Friday, June 23, 2017

Looking at Ourselves

For some readers, this won't be a comfortable post.  But if you are a DM, I would like to ask you some questions.  Try to answer them as honestly as you can ~ you are the only judge of what you feel.

Do you agree or disagree with the following?

  • I find that overall, my players think that my campaign is boring.

  • I mess up every time I try to run my campaign.

  • I feel devastated when one of my players criticizes me or my game.

  • When I'm creating an adventure or a setting, I feel I have to do my best to prove I'm good enough, or else I will lose all my players.

  • I could stop running my campaign right now and none of my players would really care.

  • I feel at the end of the night, when I'm done, that I've let my players down.

  • I am never going to be a good DM.

  • The worst is hearing criticism from my players that I know is correct; that just proves my world is no good.

  • I get discouraged when an adventure doesn't go well.

  • Believing that my world can be good is more important than what other people think about it.

  • Making my players respect my world is the only way that they will respect me.

  • It is important that all my players like the campaign I'm running.

  • I avoid having arguments with my players because it's important that no one gets angry or unhappy with my game.

  • I have modified my ideas about role-playing games to be more accepted by my players.

  • It is very hard to get players who will come back and play again, or even to like my game.

  • Before making a change to my world, I ask my players if I'm doing the right thing.

If none of these questions bother you, then you're the sort of person that would worry me very much.  For me, these go right to the heart of everything.  These are the questions ~ and the beliefs ~ that are keeping us awake at night . . . and it is perfectly natural to read them and to feel a cold chill.  They're all questions that have started arguments.  They're also questions that never get answered properly.

With the exception of changing the context, they are straight from a self-esteem test that can be taken on the Psychology Today website.  The test is free.  Feel free to take it if you want; and try to take it, if you can, in relation to yourself, your players and your role-playing campaign.  There's no need to tell anyone what you learned.

But that's not where it ends.  Psychology Today also offers a primer on improving our self-esteem (I, too, have demons).  And for our benefit, I'd like to rewrite it for DMs.

1.  Be mindful.

We can't change our worlds or our campaign if we don't recognize that there is something that needs to be changed.  By simply being aware of our need to criticize the design, or our imagination, or our ability to be inventive or fun, we distance ourselves from those moments in the campaign when we feel those shortcomings most keenly.  When we rush to disparage the campaign, we are acting in the way that we imagine our players are thinking ~ and this helps us feel safe and one of the group, as we pretend that we can be as critical as they are.  This removes us from the feelings that threaten us.  We stop being aware of that very uncomfortable moment when we feel inadequate.  But without this awareness, we can easily fall into the trap of really believing that we're not good DMs, or that we never can be.

We should not believe everything we think.  Thoughts are just that - thoughts.  As soon as we find ourselves going down the path of thinking less of our campaigns, we need to remember: "These are just thoughts, just opinions.  They are not facts about our abilities."

2.  Change the story.

We all have an idea about how and why we got into role-playing in the first place.  We have strong memories of our first games, of how great they were, of the people who ran those games and how important it was for us to be just as good at this as they were.  This is core of our self-image as DMs.  But if we don't want to be imprisoned by that measurement, we have to understand why we thought those people were so great.  We have to remember we saw them from the point of view of a person who knew nothing.  Were they really so great, or are we just internalizing our first experiences?

Sometimes, thinking that we'll never be the equal of them is said so often in our minds that it stops us from being able to play as well as we can.  We need to start with affirming what we know now, not what we knew then.  We need to repeat this to ourselves as often as we can.  If we want to change the story of our abilities, we have to start believing it how far we've come.

3.  Avoid falling into the compare-and-despair rabbit hole.

It is part of our gaming experience to attend conventions, join groups, play with different DMs, try new games, read everything that we can find and measure our abilities against those of others who are doing the same thing we're trying to do.  We need to stop comparing ourselves to others.  Just because someone appears to know what they're doing in their campaign, has a huge youtube following or is a leading figure in the community we see, doesn't mean they're happy.  Comparisons only lead to negative criticism of what we're doing, which leads to anxiety, stress and a resistance against running our campaigns or working on our worlds.  This can affect our physical health as well as our games, the way we talk to our players and the creativity we deeply want to possess.

4. Channel your inner rock star.

Albert Einstein said, "Everybody is a genius.  But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid."  We are all playing wildly different kinds of games, with different focuses and different motivations, depending on what we believe and what we know.  Just because I have a particular philosophy about what makes a game work, which this blow expounds, doesn't mean that it's the only way.  But I have to believe it is my way, just as every role-player has to have enough faith in their outlook to know what is going to work for them.  Take something from me, taking something from someone else, we have to go whatever way best plays to our strengths and weaknesses.

None of this defines our core worth.  Our core worth is in our confidence in our own games, especially in times of doubt, when we are most challenged by outsiders.  That's when we have to be sure.  It's easy to make generalizations about messing up and failing, but reminding ourselves that we put ourselves in front of our players and took the bit in our teeth is what can tell us that we rock.  This is the real truth about ourselves.

We need to ask ourselves if there was a time in our lives when we had better self-esteem.  What was going on in our lives when we had it?  When it's difficult to have perspective on things like this, we need to trust the voices of others, who knew us then or who know us now, sometimes better than we do.  Sometimes its easier for others to see our genius that for us to see it in ourselves.

5.  Exercise.

We are not a brain in a jar.  We are a brain in a complicated, potentially unhealthy spongy mechanism that rewards us when we act in a way that's physical, just as our distant ancestors had to be every minute of their lives.  We're built that way.  That is why exercising creates a feeling of empowerment ~ because we are driven by the same chemicals that rewarded running across open plains, searching for food, escaping enemies and enjoying ourselves in an immense, unrestricted landscape.

Exercise and measure it.  Calibrating helps us see our accomplishments ~ and accomplishments enable us to feel better about ourselves.  Don't just relax.  Get out and do something fun.  Do something hard.  See how it feels.  Then eat the fuel that makes the "hard" easier and get the sleep that makes doing it more fun.

6.  Do unto others.

You're not just a DM.  You're a figure of respect.  To some of your players, you are that same amazing, great DM that they will remember all of their lives, as they was nostalgically about YOU.  We need to see that.  We need to let them take us our of our head, as we look at ourselves clearly, the way others see us.  We need to reach out and give them what we hoped our mentors would give us ~ only we need to give more than we got.  We need to make the next generation better than what the last generation did for us.

When we see someone do something in their life, that they deserve to be proud of, we need to tell them.  We need to help them recognize their worth.  Helping players and other DMs respect themselves is a key to understanding why we need to respect ourselves.  Volunteering to run a game when no one else will; letting a new player join even when we think we have more players than we can handle; these are ways to stretch ourselves and prove our willingness to try.  That, too, is something we can respect ourselves for doing.

Don't spend the campaign mired in negative thoughts.  Be positive to others and realizing that you're reaping a return in smiles, friendship and excitement. When you sit down with the players, don't threaten them; thank them.  Laugh when they say things that are funny.  Enjoy the game.  When your mood improves, the game table will feel it.

7. Forgiveness.

When have we gone too far?  When has a session gone astray, leaving everyone with hurt feelings.  When have we felt ourselves accused or made and accusation that is still unresolved?  We need to let those things go.  We need to let go of our resentment and move forward.  We're only human.  We have human needs, human limitations, human moments of weakness.

Forgiving someone does not mean we have to surrender some part of ourselves or protect our rights to independent.  Forgiveness is not a sacrifice.  It does not come with a price.  Forgiveness is an understanding, a clarity that says we're going to disagree with some people and that's all right.  We're not going to get along with some people and that's all right.  It doesn't define who we are, or who they are.  It just makes us different.

We need to stop hurting ourselves by letting what we've said, and what they've said, define who we can be in the future.

8. Remember that you are not your circumstances.

Things change.  They change for the better and they change for the worse ~ and we ourselves change as we adapt to all this change around us.  The key to our self-worth is to remember that what is going on today can only limit what we can become if we refuse to grow.

We need to feel good about ourselves to do that.  We need to feel secure in our thoughts, in the company we keep.  We need to feel able to find enjoyment and to not fear failure.  A moment of failure is only the circumstance we are experiencing in this moment.  It is not who we are.  We are the moment of success we will find when we learn from that failure.

We don't have to live forever in a world of doubt, self-destructive thoughts and regret.  We have tremendous potential to be great DMs ~ every one of us.  We have the potential to be aware of the truth and to make up our minds about what we want to be.  We can be careful not to be so self-critical that we forget our ability to get better with time.  We can effect a change on the world.  We can effect a change on ourselves.  We can surround ourselves with people who want to come along with us and we can forgive those who need to go their own way.  We can work hard to be better than this and, while we work, we can sing with the music and have a good time.


  1. Thanks for this post, very worthwhile.

  2. Thank you, Samuel. I was hoping that some would find wisdom and hope in it.

  3. That was very refreshing and encouraging, many thanks for this, it definitely made my day (and probably more ^^).


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