Your GM Screen is More Important Than You

I’m now GMing two campaigns that have made it past their opening missions and will be delving into the world at large.  I have made a significant goof because I’ll never have free time again.

Its great inspiration for a dungeon crawl though.

 

But its fulfilling.  Its fun to write.  This medium is especially rewarding when your players are as into it as you are.  As a GM I really want to try and have my players be immersed, invested, and enabled.  But GM styles are for another post!  Probably sooner than later since I love talking about RP games.

A big part of my work is trying to be prepared for my players, as well as enhance their experience.  I am constantly trying to find new ways to improve the game play and the flow.  When something trips us up, I try and remember it so I can brainstorm how to move past it.  As an example, I do “ratchet battle maps” with tiny grid paper and thumbtacks.  I recently bought a new compliment of colored travel pins, just so everyone can be a different color instead of everyone being the same color with numbers drawn next to them.

I felt that the GM screen I had didn’t have the things I wanted on it.  One of my great investments of the year was commissioning and purchasing a wooden GM screen from our friend Mark.  He’s damned good at wood work.  I designed a GM screen with the ability to change inserts and paid Mark to build it for me.

So now I have it and I produced my own Rogue Trader inserts.  The information I want is now readily at hand.

Since I started GMing Dungeons and Dragons (5th Edition) at Nemo, I have slowly been brainstorming designing my own inserts for that game as well.  Then I started thinking about how interesting and powerful a concept the GM screen really is.

When I have to improvise, or assist a player in their task, my first instinct is to scan my GM screen for the information I need.  If I find it- great!  If I don’t, I make something up.  You should be improvising the story and interactions- not improvising the rules. Hear me out.

I’d guess that I’m approximately 75 – 80% fluent in the rules for Rogue Trader and coming up on that same fluency for DnD.  With that level of knowledge in my brain, its still strange that I look at the GM screen first, but I always do.  Like a spreadsheet “Where’s Waldo” I desperately skim my charts hoping to find the ruling I need.

What used to happen before was I wouldn’t find the information I’d need so I’d change the situation to suit the rules I had placed in front of me.  I could look it all up, but I don’t want to halt the situation so I can figure out if the penalty for juggling while on a motorcycle is -10 or -20.

“Oh wait- you want this to be a team attack?”

I made mention that I like to try and have the game-play be fluid so we don’t have to constantly open rule books and make judgment calls.  I want my players focused on role-playing, not focused on the rules.  This is what I wanted to get the custom GM screen for.  I want to think about the story, not be sitting there going “uhhhhh” while I try and find a ruling or a challenge level.

My GM screen has also quietly influenced which rules I use a lot and which I kind of let fall to the wayside (I find less important).  Narrative time movement as an example.  You go to the building, and I don’t really care how fast you get there in minutes.  My customized GM screen for Rogue Trader has also introduced a lot more elements to my GM style that I think enhances things.  For instance, the official GM screen for Rogue Trader doesn’t have a comprehensive list of the skills.  So I always had to try and recall the skill list when my players were trying to do something.  And I would constantly forget that some skills exist- like Inquiry or Logic- and I started letting players use other skills for that.

I’ve added my own list and now I use a wider breadth of skills that lets my players feel like their skill upgrades are more useful.  I’ve added the rule blocks for ship morale.  I’ve added the rules block for NPC disposition and information recall.  I’m sure for my players the experience rapidly shifted.  I have a lot more role-play and interaction rules directly in front of me, which I use to make my players make more nuanced choices.

I highly recommend you get a customizable GM screen if you run a campaign.  Think carefully on how you want your campaign played and structure your GM screen that way.  And you don’t even have to get a fancy hard wood one!  Customizable sleeve and white board screens exist.

I want to reiterate this sentence.

“What used to happen before was I wouldn’t find the information I’d need so I’d change the situation to suit the rules I had placed in front of me.”

I don’t think you should ever make an improvisational adjustment to a core scene or beat simply because you have the rules for shooting in front of you instead of negotiation.  You have carefully crafted your beats, scenes, and acts to have specific effects- changing them at the last second undoes all of your work and potentially fucks your story line up.

As an example:

“Your players walk into a bar to meet a man whom has information on the local port administrator whom is skimming tolls.  The players recognize the man and the very first thing that Soldier does is point a gun at him and threaten him.  Well- as the GM you were prepared for a negotiation, not intimidation.  So what do you do?  Glancing at your GM screen, you don’t readily see anything that helps you- but you do see the rules for grappling.  You think: ‘this really pisses the Man off, so he’s gonna retaliate with a grapple and a knife to the mans throat!  It’ll make a point of don’t fuck with me!’  Your NPC grabs the player, but then the rest of the players kill him.  Your whole scene went to shit because you had to improvise, you picked a convenient ruling not the correct one, and now everything is much harder because the NPC with the information died.”

“That ruined my mastah plan.”

The flavor of your campaign isn’t solely a vision in your mind or a glint in your eye.  Structure and story matter the most, but remember- in your moments where you are caught off guard by the situation, just remember where your eyes fall first and put the information you want there.  You want your improvisation to be supported by the rules, not have your improvisation affected by them.

And don’t put the grapple rules next to the NPC disposition chart.

-DTM

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