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The Douchey DM » Advice, Alternate Views, General Gaming » A Better GM Screen: Part Two – Your Weaknesses

A Better GM Screen: Part Two – Your Weaknesses

In my last post, I talked about information that could be included on GM screens to make us better GMs — not just better at the rules. In that post, I focused on information about the PCs: perception numbers, weaknesses, enemies, etc.

That’s the first panel, and it’s a pretty obvious choice if you think about it. It’s information that every GM at one point or another realizes he or she consistently needs.

Where to start?

For the other panels on the screen, that requires more thought, and truth be told, I don’t think it’s going to be the same for every GM. We all run our games differently, and we all have different weaknesses and areas that can improve. The key to filling out the rest of the screen, I think, is knowing where you need improvement.

For me, I discover my weaknesses as a GM by watching others GM. I learn some things by playing at a different GM’s table, but observing a GM at work without the distraction of playing really allows you to concentrate on that GM’s strength.

I’ve identified a few shortcomings over the years, and I’m going to blog-storm some ideas to address them here.

Narrating combat

This is something I tend to gloss over. Part of this is because I generally run GURPS, which has a pretty detailed combat system, requiring little narration. But then I see someone who’s really good at narrating combat, and I see the rapt gazes of the players, and I realize that even detailed combat systems can use some color commentary.

But what to include on the screen?

I could go with a simple reminder — maybe something as obvious as “Narrate Combat,” but maybe there’s something more helpful.  A series of questions perhaps?

“How did the strike miss? Glance off shield, armor? Nothing but air? Hit something behind target?”

“How did the strike hit? Punctured armor? Missed armor? Note Hit Location.”

“Describe Damage! Note Hit Location and Damage Type! Get Gorey!”

“Describe NPCs reaction to being hit (note it for next turn)”

These questions don’t give you that golden-tongued narration like you see on Gold: the Series, but it will at least serve as a reminder to make sure you don’t skip narration entirely, and it will give you a basic framework and important points to remember.

Immersion (my personal brass ring)

As a player, I love feeling immersed in the story . I dig it when I feel a visceral reaction to that bad guy who’s been doing horrible things and evading justice.

I always strive to evoke this kind of emotion in my players too. Some players will do it all on their own, needing only a bit of description from the GM, but other players need a more decisive push.

Because I consider player immersion my personal brass ring, I would devote some real estate on my GM screen to this.

Firstly, I would include a short list of reminders for the beginning of any scene.

Setting the Scene

– Visual Description:
Size of Area
What’s the lighting like (source? level? color?)
Important/obvious object in the area
Who is here?

– Other Senses:
Does the area have a specific smell?
Is there a pervasive noise here?

Again, this would give me a framework applicable for nearly any situation. For scenes where combat is immediate or inevitable, I would probably reverse the order of visual descriptions; however, in most non-combat cases, I would end with NPC descriptions. The players are going to want to interact (or otherwise deal with) the characters in the scene. Once you’ve presented them, you’ll probably lose at lease some of there attention if the other details occur after you’ve introduced the characters.

The question is, and should be with everything included on a GM screen, do these things justify the use of limited real estate.


Written by

Stu Venable is the producer of Happy Jacks RPG Podcast and writer and editor of He is founder and director of the Poxy Boggards and a member of Celtic Squall. He holds a degree in Journalism and Public Relations from California State University, Long Beach. He is a husband and a father. He hates puppies.

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2 Responses to "A Better GM Screen: Part Two – Your Weaknesses"

  1. shortymonsterNo Gravatar says:

    For setting the scene, don’t forget to include a rough temperature, if notably different from usual.

    I’m a big fan of immersive combat as a GM, but a word of warning for anyone looking to go down this route; don’t get too bogged down. Just last night I realized I was loosing a couple of players who were on the periphery of combat and not as interested as everyone else about the size of a solid slug exit wound. With that in mind, a quick note to yourself to make descriptions a s relevant as possible to everyone might be an idea.

  2. EngeNo Gravatar says:

    As for immersing the players in combat, years ago I started acting out how my players were hitting their foes and what their foes reactions were (based on the dice, etc…)
    They voiced their exasperation that I was doing this as they didn’t think their characters would move like that. Easy fix. “Get up and show me how you’re hitting the guy!” He gets up and shows me, we roll the dice, I act out the reaction.

    Amazingly, on the next action, that player would remember where he’d ended up after the last action and continue his action from there.

    So if he had just swiped from left to right with his axe, he’d remember he was on the right, feel out where he’d naturally go next and then describe that. It was GREAT!

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