Some people look at me like I am a bit mad, you know.
As someone who runs roleplaying games for a living, I have been asked in a sort of incredulous voice, ‘how do you run that many games without suffering burnout?’ Until recently, I just sort of shrugged and continued with my games. I didn’t know how and I didn’t need to look at it. But…recently. Recently I have found it harder to be motivated for one of my games.
It’s not that surprising; I have been running games 75% of the days in a fortnight on top of other jobs for coming up to two years now, and it was bound to happen eventually.
So given that I hadn’t really hit that process before, I wanted to take a minute to reflect on how I combat GM burnout. Because I think it’s useful for anyone who might be experiencing similar fatigue. We’re all this together, after all.
Crush The Prep
One of the things I do to combat burnout is to bunch up my prep. So I’ll prep a whole arc of plot and ideas in one big bulk.
This allows me to only makes tweaks or run with what the players have come up with, safe in the knowledge I have something prepared I can improvise around. If I am trying to prep every single session every time, I feel a real desire to perfect. If I, instead, have a whole set of things ready and let the players encounter them as they will, I can sometimes come to a session saying, ‘I don’t need to prep this beyond a refresher course’. That’s sometimes all I need to feel like I am breathing again.
Another thing to think about prep is if there’s a thing you hate prepping, see if there’s a way to do something else.
When lockdown first hit, I tried to learn virtual tabletop, build maps and design environments. And it became a chore – none of the environments were as I saw them in my head; it took an age, and the combats felt stilted and horrid. It led me to quit making maps, moving to the theatre of the mind totally for D&D. My combats became more dynamic for everyone, and my time was spent on thinking about how to create atmosphere, tension and twists.
For you, it could be a different aspect of prep. Don’t ever feel like just because another GM does things one way you have to do it. Walk your own road and you might feel more comfortable.
Remember, you can always breathe.
If you are feeling dread about a game coming up or beginning to feel like a game is coming apart while you are playing, take a moment to breathe in during play and just let the players guide you.
Go with the flow a little, slow your expectation of how the game is supposed to go and find a new path. Give time to explore an in party tension, perhaps. Or if providing challenging combats all the time is beginning to become hard to manage, breathe and make the next session a low-stakes downtime village bakesale with comedy elements.
Give yourself time to find what brought you here the first time. Is that still what excites you about the game, or is it something new?
Don’t be afraid to change course
Don’t be afraid to gather the players and have a sort of session 0.5. Remember that just because session 0 is done doesn’t mean the metawork of the campaign is done. Sometimes you need to touch base and tell the players that things aren’t ok. Saying that the game is burning you out and you need to change a few things is not an admittance of defeat; it’s an acknowledgement of how your playstyle has changed. As long as you are not blaming the players for this change in you, that’s ok.
Now the end of this meeting might be that you all decide to take a small break, finish the game at a good spot, or that you’d rather not GM anymore. But it also might just move to a shifting of focus in the existing game that everyone enjoys. That change-up can inject new life into the game and take you in new, unexpected directions.
Pull The Trigger
Have you been holding back on a campaign event and feel like you aren’t ever gonna get to it now because you feel mired in a pit of your own making?
That the work for every session getting hard and stressful?
Sometimes, the best bet is just to pull the trigger. Bring that event front and centre. Blow the bloody doors off. Take all your energy and plunge it into a defining campaign moment that forever changes the status quo. It’s likely that such an event is going to make everyone (including you) enthused about the game again and mark a whole new set of fun. But if that doesn’t work, you at least feel like you didn’t let the game fade out.
If you still don’t like it after this, you put your all in, and you can wind down the game and pick up a ‘sequel’ later on with the same or different characters.
This can be the shot in the arm you need as a GM, but I just want to be clear- keep yourself safe before you do this. Don’t overshoot. Putting your all in is taxing. It can be amazing, but make sure you’re still enjoying it and doing it because you love the idea of shaking things up. Not because you feel a sense of expectation from the group and need to deliver. This is about you working your love back, not creating more weight.
Don’t make the game your entire social life.
Trust me, I have been there; it’s really easy to slip into. You need to do other things occasionally. In fact, hanging out with the people you game with in other contexts can be refreshing and rewarding.
Sometimes, it’s just about seeing new faces and doing new things. But making sure you have other inputs and interests can not only keep you refreshed when you are putting a lot into your game but can actually inspire stuff to go into the game. Leaning into a hobby requiring slightly less organising of others can help you reach a calm state and come back with love to whatever you are running.
I know most campaigns hit a complicated patch and need to find a new direction, So I hope this article helps people who are burning out find a way back to themselves.
If you’d like to add other ideas for how you combat burnout underneath, then I’m sure that could help out other GMs who might be suffering. Until next time!
Your considerate thoughts are welcome. Do you have something to add to this article? Please let us know in the comments below.