As a Dungeon Master, you are crafting entire worlds and weaving together intricate stories. All eyes are on you and people are hanging on your every word. Even after you get some experience under your belt, you may feel a lot of pressure running a session. The good news is that most of the time this pressure is fabricated internally and can be dealt with by slightly shifting your perspective. It’s also good to keep in mind that I am definitely not a doctor so take all this with a shovel of salt.
In this article I’m going to cover three main topics
- Pre-Session Anxiety
- Imposter Syndrome
- Post-Session Anxiety
Remember that time you had to give a speech in front of the whole class? Similarly, you may find yourself before a session with sweaty palms, racing thoughts, and a stomach more twisted than a factory-error pretzel.
Anxiety is a byproduct of the body getting all revved-up (fight-or-flight) in order to deal with different threats to survival. In the wild, this hyper vigilance is a great thing. However, with no real threat in everyday life it’s a bit less great.
Things that may make your pre-session anxiety worse:
- starting a new campaign
- playing with strangers you’ve never met, or
- having your expectations too high
There’s not much you can do in the first two situations, but here’s my quick take on the third. If you’ve been around the D&D community for some time you’ve probably heard the phrase “Matt Mercer Effect” get thrown around. In brief, it’s the notion that every game of D&D should play out like a perfectly crafted narrative ran by professional voice actors and long-time friends who have an entire support staff to ensure things run smoothly. I mean come on, it’s a bit ridiculous. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t strive towards something of that caliber or try to improve yourself, but please don’t hold yourself – or let your players hold you – to that as a standard.
The only thing a game of D&D should be is fun.
If you feel some pre-session jitters coming on, take a moment to determine whether the anxiety is founded in the external world or in your own internal reality. For external factors, see if there’s a way you can improve the situation. If so do it, but if there’s nothing you can do about it then just accept it and move on.
Did you prepare a sufficient amount?
There’s great debate about what the right amount of prep is for any given session. In general, people with more experience tend to prepare less and rely on their developed improv skills; while people who are newer to being a DM tend to prepare extensively and in an inefficient manner.
What’s more important than the amount of info prepared is whether or not you feel comfortable running a session with what you’ve got. If you feel as though you don’t have enough material, you’ll probably be on edge for the entire session and rely on players to fill ‘dead-air’. That’s not a fun place to be, let me tell you. More comfortable -> more confident -> less anxiety. If you repeatedly find yourself in this situation consider setting aside more time to prepare sessions.
However, there are times when you may feel anxious even when fully prepared. If you’re having circular thoughts and anxiety about the upcoming session that starts in
10 9 8 7 6 5 minutes, you should try to break the cycle and introduce some unrelated positive thoughts. Take a few minutes to calm your mind and “reset” before starting a session. This can be done using whatever works best for you (I often find myself listening to J. Cole and/or hangboarding). Below are a few different examples you can try, or come up with your own!
- get up and walk into a different room
- look out the window
- drink a glass of water
- do some jumping jacks
- listen to your favorite song
- practice breathwork (ie: in 5, hold 3, out 8)
- pet an animal
- do a war-cry
- recall a positive memory in detail
Remember that you ARE going to make mistakes, so there’s no need to worry about whether they’ll happen or not. Just try to laugh about it if you can, and if not just move on. Honestly most of the time the players won’t realize that you’ve messed up a plot point or dungeon room because they can’t see what’s behind the DM screen. Here’s a haiku to read when you’re needing some advice about making mistakes:
Best case, roll with it.
Sometimes that’s not an option
so retcon, my dude.
“Who the hell are you to think that you have what it takes to be a Dungeon Master? You’ve only played in a handful of sessions, have no idea how to do different voices, are terrible at coming up with things on the fly, and – not to mention – you don’t really know any of the rules.
Sooner or later everybody at the table is going to wake up to the fact that you’ve been entirely “faking it” up until this point. They’re going to be disappointed that you lied about your credentials. I mean seriously, you don’t have any of the qualifications needed in order to be a Dungeon Master. The jig is up kiddo.“
The above paragraphs might reflect the internal dialogue of someone facing imposter syndrome as a Dungeon Master. If you’ve ever experienced thoughts like that, boy, do I have some great news! You’re not alone. Many people on all ends of the DM experience spectrum deal with thoughts like this all the time. The better news is that there is only one true requirement to being a Dungeon Master: a willingness to try.
The fact that you’re reading this article means that you’re probably trying, and that’s really all it takes. Congrats grad! All of the other skills involved in DMing can be practiced and learned for free thanks to the magnificent series of tubes that is the internet.
Let go of the notion that you’re not qualified to be a DM. I guarantee that you’re just as qualified as I am, if not more, and spoiler alert I have no idea what I’m doing.
Take some advice from Jake the Dog, “Dude, suckin’ at something is the first step to being sorta good at something” and go watch some Adventure Time for inspiration.
So you’ve now internalized your role as the Dungeon Master and feel confident going into a session. You have a seemingly solid session with plenty of combat and roleplaying. Then everybody logs off and you’re left sitting in complete silence while the invasive thoughts start to creep back in.
- Did I do a good job?
- Did they notice when I messed up?
- Did they think that entire NPC interaction was a stupid waste of time?
- Is anybody even having fun?
I’ve found this to be worse since shifting to online play. I’m not entirely sure why but my theory has to do with the inability to see expressions or read body language while playing. Normally, you’d get these types of feedback throughout a session. With a lack of feedback the mind may jump to worst case scenarios such as ‘people are only continuing to play out of obligation, not enjoyment’.
Ask yourself a few questions to help quell thoughts like this
- Did you have fun?
- It’s important that you are having fun as a Dungeon Master. If the DM isn’t having fun, it’ll probably be noticeable and spread to the rest of the table. Not every moment will go perfectly but you should enjoy running sessions overall. If you’re not having fun take a moment to reflect on possible reasons.
- Did the players seem to have fun and stay engaged?
- This could be as simple as laughter, excitement, or joking around during the session. It doesn’t need to be directly related to gameplay, but bonus points if it is.
- Have players continued to show up for more than a few sessions?
- That’s a good sign. The reality is that if people aren’t enjoying the sessions they’ll probably stop coming.
If you are still having trouble dealing with post-session anxiety, try simply asking your players how they’re feeling after a couple sessions. You could be structured and have each player go around and say their favorite thing that happened and least favorite thing that happened. Instead, you could just have an open discussion to see how things are going, and if there are any aspects they’d like more/less of.
This has been my experience in dealing with anxiety in relation to Dungeon Mastering, and is in no way an exhaustive list of advice. How do you deal with feelings of anxiousness? Let me know by sending a message to email@example.com!
FREE 5 day email course
Be sure to join the email list and sign up for the FREE 5-day email course centered on running your very own homebrew campaign! You'll learn everything you need to get started, from designing a story arc to reacting to (unexpected) player choices.