As with any activity that requires you to perform in front of other people, GMing can be nerve-wracking. Some amount of nervousness is to be expected, but when your fears overwhelm you and you consider canceling the session at the last minute, you can unwittingly put your entire campaign in jeopardy.
Many of us creative types know how anxiety and depression can interfere with the way we want to live our lives. If you haven’t already heard Wil Wheaton’s powerful talk on anxiety, depression, and recovery, you owe it to yourself to have a listen. Our inner demons are insidious, but you can empower yourself to mitigate their effects on your game.
Arm Yourself with the Tools You Need
It’s natural to worry that you haven’t prepped enough for a given session, but have you ever felt so unprepared that you wanted to cancel the session outright? If you feel this way often, it’s time to take stock of your current prep habits. Maybe you need to try a different method (I’d recommend Engine Publishing’s Never Unprepared for ideas). Can you devote more time to prepping, or can you switch to an adventure that requires less prep, such as a published module? Alternatively, you might investigate improvisational techniques for RPGs (again, check out Engine Publishing’s Unframed) or games that are designed to be run with minimal prep. If you have the time to prep for your game, yet you still find yourself falling prey to procrastination, perfectionism is probably rearing its ugly head.
Give Yourself Permission to be Imperfect
Procrastination stems from waiting for inspiration to strike and/or the perfect creative conditions to manifest. We want our game material to be amazing from the very first draft, so we stall until the project comes to us fully formed and awesome, like Athena springing forth from Zeus’s head. But in our busy adult lives, such moments can be fleeting or impossible. Perfection is an elusive ideal that doesn’t exist, and it can be hard to truly internalize that.
It’s easy to hype up a new campaign or a certain scene in your mind. And when the reality doesn’t meet those high expectations, you risk slipping into a spiral of self-criticism that makes you consider giving up on the campaign entirely. Instead, you have to remember that nobody’s perfect, and your game session doesn’t have to be, either. In the writing world, we have a saying: “don’t get it right, get it written.” Don’t worry about crafting the best session ever: just get yourself to the table and play. I can almost guarantee that your players would rather play an imperfect game than no game at all.
Persevere Through the Tough Times
You should push through your fears and run the game session not only for your players’ sakes, but for your own. Don’t cancel a session from a place of fear. I repeat: don’t cancel that session! Canceling at the last minute more than once in a while is a surefire way to derail your campaign’s chances. (Believe me; I speak from experience.) What you have to remember when you’re considering the so-called “nuclear option” is that, all too often, our fears are imagined, and when we flake out, we deprive ourselves of a chance to have fun and see that the reality is much less frightening than we’d thought.
So show up to the session and be open about your worries to your players. Chances are, your players will be your staunchest cheerleaders. They’ll do their best to help you through tough spots, and they’ll understand if you need to “ret-con” something along the way. Let them be there for you.
Embrace Your Vulnerability
This isn’t to say that you won’t get bruised in the attempt. Some days, your players will venture to the part of the scenario you haven’t prepared yet, and you’ll stumble over NPC names or monster tactics. Or you might accidentally reveal the smoking-gun evidence too soon. You shouldn’t worry about how your players might judge you if you make a mistake. Rather, you can be proud of the fact that you tried at all:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.” – President Theodore Roosevelt
Check out the full quote for some serious inspiration. In the end, it’s better to risk defeat in the proverbial arena (or in our case, behind the GM screen) than to stay “safe” forever on the sidelines. Competing in the arena can land you a black eye, or it can garner you a gold medal. No matter the outcome, we can learn from our trials and tribulations and, like our characters, we can “level up” from the experience.
Remember That You Are Enough
You are more than your skills as a game master or adventure writer. You’re a whole person outside of your role as GM. So don’t let yourself get caught up in the mindset of scarcity: “I don’t do enough NPC voices,” or “I don’t create mind-blowing enough plot twists.” You are doing the best you can do, and that’s all you can offer. If you’re still self-conscious about your performance, think about how far you’ve come, not how you compare to other GMs. Your players appreciate the time and effort you’re putting in for them, and if they don’t, you deserve to find a group that does.