Category Archives: Advice

Don’t Do As I Do – A Tale Of Depression, Anxiety And RPGs

Over the years I’ve posted a lot of GM advice here on the blog. I’ve also shared tips on how to be a better player. Unfortunately I sometimes get the impression that I am having a hard time following my own advice. Don’t get me wrong, I still think I am a reasonably good player, and when I am in the right mood, I am an accomplished game master. But more often than not, especially when I am running games, things quickly fall apart.

So why am I talking about this here? I want you to learn from my mistakes, and it also helps me putting my thoughts onto paper (or rather into a blog post). So let’s start at the beginning.

Even as a kid I was never really confident. I always questioned myself. I felt I wasn’t good enough. I was shy and for the most time I was an outsider at school. But even though I always had strong introverted tendencies, I also had things I wanted to say. The urge to express myself has always been quite strong, and in roleplaying games I found an outlet which worked great for me. As a player I could leave the doubts and confidence issues behind, and imagine – for at least a few hours – that I am someone else.

Sooner than later I wanted to run games myself. There were certain games I’d love to play, but no one in my circle of friends wanted to run them, so I eventually decided to become a GM. But the GM role is vastly different from being a player. Most of the time, players expect you to entertain them. Yes, I know that roleplaying is actually a group effort, but most players are happy to lean back and enjoy the show, while the GM does the heavy hauling.

As a GM I wasn’t that bad. I often sucked at learning rules, because I was more interested in cool stories than mechanics, but I quickly realized that I was quite good at improvising and making NPCs memorable. For quite some time I ran Shadowrun (mostly 1st and 2nd edition), later I switched to D&D 3.0/3.5 which we played for years. In the meantime I ran several other games which mixed success. But overall things were fine. At least during my university years.

Over the years it became increasingly harder to find people interested in playing. Friends who I have played with for years moved away, and while I made new friends, the number of prospective players dwindled. For a couple of years my financial situation was pretty bad, and stress at work was unbearable. Eventually I got a new job and things improved for a while, but then we had a change in leadership, and things went downhill again. It’s probably no surprise I struggled with mental health issues for years. Heck, I still do.

As you can imagine having anxiety and depression is not really helping when trying to be a GM. Roleplaying was one of the things that helped me to stay sane, but over the years, my anxiety attached itself to the GM-side of things. This led to a very strange situation. I still wanted to run games, and my head was full of ideas, but I also had (and still have) extreme doubts about my ability to pull it off. It would have made sense to put some effort into preparations in order to feel more confident, but for some reason I also dreaded doing any prep work. Usually I also kept rescheduling games since I didn’t feel confident enough to run something, or I just hadn’t done any preparations.

My players were very supportive at first, but slowly but surely they got annoyed. Or at least it looked like that to me. So I decided to make it up to them, promising them the next game would actually be better and not be cancelled after just a few sessions. If a player wanted to use a class, race, etc. I was unfamiliar with, I just let them, because I didn’t want to impose restrictions on them because of my short-comings. Of course I did all that while the core issue hadn’t been resolved yet.

Time and time again I set myself up for failure. Instead of taking things slow, I set myself up for failure – every single time. I took on more than I could chew, made promises I could not keep. To get out of what felt to me like a vicious circle, I took a DMing break. Oh boy, this felt great at first. It felt like a burden has been lifted. But if you have been following my blog, you know that this didn’t keep me from taking breaks from my break and stumbling again a few times.

So, is there a lesson in there somewhere? I hope so. The one thing you definitely should not do is bite off more than you can chew. If you’re fighting depression and anxiety, GMing may sometimes be a bit too much. In my case setting myself up for failure again and again was probably caused by my depression. My subconscious wanted to show me how much I suck. And the best way to do this is to destroy one of the things I love most. I know that I am a good GM, and I know I will be able to run great games again, but I also have to make sure, that I don’t fall into the same traps again.

Taking a break was probably a good decision. But if you are an avid GM, you eventually get the itch to run games again. If you feel that itch, feel free to scratch, BUT take things slow.

  • Use a rules system you are familiar with. Don’t try out new games while you’re still not fully back into the saddle.
  • Run one-shots, and avoid campaigns.
  • Run games for your friends, people you are feeling comfortable around. Don’t run games for strangers or at cons.
  • Ask your players if they are willing to run games for a change. Sometimes the best way to recharge your batteries is to be “just a player” for a while and let others take on the GM mantle.
  • Don’t overthink everything.

As you can imagine I am pretty bad at following my own advice. So do as I say, and please don’t do as I do! So, what about you, my dear reader? Have you struggled with similar issues? Do you have some further advice which might help DMs in the same situation? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Quick and Easy Friends

I am all in favour of an easy life. Although I have never played 5e it [D&D] hasn’t changed that much in past 40+ years that I cannot look at a stat block and think I know what that does.

One of the things that I don’t like having to make up on the fly when gaming is NPCs. There is always the danger that the players seek out an NPC early in a game session and before you know it you have been playing them for 3-4hrs and you have no stats or details.

Books of NPCs are always useful and the more detail the better. One of the most popular Rolemaster books was Heroes and Rogues that detailed 24 NPCs at 7 different levels complete with backstories.

Rolemaster NPCs are not much use to most people. 5e NPCs are far more accessible because, in my circles at least, D&D is a bit of a common background. If you are playing any regular fantasy rpg it will not take a great deal of effort to convert from 5e to your favourite rules. For many people of course 5e is their favourite rules. I have heard that a lot of people play it.

This week I found The Friend Folio by Sean Van Damme and Elizabeth Kost. The book details fully worked ‘sidekick’ NPCs. They are pretty much drop in and ready to go. The book contains 20 sidekicks and is very well presented (see below).

Dwyn'Du example card

Now, I don’t know what a Shadar-kai Expert is, but I don’t need to know. I can pick that bard up and run with it/him without having to fall back on improvising something and then having to pick my notes apart after the session to build the character.

I have been gaming with the same group for 36 years now. This means that a) they know most of the stereotypes I come up with when I have to improvise and b) they know the Heroes and Rogues NPCs because they have either met them or used them themselves over the past three decades.

This set gives me a whole new set of personalities to play with.

Guest Post: Combat of the Thirty

Handling chivalry in RPGs is hard. Genre fiction loves chivalry and honor almost as much as it loves jaded pessimism – and it often shoves the two philosophies together in ways that seem to clash. The classic example is the paladin and the rogue. How’s a GM supposed to have both in the same party without one of them (usually the paladin) looking like a moron? A real-life incident from 1351 may help shed some light on how to walk this tightrope.

The Hundred Years’ War between England and France (1337-1453) was a famously awful mess. Millions died, countless towns were burned (sometimes multiple times), and the whole affair settled remarkably little. Yet the leadership of both sides were ostensibly bound by the laws of chivalry, which theoretically ought to have limited the violence. It’s a great example of how honorable combat usually doesn’t hold up in the real world. Yet amid the blood and the grime, there was a bright spot: the Combat of the Thirty, an example of chivalry held up for centuries to come.

In 1351, an English castellan (lord of a castle) in Brittany was riding past a fortress occupied by Breton forces fighting for France. When he saw that no one inside the castle was going to come out and fight, the Englishman called up to the Bretons on the ramparts to ask if there was anyone inside who might want to joust with him “for the love of their ladies”. The joust he was proposing was no tournament game, but a deadly bout with steel-tipped lances!

The Bretons politely declined, but offered a counterproposal. “We will choose twenty or thirty of our companions in the garrison and we will go to an open field, and there we will fight as long as we can endure it; and let God give the victory to the better of us.” The two sides agreed on a date and time, then parted.

The day of the combat, both sides arrived with thirty men-at-arms. The fighters didn’t pair off or anything: it was just a giant scrum of two teams of thirty men trying to kill each other. They fought mounted and afoot, with swords, daggers, spears, and axes. The fighting lasted for hours. Over a dozen people died. The French side ultimately won, but literally all the combatants who survived were badly wounded.

The outcome had no impact on the broader course of the war. Indeed, it wasn’t intended to. This was sixty guys getting together to beat the stuffing out of each other for no other reason than the joy of combat and the glory they would earn for living up to a chivalric ideal.

And glory they did earn! In the context of the era, what these sixty combatants did was the pinnacle of chivalric achievement, made grander still by the backdrop of an incredibly un-chivalric war. More than twenty years later, a French historian recorded that one of the combatants still held a place of unique honor at the court of King Charles V specifically because of the knight’s participation in the Combat of the Thirty. Ironically, though King Charles may have valued chivalry highly, his successes in the Hundred Years’ War were arguably due to his unchivalrous pragmatism.

The central takeaway from the Combat of the Thirty is this: your campaign doesn’t have to be tonally consistent to be believable. Even in the midst of a hideously unchivalrous period in Western history, chivalrous acts still occurred. At your table, you can have your Jedi behave honorably and your bounty hunter be ruthlessly pragmatic and give both a decent shot at success.

The most fun campaigns support a diversity of PC worldviews. If you’re playing Song of Ice and Fire Roleplay, you can have an idealistic Brienne-type PC and a nihilistic Sandor Clegane-type PC in the same party without ever determining which one of them is ‘right’ about how the world works. Indeed, it’s more fun if you don’t. A campaign with a single underlying philosophy strikes only a single note. A campaign that strikes many notes doesn’t get old as quickly – and it has a little more tension too.

The Combat of the Thirty shows us that a campaign with only a single worldview isn’t realistic. And experience shows us it’s less fun.

For more RPG content grounded in real-world history and folklore, head over to the Molten Sulfur Blog, where Tristan publishes adventure hooks, adventure sites, and NPCs every Tuesday.

All quotes are from the Chroniques of the 14th-century historian Jean Froissart.