How To Overcome DM Anxiety

I want you to DM a session two days from today, really visualize and commit to it in your mind. If you have no one to play with just get a few players online for a pick-up game, they'll be easy to find since there's a lot more players than DMs looking for games. How did all that make you feel? Anxious, probably. A whole bunch of thoughts entered your mind about how you're not ready and the various disasters that will happen if you actually did it. Those thoughts, and those thoughts alone, are preventing you from DMing. If you remove those thoughts you'll be able to DM at any time, any place, for anyone. The most common way to remove the thought of “I'm not ready” is to actually prepare until you feel ready, but it's not the only method, and it doesn't work for every thought.

DM Anxiety

Write all your thoughts down, each and every thought you have when you think about running a game. If you're serious about getting rid of your anxiety, this is the most important thing. Thoughts in your mind are slippery and vague, you may not even be able to see all of them, and they're impossible to address in an effective way until you write them all down. You can continue once they're all written down. If any new thoughts pop into your head, write them down as well.

Each thought you've written down is either true and can be addressed with a plan of action, or are false and can be disproven. Go through first and find all the lies in your thoughts. Point out any exaggerations you made, any fortune-telling or mind-reading you did, or any labeling or name-calling you've done. Let's look at some examples.

“I'm not good enough to DM and my players will have a bad time.” What is “good enough” to DM? Is there a test? Do you have to pass the DM exam? If you've read and understood the rules, you're “good enough” to DM. You may mean you're unpracticed and unskilled, which might be true but it also might not be true, you certainly can't know for sure without running some tests. Either way you get practice by, well, practicing. Actually DMing. So the solution to your problem of not being good enough to DM is solved by DMing poorly first, so do that. Make it your goal to be a bad DM in order to get the practice you need to become a good one. Finally, you can't know if your players will have a bad time because you can't read their minds. This is also easy to test, if your players are having a bad time they'll stop coming, and thus if they keep showing up for games you'll know they're having a good time. D&D is an easy drop-in/drop-out game, so players that aren't having fun and want to stop can be replaced. There are around 50 players to every 1 DM so you can definitely find more players if you need them, even as a new DM. If you really feel self-conscious about it you can even say you're a new DM, then you'll know anyone that wants to play already knows you're new and is ok with it. They might even have some helpful tips.

“I'm not ready and it's too much work to prepare.” Here's what you need to run a basic D&D session: a location, a couple monsters, and some sort of reason to go to that location and fight those monsters. Anything more than that is extra, and can be made up during the game. What's the room look like? Imagine the room in your head and then describe it. Using a grid map? Draw out any sort of shape you want when they enter the room. What's that guy's name? Make it up, you'll find even if it's silly (or especially if it's silly) your players will like it. A stupid made-up name is interesting because it's different. You need to define how much preparation is “ready enough” for you and also how much preparation is “too much work” and change how you prepare so you can feel comfortable enough to run the game without doing a lot of work.

Grid Map

“The players won't have fun.” Your players understand the risks involved and decided it was worth it to try. If they don't have fun they'll leave and move on to the next game. It's so easy to play D&D, all you have to do is make a character and show up. They're exposing themselves to so little risk that it's not even on their radar. Conversely, if your players keep showing up then you must accept the fact that they're having fun, since it's so easy for them to leave. You can't read their minds, so only their actions matter.

“I'll feel bad if someone doesn't want to play.” We've established that the players want to play, but D&D is still a game, so don't take it personally when they don't feel like playing. Do you always feel like playing one of your videogames or boardgames on a strict weekly schedule? Again I have to point out the stats here, there's around 50 players to every DM so if one of your players doesn't want to play there is DEFINITELY someone else willing to take their place. You are doing the D&D community a service by being a DM, so don't let one mopey player ruin things for you. Kick them, someone else will be much more grateful.

“I can't do voices, I can't do X, and you have to do X to DM.” Is there a ten commandments for DMing somewhere? If you're playing 5th edition D&D and it's your first one, chances are good you were introduced to it from a show or podcast. That kind of D&D is “TV D&D” where the act of watching it is supposed to be as fun as playing, meaning lots of props and voices and acting like in a TV show. That kind of D&D is a very recent phenomenon, most games of D&D are nothing like it. Back in 1st edition, D&D was more like a tactical boardgame that was always in a dungeon fighting monsters and dealing with traps, quite similar to HeroQuest. That kind of D&D is still being played today, along with many other varieties like survival simulation D&D, exploration and puzzle D&D, all kinds. If you think a DM has to do voices to play D&D then you haven't watched enough D&D shows, there are lots of successful shows where the DM doesn't do any voices and there's no storyline at all. Finding your own style will make you a much better DM than just trying to copy someone elses.

D&D actors

Go through all your thoughts in this way and you'll find as you argue with and disprove these thoughts you'll start to feel better and less anxious. Some thoughts can't be dismissed through argument, but can through action, so come up with a plan of actions to resolve those thoughts. As you write down your plans and how you're going to solve these problems you'll also start to feel better. Writing things down is a very effective technique for getting your thoughts out of your head, where they bounce around indefinitely and magnify their own importance. Once written down you may even be surprised that such a ridiculous idea had you anxious in the first place.

So with your own thoughts no longer impeding your desire, you may find that's enough and you're eager to start DMing. Go ahead and run a oneshot adventure as an experiment to see how you do and how it makes you feel. Prove to yourself your theories about how good or bad you are and how it will go. Prior to your session, make some predictions and write them down. Predict how hard it will be on a scale from 1-10, how much fun you'll have, and how many problems you'll encounter. Then after the game write out how those 3 things actually went from a scale from 1-10. What you'll generally discover is that your predictions are inaccurate. On average you'll find it easier, you'll have more fun, and encounter fewer problems than you initially predicted. This will prove that you can't rely upon your predictions, even if somehow the opposite happens and things go terrible. Only if your predictions line up exactly with reality in 10 out of 10 sessions can you know that you make accurate predictions, and putting these predictions to the test will more often reveal that your thoughts and anxieties don't line up with reality. Continue to do this test every time you play, and over time you'll become less anxious as you realize your anxiety is a lie you've been fooling yourself with.


Once you're comfortable with DMing, it's important to stay that way and avoid burnout. If you're anxious about DMing then you probably also over-prepare for your games in order to help soothe the anxiety you feel about not being ready or good enough. The problem is if you keep over-preparing then you're stressing yourself out before every session which also isn't going to help your anxiety. You'll eventually relate DMing with work and not want to do it anymore. This is typically called burnout and the advice is typically to take a break until you feel like DMing again. How curious that the solution is to stop preparing for sessions until you're “recharged” and ready to start preparing sessions again. It's like there's a limited amount of energy you're able to expend completely, but are also able to recharge over time. You could opt for a more renewable source of DMing by simply expending less energy on DMing than what you're able to recharge over time.

DM Energy

This, again, comes down to your own perceptions of what constitutes an acceptable amount of effort and prep in order to be a “good enough” DM. There is no guide anywhere on how much you're supposed to prepare for every session, so it's a restriction you invented and placed on yourself. Some DMs do zero preparation at all, they just show up and ad-lib the whole thing. Maybe that's terrifying to you, but that's because you've decided that a session must be made up of things that are difficult for you to come up with on the spot. Have you even tested this theory of yours that these things are difficult to come up with on the spot? If you've never improv'd an entire session, then you simply don't know how good you are at it. It's clearly not a universal rule, otherwise these improv DMs wouldn't exist. You might just decide that these DMs are very good at DMing and are able to do that after years of practice. Again this doesn't reflect reality, many improv DMs are brand new to the game, and many aren't very “good” in the sense that if YOU played you wouldn't enjoy yourself and decide to leave. Yet they've got players, and those players keep showing up, so we must accept that they're having fun and enjoy that style of play. If we universally decided that things must be scripted and planned carefully then improv and shows like Whose Line Is It Anyway wouldn't exist. If we universally decided that things must be “good” in order to exist and enjoyed then nothing would, because nothing starts good, it just becomes good eventually. Dare to be bad, and dare to have fun while being bad. I'm sure there are plenty of movies and games you love dearly that were universally panned by critics.

How do you avoid burnout? By avoiding preparation. Write out your standard “to-do” list for everything you need to get done in order to be ready for the session. You should have an idea of what that involves by dealing with your anxious thoughts. Which of those things can go? Which of those things can you simply make up on the spot? Run a few experiments to see which things you're able to come up with during the game and which things you can't, then you'll know for sure which things you need to spend time on and which things you don't.

Once you've trimmed down your list to the bare essentials, see if there's any way you can speed those steps up. Generators can help with this, and there's a whole bunch available here. Other things can be simplified. Instead of having to have a full map for every area ready to go, is there any way you can simplify it? Maybe find a map someone else made and use it, or draw the map more simply or as you go. D&D is supposed to be a game of imagination, so why be so dependent on maps and other imagery? Any task you can speed up and simplify will make DMing that much easier and less daunting, so really try to pare it down as much as you can.

In addition to session preparation there's also other things a DM typically has to deal with that can expend energy. Scheduling, player disputes, recaps, tracking, world-building, rules questions, and so on. However none of these things are strictly the DM's job to do. We've just established how easy it is to play (make a character and show up) so perhaps those freeloaders can help do some of the work as well. If dealing with scheduling is stressing you out, have someone else do it. Require that your players sort out disputes themselves, there's an abundance of eager players waiting to play so problem players can very easily become non-players if they're causing you grief. Have the players do the recap, not only does it help them remember better it also helps you see which parts they remember and which parts they don't, or if their idea of what happened is different from reality. Players can track their own stats and resources without relying on you to, and cheaters can be kicked out with zero tolerance. Have one of the more knowledgeable players handle rule questions. Even world-building can be done by the players, have them come up with all the details about their hometown, then once they've done all the work you can use it in your session without having to prep.


Lastly, your problem with over-preparing might be that you want to account for every curve-ball or unexpected thing that can happen during a session. Not only will you find that this doesn't work and that your players are very good at throwing a wrench in even the most detailed plan, it's unnecessary. Going into more detail actually makes you less prepared for the unexpected, by giving you less of an idea for the natural flow of the game. I go into this in another article, 4 ways to speed up session prep, but having a high-level plan by creating simple answers to a series of questions makes you more adaptable during the session. Any time something unexpected happens that ruins your plan, insert a new plan by answering the same question as before just with the new information.

Reference and use these techniques every time you feel anxious. It's a good idea to reference these frequently for your first few sessions as well until you get a feel for them. Hopefully now you're feeling less anxious, and have a better idea of what you need to do in order to be ready and feel comfortable. I wasn't kidding about running a game in 2 days, give it a try.

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