You have worked so hard. Your NPCs have family trees that go back seven generations. You’ve covered your table in Dwarven Forge and hand painted minis. At the end of the session you feel… lukewarm at best. Everybody thanks you politely and goes home.
You’re thinking “What the hell am I doing this for? Do you have any idea how much work I put into this? Is it so much to ask you to be enthusiastic?”
It doesn’t take very many sessions that end this way before you are seriously considering dropping the campaign. I want to tell you about a concept I learned reading the work of Doctor Brené Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston. She has a great TED talk. The concept is called the “vulnerability hangover.” Understanding it is going to help you become a more resilient and longer lasting Dungeon Master.
Here I am going to describe a little about how vulnerability plays a huge influence on your experience of gaming, and provide four concrete steps you can take to manage the intensity of a post game let-down.
Dungeons and Dragons Requires Vulnerability
Dungeons and Dragons, and tabletop roleplaying in general are special for what they require of participants to play. They ask game masters to put themselves out there. Even if you are running published content, to make the game come alive you put your creativity and thus yourself out in the space to be witnessed and embraced or mocked. If you are running a homebrew campaign or world there is even more of your creativity on the scale.
A playwright friend of mine described witnessing having a first read of his play as handing a group of people sharpened wooden stakes and then laying down nice and still in his coffin. It is the same thing running a game. You are vulnerable.
The very nature of vulnerability is exposing ourselves to harm. We give others opportunity to dislike us, mock us, or dismiss us, and we cannot predict what will happen! We can labour for untold hours on session prep and we won’t know how it’s going to go.
The Vulnerability Hangover
The idea of the vulnerability hangover is: when we have been vulnerable it is often followed by fear. You will think to yourself, “Why did I do that? That all sucked! I bored everyone for 4 straight hours and everyone hates me.” You will likely feel desperate for overwhelmingly enthusiastic feedback to counteract these intense doubts. You will interpret anything less as simply polite covering for dissatisfaction.
The truth is, as Brené Brown sees it, having a vulnerability hangover is a great thing. These feelings are a sign you took some big risks and got outside your comfort zone. They are a sign you have done something courageous. Your feeling of discomfort is normal. As long as you keep pushing yourself to get better at what you do, vulnerability hangover is going to be something you feel often.
Reframing to Defeat Burnout
With this concept in mind a game master can reframe an intense post-game letdown with a few thought exercises and actions. Here are four actions you can take to improve your post-game experience.
1. See it Coming
Recognize the symptoms of a vulnerability hangover: fear, regret, anxiety disappointment, and desperation for affirmation. Take a deep breath. Instead of trying to quash these feelings, accept them. Identify them as a vulnerability hangover (and give yourself a thumbs up for having taken a risk).
2. Focus on Your Players
Pay close attention to what your players are saying. Your perceptions of the world while in hangover can be skewed. One tends to become self focused or “in your head.” Chances are you are missing very kind and affirming things your players are saying or doing because of the intensity of the hangover. Focus on your players’ words and make a choice to take them at face value.
3. Offer What You Want
Playing a character in a roleplaying game takes vulnerability too. Players usually recognize how much work you put in to your role. They themselves can fear they are not playing well enough or engaging with your world and campaign in a way that honours your efforts. If a player has a little hangover themselves and they see that you are feeling down at the end of a game (because of your hangover), they may assume something they did disappointed or frustrated you.
See if you can give them what you need and identify and affirm for your players moments where they took a risk. Call out and praise when dared to do something outside their comfort zone. You will relieve yourself from fixating on your own doubts. You may ease someone else’s fears enough the whole room starts to feel at relief.
4. Take Some Time Before You Dissect
Having an in-depth conversation about the nitty gritty of a session right now is dangerous territory. There is no need to analyze or discuss your failures and successes. Give yourself a pat on the back for showing up, and get into the details once you’ve slept on it.
The end of a game that wasn’t fantastic can feel catastrophic. Chances are good it was neither, and probably better than bad. Understanding vulnerability hangover will help you hold off on hitting the eject button. It will steer you from putting all the responsibility on your players to reward you with a certain level of praise. You’ll have more longevity as a game master, and time put in is what it takes to become great.
I mean this post to encourage discussion of the emotional and social complexities of Dungeons and Dragons and Tabletop Roleplaying Games. If this speaks to your experience please share and comment. I’d much rather you consider me a companion on your adventure than an expert.