Dungeons & Dragons Online

The Social Aspect of TTRPGs: DM Investment and Hiatus Guilt

Edit: second proofread. Edit 2: added TL;DR at the top.

So, here's my question, and my TL;DR: have any other DMs had to pause their games for a long period during COVID, and do you ever feel ashamed of your inability to pick back up? What have you done to deal with that?


During this time of isolation, I find I need my friends more than ever, and roleplaying has been one of the most effective ways for us all to bask in each other's presence, even at a distance. But I've been…not okay for a long while now, and the effort it takes me to prep a session, manage a table, and roleplay effectively is too daunting a prospect to commit to, at the moment, even as the lack of that crucial interaction exacerbates my pain – and, I'm sure, that of my friends, who I worry for every single day. The guilt and shame of this weigh on me heavily and unrelentingly, and I knew I had to do something about it, for the very real fear that I will never be able to come back to my favourite hobby.

And of course, I can take steps within the system to reduce my prep time and mental load, but I was already doing those things for the sessions leading up to our hiatus, which is now in its seventh month. So I had to tackle it from a different angle. And I chose to tackle the root of my shame: that because I haven't been putting in the effort, it might mean that I simply don't care enough to do so.

And that's false. That couldn't be more fundamentally, more egregiously wrong and backwards. And so I sat down with my pen, and I set about proving that. And I'd like to share what I wrote – if not the recording I made of it, which is a little too intimate for public display. Even the transcript straddles that line hard enough to chafe. But I think it has value, and if it helps someone…then I should share it.

Note: I've substituted the names of my friends with those of their character, for anonymity, but the rest is unchanged. Including the swearing.


So I had an incredibly productive therapy session today, and in the wake of that, I find that I am not quite ready yet to move on with my day, so I wanted to write something – which I am now recording – for all of you.

I wanted to write it because I think of you all so often – every day – and have so many thoughts about you, that I felt the need (1) to organize them all, but (2) to express them in a way that conveys the staggering intensity with which I love each and every one of you. And then, I wanted to record it, because I don't feel that writing is personal and immediate enough to convey how much I love you – but also because goddamnit, it's going to take me a few tries to get through this.

Now, I'll give you a warning: I'm about to overshare in a big way, and in a way I acknowledge is going to be pretty difficult to respond to. It is…uncomfortably sincere, and because I'm posting it on Discord – an instant-messaging platform – there's a temptation to respond to it right away, in that moment after you listen. Keep in mind this took me, like, two hours to write – and that, after an hour-long therapy session. Please, allow yourself the space to not respond; not right away, or not at all. This recording is also uncomfortably intense, and because we are all empathetic friends to one another, there's a temptation to turn your own amp up to 11, as it were, to respond at that same volume – whether right away, or at some future time. I certainly do not expect from you all the level of work that I've just put in. I won't deny: I did make this to give you the feels, but that's what it is: giving. You guys have given me so much, and I cherish every moment I spend with you. That's why I love you all, and that's why it's so important to me not just to tell you that, but to mean it, and to show it, too.

With that out of the way, I'd like to go about this individually, by recording a short message for each of you. A lot of the things I mention apply to many or most of you – heck, we all tend to share parts of one another's personalities, either because we chose our friends well, or because we play off of each other well enough that it comes out to the same thing anyway. Still, if I try and trace all of those threads, I'll be here all year, and I haven't even started yet. Anyway! I'm investing enough in this already, so I'm gonna take the easy road on organisation and just go in alphabetical order…Fuck it, reverse alphabetical, because I'm a cool kid. Ready? Go.

Genwarin: I love your listening skills. Whether you have direct input or not, whether you yourself are in a talkative mood or not, you are always quick to jump in and declare your presence in a conversation, even if only to assure someone that they've been heard. I often feel that you are the binding of our book, tying our conversations – and our friendship – together. The neverending anxious voice at the back of my head sometimes worries that we let you fade into the background, and that you may content yourself with sharing only occasional, or only surface details of your life with us, because you already find so much fulfillment in just being here, with us, listening. But that listening ear is ever-present, and always, it inspires me to listen, too.

Praisegod: I love your equanimity. You combine an understated, jovial manner with a subtle, dry wit that undercuts the more gregarious personalities among us, balancing the dynamic. In the same way no song is complete without its bassline, we were not complete until you joined us. So fitting a part are you that I often forget you have not always been with us, and in those moments I remember, I worry that you may feel tacked-on, or out of place. In the beats between notes I remember conversations we had in university, and I fret over what may fill the silence behind your smile, as I ponder what fills the silence behind mine. But I wait for the moment your mellow harmony picks back up, as it always does, to inspire me to provide a counterpoint.

Keri: I love your magnetism. Whatever the group dynamic is at a given time, you have this way of acting as a force multiplier. When you first joined us, I could sense your frustration as you attuned yourself to the energy of this eclectic gang of oddballs that – it seemed to me – you felt as though you should click with, and it just wouldn't fall into place. I wonder if – and how often – you still feel that polarity shift, pulling you out of alignment with us. Because you did click, and we all saw it: how you can both electrify someone, making them shine all the brighter against your backdrop, or be buoyed by the group in your own right, toward some shining moment all your own.

Bezekiel: I love your momentum. You have an innate force of personality that the rest of us might match; either by sheer effort, or by channelling the frenetic energy of the group once it gets rolling, but you just…bring it! In our every interaction, I am inevitably in awe of your presence. You remind me of how much my own momentum can lift up the others around me, and if I even lift, bro, it's often because you inspire me to. I am concerned for the state of your lower back, though. I mean, we're out here racking weights and you're always benching so much more than me, and I think of how much recovery time that must take…but every time you show up, you Show. Up, and I can't tell you how much I respect and admire that.

Zook: I love your deliberation. You pay this particular kind of diffuse attention to everything that's in your sights. In any given conversation, you are just…there. All-encompassingly…present. Then, when you do take a step back, there's this palpable air of…analysis? Or, contemplation: like you're really digesting what you've just acquired. And whether that leads to a unique insight, a well-placed joke or even just the sense of Zook will remember that – it is always a delight to feel truly seen and noticed. I worry how much I may not notice about you, and that I don't return enough of the time and attention I so value you giving. Thank you for inspiring me to pause and consider.

Encephalitis: I love your levity. John Cleese once said that “just because something is serious does not mean it has to be solemn”, and you embody that more intuitively than anyone I've ever met. You have this way of seeing life as a joke, without ever undercutting its importance. You make it seem so effortless to crack out all these jokes on the fly, but when someone presents a problem, the claws come out and you just tear any bullshit to shreds with such vehement sincerity, which is all the more impactful in contrast to your jestering a minute before. I often wonder if those claws are quite so sharp directed inward, and I think a lot about what might be building up under the cap and bells, just out of sight. You never seem afraid to show your stripes again, though – the tiger's or the jester's – and either way, I'll be in that audience till the curtain falls.

Avrum: I love your resilience. You have to work so fuckin much, dude, at your job and at your life. And you Just. Don't. Stop. That's something I need a lot of, too, and I don't even think you know you're out there propping me up when I'm about to fall down. You're always busy, so you don't join us often, but I'm so goddamn happy every time I see you, because I know you're still on that grind, but you haven't let it grind you down. It grinds me down, sometimes, and I think of how few breaks I give myself, and I worry how many less you must get. Make some time to come chill with us again, bro. It ain't for nothin' we wanna prop you up, too.

Silv: I love your calm. Because it's the most interesting kind, isn't it? Just as you have the deadpan snark and the WHAT THE FUCK in equal measure, so too are you grounded and collected, and also passionate and wild! I am so honoured to be one of the people who gets to see not just the placid surface of that ocean, but the surging currents underneath. I can't wait for the times when we get to see you just unleash yourself on a topic you're excited about. Or angry! I can't help but be fascinated. You are the calm in the eye of the storm! …And so I wonder if sometimes, you might want to draw us close to keep us where the skies are clear. But if I'm gonna give you a hug, I couldn't care less how dry I am by the time I get there; after all, the wind and rain are part of the fun! The coolest part.

Thorne: I love your earnestness. You take such sincere pleasure in the things that you enjoy that it's impossible not to enjoy them alongside you. Making your acquaintance has been a genuine joy for that alone, but more than that, I have so much respect for you – for anyone who is able to be so genuine, so freely. Being true to yourself is a skill and a perspective that you have to go through so much to develop, and – not having known you as long – I regret that I haven't taken the time yet to ask about that journey. Still, we'll be caravaning a long while yet, I hope. And when we find a good campsite, I'm sure we're both the type to stop and enjoy the fire.

Rasa: I love your discernment. You have a knack for finding just the most…interesting! topic or meme to start or continue a conversation, and I find your contributions lend us a certain coherence and groundedness: our continuity is all the smoother for your patient maintenance of it. I regret that – again – not having known you for quite as long, I may sometimes fail to pass the puck, as it were, and that you may feel as though you are sitting on the sidelines of us, waiting for your moment to jump back into the match. I always anticipate that moment, though, because every time it comes is a genuine pleasure.

So…yeah. All that to say, I miss the crap out of our D&D sessions, and I've been carrying just…so much guilt and shame that, as the DM, I haven't yet mustered the will to start us back up again. And all of this ties into that – how we're a bit of a patchwork (though one I wouldn't trade for the world), and how much more I worry – for myself and for you – when I don't reach out. So…I did. And maybe – hopefully – if I blow out a few of my own cobwebs, I can take a few of yours with me. COVID's been rough on all of us. I know I'm not the only one.

And I also know: if I'm gonna get better, you'd better fucking believe I'm taking my best friends along for the ride. So, even if it's not D&D, I'm gonna try and set up game nights, or movie nights, or just drop into the voice-chat every so often…even if it's just me; even if I just end up streaming a video game to an empty room. Because I can reach out whenever I want to. And because, in all the world…there's no-one I'd rather reach out to…than you.


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The response was muted, but I expected and asked for it to be. Despite that, I know I was heard, because the first post after mine was a response to what I'd put at the end: "No, bad DM! No feeling bad for not working!" And I have to say, just airing that out was incredibly cathartic for me. I'm not out of the woods yet, but my steps are so much lighter for having shared my burdens. And although no-one has addressed it directly, our server has seen a noticeable uptick in activity since I posted.

Never forget that, as a DM, you manage more than just a world, some NPCs and an adventuring party. You manage people, and in doing so, you commune with your friends. And if you can't do that through the game directly, you can still use what it taught you. The tools you employ to do that may not be my tools, but you should still break out your toolbox, and I hope to see some discussion of what tools you all keep in there.

Let me close by reminding you all of what I needed so badly to remember myself:

I am a DM without a game. But I am still a DM.


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