Getting Back Into The Game

Everything is not rainbows and butterflies when it comes to roleplaying games in the house of the Stargazer – far from it. If you’ve followed my blog over the years you know about my struggles with mental health and my constant fears of failure. The fear not to be able to please my players has become so bad that recently I started getting bouts of anxiety when I thought about having to run a game, or when I tried to do any prep. In the end I decided that no game in the world was worth it, and I cancelled the game. Permanently.

This comes directly after I ended a year-long GMing hiatus. I had high hopes that leaving the GM’s mantle to other for a time would help me to relax, to allow me to look at things from a new perspective. So when I decided it was the right time to make my comeback I managed to drive everything down the cliff in just a few weeks.

Inspired by Matt Mercer’s series Critical Role I wanted to give Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition a try – a game which I like a lot. Unfortunately playing 5E is quite different from actually running it. I also made every dumb mistake possible. When introducing new players to a game it makes a lot of sense to keep things simple. A one-shot with pregenerated characters in the setting you intend to use, is a good start. Of course I decided to jump directly into the campaign. Instead of starting with a small group and adding more players over time, I invited seven players to the game which had none experience in D&D. Instead of limiting the character choices to make things easier for all of us, I didn’t want to limit the players’ creativity and ended up with a very exotic adventuring party which didn’t even include a single human. My last mistake was to decide to switch from Matt Mercer’s Tal’Dorei setting to Eberron basically at the last moment. Yes, you got that right, I basically set myself up for failure – even though I wasn’t aware of this at the time. When it finally dawned on me that I bit off more than I could chew, panic set in. I had cancelled campaigns before, but I think it never went to extremely high excitement to total panic and despair in just a few days.

After I finally mustered all my courage and talked to my players I was positively surprised. I feared they might be disappointed, but instead they all supported my decision to cancel the game. They told me that it makes no sense to continue on, if not everyone at the table has fun – including the GM. Several players offered to take on the GM’s mantle for a time. With a huge burden taken away from me, I could finally breath a sigh of relief. But one thing was immediately clear. I really want to run games again. It’s something I LOVE and it’s something I was always good at.

One thing is pretty clear: either I reduce the size of the party, or I switch to much simpler mechanics. D&D 5th Edition is not a complex system, but it’s not that simple either. Personally I’ve always had the best results with dead simple mechanics like OD&D, or the Cypher System. Especially the latter is something I can almost run in my sleep.  I am also extremely honored that so many people want to play in my games that I just can’t reduce the number of players without feeling terrible. So simpler games it is.

My plan at the moment is to take another short break and then I’ll try to get back onto my feet – so to speak. I haven’t decided on how I want to continue from here on out, but I’ll probably stick with a fantasy game since that’s what most of my players are excited about. I’ll keep you updated.

By the way, if the same thing has happened to you, or if you have any advice for me, please share your thoughts below. As always I every comment is highly 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.

14 thoughts on “Getting Back Into The Game”

  1. I and several fellow Game Masters and role-players in my groups have faced burnout and feelings of being overwhelmed. At least you’re self-aware enough to know what you could have done differently, even if that’s small comfort at the moment.

    Keep playing, recharge your creative batteries, and start smaller next time! Whenever you get the itch to run something, perhaps start with a one-shot or miniseries with just a few people. You can always make your campaign setting an implied one that you can flesh out later.

    We’ve all bitten off more than we can chew at various times — combined too many rules, worlds, and character options to reasonably manage. I also recommend an outline no longer than one to five pages of what’s available in your game — even if it’s as simple as sections that say “Classes as listed in the D&D5e PHB.”

    As you said, any games should be fun, not stress-inducing! I’m glad that your group is understanding, and I hope you’ll be able to get back in the saddle soon!

  2. Michael I have followed your blog for a long, long time. Through out this time I have found it inspiring, motivating and informative. I have seen your posts on mental health and anxiety.

    You are not alone.

    I think that many of use have those same feelings. For my own part I struggle with my desire to reclaim the fun and friendship of the game table. But find that in today’s society there aren’t many people who can and will make the commitment to “show up”.

    Knowing that makes being a GM more challenging all on its own. Of course it is natural to feel this way since these people are giving you time out their busy lives to indulge in role-playing.

    Seeing the talent and success garnered by Matt Mercer and his circle is inspiring, but also pushes us to preform par excellence. But with the focus on this we forget one thing.

    We play these games to have fun, to share time with friends, to make new friends, and to learn from the other people at the table.

    Michael, I believe in you, in your talent and most of all in your love of gaming. You have a great capacity as a storyteller or I wouldn’t have been reading your blog for so long.

    Believe in yourself, I know it’s hard, I struggle just like you do. But don’t rob yourself of that joy that GM’s gain from a game well received, or the goofy stories that grow out of those that are less successful. Remember that we learn and grow more from our mistakes than we do from our successes.

    I’m a fan Michael, and I am not going anywhere. But I do hope to read about your games in the coming posts.

    I hope I didn’t just ramble, and this makes sense and helps.

      1. I guess my main issues with D&D 5th Edition were two-fold. I played D&D 3rd Edition for quite a while and often I mixed up the rules from both games. A lot looks quite similar but in reality the two games can be quite different mechanically. I also made the mistake of allowing my players to freely pick races and classes from D&D Beyond and we ended up in a very exotic group including a Kenku, two Tieflings (one feral, one normal one), a Drow, and a Goliath. Aside from the Goliath the party was casters only and we had no proper healer. I thought I could handle it, but I couldn’t. I also had the additional complication of trying to convert a D&D 3.5 Eberron adventure module to 5E on the fly. Another dumb mistake on my part. I guess I was already stressed out at that point and avoided doing necessary prep.

  3. It sounds like you know exactly where you went ‘wrong’ and what you would do differently.

    If you have a book or a file you plan your games in, is it worth sticking a big label on it with that basic premise of “Keep it small, Keep it simple”.

    It sounds silly but my wife had a bad fall from a horse and broke her shoulder. It took a while to heal and in that time her confidence took a big hit. We have strips of paper stuck up around the house saying “Riding is fun” just to remind her of why she wants to get back on the horse.

    1. I am usually quite good when it comes to analyzing why things went wrong, but I keep making the same mistakes. Perhaps this label idea is worth a try.

      1. I was thinking the same thing. That label is an excellent idea, and I am going to use it myself. Thank you Peter R. in helping Michael you’ve helped me too.

        In my own games I tend to bloat things and complicate them unnecessarily.

        Michael I understand what you mean by mixing rules from editions and even systems in my case. That is one reason I’ve been reluctant to try 5th edition. Although I have read through it a couple of times and see the simplicity of it in some areas, it still jumbles with other stuff.

        What edition did you first play Michael? One thing I like about 5th is its portability. What I mean is that if you have some rules you enjoy from another edition, or game, you can import them (Just eye-ball it at first to see the kinks. That way you don’t bog down in conversion.) and overlay the framework of 5th.

        I first played long ago in Red Box, then 1st Edition ADnD. 2nd Edition is where I found my real footing as a DM and a storyteller. And I have transitioned to every edition, although I never played as much after 2nd, and stepped away from DnD for 4th, becoming a Savage Worlds fan.

        In fact design the characters (game stats and such with no backstory) for whatever system you like and then gradually introduce the 5th edition mechanics, until you have organically transitioned.

        By that time the pieces of the puzzle will fit and you will be ready for anything.

        Again this is my own opinion and just a suggestion.

        Good Luck!

        1. The first edition I played was AD&D 2nd Edition which I didn’t really like. The first edition of D&D I was comfortable with was 3rd Edition, but nowadays it’s a bit too complex for my tastes. I’ve also played several retro-clones and the various Whitebox clones are my favorites so far.

      2. My recurring mistake is under estimating the amount of time things will take to complete and taking on more projects than I can complete in the time available.

        When it gets out of hand I end up achieving nothing as I don’t know which thing to do first as they all need doing.

        I know I have this over commitment problem but I still fall into the same trap. So it happens to all of us I guess.

  4. This happens to me all the time – I have bipolar disorder and an anxiety disorder, so it’s familiar territory. I’ve learned to keep my expectations of myself as a DM very low. The players will have fun even when I’m only doing a mediocre job, and their mental picture of the game is much more important than my description of it. It is, though, very important not to bite off more than you can chew, and training yourself not to do so is a hard-earned skill. Follow the DM prep that you enjoy, not the DM prep that you think is “necessary.” It probably isn’t necessary, it just feels that way.

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