How to manage anxiety as a Dungeon Master (DM) in Dungeons and Dragons has got to be the most common question I see right after, “first time DM, any advice”. Naturally this makes sense, as being a DM sits at an intersection of a number of high anxiety pursuits. That is, it combines the difficulties of managing social groups, event planning, writing, as well as improvisation and performance. Additionally, you represent every enemy, obstacle, and challenge to a group of people who themselves may be feeling similar anxiety. Given this, it’s no wonder DMs ask for advice and find anxiety to be one of the major roadblocks to running a game.
Anxiety isn’t one thing, and it has a wide variety of sources and expressions. I’ve had my own lifelong struggle with anxiety, and developing a management strategy has enabled me to enjoy games more. Regardless of the source and expression of your own anxiety, finding an effective strategy that works for you might free you to enjoy DMing too. Therefore, I thought to share some of what is effective for me and hope you find something useful to inspire you to get out and run more games.
I’ll start out by saying the obvious, I think the best strategy is to seek professional help. Here in the US, we incorrectly think of emotional health like a trip to the emergency room. In reality, a good mental health professional is more like a personal trainer than an emergency room doctor. Firstly, you are not broken and you do not need to be fixed. Secondly, life is one big marathon of anxiety, and if you’re going to run a marathon, you should have a trainer. Lastly, bringing in an outside perspective is going to give you tools you may not have developed on your own.
So, take my advice, get a professional involved and go out and run some great games. With this said, let me tell you some specific things I do that make my anxiety manageable and help me enjoy running more.
Change the Tape in your Head
For me, anxiety will play on an endless loop in my head, regardless of what I do. This can be a negative verbal dialog, imagery, or just a vague emotion at the edge of my thoughts. Of course, I’ve tried to silence it, but turning it off just isn’t an option for me. Instead, I realize it didn’t have to be the only loop in my head and set about creating a positive dialog with myself. As a result, I learned to create a conversation with my anxiety, I learned I could reason with it.
Be your own Friend
If I found myself with undermining thoughts, I stop and ask myself a question. Is this true, and how do you know it’s true? That question alone can shift focus or bring my emotional state down. For example, some of the anxiety driven questions and responses I might develop by asking this could be:
- Anxiety: I don’t have enough prepared for tonight!
- Me: I don’t seem to get through all the content in most games, why is this different?
- Me: So, if we ended a half hour early, would anyone care?
- Anxiety: What if they don’t like what I planned?
- Me: They don’t seem to think about it much and just want to roll some dice and have fun.
- Me: Even if they didn’t, we don’t usually remember those sessions and the next one is fine.
When trying to develop a dialog with yourself, my biggest advice is this. Think about what you would say to a friend with the same questions. Then, say that to yourself.
Write down your thoughts
Naming your emotions can be one of the most powerful tools in managing them. That is to say, drag those monsters out of the closet and into the light. Likely you will discover they are not so ominous and frightening. Sometimes this can be as simple as naming an emotion and saying it out loud. Likewise, writing it down can be even more powerful to realize anxiety for what it is. Specifically, that anxiety is a state of emotion, not a state of being. You feel happy, you feel sad, you feel excited, you feel anxious, but it doesn’t mean you ARE any of those things. Write it down and externalize it to see it for what it is.
So, grab a pen and paper and just write down any emotion you can identify. Then take a moment to look what you’ve written, and see if it doesn’t feel less intense or urgent.
Shift your Emotional Focus
Nobody feels just one thing, but the strength of an emotion like anxiety can make us forget that. So, take some time and ask yourself what else you are feeling and name or write that down. For example, you might be feeling excited for an upcoming encounter or plot reveal. Alternatively, you might be curious to see how players are going to engage with some lore or roleplay with your NPCs. Despite how large it seems; anxiety can’t be the only emotion you feel about an upcoming session. Therefore, be purposeful about spending time with those other emotions by naming them and giving them more attention.
Doing this might help you realize that, although your anxiety is part of you, you are not your anxiety.
Our physical reality strongly influences our emotional reality and vice versa. Therefore, take some time to pay attention to your body as part of your anxiety management strategy. This isn’t going to be rocket science, and we all know these things for the most part. However, the challenge is developing a routine to actually do some of them. Think about using your anxiety as a tool to remind yourself to move your body and consider any of the following.
- Focus on your breathing. Make sure it’s coming from your diagram and not your upper chest. Try to make your breaths deep and rhythmic. Think about using something like Kundalini Yoga breathing exercises.
- Notice where anxiety is manifesting in your body. I often have a spot or general area in my body I can identify as part of my anxiety. I don’t know why this works, but if I tap that area lightly with my fingertips for a few moments, it makes it better. If the area moves, I just tap the new location until I feel a bit of relief.
- Pinch the fleshy area between your thumb and index finger. Again, not sure why this works but I find if I squeeze that area and release, after a few seconds, I seem to get some relief.
- Cut out the caffeine, avoid the alcohol. You need to focus during a game and not be overactive.
- Ten minutes of yoga or stretches. You don’t need a half hour session, just take five or ten minutes of something to loosen you up. I find hip openers and shoulder stretches to be particularly effective before a game.
- Posture. Stand tall, spread your arms and expand your chest. Rotate your hips forward and breath before or during a game.
Use your DM Toolbox
RPG communities are full of helpful frameworks, tools and techniques to streamline how you can run a game. In fact, there are so many options that they can be sources of anxiety themselves. The right framework lets you focus on the most important aspects of your game and cut down on confusion and can be very effective in bringing your anxiety down. So, don’t let yourself get overwhelmed and take these for what they are, a buffet of tools you can pick from when you’re ready.
Pick a few key things to add to your game prep at the table, and get used to those before incorporating something new. The trick here is to cut down on your confusion and the number of things you have to spend energy managing during a game. You’ll find over time that you can add more as you get used to running. When you have time take a look at some of these frameworks and tools.
- Lazy DM Prep, from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master by Sly Flourish.
- The Fronts System, I know it from Dungeon World by I think it predates that.
- Five Room Dungeon encounter design.
- Tap communities on twitter, reddit, and follow some great blogs for advice and more.
- Follow your favorite RPG advice Twitch and YouTube discussions and join in that conversation.
- Listen to Matt Colville, like a lot of Matt.
Use about half the tools and technology you think you can comfortably manage during any session. This way you can keep that workflow simple and leave enough of your attention to focus on the players and what’s happening at the table.
Ask for Help
Table Top RPGs are a group activity and the DM is just one member of that group, albeit with a different set of responsibilities. So, if you find your anxiety creeping up during a session, think about asking people in the group for something specific that might help. That could be, something as simple as a few moments break to stretch or stand up. Alternatively, you might just need some help to cut down on the confusion and anxiety of game mechanics. If this is the case, then think about asking another player to take some of the load for running things like initiative, track monster HPs or something else.
Lastly, think about just saying to the group “hey everyone, I’m starting to get a little anxious.” This can be a powerful way to let the group know what is going on and allow them to focus on being the kind of supportive play group we all hope to foster.
Final Words and Resources
I hope you found something in this post to help you manage your own anxiety better and run more games. I have to confess I found this hard to write because the topic is so expansive and complex. Despite that, I hope I hit on something useful for you to begin to research more on your own and I want to end by listing just a couple of resources I found useful in developing my own anxiety management strategy.
- When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chodron.
- Peace is Every Breath by Thich Nhat Hanh.
- The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt.
- Hardcore Self Help: F**K Anxiety by Robert Duff