GM Burnout

“It’s better to burn out than fade away!” The Kurgan, Highlander

I think there comes a time when everyone “burns out”, creatively speaking – be it storytelling, writing or GMing. I feel it every few years when I’m running RPGs, and I reckon I’m not alone in experiencing it. Creativity isn’t like a tap – you can’t turn it on or off as needed. I’ve often found myself in the position where I’m completely stumped for an idea, only to have an epiphany later on – sometimes its better to take a step back from a problem or project and just rethink things – I’m not just talking about RPGs: sometimes in IT you can create additional problems by over-thinking something (a PC may not be connecting because of a dodgy cable not a TCP/IP stack)! I’ve also found that my mental state also has some bearing – unsurprisingly, if you’re under a great deal of stress or feeling down, your problem-solving and thinking processes tend to suffer as a result. At the moment, I’m thinking of just taking my time and not rushing things: I’ve a lot on at work and it can be difficult to concentrate on some of the other stuff I need to sort out at home, gaming or otherwise.

To be honest, RPGs are a good way to relieve stress. In the past I’ve had what one of my friends calls “Black Moods”, where I feel pretty rotten, and depressed. That’s depression with a small D: clinical Depression is no joke – however I think it is too often abused as an excuse (often misdiagnosed and drugs are over-prescribed by GPs who can’t be bothered). I’m not denying that at some point I may have been Clinically Depressed, but that was a long time ago. Sometimes these moods hit me (not for a few years though) but I’ve learned to ride them out – if you look back through my blog entries you’ll spot some of the times when they hit me! RPGs and the creative process help considerably with these moods  I’m not one of these people who post their mental status on social networking sites (at least I hope I’m not!), seeking validation through cryptic comments; or playing for sympathy, so that everyone is compelled to ask what’s wrong.

Enough of my psychobabble! The main focus of this RPG article is the phenomenon known as GM Burnout. I’ve been an occasional victim of this, as mentioned above.

Recognising GM (and player!) burnout

Once you reach a certain age, or level of experience as a GM, it becomes difficult to find the time to either create new adventures or settings. Certain game systems become too advanced, or too simplistic. You just go through the motions sometimes.This is what happened with me and D&D: I don’t like 4th edition as it’s just somewhat basic and seems geared towards using a battle map and miniatures. 3.5 is too munchkin now: there’s very little “role” involved in what is essentially a paper version of a PC game (feats, etc.).

As a GM, you’ll spot the signs of burn-out in yourself by these:

  • You’re having trouble coming up with new ideas.
  • You regard the game as a chore rather than a leisure activity.
  • You’ve lost your enthusiasm for the game.
  • You become annoyed at the slightest thing during your games.
  • Player/PC antics no longer amuse you.
  • You find yourself cancelling games as you have other things to do.
  • You want to run another game but don’t know which one.
  • You have to regularly cancel games because players can’t make it.
  • You’re running multiple games and are finding it difficult to concentrate.
  • The game just doesn’t work for you.

You can usually notice it in players too, with much of the same “symptoms”, for want of a better word. Often they’re committed to two or more games – possibly as a GM  too.

“Case Studies”

Here are some of my own cases of burnout, or other failures (and what went wrong!).

Against the Odds: I used D&D 4e for this. Looking back upon it this was a mistake – I didn’t think about how the game would pan out using a system that focuses heavily on combat, rather than investigation or intrigue. Consequently I got frustrated and ditched it.

Ashes of Freedom: again D&D, but 3.5&4e  this time. However, the first time I ran AoF (when 4e came out), I got a bit sick of the system (and one of the players threw a bit of a hissy fit too when he couldn’t get his own way), plus I had two groups and one lot changed nearly every week. However a little later I returned to AoF using D&D3.5. I did overcommit myself to creating a 3.6 version as well, but it WAS a popular game. It reached a natural end, with some pretty good action sequences, and I was needing  a break anyway – I realised I was getting close to burnout.

Babylon 5: great idea, crap implementation, rotten PR. The d20 edition of the Babylon 5 RPG doesn’t work as it stands. Unfortunately, I thought I could craft this great campaign, with a story arc that could match JMS. Unfortunately it was not to be: other popular games were on that day; the setting required too much metagame knowledge/series background; and the system was pretty poor and didn’t really run well. Looking back, I could have done something with it I guess, but I was feeling a little restless: wanting to run an RPG, something other than D&D. I think I was definitely burned out as a GM at this point.

The New World: despite this setting being incredibly popular since, the first outing proved to be an unmitigated failure. In its first incarnation, it was designed to be an ORC shared campaign. A group of DMs worked over several months to hammer out a setting and plot line, and on D&D day we had three different DMs running a game. Then the other GMs lost interest (or couldn’t be bothered), and I was left carrying the game – I got pretty sick of that so the New World was put on ice for a few years – it’s still used frequently by other DMs at ORC and elsewhere (including some of my ideas 🙂 so its not a total loss. After this event I didn’t run anything for a while, as I was pretty hacked off. I felt vastly disappointed. It was a game where there were plenty of folk wanting to play, but few willing to run.

PBM games: I definitely suffered GM burnout with these. Shadows Lengthen took so much of my time that despite the fact that it made some small amount of money that I just got tired of running it. Ties of Blood looked really good on paper, but failed to garner enough interest. I just gave up on it as a result.

What to do

The best thing to do is take a break – the time involved depends upon the individual. If you’re running an existing game, tell your players that you want to take a break for a while. Maybe let someone else run, and you can relax and actually be a player for a while.

Try running a different game and keep it to a short series i.e. a mini campaign. If you’re short of ideas, it can be a good idea to carry a small A5 or smaller notebook everywhere. You’d be surprised when (and where) you can find inspiration!

If the game itself isn’t working, that’s more difficult: it’s best to give some serious thought to if you can see it continuing in its current form. If you can’t, give your players an ending to remember! If there’s no way you can see the game going on, be as dramatic as possible in the game’s conclusion – all the gloves are off: PCs die, NPCs change loyalty, the villain(s) die(s), the world ends, etc. Aim for a whammy!

NOTE: I know this is kinda written like a medical crib sheet, but I thought it might be fun to write it like that. Obviously RPGs are a leisure hobby – treat it that way!

Published by Bill Heron

Wannabe game designer and would-be author. I've been playing RPGs for over 25 years and have recently started creating my own RPG called Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom. I also run a number of RPGs: Cthulhutech, Call of Cthulhu, WFRP, and D&D. I'm active in the Edinburgh RPG community at and regularly play RPGs.