Saturday, December 3, 2011

Product Review: Pathfinder GM Screen

Today I got around to doing my budget for the new month, and realized that I could afford a trip to my favorite Friendly Local Game Store; Fantasium. The owner, Paula, was there, so I got a chance to talk to her a little bit about my feelings on Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Dungeons & Dragons. Unfortunately she didn't have Confessions of a Part Time Sorceress in stock, so that one will need to wait a little while. By the time I left, I had spent a great deal more money than I intended to, got a stock date for the Pathfinder Bestiary 3, and purchased the subject of tonight's post: The Pathfinder Game Master Screen.

I know I have a few readers who are unfamiliar with the basics surrounding tabletop RPGs, so let me take this opportunity to explain what GM screens are, and why they're awesome. In pop culture, the screen is possibly even more iconic than funny shaped dice as an indicator of role playing geekery. The benefits of the screen are many fold, but its purpose is actually quite simple: to allow the GM to do things 'out of sight' of the players. Behind the screen are game notes, maps, monster stats and abilities, all the sorts of things which a GM needs to reference, but which must be kept hidden from players. Two of the primary side-benefits are what is printed on each side of the screen. On the player side is normally some a dramatic piece of adventuresome artwork to help get the players into the mood. On the GM side of the screen is printed as many quick-reference game rules and cheat sheets as the printers can manage to fit on there.

And without further ado, here is Pathfinder's game master screen:

Blogger kills the quality of images, but you can click them for a (much) higher resolution.

For the sake of this post, I'll be comparing it with the trusty GM screen I've used for years, published by Wizards of the Coast for the Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 game.

I'd like to make a note first regarding how the two screens unfold. It may be difficult to see from the photographs, but both screens are composed of four segments separated by a fold. The D&D screen folds in such a way that the center of the screen is closest to the characters, and the edges of the screen curve back towards the GM, like a U shape. Whereas the Pathfinder screen's segments are angled in-and-out in an M shape. At first this was quite a turnoff for me, but as I played with it a little more, I found that I much prefer the folding style of the Pathfinder screen. It may seem somewhat unimportant, but I think it looks better. And I've always been annoyed by how far back the sides of the D&D screen go, feels like they're crowding me.

Regarding the art, I think Paizo rolled a critical failure. Take a look at the D&D screen I posted, or any number of other screens. They depict dynamic scenes of adventure. The kind of scenes which depict what should be going on at the table, and inspire the players to get into the adventure. Pathfinder, for some reason, chose to instead show static images of the characters who represent their core classes, as well as the Eldritch Knight for no explicable reason. And not only are these images bland and uninteresting, they're re-used. These are the exact same illustrations which accompany each class description in the Pathfinder Core Rulebook. Honestly, that makes me a little upset. It's easy enough to make a GM screen by propping up two binders and paper-clipping notes onto the inside of them. The draw to purchasing a professionally produced GM screen is the art. This failure is particularly disappointing because Paizo normally excels in getting fantastic artists for their products.

It's not so much that I'm angry, Paizo. Just...disappointed.

The major selling point, for me, was the construction of this GM screen. This thing is as sturdy as a dwarven barstool.* My D&D screen is a very basic cardboard. It's not quite paper, but it's really only sturdy enough so it doesn't flop over. The Pathfinder screen, however, is thicker than the covers of most hardback books. The Pathfinder screen also has a glossy coating which, I think, is somewhat water resistant. I'm not eager to try, but it's certainly more durable than the D&D screen. This may seem like a minor thing, but I've often worried about damage to my GM screen during travel, or when a drink is spilled at the table. The higher quality of the construction for the Pathfinder screen is a big plus for me.

There's not a whole lot to say about the differing sizes of the two screens. The D&D screen is longer, whilst the Pathfinder screen is higher. This really comes down to a matter of preference. Personally, I like the height of the Pathfinder screen, and I've never liked how wide the D&D screen is. My only concern is that I'll be spending more of my game time standing. I already sometimes have trouble seeing things over the screen.

The final element to the screens is the GM side, with the quick-reference guide for the rules. First, the new Pathfinder screen...

...and then the old D&D screen.

Now, truth be told, I've never actually used the quick reference rules on the GM screen. I have a lot of respect for the utility of printing them there, but as a GM I prefer to simply make a ruling on the spot based on whatever seems most logical. That said, I think the D&D screen actually has much more useful information printed on it.

Here are some of the items on the D&D sheet which I think would be more useful than much of the information on the Pathfinder sheet.
  • DCs to break or burst an item.
  • Information & stats for common types of walls.
  • Information & stats for common types of doors.
  • Increasing weapon damage by size
  • Decreasing weapon damage by size
  • Graphic demonstrating what to do when a thrown weapon misses
  • Common types of actions (drink potion, prepare oil for throwing, drawing a weapon) and what type of action time they require, and whether they provoke an attack of opportunity.
  • Information on movement and distance both in tactical, and overland
  • Light sources and illumination

But at least the Pathfinder GM screen has information on how to calculate the DC for a longjump check. It's difficult to remember that +1ft = +1DC.

I think it's somewhat obvious that I'm disappointed in Paizo's Pathfinder GM Screen. Aside from the construction, it really feels as though no work went into this. I'll certainly use it, because I do like the construction so much. And bland as the art is, I'm sure my players have grown tired of looking at the same dragon for so many years.

Still, Paizo, come on. I'm deep in your camp, I am a believer, and I don't like being in a position to speak ill of you, but this is not a good product. Step it up with the next GM screen.

*Yes, that was ridiculous. I decided to go with it, so you can just stfu Mr. or Ms. Critic! >.>


  1. Nice, I was thinking of being a nice guy and buying the Pathfinder screen for my DM. He is using the 1st edition DM screen in our Pathfinder campaign, hee hee. I'll hold off for now.

    1. Matt,

      I'm glad someone found this useful! To be frank, I always felt this was a bit of a cop-out post. x'D



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