I ran my first D&D game at the age of 12. It was a pre-made adventure from a magazine and had a redemption arc for a villain who forgot they were a villain, emphasizing that compassion begets compassion and “hurt people hurt people”. I loved the idea and couldn’t wait to see it all play out around my living room table. It was a disaster. The players were all older and more experienced than I was. They convinced me to let them bring their “usual” characters from another DM’s game with all their gear and within ten minutes the game was laying in broken pieces while they cheered one another on, whooping and hollering with sadistic glee at having broken the adventure so thoroughly. I was mortified and never wanted to run another game again. I was GM for my group until I was about 32.
The near collapse of this project made this more of a priority, then there was the mental toll that our dissolving partnership inflicted, the thousand cuts of everyday responsibilities etc. I found that there was nothing in the GM tank. I figured that with time and mental recuperation things would come back to me. Twenty years of running not only D&D but a variety of other ttrpgs had shown I had a depth of ideas for story seeds and though the games rarely saw a storybook conclusion, I was sure I would be ok.
Then something happened. We reached a point in the development that someone had to run playtests and since there are only two of us now and I have all this GM experience it was decided that I would be the GM. I thought, “No big deal. Hell! This is just the excuse I need to get back into this. I’ve had a long hiatus, it’ll be great.” I had an anxiety attack and had to cancel my session 0. I was embarrassed, no, not strong enough a word…mortified might be better. I may not be confident in a lot of things but storytelling? I tell stories like Spider-Man swings web! I kept telling myself “You got this! You pull together games and improv entire sessions! You’ve made your players sit in awe, you’ve made them shake with frustration and explode with elation. This is your wheelhouse.” but it didn’t ring true in my own head so how could I believe myself?
I pushed for another session 0 but getting players this time was harder and scheduling was near impossible. The demand of being parents, unreliable work schedules, self-imposed medical quarantines and the thousand cuts of life that everyday imposes brought that endeavor to a quiet implosion. Recently however an old friend came around and had an itch to play. He was so insistent that I reached out to those that I could from our old group and one by one worked with them to find a suitable day until a new game day was born and with it a new story. I was to be the GM though and the idea scared me. I felt nauseous and inadequate. I hadn’t run game in more than 2 years, I couldn’t even run a session for the game that I have dedicated so much of my life and time to. How was I going to do this? I had, for a time, convinced myself that in truth I could NOT run this game, or any other, anymore. It hurt to think that I was no longer a gamemaster, worse, that I was no longer a storyteller.
In a flash of optimistic nihilism, I figured it doesn’t matter if the game sucks. If they hated it, if I hated the system we were playing. None of that mattered in the grand scheme of things. If the game was perfect, the world and my life would still be what it is and if the game was the worst thing I had ever run, the world and my life would still be what it is. With a cold lump of fear in my chest, sweat rolling down my overly hot skin and my old, overinflated collection of dice; I sat down and began to unfold my tale for my group. I noted their reactions to certain things and did not shy away from impressing on them the feeling of helplessness that they were facing in this small jungle hamlet. When the session was done, I looked into the faces of these grown men and saw them lighting up with excitement. They turned to one another making plans, asking questions, engaging with one another and my story. But I have been a walking wound for some time now and though this was nice it did not dispel my idea that I was no longer a “real storyteller”. Perhaps, I thought in a self-destructive manner, that this was merely a fluke. They were so eager to play that any story would have made them excited or maybe this was all just the last wisps of storytelling ability burning up in a grand hurrah but I kept writing down notes for other sessions and places where the adventure could go because the players seemed to like the story but all agreed that the game itself wasn’t exactly landing well.
It took one session to save me from the feeling of being dragged down like Joukahainen into the mire.
The players had managed to convince our friend, my partner here, to join us. He was destructive and his out of the box thinking made his encounters run differently but the others sat there mostly in silence as we went back and forth. They were enthralled and so invested in the tale we told that they did not mind that the whole of the session went to just one player. The only concern from the table was why we were playing a game that no one seemed to be mechanically enjoying. They asked about the game that we have worked on and if they could try that out instead.
I won’t say all anxiety is gone. I am still very scared. The fears I face now though are what any creator feels for their art. When I look over the notes for the sessions and adventures I was planning to run, I can see that at their core they were always going to be for a Powerpunk game and I am looking forward to what they do in, around and to the story and world that I build for them. In time, I hope to share it with all of you.
Dev-X & Ethereal | Stock & Bull Entertainment