How to Get Rid of DM Guilt Once and For All

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DMs are busy people. They have to build a world (or figure out how to make an existing world our own); coordinate gaming sessions; draw up NPCs; generate good plots; run said NPCs and plots; and occasionally square off against grumpy felines who think d10s are cat toys. It could be argued that DMs are the hardest working people in role-playing. And, occasionally, the most perforated. Add the demands of the game to the demands of real life – work, school, family, and socializing outside of gaming circles (Yes, it can happen.) – and you’ve suddenly got a very full plate.

So what do you do when someone asks you to run a game at an inconvenient time in your life? Do you cast everything aside and start planning, plotting, and world-building? Or do you take a balanced approach by evaluating the amount of work it takes to run a game versus your available time to do so? (There’s a right answer here. It’s not the first one.)

Good DMs Are In Demand

First of all, if your DM skills are requested, pat yourself on the back. You did something right. Someone, somewhere, really enjoyed one of your games, and word has gotten around. This is especially common when you have a core group of gamer buddies who circulate tales of your DM godliness to other gaming groups. Before long, someone will inevitably hit you up with The Question: “So, um, would you want to run a game for us?”

It can be hard to say no, especially if they’re pulling puppy-dog eyes and shuffling their feet in the dirt and stuff. But no matter how many stops they pull out, you have to stick to your guns. If it’s not a good time for you to run a game, say so. Then offer them some alternatives.

Maybe you can’t run the game right now, but you know someone who would be a good substitute DM. Make a recommendation and put them in contact with the person. Or maybe you could serve as an assistant DM for a few sessions while a newcomer takes the helm. If you don’t want to commit to anything formal, just make yourself available to answer questions and do some brainstorming over chat or e-mail.

Or you could just say no, and then point and laugh at them. I mean, you’re a DM. You’ve got to have a mean streak, right?

DMing is Serious Business

Yeah, I know; I couldn’t even type that without smiling. But it’s true. When you decide to run a game, you’re making the decision to invest a lot of time, energy, and possibly money into bringing your creation to life for the amusement of others. If your evenings and weekends are pretty hectic, you shouldn’t add to your stress by planning and attempting to execute an epic campaign.

There is room for compromise, however. If your players are okay with one-shot adventures, you could enjoy several evenings of game play with minimal planning. This will result in a lack of continuity, so make sure your players know what to expect before they show up to play. You could also form a team of DMs, each one responsible for planning and running the game on a given week. Just make sure that the partners you choose can comfortably fit the game into their schedules as well. Finally, there’s no harm in just being a player. Coax, cajole, or head-kick one of your less busy pals into running a game for your group. They just might take your place in the annals of DM legend.

Learn from Others’ Mistakes

Some of the best DMs I’ve known have also been some of the most stressed-out. Why? Because people asked them, sometimes multiple times, to run a game. Feeling that they had an obligation to their friends, they agreed to don the DM hat. The problem was the timing; one was preparing for a wedding, and the other was going through major marriage problems. In the end, the games folded because the DMs were constantly putting their energy into their real-life concerns (where it belonged), then slapping together mediocre plots at the last minute.

When you have responsibilities that must take precedence over the game, it’s not fair to yourself or your players to take on the additional responsibilities of a DM. Just be honest from the outset and manage your friends’ expectations. They’re asking you for a good gaming experience; make sure you can deliver before you agree to try.

Are you a harried DM with too much on your plate? If you’ve got a busy life, how do you manage your time to allow for game planning? I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions!

14 thoughts on “How to Get Rid of DM Guilt Once and For All”

  1. Sometimes a DM just needs to buy time. I’ve used “filler” sessions that take little or no preparation when I’ve had trouble getting the next installment of a campaign written. I’ve also run them so that other DMs get a break, or so they can finish their next campaign section. The idea here is to have a notebook or other record with some odd ideas and “instant RP” stuff.

    One of my favorites I ripped off from Star Trek. I’m referring to the classic “Transporter Accident” plot, where things get strange because of a malfunction. In D&D (and I’ve done it in a Neverwinter Nights session, as well, with great results), I use the old “go and fetch me the golden walnut of Fsnoivina” (Any generic fetch-it plot), with the twist that because of time constraints, the party has to be teleported to the item. Of course, the item is in an area that prevents teleportation.

    Quickly, before the clever player suggests they teleport to the edge of the non-teleport effect, you have the sponsor of the mission trot out his pet gnome and his teleport machine. Of course, not being magic, this will get the party there.

    They step into the machine… and you ask them all to be silent, as you pass out notes or whisper to each player the name of another player’s PC. Then you reveal that somehow, the party has been scrambled, and each PC is in the body of another. Each player must finish the quest as the “mind” of another PC in their PCs body.

    It’s always a hit, and funny as heck. Dwarves occupying the body of the seductress elf? Pure comedy gold. And, aside from some down and dirty encounters (just to see them try combat as other PCs with other abilities), you sit back and enjoy the players doing all the work.

    If it gets too silly, you can always use the “you all awaken from the shared dream” ending to the session. Also, this works best when all the players have known and played with one another for some time… The more familiarity the better.

  2. I have to say that this is a great article discussing a lot of topics which are near and dear to my heart as a DM and someone trying to give advice to new DMs in my own community. I will suggest this article to anyone who starts to get the ol’ DM shakes and may need something to give themselves a little pick-me-up and some solid advice.

  3. I have time to plan adventures and run. Sometimes I don’t find enough time to solidly read through and be comfortable with a core book of rules. That is what ususally gets me in trouble. So the adventure will run smoothly, up to the point the a player wants his character to jump out of a window and dual-wield shoot his enemy across the street in the face, while falling five stories down. Then I go, “What?”

  4. Honestly i have never had this problem. (Maybe i’m not busy enough) but between work and school i haven’t been able to play with my group in 3 weeks and it makes me feel bad because i cant game…especially when i’m at work and constantly thinking about whats next. i’m one of those DM’s that always does things in my head and rarely needs paper so doing things while im bein a cashier works well. now im not that old so you older DM’s probably wish you had time to do this but hey, thats life…hopefully my schedual will clear up after the holidays.

  5. For me, the key is to plan a whole session in one sitting. If I can only manage 30 minutes I fall back on published material that I tweak – and I take notes right in the books. It’s ugly but it works. If I can manage more time I do something nice with Dungeon Mastering Tools and Obsidian Portal.

    Being able to entertain players (and myself) for 4 hours on 30 minutes of prep time is my most valuable DM skill.

  6. yea im in 3rd year in secondary school(high school) and ive no time between school,dming,skateboarding,parcour,playing zelda games,jaming in my mates garage,studying for junior certificate,reading darran shan books,youtube,reading tips on this website playing warhammer and magicthegathering learning piano and maintaing a healthy sotical life and keeping my girlfriend happy. its like runing a triathlon

  7. I definitely fall into the harried GM category. One way I have alleviated this issue is by only having gaming sessions every other week for 4 to 5 hours. this way I have 2 weeks to plan for the next game session and I know how long we are going to play.

    Other ways I have tried to relieve this burden: beg, borrow, steal what you can find on the net and make it your own. (I do this during my lunch break at work.) I am doing a lot more off the cuff/ roll some dice and make stuff up gaming which works out well. I set up the sandbox style of play. In the beginning, the prep time was a bit more intense, but now that I have things in place it goes pretty smooth.

    I did create an overall outline of the general direction of the overall plot, but how the players get there is mostly up to them.

    Usually having only about an hour a night if I am lucky to prepare has taught me to concentrate only on what is necessary to run the game. Do not make up more than what you think the players will accomplish or be interested in. (writing up 100000 years of history is great, but if no one sees it or cares it ends up being useless.) If I have the time to create the fluff, I will, but usually that is a part of the game that gets improvised.

    I guess the easiest way would be to just run premade adventures, but that is not always fun, especially when others in the group may buy them.

  8. Just to comment on what FisherCatt said. Completely correct. Let the players create the plot lines in the world through the descriptions of their characters background. I’ve given my players a world to play in, but have left much of the history and such to be created by them through their backgrounds; tying things together as we go. I even have one player who is actually a “sleeper” and will at some point in the future “turn” on his fellow characters.

  9. I totally resemble this article. I don’t want to let my players down, but at the same time I have “real world” responsibilities at work and home. We have just been lucky. 4 of our players are married (to each other) and they bring their new borns with them. We run the games at my house (which pleases my wife) and I include my 8 year old son. my wife loves babies, and likes to cater while we play. She has been fantastic. Plus, it gives her a couple hours of “me” time. Everyone brings some food or drinks and we try to limit the sessions to 4-5 hours; meeting once a week (usually on Staturday). To make things even more fun, we have barbeques every once and awhile. This Thanksgiving we are all getting together to cook a great meal, enjoy each others company, and end the day with a DnD session.

  10. I beleive that I would be considered a’stretched thin’DM. Due to work and family life, I have a single Sunday a month to play. And truth be told I squeeze as much in as I can.
    On the average 8 hours of game, because of players (and my) schedule. It can be rather difficult to keep the enthusiasm alive from month to month. It’s great for me, I have a month to work out the details of my next run; but to keep the players eager to slay is a bit more difficult. “Builder” emails are a good choice in most cases. Write a recap of things that have happened (almost like a short story)with reminder of still existing hooks, mini games (Three-Dragon Ante, etc.) and the like and sent it out about mid point between sessions. (That way players are like ‘oh yeah, I gonna take care of said situation’ etc.) It keeps the desire to seek out the end result there. And for those that still want more, there is always RPGA cons to fill in the gaps.

  11. The best way I’ve found out of this conundrum is to ‘force’ the players to take a heavily active role in the planning. Caves filled with monsters, castles choked with vampiric zombies, or giant spiders in the forest are all things that can be cast into a game with less preperation than microwave popcorn. The tough part that the players love are the plot lines. A campaign thick and juicy enough for Sir Mix-a-lot to write a song about is what keeps the dice rolling. How do you easily make a plot the players crave? Don’t accept Player Characters unless they have a significant and deliberate reason for adventuring. To “see the world” is no good. To “seek revenge for my brother’s unjust inprisonment” is fantastic. With really good motives on a character sheet, the D.M. is mostly just responsible for tying the half dozen desires together. That’s easy enough to do with a little imagination.
    And make campaigns that have a predesigned endpoint, like the ousting of a corrupt mayor or returning the Wand of Wanton to the Mages of Mageria. This will give the players a desire to move forward quickly and not to wander about the world so much, looking for things to do.

  12. I definately fall under this category of DMs not because of my skills but because there is a terrible lack of people who knows how to DM from where I come from.

    I have given some thought on this and what I’ve come up with is to consider different alternatives of running the game such as only running conventions (and convention-styled) games.

    Set a certain number of hours of gaming and be assured to plan to fit your session according to the time you have set for yourself. This is a real great boon for time management but also takes a good sense of gauging how much time does an encounter takes for the players

    The recent innovation of a weekly delve by the RPGA is a good way to give you and your players the kick out of playing an encounter and completing a short adventure on a weekly basis while reducing prep and play time almost to a minimum.

    But if the commitments of campaigns are really the sort of thing that you and your really enjoy in the long run, use adventure paths or pre-written modules (e.g, Red Hand of Doom) or run a mini-campaign that span over months instead of years.

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