Custom Dungeon Master Screen – Plus 5-in-1 Leather AD&D Tome

I’m a big fan of 2D and 3D terrains for my game table, and most of my attempts at providing visual props for my players are made of inexpensive paper. I’m a big fan of 3D constructions such as those offered by Fat Dragon Games as well as the amazingly colorful and detailed 2D battlemaps from Lord Zsezse Works. I’m always diving into web searches with specific goals in mind, but sometimes I just wander… allowing myself to click link and after link in the hope that I stumble upon something new and cool. A few weeks ago, I posted an article about 2D terrain products, both old and new. During some of my research, I found some interesting photos of a large DM screen made by OldSchoolDM. I reached out to its maker, and that in turn opened up another discovery — a leather-bound tome containing five Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1e) books.

OldSchoolDM actually took five AD&D books — Dungeon Masters Guide, Players Handbook, Monster Manual, Fiend Folio, and Deities & Demigods — and bound them together into a single volume.

I was very curious to know more about both the DM screen and the leather bound book, so I reached out with some questions and OldSchoolDM was kind enough to provide some great responses:

GeekDad: Reader can visit your Facebook page and website, but I was wondering if you could provide a short summary of your gaming history with respect to D&D? Any favorite version?

OldSchoolDM: As a teenager the late 1970s I was given a blue-box D&D as a gift. Tried it with my friends and soon wanted more – then bought up all the AD&D books and played thru my 20s.  Bound the books up into one volume and introduced my kids to the game young (now they say that volume is a prized heirloom and will be hotly contested when I fail my last saving throw.)When the kids grew up, I resumed playing – but now with 4e. I skipped all the editions in-between, so I think 4e is rather awesome, especially for introducing new players who’ve only played MMORPGs. I bring my AD&D sensibilities to the table, so it’s not just a “tactical game”. I have a long running 4e campaign currently suspended while my daughter and another player get married IRL.  4e is partially the reason I got excited about 3d paper terrain. During the hiatus, I’m running 5e games at cons and game stores and enjoying it quite a bit.

If I have to pick a favorite, it’d be 5e for combining (and simplifying!) all the great lessons from 4e and applying the “rules not rulings” sensibilities of my beloved AD&D.

GeekDad: Let’s talk about your DM Screen — that’s what caught my eye. Readers can see photos above and the Flickr site, but I’m really interested in the idea. Were you eating some chocolate from that gigantic box and thought “Hmmm… this would make a nice DM screen?” What’s the story behind its creation?
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OldSchoolDM: I make a lot of papercraft terrain for my games. That means a lot of storage space for what amounts mostly to stylized empty sealed boxes. This is a problem, so I developed fold-flat building techniques.

So, I still need to store those somewhere, so recently I started making storage for the parts – using decorated cigar boxes, or even making custom boxes. I can now store 10-20 buildings in the place I used to store one or two.

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My future son-in-law saw the Whitman’s sampler box sitting empty at his company Christmas party and immediately thought I might be able to use it to store terrain or something. The moment he gave it to me I had a flash of inspiration, which was to turn it into a multi-function gaming box: I’m always looking for something to support large backdrops for my terrain pieces, my previous paper dice tray was in bad shape, I was carrying a fish-tackle box for DM ephemera, etc.

About 10-20 hours of work later, it turned out pretty much as I expected, with the support ribbons being inspired via a Facebook comment after I posted initial pictures of the project on the OldSchoolDM page.

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GeekDad: I will say that as a DM, I do love DM screens. My random dice rolls make my players nervous (which is the point, I guess), and I do enjoy my own little bit of private real estate. That said, your DM screen looks a bit tall. Do you stand as a DM? Do you find the lid is just a little to tall or are the pictures a little misleading?

OldSchoolDM: It is very tall. Great for the backdrop-support feature, but, as you surmise – a bit too high for a standard seating (like a gaming store). The players can only see my eyes over the top.Old School DM 1

I do like to stand when I run a game, especially if there are minis on the table, so no problem in those situations.  At home, I just sit in my high office chair.

This is one of the reasons I have the detachable side-ribbons, so I can lower the “screen” to the ground – exposing everything. I ran a role-playing intense session that way, and it worked well (but requires a large table space.)

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If someone were to make something inspired by this, I might suggest a smaller box if you like to sit behind the screen and don’t have a taller chair.

GeekDad: You and I are both fans of Lord Zsezse Works — some great resources there. I haven’t yet purchased any of the templates, but your DM screen has changed my mind. Why this particular cover? There are dozens and dozens to choose… do you like red?

OldSchoolDM: There are lots of great gaming papercraft designers all around the world! I’m always happy to inspire exchange between the designers and builders!I own most of the Lord Zsezse Works template (fantasy book covers and papers) line, and I’ve used them before to create card boxes for my characters:

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Old School DM 4The reason I chose this one was: The spine.

I wanted this to look like a giant antique book when I stored it on a shelf, so the spine needed to look good. Since the templates only contained the cover (and recently they added support for backs, yay!) I needed to find a use a photo of a real antique book spine to blow up. I’m partial to the colored-leather look from old Readers-Digest-Condensed books that my grandmother had on her shelf, so found something on the internet and made it work with one of the “magical” looking covers from the LZZ line. [If only they would add spines to their template packs…]

BTW, the pages are just blown up from the images of the leather-bound AD&D books I shared earlier. Tome begets Tome. Now my grandkids will have something to fight over.

GeekDad: You and I are also fans of Fat Dragon Games. What are some of your favorite FDG products? Any interesting stories related to your 2D/3D dioramas?

OldSchoolDM: My favorite paper terrain pieces fall into two categories: versatile and set-pieces. Most of my favorite Fat Dragon Games pieces are versatile – like the cliffs I used in the Velkynvelve encounter and the cave walls I used for the Silken Paths, or market stalls in a plaza. I use them over and over.Old School DM 5

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Set-pieces are the centerpieces of encounters and usually get used once or twice only, I find those all over the place for sale and free. Recently I built an amazingly cool medieval church that was designed (for free!) by Mauther, the host of the http://papermau.blogspot.com/ blog.

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Another centerpiece is a model of Park Güell in Barcelona, Spain designed by Antoni Gaudi which I scaled up and re-purposed for a temple in Planescape:

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GeekDad: You shared with me an interesting photo and Reddit link — you bundled the five AD&D books (DMG, PH, MM, FF, and D&DG) into one gigantic leather-bound volume. Amazing. What was your reasoning for doing this? It looks great, but I just picked up my five individual copies and that’s a lot of weight!
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OldSchoolDM:  After several moves and much “love” – broken bindings and ripped covers – I was inspired to bind them into one volume 30 years ago. My new wife had some leather working tools, so I did the decoration myself. (I’ve always been a little embarrassed by my lack of skill, but now think it’s kind of charming.)

GeekDad: You told me your children all want that book — I can see why. Any thoughts on how you’re going to pick a winner? What other treasures do you maybe have in your D&D collection? (FYI – I have two boys and I do worry about how I’ll divvy up my collection between them.)
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OldSchoolDM: Yeah! My son jokes “Keep the other books, I just want the Friff!” (They call it that for the bright blue FRF letters on the cover.) My daughter replies “Ha! We’ll have to fight for it.” I guess they have very fond memories of it. I know I found it in each of their rooms at least once.

Honestly, I don’t know what’s going to happen with that stuff when I miss my final saving throw. Hopefully by then my grandkids will be interested in it and they can all share…

GeekDad: You call yourself OldSchoolDM — what are your thoughts on what that means? Do you see new 5e DMs doing anything differently that we grognards maybe ignore or shy away from? What would you say singles you out as a DM from the early days of D&D RPG?

OldSchoolDM: When I got into papercraft for my 4e games, I realized I would be sharing a lot of photos online. So, it was time to create a persona, to allow me to sort-of separate my professional status (I was a CEO of a silicon-valley gaming startup at the time) from my new hobby.  Not really wanting investors to see that I had a passion other than my company when pitching for venture money. So I created OldSchoolDM (the URL was available – that cinched it.)The ‘Old’ part is obvious. The ‘DM’ was a statement about preferring D&D over the more modern ‘GM” which is fine, but not me.

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The “Old-school” part is trickier: When I resumed GMing D&D with 4th edition, after last running AD&D, I read a lot of edition-wars stuff about how supposedly 4e sucked because it was all “tactical” and “rules-heavy” and not good for role-playing.  Honestly, I thought most of this exclusive/limiting language was just so much hot air: I’d run all kinds of games with AD&D – back then we made up what we needed to get the experience we wanted. I resolved to do exactly the same with 4e – run the same kind of game I’d run before. Rule gets in the way? Mod/Nuke it. Player staring at power-cards as the only choices? Take them away. Whatever works. I found 4e was just fine for that, just like every other edition. So I was an Old-School-DM running 4e. Now I also run 5e.

GeekDad: What’s next on your project list? You have a gaming group, so what do you do to keep them on their toes?

OldSchoolDM: Finish my Out of the Abyss run at Game of Berkeley. Play in Ravenloft. After that, either resume my campaign (which is currently in Planescape and about to head into the Underdark) or run Ravenloft at a FLGS (I can’t wait to build some gothic buildings for that one!)Whatever it is, it’ll be recorded at oldschooldm.com.

My number one way to keep my players engaged is both old-school and now considered standard DM advice – engage the characters in the story through backgrounds and relationships. This is one of my very favorite features of 5e character generation. From creation, every character has a story (bond, motivation, flaw, etc.) and the DM need only tap each story to tie the group tightly together…

GeekDad: Anything you’d like GeekDad readers to know about you, your DM Screen, or your current gaming habits?
OldSchoolDM: I think I’ve said enough. Thanks so much featuring my project(s) at GeekDad. I’ve always known I am a geek dad, but it’s nice to hear others think so too.
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I’d like to thank OldSchoolDM for the great photos and responses to my questions. Below you’ll find links to the photo albums and websites mentioned above:

James Floyd Kelly is a full-time writer in Atlanta, Georgia.