I’ve seen several DMs post requests for tips on dealing with GM anxiety; something similar to the following:
“I get the jitters before every game; I’ve been DMing for a while. So what tricks do you use to loosen up before a game.”Dungeon Masters on the Internet
In this article, I will illustrate a number of techniques I use to do just this, and for those in a hurry, the summary is:
- Exercise the role-play of a powerful NPC or even a god in your world.
- Call or facetime one of your players beforehand and start talking about the game coming up.
- Do body stuff, stretches, yoga, poses, or anything else that puts your body in a place where your mind won’t bother it.
- Slap together a soundtrack for the game on Spotify or YouTube, even if you aren’t going to listen to it during the game.
- Draw or paint miniatures or build terrain.
- Write the next adventure.
So let’s dig into each of these a little more, what they mean, and how they help you psychologically in dealing with GM anxiety. But first, let’s talk about the condition:
Anxiety, its Symptoms, and Their Kin
Some people suffer from anxiety. Actual, full-blown, clinical anxiety. This article is not super likely to help those people to deal with an attack, but I think the tools here will still allow someone with anxiety to avoid spending a ton of time and emotional energy before a game. Nothing on the internet is a substitute for professional help, and if you suffer from anxiety, professional help is available. https://www.anxietycanada.com/action-anxiety-day/
This trick gets underneath the causes of pregame jitters, and you will see this tactic repeatedly in the other tricks I outline. The idea here is that the thing we fear the most is uncertainty. Will our friends enjoy the game? What if I forget something? I am sure the list of questions you regularly ask yourself pre-game, as what-ifs, is endless.
There is an ocean of unknown potential behind each of these questions, and the mind can drum up a million more questions to boot. So instead of thinking about my meager DM woes, I cast myself into the mind of my BBEG, my main villain, maybe a powerful PC allied lord or king! I spend about 20 minutes practicing their mannerisms, voice patterns, and things they would say. What are they worried about when they lie in bed at night? What drives their acquisition of power? How do they feel about the PCs?
By placing myself in another mind, I can take control of the world, my position, and how I will react to the PCs on behalf of this person. It is uncertain if dale will bring your favorite snack, but I’ll have a great scheming villainous plot filled with monologues and evil deeds ready because the villain is certain about everything, their motives, their schemes.
Phone a Friend
Possibly the most useful advice I can give about the pregame shakes is: You ARE NOT alone! Players also experience pre-game anxiety! Talking to each other about it, or through it preferably, is a great way to help each other out. You will want to reach out to someone you are extremely comfortable with and try not to spend too much time focused on the jitters. Instead, let your conversation wander through all the exciting possibilities for the night. You may find that starting a hype train is just the thing to take the edge off.
Pump it Up
When the body is idle, the mind creates enemies in every corner. This trick is borrowed straight from mental health literature, but it works! Focus on your breathing, get into your body, and DO SOMETHING! Maybe you like stretches, a walk around the park. Do you practice yoga or a martial art? Practice those; you will be forced to pay attention to the task ahead of you (staying in those funny poses) instead of obsessing over the unknown.
Pump Up the Jam
Music is a powerful mover in the human experience. Just listening to it can relieve tension and calm frayed nerves. But since I am saying to listen to some music, why not use the opportunity for some fun? Find some music that matches the feel of your adventure. Sit and listen to a few songs noting the ones you like. Maybe you can find some songs that don’t sound like your adventure but have clever lyrics you might build off of. Then, refer to the lyrics in your adventure. Put them in the mouth of a villain or an ally (like tip 1). The big win here is, you are busily distracted from your GM anxiety while enjoying some great tunes and adding value to your adventure content.
The Other Hobby
Lots of DMs out there play with “Theater of the Mind”, and I don’t want you to think I exclude them in saying this. Crafts are absolutely a stress reliever and will keep your mind and body busy enough not to think about those gaming nerves. Use any materials: cardboard, foam, even old toys, or garbage. Don’t have paint? Who cares? Take a picture of your creation and paint it on the computer. The objective is to funnel that nervous energy into creative energy and action. The upshot is you now have a scale model of the Dark One’s sewage outlet on e8 of the map.
The other reason GM anxiety can crop up is a lack of control. The feeling that no matter how much you prepare, the players can always outmaneuver it. So why not take that control back? Write the next adventure. You know most of the possible outcomes and the juicy clues you’ve dropped along the way. Take that nervousness and put it into the pen! You can do broad strokes or full-on prose. The trick here again is distraction and empowerment – the best tools for dealing with GM anxiety.
You are about to run a Game (the stakes couldn’t be lower) for people here to have fun. They are responsible for having fun and adding to the fun of others, as are you. So you honestly have nothing to worry about; the worst that can actually happen is a night of slightly less fun. I hope this helps you in dealing with your GM anxiety.
Love you, take care,