It began, fittingly, with a 5E Starter Set. A friend bought me the D&D beginner’s box, and we agreed to form a group to try the world’s most ubiquitous role-playing game.
I became the de facto DM, and I shouldered the responsibility with gusto and a sprinkle of worry—at the time, my wide-eyed pining for fantasy-themed adventure overrode the sense of anxiety I felt at taking on the responsibility. I didn’t realize then that Dungeons & Dragons would become my most toxic relationship.
Not because of my players, necessarily, but because I never stopped to ask myself what I wanted from the game. My relationship with D&D—more specifically, with being a Dungeon Master—turned into a tumultuous on-again, off-again fling. It took a toll on my sense of self-worth, my confidence, and my mental wellbeing. By the time I decided to let go of any designs on being a Dungeon Master, I’d spent two years trying to make an unworkable infatuation into a meaningful relationship. In other words, I was the immovable object, and D&D was the unstoppable force.
I should say up front that I still love Dungeons & Dragons. I even have two characters stashed away in case the opportunity to use them pops up in the future, and I hope it will. But my “break-up” with the version of me that wanted to be a Dungeon Master proved a pivotal step in learning to let go.
I didn’t start running my own game until months after my friend bought me the Starter Set. In the interim, a different friend and fellow book reviewer launched a campaign set in Ravnica, a vibrant and brutal Magic: The Gathering setting. I learned the game by playing as Jimothy Sparklesprinkle, a plucky bard who lived up to all the stereotypes, seductive tendencies included. I could fill volumes with Jimothy’s ridiculous exploits, but I’ll save that project for another day. Jimothy’s campaign acclimated me to D&D, teaching me the intricacies of the game. Playing under the deft storytelling hand of my friend gave me a framework on which I could base my own hypothetical future campaigns and DM style.
The hypothetical turned very real when I fired up a seven-person campaign based on the adventure within the 5E Starter Set. I felt like I was ready-made to DM a campaign: I love to think on my feet, riff with friends, and tell stories. I adore fantasy in all its forms. This felt like a good fit, an easy win. Early on, I definitely overestimated my readiness for such an undertaking—all of the fantasy knowledge in the world cannot prepare a fresh DM for an unruly seven-player group with no collective experience. I entered into the process with little understanding of what the other parties wanted. Moreover, I allowed too many people into my creative headspace, not giving myself room to grow or make the mistakes every first-time DM needs to make. Perhaps most significantly, I didn’t understand that DMing doesn’t need to be as daunting or complicated as I made it seem. There’s no rule stating you need a grandiose, MCU-style interlacing narrative for your campaign to succeed; I tried to emulate a vast, complex narrative anyway, and I failed.
We made it maybe six sessions. I tried to craft my own world based on the Starter Set content, a task I found crushing in its difficulty. My desire to ensure that everyone enjoyed the game led me to give players easy wins. I granted powerful items to them even if they did nothing to earn them. I deus ex machina’d bosses my party couldn’t beat. I struggled to balance the needs of a whopping seven characters within a compact narrative meant for half that many.
Burnout settled in, and I realized the situation was untenable. I put the kibosh on the campaign and took my first break from DMing.
The break didn’t last long. I chatted with a few of the players about reviving the campaign and picking up where we left off, but with a smaller, leaner party. More importantly, with a party that wanted to commit to the game and take it somewhat seriously. Here I learned an important lesson, though this campaign, too, would falter: I should have discussed at length what my players wanted from D&D, working to shape a game that meshed the story I wanted to tell with the way they wanted to play. Instead, I operated on my terms.
This, too, was short-lived. It took about six months, during which we played only a handful of sessions. I loved the players that remained, but they all had different expectations. One wanted a low-commitment game without having to do much outside of actual game time. Two others were constantly at each other’s throats, creating a tense atmosphere. We couldn’t agree on what we wanted as a group. One player would sit silently until the party entered combat, refusing to role play. Others wanted deep, lore-filled backstories and heavy exploration and NPC interactions.
To be clear, they were all excellent players, and though this party also fizzled, the players that comprise it remain my best friends. It just wasn’t working. But rather than break up completely, I took a different approach. I tried to redefine the terms of my relationship to the game so we could stay together and keep going. Enter the Bounty Hunters’ Guild.
By this point, I thought I had identified the pain points of my relationship to DMing. I couldn’t keep up with a sprawling world. Developing side quests and the main storyline was a burden on my free time that brought me no joy. But when I was in it, actually running a session, I had fun. So I opened my game back up and invited anyone who wanted to play D&D to a low-commitment league called the Bounty Hunters’ Guild.
The concept was simple: anyone who wanted to play could play. Anyone who wanted to DM could DM. The Guild would feature one-shot storylines intended for 3-4 players, which we could then recycle if more players were interested. I created the Unofficial Smirnoff Ice Dungeon, which had players working on behalf of Smirnoff corporation to market the company’s products in fantasy worlds. It was the kind of fun I had longed for in my first campaign—funny stories fueled by a balanced combination of combat, exploration, and role play.
But the pangs of doubt returned. In a few sessions, players were outright mean to each other. And I swiftly discovered that I was the only one willing to write and DM a session, which was at odds with the Bounty Hunters’ Guild concept. (I still have a character I made for these sessions sitting in a dark Google Drive folder, waiting for his chance to test his mettle. Perhaps Orchibald Bowtickler will fire his bow once more in the distant future…)
The Bounty Hunters’ Guild fizzled because it relied too heavily on me to deliver—and it was around this time that I started to notice my anxiety kicking in. I was beginning to grasp and define my mental health struggles, many of which were ignited by the need to act as a people-pleaser. During this third (and penultimate) iteration of my DMing career, I had an epiphany.
I felt that I was giving everything, and receiving nothing. Maybe that’s a bit severe—my players thanked me for my hard work after every session, and a few of them remained highly invested in their characters and stories, which was a fun hobby outside of playing and planning. However, each time I sat down to craft a dungeon or a module, I just felt drained, as if the energy was leaking from my body, dissipating into the air around me instead of channeling into the creative opportunity in front of me.
And that’s when I started to think: Maybe my relationship with this game is toxic. And maybe it’s not anyone’s fault.
I finally had the tools to understand my relationship with D&D, and I came to the realization that I didn’t have a healthy connection to it. The game I thought would give me a creative outlet and an easy way to spend time with my friends instead consumed my free time and stoked my anxiety. But like a lot of bad relationships, it didn’t quite end there.
My last-ditch effort was a from-scratch campaign based on the Ravnica story my friend runs. I invited two players from the previous campaigns and two rookie friends who had expressed interest in the game. For a while, it was all hunky-dory—we had great sessions filled with laughs and hilarious moments. I had learned more about constructing a narrative, and my players were at least tangentially interested in the story.
So why, then, was I so burnt out and upset whenever I had to plan a session? I had what I thought I’d wanted along: great players who agreed on the level of story and commitment they wanted. Frequent-enough sessions to keep everyone interested. Modules full of fun, funny moments and meaningful interactions.
After four attempts at DMing, all resulting in the same burnt-out frustration, I at last turned the lens on myself. I finally looked inward and asked: what isn’t working for me?
Pretty much everything, it turns out! I eagerly took up D&D, thinking it would be the perfect target for my creative energy. I thought I could just tell stories I wanted to tell and enjoy them with my friends, but I’d forced the image of what I thought I wanted onto a game that begged for more malleability, more randomness and tangents.
When all was said and done, I had an honest conversation with myself. This isn’t what I want. This isn’t sustainable. One long, tearful message later, I had announced to my final group of players that I was stepping away. This time, I didn’t lace the message with maybes or empty promises. No more “I’ll review this when I’m ready” or “I might DM again soon” or “I will continue the Bounty Hunters’ Guild.” I needed to quit; so I did.
Since then, I’ve leaned into playing D&D as a character and let go of the urge to DM. I won’t say I’ll never do it again, but it won’t be for a long while. I channeled the energy I thought was such a perfect fit for Dungeons & Dragons and instead turned it toward the page and writing stories I would’ve otherwise told through the game. I fleshed out my Jimothy Sparklesprinkle character and wrote him a more complex history (with massive help from my own DM) than I could’ve ever imagined during session one.
It took three and a half failed campaigns and a boatload of self-exploration, but I finally understand what it takes to break off a relationship that isn’t working. After I looked inward and acknowledged my feelings about running a game, I learned to let go and find a way of playing that allows me to truly enjoy the pleasures D&D has to offer and have fun—which is, of course, the point…
And who knows? In the future, I may return to the DM circle refreshed and ready to start anew. But for now, I’m content to move on. I hope my experiences might benefit other relatively new players avoid some of these pitfalls, or more generally serve as a reminder to cut yourself some slack, follow your instincts, and—if doing something makes you unhappy— find a way to change it for the better, even if that means you have to let a large part of it go.
Cole Rush writes words. A lot of them. For the most part, you can find those words at The Quill To Live or on Twitter @ColeRush1. He voraciously reads epic fantasy and science-fiction, seeking out stories of gargantuan proportions and devouring them with a bookwormish fervor. His favorite books are: The Divine Cities Series by Robert Jackson Bennett, The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, and The House In The Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune.