Friday, June 22, 2012

[Review] The Ultimate GM Screen II

Last year I purchased and downloaded a PDF of Fat Dragon Games' "Ultimate GM Screen II" (from here on out, the UGMS2) but it wasn't until a few weeks ago that I got around to building it. Now that I've had the opportunity to field-test it in a few games, I thought I'd share my thoughts on the product.

I am unfamiliar with the presumed predecessor, the "Ultimate GM Screen I", and in fact this is the first product I've purchased from Fat Dragon. I've had some experience in the past with paper modelling, but I'm probably, at best, at an intermediate skill level in that regard (more on that shortly).

The UGMS2 comes in a large PDF download that's greater than the sum of its parts, as several of the pages need to be printed out multiple times. Disconcertingly, while some of the pages are clearly labeled as multiples, others that should be are not. Not a big deal, but make sure that when you sit down to assemble the thing you have access to your computer and printer in case you need more sheets.

In addition to the PDF, you need to supply your own heavy cardstock (the instructions give recommended thickness ranges), scissors, a cutting blade, foamcore, and white glue. If you're an experienced paper modeller, you probably already have all this to hand. For myself, I had to go out and buy a ream of cardstock.

You'll also need plenty of ink and patience, as printing can take up a whole evening unto itself.

Patience is a good watchword across the board when it comes to assembling the UGMS2. It took me four nights of pretty steady work, from printing to final assembly, to put the thing together. The instructions were clearly-written and I never ran into any dead ends or confusing tangles in the course of assembly.

Having assembled the screen, here's how it looked on my table:

(One of the selling points of the screen for me personally is the fact that it's more or less in landscape format. I've found I just can't go back to portrait-oriented screens--they're just too tall!)
As you can see, it fits perfectly across the width of my table, which was a nice little perk. The side walls are separate pieces that attach with little tabs underneath. If you had a narrower table, you could easily forgo the tabs and bring the wings in tighter, although they'd be more vulnerable to the inevitable bumps and jostles of the table. Conversely, as the instructions point out, you can always print out additional side wings to extend the width of the screen even further, for those of you playing at Mr. Burns' desk or similar.
The screen comes with a couple nifty features. Like all nifty features, these are of dubious utility in actual use. Each tower has a dice-rolling chute, one facing the GM, one facing the players. In the sessions I've run using the screen, I've used the chutes about half the time. During tense moments like combat, I often forget to use the chutes, falling back on old-fashioned dice slinging out of habit. But the chutes are a fun feature, particularly for an important roll when you want to heighten the drama even further.

The other nifty feature of the screen is a built-in set of shelves to house your miniatures when they're not in use.

This is obviously of no use if you don't use minis in your games - and usually I do not. These shots, however, were taken during a Savage Worlds game I was running in which I was using minis, and I found the shelves work pretty much as you'd expect. The shelves are sturdy and do a good job of hiding the figures from all but the most prying of eyes. The only downside I can think of is if you have a big batch of minis (like for a kobold dungeon or something), in which case you'd quickly run out of space.

As you can see in the shot above, I got some paper warp in a couple places. Fortunately these are out of view of the players for the most part, but it's still a good reminder: the quality of your own screen will only be as good as your level of expertise in paper modeling.

The only other downside to this screen I can think of is that it doesn't fulfill one of the primary tasks of a GM's screen: providing quick reference tables! It would be theoretically possible to pin your own sheets to the wings, but it's not a built-in feature of the table.

In the end, the Ulitmate GM Screen II is not quite deserving of the title. It makes a couple pretty broad assumptions about the reasons why one would want a screen, neither of which line up with my own needs. My personal "ultimate screen" remains the Savage Worlds Deluxe GM Screen, which is landscape format and features pockets for inserting custom tables or images on all six sides, and it's one I'll continue to use for most of my games.

However, I'm not sorry to have bought and built the UGMS2. It makes for a great prop in certain types of high fantasy games, and it has become my go-to screen for D&D and similarly-flavored games, particularly games featuring miniatures. In the end, it is a novelty, but one not without its uses.

I would unreservedly recommend this screen to anyone who runs 4e or Pathfinder, as long as they were comfortable with paper modelling and were comfortable with having whatever quick reference sheets they'd need close at hand rather than on a GM screen.

Now if only I could track down a copy of that custom Cthulhu screen that was available a few years back...

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Drive Towards System Mastery

With our Version 5 playtest wrapped up (and a spate of two months' worth of 60-hour work weeks behind me, freeing up brain power and blogging time--hi everyone!), I'm giving serious thought as to where to go next. Not just in terms of what sort of campaign to run, but where next in terms of how I approach RPGs.

Seems like every 6-8 years I undergo one of these metamorphoses. The last time around involved me reorganizing my gaming shelves into a system ordered by what games I was both familiar with and felt comfortable running (top shelf) down through to those games I had bought and never so much as read (bottom shelf). This in turn led to my renewed interest in (and frequent playing of) Pendragon and Call of Cthulhu, as well as (indirectly) to me starting this very blog and plugging in to the OSR.

The itch I'm feeling these days isn't so much an overhaul as a further refinement of my current approach to gaming. I'm feeling the urge to master a single one of those "top shelf" systems.

I've always been vaguely in awe of those of you who pick an edition of D&D and just stick with that pretty much exclusively. Whether it's Basic, AD&D, Pathfinder, hell, even Version 4, I can't help but admire the folks out there who have managed to, if you will, make D&D their bitch. That level of commitment to a single system, let alone a single genre, is something that's always escaped me. I'm a recovering sufferer of Gamer ADHD, and even in my more recent, less excitable years I've been known to fall victim to the "ooh, shiny!" complex, mostly in regards to cool concepts rather than fancy rules. In other words, I like to genre-hop, something that has kept me from being a "D&D only" type gamer.

However, although I could never devote myself to a single genre, as do the hardcore D&Ders, I've long been fascinated by the idea of mastering a single system. GURPS was the second RPG I ever bought, after all, and a big selling-point at the time was the pitch that with a single set of rules one could run a wide variety of campaigns without having to learn a new system each time. And there's something tremendously appealing to a certain part of me in the idea of essentially becoming of a walking encyclopedia of a particular system.

What's prevented me from doing this is the other part of me that falls in with the indie crowd and, sneering from the shadows of that crowded trendy dive bar of the gaming world, asserts, "System matters." Why play GURPS Horror when you can play Call of Cthulhu, with its mechanics specifically designed to emulate fear and mental deterioration? Why play BRP Fantasy when you can play Burning Wheel or Pendragon, each featuring mechanics precisely tailored to emulate the genre conventions of the specific brands of fantasy they're emulating? Why pay a hooker to put on a French maid outfit when you can play Maid...?

Such has been my rationalization for the past 20 years, the rationalization that's kept the generic systems on the back burner. But after taking a break from GURPS, I've recently come back to it with a fresh perspective - running a couple side campaigns in the process to take the system for a test drive, if you will - and it's got me thinking about system mastery again. Individual systems may matter, but there's also a lot to be said for being comfortable with the rules - so comfortable, in fact, that the rules become almost transparent, allowing one to focus on the campaign and the characters. Big, meaty systems like GURPS or BRP don't lend themselves well to casual play, one of the reasons I was finding myself continually frustrated by GURPS back in the day. So why not jump in all the way?

Such a commitment would not mean a repudiation of all the other games on my shelf by any means. For one thing, they'll be there for idea mining. And for certain games like CoC or Pendragon, I'd never seek to replace the play experiences they generate. (And indeed, the Solo GPC will keep trundling along until such time as it's finished, whatever my other projects may be.) But I'd step away from other games until I felt like I'd mastered the system of my choice. Only then would I allow myself to run some of the other systems on my shelf rather than just steal from them.

At the moment, I have three candidates in mind for system mastery, should I pursue it: GURPS, BRP, and Savage Worlds. Each has its pros and cons. I love GURPS for the richness of its character creation and the challenge it presents should I choose to try and truly master it--there are just so many modular, plug-in rules, the range of campaigns I could run in the course of learning and utilizing them all boggles the mind (which is kind of the point of the system, I suppose). BRP brings with it an elegant simplicity as well as familiarity--most of the gaming I've done over the last six years has been BRP or derived systems. However, it lacks the deep character generation options of GURPS (not always a bad thing, I'll concede) and part of me thinks, "If I'm going to embark on mastering a set of rules that's fairly 'realistic' with a host of modular options, why not go whole hog with GURPS?" Savage Worlds doesn't have the depth of GURPS or even BRP, but I enjoy the system very much and feel like I could do a lot with it. It would certainly dictate that the majority of the games I run for the foreseeable future would be "FAST! FURIOUS! FUN!" affairs. And I could do with a bit of that after a couple years of running mostly cosmic horror. (Although I am tempted to do a Two-Fisted Tales/Realms of Cthulhu mash-up to run the pulpiest Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign ever seen.)

Art by Daniel Irizarri Oquendo
Savage Worlds would also give me an excuse to start using miniatures in my RPG gaming more often--although that's a whole 'nother barrel of ambivalence I haven't really discussed!

"My god, it's full of owlbears!"

Those were the last words uttered before a nuclear warhead detonated and TPK'd the party (along with the rest of the Caves of Chaos) at the conclusion of our Version 5 playtest last night.

Playtest: successful.
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