Print My Custom D&D DM Screen to Defeat the Basilisk

When I run games as a dungeon master, I typically use a DM screen, but I see the appeal of skipping it. Many DMs feel that screens create an unnecessary divide that feels adversarial. By this mindset, everyone at the table ranks a storyteller in a collaboration. When I have minimal notes, I’ll set my screen aside and join the team.

Also, I roll in the open, in front of the screen. Dropping the screen would eliminate a bothersome obstruction between me and my dice tray.

As a dungeon master, I want players to feel they earned their victories thanks to smart play, and not to worry that they owe a win to fudged rolls. As for defeats, I like the dice to carry the blame. By rolling in the open, players know I’m not fudging to spare them, to pick on them, or to protect some narrative I planned for. Key die rolls can also add drama. I like when a tense moment brings players to their feet, and when everyone at the table watches to see the outcome of a roll. In one memorable moment, I reminded a player that his movement would provoke a pair of attacks, but he laughed off the risk. I rolled a pair of natural 20s and the table burst out laughing. If I had rolled behind the screen and simply announced a pair of crits, the event would have fallen as flat as a card trick on radio.

Despite the annoyance, I use the screen because of the basilisk. Let me explain. When I play with DMs who skip the screen and sets out their papers, I don’t want to spoil bits of the adventure, so I avoid looking at their preparation. But a DM’s maps and notes always draw my eye. They become the basilisk, something in plain view that forces me to constantly avert my gaze. Surely, many players easily ignore the basilisk, but I’m not the only one who struggles against it. I’ve heard others voice similar feelings.

In addition to walling off the basilisk, my DM screen shows tables and rules I often forget. After five years of fifth edition, I know exactly what I never remember. Every session, I reference descriptions of the game’s conditions. Also, I usually write the names of characters and locations on an index card and clip that to the screen. Plus, the screen gives me a visible place to drape initiative tents.

Despite my preference for a screen, standard-sized screens stand too tall for my taste. I prefer the 6-inch tall mini version of the World’s Greatest Screen from Hammerdog Games. This screen is constructed like a loose-leaf binder, with clear-plastic pockets on both sides. I fill the DM-side pockets with the tables and rules I need most at the table. For the player side, I add artwork.

You can download a PDF version of my screen, minus the art.

This update adopts a look that echoes the design of published 5th-edition screens. The PDF includes more pages than you need. Choose which pages suit you best. Some inserts feature information like the table showing levels and experience points, which suits the players more than the DM. Add those to the side that faces the players.

The tables for encounter building, improvised challenges, and mobs of monsters appear thanks to Mike Shea. His Lazy DM’s Workbook includes versions of all these tools along with a wealth of other references, guides, and maps.

This entry was posted in Advice and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Print My Custom D&D DM Screen to Defeat the Basilisk

  1. Navy_DM says:

    ‘If I had rolled behind the screen and simply announced a pair of crits, the event would have fallen as flat as a card trick on radio.’ If players have that low level of trust in their DM that’s a whole different issue.

    • Sam says:

      Sounds more like the excitement and watching the dice roll than not trusting what the DM rolled to me.

      Those rolls were the die seems to be set on 17 before seeming to defy physics and flip to 3 get way more notice than plain old rolling a 3… Even though they are the same thing in the end.

      • Marty says:

        Exactly. The tension comes from seeing the rolls and reacting. Rolling in the open has completely changed my game for the better.

        • sapphirecrook says:

          This is a frequent misconception: dice do not *ADD* tension. They prolong or hold already generated tension. Otherwise, every roll with have some measure of tension to it. And people wouldn’t spend 8 hours shaking, spitting and kissing their dice before rolling.

          Tension comes from incomplete information; risk, the context. That risk has nothing to do with the dice; it’s the approach that determines the risk. The die is impartial and statistical, it cannot confer more or less risk. But your actions can. A reckless attack, a kiss on the die, a safety rope, those are tension. To see your actions have consequences, and being unsure what they are. People aren’t interested in the roll result; they are interested in the narrative/mechanical outcome of that roll result.

    • Francisco says:

      The DM can alway lift the screen to show the dice… lift slowly for the dramatic reveal. I’ve always found that to be a fun solution.

      • sapphirecrook says:

        While I enjoy showing absurd results, if your players force you to reveal the results, you should address that first. Because that’s a bottom in GM trust that can only result in sour grapes and imagined conspiracies.

        • Tyler Hanson says:

          Don’t forget that there are different skill levels in GMing, and one of the biggest differences is in delivery. Excellent GMs can deliver the results of an event dramatically, but less skilled GMs are inconsistent.

          One advantage of rolling the dice in the open is to shift the responsibility of delivery onto the dice. Since the dice are consistent, the delivery becomes consistent. It’s okay to rely on the dice to release the tension in a consistent manner. It’s also good to try to improve GMing skills by sometimes hiding the dice and relying on description to release the tension.

          My point is, try to avoid one-true-wayism here. GM skill level matters quite a bit.

  2. Jason Kossowan says:

    Haha, Danny designed these decades ago when we were in Uni together – he’ll be happy to know he’s got more fans these days! 🙂

  3. timothypark says:

    Ditto to what Navy DM says. If you trust me so little, don’t play in my game.

    The whole business of keeping things in the open and “strict adherence to the rules” because otherwise the game is unfair is bogus.

    First, it forces the DM to “think like a lawyer”. Lawyers are trained to never ask a question they don’t know the answer to. Everything revealed — which I have done just to make peace when playing at game stores — removes one of my creative tools: rolling the dice to guide what I present, or to help me ponder possible outcomes. Once *every roll* must be in the open, once I am bound to every result, *I only roll the dice when the outcome will be unaffected*. I don’t pose a question to the dice if the answer is meaningful because if it is “wild” then it jeopardizes current play.

    Once the screen is gone (and it doesn’t have to be a physical screen) essentially I am but an administrator as DM. As more and more decisions are taken from me and left to the dice, my role is more constrained. And, the dice matter less and less.

    If the progress of the adventure demands a particular creature remain alive, the main way to achieve that reliably with everything in the open is to not have encounters include the creature. No encounters, no rolls. Effectively everyone is now in the situation that was to be avoided by removing the screen: the DM makes major, categorical decisions unguided by a random element.

    Go play Diablo or read a Choose Your Own Adventure.

    This is very much at the heart of why most Adventure League play is so flat and uninteresting. It is also at odds with the role of dice in the history of D&D. I won’t go into it at length here, but in the wargaming culture that D&D grew out of, dice provided a random element for certain resolutions so that the resolution was within bounds but less clear cut. Less like chess. A pawn does not always take a pawn. Neither were the results “wild”. Likelihoods remained. In wargames few if any resolutions of importance are left to the roll of a single die for that reason. On average, the same decisions and situations should produce the same results. Some more or less effective but rarely outstanding result or catastrophic failure.

    The originators of D&D didn’t like “save or suck” either. The point of single die roll resolution was that an aggregate of single die rolls for less consequential resolutions would tend to generate a probability curve like that of multiple die resolutions for more consequential situations. There were no “critical hits” on a “natural 20”. A series of successful d20 rolls coupled with high damage rolls over several rounds of combat *was a critical hit*.

    But the game and the culture around it insists on more and more 1d20 checks with significant consequences and wild results to limit the influence of the DM/referee and “keep things fair”.

    There is no difference between the decisions I make in creating an adventure, and my decision to ignore or modify a die roll. Creativity *is* fudging.

    If that doesn’t make sense, consider an analogy from art. I can choose media to work with in rendering an image that will give precise and absolute control over every element in the image. These are valid methods and materials and produce clear, recognizable images. Most people perceive them as accurate but lifeless. A traffic sign is a good example. We really don’t want a STOP sign to be a matter of interpretation. We don’t look to it to be “good art” either.

    Digital media is an ideal medium for such. Prior to that pen and ink tended to be the medium.

    For a variety of good reasons I might choose to introduce implements and mediums which reduce my precise control. Switching from pen to brush but keeping ink, using coarse paper with more absorbency, both introduce relatively random elements to the composition. The interaction of bristles on the texture of the paper creates lines that have more irregular edges. The capillary action of the open fibers in the paper will draw the ink outside of the movements of hand and brush. Even if I don’t do that, simply holding the pen loosely and farther from the tip introduces similar effects.

    With experience I will still achieve a recognizable image, but it will be markedly different than the more technical rendering of a precise pen, closely held, on un-absorbent paper.

    We have no problem with an artist making these artistic choices. We may like one image more or less as a matter of preference, but we don’t demand of an artist to “stay within the lines”. We engage with an artist, not a sign painter.

    As DM (a term I loathe by the way), I’m not an administrator, nor a sign painter. I’m an artist in multiple and mixed media. The dice are my pen or brush. One of several I have to hand. I have decades of experience with these media and implements. If I choose to “hold the pen loosely and not use a straight edge” that is an informed choice based on experience and education in the main. If I choose to dilute the ink? If I lay down some water before I draw the line? If I wash the line with a wet brush after the ink is down? Those are all valid techniques. As allegory they reflect the cooperative nature of the game, inviting players to make rolls, letting player decisions influence my design, and more.

    Reducing my artistic decisions to “fudging” is an insult. And an error. It demands of human interactions the impartiality of a machine — an inherent contradiction — or that a game that involves an element of chance should behave more like chess — reductive, finite, and wholly an exercise in awareness, cause and effect.

    Certainly there are those DMs who make hamfisted use of the implements and media others of us use deftly. Constraining all DMs similarly based on the bad behavior of a few, but demanding “an interesting game” is rather like asking a Da Vinci to produce the richness of an oil painting with a technical pen and one color of ink.

    That demand attempts to make a face to face, highly creative game into a computer based RPG. If that’s what is desired, then go play the computer game.

    • Sam says:

      Such a strange rant.

      Where do you get “trust me so little” from? Where do you get “strict adherence to the rules” from? Where do you get “everything revealed” from? Where do you get “*every roll* must be in the open” from? Where do you get “once the screen is gone” from? Where do you get “adventurer’s league” from?

      The article is about using a DM screen, for Lord’s sake.

      it’s too long a rant to actually read all of, but

      > If the progress of the adventure demands a particular creature remain alive, the main way to achieve that reliably with everything in the open is to not have encounters include the creature.

      Really? A little creativity with minions diving in the way? Fudging hit points? Simple magic? Divine intervention? A reaction you made up on the spot? “Why yes he can take multiple reactions in a turn”?

      And why would an adventure demand a creature stay alive in the first place? I guess the story trumps the player’s fun?

      • sapphirecrook says:

        Where do you get “trust me so little” from?
        > He assumes the public nature of the roles is to counter player distrust (as a result of hypothetical fudging to the GM’s favor)

        Where do you get “strict adherence to the rules” from?
        > It’s more ‘strict adherence to the dice’, or ‘pushing responsibility onto the dice’. Since technically the rules say the dice are the deciders.

        Where do you get “everything revealed” from?
        > Extrapolation from public die roles? I don’t know what ‘everything’ means, if its notes or just random encounter rolls or whatever.

        Where do you get “*every roll* must be in the open” from?
        > This is the point made? I thought the post strongly hinted at no secret roles, but indeed, this isn’t a stated fact.

        Where do you get “once the screen is gone” from?
        > The screen is a physical element that creates an aura of mystery and power for the GM, as well as a distinct workspace. It has a point and purpose. Without it, the GM role can feel a bit nude if you’re used to the privacy? I only run online games; I’m extrapolating here.

        Where do you get “adventurer’s league” from?
        > AL is officially backed DND, which implies it’s the ‘intended D&D experience’? I dunno, AL has always been a crapshoot in my eyes.

        > The second point is that open rolls seems to have given him the idea you cannot create unknown secondaries. Personally, you shouldn’t put the heroes in front a villain they want to kill with a fair shot at winning, because it never ends well. Players tend not to like that stuff too much, as it feels like sour grapes.

        A better idea is to use creatures that can be killed and aren’t critical, just important. Then the players can claim their kill and feel good. Additionally, if your players do kill The Big Linchpin ahead of time? Let them. D&D isn’t about a story set in stone, its about a story formed over decisions and dice rolls. If they win super early, even by accident, good for them. Next story is up and coming.

        ((As a PS: I agree; the term DM is outdated. 5e has stopped being about dungeons and is starting to become incompatible with dungeons, and the term GM also has a less adversarial hint to it)

      • timothypark says:

        Apologies.

        I was strongly connecting the OP talking about open rolls, and screens with my direct experience playing Adventure League games at game shops, running non-AL games at game shops.

        And … the literal hours of criticism received and addressed on issues that I see as non-issues. The extreme position from where I am on how to facilitate/referee/GM/DM is that there are no secrets, no screens, no hidden rolls, no modification of results, etc.

        If you haven’t run into this, my “rant” will not make sense.

  4. Somewhere to write PC passive perceptions is always handy to have as a DM.

  5. timothypark says:

    After much thought, here’s the thing I seriously dislike about “all rolls in the open”.

    The encounter is a running fight with goblins and a few ogres on the fringes of a larger battle. For the most part it’s fairly “straight up melee”. The usual combat rolls. A few saves. Some Stealth and Perception checks. I try to keep the amount of “you don’t know the goblin is hiding there even though you know he’s there” to a minimum.

    Part of the dramatic tension of the encounter is the nearness of other opponents. To keep things fair, I have a small encounter table set up. Each round on the Goblins’ initiative I roll a d20 and on an 18 or higher more goblins and allies enter the battle mat.

    After the second time an 18, 19 or 20 shows up and I reach for more figures, the assembled players start chanting “Low! Low! Low!” when the Goblins’ initiative comes up.

    Other metagaming ensues. “He didn’t roll for reinforcements this time. Are we in the clear? Did he forget?”

    The other “basilisk” is that many players start watching for the unexplained die rolls. Tracking their patterns and how they relate to what happens. Speculating and more. Even when they don’t want to, it’s human nature. As such it distracts them from immersing.

    I have not figured how to satisfy the folks who want “things to be in the open” and the disappointment they have when everything is in the open.

  6. alphastream says:

    When I run organized play games and don’t use a screen, I get maybe one person every four or so tables that can’t help but look at my notes. And when that happens, they tend to look often… enough that it distracts me! So, I tend to use a screen. Plus, I like collecting/buying screens and then I get to show them off.

    I find screens can be effective for drawing attention from others. In a public space where that’s valuable, such as to get other people walking by to be interested and sit down, it can be an asset.

    The least valuable aspect of a screen, for me, is what’s printed on my side. Outside of a few things, such as conditions, Dispel Magic, and Counterspell, I never look anything up. What I’ve been doing lately is draping two pieces of paper taped together over one part of my screen. Facing the players is a map of the general area of the world. Facing me is a list of the character names and info I want for help with roleplay: race, background, class/subclass, etc. I add a list of important campaign NPCs and similar notes. That’s stuff I reference all the time.

Leave a Reply to Jason Kossowan Cancel reply