Wednesday, May 13, 2020

GM Anxiety and the West Marches

It should be no secret to anyone who's been following what I do lately that I think of GMing as craft. What I mean by that is enough for its own blog post (and also a podcast).

A lot of the talk about the social dynamics of GMing focus on power imbalances, and the outsized influence and control a GM can exert. I agree to an extent, but for reasons that also lie outside the scope of this post, I believe that this imbalance is not as necessarily or intrinsically problematic as some would contend. I also think it can make for a very rich game, and affords qualities of play that cannot be readily achieved through more balanced distributions of narrative control. Again, though, that's another post.

There is also a flipside to the social power arguments that I find absent, or at least underexplored, which is the vulnerability and social pressure attached to GMing. Admittedly, more balanced power dynamics offset this. However, proceeding from the assumption that assymmetry can be desirable, I find a more robust engagement with the subject lacking. These matter have become pronounced of late in my experiences running my home game, which has recently transitioned to a West Marches-style format. In this post I'm going to identify what I consider some significant blind spots in the ways we tend to talk about running this kind of game, especially when it comes to its experiential dimensions. Moving forward, I'll be devoting some thought to how I've been managing these issues in my campaign of late.

GM Anxiety

I talk to my therapist about my D&D games a lot. They often act as mirrors to things I struggle with in more "serious" aspects in my life, like concerns about alienating people I love, fear of inadequacy, procrastination, self-doubt, and perfectionism. It's in a very recent conversation about prepping games that I ended up calling out and naming my superego. (I also have a very good therapist, bless her.)

Like a lot of creative endeavors, game prep is both emotionally rewarding and challenging. I'm often more stressed about running my D&D games than I am about actual work obligations I get paid for. Like all roleplaying, GMing intimately ties to the ego. It can resonate with ideas of who we are and who we want to be. Being a GM can mean being an actor, a writer, a game designer, a host, a friend, a rival -- all at the same time.

GMing is also deeply performative. There is a sense of putting yourself, your ideas, your talents, out there in an effort to entertain, enliven, moderate, and manage. Again, one of the underexamined aspects of the GM power imbalance is the emotional intensity of these many efforts.

Before running yesterday's game, I took a moment after a very busy day of work and several consecutive days of feverish prepping, to check in with myself. I found I was having intense stragefright, and recognized that not only was I having it then but that intense fear and nervousness are hallmarks of my prep cycles. The way I handle it is personal, but the workload and strain are quite common; We pass over it in the normalization of GM burnout.

And then I blame The Culture

A lot of these issues have been especially pronounced in my games lately because I've been transitioning to a West Marches style campaign. As is my wont when I'm trying new game structures, I ended up doing a lot of research. I won't summarize all the principles of a West Marches game here, but there were a few aspects of it that wound up being particularly problematic.

First, the burden of prep is enormous. Even if you're only preparing for the thing the players said they wanted to do, recycling maps, etc., there remains a lot of ambiguity as to how they will do the thing. OSR wisdom encourages making sure there are multiple ways to do the thing, and on embracing the possibility of distraction and emergence. You are also thinking ahead to seeding further adventures, and so a certain level of distraction, or at least of thinking beyond the core focus of the session, is actually necessary for fostering this style of play. Calls for minimalism in prep only go so far when the minimum is still so expansive.

The emotional burden is also considerable. Embracing your players' agency often means watching with a smile, or at least a dutiful impasivity, as your players dash 90% of the world you lovingly wrote into existence against the rocks of their indifference. Even if you're preparing situations, not plots, this can be unexpected and painful.

This indifference is built into the social design of West Marches game. Upholding the promise of discovery in the sense of finding something that was there before you knew about it, which is at the heart of what West Marches aims to simulate, also means accepting the possibility of non-discovery.

This same indifference is built into the OSR playstyle more broadly. The West Marches share the OSR's love of discovery, of emergent situations, danger, and surprises. This alignment of values is a big part of why the West Marches, which was originally a 3E D&D campaign, has been so readily embraced by the OSR. But upholding those values means maintaining an assymmetry that allows for the GM to "know" things the players do not while also requiring the GM to relinquish control over deciding what will be known and when. It means both giving when you want to hold, and withholding when you want give, which can be quite alienating. The playstyle mandates a certain social gap between player and GM, but that gap maintains the necessary space for some of the best outcomes of OSR play.

A sticking point of mine going forward will be that this indifference needs to confined to the game. Running a prep-intensive game where anything can happen, where any number of players may not show up again next week or perhaps ever, is exhausting. The impartiality demanded by the style of play is often interpreted as a rather extreme form of aloofness. In his own West Marches reports, the attitudes Ben Robbins projects are cavalier, and we see that same call for stalwart GMs in the Musings and Pricipia Apocrypha. That aloofness is a requirement of the performance, not an experiential fact.

Ancedote: Af-ford-dances for emergent play

Fords all the way down
(made with Cecil Howe's excellent Hex Kit and Nate Treme's equally excellent tileset)
For my last session, a party was exploring a new wilderness area to investigate some weird wizards who had been hanging around there. Accessing the new area involved crossing a river, and I mentioned there was a known ford site but that reaching it would take them a little out of their way. They pointed to spot on the map and asked if there was a crossing there. I told them, in accordance with my prep, that there was a watchtower at that location but the river there was rough and deep and the sentries were not equipped to cross it in large groups.

They went to the watchtower anway and schmoozed the sentries into lending them their one and only canoe (this also according to my prep). It was only the next morning, as they were figuring out how many trips in the canoe it would take to get them and their retainers across the river, that someone said "wait. What about the horses?"

I too had forgotten about the horses.

Let me make this clear: I never intended for this river crossing to be difficult. I knew while I was prepping that they had horses, which is why I made a point of putting a ford (actually several) on the map, and telling them where it was. This was a problem of their own making and a very silly one.

So I googled whether horses can swim (they can), and made a ruling about how likely they were to get across safely given the strength of the current. Couldn't let those fords go waste. One player admitted he didn't know what a ford was, and that he thought I'd been mispronouncing "fjord" the whole time. Anyway, apparently the only thing these players love more than wasting time is their horses. So the decided to find the ford.

On the way to the ford they stopped by an inn. I hadn't put much prep into the inn, because I expected the whole river situation would take like 10 minutes, but here we were 90 minutes into the game and they still hadn't crossed the river and I guess they felt like roleplaying. So they won the friendship of the innkeeper, who tipped them off that her brother is a highwayman who charges a toll to use the ford (this was the only thing about the inn I had prepped). She also tipped them off to another ford, guarded by a troll, which is where she sends clients she doesn't like. She sent the party off with a token of her friendship, which they used to get past her brother safely. At long last, they forded the river.

from The Oregon Trail

By this point we'd been playing for 2 hours. They found a monster lair across the river and drove them away; there was no treasure, but at least they found a safe place to camp and got a bit of XP for clever planning. After this it was coming up on 10 PM and we were getting tired. They went back to the inn.

And you know what? It was a good session. I had fun running it and the players game me some very positive feedback afterward -- unsolicited at that! I ran a hexcrawl and didn't shit the bed. There was some fun roleplaying and some good encounter antics. Solid D&D by all measures. Overall, this has been one of the most enjoyable campaigns I've run.


HOLY SHITSNACKS THEY SPENT 2 AND A HALF HOURS GETTING ACROSS A RIVER. This is a 100 hex wilderness! Many of them are stocked! They never even got close to the wizards they're looking for! Could they have? Absolutely. If they'd taken the fucking ford. I believe it is 100% possible for them to have done everything they wanted here in one session.

They're planning to return here, so the prep isn't wasted, but that's not the point. The point is a) it very well could have been, and b) it was ultimately as likely for them to exhaust this location in one session as it was for them to cover virtually none of it. I was ready for the ford scenario, but I was also, by necessity, ready for dozens of others. Do you know how much work that took?


screenshot from my prep page in OneNote
And I can still think of a dozen things that could really use a little more fleshing out. When you run games this way, the room for improvement is theoretically infinite.

Get Back to the Point

Inasmuch as GMs take an outsize role in shaping the world and the situations the players encounter, we also take on equally outsize burdens creative, energetically, emotionally, and socially. If I want to play this way (and at the end of the day, I do), I need to find ways of doing it sustainably and with an eye towards my own limits and, dare I say it, my own enjoyment. GM burnout doesn't come from too much work, it comes from work that isn't rewarding enough.

I'm planning to follow this up with some reflections on how I've been dealing with some of these dimensions in my own game. The bad news is there's no panacea, and also that a level of fear is probably inherent to truly rewarding creative effort.  But I've been experimenting a lot lately with how to run a game, not just from the perspective of rules and design, but also as a matter of culture, materials, and sociality. While there's a ton of discussion of how to run a good game, and how to prepare X, Y, or Z, there remain some pretty serious holistic issues if we're to expect it all to be manageable. By all indications my experiments have been going quite well, and in the tradition of the original West Marches, I believe my findings may be edifying. 


  1. I loved your Onenote prepsheet. However, I made a deal with the people I play with: I don't have much time for prepping anymore, but I will always DM when nobody is up for it.

    I'm the spare wheel, but oddly enough, whenever I feel like DM'ing people show up. I don't mind not being the guy with the latest D&D 5 modules, but my players are always coming back for more, in an environment where they could easily find other DM's.

  2. DM burnout is a very real and very painful thing. My own burnout has led me to a place where I would rather muse about the game than play it. I simply can't be arsed to do that much work only to have a bunch of players tell me 'It's not like critical Role!' again.

  3. This is an excellent post and I'll be honest and say that it many sections of it resonated with me. (very nice to hear that other people also discuss RPGs with their therapists haha)

    As with many other things in life, I think a lot of this anxiety comes from culture and media. The GM is everything, in charge of the story, the world, the physical organization of the game/meet-up and, my personal favorite, in charge of the "entertainment". On top of that, "the GM has to be the players biggest fan", as some say. While on the other hand, the players just need to arrive to the session.

    It is simply too much. And as the comment above me states, I'm at a point where I would rather muse over a game than run it, it's an endeavor to push over that and actually host.

    For me it mostly depends on the group. If I'm familiar with the people and know how they "tick", I'm much more relaxed and the anxiety is minimal (aside of some stage fright). But on the other hand, some groups where I'm a player, I have a sickening amount of anxiety simply due to the behavior and attitudes of other people.

    I guess it comes down to picking your battles and actually respecting yourself enough to realize that this hobby should be fun for you as well, not just your players.

    Great blog btw, gonna add you to my reading list!

  4. Some discipline regarding the amount of content allowed per area can be helpful, even if it feels uncomfortably terse and potentially anxiety producing in terms of risking improv at the table. At least for me.

  5. I deal with a lot of the same feelings as you described. Over time I found what helped (at the risk of having quantum ogre thrown at me), was setting up a list of prepared locations, encounters, and dressing. I literally put everything I do in a randomizer (chartopia) and see what pops out, and in what order. When we roll for encounters there's also a possibility of location or dressing while moving through the map. Whatever order was rolled on the randomizer is what they see when they roll an encounter, a location, or dressing. It now exists on the map, can be revisited later, ignored, etc. I take that item off of the list to make room for something new. Whenever I have time to prep, I add to my list and just run the randomizer a day before our game to re-familiarize myself with the material that emerges. It also helps that I have Gillespie's Barrowmaze close to town, so that is always a go to option especially for new characters. West Marches is immensely rewarding, but I agree it can be mentally crippling if I try to go to too deep in that creative space.