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Tabletop Tuesday – Anxiety and GMing

Being the Gamemaster (or DM, MC, ST, etc.) of a tabletop roleplaying game is hard work. That job becomes more difficult if you suffer from anxiety; consistent worry and panic can turn a fun hobby into a nightmare.

I’m not new to GMing games; I’ve been running them for almost 30 years and playing for slightly longer. My anxiety, however, can take over at the worst times, whether before or during a session.

I’ll admit, much of my behavior revolves around one simple thing: don’t GM for anyone but your friends. Playing with people I’ve known for years, and am comfortable with, helps counter worries about judgment, critique, performance, etc.

Not everyone has that luxury, however, and they’ll often find themselves running RPGs for acquaintances or strangers. I was in just such a situation, running a game not only for “newer” friends (I’d only met online) but also for published figures in the gaming industry; if ever there were ever a time for anxiety to kick in, it was then.

So, I’d like to give some advice on how to maintain your calm when you’re GMing if you have anxiety (or might just be anxious). I can’t guarantee this will make you a great GM, but it will hopefully alleviate some of the worries and make the game fun for you.

be prepared

Prepare in Advance

I don’t mean you need to write a detailed script with every player option; we’ll cover the problems with railroads and adaptability in a moment. I mean read your rulebooks, jot down notes, create spreadsheets, etc.; do whatever it is that allows you to organize, retrieve, and apply all the information you need.

I know many of us with anxiety often have specific quirks; we’re obsessive-compulsive, anal-retentive, or outright OCD. Channeling that into your preparation, however, works best for you and your game.

For example, in my latest game of (FFG) Star Wars, I have databases, charts, and outlines. I used a spreadsheet for every character, listing their attributes, skills, talents, obligations, motivations, etc.; whatever would help me prepare a story and cater to strengths is in an easy-to-read reference.

The same applies to the games’ rules and setting, which can become quite convoluted depending on the system. Help-sheets or flow charts for combat, notes on locations and NPCs, timelines, etc. – you can’t prep, read, or re-read enough.

Like G.I. Joe says, “knowing is half the battle,” and if your brain is becoming anxious, a helpful reference or source can bring everything back in line.


Make an Adaptable “Sandbox”

Again, don’t create a story you expect everyone to follow; a core story is acceptable, but pure railroading is never fun. Instead, prepare for people to go off script and try to keep your story set to a “sandbox”: a general outline, with some possible contingency plans.

When you have anxiety, the worst thing is the unexpected – it can make you panic, get flustered, freeze, or worse. That’s why you need all that preparation beforehand so that you can pull NPCs, locations, or plot hooks out of nowhere.

Maybe you have a list of possible plot hooks, or you take the time to write several stories down on note cards. You can also find useful websites that use random generators to create NPCs or stories.

One of the reasons I like specific coop “story games” is that other players help you with the worldbuilding and story. I’ve found you can bring that even into whatever you’re playing, using techniques for player input.

No different than when you figure out what type of game everyone wants to play, take time to let your players help set things up. Have them write NPCs, locations, or plot hooks on cards or in spreadsheets; when you falter or become confused, grab one and use it.

RPGs are meant to be fun for everybody involved, and a good group can help take up the slack when your anxiety kicks in.


Don’t Be Critical

Anxiety makes you second guess everything, from how well you’re doing to whether others are having fun. Unfortunately, this makes it more likely you’ll make a mistake, which only sends you on a spiral.

The best thing you can do once the game is rolling is not to be too critical or think too hard about what you’ve done. If you don’t know a rule, ask for help or move on – most times, the story is more important than the roll, or you can always go back and retcon something.

Similarly, don’t be upset if you didn’t portray an NPC how you thought or forgot a plot point; as I said above, be adaptable and find other ways to bring the story around. Often, you may discover it’s not the player’s going off script but you, as your own reactions take you in different directions.

The best time for critique is afterward, once the session is finished and you can talk with everyone in a more relaxed mode. Don’t start with self-flagellation, however, but instead rely on others to give you advice on what they liked (and didn’t).

You may find some people weren’t happy with your game; that’s just the way it is, and you need not take it personally. More often, though, I’ve found people had a lot of fun and merely have a few notes on how to make the next session move better.

Remember: If the players want to play again, even if they’re offering a critique, then you’ve done something right!


Avoid Bad Players

If you’re playing with acquaintances or strangers, it’s harder to vet the people around you. Still, there is no excuse for having to tolerate abusive players that make the situation worse.

Part of controlling anxiety is learning to adapt and move on; some players, often known as “rules lawyers,” need to learn that same lesson. You don’t need to tolerate a player arguing with you because you made a mistake or choose to change a rule.

Similarly, in our effort to please (and avoid critique) we may give in to power-gamers or spotlight-stealers, letting them have their way with the game. You can’t please everyone all the time, and that’s no reason to allow someone to run roughshod and ruin the fun for everyone else (including yourself).

One way to handle potential problems is to explain your preferences from the start; make it clear that you need (and will) run this game a bit looser than some. If a problem player doesn’t like this “social contract,” then they should play somewhere else.

If the problem arises during a session, do not give in to anxiety and stop everything; instead, try and soldier on and finish the game. I know it can be difficult when we’re so self-critical, but it’s better to end what you’ve started rather than give up.

Nobody should be subject to abuse, especially those of us who already suffer from mental health concerns.


GMing with Anxiety Is Hard, but Worth It

Without going into psychobabble and advice about medication, the best I can advise is trying to work with our anxiety. GMing may be more difficult for us, but it’s not the end of the world, and we can run some fantastic games.

Make sure you prepare yourself, however, works best for you, whether it’s notes, outlines, charts, spreadsheets, or whatever helps you remember. Make sure your story is adaptable, and you have ways to pull out contingency plans, whether it’s jotted down on notecards or done through random website generators.

Don’t be too critical on yourself, especially in a game; save the critique for later and take what the other players say to heart. Even then, don’t let yourself be subject to abusive players who take advantage; make sure the “social contract” is clear at the start, and you can always choose to avoid bad players after that session.

Anxiety may be an obstacle for GMing a game, but it can be done. If anything, it’s worth it, because a good game not only can be fun but can also build confidence and break down mental barriers.

About Brook H. (269 Articles)
Generalist, polymath, jack-of-all-trades... Brook has degrees in Human Behavior and Psychology and has majored in everything from computers to business. He's worked a variety of jobs, including theater, security, emergency communications, and human services. He currently resides outside Baltimore where he tries to balance children, local politics, hobbies, and work. Brook is HoH and a major Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing advocate, a lifelong gamer (from table-top to computer), loves everything paranormal, and is a Horror-movie buff.

1 Comment on Tabletop Tuesday – Anxiety and GMing

  1. I can’t say enough good things about this one. I know quite a few DMs/GMs who live with anxiety and other mental health issues, and I hope that some of them see this and realize that they’re doing a bang-up job.


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