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So I've been doing some thinking and essentially realized I'm a garbage DM. I am literally the embodiment of Railroading and unwillingness to listen to their wishes. I love my lore way too much and get major ideas of how I want things to go and struggle to give room.

Hard part is... they don't really care that I do this. But what I mean is that maybe one of them is 100x better than me. In which case they should be doing it, not me! I mean I can see that there are definitely things they dislike about me. One guy in particular, I think, is spurred on a little by the Matt Mercer effect.

But I'm at a crossing, we are finishing a campaign I'm very disappointed in. The end became very clear and destined over time. They have started making their new characters and are getting excited to play my next story. But all I see is me failing them again. Do I take it into my hands and quit for their sake, or torture myself again as I realise I'll never change and mess it up again?

Or am I just selfish by wanting to give up on them?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I wasn't great at tennis when I first played it. But I improved. Likewise with DMing. I think you have an XY problem in this question, and that is the imbedded assumption that you won't change and are doomed to fail. From where does this impression of yourself come from? I'm a grandpa and I am still changing ... and you also have not explained why someone else hasn't offered to DM for the next campaign. Can you explain why that is, in your group? \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Sep 4 at 16:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ Lastly. This question/concern is probably better suited for a discussion forum. In any case, Welcome to RPGSE. The tour, help center, How to Ask and How to Answer provide some guidance on how to get the most out of the SE format. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Sep 4 at 16:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ I see this question in two minds. One, it is entirely reasonable for a Question Answering website to talk about issues that fall exactly in these parameters. We discuss complaints about railroading and "the mercer effect" and how to talk to your group or DM about it. Two, we aren't friends or therapists. At the end of the day, an answer here isn't supposed to be just for the benefit of the question poster. I think I would like to keep the question as long as we can agree the answer should apply to more than just this person. \$\endgroup\$ – GuidingOlive Sep 4 at 17:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ Hi Edmund. I think anyone who has been a DM has experienced times of frustration. Some questions: Are you not looking forward to the next campaign at all? You might be experiencing some burnout. Are you wanting to adopt a less railroady style? Is anyone else willing/able to take over the reins for a bit? \$\endgroup\$ – Rykara Sep 4 at 17:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ In this case, it's also sort of an X-Y problem. OP feels bad about certain aspects of their DMing/worldbuilding, and assumes their players dislike those things, and assumes that they'll end up disappointing their players no matter what; based on all those assumptions, OP is asking if they should quit. However, if OP asks about those aspects of their DMing/worldbuilding that they're having trouble with directly, then they might find that their assumptions are misplaced and that it ultimately ends up not being a problem. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Sep 5 at 2:18
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They are excited to play the next campaign with you at the helm - you have succeeded.

RPGs are about fun. It's in the name. Game. I can't imagine a scenario where nobody had fun and wanted to commit to another adventure with you. In this respect, you have been a successful DM. Given these things, you definitely shouldn't be so hard on yourself. A good DM is the one who effectively fosters a fun environment at the table. If you achieve this while completely railroading everything, that's great! Some people prefer that style of play - the only right way to play a game is the fun way. You said it yourself, "they don't really care that I do this". I understand this to mean something more like, "they are perfectly okay with my style of running the game", after all, they're excited for another go at it.

The DM gets to have fun too.

If you're not having fun, then this is where you need to focus in. Why aren't you having fun?

If you're not having fun because you feel that you are bad at DMing, the evidence seems to say otherwise. Having fun for you may just look like recognizing that your players enjoy what you are doing at the table.

But maybe you really just aren't having fun DMing. Maybe recognizing the fun your players are having isn't enough to make it fun for you. This is okay too. It is okay to no longer have fun doing something. DM burnout is a real thing. Maybe you just need a break. If this is the case, talk to your players about it. Tell them you need a break from being the DM. Remember - you don't owe them your DM services. It is okay to say no to another campaign.

It sounds like your players are having a great time, and this is the most important feature of a good DM. If recognizing this is all it takes to encourage you back into the DM seat and have fun yourself, all the better. But it's also okay to put your own fun first, and figuring this out may require some self-examination and communication with your players.

Openly communicate with your players about how you can improve.

My DM and I do this after nearly every session. A few days after each session, we go over the last session. I ask things such as, "How could I improve as a player over this last session? What were some things you liked and disliked about how I played my character" Likewise, my DM asks similar questions, and we give each other honest feedback.

I can remember one session where my DM felt it was a particularly terrible session. He was very hard on himself and felt like he totally failed us. It also happened to be one of my favorites, and unanimously praised as one of our funnest games by the rest of our party. But you never know unless you have this conversation.

Approach your players and ask, "What did you guys think of the campaign? Are there any things about my style of DMing you think I should work on and improve?" Their answers might surprise you.

Perhaps it's someone else's turn to DM

Alternatively, if you really don't want to DM again (which is okay), approach your players and say something like, "Hey friends, I'm really not feeling up to running another campaign right now." Again, it is important that you are having fun as well, and being honest with them is better than silently dreading every session as you prepare.

This question may also have some helpful perspective: How can a GM prevent growing disillusioned with their own game?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Agreed. Railroading is only bad if the players don't like or enjoy the campaign. Critics and commentators seem united in stating that railroading is a prior bad, and that makes no sense. \$\endgroup\$ – tbrookside Sep 4 at 19:39
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TL;DR: Find out what kind of game they want to play

For your next campaign, as you begin planning, try taking preventative measures and finding out what kind of game they want to play.

First off, you’re doing fine.

If they are having fun, you are a good GM already. If you aren’t having fun or are getting burned out, that’s a little harder to fix but definitely can be dealt with (refer to the other excellent answers for help on that).

Second, you can prevent feeling like they do not like your GMing style by asking them what kind of game they want to play.

Since you are starting a new campaign, I would suggest starting with a session 0. This lets you discuss the game itself and what you all want from it. For many issues, I like using the Same Page Tool during a session 0, and in this case I would especially talk through the questions about the player and GM roles.

Ask them how much they want to follow a plot, and how much they want to do their own thing. That answer can help inform your planning for the next time. If they just want to follow the plot wherever you take them, and you are willing to give them plot, that’s fine (some days, I really wish my players would at least travel in the same direction as the rails).

Advice from someone with the same problem

I have done very similar things to you. I have pages of lore and I recently made a 30 page journal that the villain wrote as a prop that the players for that game didn’t even find. Lore and adventures are fine.

Writing all that is an investment, and if you enjoy it, that’s great. My journal helps me play the villain in a consistent way, and I loved writing it. I also have a very clear end to that campaign, especially for the last couple major events. For another one I’m in, that one is a lot of me going “okay, here’s the adventure, play through it”. I sometimes feel like I’m railroading them. I don’t think any of them have ever noticed it. When you notice you are railroading them, but the players never notice, you’re doing it well.

A railroad plot just means you have an end you want to happen. It doesn’t have to mean making them do the plot exactly. That’s one of the worst cases. Railroading can be “you’re going to go get this and bring it back to the queen”, which I do a lot. It doesn’t mean you have to force them to do it a certain way. Having an end goal is a very good part of having a plot, and it doesn’t have to be called railroading.

Conclusion

You’re doing well, whether you are “railroading” or not, if the players are having fun (hint: if they say they are having fun and don’t look like they want to stab you, they’re probably having fun).

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Failing Forward

Thomas makes a great point. Your players are excited to have you DM again. In Roleplaying games, that is the standard that should be your bar. However, you are dissatisfied because you felt you failed. That is ok. We all are our own worst critics and you will hold yourself to imaginary standards higher than you could be expected to reach. But the master has failed more times than the novice has tried. So if you are willing to try again, keep trying. If you want to be a DM, you can only improve by failing forward. And there, a lot of us have a lot of answers to give about how to do that.

Set a manageable expectation

Matt Mercer, Chris Perkins, Matt Colville. These are all people who get paid to be good at RPGs. They have companies supporting them with products. They have studios that paint high quality terrain and minis. And they have staff to support production. As a start, never set your expectation that high. Most DMs are people who have jobs and lives outside the next session.

For your specific issues involving Railroading, start with questioning how you can split the railroad. It may even be one or two choices that circle back in. But set the expectation that the next campaign you'll have a branching path. Or your players can influence the direction just a little bit more. It's ok if that branch doesn't appear in session one. Just set the wheels in motion and wait for it.

Look for opportunities, not problems

A hard lesson to learn as a DM is that your story is not everyone's story. And it's equally hard to budge when you want a set piece to go down exactly like how you want it to go down. It's even harder when you believe that is bad DMing. Because you set up the expectation and fail to meet it to yourself. The solution isn't easy to take either. Sometimes, it's better to let the story take you somewhere.

Any DM will tell you about a time when their players went completely left field and hours of story planning went up in flames. And if you hear them, most of the time it's a good joke. Because it is. Being taken for a ride as a DM is sometimes the best your story will ever get. I like to say that "The Dice are the best storytellers". And I know how difficult it is to stop being so rigid. It's bitter medicine to know that you will hurt yourself less by letting yourself get hit rather than tense up. And you don't have to go extreme opposites on this spectrum. It's ok to have limits. Your players being allowed to run wild doesn't make for a good narrative either. Rather, set the expectation as "controlled chaos". The best groups bounce around but are generally driven in a direction.

Be the change you wish to see

It's hard work changing. You will not meet your own expectation on your first try. But you won't ever fail as long as you don't stop trying. And don't stop taking in information. Any single answer on this website nor any piece of advice given is going to be "The Truth". Information will only serve to help you grow as a DM. And I agree completely with Thomas' entire section on communicating with your players about how you can improve. If you don't know something is a problem, you can't begin to fix it. But if your group is excited for you to keep going, you're already at an advantage. It's harder for groups to tell you what exactly is wrong when they're dissatisfied overall.

But if you feel you are fatigued I completely believe in taking a break. DMing is mentally taxing. It's more so when you think you're doing the wrong thing the wrong way. I don't recommend quitting. Just take a couple weeks to get your mind clear. Then get back on the track and keep going.

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If you're having fun and they're having fun, then everything is fine and you don't need to quit.

I have some experience with stepping down as the DM and letting one of my players take over as a novice DM, and I can tell you that novice DMs are always really bad. So it's very unlikely that one of your players would be better than you.

If you feel like you're unsatisfied with the way you're generating the plot, it might be a good idea to try one of the existing published adventures and just tweak it in minor ways. This is what I do and I find it works well.

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