It's OK to suck at being a Dungeon Master

Have you been in this situation? It is a few hours before the session you are hosting as a Dungeon Master, your players are ready for a night of adventure and stories told around the table (virtual or otherwise), and you are stressed out of your mind. Maybe you didn’t prep beforehand and are worried where the session is going to go, maybe you get terrible stage fright when trying to do NPCs with unique voices and personalities, or maybe you simply dread the thought of sitting at the head of the table with a group of people looking at you for the story of the ages.

Well, I am here to tell you that you can let go of your stress because It's OK to suck at being a Dungeon Master! Let me set the stage for a moment of how we got here before I dive into the details of why I would tell you that it’s fine to be terrible at running a session.

Let’s Play!

As our hobby has become more popular there has been a variety of excellent ‘Let’s Plays’ that have amazing Dungeon Masters and high production values. Shows such as Critical Role have brought many people into the world of Tabletop RPGs, all of them excited to tell their own stories and fight epic battles like they see in the show. This has led to what is commonly called the ‘Critical Roll Effect’ where fresh players come to the table expecting the same pacing and production levels as a show with paid voice actors and its own studio only to get disappointed when the reality of tedious character creation or boring combat encounters does not match those expectations.

This has led to an increasing amount of ‘pressure’ (real or imagined) on Dungeon Masters to give their games the same level of attention and detail as the Critical Role DM Matt Mercer, who has said in interviews he often spends up to four hours prepping per hour of the show. As much as I would love to quit my day job and prepare for my next sessions instead, the reality is that level of dedication is unattainable for most of us. We shouldn’t therefore expect our games to have the same level of production value as a Let’s Play or other forms of Tabletop RPG entertainment, and that’s something we will just need to roll with.

Why do we Play?

I find that often we need to remember why we are running our games. Hopefully your goal, like mine, is to have an evening of fun with a group of like-minded individuals telling epic stories and going on heroic quests. Your players are certainly there to have fun, or else they would not come to our sessions, and are not out to nitpick the flaws in your worldbuilding or mock your bad accents (and if they are then maybe they should play at someone else’s table).

Having stage fright before a game is natural and totally ok! It is something that still happens to me, and I have been a Dungeon Master for roughly eight years now and before that acted in countless theatrical productions in front of hundreds of people. Don’t worry if you can’t do a good accent, don’t worry if you don’t have everything prepared beforehand, don’t worry if your game won’t be the next Critical Role, just try to relax and have fun.

The worst thing you can do is to give into the fear or uncertainty and cancel your session. This is something that can easily become a habit, and you can only tell yourself ‘you just don’t feel like running a game today’ so many times before you realize you haven’t played in weeks. If you read my article on How to Create a Tabletop RPG Group, you will remember that one of my core themes of keeping a campaign going was consistency. You need to push through the fear and uncertainty to maintain a steady rhythm of weekly games. You will never get better at something without practice, no matter how scary that practice may seem.

Just Do It

Now there are some concrete steps you can take to prepare for your sessions to feel like you have a better handle on things. I would highly recommend the Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master by Sly Flourish as a tool I think every DM should have when preparing for their games. The book has useful tips on how to prepare the scenes of your adventures, how to run NPCs, and how to improvise when things go off the rails.

But the point I am trying to make here is that no matter how prepared (or unprepared) you are for your next session, be it the physical of writing down your campaign outline or the mental of overcoming any fear of failure, you just need to do it. You will figure out the process that best works for you as time goes on, and each session will become a little easier to run than the last.

Repeat the Motto

So let me say it one more time, It's OK to suck at being a Dungeon Master. When you feel stressed about your next game coming up, when you are watching the clock during the game to check your pacing, when you are afraid to give that NPC the funny voice you know would be great for them, you can remember the motto. This is something I wish I knew years ago when I first started out as a Dungeon Master, so hopefully you can learn from my mistakes. Let me know in the comments if you have any other tips on how you deal with pregame stress.


  1. I appreciated your article because, like you, I've felt the anxiousness and excitement of the pregame jitters. I feel being prepared without being obsessively prepared helps. Specifically, I like to have a list of random NPCs handy, maybe a random encounter or two, and ample source material to make sure the day/evening is filled with substance. I find having too much source material than too little helps me feel more confident in the story I'm running. Also, if you're a beginner, try running a pre-written story like Dragon Heist. It helped me feel more confident while avoiding the stress of world-building because the setting (Waterdeep) already exists.

    1. Thank you for your comment! Great tips as well. I would also say to try to pick a starter adventure or something shorter for your first time. It will make things easier!


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