The Science of Selling Yourself Short

My Inner Struggle

I’m on twitter a lot conversing with other DM’s, players and other gaming types but when it comes to DM’s I find that I’m constantly comparing myself to them. This is an aspect of my personality that I’ve never quite been able to avoid, my whole life I’ve walked around comparing my life to that of my friends, what kind of car I drive, my living status, relationship status, etc. Now I’m even comparing myself to other gamers I read about online? I read about, see videos of or have actually had the experience of playing with them and I somehow always walk away feeling like a chump that can’t run his game worth a shit.

I’m constantly saying things to my players like “you know if you want to have someone else run a game that’s fine” or “I’m glad you guys actually seem excited to play” which is always followed by things like “we’re always excited to play, what are you talking about?” I can never actually convince myself that my players are having fun though, maybe they only are because they don’t read blogs and absorb tabletop gaming media like I do. Hell they don’t read blogs at all, I’m lucky if they respond to an email I sent two weeks ago.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned since re-taking the DM reigns, it’s something learned early on from NewbieDM: “don’t try to be Tolkien”. I’ve made that mistake in the past but with my new campaign I thought I had it all figured out, but now I’m just faced with a purely defeatist attitude.

The Alpha DM

"Come play in my D&D game, it's so cool! I even put zombies in it!" *snort*

One of the guys in my gaming group is a veteran of 20+ years and has experience in many different systems and settings, when he runs a one-off everyone is super captivated and always has a blast (including myself). I know it’s a big deal because when he runs a game, people even shut the goddamned TV off and don’t spend half the night making remarks about the silly haircuts and wardrobe that adorn the On-Demand 80’s music channel on Comcast.

When I run a regular game I can’t seem to command the level of dedication or involvement that I’d like from any of my players. Mind you I won’t even bother delving into how many one shots I’ve run that turned into Apples to Apples games within 30 minutes. This always leaves me thinking “what am I doing wrong?” I have super cool props, appropriate minis for everyone, I let them run wild with where they want the story to go (within reason, I still have the reigns), I bring music for scenes & battles, combat is fast. I even introduce nifty house rules that everyone seems to enjoy and I tell a story that the players really seem to care about…when they’re actually paying attention.

Getting a game together has been harder and harder lately and I’m honestly to the point where I feel like spending hours of prep work to have pissed away repeating myself or reminding people their character can do X, Y or Z. After all I’m not nearly half as interesting as everyone else I know or read about – I’m not doing different voices for NPC’s, running some epic mind expanding Cthulhu-esque game or letting my players control dragons and overturn masterfully crafted political plots. They are poking around killing dead things that are already dead while I attempt to woo them with pretty widgets.

All Show is No Show

Am I breaking my own cardinal rule here? The header above this paragraph is something I strive to live my life by, but is it all wrong? Am I trying too hard? Not hard enough? Everyone says they are happy playing my campaign but I’m continually unimpressed with myself in comparison to everything else I read about online. I always think my game is super cool until I hear about someone elses. Does anyone else have these problems? Should I just ignore the internet? Should I just resort to drinking profusely while I DM? All manner of advice is welcome.

Disclaimer: My wife, who is awesome. Is not a problem at my table, other than being a distraction due to cuteness.


  1. I have a fear of DMing despite having done it since high school. The thing is that it all really depends on the group and whether or not you sort of lay out ahead of time what you want. When I DMd all cell phones, computers, TVs and so forth were off. The attention span thing goes both ways, if you don’t stop that they’ll walk on you and I’d they don’t have distractions they’ll be more engaged. A rule that I took from playing White Wolf was the idea of always being in character unless you specifically signal that you’re not, that helps to hold down the table talk a bit. But an engrossing story is most important IMO. I could never hold people’s attention in a dungeon crawl because the plot isn’t driving the story at the time.

  2. Sounds like you’re doing a lot of things at your table. Depending on your players, it might be too much. Try backing off some of the extras. Maybe no music for one. Give them only one place to focus their attention and see how it goes. This gives you a chance to not only see what aspects really grab their attention, but also lets you concentrate on doing one thing at a time really well. This lets you perfect each technique (so it’s second nature if it isn’t already), and shows you where to spend your effort for the maximum payoff with your group. I’m sure this is mostly a player issue, but there might be places you can really grab them if you can isolate what is most entertaining and make sure the rest is more in the background. Also, rely more on their reactions then their feedback. The truth is in their faces.

    • Great advice james, thanks! I should maybe save the tunes for only the most thematic elements/encounters otherwise it probably all does fade to background noise. They really dig things that are just totally unplanned/unobvious like the time they convinced an ettin arguing with its other head to venture into a werewolves den. This has really got me thinking….thanks man! Honestly.

  3. With out know how long your campaign has been running among various other things here are the only comments I can think of off hand…

    First off maybe the attention the veteran draws it more just because it is “fresh” to the group when he DM’s. I think this may be more of a case of the players taking your DM’d games for granted since it is the norm. My gaming group has come up with a plan to rotate DM’s every couple of months more just so the ones running the games don’t get burned out but I guess it would add a refreshing twist to the players too.

    Secondly, I am still working up the knowledge and courage to try to run my first game/campaign and I look at you and the other folks on twitter all the time in awe. But I also look toward you all and pick up great tips and advice. When the time comes that I do finally have my first DM experience it will be much better for the simple fact that the community such as yourself share so much with us all!

    Keep it real man!

    Chad aka @cfallsgamer on Twitter

  4. A smaller group helps a lot. It also says a lot that you allow the tv music station to be on while you DM. At the very least, you are encouraging people to ignore your theme music, which sets a bad example from the start. If you don’t think what you’re bringing to the table deserves everyone’s attention, then why should they? For what it’s worth, I run two games – Gamma World and DnD. Our GW game is played in the dining room with the tv on in the background, and it’s understood that it’s a much more relaxed, free-wheeling game. DnD is played in the basement with no distractions aside from snacks. I’ve actually started a recent session by telling my players that I thought the Gamma attitude was creeping into our DnD game (one encounter per 4 hour session!), and it was making it less fun for me. I just put it out there for them – why should I put in this level of effort every week if they wouldn’t do the same for 3-4 hours? Fortunately, everyone in my group is from the same circle of friends, so they were sufficiently receptive, and the game is back on track. I have no doubt I will need to reign them in every so often, but as long as they show that they care about the game, I will keep running it. That’s the question you have to answer for yourself – is it worth it to you? And what needs to change to keep it being worth it?

    Oh, and good call on the disclaimer.

  5. I joked with my game’s host last Friday that I was bordering on a heart attack from arriving to his house early and racing to get terrain built for three different encounters for the night. He didn’t laugh, and I realized that it wasn’t all that funny. I was stressed THE ENTIRE DAY about the game, and have on more than one occassion mentioned to my wife, “DMing is more stressful than my job.”

    Back to last Friday, I had a player departing the group and wanted him to go out on a high note. But I could never come up with “the most super awesome death scene” for him and I was stressed about how to make his death memorable without being totally scripted and out of his and the party’s control. I arrived at the host’s house an hour early to build out three encounters with Dwarven Forge pieces. My mind was racing the entire day of how to run the encounters to ensure the group could get to a point when our departing player could execute his noble sacrifice.

    That night, the group dealth with two puzzles, a skill challenge and three combat encounters – all in about five hours. Anytime a player took more than a minute to decide on their action, I got annoyed because I knew we had to get through a lot of content. So I was constantly rushing myself and them. It made for a rather stressful evening internally. In recent gaming sessions, I have relied on running a published adventure, but even that requires tweaking to fit into the campaign world.

    I think I understand what you are saying, and I think you need to talk to your players. It is a good suggestion to turn off some of the noise. I don’t allow a television to be on while I’m DMing. I control the music that is being played. I try to limit the use of cellphones and texting, but I’m not going to police that to the point of making people uncomfortable.

    In my job, I don’t have to entertain anybody. But every other Friday, I have to entertain five other people. That can be stressful.

    Do you have a chance to play? I play in a game on the alternate Saturdays and that helps to lower to burnout factor.

    Thanks for posting!

  6. It could be the people you play with. Seek out like minded players and support them. Play with them and make your preferences clear.

  7. I’ve noticed that to some degree every gamer has two games: the actual one and the one in your head. This can be as a player or as a DM. As an extreme example, I had a friend who was a really good DM but when he was a player he did practically no RP. Then when it came time do make a decision he would agonize over it… in his brain he really had a fully detailed PC and somehow thought it was communicated to us. As DMs, we can be uncertain about how the elements in our head come out and become real to the players. Is that NPC hollow, over-the-top, interesting, predictable, awesome? Is the plot mysterious, lame, great, engaging, thin, obscure, obvious? Are our props adding value, busy, ok?

    I recall in college I once had not prepped a game but the group convinced me to run something anyway. They loved it. I was disheartened to find I ran their favorite session. What did it mean that they enjoyed all those sessions where I spent hours on prep, story, monsters, etc. less than the session I made up? A lot of it had to do with what was in my brain vs what I was achieving in reality. It was very hard to grasp this, but in later years it helped me to periodically assess what I was adding and what it meant to the players. When I run campaigns I try to change up my methods, periodically running very simple sessions with just a few things going on so I can better assess what is working. I also ask a number of questions that I think will get honest answers. Rather than ask if they are having a good time, I ask about the ratio of combat to RP, the extent to which they want to see more focus on their PC and backstory, whether they want the plot to be simpler or more complex, whether they want me to be more revealing or mysterious of NPC motives, etc. Answers to those kinds of questions summed together help me figure out what I can do better.

    If in doubt, simplify. Nearly any player will be happy to play a very simple game where they do some RP between the PCs, beat up some monsters, and get some loot. It can be worthwhile to come back to that and then slowly add more.

    I always feel that showing a lack of confidence in public speaking or DMing does the speaker/DM a disservice. Rather than apologize or question yourself, just ask questions that give you real feedback. “Do you guys want to stop for the night?” “Are you guys in the mood for more combat or more RP next session?”

    I recommend you ignore Twitter and blogs as a comparison mechanism. Very few of us blog about the bad sessions, so it isn’t fair to compare your reality to our propaganda. I steal/borrow ideas from others but I approach what I see on the Internet as a best-case example rather than a level I have to achieve as DM. Almost every DM has confidence issues at times. It just isn’t something we blog/tweet about. DMing is an imperfect thing. It just isn’t possible to be flawless.

    On the subject of playing a campaign vs other things, if I sense people want to do something else I like to take a multi-week break from the campaign rather than mix board games, socializing, TV viewing, or other activities with the campaign. Take a break, then assess whether you and the group are hungry for resuming. If not, let someone else DM or start a different type of campaign. It is very rare to have a campaign span a year or more, even with a good DM and players. It is almost better to just plan short series of story arcs for campaigns because it is so very likely that you will need a break point.

  8. I think you may have hit on the answer yourself when you said “They really dig things that are just totally unplanned/unobvious like…”

    I found the more extras, props and planning caused me to think too much about what the players would do. When those things didn’t occur, I would see it as less cool then what my expectations had been from over thinking. I would find myself trying to guide them into what I had “planned” instead of letting the scenario unfold on it’s own.

    I finally started picking a set of brutes or skirmishers, a single controller, some minions and some terrain or traps. That was the encounter fodder for the week. I don’t read the monster powers until the hour before the game.

    I asked a player that left the group what the boss was up to ie let someone else play the over arching villain. This was asked Friday before my Saturday game. Friday night I would put together a half dozen maps or tile sets. Being busy creating maps etc made it hard to imagine what the group would do.

    Come game time I run the monsters/npcs purely based on the “villains” instructions. If the pcs act I respond accordingly. I have no vested interest in the outcome because it’s not my plot, I am truly the referee. I actually find myself rooting for the pcs more instead of trying to make a tough combat or force a round peg into a square hole.

    This may not be your problem, but less prep actually has led to more fun at the table for my table. Cheers!

  9. Hey, look, the Angry DM is going to be really wordy. There’s a big surprise.

    First of all, I can’t trust a word you say. Sorry. Its just that every DM is their own worst critic and their perception is always skewed against them. Just the nature of things.

    Second of all, you aren’t the best. But neither am I. Or anyone else we know, probably. There is only one best. The rest of us are all somewhere in the middle and that means there will always be someone better than us. Except for me, of course, because I really am the best.

    Put those two things together and you’re inevitably going to come up short in any comparison. You will always find things other people are doing that you should be doing, ignoring things you do that they don’t. Let me give you an example: I do the voices, which you mentioned you don’t do. But I don’t use the sort of props you do. I use the same battlemat and pen setup I’ve used for probably two decades. So, I look at you and say “wow, I should use props: that would make things better” and you look at me and say “wow, I should do the voices: that would engage everyone” and we both walk away depressed. Except I don’t, because, again, I’m the best.

    You have a veteran occasional guest DM who may or may not be really good at the DMing thing (I can’t trust your perceptions, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt). First of all, there is always someone better and, unfortunately, sometimes the someone better is sitting at our table. Second of all, maybe he’s not as better as you think he is. After all, why is the one running the one-shots and you’re the one running regular games. But that aside, here’s a thought: ask him for advice. He’s seen your DM style, he’s shown you his. If you want to improve, ask him to sit down with you and give you some tips. Ask him what he does different. It can’t hurt (except your pride), but it might help.

    Next, don’t listen to newbie. Don’t listen to sly. Don’t listen to me. Don’t listen to anyone. Well, listen to me because I’m the best. But seriously, if I listened to newbie and didn’t try to be Tolkien, my amazing games wouldn’t happen. Dammit, I want to be Tolkien! At least in terms of weight and scope and epicness. It works for me though. DMing is a highly personal thing. Its okay to read advice and experiment, but in the end, don’t assume anyone is right. Don’t assume anyone else’s style is going to fit you. Its okay to be Tolkien if that’s what you want. Of course, listen to me. Because I’m awesome.

    The biggest thing I see here, though, is a confidence issue. Are you excited about your game? Are you interested in it? Do you know its going to be great? I suspect you really aren’t. And that’s a problem. You set the pace for the game. You set the energy level. And people are empathetic, even if they don’t realize it consciously.

    Every game event passes through you at some point. Either a player is asking you to resolve an action, declaring an action, conversing with your, or implementing a plan. Everything that happens in the game goes through you, the DM. If you aren’t excited or interested (and not just faking it), everything that passes through you is going to have some of the excitement and interest sucked from it. Its like being a pinched-off hose. No matter how powerful the flow is coming into you, its going to get reduced to the flow you’ll allow. Wow, this analogy is tortured.

    The point is, the players can never be more engaged and interested than you are. Even if they start off that way, you’re going to erode it everytime you get involved in the game. If you don’t love your game, if you aren’t excited about it, people will pick up on that and it will keep them from being excited and it will keep them from loving it.

    Everything that hurts your confidence or makes you resent the game poisons your game. And all the props, funny voices, miniatures, and music tracks in the world won’t get people back. But if you are excited and in love with the game, you’ll sweep the players up. They won’t neccessarily be as engaged or excited or as excited as you, but they’ll find it hard to ignore you. You’ll be the biggest, most interesting thing in the room and the TV will get turned off. So, how do you reach this point?

    #1: If you can’t stop comparing yourself to other DMs, stop reading them and talking to them. At least for a little while. Take a month off from the online gaming community. Just shut it all down.

    #2: Decide what sort of game you want to run. Don’t censor yourself. Freewrite about your game a couple of times. About what works and what doesn’t. Freewriting is where you just sit in front of a piece of paper or blank Word doc and write whatever crosses your mind without thinking about what you’re saying. You do it for a fixed period of time. Fifteen to thirty minutes is good. It clears the internal mental plumbing and let’s you see what you’re really thinking.

    #3: Run the game you want to run. After freewriting for a while, you’ll start to get a clearer picture of what excites you. Run that! That’s what you want to do. And maybe it is freakin’ Tolkien. Run it. And – this is important – don’t worry if you don’t think its the sort of game your players want for right now. Eventually, you will want to start listening to their feedback and modifying your game. But for right now, just try to sweep them up in YOUR excitement.

    #4: Limit the prep, limit the stuff. Scale back on your prep time. Do the minimum you need. Right now, your prep is making you resent the game and you’re trying to prove to yourself you can run an awesome game. The prep is toxic to you. And the stuff (props, models, music, etc) is adding to your prep time. You can slowly start to scale up again when things improve. But for now, try to limit your prep.

    #5: Psych yourself up before every game. You’ve got a game you’re excited to run. You didn’t kill yourself prepping. You’re just going to have fun and put on a show. Right? And you aren’t paying attention to what other DMs are doing. So its just you, your table, and your game. So, psych yourself up. Think about the parts of the adventure that are going to be exciting. Think about what the NPCs are going to say and do. Think about how excited you are to bring this to life. Tell yourself, out loud, how great a game you’re going to put on. And, if you start quashing you own confidence, tell yourself to stop it. Does this sound silly? Well, f&$^% you. Because I do it before every game, so now, you’re making fun of me. And you make fun of the Angry DM and he’ll cut you, man. He’ll cut you.

    #6: Every session is a chance to get better. If something fails at the game, don’t worry about why it failed. Just remind yourself that next week is a chance to do better. And you will do better. If you start dwelling on the negative, stop yourself and instead think about the parts of the game that did well and tell yourself that next week, you’ll just do more of that. End of story.

    In the end, nothing ruins a game like a DM with confidence issues. All the other stuff is just stuff. But a DM who isn’t in love with his game, who isn’t excited to run it, cannot have players who love the game and are excited about it. But, confidence is an amazing thing. Its invisible, but everyone can see it. You don’t need to do anything special once you have it. Everyone will pick up on it. But you, sir, are poisoning your game right now. And you need to tackle that owlbear first.

    • One last thing:

      #7: Don’t expect results overnight. It takes time and effort to turn around confidence issues and burnout. However much you psych yourself and follow this advice, one session isn’t going to change everything. Do not get discouraged. Keep at it. And talk yourself out of getting discouraged and giving up. Accept that it takes time to change your own excitement level and get yourself to believe it.

  10. I agree that the players can make the group, its not all down to the DM. Thats not to say you have rubbish players, its just different people bring different energy to the game. It just like hanging around with different circles of friends, your still friends with them all, but each group has a different sense of humor maybe, a different vibe.

    This sort of carries over to the game, some groups dont outwardly look to be enjoying the game but still give good feedback, whereas another group might have high energy and be loud and roudy about enjoying it.

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