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...
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