The Hidden Stress of D&D

By RJ on 6 May 2023.

I imagine I'm not alone. Without fail, D&D night excites me. Oftentimes I'll think about the upcoming session days beforehand, meandering through my mind about the possibilities, but never putting pen to paper until the night before or the day of. In these winding paths in my head, I'll explore where the party might go, what might excite the players, and why their characters will be challenged and tested.

Ideas flow freely.

The demon the party released and partially defeated? It ravaged a nearby city, creating its lair in the temple of a lawful, good, but absent deity. Might they venture there, or the collapsed cove layered with mysterious treasures they heard about from their talkative tabaxi friend?

Natalie really enjoys love stories, and she's built a great one into her character! When will Mia be reunited or have the chance to meet her lost love? Will he be the same person she remembers, or forever changed by the war he was forced to fight in?

The Bannerless is beginning to make a name for itself, a dangerous idea in this dark land. As a budding organization, others see it as a threat, though some may seek to ally with it. Who will try to take out the party and their faction before it grows too large, and how might that excite the players? Who will reach out and try to build an alliance, calling out enemies before they show themselves?

While I think about what might be fun for my players, I become excited.

I write these ideas down, I weave a loose narrative for the session almost assured it will go off the rails immediately. That's how most of my sessions go, but I love it.

Yet, when the day arrives and the hours pass by, I start to panic.

D&D Day

What if the party doesn't want to go to any of these places? What if they want to go nowhere? What if my world isn't interesting enough?

What if Natalie hates what I try to give her and pushes back. Will I react well enough and find something else to satisfy her and her character's story?

What if any resistance to the party's faction growing is met with anger or disdain?

The "what if's" mount in my head. I stress. I try to be rational, I know my players enjoy the game I run, that's why they play, but I stress regardless. 

The clock continues to tick and the session nears. People begin to arrive. I've already set up the table, they move to their chairs. I take mine and begin the music and a brief recap.


Euphoria. Storytelling comes with ease. Characters ebb and flow in my mind. Plots grow organically and reactions to character actions and antics are quick. Everyone's laughing and engaged. If someone's not, I immediately pivot to something I know they enjoy or address the faltering fun swiftly.

The session goes well and everyone has fun. However, the next week, I know everything will repeat.


Dungeon Master Panic

It's all mental, really. I've been running games for over a decade now, but this phenomenon continues to occur. The day of a game, I seem to dread it the closer the game gets. Then, when we all sit together and begin, all the hidden stress washes away.

I cannot place it. I don't necessarily have a fear of public speaking or social interaction. I'm not its biggest fan, but people tell me I'm decent at it. I always shrug at that.

It's not a lack of prep. I've tried preparing oodles of content and seeing if that fixes my day of fear: it doesn't! I know my world well, understand my players, and have a firm grasp of every system I play.

At the end of the day, I think it's ingrained in me. Maybe it assists me in some way? In the face of this huge Dungeon Master panic that climbs throughout the day, I always perform at the table. I succeed. Perhaps the day I fail all this panic will subside? No, I doubt that.

Really, I'd compare this to a feeling I have before a huge presentation at the workplace or a speech I'm supposed to give somewhere. However, all three environments are so dissimilar.

In one, I am paid. I know what I'm doing and everyone else must understand I have a firm grasp on the subject. Usually, I'm teaching others about the topic and there's minimal reaction. Beforehand, though, tension builds throughout the day and breaks once the presentation is over. That's happening less and less as I present more and more and truly learn the subject material. I've been at my current job for four years and I'm almost never nervous anymore.

For the other, speeches, I'm usually asked to give one. People enjoy what I can say or improvise. The same with workplace presentations, the more I do this the less worried or stressed I am beforehand. They're always fun during and I feel great after.

Why is D&D so different? I've been doing this for a decade, but I get that Dungeon Master panic every session without fail. Is it good? Is it bad? Is it hurting my game or my psyche? I don't know!

Am I alone? I don't think so. Let me know in the comments below.

If you missed the last article, give it a read. You have permission to break the rules you set if it's needed to save your game.

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  1. Anonymous06 May, 2023

    I can attest. I used to get it really bad. I still do, but I used to to.
    I used to get it a lot more though.

    1. Good on you! Hopefully I follow in your footsteps.

  2. Anonymous06 May, 2023

    I only panic stress when I have to cancel a session. Like you, I have been thinking about the game for many days, and when I can’t play, it creates 1-2 days of irritability and depression. It’s just as bad when I’m uncertain if the game will go on. I have asked unreliable players to leave the game, because I can’t take the emotional whiplash.

    1. Makes sense. The lingering feeling of unfulfilled play is rather massive. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Anonymous06 May, 2023

    It's like that every time for me!

    1. Wow, I'm not alone! Amazing to hear ;)

  4. Anonymous11 May, 2023

    It is the same anticipation I get when the Rollercoaster crests the hill and is ready to drop speeding towards my ultimate demise or exhilaration. It is the feeling of "This is the moment. Part of it imo is the "loss of anticipation". The possibilities are endless and a lot of the fun is running through different scenarios. That's why character creation is so fun; potential. Potential realized is a different kind of reward but so is imagination.

  5. I can totally identify.

    I think the level of improvisation required makes running D&D unlike giving a speech. Even using published campaigns; I know that at least once, the players will throw me a curveball I didn't anticipate.

    Maybe after TWENTY years of fielding curveballs we'll feel less anxious about it!?!

  6. Anonymous23 May, 2023

    "Maybe after TWENTY years of fielding curveballs we'll feel less anxious about it!?!"

    Nope, lol. I've been GMing since the late 1970s and I still get butterflies. Maybe it helps me focus?
    Switching to VTT hasn't helped, honestly. I find my players being quiet more often than they were at the table, so there is less interaction - so it's hard to tell whether or not they're enjoying the session. This has added to the jitters, for me.
    Not a lot of choice tho, since my gaming group is now spread across three states.