Love ’em/hate ’em…we’ll usually buy ’em: gamemaster screens. Back before you had your notes, maps, die programs, and game books on a tablet or laptop, we wanted to protect our notes from prying eyes and make some dice rolls in secret — hence the GM screen, which also conveniently pulled together all of the more important (on the good ones; the bad ones…well, let’s say you’d have been better off just planking down a roll of toilet paper) charts for your quick reference. They were usually utter crap, materials-wise, made of lightweight cardboard with only one side having charts, the other having bad, setting-referential art, and were an anathema to good layout design and good sense. (The first really good GM screen I ever had was the James Bond: 007 screen — you could pretty much run the whole damned game off it; better yet, the player side had useful chart that the players needed to speed things along. Brilliant!) Occasionally, you’d get a well designed one with everything you really needed in a pinch. Rarely, you’d get one of decent stock or even heavy book hardcover stock (I think the first i saw of that was the Babylon 5 screen Mongoose did. Beautifully made, crappy on the charts.)

For rules or charts-heavy games like Dungeons & Dragons, Heros, or GURPS a GM screen was almost a necessity. When folks didn’t buy one, they often cobbled one together out of cardboard, copied bits of the game book, tape, and dispair. These were usually more tailored to the oft forgotten or oft used rules that a GM needed.  I did up one for the house rules Castle Falkenstein game I was running…it’s still around here, somewhere.

But with the computer/iPad era, I find I don’t need a screen so much. When writing up an adventure I tend to throw in the dice challenges that will be necessary instead of winging it. I only show the players what I want (the iPad is much better I find for this than the laptop.) Most of the systems I run now are dead simple — Cortex for Serenity and Battlestar Galactica, Hollow Earth Expedition (wonderfully strong screen but once again…crap choices for the charts.) About the only system we’re using right now I need a chart for is James Bond.

So is there a real use for the GM screen anymore? You can bookmark your PDFs for quick rule recovery on the computer of tablet…do you really need to shave a few seconds off the time to find a rule or chart? Answer: maybe. I woud suggest that for games which you have just started playing, a GM screen helps cut down the learning curve and get things moving. Once you’ve become familiar with the rules, you might only need the screen or rule books a time or two a session when you hit stuff you’re not as proficient with (for example, I never remember rules for damage from disease and other stuff like that in games…I have to look it up. Since it’s rarely the things printed on a GM screen, said screen doesn’t do me much good.

I guess it comes down to whether the $15-40 bucks for a few seconds’ fast data retrieval and the usual crappy adventure module is worth it in your estimation.