The DM Screen is a long standing piece of Dungeons and Dragons tradition. Not everyone uses one, but we’d argue that more DMs should. The relatively simple addition of a barrier between you and your players’ eyes can change your game in many different ways. Let’s take a peek behind the screen and see what really goes on.
What is a DM Screen?
A DM screen is classically a divider or table top partition that separates your players’ eyes from your notes, miniatures, and rolls. In its most basic form the DM screen only provides secrecy and can be little more than a piece of folded cardboard.
In its most complex form a DM screen is an expensive technical device that, in addition to hiding information, acts as a central command station for you to run your game from. Both work just fine, but we more often than not recommend the cardboard route for most DMs.
Why Use A DM Screen?
As we mentioned before, a DMs screen is a partition that keeps your information secret from the players. This is the most important function that the screen provides and the one we’ll be focusing on here.
But why would you want to keep your information secret?
The simple reason is so you can cheat. In DnD your goal as the DM is to ensure the game is both playable and fun. If the story goes astray, if your players are having a miserable time, or if a single goblin gets lucky and is about to kill your newest player in their very first game, you should have the opportunity to choose to intervene and fudge some numbers.
Not everyone agrees with this. Fudging dice rolls seems bad, but you actually have no real stake in the game. You’re not trying to win DnD as the dungeon master and you’re not trying to kill your players’ characters. Instead, you’re trying to create a good game environment and keep things adaptable. Without secrecy it’s much harder for you to bend the rules and modify your dice rolls in service of the game.
In Defense of Cheating
Now at this point we’ve probably riled up some readers by suggesting you cheat, but we want to be clear. This is not an all the time thing. This is an extreme measure. You shouldn’t prevent every death, nor should you keep players from suffering the consequences of their own actions.
What the DM screen is allowing you to do is sand down the sharp corners of randomness. A series of lucky rolls as the DM can spell disaster for your party and make the game feel harsh and unfair, while a series of lucky rolls for your players make them feel like heroes.
Other Uses for The DM Screen
Keeping information secret is one thing, and it is the DM screen’s primary benefit. However, the DM screen has many other functions when set up properly. Most DM screens are full of helpful tables and information that would be a pain to look up otherwise.
The DM screen we’ve constructed has information that would be spread across three books and many chapters all laid out in one comprehensive place where we use the information often.
With this kind of set up you’ll find yourself thumbing through manuals less often. Ideally this will help you spend more time focused on the flow and pacing of your game since you won’t be pausing every 5 minutes to look up rules. It seems like a small advantage at first, but it really is a life saver when you’re keeping the game going in dramatic scenes.
Fancy DM Screens
We mentioned that DM screens are more than just cardboard with notes on them in some cases. We’d be remiss to not mention the super high end DM screens that exist just to look cool.
You can spend zero dollars on a folded cardboard screen with some printouts taped to it, but on the other end of this equation is the $200+ handcrafted teak wood DM screen with custom carved faceplates and hand engraved tables. I am really not exaggerating that description at all. If you look for DM screens on Etsy or any other online store you’re likely to find a great deal of amazing looking screens.
Why would you want one of these?
For the same reason you want the handcrafted gemstone dice you use for your games. They’re just cool and that’s reason enough.
Should I Use a DM Screen?
Yes. We’ve outlined the advantages above already, but if you don’t currently use one we would highly recommend you try it. Even if you don’t fudge any numbers the DM screen is a useful tool. You can keep encounters secret, surprise your players, add an air of mystery, and you can even peer menacingly over the top of it at players that shout “I check for traps!” every time they enter a room.
Hide Your Secret Plans, Use a DM Screen
We hope this simple explanation of DM screens has been helpful to you. While we know we haven’t swayed everyone, we can at least hope you’ve come to see the inherent value in using such a simple tool at your table. While they may not be for everyone, a DM screen is a great option that everyone should try out at least once in their dungeon mastering career.
As always, Happy DMing!