Sometimes this is what it feels like when the stress gets piled on…

Last week was kind of super awful. I don’t want to get into the specifics, but I was stressed by both a heavy work load and other unpleasant personal things that appeared unexpectedly. You’d think I would have been looking forward to the escape of game night coming up that Saturday, but it was my turn to run a game. I enjoy GMing, but it’s more work than being a player, so it was adding to my stress levels instead of offering respite. I was stuck debating, should I call off the game because I wasn’t feeling it or tough it out and maybe run a less than stellar game?

GMs are human too, so we’re just as susceptible to the vagaries of life’s ups and downs. If things are bad enough in our personal lives, it absolutely can affect how good our games are. When I know I’m sick, upset or exhausted, I’m not going to be the best at giving my players an awesome experience with the game. At the same time, I don’t want to disappoint anyone by canceling a game.

Everyone is going to have their own threshold for when they can go on with the show or when they should bow out. As with most aspects of life, it’s important to understand your own limits and balance those with your commitments. I struggled with this in my early days as a GM and as a result, I ended up not handling things in a way that was best for myself and for my players. There are quite a few dead campaigns that ended without resolution because I couldn’t balance my other life stresses and the game. Thankfully, I’ve gotten much better at balancing things.

While everyone is going to have their own limits, here are some of my thoughts on the subject:

  • Sticking with your routine can be good. When life turns to crap, some people have the instinct to retreat and hide away. Sometimes this is absolutely needed, but other times it’s beneficial to stick with your routine. Amidst the chaos of the stress you’re experiencing, keeping with your regularly scheduled plans can help remind you that life continues, and with gaming, those reminders come with the things you already enjoy and love, both the people and the game itself. Carefully consider whether canceling the game is going to be better than going and getting that taste of positive normalcy with friends you enjoy.
  • While you can’t give 100%, what you can give might be enough. Many of us are perfectionists at heart. We know when things don’t go exactly the way we had intended, regardless if anyone else can tell. Us GMs with this problem will see every flaw, every misstep in our games and often be harder on ourselves than our players ever would be. When you’re struggling with a stressor and you KNOW you can’t give 100% to your game, it can feel like it’s time to hang things up. Thing is, sometimes 50% is enough. Yeah, you know you can do better, but did your players still enjoy it? If your players had a good time, that’s really all that’s needed and if you can hang onto that to get past knowing you couldn’t give 100%, it might help your state of mind as well.
  • Be honest with your players. Let your players know when you’ve been having a rough week and might not be at the top of your game. You don’t need to give them every detail of what’s stressing you out, but they should still get a heads up if you think it’s going to affect the game. Most of us game with our friends and your friends can often tell when you’re struggling with something anyway. They probably already sense something is up, so be up front about having some things you’re dealing with. The people that care about you are going to want to help support you anyway, and if someone is going to be a jerk about you not being at the top of your game, do you really want to game with them?
  • When you do have to call it, be courteous about it. When things are just too much and you really do need to cancel a game, try and be mindful of your players and give them as much heads up as possible. I know that dealing with people when you’re stressed is hard, but their time is valuable too and you want to maintain the trust your group has in you. Try and find it within yourself to let them know ahead of time. The amount of trust you burn when canceling at the last minute or pulling a no-show is always far greater than if you cancel a bit before. This isn’t to say you can’t cancel at the last minute if that’s absolutely what you need for your health and sanity, but be aware of how it can impact things.
  • Be realistic about your long-term situation. If the problems you’re dealing with outside of the game are going to be a long-term thing, you need to be honest with yourself about how well you can maintain a campaign. Try and keep up with it if you can, but if that just adds to the stress, reach out for some help. It might be worth asking another player to handle GM duties for a little while. Absolutely do what you need for your own well-being, but always try and do it in a way that doesn’t hurt your relationship with the rest of the group.

For me and my no good, horrible week, I ended up pulling enough of myself together to still run the Saturday game. I wasn’t at 100% and my prep was weaker than I would have liked, but I was still there enough to give the players a good game. Honestly, it also really helped me to have that night, with friends, dice and laughs to remind myself of the good things I have in my life that aren’t being affected by the source of the stress.

I’m curious how you’ve dealt with balancing stressful times in your life with GMing? Do you have any tips to offer?