Dungeon Master’s Screen Reincarnated Review
The Dungeon Master sits at the head of the table, fingers steepled, eyes narrowed over a folded-out screen. “You want to rush into the sea caves?” They pause. Then, out of nowhere comes a battle map, which they unfurl onto the table. It’s followed by a small army of miniature harpies. “And,” the DM says, voice tinged with both solemn and glee, “everybody roll for Initiative.”
Are you a recent fan of tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons? Maybe you read my Zatu Guide For Budding DMs and it lead you here? Maybe you’ve seen a DM sit behind a screen, and wondered, ‘what’s behind that thing?’.
So what is a DM Screen, other than a physical shield to hide behind? Is it essential for every DM to have one? In short, what does the Dungeon Master’s Screen Reincarnated actually do?
Maintain A Modicum of Mystery
The Dungeon Master’s Screen Reincarnated is a cardboard piece of apparatus that a DM sits behind. Size-wise, it’s 110x21.5cm. Over a metre long? That sounds big, but don’t panic; that’s the screen when unfolded, in its entirety. In reality, it’s split up into four landscape panels, each 27.5cm long. Because it’s made of solid cardboard that’s about 2mm thick, it stands upright on its own accord. That’s akin to the thickness of a regular board game’s main board, itself.
These folded panels mean the DM can manipulate the shape of the screen to suit their needs. If, say, sitting at the head of a rectangular table, the screen can sit curved in a slight ‘C’. As in, the left and right panels folded towards you, the central two panels sitting parallel to the table edge. This flexibility means the screen can fit on pretty much any playing surface. (Of course, when playing D&D you’ll need a sizeable table, regardless. It’s a game that carries a large surface footprint.)
Many DMs use a screen like this to shield upcoming plot information from the players. Minis, NPC stats, maps, dice roll outcomes: that sort of thing. 21.5cm might not sound like it’s that tall, but it’s tall enough to protect your surprises for the session. At the same time, it doesn’t obscure the DM from sight! It’s also not too cumbersome for the DM to reach over it, if needs be. If players sitting next to the screen try to peer over it to spy on your notes, then your problem is not this screen. It’s that player, and their will-power.
After a session, the screen folds away into a single 27.5x21.5cm panel, coming in at under a cm thick. This makes it perfect for transportation to and from locations, as well as storage.
This screen isn’t a mere shield, though. The four panels on the DM’s side of the screen provide key rules and reminders for the DM to check whenever they need. The advantage here is that you don’t have to put the session on pause. You won’t have to refer to rules in one of the books, such as the Player’s Handbook or the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
Anyone who has DM’d a session of Dungeon & Dragons before knows that the party can – and will – surprise you with their decisions! It’s a real feather in your cap if you can readjust and react to situations on the fly. The details provided allow DMs to think quicker and improvise with better results. Who knows what additions to adventures this screen could inspire? The limit is your own imagination!
Panel By Panel Breakdown: Actions & Conditions
Starting on the left-most panel, there’s a box with 12 common actions that PCs or NPCs can use in combat. Each has a one- to three-sentence succinct description. ‘Attacking’ is usually the first thing people think of when in combat. There’s a lot of other cool things characters can do, though! Having these to hand assists you: what would the NPCs do other than repeated melee or ranged attacks? There’s an explanation of spell point of origin here, too. This helps digest how certain spell effects play out.
There’s a ‘Things You Can Do On Your Turn’ box on this first panel, so you can recite this to players, if they’re unsure. New players might not think outside the box, but DMs can use these details to assist and inspire first-time players.
There’s also a summary about jumping, suffocating, and concentration. The latter is useful for many spells to work – and particularly, for them to remain working for a duration. As a DM, understanding how to break concentration can create fun challenges for the party. When a crucial spells comes to an abrupt halt, it means drama guaranteed!
Conditions (‘Blinded’, ‘Poisoned’ or ‘Grappled’ and so on) fill up the second panel, and half of the third. There’s a table here too that describes the six increasing levels of Exhaustion. It reminds you that characters die outright if they reach that sixth tier…
Panel By Panel Breakdown: I Hope You Like Tables
The other half of the third panel features a series of tables. These list generic things such as Setting a DC (ranging from 5 = very easy, to 30 = nearly impossible). There’s also information about how to consider the DC of Tracking, and Object Hit Points (by size and resilience).
One key list on the third panel is the Skills and Associated Abilities. It lists all the skills in alphabetical order (from Acrobatics to Survival). The corresponding Ability sits alongside it. This reminds the DM which skill to make players roll for, when they say they’re about to attempt various tasks.
The final fourth (right-most) panel includes more tables. Travel Pace and its effects are important for moving between locations. There’s a list of the suggested costs for Services (such as transport, or hiring a messenger to deliver a note). Also, there’s generic prices for food, drink and lodging – scenarios that always occur. Audible distances depending on subtlety are here, and visibility in varying weather conditions. Cover (and how it impacts Armour Class) is a useful one. Finally, there’s light: how much it pierces the darkness and for how long, depending on its source.
All these details are for the current edition of Dungeons & Dragons (5th Edition, known as ‘5e’).
Art & Graphics: Open Screenings
These four panels are not pure blocks of text and numbers. Certain details have their own boxes, with bold titles. The background is an almost-plain, pale blue/grey. This doesn’t distract from the information on display. The tables have alternating two-tone backgrounds in light- and dark-grey. It’s the sort of detail that would put a strain on your eyes if it wasn’t there. You’d only notice this kind of thing in its glaring absence.
Cartoon illustrations of each condition sit adjacent to their written description. This is a pleasant counterbalance to what would have otherwise been reams of text and bullet points. The artwork is identical to that of pages 290-292 in the Player’s Handbook. This feels apt; the Dungeon Master’s Screen Reincarnated is not meant to replace the Player’s Handbook. Rather, it’s an in-the-moment shortcut. Nothing kills the mood faster than thumbing to the Index and finding the right page.
Elsewhere, an armoured hero fights a bugbear using over-sized d20s for cover. It’s a meta, tongue-in-cheek nod to the game you’re playing. Again, this is by no means essential art, but it helps create what’s known as ‘white space’ on the panels. (It makes it feel less cramped.)
The most important art sits in the bottom half of the fourth panel. The six types of creature size sit alongside each other, ranging from Tiny to Gargantuan. DMs and players alike will always compare a creature’s size in relation to that of humans (who are ‘Medium’). Knowing that something such as an Ogre is ‘Large’ aids the DM in describing its ratio to that of a human.
The artwork on the side that faces out – towards the players – depicts an ancient red dragon. Inked by Tyler Jacobson, it’s mid-flight, in among smouldering pink clouds, leaving a burning city in its wake. It’s a four-screen panorama, and what more could evoke the core essence of Dungeons & Dragons? There are monstrosities in this world, and you are but small in comparison.
Final Thoughts On… The Dungeon Master’s Screen Reincarnated
It’s tough to find flaws in this product by Wizards of the Coast. They know their target audience; D&D has been running since 1974. It’s clear they’ve had plenty of feedback over the years to craft the ideal DM screen.
This screen is sturdy, durable and portable. There’s a gloss coating to the cardboard, almost a dry-wipe sheen. The thickness of the screen is ideal. You can clip all manner of extra notes to it, or stick on PostIts, and it won’t fall due to imbalance or become top-heavy. The screen that comes included with the D&D Essentials Kit is flimsy in comparison. That screen is a much thinner card stock – think Terraforming Mars player boards thickness. Not here, though. This is wonderful and chunky.
One thing I’ll admit: I’d prefer to see the screen sit a smidgeon taller. These dimensions work fine though, for what it sets out to accomplish. It doesn’t have any transparent sleeves either, which would elevate its practicality. That way DMs could slot in pages or notes that cover parts of the screen they feel they don’t need. If you’re a seasoned DM, you might find that you know some of the rules listed on here off the top of your head. (In which case, I envy you!)
To summarise, this screen is a perfect match for any first-time DMs, dipping their toe in the D&D pool. It covers all manner of important rules and reminders. If anything, it might be guilty of having too much information on here. That’s a good problem to have, though! Having the core snippets at close hand is a godsend for scenarios that crop up in almost every session.
However, even if you’ve DM’d more times than had hot dinners, you’ll still find this a useful screen. Not many people have an encyclopaedic knowledge of every single rule of 5th Edition. Matt Mercer chairs Critical Role with seeming, effortless ease, right? Well, even pros in the industry use a Dungeon Master’s screen of some variety. And hey, every pro needs to start somewhere.