Monday, July 15, 2013

Screens Up!

FATE Ringworld! I am thinking about running this at Con of the North in 2014! For system, I would use either Starblazer Adventures or FAE.

You are looking at the GM side of the GM screen for Starblazer Adventures. On G+, someone recently posted their GM table arrangement for FATE Core, which included a GM screen, NPCs on large index cards, and an RPG manual from another Chaosium boxed set from the same era, the 1980s.

This led one person to speculate that the GM must be old school, and that they thought GM screens were unnecessary for FATE. To be clear, at least one FATE RPG has a GM screen: the massive Starblazer Adventures RPG. The screen has most or all of the tables likely to be used in play, as well as the sequences for person-to-person and starship combat. It is a quite useful screen, with incredible full color art from the Starblazer Adventures comic on the player-facing side.

That being said, I almost never use GM screens in the "upright" (i.e., standing) position. I keep them folded-up and at my side as a ready reference. I don't like barriers that block my line of sight or that of the players, and FATE games tend to involve a lot of reach and toss actions with Fate Points.

If some FATE gamers express discomfort with a GM screen this may reflect the traditional symbolic role of those screens: they are the primary symbol of GM authority in RPGs.  "The GM is god." The underpinnings of the world which the PCs experience is hidden behind the screen. "Don't look behind the screen", to paraphrase the Wizard of Oz. Moving forward almost 40 years, FATE strives for an affect that is aptly expressed as "the table decides" and "the table builds the world". I think this language was introduced to FATE by Diaspora, but it is certainly a sentiment that has been deepened and reinforced by FATE Core.

As someone who played Whitebox D&D and Blackbox LBB Traveller, I do not recall using screens for either of these games. They may have been available, but my friends and I certainly didn't use GM screens until 1st Edition AD&D was published. So arguably, a screen isn't even necessary for old school RPG play. As far as I am concerned, it is a matter of preference and organizational approach used by the GM.

Screens are a tool.  Some GMs use screens to:
  • Assert a degree of authorial control and authority at the table. And mystery/mystique. You have to have a bit of that magic air to GM. Few GMs are purely a facilitator
  • Hide things: notes, maps, and possibly dice rolls. 
  • Stage things (such as miniatures or other props) until they are needed.
  • Manage the operational complexity of rules/mechanics (and there is significant variance in level of complexity among the different implementations of FATE). 
Of course, there are other approaches to managing operational complexity of rules and mechanics. For example, Diaspora uses cheat sheets for mechanically involved sequences such as person-to-person combat, platoon combat, space combat and social combat. So, sheet rather than screen. Diaspora also encourages the use of a "caller" (as opposed to GM) to manage these particular rules operations.

In summary, I think people shouldn't read too much into the use or non-use of a GM screen. It's a tool, and each GM puts different tools in their toolbox according to their specific style and needs.


  1. The system I most often use a screen for is Mutants & Masterminds, and that's for the damage chart and list of conditions. Most other game systems, I go without.

    1. When I was running SBA earlier this year, the main thing I used the screen for was looking up the specifics for how many stress each type of Consequence absorbed!

  2. You covered most of it, I think. My feeling is, going with the mood-setting, it helps _me_ get into the right frame of mind - when a banker goes to work he wears a jacket and tie philosophy. Another is as a checklist: sometimes after a deep narrative exchange it's difficult to get back into a mechanics mindset and a ready reference organizes and gets you back to basics when you need to.

    1. Good points, Konnel, yes! A screen is a good opportunity to help set the mood and tell players something about the game. It is also useful for regrounding play when you need to switch from an immersive narrative moment to one that requires a chug through some mechanics.