I advice you to study your screen and think about what you need and what you don’t. Blu tac other information over what you don’t need, clip you monster cards or stat blocks to dead space and hangs useful tools off of it for your players. I use mine to track initiative, using character and monster tents like these.
But the Screen is much more than that. It’s also a tool for creating tension and a for keeping your PCs aware that the world around them is very much alive.
When rolling attacks, saves and damage for monsters, most of that can be done behind the Screen. For new DMs this can be a useful safety net, fudging a damage roll that would inadvertently kill a PC, but the other reason for this, is that when a significant or important roll needs to be made by the DM, those rolls take place in front of the players, beyond the screen, creating tension.
“Ok, your spell save DC is 14, the Grick has a +2 to its Wis save, so it needs a 12 or higher to save.”
Believe me when I say, your players’ eyes will be locked onto that dice!
So what about on virtual tabletops? Well, the screen’s gone, in a certain sense, but the same attitudes and tools apply. These tabletops have the ability to hide rolls, so use them, but when it’s significant, make the roll where the players can see it.
And as for attitude? You’re the DM, so keep yourself and your universe behind your Fourth Wall, as much as possible.
The Non-Committal Shrug
When I considered which particular query I should start by rambling on about, I grinned at the thought of my players’ exasperation whenever I use my “DM Shrug”.
As the DM, one of your primary jobs is to judge describe, explain and judge what’s happening in certain situations. This might be combat, roleplay or exploring a dungeon. What’s more, the majority of this is all in your head.
For their part, the players are all about solving, working through or overcoming the situations you and they put themselves in and so, they will have lots of questions.
“How tall is the ceiling?” “What’s the door made out of?” “Does the merchant seem perceptive?” And, for most questions there is either a straightforward answer, normally offered by the module you’re running, or by common sense.
But sometimes, the players ask questions where they’re not trying so interested in what you say, but in gauging how you say it. In short, they as players are playing poker, and you, as the DM, need a better poker face than Bret Maverick.
Thus, the Non-Committal Shrug. Remember, this isn’t about being awkward, or trying to keep information from the PCs, its about not allowing the players to metagame.
Player: “DM, what would happen if…?”
DM: Non-committal shrug.
Player: “How long will my character be paralysed?”
DM: Non-committal shrug.
Player: “Will my charm person spell work on the hag?”
DM: Non-committal shrug. “Meh.” (Sometimes I like to add in a “meh” for extra sass).
It takes practice, and I kid you not, I did so in front of the bathroom mirror, but it’s essential.