Dungeon Master Burnout… My cure!

Some context… I read a post by Chatty DM on twitter this past Sunday about him possibly taking a D&D sabbatical and ended up briefly tweeting with Greywulf about D20 burnout and how despite having been a D20 game master continuously for over 17 years I’ve avoided it. Greywulf suggested this may be a good blog post, so here it is!

I’ve been a DM most of my gaming life. With counted exceptions, I am the Dungeon Master/Game Master for the group’s regular gaming sessions. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I love being a GM, I’d much rather do it than be a player. From what I gather, this makes me a rarity.

Gamer burnout is a reality, when you do something repeatedly, no matter how much you love it; it can become a chore. People change, go through different situations in real life that affect their leisure; responsibilities, concerns, a new outlook, can all change what we do for fun. Sometimes we need to try a new game, a new system, or take a break from gaming all together. For a game master it can be that much worse, since we usually spend much more time on the game beyond that spent around the table.

Don’t worry; this is not a preamble to me announcing I’m quitting the game! My regular gaming group meets weekly since 1993, and for those 17 years I’ve been the GM, for most of that time we’ve played D20 games. True, back then they were not called that, it was just AD&D 2nd edition. We’ve had some breaks, Heroes Unlimited, Alternity, Silver Age Sentinels and the dX system by Guardians of Order, but those were the exception, not the rule. I will admit that I’ve felt some burnout, some exhaustion has crept in, but like any good marathon runner I know it’s all about the pacing, and I’m it for the long haul!

So how do I avoid burn out? First of all, playing what makes ME happy, true that as GMs we want to entertain and engage our players, but what we do must also entertain us. I took a long hard look at what I enjoy about being a GM and I concluded I love creating worlds. World building, despite its difficulties is one of my favorite aspects of being a GM so I rarely play pre-packaged campaigns, even when I do, like our Star Wars Saga System game, I personalize the setting. In the Star Wars example, the campaign was a Star Wars infinities type campaign, my own version of the prequels.

I also play games I feel comfortable game mastering, that I know my gaming group will enjoy. That means that I’ve played D&D in its various permutations through most of the past 17 years. Put those two together and it means I play D&D (Pathfinder RPG currently) in my homebrewed campaign for most of that time.

I also realized that endlessly changing games and starting a new campaign every other week hurts the longevity of a campaign so I’ve avoided trying every new system that comes out. I know this has led to me not playing many systems I have on my shelf, but I prefer the satisfaction of a long-lasting campaign over the thrill of a new system. Your mileage may vary!

My average fantasy campaign lasts about three years of consecutive weekly gaming, sometimes more, so to avoid total burn out I add some variety. Remember those other games on the shelf I mentioned on the last paragraph, this is when I break then out. I plan most of my fantasy campaigns into three story arcs, that way I can usually take a break between arcs and play some other game. This plan is not an exact science; don’t imagine I have everything locked down, dates set on the calendar, by the very nature of the game there is some wiggle room. I plan to play the main campaign for little over a year, and then break for a different game that will last anything from two to four months, maybe six if the players are really into the game.

In my experience this is long enough for the players to miss their old characters and want to go back to them, but not long enough for them to forget the plots and storylines of the main campaign. This structure also gives me some space to refocus, rethink and maybe if necessary retire a campaign that is not working.

Another detail is planning. I’m a middle of the road type of GM, I plan my campaigns and the world with great detail, but individual adventures are more outlines than comprehensive scripts. I like to leave space to incorporate character backgrounds, ideas and feedback. One key thing to avoiding burnout for me is this. I plan the next campaign while playing the current game. That means that while I’m currently running my homebrewed fantasy game, I’m doing background work on the next game coming up. Most of the work for this campaign is already done, all I have left to do is work on the adventures and modify accordingly. This is not a railroad straightjacket game where no matter what the characters do the end will be X, Y and Z. But I’ve done enough of the groundwork to carry this through until the break comes up.

Meanwhile I am doing prep work on the next campaign. Taking notes, looking for art to inspire me, colleting ideas, so when the break comes I’ll be ready for the next campaign! This means that even when I’m thinking about the current game, I have the future campaign to keep me entertained, distracted, and I can go work on it to avoid burnout.

Those are my strategies to avoid burnout. Very important, and although not necessarily related to burnout, I think this is also useful: Always ask your players what they thought of the game, be prepared for some of them to be nonchalant about it and not give you any useful feedback, and others to be brutally honest. Listen to everybody and use your constructive criticism filter, what the players say will help guide your games. Thinking “It’s my game, you better get used to it!” is a recipe for breaking up a group. Also campaign questionnaires are great ways to get feedback, even from those players who may be reluctant to give it face to face. So get to know your players, you are playing this game together.

Sorry if that just went of on a tangent at the end, just trying to give you my best advice. In case you are wondering I’m a normal guy with a regular job, just like the rest of you my gaming time and prep time is limited, but I try to make the most of the time I have, and to make the game as enjoyable for me as I try to make it for my players. I don’t always succeed but even when I don’t I persevere and go on gaming!

What do you do to avoid burnout?

3 thoughts on “Dungeon Master Burnout… My cure!”

  1. Thanks for taking the time to write this.

    My problem isn't so much with role-playing in general; like you, I've been GM'ing for several decades. Ideas and plot for new campaigns & scenarios come unbidden to my over-active mind. When it comes to superhero gaming in particular I can game tirelessly and never run out of fresh things to throw at my players.

    Our problem was with Third Edition D&D specifically. The sheer volume of prep-time required to put together game after game was sucking the fun out of role-playing itself. When it took five hours just to create the encounters, villains and monsters for a single three hour session and that's every darned week, the fun just falls away. I ended up designing encounters that fit the rules (a CR appropriate mix of monsters straight from a Monster Manual) rather than ones driven by story or plot. The game suffered as a result, and I felt dissatisfied and burned out by the whole thing.

    Then came 4e. In contrast to 3.5e's convoluted encounter and monster building mechanisms this is a system which trusts the GM and lets them design whatever they want. If it's a hard encounter, it's a hard encounter. Suck it up, players! Prep-time halved, then quartered. Now I can plan a scenario in well under an hour again, and wing it if I haven't had time to prepare. Getting ready for the game is a pleasure again.

    In short, changing the system is a great way to cure burnout as well. Hey, it worked for us :)

    Sorry for rambling on.

    Great post!

  2. Greywulf, thanks for the kind words and the idea that I should write this. I played 3 D&D 3rd edition campaigns, and while I admit the rules could be daunting, I felt comfortable enough winging it a lot of the time or redressing existing monsters that my prep time wasn't that bad, but I know that was not the case for a lot of people.

    I tried 4th edition and while it had many great things, as you mentioned, the group decided it was not the game for us. Currently we play Pathfinder for our face to face game and a little gem called Microlite20 for our Play by Post game.

    The break game coming up soon will more than likely be a superhero game using either ICONS, M&M or the supers toolkit for Savage World, negotiations are underway!

  3. I'm like you. I love to DM. I'm the kind of guy who will spend four hours to prepare an encounter that the players will kill in less than one round and think it's the funniest thing as long as the players enjoyed it.

    When I use to run 2nd edition, I suffered constant burnout and when I started running 3rd edition to Pathfinder, I've yet to find myself burned out. I think for me, this is what it had boiled down to:

    1. Players–having players who are fun to be around with makes GMing a lot more fun. If a GM has players who are argumentative, disinterested, or downright lazy, I think it would be an issue with me. My 2nd edition group was like this, but my 3.x+ group is not.

    2. Gamesystem–Pathfinder works for me. I find the rules fun to play with. I really enjoyed 3.0 edition, felt annoyed with 3.5, and thought Pathfinder was a great improvement. For other GM's it will be whatever works for them.

    3. Preparation pays off–I find that if I prepare a game for the players to have fun, either reading a published module or writing my own adventures, I find that the enjoyment in the games goes up considerably than when I used to just make up adventures as I go along in my 2e days. There are no lulls in game time, no wasted hours and hours spent on haggling over making armor or coming up random non-plot related nonsense because I can't think of what to do next.

    4. Fun feeds into itself–When I have a successful session in which I know the players had fun, that pumps me up to prepare for the next session, get the encounters written out, prep the NPCs, and decide where the campaign will go next. Should the session suck with players arguing or being jerks, then I know I would feel probably a bit down. Good thing for me is that my players by nature are very team-based, cooperative, and generally, non-argumentative with me so we have really good sessions. I couldn't say that in my 2e days.

    5. Sense of Attitude–Back in my early days of gaming, I felt that DMing was something I had to do, instead of something I wanted to do. Whenever another player took over the GMing role to give me a break, they would just screw up it so royally that the group would almost disband that I needed to take back the reins just to have a game. I felt trapped in the role. For the past eleven years now, DMing is no longer the chore of something I need to do just to get some gaming, but something that is really fun that will culminate into an eight hour session every other Saturday.

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