Why I’m At My Most Neurotic When Doing A Thing I’m Good At
(CN: The following is about gaming as much as writing, and contains discussion of my mental illness.)
Let me start with some self-indulgence. This weekend, I am running a one-shot for some very dear friends of mine, and I am excited and scared. While discussing it on Facebook with my friend Roo, she said:
I was telling a friend about your one shots…and found myself saying something incredibly true: you are on a very short list of people whose GMing skills and style are such that if I have a chance to play in a game you’re running, I will jump at the chance every single time. I adore playing your games and getting to spend these bits of time sharing the space in your head.
This is so kind of her to say, and it felt like a beautiful payoff for all the hard work I have put in getting better at running games (among many beautiful payoffs, but I needed one today especially). But the point of this post is not to sit here and pat myself on the head; it is to discuss the other side of that coin. My gaming stuff is good because I care about it a lot. And my gaming stuff is hard for me because I care about it a lot.
Writing is a fraught activity for me, and as a GM even more so than as an author. (I also have a lot of anxiety and angst about gaming as a player, and some of what I am saying here may be true for that end of things, as well.) This is something I am coming to grips with in my life right now, as part of my effort to understand myself better on both a macro- and a microscopic level — that I have a lot of anxiety about doing creative things well, even though I demonstrably do them at least pretty well (well enough to get lauded in the case of GMing, and well enough to get published in the case of writing), and that a thing I have chosen as a hobby causes me more stress than a thing that I do as a theoretical paying gig.
I put a lot of time, energy, and care into my creations. For fiction, that means outlining, editing the outline, maybe working on story beats before or after that if I think I need to worry about pacing (especially for things like comic scripts or flash fiction where I have a very restrictive format or a limited amount of space for the story to breathe); it means writing the zero draft, the rough draft, the first draft; it means alpha and beta readers; etc., etc., etc. For gaming, it means penning the scenario; figuring out what notes I need to write and what I need to let myself wing; selecting (or writing) stats for the various characters; parceling out the clues (for mystery stories) or big epic moments (for superhero stories) or monsters, traps, and loot (for dungeon crawls); finding ways to set the right mood (for literally everything). A lot of that detail work is done unconsciously, though I think more of it is conscious with game design, since you do not get the same kinds of second chances in GMing that you do with fiction.
And that’s half of it. What Roo said put the other half in stark relief for me, so much so that it gets its own separate paragraph for maximum drama — like she says, my creations are a walk inside my head. It’s only natural that seeing people taking that walk in real-time is harder than the idea people are doing it where I can’t see.
When I run a game, I am seeing peoples’ reactions to it in real time. When a moment falls flat, it falls flat right then and there, and I have to recover from the lack of impact in just as little time. When an encounter proves to be unbalanced, I have to fix it now, or at least decide how to prevent the game from either moving forward much quicker than anticipated or grinding to an unsatisfying halt. Even if somehow a total garbage piece of my fiction goes steaming and stinking out into the world, the worst I will see is a nasty review on a website somewhere. If my game is screaming-out-loud bad, I am in the middle, watching it happen.
It hurts to have a creation fail. I care about my stories, RPG and prose alike, and caring about them means I put a lot of time into it, and that loads things in a way that I’m not sure people outside my head always see. (And I wouldn’t demand they do so; it’s not their responsibility to take care of my feelings.) So when things fail hard, the first thought I have to deal with is not “How do I improve on that?” it’s “Oh God I’m a failure!”
That is manageable; anxiety is something I deal with every day, and while I am not perfect at managing it yet (and perfection is not a realistic goal anyway), I manage it well enough to see it coming eight times out of ten and not act out one of the other two times. But the thing is, because of the anxiety, there are things that set off the failure alarms that are not indicators of failure; and a lot of those need to be things I can roll with if I want to truly be in control of my anxiety.
There are gamers who are happiest when they are testing the boundaries of the narrative, looking for unorthodox solutions and trying to be clever. And that’s valid! But to anxiety brain, it can read as them trying to poke holes in my creation, which leaves me scrabbling to fill those gaps.
There are gamers who do not do a lot of external roleplaying, who roleplay through their actions rather than through facial expressions or tone. And that’s valid! But to anxiety brain, it can read as my emotional content failing to hit its mark.
There are people who come to a game just plain wanting a different thing than you were delivering — who were expecting a powered-up dungeon crawl when you prepped a diplomatic mission, or were going for personal horror in a game that is more about solving a murder, etc. And that’s valid! But to anxiety brain, it can read as a failure on my part to accurately set the stage for the game. (The subject of being explicit about the narrative, mechanical, and temporal goals of a game you are running is a whole other animal that I am not wrangling in the space of this post, but, that’s a thing, too.)
The list goes on. The point of this is to say two things: that GMing is hard, and that sometimes enlightenment comes from the most unexpected places.
I’m going to run a one-shot tomorrow, and it may not go quite like I intended. But thanks to today’s unexpected insight, I’ll be better equipped to deal with that than I was when I woke up this morning.
And even if that’s all I get from today, that makes today a victory.