I received the new Dungeon Master’s Screen last week and wanted to give my thoughts on it. Let me preface all of this by saying that owning the Dungeon Master Screen is in no way necessary to DM a game. It is more of a nice to have accessory. To me a good DM screen needs to serve three functions. First, it needs to be pleasant to look at on the players’ side since they are going to spend plenty of time staring at it. Next it needs to adequately block the players’ view of what the DM is doing behind it. Finally, the screen should include useful information on the DM’s side for quick reference.
The first thing that I will say about the DM screen is probably going to echo what most reviews of it are saying; Craig J. Spears’ art on the front side of the screen is amazing. The four panels are illustrated with a party made up of five characters (four of them are girls!) facing off against a giant red dragon and a horde of kobold minions. You could buy the DM screen just to hang it up on your wall. Based on the exterior art alone this product definitely passes the pleasant to look at test. Your players will gladly stare at it while waiting to die.
The DM screen also easily passes the test of blocking the players’ view. At almost 11 inches high and almost three feet wide when fully unfolded it will easily conceal all your DM shenanigans. The quality of the screen is also a big plus. It is made from a durable cardboard and wrapped in a glossy covering. Unlike other screens I have owned, this one seems built to last. Unfortunately, I can’t base a review on how pretty and durable a product is. It’s important what’s on the inside the screen and this is where the new screen loses some value for me.
One of the worst things that a DM can do during a game is spend endless amounts of time flipping through rulebooks looking for tables. It grinds the game to a halt and takes players out of the moment. The DM screen should be a tool to eliminate a lot of that page flipping by putting frequently used tables front and center for the DM. So what tables does the new DM screen include? Well, there are four separate panels on the screen. One and a half of these panels contain detailed descriptions of conditions, e.g. blinded and paralyzed. That’s 3/8 of the screen dedicated to tables so important to running a game that they aren’t even included in the DMG (it’s covered in the PHB). Another entire panel is composed of tables for random NPC generation including a table for making up names. Oh, the stories I could tell about games that were ruined because DMs didn’t think up NPC names quickly enough! An entire third of the last panel is used for an illustration of a tarrasque wrecking a city. There is some useful information included on the interior sections. This includes a table for setting DCs, a table for Skills and Associated Abilities and a table illustrating the effects of cover. The Something Happens! table is nestled in there also. This table could be useful for storytelling on the fly.
So overall the information included on the inside of the DM screen seems to be about 25% useful and 75% fluff. Granted this is only my opinion. Individual results may vary, but I would have included some other useful tables to make this a more useful tool. The first table that I would have added is the Targets in Area of Effect from page 249 of the DMG. This kind of spell damage adjudication is going to come up a lot more often than generation of NPC flaws. Next I would have included the Object Armor Class and Object Hit Points tables from page 246 and 247 in the DMG. Players always want to smash things like doors or barrels so these tables would come in handy. The Ability Scores and Modifiers table from page 13 of the PHB would also be useful information for the DM to have especially when dealing with temporary magic that affects ability scores.
Finally there is one thing that I would love to see on any DM screen. One simple item that would eliminate hours and hours of page flipping from any campaign. That thing is a quick reference index to all of the tables and rules in the core rulebooks. Knowing exactly where this information is would allow a DM to flip right to it and make them look like a real badass.
So the big question is whether this new DM is worth buying. The screen retails for $14.95, but it is available on Amazon for around $13.00. That is fairly inexpensive compared to other D&D products. The issues that I have with tables can easily be fixed with a copier and some scotch tape. I would say that if you don’t already have a DM screen that you like pick this one up. Or you could wait until March to see what the Elemental Evil looks like.