3 Early Warning Signs You’re Suffering From GM Burnout
3 Early Warning Signs You’re Suffering From GM Burnout
A GM replied to my recent Master of the 5 Room Dungeon email and said they’d lost the spark for GMing. I asked them for more details in case I can help, and am awaiting a reply.
Meantime though, I’ve suffered from apathy and burnout several times in the past. And when the screen feels like a job, it’s time to step back and reassess. Burnout is best caught in its early stages, when we still have a lot of options to avoid it.
Today’s tips are inspired by a conversation I had with Sly Flourish last year. I said to him I was burned out on D&D. He asked how long I’d been GMing D&D for, and I said since December 1980. He laughed and said “40 years of GMing D&D isn’t burnout!” and told me I wasn’t burned out and I just needed a break.
He was right.
I noodled on it for a couple weeks afterwards and I realized I had three major early warning signs of actual burnout, but I wasn’t burnt yet – I still wanted an active campaign.
So today I share with you the three signs I detected in myself that I was able to get ahead of to prevent actual GM burnout. Thanks to Mike, I have an awesome OSE game going now, and a Pathfinder 2 campaign in the wings.
Symptom #I: You’re Not Looking Forward to Game Day
I had three campaigns running and was dreading game night for each. I felt anxious, worried, and stressed about:
- Not having my setting prepared
- Not having great adventures prepared
- Not having enough variety in my encounters
- Unsure if my encounters would entertain or bore my players
- Being disorganized and not able to find stuff when I needed it most
- Feeling one-step behind gameplay
- Not having a strong vision behind my campaigns and adventures
I was fearful that players would pick up on my malaise and criticize me for being sub-par. It really did feel during sessions like gameplay was wet cardboard and I was GMing from the bottom of a lake.
Today, if you aren’t looking forward to next session, ask yourself why. Give it noodling time try to get to the bottom of your trepidations. Because lack of pre-session cackling and glee is a potential sign you’re on the path to burnout.
Symptom #II: You Stopped Homebrewing
Are you getting fatigued from the preparation hamster wheel? My experience was wanting to do anything else but preparation. “Oh look, that pile of receipts need sorting. I best get on that!”
If sorting receipts beats creating cool stuff for a game then something terrible is wrong with the universe.
Then I realized I was improvising a lot and leaning on published adventures again. I love buying published adventures and looting them for parts. I built an entire course on it (Platinum Wizards of Adventure, you can get the Adventure Hacking course here.) But those 5E hardcovers are not only expensive, they have the wrong kind of detail, and the details we do get are not well laid out for GMing.
I also realized that prepping published adventures meant I stopped creating magic items, NPCs, and encounters – three of my favorite things to homebrew. So it wasn’t just the process of prepping like I was studying for an exam. It was also a wrench in my GM fun engine.
And improvising more meant increased overhead in the preparation department. I don’t mean Preparing to Improvise here, a mantra I have for great GMing. Instead, I was avoiding:
- Taking more detailed game notes so I wouldn’t forget what I just invented, slowing my GMing down
- Opening impromptu loops, clues, and puzzles without any idea how I’d close them, causing them to pile up and stress me out
- Talking more and more and not giving players most of the spotlight
- Dropping down to “low signal GMing” as I struggled to keep up with the pace and could only muster micro developments or small answers to player questions
I love to improvise. But there’s a better way to do it. And that starts with homebrewing more so I internalize details and can think further ahead with a bigger picture guiding me.
Creating something gives me energy back and helps me remember it far better. Studying for something drains me. So returning to homebrew re-ignited my passion for GMing again.
Symptom #III: You Feel Like You’ve Run Out of Good Ideas
When ideas stop flowing, I stop going. There, some GM burnout rhyme for you.
Note how I phrased the header. We feel like our ideas are bad. When this happens, it can block ideation all together. Our brain flinches away from being curious and imaginative as it anticipates painful writer’s block. So it retreats.
Yes, sometimes good ideas do stop flowing. The spark has indeed gone. But most often we are actually getting good ideas and we’re just not in a state of mind to receive or recognize them.
If I’m already dreading next session, then my mindset has warped from having a wonderful opportunity to stretch my imagination and design skills to having to do energy-sucking work.
If I’m also studying for an adventure exam instead of homebrewing my own cool stuff, then my brain also sees that as friction, effort, and work.
And when the brain is stressed this way, our perception score drops. Our imagination stat temporarily drops too. A killer idea could land right into our laps, and it we aren’t feeling inspired, but are instead tired and worried, then we won’t even notice the idea.
So when you feel like you’ve got no ideas, do a self-check about what the root cause might be. Chances are good it’s not because you don’t have any great ideas. Instead, you’re temporarily in a situation that’s blocking your creativity.
One hack when this happens to me is to use random tables and roll for ideas. Having a seed often gets me feeling better and more confident about carrying on and building it out.
Do You Have These Signs?
If you no longer look forward to game day, have stopped homebrewing stuff, and you feel like you’re running out of good ideas, then danger, danger Will Robinson! Burnout lies ahead.
Start with some self-care. And then think about what the causes of your burnout might be. For example, perhaps you have too many campaigns or are GMing too often for your schedule right now. Maybe you’re tired of managing a heavy and crunchy game. Or perhaps you need to play something else to change things up and see RPGs through fresh eyes.