Thursday, January 30, 2014

GM's Burnout vs GM's Block

One of my pet peeves is how a lot of advice about GM's burnout is actually about GM's block (akin to writer's block). This bugs me because they are very different kettle of fish and because I've been somewhat burnt out for several months now and the absence of solid advice on how to counteract it. I've trawled through dozens of advice articles and web-sites and most of them talk about ways to boost creativity. My creative stores are just fine, thank you. I'm quite happy to write articles, world build and create adventure paths. In fact, during my period of burnout, I've actually written and edited about 80 pages of player information (not all for the same players, mind, about 10 pages per covenant, 2 per clan, 20 of general information, which can be perused or ignored at the player's whim). My problem is that I'm starting to loathe my GM time.

So let's look at GM's Block.

Your ideas become stagnant and stale. In fact, just generating new ideas seems like hard work because you lack inspiration. Your players start to comment on how they'd like to see a little enrichment in their game. They're starting to get a bit bored and you probably are too but you just can't think of anything new and interesting to keep everyone going. In this case, watching movies, dipping briefly into a new genre one-shot, or letting someone else run a few sessions so you can start champing at the bit again are all good things. Heck, I've even gotten inspired by attending concerts by musicians I didn't even like!

Now let's look at GM Burnout.

1) Exhaustion. Simply thinking about running a game leaves you exhausted. The mental resources required to comprehend an upcoming session makes you want to go and lie down. You look at the game preparation and/or actual session time as a dreaded chore that will soon be over. Hopefully. When the players are distractable at the start of the game, you sit back and let them talk, chat, ruminate.... You let the OOC Chit-Chat time drag on and on and on as every minute of reduced play-time is a minute won.

2) Cynicism. Your players suck. Things will never get any better. You have to learn to live with all those irritations that any player brings to the table and (see Point 1), it really doesn't seem worth it to you. Why are you putting in all this effort for so little reward? You must be a real sucker for punishment. What did the players ever do to earn your slavish devotion? Why isn't anyone slavishly devoting hours and hours and hours to your enjoyment? You know you can't / shouldn't expect a player to put in thirty minutes a week for the game without being a slave driver. They expect hours from you! It's so unfair.

3) Sense of Inefficiency. You suck. You lack the skills to make things work. Maybe it's all your fault, anyway. You've rewarded poor behaviours. You've punished good ones. Or something. If you were a better Storyteller, all those things that bug you would cease and you could just get on with it.

Obviously people vary on where they sit on this burnout scale but, as you can see, it's more hard-core and pervasive than a simple lack of creativity. Simply taking a holiday might not help, either, at least not in the short-term. If your last few months of roleplaying was a painful waste of time then it makes sense that having a few weeks break from it won't necessarily help. Even a few months won't necessarily put enough distance between you and the bad memories. Because, regardless of how good the game actually is to an outside perspective, it doesn't feel good to you. It feels horrible. Besides which, if you go back to doing exactly what caused you the pain in the first place you will probably suffer from it again. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different outcomes is a silly thing indeed.

The wikipedia entry on it has some interesting details on it, particularly the way it develops. It also gives players and Game Masters ideas on how to arrest the progression of symptoms ... or at least reduce the causes and therefore the progression.


  1. I can sympathise! Seems like a lot of people just conflate “having problems with GM stuff” into one bundle, maybe because they haven’t really been burnt out and don’t realise that’s a separate issue. So I have a few personal observations here.

    First, take a look at what’s going on in general. GMing takes time and mental energy, but so do loads of other things. If work or personal stuff is running you ragged, you might really struggle to GM to your normal standards. And of course, doing it below par will tend to make you feel worse about it. If you’re spending a lot of energy problem-solving or organising or handling drama in other areas of life, GMing is drawing heavily on the same resources. Or maybe you’re just generally exhausted.

    GMing is hard work. You’re trying to pay attention to several people at once, respond interestingly to their contributions, keep track of the plot, handle the mechanics, roleplay multiple characters, try and make sure everyone’s having fun and understands what’s going on, describe situations, watch for upcoming problems – oh, and locate all the right stuff, set up the game, and possibly host the game and clear up afterwards. It’s really rewarding when it’s going well, but it can take a lot out of you.

    Possible interventions:
    *Ask people to help out more. Can they host so you’re not trying to juggle refreshments and housework on top of GMing? Or can people come to yours so you don’t need to cart stuff over town and can set up in advance? Can someone play some NPCs? Can someone else take the notes? Can you record sessions instead?
    *Play lighter, low-prep games. This might mean switching game, but maybe you can adapt what you’re doing, by running some prewritten content (trope-heavy stuff is generally simpler) or trying to run a simple interlude with less plot and fewer NPCs to juggle.
    *Try running shorter sessions. Marathons are very demanding. You have to prep/review lots of content, it’s hard to predict how far you’ll get, but there’s a good chance you’ll prep a lot of content that never comes up, which can be dispiriting. You may end up prepping the same content two or three times before it actually comes up, leaving it feeling stale when they do eventually get there. In a short session, there’s less to prepare. If things do go in an unexpected direction, you only have to wing it briefly, and can then prep the new material before next session. It’s also less physically taxing (and the GM has to pay more attention and gets less opportunity for breaks, so session length affects the GM more).
    *Taking a break from GMing can help sometimes, particularly if part of the problem is having too much going on. Also, if you can switch from GMing to playing, it can address the feeling that you’re putting in tons of work all the time while other people just turn up. But as you say, it’s not necessarily a solution.
    *If you’re just worn out by the sheer amount of stuff you’re doing, taking a break may let you rebuild your resources. Spend some time doing things you enjoy that are less demanding on you, or just having time to deal with life stuff in a more leisurely way.

    I probably should mention that being burned out on GMing may be a flag for GMs to check how they’re doing in general, especially if it does tie in with things being generally hectic and low motivation. I really wish I’d picked up on this earlier myself, eventually turned out I had stress and depression.

  2. Another thing to look at is whether the game/group is part of the issue. Is the game something people are specifically committed to, or is it mostly an excuse to socialise? If you feel like people’s attention isn’t on the game anyway, that’ll encourage the feeling that you’re wasting precious energy that isn’t being appreciated. You may end up spending more time wrangling players back towards the game than actually Mastering it. If so, maybe look at taking a break from that game for a while and just socialising.

    Feeling like you’re doing a bad job is pretty hard to deal with. It creeps up on you and it’s hard to disprove. Sure, the players say they enjoyed it, but do they really mean it? Do they have anything useful to measure it against? Maybe they only think they enjoyed it because they don’t know what they’re missing? I’m not sure I can offer much advice here. It’s really easy to go over the session in your head and see all kinds of glaring flaws (most of which the players probably didn’t notice at all) or things you prepared and never got to use. It might be worth trying to focus on specifics, work out what actually happened, whether it was genuinely a problem, and how to avoid it in future.

    But as you suggest, I think the issue is you need a way to make GMing enjoyable again, otherwise taking a break won't help. That's going to mean working out what isn't enjoyable right now, and how you can change that. It's not easy.

  3. For me burnout usually comes from running the same game for an extended period of time. I prefer long campaigns, but after a while it seems like we are just doing the same things again and again.

    I have found that ending a campaign and starting a new one works for me. I get excited about the new game in ways I am no longer excited about the old game. I find myself thinking in new ways as well as a new system/genre forces me to look at things differently.

    1. What you're describing sounds more like boreout ( or GM Block than burnout (at least from what you've described) as it seems to be more about boredom, lack of meaningful and interesting things to do, and a lack of ideas than exhaustion, dread, and cynicism.

      Of course, one can most assuredly lead to the other so maybe you got out in time with a fresh new campaign?

      I've found that what started burning me out on one campaign followed me through to the next campaign and has affected all of the group tabletop games I'm running.