Game night for our group has always been the day out of the week we can let off some steam. When it’s board game night, there’s usually time to let down our luxurious social hair and talk about stuff, including whatever’s bothering us. D&D nights tend to be more escapist, and we’re on-task right after everybody gets done eating. Up until now, this has worked pretty well. When I first started DMing, it was really stressful. It still is, but there’s a certain euphoria that comes with getting a session to take flight (or at least not to crash and burn), and it always feels good when it’s all over.
Except when it doesn’t.
The Seeds Of Destruction
It started out like any other day. I got my son off to school and went to work that morning. A couple of guys at work had just quit, so there was some strange tension there, and I was frustrated with a coding problem. Nothing I couldn’t handle. I had done my prep work for the game the night before, so I was confident everything was going to go OK. Then, I ordered a pizza.
A pizza from Hell itself.
My wife and son had already eaten, as they prefer to before the kitchen table gets occupied. I had not eaten a particularly large lunch, expecting to gorge on gaming pizza. I usually order Papa John’s on game night just because it’s easier, but that night I decided to go with a nearby local place. I know this place for two things: amazingly delicious pizza, and occasionally abysmal customer service. Indeed, I have received the latter on several occasions over the last decade, and it once prompted me not to order from there for a long time. It had been a great while since the last incident, and I really wanted their pizza, so I made the call. I’m told my pizza will arrive in about a half hour (pretty normal since the place is just a couple blocks away).
My friends start to arrive. They all brought their own food, as they frequently do. Everybody eats (except me) and we talk and relax a bit pre-game, as usual. My stomach growls, and I realize it’s been an hour since I ordered the pizza. I call the restaurant. I get the same teenage girl on the phone who took my order who assures me it is on its way. I ask her to check, and wait for 5 minutes on hold. She returns to tell me they’re making it right now, and it’ll be out right away.
It’s about now that I hear my son wailing. I don’t know any of this yet, but my poor wife is upstairs dealing with a multi-warhead parenting issue: Sam’s had a flu shot that day, and it has decreased his Diplomacy rating deep into the negative. This makes the very difficult task of getting him to perform his potty duties ten times more difficult and the doctor has given him some yucky cold medicine that he is vehemently opposed to consuming. He imposes sanctions upon his mother. This continues for some time. I feel terrible for being downstairs with my friends and not helping out.
45 minutes pass. We usually get started right about the time Sam goes to bed about 7:30. It’s nearing that time, Sam’s still screaming, my pizza hasn’t arrived, and I’m not even remotely set up to play. I apologize to my players for the delay. I call the restaurant again, and discover that they somehow don’t know where my pizza is or if it’s been made, but somehow they are unwilling to cancel the order because it’s already out.
I should mention at this point that I don’t do well when I’m hungry. I am prone to increased anxiety and a short temper in this state, and I am already not in a good headspace. I demand to speak to a manager, and am handed off to a teenage boy who is Not A Manager and seems very surprised to be hearing from an angry customer. He promises to transfer me to a manager. 10 minutes later, I hang up. I look around the kitchen and realize we haven’t bought groceries in some time. I order Papa John’s.
The Game Night That Almost Wasn’t
I’m losing my mind by this point. Poor Sam is still upset and screaming, I don’t know what’s wrong or if he’ll be okay soon, and I have visions of my wife killing me in my sleep. I decide I need to be a dad first, and tell my friends I’m really sorry and that I think we need to call it for the night.
I feel awful.
I go upstairs to help my wife. Sam is still crying. I tell her I’m calling game night off and that I can help. She tells me to not do that, and that she has it under control, and to go back downstairs.
I go back downstairs. I tell everyone not to leave.
I still feel awful. And starving. And honestly, a little crazy.
Everybody sits down, and we debate for a few minutes as to what to play. I first shy away from playing D&D, because I’m starving and stressed out and I feel insane. We tentatively decide on board games.
Then it hits me. I’ll feel better if I just run the D&D game as planned. I won’t feel like a big giant failure or a coward. Besides, this group tends to run itself through adventures, right? I could really use a big helping of letting go and letting something take its own path, followed by a satisfying feeling of accomplishment. That would be a good thing.
I make my case to the group. There is some understandable dissent. I distinctly remember my friend Katherine asking me “what do you want to do?” in a way where I know she’s worried about me and wants me to pick the thing where I don’t pop like a balloon. It’s clear everybody is willing to give D&D a break until next week, but hunger and pride drive me on.
I say I’m fine. Let’s play D&D.
About that time, Papa John’s shows up with its pizza. Right on time.
I barely get the box open when teenage boy I’d talked to from the local pizza place knocks on the door, pizza in hand. I start to tell him he’s two hours late and there’s no way in any plane of existence that I’m paying for this, and he simply says “I don’t know what’s wrong with her, and I’m real sorry. I made you some extra garlic bread too, man. Sorry.” He vanishes into the night without another word.
My fangs extend. I fill them with mozzarella.
Sam has finally quieted down and is off to dreamland. I hear my wife make her way around upstairs to our bedroom. My belly grows full with my unexpected double feast. I feel my humanity returning.
It’s time to play.
He’s Back, But He’s Not The Same
As you may have guessed, I wasn’t quite on the verge of psychosis anymore, but I certainly wasn’t bringing my A game to the table that night. I likely wasn’t even bringing my C game.
To be frank, most of it is a blur. I was so exhausted by the end of the game that I caught myself zoning out, maybe even nodding off. I think I remember most of the important details, but I’m still going to check with the group to see what holes I’ve dug for the next session.
I was right in one respect: my players, doing what they usually do, can make the best of most situations and they tend to take my plans and make them their own. I had a chase scene planned involving a fruit cart, and they had a means of becoming an orange-powered super team. I was grateful for this. I needed some levity.
The session wasn’t a total disaster, but it was pretty bad. I wasn’t having fun. I was in damage control mode the whole time. I can’t imagine it was very fulfilling for my friends.
With Great Power
In my experience, being the DM of a group carries with it some strange responsibilities and feelings. I know it’s ultimately not completely on either the players or the DM to ensure people have a good time, but it’s still hard to shake that feeling — especially when it rides on my shoulders as to whether we even play D&D on a given night. I have to be confident enough to push on when I’m blocked or nervous that people won’t like what I’m doing for them, but I can’t let fear and pride drive me into charging forward when I can’t handle running the game. Knowing the difference proved too much for me this time.
There are all sorts of lessons I can take home from this. So many things can contribute to having an off night, and I can understand how having a few of them hit me at once put me in a bad place. Though I felt terrible about it, I don’t regret my (attempted) decision to cancel game night. My family comes first. I’ve since talked with my wife about what to do in similar cases, and she said she’d let me know if she needs to push the panic button. I think I might also keep a couple emergency granola bars in my DM bag. I do this at conventions, but I never thought I’d need them at home. I probably also should have bribed one of my friends to go get me McDonald’s (also just down the street).
This week, I pick up the pieces and get back on the horse, and we’ll have a much better session. But you can bet that the next time I’ve got a table full of players asking me if I’m sure I want to go ahead and run, I’ll say no. For all our sakes.