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I'm a new DM/player with only a few weeks of experience in playing the game at university. My flatmates and I decided that we should all have a D&D game after I explained the concept to them.

They elected me DM, as I'm the only person in this group who has had any experience playing. I decided to look up pre-written modules. I tried my best to learn the first chapter in the Starter Set adventure Lost Mine of Phandelver and took notes.

After about a week, during which my players all created their characters, we had our first game. I felt like as soon as I started, I forgot every single note I'd made, and I kinda kept fumbling my words and repeating statements. I had my players meet Gundren in a tavern in Neverwinter as he gives them the quest. My nerves got the better of me, and I ended up freezing up for quite a bit during the game. I ended the game after the first encounter they had against the goblins, about an hour into the game, because I felt too embarrassed and awkward and said we'd probably continue the adventure next week.

Is there any way to recover from this mess?
How do I avoid freezing up during a game I'm DMing?

I kind of do experience stage fright, but I thought I could overcome it a little bit since I was just talking to a few friends.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ When I first started GMing I had a similar problem and asked this question. I think some of the advice I got there might help you too. \$\endgroup\$
    – Barker
    Nov 23 '20 at 19:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ Do you know anyone else who DMs ? Could you quietly sit-in at a game on the DM side and watch how they handle things without being a part of the game? \$\endgroup\$
    – Criggie
    Nov 24 '20 at 21:59
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This Sounds Stage Fright Related

The initial description of this sounded like stage fright, and the comments thread (which may get edited into the question) confirmed it, so I'm going to answer on that basis.

The bad thing about stage fright is stage fright: Believe me, I have been there. My high school forced all its students to take a speech class, and that entire semester-- something like 12 to 14 speeches-- I'd end a five minute speech just drenched in flop sweat, knees shaking, practically vibrating in involuntary panic, and experiencing almost out-of-body levels of fear.

The good thing about stage fright is, it does get better with practice and exposure. Maybe not fast enough to suit those of us so afflicted, but it does. (My university program forced another speech class on me, and many classes had a public speaking component. I got lots of practice whether I wanted it or not.)

If this really is a stage fright or just general nerves-related issue, then you actually asked two closely related, but separate questions:

Can you recover from this?

Of course! If you just mean an awkward first session amongst (presumably) friends and friendly types, then yes-- you just say, "Hey, guys, sorry bout last session but my nerves got to me. Bear with me a while, as I get used to this." After all, they didn't exactly step up and volunteer, did they? No, they drafted you!

How do you stop freezing up?

Well, there is no magic, here. It's just exposure and practice. Your instincts are already good-- you're familiarizing yourself with the campaign material, taking notes, generally preparing, etc. With very high likelihood, the more you do this, the better able you will be to function your way through it. And the more you can do that (usually) the less severe it will be the next time. You can read through any stage fright self-help articles you like to find what resonates with your experience the most, but the common theme in all of them is, "Don't give up."

One particular thing that worked for me, which might work for you here is the notion of the Friendly Audience. Even in general, most of us will never have to give a speech to a truly hostile crowd. Most people who attend a talk are at worst indifferent, and usually start with a baseline of sympathy and support for the speaker. But this isn't even that-- this is gaming, among (again, presumably) your friends. These people should actively want you to succeed (because if you do, they will have more fun) and should not be that interested in raking you over the coals. Moreover, it's gaming and not a structured, formal presentation. It's okay to take a minute for a deep breath. It's okay to take a minute to check your notes. It's okay to structure a 5 minute break every hour if that's what you need. All of that is okay.

If this is important to you, then my boiled down advice is: (1) Don't give up, and (2) remember that this is (or should be!) the very definition of a friendly audience that is fundamentally on your side, and (3) don't give up.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for the help and advice! @Novak I've just spoken to my friends and they said they're definitely still down for future games and would not mind me taking my time during the game if I need to. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 22 '20 at 0:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ I would add to this fantastic answer that taking a break to give you a chance to reset is also great. As a DM there is a lot for you to juggle and it is ok to say after an hour or so, right let’s take 20 mins or so for break, have a drink snacks, and then use that time to prepare yourself for the next bit of the adventure. \$\endgroup\$
    – Richard C
    Nov 22 '20 at 18:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ When I first started GMing, I was very nervous - so I roped my younger brother into doing a single-player "dry run" through the adventure I'd planned. Practicing the game with a "group" who A) didn't outnumber me, and B) I could throw the tomatoes back at if things went poorly (so to speak) really helped me relax when it came time to run the game for an actual group of players. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Nov 22 '20 at 22:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ One last piece of advice I'd tack on here....if these are your friends, be transparent with them. Instead of getting trapped into a nervousness spiral where you're nervous about the game, embarrassed about being nervous, and it just starts compounding on itself...be up-front with your friends. "Hey guys, I'm getting a little jittery, let's take a short break. Drinks, snacks, restroom, I need to stretch my legs for a minute (or whatever helps you relax)." DMing is hard. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 23 '20 at 15:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ One small additional piece of advice from my own experience: Performance nervousness won't ever go away, nor should it - there's a sweet spot to be found where the nerves kick in just enough to keep your wits sharp but still well below the freezing point. Sometimes I find that just reminding myself that being nervous is both normal and a good thing is enough to bring me closer to that desired zone, and can also give me a moment of clarity to remind me of what I should still practice or rehearse before showtime. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dave B
    Nov 23 '20 at 18:37
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When I was in school I had a horrible fear of public speaking of all kinds. Then, when I was in the earlier years of college, I got into table-top roll playing (around 1977). At first, I was a player. Then I became a gm.

It took five years, but eventually I was able to speak to others well enough to survive a job interview. A few years later, I was able to create and give seminars to strangers.

When I started as a gm, I was pretty bad. However, my players accepted this, and I managed to get better. One player, in particular (hi Barbles, if you're reading this), pulled me aside and explained some of the worst things I was doing in such a way that I could improve.

My suggestion is that you should keep gming and keep playing. And hopefully you'll have a friend like Barb who can help you. And I do think that with practice, your stage fright will go away. Good luck!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for your response and help @NomadMaker. I'll certainly keep at it and hope to improve in the future \$\endgroup\$ Nov 27 '20 at 1:54
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I've got good news for you - roleplaying is an excellent way to pick up skills like speaking in front of people and leading small groups that will be useful throughout your life. Nowadays people don't believe how shy and awkward I was as a teenager, because they see the skills and confidence I've learned since. RPG and LARPing being a great help with both.

As to your actual problem - it sounds like you're putting too much pressure on yourself to be perfect and remember everything and know everything.

One thing to remember, especially in a friendly game rather than in something like league play where there are external controls, is that it doesn't matter what your notes say. You can just relax and let it flow.

I don't mean "rocks fall, everyone dies", or that you should have massive continuity errors. For example if I make up an NPC I'll write down that NPCs name and a couple of words of notes. What I mean is that you don't need to know everything.

In fact you will often find your players go in unexpected directions so you will need to stray outside your notes anyway no matter how detailed they are!

In my recent campaign I had a altar to an evil god. One of the players stole the rubies from the idols eye sockets and was cursed, they were dying and would be dead by morning if the curse wasn't lifted.

I was expecting them to destroy the idol, or move them away, or break the curse with a spell, or similar. Instead the warlock in the party prostrated himself in front of the idol and started praying to the god. Begging for forgiveness for his ignorant party member.

So I could have just thought "nothing about that in my notes, guess I'll just have nothing happen." But instead I gave the warlock a vision and a choice. He could accept the curse upon himself as well, and they could make amends by performing a sacrifice on the altar before dawn, or he could watch his friend die.

That and everything that followed was the sort of memorable and unique experience that would never come if you just rigidly stick to a script.

So:

  1. Don't put too much pressure on yourself. Make your first encounters simple. One NPC, a simple objective.
  2. Try and relax and have fun. The DM is supposed to have fun too.
  3. Remember the players and the DMs are not opponents. You're all working together to have fun.
  4. If you ever freeze not sure what to do - roll a dice. (Who should the goblin attack? Roll a dice. Is the innkeeper friendly? Get a player to roll diplomacy, etc)
  5. Don't be scared to ask the players for help when filling in details that don't matter to the core story. For example if the bard says "Was there a temple to that god in my home town", you can say "there probably was, why don't you describe the temple for me".
  6. If you aren't enjoying DMing then don't force it, it's a hobby not a job and some people just don't enjoy it. Personally I love picturing a world in my mind and then seeing it come to life in other people's but that's just me. :)
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    \$\begingroup\$ "If you ever freeze not sure what to do - roll a dice." - Speaking from experience, this strategy is also good just to stall for a few extra seconds of thinking time :) Also, a big +1 for "Don't be scared to ask the players for help when filling in details that don't matter to the core story." If the players ask about some detail I haven't thought of, maybe something like, "Is there a chandelier in the room?" my response is usually "There is now! What are you going to do with it?" \$\endgroup\$
    – Dave B
    Nov 23 '20 at 19:07
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Take a break

There are several good answers here already, but one additional thing that can help is taking regular breaks. I like to have at least one 10-15 minute break per session (great for getting snacks or visiting the bathroom) but don't be afraid to take more as needed. I often ask my players to give me a few minutes if I've forgotten something, or need to set up for an encounter. Just say "I need a couple minutes to review my notes" even if it's really just so you can collect yourself mentally.

Silence is Golden

Don't feel like you have to talk any time there is silence. Some of the best inter-party roleplaying I've seen has been while I've been looking for my notes and the players filled the silence by talking to each other in character. However even if no one jumps in to fill it, a minute or two of silence allows everyone time to think about what's going on.

Forewarned is Forearmed

Tell your friends ahead of time of your concern. Depending on your level of embarrassment you could even just ask one of your friends to conspire with you and have them ask for a break when it looks like you're having trouble. That said any decent friend will be understanding and willing to help you through this, especially as you're the one going to the effort of running the game for them.

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Follow the three Ps, and you'll be fine:

Prepare

First and foremost, make sure you know the materials. For some people, this means skimming the book; for others, this means reading every word and making note card of every single option, like a choose-your-own-adventure. I've been GMing for a while now, and I could probably skim the material and get enough information to run a session from it, but it wasn't always like that. When I first started, I had pages of notes that I had written, along with quotes for specific descriptions and short paragraphs on every NPC ("Farmer Williams: 'earthy' smell, dirty fingernails, muscular, quiet and calm"). If I froze up, I knew I could just read straight off the card. It wouldn't be "fancy", but at least my players wouldn't be stuck with me awkwardly flipping through a module. As you get better at figuring out what you use and what you only need as a reference, you'll end up doing less overall prep.

Practice

Your players are going to interact with NPCs, and honestly, that's my favorite part of role playing. Practice speaking as an NPC, snippets of conversation and ranting monologues alike. Taking out the trash? Act like you're a bored guard, muttering to himself about having duty in the rain. Commuting alone? Dialog with yourself as a drunken pick-pocket the surly barkeep. This lets you not only flesh out some characters, but it gives you practice doing really silly things, like terrible accents, without worry about people staring at you. And, next time you freeze up trying to figure out what that sullen guard says when the PCs ask a question, you can blurt out something like "I've been stuck in the rain for hours and you're asking me about [topic]? What do you take me for, a ruddy golem? Adventurers, pah, think they're center of the bloomin' universe!" without even thinking about it - which gives you a chance to actually figure out how to answer that question as your players are responding.

Play

RPGs aren't about stellar acting ability and slavish dedication to the rules (or at least they shouldn't be). They're about having fun - so don't forget that you're playing a game. It seems a lot of people forget that GMs are there to have fun, too. Don't be afraid to tell your players that you are nervous, or to push some of the responsibility off on others. Start your next game with the intention to have fun. If you forget something in the module, it's ok! Half the time your players won't even notice. Chances are, if you're having fun, your players are having fun too. Hopefully, lower stress can lessen your stage fright as well!

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