The pressure of being GM

Being the game master, dungeon master, referee, storyteller, or whatever you may call that special position can be a lot of fun. But it also carries with it a certain amount of pressure, and if things go badly this pressure may ruin the fun for everyone. While a lot of people claim that everyone at the game table is responsible for everyone else’s fun, in reality most players rely on the GM to entertain them. And even if they don’t, a lot of GMs I met, feel that they have to work harder than everyone else.

In fact a lot of GMs also put a lot of pressure on themselves. Some GMs not only run the games, but they also write the adventures, or even create the whole game world. Heck, there are quite a few GMs who actually wrote their own house rules or even created whole systems from scratch. So it’s just natural that they feel pressure when they present their creations to the group.

Over the years I’ve noticed that running games has turned from something that was fun into something that I subconsciously tried to avoid. I love coming up with awesome game worlds, I’ve written several RPGs, I’ve written (or improvised) the vast majority of my games, and I am pretty sure that my players enjoyed themselves most of the time.  But while my players were usually very patient, understanding and helpful, I felt that I put more and more pressure onto myself. I always liked to try out new systems and new worlds, but over the years the campaigns I ran got shorter and shorter – mostly because I thought the games had “jumped the shark”. As you can imagine, the unexpected success I had with Warrior, Rogue & Mage back in 2010, didn’t really help. The pressure slowly became unbearable.

Looking back I now realize that I probably already suffered from depression back then. One common symptom is that you feel that nothing you do has any worth or that it is not good enough. This feeling has caused me to stop working on quite a few game design projects and it’s also a reason why it’s currently so hard for me to start running games again. Being a GM with depressions is probably a special case, but I am sure that a lot of you GMs out there feel that pressure from time to time, too – especially if you have very demanding players.

So what can we do to deal with these feelings? I think the first step is to openly talk about this issue. Roleplaying games are pretty social games and often your players are also your friends. So talk to them about it. Sometimes talking a break may help or asking someone else to run a game for a couple of sessions. Another way to reduce pressure is to switch to another system and/or setting you’re more comfortable with. Or just run a beer-and-pretzels game for a while, before you get back to more elaborate campaigns.

What are your thoughts on this subject? Do you feel a certain pressure, too, when you are running games? What are your methods to deal with that feeling? Please share your thoughts below!

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

5 thoughts on “The pressure of being GM”

  1. Congratulations on a brave and thoughtful post, Michael. Bravo to you! Now for a thoughtful … errrr…. thought.

    I feel immense pressure when I run a game. Like giving a presentation to a hostile audience. The pressure is not provided by my players, who I demonize on my blog, but by me and my own standards. Dr. Seuss put it perfectly in “Oh the places you go”:

    “I’m afraid sometimes
    you’ll play lonely games too,
    games you can’t win
    because you’ll play against you”

    This is similarity between us. I do not suffer from depression (I have an excess of serotonin) but I do set myself ridiculously high standards. I read every blog post three times before publishing and Icar is still in Beta (ridiculous!) because I refuse to say its done until the proof readers are complete.

    I used to train teenagers to do public speaking and the advice I had for nerves was simply put:

    “Expect the fear, it will appear as butterflies in your stomach and jelly in your knees. Expect it. Accept it. Then feed off it. The fear gives you energy. Start simple: a welcome and your name.”

    I do the same for GMing – odd though that sounds. I know I worry about whether a session is going to be engaging and I use that anxiety as GM-energy. I prepare a little prologue, which I start every session. Preparation does a lot to allay the pressure, as does asking the players how things are going. From behind the screen, it can be difficult to know if they are enjoying it.

    Changing system worked really well, too as it clears the air.

    Well done for a superb blog post, which must have been difficult to write. I salute you!

  2. If it’s a one-session issue (gah, crappy day at work & I don’t really feel up to this tonight), one way to handle is let the roleplay go on for as long as the players want it. And take notes on what they’re saying, for seeds for future adventures.

  3. In the last year I started roleplaying again for the first time since high school. I’ve jumped in with both feet and two months ago began running a full-blown campaign in a game I’d virtually never played before. I’m keeping up an extensive campaign website for it (URL listed with this post), we’ve had four sessions so far & I just added a sixth player. It’s been exciting…but, oh man, there’s been a ton of stress, too!

    Probably like many, I wanted it to be perfect and to blow the players away with my GM’ing. Of course, intellectually I knew I was going to need some time just to get the hang of it…but emotionally I really wanted to nail it. Since I didn’t know what I was doing, my answer was to throw a ton of time into preparation. In retrospect, the better answer would have been to just be very organized with my prep time & to lower my expectations.

    Being able to relax more & thereby being able to better enjoy the sessions I run, I have no doubt, is the biggest thing I can do to improve my GM’ing. Easier said than done but I think I’m headed in the right direction.

    Good post Michael.

  4. I create adventures. I create whole worlds. Every game night I feel a lot of pressure. Everytime I think “I have to plan more, I have to think ahead more” etc.

    And everytime, after the session, we are all happy, and my players do epic things at the game table, and I feel very proud and happy… So, maybe I’m a good master, or maybe we are simply playing together as friends, and this is the only thing that matter.

  5. I think it is should work well to focus on the important thing first: You need to have fun. Dm games where art last you have fun and everything else comes second. You can’t be a good gm if you don’t have fun. Depression or not.

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