Remedies For GM Burn-Out

by The Roleplaying Tips Community

Lots of great tips from subscribers in this Flash Back Friday submission,covering everything from being sick of gaming to having writer’s block. I hope the cure for you lies herein!

Note on Navigation: To quickly move between readers’ emails, use your application’s Find or Search feature and look for @@@@@@. I have purposely used six ‘at signs’ because they do not appear in anyone’s post and will not confuse searching.

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From: Craig P.

As a player in a long running campaign (20+ years) may I
make some suggestions to avoid burn-out based on our GM?

1. Be open to new players. The GM and I are the only
original members of the campaign. New players bring in a
different style and feeling with their characters, adding
new interests for both GM and the other players.

2. Nurture new characters. As you can imagine, after 20
years there has been what seems like hundreds of player
characters. It is easy for both players and GMs to get
bored with a character after months or years of playing.
(This is much easier with a skill-based system than a level
based one. A well rounded 100pt GURPS character can
contribute almost as much as a 300pt one.)
3. Encourage players to help build the world. It is
impossible to work out every detail of your world. Allowing
the players to participate in the creation gives them an
investment in the world. One of my characters became the
leader of one of the main cities in the campaign, giving me
the opportunity to flesh out the entire governing system.

4. “Play” NPCs. There is usually little objection to the GM
running a well thought out NPC, especially if it fills a
hole in the party composition. Just make sure he doesn’t try
to solve all the party problems. Player characters can also
change to NPCs when the player leaves the group. The GM has
a ready-made NPC complete with background, personality and a
connection to the party. Retired characters can also turn
into Semi-NPCs, being still run by the player but showing up
just occasionally.

5. Ask the players. When a dry spell hits, ask the players
what direction they would like the campaign to go. Their
ideas may jump-start a whole new chapter.

6. Take a break. There is nothing wrong with taking a hiatus
in playing. Our longest break was nearly a year as various
personal things got in the way. If you keep in touch with
the players, you can pick up again as soon as things
improve.

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From: Cameron Goble

Hey Johnn,

Our group’s GM has been a real trooper. Week after week he’s
had good story and development, he’s plotted out at least
three ways for our party to go, and he’s always up on the
rules he’ll need to bring into play. But in the face of a
40+ hour per week day job, a fiancée, and other things out
there in the real world, the prospect of keeping up with
everything was getting to be tough on him.

Our solution was to have two games with separate GMs going
within the same group. When one game reached a narrative
appropriate point to stop for a while (generally after three
or four sessions), the GM would step down and become a
player in the other game, while one of the players would
turn into the GM of his own game for a while. Two separate
story lines, two GMs doing their own thing, two totally
different parties.

It’s been working great. Each GM gets to play on the other
side of the screen for a while – our “first” one hasn’t been
a player for years, and I think it’s really reinvigorated
him. Also, he gets a couple of weeks to cool down, go over
his story line, and spend time cooking up our next adventure
without having to worry about time constraints. When his
game starts up again; he always presents a polished, well-
constructed scenario for us. Perhaps one of the contributing
factors to GM Burnout is the constant sense of flying by the
seat of one’s pants – having a couple weeks break seems to
get around this problem.

It works well preventing player burnout too: everyone gets
to shift party roles every few weeks, as nobody plays the
same type of character in both games. We’re an experimental
bunch of players, so we get to explore lots of different
ways to play characters.

The reason we started doing this, by the way, was to work
our way into using the 3rd edition D20 rules. Our game had
been 2nd Edition AD&D, and when D20 came out, we didn’t want
to have to switch our beloved characters out without knowing
exactly what we were doing, so a separate D20 game was
started. Now both games are D20, and the benefit is that if
the actual GM doesn’t know a particular rule off-hand,
chances are the playing GM will. Our games have therefore
been very balanced, and we haven’t had a confrontation over
rules interpretation yet.

Thanks for the great work you’re doing!

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From: Tom Z.

If you’re burned out on the original theme then start again,
but within the same setting and campaign. If you used the
Vikings example then rather than trying to emulate Nordic
sagas, switch themes totally. Invade the homelands with
pseudo-Normans and switch to a Robin Hood outlaw game. Turn
on the Cthulhu and start to reveal conspiracies between
sorcerers, priests and unholy sacrifices to unknowable gods,
or even suggest that Odin himself is an avatar of something
more unknowable. Basically re-invent the campaign as another
game but layered upon the previous one. This actually
creates a deeper and multi-layered game.

1. Research. Watch new films, read new books. Maybe reading
noir detective books can be layered into the game as a
series of dark ages murder investigations. Maybe your dark
vampire game could cope with a touch of super hero inspired
heroism? Keep feeding new and wildly divergent ideas into
your existing maps and cities. SF games can absorb space
dwelling dragons, fantasy can cope with swashbucklers or
espionage.

2. War-game, board game. Buy Hordes of the Things or Chain mail
and run some large battles, tied into the campaign but maybe
without the PCs as heroes. Letting your hair down with what
is a rest from roleplaying but which still builds the
richness of the world. If you play the games straight, with
no PC heroes, the outcomes can be used to spark off new
campaign thrusts.

For example, a set battle between the Necromancer Slarge and
his host of skeletons against the Dwarfs of the Bumpy
Mountains. Play it, have fun, see who wins or loses. But if
the skeletons win, then the campaign will be full of
dispossessed dwarfs looking for work, trouble, help,
finance, revenge. The Bumpy Mountains will be full of
undead, the balance of power will shift, the lands may be
threatened. And the defeat of the Necromancer may reveal a
deadlier threat, the nomadic hordes that his undead zone
held back, or the dwarfs may prove to be not so friendly
with their key enemy gone, and the victorious dwarf forces
may march on the PCs’ homelands. The idea is to relax, let
the PCs play the game, moderate and share the fun, receive
creative input that you can’t wholly predict.

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From: Andy T.

Johnn,

The one thing that I have found to be a sure fire remedy to
lack of inspiration is just to sit back and let somebody
else take the reins for a while. Watch some movies, be a
player, forget the hassles, and relax. Essentially, recharge
your batteries and play the game, have fun and enjoy. If you
don’t enjoy the game you won’t run an enjoyable game. It’s
as simple as that. If you are running a sci-fi stealth game
(i.e. Shadowrun), try some fantasy for a while. If you have
been playing fantasy try some Sci-fi, change tack.

My best, basic tip is to turn the game on its head. Have a
breather, like your favorite TV show for example.
Occasionally they have a weird episode (musical Buffy for
example) and it’s a change of pace, something new and when
you go back to what you are used to, it seems fresh again.
Give it a whirl, have a time out, play a board game. Remember
that too much of a good thing is a bad thing.

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From: Dave W.

Hello there,

Yes indeed I did suffer from burn-out with my games. I had
been playing pretty constantly, 1/week, with 4 friends. I
GMed and I was having a good time for most of those 13-14
years. I had played in a few games but mostly I GMed. Well
we had started a new game, sorta a traditional game meets
Arab/desert world idea. People made characters and we were
playing but things just didn’t fit, didn’t work. I was just
not happy with the game.

So I left fantasy. I played some dark games, Vampire, and
Werewolf, and though they were fun, it just wasn’t the same
grand types of games I had run before. I tried Trinity/Aeon
this was a romp but really nothing great for me. I kept
feeling I lacked or rather my games lacked a certain oomph.

Now, I guess to my credit, players continued wanting to run
games with me as GM. Which I did, but my heart and soul
really weren’t always in it and I could see it even if they
didn’t.

What changed for me was coming up with a new idea, something
I had hashed out in bits with friends over the years. Well
about two years later I had worked on it and I really liked
it! It had a great long term goal, mysteries, and secrets
the party would have to discover, potential for a lot of
growth and interesting (to me) villains and heroes.

D&D 3E was just coming out and I felt this was a great way
to try out an old favorite whom I hadn’t played in nearly 10
years. It has turned out to be great. For me I needed the
background story. Sure there may be parts the players never
learn about, but they don’t need to. I do. It helps me make
my decisions, and where villains do what they do and what
countries are at conflict and why.

Well it has been fun so far and we’re still going.

Thanks for the great info you provide weekly.

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From: Dwayne T.

Hi Johnn,

I just got the new Roleplaying Tips Weekly and it was like
Andrew was an alien who kidnapped me to brain tape my mind
and then give me amnesia so I didn’t know, and then used the
biggest problem that exists in the gaming partition of my
noodle to write about…or maybe it would just be easier to
say he read my mind?

GM burn-out is THE NUMBER 1 BANE OF EVERY CAMPAIGN THAT OUR
GROUP HAS EVER PUT OUT. It has been appearing before we even
begin in my campaigns, but the prologue session of this
radically different post-modern campaign has changed that a
lot.

Last Saturday, we were going to go to a party but it
seems that the hostess did not show up, so it was
unanimously decided (by all but me) that I GM a meeting
between the present players’ (which are all but one)
characters. Despite my total lack of preparation (and my
neurotic fear of trying to get the players to interact
without a plan in my head) the session was a TOTAL success!

I had to introduce a plot thread a little early, but it got
everyone introduced, and most of the characters on one side.
It rocked! And I think that the new genre (as well as some
blunt analysis on my techniques, a reestablishment of
techniques that got players excited and some great advice by
both Robin’s Laws Of Good GMing and…of course…RPTips).

We have one other real GM who always seems too burnout at
the apex of the gaming excitement. It really sucks too,
because he is a spectacular GM who makes every player’s
character who tries to be a good addition to the game feel
like he’s in the limelight. It’s a lot like going on the
roller coaster that you just absolutely know is going to be
the best ever and then stopping just before the big scream.
Not just stopping, but falling out of the carts to fall all
the way to the cement. I have said many times that I will
not play in another of his campaigns because of his
constantly giving up. Isn’t that crazy?

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From: BillyBeanbag

One of the greatest lessons I learned about GM burn-out came
at a time when I was playing instead of running the game.
When I got started in the hobby, I was the first one to own
the books, and for most of my early gaming career, I was
always the one running the games. The few exceptions didn’t
really give me a chance for character development or
progression. So I groomed a replacement and switched sides
of the screen for a while.

What I learned is that at first it’s kind of like a parent
riding beside a young driver who’s learning the skills
needed to make it without you. It can be frustrating and
fun, but eventually you get past that and can relax. In
gaming, the feeling of ‘having to be the GM’ can overshadow
your whole experience. Once I got to play I started
thinking about what it was that I wanted from the game as a
player.

This was a fundamental shift in my thinking that changed the
way I run games as a GM. By listening to the things I
responded most to, and those things that really excited
other players, I got a much better sense of how to put
adventures and campaigns together that will suffer less
burn-out and create memories that people will talk about
years hence.

Just my two coppers’ worth

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From: Simon M.

My History Lesson. It’s happened to me about 3 times. The
first time was when I started college, I got a real social
life and was working in a part time job. Most of my friends
were starting to date girls and there seemed more important
things to do than game.

I return to gaming some 5 years (I was in my mid 20′s) later
when an old friend was cleaning out some junk at his parents’
house in order to move into a small unit. He discovered a
box of gaming stuff. Three weeks later we had a few games &
it set the course for 3 strong years of gaming. AD&D 2nd
Edition had just come out and we were really hooked on
Planescape. Computer games and getting married put an end
to our weekend sessions and it wasn’t until I heard about
D&D 3rd edition in 1999 I came back to gaming.

1. Starting Points & Ideas Fade. This can be stopped &
solved by having well fleshed characters with plenty of
personality traits, backgrounds, convictions, contacts &
family links. Throw stacks of NPCs at your characters & let
“THEM” do the work. Your idea should be brief and simple to
attach them to a part of the story line.

Players are the lifeblood and we all know that factory of
adventure ideas takes a dive at some time. The best thing to
do is to find out what you players are hungry for, then
“FEED” them. Bill likes a dungeon crawl, Jenny likes a
murder mystery, Bob likes long ships & keeps, and lastly
Anna likes dragons & romance. So work with that. Keeping a
campaign fun is hard work and takes a good deal of work &
time. Make sure you know that before starting. If your
personal life is really full with work, studies, children,
and hobbies then it might not be a good for you to run a big
campaign. Stick to small short Quests. Don’t start something
you can’t finish.

2. Villains, Creatures & NPC Villains. Treat them like a
proper character, with their own history, backgrounds,
flaws, perks, convictions and all the rest. They must have
goals and reasons for doing what they are doing, while
keeping it simple.

Joan is working on a Villain. She is using a Viking campaign
setting template and so selects a Frost Giant Chief as one
of her three bad guys. She then lists things about him.
Strong, Bossy, Mean, Tough, Fit, Swordsman. Killed many, bad
childhood, no family, no partner, trusts nobody.

Visualize to heighten areas (Caverns & Dungeons). Room
descriptions can be a really big problem. It’s a lot of work
to write up a 30 room level and by the 10th room it’s
downright painful. Change the way you do it. Imagine your
self as a hero walking into this room, look around, what do
you see… Creatures? Conditions? Color & Components?

3. Quest Preparation Feels Like Work. Putting together a
campaign is a lot of work. The idea is to cut the work down
into manageable chunks or blocks. Work out the nuts and
bolts for the first quest, make some brief notes for ideas
for any connectors along with possible creatures and setting
briefs and leave it alone till you get up to that stage.
Things change over the course of one or two games and you
might have to change things.

Never work on your quests for more the 2 hours at a time,
keep it fresh by doing it in small, punchy, half hour bites.

Work with lists, small paragraphs and flow charts rather
then huge masses of hand written or typed material. Keep
areas like caverns & dungeons to a room limit of say 15
rooms and only 2 levels. Try and invent at least 3 creatures
per quest. And never be afraid to scrap possible ideas for
some thing new that may prove better…

For example:

Joan is now running her first quest, “The Dogs of Death”.
The story hook is very simple, The players must solve the
murders in the city area in order to claim the 140gp reward.
A rival party is also attempting to solve this mystery and
claim the prize. The party needs this 140gp in order to
repay a loan from a Loan Shark.

The party soon collects enough facts & clues discovering a
secret gang of mercenaries working in the bell tower who are
using trained hunting dogs to attack unsuspecting victims
and rob them. Rather then infiltrating their lair in the
bell tower, the party in a complete turn-around instead
informs the Home Guard and sneaks into the Loan Shark’s
hide-out.

Joan, now in a complete panic, decides to cut for a break
while she works out a new tack. Working on the fly, 10
minutes of think-tanking comes up with the following
connectors. The Home Guards are corrupt and work for a rival
thieves’ guild, the Bloody Cutlass. The Loan Shark works for
the thieves’ guild, Blue Griffins. The third party here is
a band of goblin night assassins. This quest & campaign
turned out to be one of Joan’s best.

4. Player Expectations. Make sure players start off with the
character profession they want. Make sure their characters
are fully fleshed out giving you lots to work with. Make
sure you know what they want in the game, Action, Mystery,
Romance, etc.

Even if the party is all fighters and thieves, work with
that. Never have a player use another player’s character,
that always leads to tears and infighting. Don’t try and
save them from themselves, if they do some thing stupid let
them wear it, you don’t however have to kill them–just
punish them. Yes we should be aware that players are
expecting us to keep delivering… But as the
Narrator/Storyteller/DM you should know this and revel in it
by setting up you players with story baits and hooks, the
ones they in turn asked for at the start of the quest.

5. Player Envy. Avoid player envy (i.e. wishing you were the
one playing) by playing in a completely separate game group.
It’s good advice to never just constantly run games. Even
playing a computer game can do the trick.

6. Frustration & Restless Bored Players. GMs have told me
countless horror stories where players almost drove them
insane with constant nagging about their character, nagging
about the lack of magic items and how such-and-such new RPG
is loads better.

Stick to a generic campaign setting (boringly plain) then
select areas to enhance, with simple themes & ideas, to
flesh out later. For the Northern Hinterlands have a Viking
theme, while the Midlands have a Forgotten Realms theme.
Players can move to and from areas as they please. Always
keep things local and work outwards as the players work
outwards. Keep mostly to ideas with stuff inside the
players’ main circle of interest.

Make sure players are aware that they are in fact in control
of their characters’ lives. They can multi-class their
profession, they can go and choose their own skills and
talents, and they can go and train in whatever they want.
Put the ball back into your players’ hands, let “THEM” do all
the work. This also stops them from getting fed-up.

Always KEEP PLAYERS BUSY with stuff. Looking for clues in
a long lost journal (a hand-out you gave). Putting together
bits of a torn map (a torn hand-out you gave them), a
newspaper you email them monthly, looking for a lost family
relic in between normal adventuring.

In one of the campaigns I was running I had a player who was
starting to show loss of interest with her character, a 6th
level female half-elf Magic User. Always go straight to the
player & identify the problem with them. She was feeling
left out when the others in the party got stuck into combat.
Work with the player for a solution….I found the player to
be a closet Kung-fu nut. I gave the party a side mission
that led her character to multi-class into a Magic
User/Monk-Twin Dragon.

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From: Scott Fitz
MoonHunter

1. GM’s block is a serious problem in the roleplaying world.

Nothing stops a campaign faster than a burned out GM, except
maybe unhappy players. Signs of burn-out are a) lack of
enthusiasm for your own play, b) throwing the same old plots
at your players time and time again, c) seeing your
scenarios fall flat on a regular basis, d) not finding a new
hook or things to do in your campaign, e) players expressing
dissatisfaction about the game which they never have before.

2. Most people have a time of day when they’re the most
creative. Do your brainstorming then. Try going without
sleep for a while. Two o’clock in the morning is usually the
time when the brain is least reasonable. You can come up
with great ideas (or simply crazy ones) that can be added
together with other random thoughts. Always leave a notebook
and pencil by your bedside. You might wake up with a new
approach that can get you started again.

3. Read! I’ve been burned out before, and reading new things
always reawakens my imagination. I read fantasy books to
stimulate my creativity, but any genre will work. They do
not have to game related fiction. In fact, books of a type
you never normally read are best for inspiring you.

4. You can get ideas from movies. Watch movies with
different themes. A western can give you ideas completely
different from ideas inspired by a martial arts movie. Get
ideas from dramas, mysteries, suspense, horror, whatever.
Reading and watching movies may have some feature that might
provide the spark of inspiration from which a campaign might
be born.

5. Use your eyes. Artwork, both fine and graphic, are great
sources of inspiration. You can get ideas from a painting of
the countryside, a castle, or maybe just a portrait. Flip
through your books and see what kind of artwork is in them.
I recommend the annual Spectrum book series as the best
inspiration art book of all time.

6. If it does not work one way, try another. Consider
switching to another campaign setting or system. A new
setting may be a refreshing break from the standard things
your players are used to. If you play Fantasy all the time,
use a different section of your brain and try a science
fiction game. Sometimes you really need a break from the
usual. A change is definitely required if you’re out of
ideas on a topic.

7. Sometimes you need some help to get over the rough spots
in your creative drought. Don’t be afraid to read and borrow
stuff from others. Take ideas and add them together.
Roleplaying magazines always have little things that help a
GM, and they can be scoured for ideas you could use.

8. Review your previous work. It might help to go looking
through some of your old material. Look back at other things
you have written, and try revising them to fit your current
campaign. Update and modify it to fit your current tastes.
Also, the players may react differently to a situation than
another group of players. If they do, this will get you
thinking on a different line.

9. Try developing different parts of a campaign that you
haven’t already. See what the players could explore, be it
physical, emotional or spiritual. Try a moral dilemma
instead of your normal court intrigue or combat. Take the
group to a new part of your world as yet unexplored. An
invasion from space will always take a game in new
directions.

10. Ask a friend who is not involved in your current
campaign read over your work. Talk about it and see what
ideas he or she has that can be integrated. There is no such
thing as bad constructive criticism. If the friend doesn’t
like something about it, change it or make it better. Listen
to their comments and suggestions no matter how negative
they are regarding your work. After all, you don’t have a
better idea at this time.

11. If you can, try writing a little short story or stories.
Make your brain work in a different way. Put something down,
anything. Make it small. Start in the middle or write just a
piece of it. Make an outline. Think creatively about
something unrelated. Spend time just sitting quietly day
dreaming. Take a break. Give up for awhile and do something
different. Most likely you are burned out because you are
overworked. Enjoy some down time to rest your brain. Curl up
with a good book and let yourself drift to a different
place.

12. Try writing small pieces of information or creative
thought. These could be one line of scene description,
three sentences describing the organization of a religion,
the fast write up for an NPC, some game mechanics that when
a piece of description added could be a new monster, or even
a game tip. Once you can begin to write things down, they
can inspire you to move on to other things.

13. Sometimes there are physical reasons for why you are not
feeling creative. Try to make sure you are getting enough
quality sleep, taking in a little exercise, and limiting the
amount of chemical modifiers you are taking (caffeine and
nicotine being the biggest contributors). If you have any
physical ailments, try to get them resolved. You can’t do
your best when you don’t feel your best.

14. The hardest part of being creative is “the starting”.
Try taking pieces of the middle of what you want to do, then
go back and work on the beginning.

15. Sometimes you just need a change of pace. Trying going
someplace new, or just different, from where you normally
go. The change of location may help you to dislodge the GM’s
block.

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From: Jerry M.

Hello Johnn,

I’ve been running a home-brewed game for the past 6 years
with another friend, and GM burn-out creeps up on me very
often (usually once or twice a month). I have a suggestion
for other GM/DM’s to help overcome burn-out and make their
game and/or game world seem “better”.

I find that relaxing while listening to music and letting my
mind wander in my game world helps. While relaxing, try to
picture yourself walking around in your game world and paying
attention to what people do, their surroundings, and just
generally what goes on. Once you’re walking around in your
game world, close your eyes and let your mind wander
(preferably in your game world)… Do this for a couple
hours a week (sometimes 30 min a day for a week really gets
me wanting to GM).

You can take this to the next step further by making stuff
happen. Example. While walking to the store, you see someone
hit by a car. What do you do? What if that person is your
enemy, friend, spouse, noble/high class, commoner, etc.?
Sometimes seeing the day to day life of your game world
through the eyes of a commoner, or just some traveler, you
will begin to know more about your game world that usually
isn’t in any books. Your game world has a life, why not look
at how it is for a couple hours a week. Plus, don’t think of
plot hooks, let them come to you. The more you “see” your
world, the more you can probably figure out how to make a
campaign unlike any you had before…

This may be difficult if you do not have a fully developed
game world, or have little knowledge about the system. This
has been very effective for me because I built my whole game
world, system, and NPCs from scratch, so I know of many
aspects of day to day life in my world from planet to
planet, realm to realm.

These tips have helped me, and maybe they can help someone
else.

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From: Mitch Michaelson

Hi Johnn,

Your recent issue struck very close to home: I suffered GM
burn-out and I had to have a character leave the game.

First, because we play online, that means we don’t know each
other as people very well. And no matter how many smiley-
faces you use, it’s very easy to offend someone in a chat
room. The group lacked cohesiveness. I lost interest in
holding it all together. So I asked that we skip a week,
then come back and discuss the problems.

The remaining players and I talked our issues out. In some
cases, I was at fault as much as anyone. In other cases, I
had to play the “it’s my game” card while demonstrating
concern for their feelings.

One of the players pointed out a flaw in the way I set up
the game. As mid-level characters (ancillae), I wanted them
developing their own schemes and domains… but because
there were few low-level characters (neonates) in the city,
the player characters were effectively just powerful
neonates.

I didn’t think bringing in dozens of neonates would make
things better so the players suggested they take control of
my non-player characters! They each chose an existing NPC
neonate and will play them from now on, in addition to their
normal ancillae. This troupe-style play expanded the ranks
of player characters and since the two groups know each
other, the ancillae can send the neonates off on dirty
missions they devise. This completely dispelled my lack of
interest and my burn-out was gone!

Second, at the same time as all of this I had to expel a
character from the game because he simply didn’t fit in. The
player was also rarely present, so that contributed. One of
the players contacted the expelled player and asked if he
still wanted to play, which he did. The player brokered a
discussion between the ex-player and I, and now the ex-
player is creating a new character that fits the game and he
will show up more often.

The game is back on. The lost player is coming back into the
game. The moral to the story is, involve your players when
you suffer burnout. They will probably surprise you with
something out of the blue.