Content of the article: "Cancelled My 2-year Campaign: Lessons Learned in the Trenches by a Stressed-Out DM"
It was Thursday evening that, with heavy heart, I made the decision to end the campaign I've been running for close to two real-life years (session count rang in at 83). But I didn't just end the campaign.. I told my group that it's been fun, but I won't be continuing to DM for, or play with, this group in the future.
This won't be a "how to DM well" post, but instead more focused on self-care for DMs who stress too much. It sounds like relationship advice which… it sort of is. You have a relationship with your group, and each player at the table. And it requires work from both sides.
Important disclaimer: this comes from the viewpoint of somebody who puts a lot of work into the campaign, and does his best to provide a quality experience.
It's not you, it's me
As DMs, we typically have in mind the type of players we want in our campaigns. For some DMs, it's tactical minds, others its about intense roleplay, availability, reliability, backstory/writing, creativity… After you've played or run a few campaigns, you get a good feel for the type of player you want.
The players in my campaign didn't put in any real effort outside of our time at the table. I would "assign" them stuff to do, even simple stuff like plan out their characters downtime or make item shopping lists. The week would go by with no effort, and the day before session I had to send reminders to them. They would then scramble to get everything done that day, and require my attention for all the questions that could have been addressed during the week. It was not fun.
Ultimately this was the largest reason I cancelled my campaign. I wanted a very different type of player at my table, who would show the same enthusiasm about the campaign. I know they were having fun, but they created so much extra work for me and added so much to my plate. The phrase "your fun is important too" gets thrown around here fairly frequently, which is very true. If your group isn't the right group for you – don't stay just because it could be hard to find something right. They don't have to be bad/problem players to be the wrong players for you.
Don't do it all
This is something I'm not sure how frequent it is… but my players used me as their sole resource about the game. Asking for rules clarifications, advice on direction for the campaign and their character, anything big or small. It took a LOT of effort, and it only changed recently, but they finally started to use each other as resources. It added a ton to my plate, being available to answer their questions as they came up.
Encourage your players to use each other as first point of contact for questions and advice. When they come to you for something, it should hopefully be the type of question that only you can answer. Obviously some DMs may like being the sole reference, but as a stressed out DM it was not for me.
Let players change it up
This was actually something very important I learned, that can be a necessity for longer campaigns (especially ones with newer players). They might need the opportunity to change their characters subclass, class, or other type of feature. I didn't realize that players would get bored with the same combat style for so long, which in hindsight makes a lot of sense.
But don't feel like you need to sacrifice the narrative to make it happen. If you're a big storyteller like me, tell your players they can definitely make the change.. if there is a narrative reason for it, and they're willing to make in-character effort. Changing from a Wizard to a Cleric? Well, you can sell your spellbooks and begin service as a priest for a large chunk of downtime. This was a huge factor in the longevity of my campaign.
It's okay to expect gratitude
Honestly, sometimes it can feel like pulling teeth to get a simple "thank you for session" from everybody at the table as the game winds down. You don't just show up and DM for your hours-long session (mine was 5-6 hours/week)… but you put in work outside of the game too. Depending on your desired quality of campaign, you might find yourself picking out specific music, researching real-world topics, creating dungeons, reading setting wikis (I had to do a ton of this as my player knew more about FR lore than I did). Some weeks I would spend an hour of prep, other weeks took as much as 10-15 hours of prep. DMing is legitimately a part time job that you do on a volunteer basis.
I know my players enjoyed the campaign. And they would thank me from time to time. But when you hear them thanking another DM week after week (we had a secondary group with a separate DM), it gets really hard to not hear such a simple phrase. If you're a player reading this, go make sure you tell your DM every week how much you appreciate all their hard work. It only takes a few seconds out of your day, but it goes a long long way.
I think this ended up being a large issue, and another core reason my campaign ended. It's a two-sided issue though. As a DM, you need to decide how available you want to be for your group. This ties back into "don't do it all". I was available basically all waking hours for questions or things. This wound up backfiring super hard, my players would procrastinate and fail to submit things with enough time for me to actionize them. I eventually set a hard and fast deadline 48 hours before session for them to ask for/submit anything to be part of the next session. Your time is valuable, and you shouldn't feel forced to cram just because your players don't respect your time.
The other side of the issue is player availability. At the start of the campaign, two of my players were near-impossible to reach. They didn't really use discord much, which was our sole method of communication. This was eventually fixed but replaced with… Them not being available game day, until about 30 minutes before we left to go to session. There's always last minute prep that happens on game day, as you realize you've forgotten something crucial or get a lightbulb moment, or just want to fine tune things to be perfect. Or maybe there's an emergency, and logistical decisions needed to be made and there were questions for everybody. This constantly drove me up the wall, but I decided it was the cost of playing with these people.
DMing should not feel like there's a "cost", or that you have to "settle" your expectations to keep playing with your group.
Honestly, it's YOUR table (AKA my Iron-Fist DM Style)
As a DM it's incredibly important to recognize that you run the table. You are the curator of fun. You need to put your own needs above others. Sometimes this means cancelling a session because you aren't ready, or feeling up to it. Sometimes it means forcing a schedule change to fit where your life is. And sometimes it means inviting in, or removing, different players. Yes, obviously there are however many other people whose lives are effected by the decisions you make. But with the amount of work and effort you put in, you need to take care of yourself first.
This is something I've always kept in mind, and probably the single largest reason my campaign was successful for so long. I dictated start and end times to support my life and mental health. I put the campaign on hiatus when I was in my final semester of Uni to focus on what was truly important (since DnD was a huge stress factor). Yes, you can maybe come off like a dictator or a tyrant. But chances are you play with one of two types of people: your friends, who should understand the amount and value of the work that you put in, or strangers/acquaintances whose opinions really don't/shouldn't matter a lot.
Know your own limits. Learn them, own them, enforce them. For shorter campaigns a lot of these issues might not arise, but the longer a campaign goes on the higher the chances are that the group implodes and the campaign is not finished. If you enjoy DMing, don't take the advice of "go be a player for a while". Take the advice to find the players who will make you happy, who will make all the hard work worth it.
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