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Role Play Anxiety

by Jae

It’s no secret that some people get nervous when they have to perform in front of others. D&D puts both players and dungeon masters on the spot sometimes. Having to act out a character or talk in front of your group can be anxiety inducing, but that’s part of D&D. In this post we’ll be exploring some common anxieties in the game on both sides of the table. Thank you to all our survey participants who asked about this.

The Anxious DM

As a DM, you’re responsible for a lot of what happens at the table. You not only need to tell a great story, but also ensure the game state is maintained and your players are having fun. With all that responsibility it’s no wonder that many dungeon masters suffer some form of game anxiety. We can break game anxiety for the DM into a few categories based on fears: fear of game quality, fear of humiliation, or fear of disagreement.

The Fear of a Lackluster Game

Probably the most common one here is the fear a DM has of not doing things well. New or inexperienced dungeon masters may obsessively ask everyone how the game went afterward. The best case scenario for this is that the DM will get better over time and gain confidence in their campaign. If they are actively worried about the quality of their content, it is very likely that they will take on the advice of others and improve with time. In the worst case scenario, they will focus only on their game’s flaws and eventually stop running the game.

The fear of running a sub-par game is real, but it’s often the fear itself that is the biggest stumbling block. Anecdotally, when I stopped worrying about quality, the game became more fun and my players had a better experience. I still ask what players want and listen to their concerns, but I don’t focus on that during the game. If you spend a lot of mental energy worrying about how you’re doing it means you’re not focusing on what you’re doing.

While it’s important to care about what your players think, it’s not worth twisting yourself into knots of anxiety. One of the best strategies I had for overcoming my fears was to ask my players what they wanted rather than how they liked the game. When you ask a player what they want, you know what’s missing. If you ask them how you did, they likely won’t give helpful feedback.

Game quality comes with practice. A lot of your first games won’t be great. That’s okay! You have to make mistakes to learn from them and running the game will give you plenty of opportunities to do so.

Concerns About Humiliation

The fear of acting silly or weird in front of your friends is normal. This is something I see players and dungeon masters share the most in games. Many of our new players don’t know how to act out their characters and have trouble getting into their roles. Dungeon masters, on the other hand, don’t have just one character to play. It can be hard enough to act out a single hero. But what about a deranged villain, a goblin, or a scared villager?

All of these characters require a bit of acting and that can be hard to do. Dungeon masters often have trouble role playing characters in a convincing way because of this. They won’t try a to do a voice for a character because it might sound weird. This can lead to third person descriptions and narrative game play. While third person is a fine way to run things, it can be detrimental to the game if you never try to play a character or speak as them directly. The game was made for these moments.

If you are concerned about humiliating yourself, don’t be. I know that’s not the best advice, but you’re playing with friends hopefully, and if your friends make fun of you for trying to run an engaging game, then maybe you need better friends. I’ve opened up a great deal of campaigns in character and most of them are not cool.

I’ve felt embarrassed about my lack of acting skills. I know what my own voice sounds like and I find it terrible, so thinking about role playing a character is difficult for me. Luckily I learned that it pays off to take risks and overcome these fears.

If you still really can’t bring yourself to act out a character or lay on some drama, ask your players to first. Encouraging everyone to do more things in character will make the whole situation more normal. You’ll quickly find that character interactions become easier and easier. Humiliation melts away when everyone participates.

Arguments in the Game

No one likes arguing with people, or more accurately, no one likes people arguing with them. Dungeon masters have been dealing with argumentative players since the beginning of the game. Some people are so adverse to the thought of arguing about things they will actively go out of their way to avoid the topic. That seems normal, but in D&D you need tension in your game to keep it fun. I’m not talking about between the players, but within the game itself.

Many newer DMs will go to great lengths to make things work out for their players just so their players don’t try to argue their way out of an unfortunate situation. This is a bad move on the players’ part and it should not be tolerated in a game. I am usually not very strict on player issues. I play with a lot of close friends and I let them get away with a lot, but I will not allow arguments at the table.

When players argue with each other, or with the DM, it ruins the experience for everyone. Let your players know ahead of time that you won’t tolerate argument. If you have any rules lawyers in the group, tell them to handle disputes after the game. The point is to have fun playing the game, and argument completely destroys the mood and kills the fun. One last note here, do not give in to player argument. If you make a mistake that’s one thing, but if your players try to wiggle out of bad luck, rewarding that behavior will only encourage more of it.

Player Anxiety

Players are often just as anxious as the dungeon masters. The difference here is that as a dungeon master it’s important to try to spot this and help your players out. New players often have trouble getting into the game due to anxiety that trumps their will to play. Players may want to play the game well but are afraid of making mistakes or doing something stupid.

With these kind of things it’s important to be helpful without telling them what to do or forcing them to participate. I like to give new players options with open ended suggestions. When you get a new player asking “What do I do?” you can be pretty sure they aren’t in their character yet. Give them some hints. Ask them some questions like “What would your character do?” or “What would you like to do?” Even if they don’t get it right away, showing them it’s okay to role play can be very helpful.

Some players are embarrassed by acting out their character or even talking in character at the table. Do not force these players to role play! The last thing they need is to have everyone focused on them while they try to figure out what do. Leading by example is a much better way to start. If possible, have a more experienced player lead the group and stay in character to give the newer players a template to follow. A lot of social interaction is just mimicry, so examples are good for everyone.

While a lot my advice to a DM is essentially telling you to get over it, that is not the same advice I would give to a player. The dungeon master assumes a certain amount of responsibility and needs to act as a leader. Because of this, you also have to shoulder some of the burden for your players and show a lot of compassion if they are having trouble. Make them feel comfortable and that will go a long way to opening things up.

Player Bullying

Some players are not as afraid of role playing as they are of the consequences of doing so. In a lot of groups other players will deride another character in game. It may be impossible for all your player characters to get along, but it is important to make sure that no one feels bullied or pushed around. In any group it’s very easy for one person to become the butt a joke.

But remember in D&D that a campaign can last for years. This makes it really easy for any one player to be singled out in game. Role playing a character that is being picked on can feel the same as actually being picked on. This is not always easy to spot and often harder to stop, but no one deserves to have their enjoyment lessened just for a quick laugh. Remember that this is what we choose to do with our free time, and if we don’t enjoy it, what’s to stop us from doing something else?

Closing Notes on Anxiety

Anxiety is a very serious problem that a lot of people face. While people don’t always show it, it can be a serious issue. If you suffer from anxiety like this or notice it in your players, it’s worth talking about it with someone. If your players are suffering, it might be due to stress outside the game.

Still anxious about playing but have already taken all the right steps to prevent it? You might want to talk to your players and let them know how you feel. While a lot these concerns may seem minor, anxiety can quickly build up and begin messing with your everyday life. Dungeons & Dragons should be a fun and relaxing time that you spend with your friends. Don’t let anxiety control the experience.

Happy DMing!

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