A change is as good as a rest?

Last night the subject of GM burnout was mentioned. It’s something we probably all face at some point for a variety of reasons, and although a break often solves the problem I wonder if anyone here has found any particularly effective ways of tackling it.

Does switching to a new system, setting or style of game, something outside of your accustomed bailiwick, do the trick? or is the only answer to walk away from the GM’s chair until the spark returns?

We’ll probably talk about this in the February IRTD. But my version seems to be that while I’m still enthusiastic about starting new campaigns, I’m feeling tired of the ones I’ve been running. (The Whartson Hall model of playing basically one adventure, then doing something else and coming back later, works very well for this. It also helps that we all like to take a turn at GMing.)

On a previous occasion I had the Centipede’s Dilemma: I suddenly realised that I had no idea how I was GMing, and started actually preparing material rather than improvising.


My personal issues lean far more towards anxiety and depression leaving me unable to GM, rather than hitting a point where I need a break and feel burnt out. For that reason I can’t vouch for any particular solution.

I think that if I did feel burnt out then I might try to run an utterly different game, something I would normally not consider. For me that might be shoujo manga romantic roleplaying (the trials and tribulations of lovestruck Japanese schoolgirls being far removed from my field of experience and comfort zone); someone else might pick playing animals, or a humour game like TOON. For a GM used to writing their own stuff, would a simple pre-written scenario, particular for a genre they don’t generally play (dungeon fantasy, maybe), do the trick? Any experiences with this sort of approach?

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I think my experience of GM burnout had more root causes than just doing too much GMing (3 nights a week) or doing too long a stint of GMing (campaign which lasted years). The couple of times that I’ve called a campaign quits and walked away it was because one or two of the players were being dicks, so running the game became a slog, not a pleasure.

The other time (which had no in-game dickishness) it was because I was GMing AND doing all the cat-herding, like sorting what weekend everyone could play, who was cooking, who was providing the venue, etc. At the time I didn’t know I had mental health issues, and it all proved too much effort. (Though I smugly note that a couple of sessions after I quit doing the cat herding the group died, despite there being 3 other GMs in it).

If I stop doing gaming entirely, I get withdrawal symptoms, to the extent that I forget the maxim: no gaming is better than bad gaming. :roll_eyes:

If I stop GMing, after a few weeks plot bunnies will start bouncing up and down and demanding my attention.

Alternatively, I could recommend (for values of recommend) you go to stay with my Mum for a very dull week in a town where there is nothing to do after the shops have shut at 6pm. And, to be honest, not much to do beforehand, unless wandering round supermarkets and charity shops floats your boat. The forced diet of afternoon/evening TV about antiques, property renovations and repeats of 70s sitcoms or family friendly crime dramas will inspire you to scribble half a dozen adventure plots for anew campaign…


I’ve identified three sources of burnout in myself.

First is dissatisfaction with the current game system. I get this frequently as I have a wandering eye for systems and if I am reading something while playing something else it seems better. My remedy for this is to run a one-shot. The down side is this aggravated the hell out of my players as satisfaction with the ongoing play was high regardless of my system satisfaction. I usually had indulgent groups.

Second was dissatisfaction with the ongoing play or the ongoing narrative. This was usually caused when I thought the players had too good a handle on things or I felt like I’d introduced something that didn’t fit the tone while improvising. Usually I’d be feeling guilty at some level that my GMing was getting in the way. The only solution to this I found was to step away from that game and from GMing for a break. The twist is that during that time I had to engage with players about continuing the campaign I wasn’t enjoying. I had to engage with them to understand that they wanted to continue that game and why. If enthusiasm for the campaign endured, which it often did because the players liked their characters and did not want to walk away from them, I was able to work around my issues by considering their enthusiasm for my game while enjoying my enthusiasm for the game I was getting to play in. What did not work in this situation was me running something else. I would just lose confidence and interest in the previous campaign and the players would be frustrated missing their preferred characters. Also why did not work was someone else running that campaign. We were never successful at co-GMing outside of LARPs.

Third was losing confidence in myself. Either in my rules implementation at the table, my storytelling or my connection with the group. This experience feels similar to anxiety or depression and was absolutely affected by experiences in my life not connected to gaming. The only solution I found to this was to step away and engage with one of the players who was a trusted friend. By taking time away from the table and understanding that my social connections went beyond the table I could rebuild confidence in myself. By engaging with player enthusiasm for the campaign while away from any table and browsing my campaign notes I could get ideas moving again.

Occasions in which I was burnt out from players I didn’t like either killed the game because the other players still liked shenanigan-individual or removal of a player because nobody was amused.

I have one player who always seems to rub me the wrong way, and to be fair vice versa, which doesn’t help me feel enthusiasm when I’m preparing for a session. But in part I think I’ve got too close in; I’ve said before on the podcast that I have trouble connecting the big stuff (political group X is pushing out group Y, country Z is preparing for an invasion) to the small stuff that typical PCs do, and with three campaigns on the go (two monthly, one biweekly) I’ve got too focused on “what might happen in this session” rather than “how is the overall situation moving along”.

RJ, considering your three sources: I’m fortunate in that for me GURPS basically does everything I want a game system to do. Its disadvantages are mostly the time character generation takes, meaning that for the typical 2-4 session Whartson Hall games it’s a large proportion of the time the players spend on the campaign. (And it’s relatively easy to add a subsystem to it to handle a particular thing.)

I started off as a very simulationist GM, but these days I think I’m riding the edge between simulationist and narrativist - I like to be able to justify a thing both inside the game’s context (Watsonian) and outside it in terms of the story (Doylist). (While not going as far that way as e.g. beat analysis, which seems to me to put the story in a straitjacket.) I don’t think I’ve really met your second source at all.

The third one, definitely. My automatic reaction when a game doesn’t feel as if it’s working well is to blame myself. My players, being mostly both polite and British, mostly don’t tell me when things aren’t working – or when they are – so I have to try to read their mood, and I’m not terribly good at that, so I can start worrying about a game going wrong even if they’re still enjoying it. When I killed off my GURPS Torg game – I’d been playing through the various published adventures with a rough-and-ready conversion – I had thought the players were more hacked off with the horrible inconsistencies and missed opportunities in the written material than they actually were.


I can’t recall that I have ever experienced GM burnout. I’ve been GMing continuously since November of 1992, and for nearly all of that time, I’ve been running two or three campaigns in parallel. (I was down to one after we moved out of San Diego, but now I have a group up here in Riverside.) For that matter, I’ve never experienced writer’s block, and I’m somewhere past twenty books for SJ Games.

This may be simply that I have a naturally happy disposition (as far as I can tell I’m nearly immune to self-esteem issues). I hesitate to attribute it to my unusual approach to setting up games, because I don’t want to claim that that would work for other GMs.

However, what I did for many years was to come up with a list of from half a dozen to fifty ideas for campaigns I might run; hand it around to a dozen or so possible players; and try to select two or three campaigns that players gave high ratings to, and that together left no player out in the cold, and that produced groups who could play together. Over nearly that whole span, I brought in a new player or two with every new cycle. The usual duration was two years, but once I extended all three (very well liked) campaigns to three years; I’ve run a couple of cycles of mini campaigns lasting six months (handy for testing out weirder ideas); and my current surviving San Diego campaign (actually meeting in Poway, a suburb) is in its fifth year, though since I’ve moved to Riverside I don’t run it every month.

I run more GURPS than anything else, but I’ve run a whole lot of systems, and in fact my favorite way to figure out a new system is to try running a campaign in it. On the other hand, this has uncovered some really bad systems; I will never again try to run Space 1889 (though I loved the worldbuilding!), In Nomine, or Godlike, for example.

I consider myself mostly fortunate in my players, particularly the San Diego circle; most of them are quite seriously involved in roleplaying, and have excellent firewalling abilities. Perhaps this partly reflects my having players who were recommended by other players, iteratively, so I’ve gotten people who fit together well. On the other hand, I’ve had one player voted off the island by nearly everyone refusing to play in a campaign that involved him, and another who went a fair part of the way to that same position.

There are some games in which I still feel as though I’m carrying the players even after the campaign has been going for some time; there are others in which I provoke sufficient player engagement that they become close to self-running (the player decide what they’ll do next, and I just need to work out how the world will respond). I always aim for the latter, but it doesn’t always work.

My issue has nearly always been depressive episodes of my bipolar disorder, with my studies, work, social life and everything going tits up at the same time. I sometimes tried switching systems or campaigns, or ending campaigns and trying new ones, but of course that never worked.

On the other hand, GMing when hypomanic is fun for all the family.

It hasn’t been showing. I’ve been the only person playing in all three of those campaigns, and the moving parts have all been working pretty well. Working out what has been going on in the campaigns has not been easy, but it’s all seemed reasonably coherent. A perfectly coordinated plot with no loose ends would make me suspicious that we were being played by some opponent.

Too many games to run is a big problem, and you’re right to stop doing that. The problem I have when I get into that situation is different: I can’t keep them all ticking away in the back of my skull. When I can do that, story happens fairly naturally; without it, I’m left groping to fit ideas together.

I’ve been trying to give more feedback recently. Being in so many of your games, I don’t want you to get fed up of me!

We weren’t being terribly demanding of it, because it was clear from your comments that you were having to revise stuff to make it fit together. The campaign you replaced it with was definitely better, but presumably more work.

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@Agemegos: I have waves of “up” and “down” moods, but they’re very definitely subclinical; usually I can get myself back to something like standard once I recognise that it’s going on.

I do feel that I’ve got into a bit of a pattern lately (modern-ish real world, people with some degree of special powers that most of the world doesn’t know about, investigating special-power-related incidents) and, while I feel some enthusiasm for a Monster Hunters game, I think it would be a good idea to try something else for a bit.

If I want to use the modern-ish world then that suggests either fairly hidden special powers or none at all (because if people were blatantly summoning monsters or whatever the world would start to look different quite fast – which is why I have trouble with superhero settings). Though I’ve had fun in all these secret-powers games by saying “yes, quite a few people now know about powers, but they’re still the same historical people, so how will they react to this new situation” and drawing parallels with things they did in the real world. It’s a lot of work as GM but exercises the same parts of my mind that I use as a player.

It’s been a while since I did anything with a low-tech setting, and the ultra-tech setting I’m currently working with hasn’t become as fleshed out as I’d like.

I wonder about something based in Dungeon Fantasy - go through the unrealistic tropes of having monsters in a recognisably mediaeval society, and out the other side, so that you have a society which has adjusted to magic and so on, and work through some of the implications. Caverntown would be a good starting point for this.

GURPS Torg was strange to run, because I started it deliberately as a low-effort game – converting stats on the fly was trivial, and there were lots of pre-written adventures – but I found I had to do so much surgery on the adventures to make them work (because they were very linear, and made big assumptions about what the PCs would do) that it was nearly as much work as a “normal” game of my own invention anyway.