REF1 Dungeon Master Screen Review, & is it cheating?

In August of 89, TSR released REF1 the Dungeon Master Screen. Why in the world am I reviewing this, you ask? Well, there is relevance to it. As a DM, this thing is probably the most used item in my collection, and mine is very beat up! Unfortunately, this item is also a collector’s item; I guess people used them up and threw them away at a tremendous rate, which sucks for us. There is some guy trying to sell it for $135, I hope that he never makes his money. To me, that is ripping off the public, pure and simple. But enough about that; let’s talk about the product itself!

A good screen should have all of the tables that a DM uses regularly, as well as a few that are rarely used, but when you need them, then you need them quick. This scene satisfies those demands. I’ve used it for years, and was one of those products that I had bought new, and I wish that I would have bought a couple of them. I own others, including the reprint, but I’ve never even looked at them! This is the one that goes with my books of choice.

It also came with a module called Terrible Trouble in Tragador, which I’ve never ran, nor even read, but I’ve kept it. Hey, a free module is better than a kick to the face any day! It can be said that Terrible Trouble is the first “True” 2nd Edition module to be released, as all of the other modules released that year were listed as compatible with both 1st and 2nd editions of AD&D.


There are lots of people out there that claim that it is. That the only reason why one would use it is to hide their rolls; well these people must have a much better memory that me, as I have always needed the facts on the screen, and THAT is why it is always on the table.

Every DM has to lie about die rolls from time to time, there isn’t anything worse than the dice killing a character in the first few minutes of a game, the player needs a bit of time before he can fully wrap their head around a game. Other times, we DMs probably shouldn’t have been rolling the dice in the first place, which we don’t figure out until something really bad happens and we don’t want to deal with it. So, we fudge dice! Granted! If you are rolling too hot on one PC, we’ll claim to miss. If we haven’t hit anybody at all, we’ll claim we hit. A good DM uses common sense when fudging stuff; we don’t want to manufacture obvious events. If we get caught cheating, then we are cheating. I think that it is a much bigger sin to disrupt the flow of the game, especially if everybody is having a good time; We use the dice to maintain an unbiased game and to keep some elements random, if this isn’t desired we sometimes pick them up anyway.

I don’t intend to hide my rolls. I need the screen to cover up all the stuff that I don’t want the players to see, such as maps, notes, creature hit points, and that kind of stuff. I roll behind the screen as a convenience to me, not because I’m cheating; but, there are times when you can get better tension from a struggle without the screen. When a fight is so evenly matched that there is a good chance that the player’s character is going to bite it, you might be able to get more drama from a scene if the player is aware of the enemy’s hp, as well as their own. You also want your rolls to be out there and in the open so that everybody knows that this is the dice making the decisions, not the DM.  Actually, it is probably a good idea to always roll out in the open if a PC is in danger of dying because of events taking place on your side, but show all of your rolls? No! Keep the players guessing! If you’ve made your creatures saving-throw, and you want the player to think that you didn’t, rolling in the open is not something that you want to do, and you don’t want it to look weird by hiding just a couple of your rolls all night. The less a player knows what you are doing back there, the more fun he is going to have!

So, a DM Screen, in my opinion, makes the game better on multiple fronts. This one specifically is nice because it isn’t too large, and big screens can serve to alienate the DM from the rest of the table, which isn’t fun. I know that I don’t like to take up too much space. I’ve got a TV Tray with the books I need, and only what I’m using at that moment in front of me. A smaller screen also forces me to work clean and not have everything cluttered up, which I tend to do and I hate it.

So, rating the screens use. It didn’t push the industry into any new direction, but it did allow the user to. To me, this is an essential tool, and is just as important to the game as pencils and paper, but it is one of those things that is more of a convenience, it isn’t like we can’t make one ourselves, in times were I feel the that shield is just in the way, a piece of paper will do to cover my notes and stuff. As a new DM this thing was a life saver, and it still is, so, for that reason I’ll give it a B. I am not going to pay collectors prices to replace a product that originally cost so little, and is just there for convenience, so I’ll have to come up with an alternative.

One funny thing, before closing, is in regard to the PDF. Originally, I thought that it would be pointless to have this product as a PDF, but on rethinking, this would be a nice file to have open on the PC during prep, and it would also allow us to buy some supplies at the store and make our own copy, because even those like me, who takes extra good care of their books, this product still breaks down over time with just regular use. Perhaps it is the fact that I have sacrified this shield instead of having to look up the same tables in the books that has ultimately preserved my handbooks themselves? Why open a book, if you don’t have to?


Jens D. said...

Something occurred to me about the idea that DMs that don't use the result they get is akin to cheating. Took me a while to get there (and it might be very obvious) but if the DM is the arbiter of everything that happens at the table, he's also the one deciding if a result is "valid" or not. So not taking a roll is as much his right as telling a player that his result was enough ... or not. If the resulting call is fair, the DM is very well within the rules to make such a call.

Ripper X said...

I think that fudging rolls is a lot like another activity that men claim not to do. I do try not to fudge, I don't think that any DM is sitting back there cheating constantly, if he is than what the entire activity is pointless, but to tell new DM's to NEVER do it, that is just lying to them.

If you roll up the same random encounter 3 times in a row, ignore it! Maybe roll it again, and if it gives you the same results, then assume that the dice gods have a plan, or keep rolling until you get different results, it's your game!

It is fine to fudge, just don't make it a habit or you'll go blind. True story!

Mattia said...


Personally I have always used the screen, whatever game I was playing. That is a habit I develop when I bought my first rpg: “Uno sguardo nel Buio”, Italian translation of the german best seller “Das Schwarze Auge”, which I think had also an English translation.
In fact, before being colonized by D&D, without a local translation, in the continent we were trying to create our own rpgs. Well, “Uno sguardo nel buio” was the perfect game to start for a 12 years old boy: it came with an introductory solo adventure, some simple rules, five classes, 6 (yes 6!) monsters, dices and…a DM screen!
What would you ask more?

So the screen, from the foundlings of my rpg career, became an accessory you could not play without.

Said that, your article lists all the kind of usages you can do with it. First of all, hide all the information that should be kept secret to players. Second? Well, second is dice rolls. Big topic. I used to hide my dice results behind the screen. For several reasons. As you say, you do not want to punish somebody having fun because of an unlucky result. Second, some rolls have to be hidden as the player does not know if he is successful (hide in shadows check, for instance).

That is the past, at least for me. Since I re-started to play, in 2013, my dice rolls were always public. There is some philosophical position behind that decision. In fact, when I came back to the game I might have chosen AD&D, Rolemaster, D&D 3/3.5
I choose to restart with AD&D, because I wanted a quick and easy game, not centered on combat, where the characters could be heroes, without being super-heroes (I dislike superheroes, I really find are not part of my culture). Heroes die in every good book, and some of them become memorable just because of that unhappy ending. Also I wanted the players to be aware that I would have not saved them in any way. It was just their choices and the fate, that made them a lot careful. Hiding dice rolls does not make a lot of sense, also because players rolls their Saving Throws in public and you cannot do anything for them at that point. One of the first reason for character departure is poison, more than damage, in my experience. If I wanted a safer game, I would have taken 3.5, where cleric has always a healing spell at hand, or, who knows, 5th edition today, where with a nap you restore hit points. So, my dice rolls are public, I have the respect of my players that know for sure I will not save the girl of the group or the most charismatic player.

Recently I have found a way to hide some checks (i.e. hide in shadows) to me, I simply ask the thief of the group to throw his dices in a plastic glass and leave the result hidden to everybody, DM included. That way, when I take a decision for the NPCT or monster, players know I do not have any advantage over them, due to more information I might have. Result? The result is that the game becomes unpredictable also for me, and I find it more thrilling and fun!


Ripper X said...

That is an interesting way of handling thief skills! Depending on the skill, I usually roll it; but I suppose that it also depends upon a players ability to role-play. If the player can fail at detecting a trap, and act like he didn't, then he'll roll his own checks.

As far as DMing goes, I'm a control freak. I let the players control their own actions and stand by their decisions, but I control the rest of it. My scenarios really don't function well if I don't know what is going on. My monsters are usually roaming around, I always hated static dungeons, it makes it more difficult because I can't anticipate what the players will do until they do it and I have to decide what is likely to happen as a result. I really can't do that when I don't know someones results.

Happy Gaming Mattia

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