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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Phillips

Performance Anxiety

Chris smiles while sniffing a lavender and cream colored orchid with prominent beard, classes and bandana on his head.
Chrisyphus, the Dungeon Mastodon with Orchid

The stillness of a sullen sky revealed choices upon choices. The options are endless, the tale ours to tell. The line between players and characters blur in a session without direction, consideration of all that has been revealed and pulling at the frazzled threads from the fabric of fate to see what unravels. Sessions such as these are a leap of faith with it all in the hands of the players, the dice and my hundred page document, the Grimoire of the Game.

I prepared for the game by not preparing at all. Intentionally ignoring the upcoming session, I turned my attention inward. Why was the familiar anxiety building up as I got closer to the session? This was the anxiety that preceded progress into the unknown, daring me to run, make excuses or just give up altogether.

In fifth grade, I had completely forgotten about an oral report that was due in english class. We were supposed to write about something we enjoyed doing, describing the activity in detail. I hadn’t even given it any thought, completely forgot and on that dreary wintery Monday morning, I can still feel the panic I felt then as I learned about the impending report. I was hoping for the salvation of alphabetical order allowing for the chance that there wouldn’t be enough time for the whole class and I could go tomorrow. Nope.

My turn up at the front of the class, standing in a fear-gripped haze with the spotlight of judgement and shame leaving no place to hide. I dredged the depths of memory for the one exciting activity that I could recall from the weekend, I got to ride on a snowmobile and even drove it a little bit. Such an exhilarating time! I really didn’t have much to say about the experience so I tried to run out the clock. I stuttered through meandering details about what one wears when snowmobiling, a warm right sock, a left sock that is just as warm, they should match but it’s not necessary, you want to make sure they don’t slip down, so make sure the socks… and on and on. The panic fueling my stuttering made it unbearable for even me to listen to myself. Once I started mumbling about underwear, my visibly disappointed teacher shut it down. Ashamed and numb, I completely failed the assignment but at least it was over and could be thrown on my personal compost pile of humiliation and regret. A few decades later and it looks like the compost has broken down those embarrassing moments, mixing them with nutrient-rich nuggets of experience and I can now find a few flowers growing in the dank, dark places of my youth.

The fateful floundering of that time in fifth grade was a lack of the right kind of preparation. Even at that age, I was able to patch together pieces of knowledge to get by in most classes. My dad was an electrical engineer and would explain in-depth, the inner workings of all manner of devices, the connections that are made and their predictable outcomes. Dungeon Mastering draws from the understanding of the rules and the world that’s been created while letting the characters make the connections that activate any number of possibilities. As the DM, my approach is strongly influenced by what not to do as much as what should be done. In this session, for example, the months of world building and character exploration has filled in most of the map, some written, some floating in the ethereal plane waiting to be made whole. I’m not over-preparing all parts of the game, with every detail spelled out in a pre-written Choose Your Own Adventure situation but instead finding that line between the world, it’s history and inhabitants with the free will and world-shaping of character decisions. A story that unfolds naturally, following the path the players blaze for their creations.

So while I didn’t prepare specifically for this session, with extensive notes and maps that detail the direction I want them to follow, I have prepared the bigger picture with a world that contains infinite possibilities. It’s up to us, the designers, players and masters of this game to breathe life into the world, and even when the spotlight illuminates every hidden part, we have trust in each other to make something beautiful and enjoyable together.

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Mar 21, 2021

Beautifully written

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