Playing With Fire: Dodging GM Burnout

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #379

Playing With Fire: Dodging GM Burnout

From Mike Bourke

In Roleplaying Tips issue #367, Johnn wrote: “…you’ve got to focus on having fun being creative while planning if you want to GM for long these days,” and solicited tips on how to do that. I started to jot a couple of thoughts down, but one thought led to another, until, well, here we are….

The following are all techniques I have successfully employed in my 26 years as a GM to avoid burnout.

Mirror Gaming

I call this approach Mirror Gaming because the GM is designing the session from the perspective of “the other side of the mirror.”

Most burnout occurs when preparing a scenario, and it starts to be too much like work and not enough like fun. It’s my contention that, if generating the scenario itself is enough fun, momentum will carry you through most problems.

It’s when a GM hits writer’s block head-on that things begin to drag. Most of these techniques are aimed at getting a GM past that hump, getting them into a state of mind in which their imagination is going at a million miles an hour, just as it was at the start of the campaign.

The Mirror Gaming technique is aimed in that general direction. Instead of deciding what has to happen next, what you haven’t done yet, or whatever is appropriate for the style of campaign you’ve been running, pretend you’re a player. Ask yourself what you, as a player, would have the most fun doing – no matter how ridiculous it might be in the context of the campaign.

Find some way of shoehorning this into the campaign. If it won’t fit into what’s already going on, get the players to generate new characters and start running a second adventure thread simultaneously with the first. Create a connection between the two threads that you will state as existing but that you can actually figure out later. This gets players looking for the connection, enlisting them as unwitting collaborators.

Inverted Gaming

Sometimes it’s not enough to stroll through the looking glass. Sometimes you need a completely different style of game, turning the entire gaming experience on its head. “A change is as good as a holiday,” as the popular saying goes.

If your regular D&D campaign isn’t working, maybe a short bout of Paranoia will be more to the GM’s liking, or perhaps Risk, Top Secret, Seventh Sea, or… well, you get the idea.

You don’t have to abandon your existing campaign, not even for a session. Use the desired campaign setting as inspiration, and set the events in a different era of the campaign.

To avoid having to give clues as to what you have planned for the future of the main campaign, the remote past is usually preferable. Once again, this requires fresh PCs and a parallel gaming line, but it permits the GM to let the PCs invent, and invest in, some of the undiscovered campaign background. I call this Inverted Gaming because background usually precedes campaign, but this inverts that relationship.

The Second Chair

Why not invite a special guest to sit in the referee’s chair for a scenario, with permission to get inventive? They could perhaps take the same PCs and interpret them in a new rules system or campaign setting.

Nothing scares old-time players quite as much as a new referee pulling out character sheets and the Call of Cthulhu rulebook immediately after they set foot in the inn or gothic castle….

This is even more head-spinning if it’s a total surprise. Of course, you sit in to act as intermediary between the campaign and the temporary GM, to take notes about how to interpret consequences when the regularly-scheduled campaign system/setting resumes, and to roleplay any established NPCs.

A variation on this idea is to get each of your players to draft a scenario for the campaign. You then take their submissions and rework them to fit.

Ripple Scenarios

If you’re frustrated trying to come up with something new, a good card to have up your sleeve is the concept of a Ripple Scenario. Think back over the campaign events to date, and pick the scenario you remember was the most fun for everyone – including, especially, yourself.

Look at the key decisions and judgements – by both PCs and NPCs – that were made in the course of the scenario. For each, ask yourself what if (for some reason) that decision was wrong?

Perhaps the friendly innkeeper who helped the scenario get back on track had an ulterior motive, or maybe the apparently evil cleric was actually a good guy pursuing what he saw as the lesser of two evils?

Having the current situation – whatever it is – get unexpectedly complicated by past events can have a wonderfully unifying effect on apparent campaign cohesiveness. Plus, the sequel to the most fun scenario you’ve had can only help you recapture that sense of fun about the campaign in general. Besides, anytime the GM can get the players second guessing themselves and their decisions, past as well as present, is a good day for the GM.

Seed Scenarios

Pick up a novel that is not too removed from the campaign genre, open it to a random page, and select a single sentence. Build a scenario around some in-campaign interpretation context of the sentence, changing the names as necessary.

For example, for a fantasy campaign, let’s pull out The Fellowship Of The Ring and extract, at random, the sentence, “But, as they drew near to the further gate, Frodo saw a dark ill-kept house behind a thick hedge: the last house in the village.” So, we have a village, with two gates – or are they Gates? – with a thick hedge, a sinister house, and a traveler passing through.

How about a traveler who was passing through a village linking one plane of existence to somewhere else by two Gates, and who never arrived at his destination? A grieving widow begs the PCs for help finding her missing husband, or maybe the traveler is trapped in amber.

Speculation, fanciful interpretation, and a deliberately corrupted context can produce a wealth of ideas from that one sentence.

Canned Scenarios

If you are desperate, throw in a canned scenario, or simply throw in a single level from one. You can even lift a single room from a module as the basis of a Seed Scenario.

A Stroll Down The Dark Side

The final, absolute last resort: hang up the GM screen for a while. Put the campaign on hold, and settle back to be just another player. If there are no other GMs available, hold a video night instead of roleplaying, play a board game, take everyone down to a tavern, or organize an expedition to the cinema. Your players won’t mind the occasional missed session if it enables the campaign to continue in the longer term.

Giving as much advance notice as possible is the key to making this work. This solution is especially good if the GM is feeling under-appreciated, which does happen from time to time: one too many criticisms, bellyaches, or even “helpful suggestions” can sour you on GMing for a while.

If that happens, have each player GM a one session game (no matter how badly) while you recharge your batteries, and hopefully when the campaign resumes, your players will be appreciative. The risk is your players might prefer one of these other GMs – but that would happen if you burned out anyway.

So there you have it – seven strategies for recapturing the fun. Hopefully, you will never need them, but the far greater likelihood is that, at one point or another, each of these will get pulled out of your toolkit and get you past the hump. Have Fun!

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A Brief Word From Johnn

RPG News?

I’m curious to find out where you get your RPG news these days. I go to and, but am wondering if I’m missing out on other sources.

Knights of the Dinner Table

I heartily recommend the Knights of the Dinner Table magazine. For those of us still mourning the end of Dragon, this monthly periodical fills the void quite well.

Kenzer & Company

Have a spooky, game-full week!


Johnn Four
[email protected]

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have some GM advice you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Use Washers For Coins

From Craig the Lucky

Hey Johnn,

My group came up with an awesome idea for coinage in games. A player bought a huge box of assorted washers. When you take a string, and tie a bead on the end, you get a makeshift money belt.

The players love trading in coinage, and it is much easier to do than updating and changing your inventory all the time. In a similar thread, my Traveler game uses monopoly money.

Anyway not sure if it’s new, but it makes a huge difference at the table.

Thoughts On Infravision

From Crazy Nedri

The majority of my group thought PC infravision was a little stupid from the start. Ultravision, or what we preferred to call low-light vision, made sense, but the idea of characters being able to see heat signatures did not seem to fit.

So, we got rid of it. This opened a whole new set of doors as far as strategy goes. Some creatures still have infravision, leaving them to be lethal in certain situations. A party left without torches and light spells while being stalked by a rather large creature with especially sharp, pointy teeth is going to have to rely on their wits to survive, rather than infravision and the tips of their short swords.

Without infravision, a twist is thrown into the game that gives a little bit more challenge, and pushes the players to think a little more.

Check Out Gamemaster Law

From Stephen Gryphon

I recommend Rolemaster’s Gamemaster Law as a good purchase for any gamemaster, for any genre or game system. If you have never seen this book, maybe because you have been worried that Rolemaster is too mechanics heavy, then I suggest you at least have a look at the contents page:

The first half of the book is on campaign design, storytelling, narrative styles, session organisation, and heaps of tips and information on gamemastering. The book tends to get a little philosophical at times, but the information is valuable for any game system and any genre.

The second half has more tangible material. Some is Rolemaster specific, but it still contains a lot of general information. For example, there are sections on economics, levels of play activity, and building cultures. There are also excellent sections on world building, with discussions on geography, climate, and weather.

Interested In A Novel XP System?

From Telas

…And helping with the playtesting of it?

This is a replacement of the XP system for “the world’s most popular RPG.” At the same time, it’s an action point system.

Experience Chips

Overcoming obstacles of any kind earns Experience Chips, which are represented by poker chips of three colors: White, Red, and Blue. Chips can be traded in at any time for an equivalent value of another color. 4 White Chips = 2 Red Chips = 1 Blue Chip.

Overcoming an obstacle of roughly the equivalent to average party level (APL) will earn each member one Red Chip. Minor obstacles (EL less than two under the APL) will earn one White Chip for each member of the party. Major obstacles (EL more than two above the APL) will earn each member of the party one Blue Chip.

In non-d20 terms, an easy encounter earns everyone a White Chip, a moderately difficult encounter earns everyone a Red Chip, and a difficult encounter earns everyone a Blue Chip.

Chips will also be awarded spontaneously for roleplay, innovation, and “cool factor” of any action. The GM’s decision is final, but players are encouraged to recommend each other’s actions as “chip-worthy.”

Chips can be spent at any time to gain a level, at the price of 20 White, 10 Red, or 5 Blue Chips. Levels can be gained mid-combat if the character sheet is ready. Hit Points gained will benefit the character by adding to their current hit points. (Example: Lord Foolhardy, at 12 of 20 Hit Points, pulls off a kickass combat maneuver that earns his 20th White Chip, and then immediately spends them all to gain a level mid-combat, he goes to 20 of 28 Hit Points.)

Chips can also be spent at any time to gain a temporary benefit, similar to Action Points. Unlike Action Points, Chips may also be spent on other characters. The Chips follow the player, not the character, although new characters will pay a penalty cost of half a level (10 White Chips, 5 Red Chips, or 2.5 Blue Chips). This may mean that the new character is a level lower (and five Red Chips higher) than the previous character.

The benefit to expending a chip is commensurate to the value of the chip. (Note: this part needs the most tweaking and feedback.)

White Chip

Gained for overcoming an easy obstacle (EL<APL-2)

Cost in White Chips to level: 20

Benefits: Automatically stabilize when dying, +1d6 to d20 roll, use untrained skill as trained, or minor item or situational benefit

Red Chip

Gained for overcoming a moderate obstacle (APL-2<EL<APL+2)

Cost in Red Chips to level: 10

Benefits: Additional standard action in a round, re-roll any dice roll (take highest), additional use of ability or feat you already have, cast any additional instance of a spell you know, automatically stabilize at 0 HP (“Staggered”), or moderate item or situational benefit (contact, knowledge, convenience, etc.).

Blue Chip

Gained for overcoming a difficult obstacle (EL>APL+2)

Cost in White Chips to level: 5

Benefits: Ability to use any feat for 1 hour, additional spell of any level you can cast (need not be on your list), +4 to any ability score for 1 hour, +20 to any single d20 roll, or obscure or important item or situational benefit

Raise Dead

In addition to all the above, a character can be brought back from the dead by the expenditure of Experience Chips. For the equivalent of a Raise Dead, the cost is 15 Red Chips and a sacrifice of goods equal to 5,000 GP. Again, sharing of chips is allowed (and in this case, encouraged).

Magic Item Creation

Option: Items don’t cost XP to create, but spells do cost XP to cast.

Magic items costing less than 1,000 GP will not need XP expended for their creation. Magic items costing more than 1,000 GP will need at least one White Chip, depending on the character’s level. Each White Chip is worth the character’s level x 50 in experience points, and the character must expend one chip for each (level x 50) XP, or portion thereof. Spell costs are calculated in the same manner for those spells requiring an XP cost (Wish, some Miracles, etc).

Feel free to use this system, but please credit me. 😉 If you do use the system, please contact me with any playtest notes or suggestions at telastx at

Props go out to Makeiru on for coming up with the original idea of 13 chips to level.

GMs – Consider Linux

From Dan Reardon


Chris Cho’s guest article on GM tech tools got me thinking. As long as us geeks are talking about playing our geeky games with computers (toys for geeks), I might as well pipe up and suggest using an operating system for geeks – Linux.

It’s not as geeky as it used to be, and it’s becoming more usable by ‘normal’ people every day. The price tag ($0, or close to it) is tough to beat, and the Open Gaming License borrowed directly from the philosophy that makes this software – both of which are great.

The multiple desktops Chris mentioned (and often multiple wallpapers for those desktops – for those DM screen wallpapers) are enabled by default. There’s no extra software needed, and you can have a dozen or more of them if you like (though it’s common to stick with 2 or 4).

Many of the tools mentioned by Chris are available on Linux systems as well. The Gimp was actually developed on Linux and later ported to Windows. And if the exact same program Chris mentioned won’t run in Linux, there’s going to be something available that will do the job – most of it available for free.

I’ll recommend Kubuntu Linux to anyone interested. It’s a branch of the Ubuntu project that uses the KDE desktop – a little more Windows-like than some others, easy to customize, and capable of using different wallpapers on each of its multiple desktops). You can download a CD image from their website for free, order one from an online retailer, or (if you don’t mind waiting a little) they’ll send you a free CD. I’ve been using it for years on my laptop and it’s been a great asset to my games. Thanks for a great e-zine. Keep up the good work.