On Conventions and Anxiety…

From a Volunteer Perspective

The Role Initiative coordinates organized play for tabletop games at about 10 conventions yearly, ranging from small one-day conventions at local game stores, to huge industry conventions such as PAX East and PAX Unplugged. One question that we often see is how to handle the anxiety that can pop up leading up to a convention, and what to do when you’re anxious at a convention. Much has been written about attending conventions, but we wanted to create a resource for people who attend conventions as Dungeon Masters and administration. It’s likely that there’s overlap with the notes we created here, and the ideas can be expanded to help anyone who attends a convention. The Role Initiative’s convention team is no stranger to this anxiety, so we gathered our resources and experience and came up with a list that we hope can help tabletop gamers and convention-goers.

In this post, we will be building off the metaphor of Spoon theory (a link to the original post about this is in resource section below), which discusses the limited amount of energy an individual has in one day. It is an apt representation of how we manage our daily personal resources to live day-to-day, but being a tabletop RPG- focused organization we felt the use of the Dungeons and Dragons mechanic of spell slots.

In D&D, spell slots are a limited resource used by characters to cast powerful spells, depending on your class. The amount of spell slots available to you varies, but are always reset with some rest! We like the metaphor of spell slots. Conventions can be mentally and physically taxing, comprehending the limitations of your spell slots and how to recharge can be vital to a quality convention experience. The tips below will hopefully assist you in saving your spell slots for when you need them (the big boss fight)!

I also would like to preface this with a disclaimer: I am not a professional clinician, and the advice in this article is solely compiled from experience and from reading others’ experiences. Everyone experiences anxiety differently, and the only way to improve our institutional knowledge about it is to talk about it. Want to talk about your ideas and strategies? I’d love to hear from you. For helplines, resources around your psychological needs, and further reading, have a look at links at the end of this article.

  1. Do what you can to be prepared. Read your modules ahead of time. If you’re a maps and minis person, figure out what minis you’ll need, and if you’re a theater of the mind person, think about how you’ll describe the places in your module. Feeling prepared for your times as a DM is one thing that you can control leading up to the convention.
  2. Know your role. When it comes to social anxiety, knowing that you have a role can help. A lot of interactions are really structured, so that makes introductions/interactions easier. We’re all at the convention because we have the same hobby, and as a whole, convention people are generally good people. (And when there’s an asshole, there’s also admin staff there who can affirm that you did the right thing or help guide you for the future, and help you realize that the person who made people/you feel like shit was just an asshole, or communicated poorly).
  3. Ask for help when you need it. At our conventions, we always make an effort each slot ( a two-four hour gameplay session) to go around doing wellness checks, giving water and cough drops, and see if our team needs anything else. Feel free to pass the runner a note if you’re low on spell slots, or there’s something else you need, be it a handout or personnel support.
  4. Know that you’re not going to be perfect, and know that we’re okay with that. Once things get started, you may realize that the ways in which you can’t control everything. We feel that these generally aren’t the end of the world, and know that there’s a team of DMs and admin who have your back.
  5. Take time for yourself. Think ahead about how you unwind when you’re not at a convention and give yourself time for that at the convention. Try planning time for actually *playing* the games,  taking a walk, or talking to friends. Make sure you take care of yourself – sleep, shower, and eat enough. Every day. Bring yourself some snacks, and a water bottle, when allowed. While we do try to provide waters and snacks for DMs and admins at our conventions, we recommend bringing your own – you’ll have control over what you’re snacking on, and it may help you feel more prepared and in control.
  6. Give yourself a goal during downtime. Try to get that one Youtuber’s autograph. Go to that one booth and try out that game you’ve been eyeing. Schedule a meal with a friend, or when you meet someone that you’re interested in talking to more, schedule a meal with them! Having a goal during your downtime will help you alleviate the panic of not knowing what to do or feel like you have wasted your con time.
  7. Find your safe space. Many conventions have safe spaces where you can relax and unplug, if things get to be a little too much. It’s not a bad idea to find this space at the beginning of the convention so that you know where you can find it if you need it later. Not all cons, but most of the cons the The Role Initiative attends offer relaxation areas for DMs and admins.
  8. Know how to ground yourself. There is a variety of methods to ground yourself: whether it be bringing a buddy to provide a buffer or even using the five senses technique to calm yourself. Knowing what helps you wrangle your anxiety can also help other con-goers. These are things that you can do in the moment, or when you have a short rest.

Ways to help conventions be a friendlier place for those who have anxiety:

  1. Ask people what they need. This is what opens the door to conversations about how we can accommodate a variety of people.
  2. Make sure your convention has some sort of quiet/safe space for people to unplug, or “take a short rest”. This might not help them regain all of their spell slots, but will help some people get through the day, especially at larger conventions.
  3. Be friendly. A lot of people out there have social anxiety and as a result come off as shy or standoffish. If you have enough spell slots left in you to say hello, you might make yourself a new friend.
  4. Lower the floor. Make it so that whatever you’re presenting has easy entry points for new participants/players. Many RPGs do this by providing pregenerated characters. What can your hobby do?
  5. Widen the walls. Maybe someone has a character, but doesn’t have people to play with. Some people are happy to just jump into a game alone. Some people benefit from having lines that are specifically for the player looking for other lone players, try your best to accommodate both.

Resources for getting help:

Disclaimer that we are not professionals and have no professional knowledge of anxiety, that this is not medical advice. If these issues affect you, you should seek the advice of a medical professional and/or contact any of the advice lines listed above.

  • Crisis Text Line: https://www.crisistextline.org/texting-in
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline: 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
  • Boys Town National Hotline: 1-800-448-3000
  • Teen Line: 1-310-855-HOPE (4673) or 1-800-TLC-TEEN (852-8336)
  • Psychology Today’s Find a Therapist Tool


Many thanks to the folks who talked with Deb on Twitter about this

About the Author:

Deb Berlin
Deb Berlin has been playing D&D for several years, and loves Adventurers League more than many things. She doesn’t run any RPGs (yet) but will likely be dungeon master for a Dungeons & Dragons elective at the school where she works this year, and she is excited to teach 5e to a new generation. Deb serves as the Convention Coordinator and Vice President for The Role Initiative, channeling her love for all things related to organization into this organization and the wonderful tabletop community. When not working at conventions, Deb is a middle school science teacher. Deb lives in Massachusetts, and spends her free moments planning travels, hiking, camping, and reading.