Ending The Break–Or How To Deal With GM Anxiety

Back in June I decided to take a break from running roleplaying games. I have been wearing the GM’s mantle for many, many years now, and I just needed to step back from that position for a while. Running games was just not fun for me anymore. It felt more like a job, a burden I had to take. Eventually it was even a source of anxiety. I was never the most self-confident person, but back then I thought that every game I started was doomed to fail anyway. Sometimes I even pondered to stop playing roleplaying games for good.

I’ve dealt with mental health issues for a long time and over the years I luckily learned how to deal with certain aspects of this predicament. When I noticed that I reacted with anxiety even when just thinking about running RPGs, I knew that I had to change something. So I decided to take a break.

It was pretty hard at first. But over time I was getting more relaxed and I enjoyed being able to just play for a change. I’ve a lot of fun playing in games like Shadowrun, Mutant: Year Zero, Traveller, and John Sinclair (which is a German game based on a German horror pulp novel series). Several members of my regular gaming groups tried their hand at being the GM for the first time, and felt some satisfaction when they immediately noticed that this job can be pretty hard at times.

But of course I was always thinking about what games I could run after the break. I wanted to find something I was comfortable with and which allowed me to ease me back in. I didn’t want to burn out on GMing again. Unfortunately this is more easily said than done. A lot of games I once felt quite comfortable with are now tied to some very unpleasant memories. Some of my attempts to get campaigns going in the first half of the year or even before that ended in disaster.

A couple of weeks back I took a hiatus from my GMing break when I ran an Index Card RPG one-shot game using the Warp Shell rules. The game was fun, the rules worked well, but I felt it wasn’t the right game for me. Perhaps I was also not in the right mindset for that game, or for GMing in general. After being on a break for so long, I now struggle to find the best way to end it.

I promised a few friends to run a roleplaying game this weekend, but I am still not sure what to run. I also feel that the longer I think about it the more anxious I get. But I don’t want to give in to anxiety again. It would be so easy to just play a board game or ask someone else to take over, but I actually don’t want to do that…

Long story short, now that I’ve been on a break for about half a year it’s becoming increasingly hard to get back into the GM’s chair, especially with my old friend anxiety looming somewhere under the surface. If you folks have any advice on how I could deal with it, it would be appreciated.

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.

7 thoughts on “Ending The Break–Or How To Deal With GM Anxiety”

  1. I think it’s a ‘one step at a time’ issue. Try what I did – don’t leap in fully loaded, choose a nice simple system and use a published adventure, let your players know that you’re taking it easy and don’t take the first couple of games seriously; just treat it as a social get-together. Once you’ve got used to having everyone at the table listening to you again, then start to get more involved.

    Just don’t rush it, and don’t try to get straight back into a complicated, involved campaign. It’s always good to shake off the cobwebs, grease the cogs and limber up first (I had more analogies, but three is enough).

  2. I have never had to deal with anxiety but there is an article by The Angry GM that has a paragraph that my reflect how you can feel http://theangrygm.com/jumping-the-screen-how-to-run-your-first-rpg-session/

    “First of all, let me give you the non-pep talk. GMing isn’t easy. It’s not hard. Anyone can do it. But it isn’t easy. And it’s also emotional. You’re basically putting on a show for people. And you’re responsible for creating everyone’s fun. If the game goes badly, it’s all your fault. You’ve ruined five people’s afternoons. That’s how it is. And, if the game goes badly and no one has any fun, they are going to judge you for it. They are going to think you’re a bad GM.”

    If that goes in anyway towards illustrating the anxiety that you suffer thinking about running a game then you may want to read the rest of the article and treat this weekend’s game as your very first session of your return to GMing.

  3. That’s probably the best piece of advice I ever read and one thing I have been doing wrong for ages:

    “Experienced GMs learn that player feedback is actually remarkably useless and inaccurate. Part of that is because the players aren’t GMs. If they knew how to run games, they’d be behind the screen. Part of it is that people are, in general, remarkably bad at understanding why they like the things they do and don’t like the things they don’t. It’s a psychological fact. Now, eventually, you do want to know when a player is unhappy. But that’s a skill for later. Right now, you don’t really need that crap.

    Don’t. Seek. Feedback. Trust me.”

    I’ve noticed that player feedback often just gets me down and makes me even more anxious instead of helping me getting better at I do. The only good feedback I ever got was from people who have run games for as long as I have. For some reason I still ask for feedback as if I am wanting to punish myself. Ugh…

  4. I know how you feel and I have a solution for you.
    Go Apocalypse, play a PBTA game, Dungeon World for example.
    Start by a creation session, asking players where they are from, what kind of people live there, etc.
    Principle is simple, it’s a discussion, you ask players questions and with their imput you create a sketch of the world.
    Every time you need an info, ask a player.
    The secret for having your input in the game is to ask leading question.
    If the group has a thief anf you want to know about the thief’s guild in the city their going to, you can ask the Thief Player :
    – What can you tell me about the guild, but it’s meh, you shoud better ask :
    – Why want the guild see you dead? or
    – What have you done that would put you in danger if the guild know about? or…

    You see, the players took their part in the workload and you can concentrate on ambiance and playing.

    1. I’ve actually thought about PbtA games, but I still haven’t wrapped my head around how to run them. I am probably overthinking things again. I’ll probably fall back on White Box or something similar because it’s a system I could basically run with my eyes closed. But in the long run PbtA or Fate could be the way to go.

  5. Like Jonathan Hicks i would start it, one step at a time, but smaller. For example in one of the rounds where you are comfortable playing, if there is an opening to master try it. I played and mastered some rounds where the master changed of the time and i found it refreshing, as gm to play and see what happens with someone else leading. And for the one who has the small gm block in this kind of thing, you don’t have that big kind of preparation as you have as the whole time gm. Mostly if you are playing in some campaing for some time you might already have an idea of what the other pc’s could do in your short adventure.

    Best regards R

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