Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around.
- Stephen King
I am working on this.
Most of my life has been filled with creative pursuits. Writing, drawing, music, trying my hand at various visual arts, dancing, comedy... and of course, running D&D games.
I think there's a difference between D&D and the others, though.
With most pursuits, you usually have a large audience or no audience. You are practicing, or you are presenting. There's no group giving you immediate feedback on what you are doing. Even if you perform for a small group and ask for feedback, there's a separation.
If you ask your friends to hear a joke, they can tell you if it's good or bad, but they probably won't tell you how to fix it because they (probably) don't see themselves as better comedians than you.
However, you are ALWAYS being judged on your storytelling ability when you run a game. And whether or not a particular player could do better, they know what THEIR character would do, and if your story doesn't LET them do it, then you did poorly.
For some people, this constant pressure can be exhilerating. I can assure you that when I pull off a cool story moment, when my players gasp and get drawn into the world, it feels good.
But it also creates some expectations. Once people have found someone they like, that person becomes the ideal. And even if the person doesn't get the same rush, they get stuck in the position of Permanent DM, running every game for that group.
But because of the group factor, because there's always an audience, there's a social obligation as well. If you are the DM, then your group thinks of you as The DM. Even after the glamour fades and the stories get repetative.
Every creative type has a stereotype. Writers are loners. They drink. They suffer. Musicians are penniless and addicted to something or other. Dancers are flamboyant, self-obsessed, or overly energetic. Comedians are depressed.
Dungeon Masters are egotistical jerks with a God complex who get off on telling stories they wrote beforehand that only work when their players follow the exact path laid out for them.
I wonder if that's because many DMs do it out of social responsibility. Because "someone had to, and I understood the rules the most". Because "we're playing at my house, so I'll run". Because "I found the game, so I have to run it".
But then they realize the amount of work that goes into a game session. And how much of that work gets ignored or left behind. And if they do a half-decent job, suddenly they become The DM. And now there's a weekly obligation to spend hours writing a dungeon. Or crafting a story. Or what have you.
For me, I don't mind putting the work in. But I definitely fall into the trap of thinking of DM'ing as a social obligation.
It's hard to remember that story is an art form when you've got a group of people demanding a game. It's very similar to turning your hobby into a job, except it's a hobby you only got into because your friends decided they didn't want to do it.
And suddenly your time is at the mercy of this project, this game. Your life becomes a support system for the story, for your social group. You have to spend time prepping the game, because if you don't then people won't hang out with you.
And that's when the spiral starts. Because everyone else starts falling into the meta-trap of "I'm in this adventure, so I can't quit even if I'm not enjoying it". Especially the DM. The story stops enhancing the game and starts enforcing the game.
As you can imagine, this kills the game. I'm sure every person who has played Tabletop RPGs for a decent amount of time has a story like this.
What's the solution? Well, it probably involves a healthy balance of gaming and other aspects of life, or socializing with friends outside of D&D, or taking breaks from the game as necessary. All of these methods really just accomplish one thing: they make the game more fun when you do play it.
When the game is fun, it can make your life better. It becomes your support system. It becomes an escape, not a prison.
Like I said, that's something I'm working on.
Thanks for reading.