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?
I’ve had this happen too. (and our Friday GM has said the same).
The important thing about gaming for me (and several of our group) is the social aspect. So, when one of the GMs is having a stressful week, we do one of the following:
1) Someone else tries running a one shot. This takes the stress off the regular GM, still lets everyone play something, and it often lets another player flex their GM chops. (PBTA games are great for this, BTW).
2) The regular GM runs a one shot or something that they’ve wanted to try for a while. Everyone still gets to play and the Gm is just wining it so there is less stress. No major expectations.
3) Session Zero for another game. Hey, lets play XXXXX sometime in the future. Lets roll up characters now and talk about game expectations. Everyone gets to have fun gaming and you are prepped for something down the line. (And sometimes the GM will feel destressed enough to run a short intro encounter so everyone gets to try their characters.)
4) Movie Night! There are movies that some but not all of us have seen. Sitting around with friends watching (and sometimes making fun of) a movie or two can be a blast. Looking at classic movies and discussing how they show good storytelling, character development, story beats, etc. can also be fun and a neat way to look at favorite movies. (Watch the pacing of Aliens or Infinity War to see ho the director and writer used story beats and subtle scenes to develop a lot of minor characters and keep the tension going without losing the plot.) This is just fun social gathering.
5) Board Game Night! Especially that game that one of your players has been dying to play. Today, a lot of games have a roleplaying element to them and cooperative games like Zombicide, Betrayal at House on the Hill, the D&D Boardgames, or Sentinels of the Multiverse can give a low stress evening with everyone still getting that group contact high. Plus, it gives everyone a chance to switch genres for a night. We’ve also had players who bought a new (or classic used game) and this is a chance for them to show off their new game with a bunch of friends willing to take the time to discover why the owner is fascinated with it. (We did Classic Battletech and Succession Wars this way).
6) Just hang out and tell stories and chat. Discuss your characters. Ask the GM questions about the game world. Discuss what you want to see next. Its not roleplaying, but just the fun social contact with friends can give a small dose of that euphoria you get after hanging at a game convention. That “I just talked about gaming for four hours with my friends” thing that can relieve a lot of stress.
7) Lego Night. (Or Mini building night or painting night or terrain building night). Some sort of “everyone sitting around doing something with their hands while chatting” can be another great way to spend an evening. For me, of course, its Legos, because even if you make a mistake, you can quickly fix it. And I have a few lego sets. But anything that people can do socially is good.
At the end of the day, I think that gaming and characters and adventures and overcoming obstacles are great and some of the reasons we play and run RPGS. But if you are having a stressed week, I think the Social Contact with Friends part of it can be just as rewarding.
Much like many groups have one or more “emergency games” on deck in case a player doesn’t show, this preparedness can also come into play when a GM doesn’t think they can run or run well. I especially think it’s handy to keep a GMless game or two in that library, too, so if the GM is unexpectedly unavailable, it doesn’t necessarily fall on anyone else to pick up GMing, especially if they weren’t expecting it. So the same way if a player doesn’t show the group might slide into a different game, if the GM isn’t feeling it, breaking out the _Fiasco_ or _Polaris_ means everybody can still play and no extra responsibility is shifted around! Plus, if people aren’t feeling story-gamey, there’s always board game night!
Another thing to consider before cancelling is whether someone else might be in a similar situation. Maybe one of your players is having some difficulties, and they are looking forward to your game as the thing that will lift them up for a while and help them forget or get past a troubling time. If you’re health and wellness depends on cancelling, then by all means take care of yourself, but if you’re at the 50/50 mark or waffling, your decision to buckle down and forge ahead could be the difference in someone else’s situation.
This happens to me too, usually when I neglect my introverted-side need for self-care. I’m lucky enough to have a friend and at my table and I’m not afraid to ask him for some help. Usually what I want help with are the things that drag me down when I’m running a game (keeping crosstalk down, or injecting extra energy into a scene). Sometimes just acknowledging it verbally, saying it out loud, is an enough of a release to enable me to power through a session like this.