9 Symptoms Of GM Burn-Out: Avoiding GM Burn-Out – Part I

From Andrew McLaren

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0130

A Brief Word From Johnn

GM burn-out is a pretty serious issue. I’ve received a fair number of “I’m leaving the hobby for awhile” feedback responses from ezine unsubscribers over the years, and I wonder how many were a result of burn-out? We’ll never know, I guess. In this week’s article, Andrew gives us several clues that will hopefully help GMs on the verge of burn-out pull back before it’s too late.

Next week, Andrew will fill us in on a few remedies. Have you ever experienced RPG burn-out? Did you bounce-back? If so, drop me a note and let me know how you did it.

Contest Winners Will Be Announced In #131

Thanks to everyone who entered the Kenzer & Co. HackMaster module contest! I submitted the list of names for random selection to Kenzer & Co. at the close of the contest, and as soon as I hear back I’ll email the winners and announce them in next week’s issue.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

9 Symptoms Of GM Burn-Out: Avoiding GM Burn-Out – Part I

It is going to happen. You’ve been running your campaign for a few months and a feeling of lethargy and frustration grows in you. You start to feel like you’re having less fun each session, and the players pick up on this, and as a result, your fun level sinks even further. Often, this burn-out is “solved” by scrapping the campaign and starting another one.

This is not the way, my friend! A long term campaign is the single most rewarding achievement a GM can enjoy. I am talking about the kind of campaign that has players talking about the fun they had years after the campaign ended. The kind of campaign that has people naming their children after your NPCs!

GMs who want long running campaigns need to be able to work through the burn-out that so often appears, and be able to reintroduce the spark into their games! While it may feel like writer’s block, a GM has a number of options that are not always open to authors.

This first key to burn-out is diagnosis. If you progress too far along the burn-out path, there’s a risk of passing the point of no-return. Some GMs who sail through this grim gate are not seen for months, while others never return! So, let’s have a look at the symptoms to help catch the disease before it becomes terminal.

You Think You’ve Already Used Your Best Ideas

Most GMs start a campaign with a good idea. eg: “I want to run a Viking-type campaign!” They are excited and this is contagious. Soon the players are excited and the group runs the campaign quite successfully for a while, often throwing a lot of energy into the first sessions. As a result, everybody has lots of fun.The original spark of that campaign idea probably gave birth to several plot ideas or elements.

Using the Viking example, the GM may have thought, “Hmm, Vikings are so cool. I can have a couple scenes of travel across rough seas, some raiding pirates, and maybe incorporate some elements of Norse mythology!” Fantastic, but it doesn’t take very many sessions for these ideas to be introduced and used. Then what?

Eventually, the adventure ideas – the bread and butter of keeping a campaign fun – are all used up. Sure, you had some good ideas at the beginning, but you’re not getting any new, inspiring ones.

Little Variation In Encounters And NPCs

As a result of your growing lethargy, encounters and NPCs start to become boring and repetitive. NPCs become cardboard cut-outs, with little thought being put into any motivations or quirks they may have. Even at the best of times, players often don’t easily remember NPCs without something special to help them recall later on. They may remember Rayel the wizard, who walks with a limp and who speaks with a German accent, but the last few NPCs have just been “human, middle- aged” men or women.

Encounters also become repetitive. Rooms begin to have very brief and vague descriptions. “Okay, you go into the temple. There is an altar and a human priest.” What about the golden columns and the smell of incense? The temple has become boring and minimal. Encounters also begin to have a sense of deja vu. There is no spark to capture the players’ attention and keep them excited.

Session Preparation Starts To Feel Like Work

At the beginning of a campaign, energy levels are high and it’s fun to create NPCs and challenges for your players. But the infectious excitement that campaigns start with begins to fade. GMing starts to feel like a chore, and you leave things to the last minute or hope to get by with “winging it”.”Oh darn, it’s Tuesday already. I’ve got less than twenty- four hours to think of something for tomorrow’s game!”

You catch yourself scanning through the Big Book o’ Monsters in the middle of a session, looking for something to throw at the players to keep them busy for half an hour while you think of a new adventure hook.

Alternatively, you suddenly have better things to do than prepare player handouts. At the start of the campaign you had a great time drawing maps and making political hierarchies for the kingdom of Rillioch, but now you’re content to get by with less.

You Feel The Players Are Going To Be Disappointed

When everyone has fun at the beginning of a campaign they look forward to more of it. Often players want to top previously enjoyable sessions with even more enjoyable sessions, and then even more enjoyable ones.”Remember when we snuck into Lady Theril’s chambers? Yeah! That was fun!” or “Remember those catacombs under the Witch’s Tower. Whew, glad we don’t have to go back there! I wonder if this new crystal cave system we are about to enter will be as creepy?”

Not only have your “best ideas” already been used, but you feel your players are expecting you to keep delivering creative challenges! You may have set a high, yet unmaintainable, standard for yourself that was based on your earlier high energy levels. Now you’re finding it hard to be as excited as you were, and you’re afraid the players will be disappointed.

Player Envy

Many people would rather be a player than a GM. After a few months of GMing, they start to think that, actually, they’d prefer to be on the other side of the GM screen. This is often particularly true of GMs who spend a lot of time creating details for their homebrew campaigns – which they never get to play.

Frustration with Players

You may experience a growing frustration with your players who min/max their characters rather than concern themselves with what you consider to be the greater issues in the game. You may find yourself irritated with your players when they argue with you over the rules, or question your decisions. You may be annoyed with the players’ fooling around instead of concentrating on your well-prepared game.One look at the different online forums for helping GMs will show that this is a recurring and very common symptom. Often it’s a symptom that seems to get worse as the campaign progresses, and GMs get quite frustrated with it.

Sometimes this is a personal problem between players and GM, and sometimes it’s just you taking things personally due to GM burn-out. Often, GMs become inclined to throw in the towel and let somebody else take the job of GMing.

The PCs Are Restless

The players start talking about trying out new characters and don’t seem interested in playing their current ones. This isn’t their fault necessarily as it’s often a sign that you’re not involving their characters, or you’re not weaving the characters deeply enough into your plot lines. Every player wants their character to have a cool factor, and balancing these demands is often hard work, especially with less experienced players.

Feeling Constrained By The System

Are you feeling irritated by the system you’re playing? Do you find yourself saying things like, “Damn, if we were playing X I could do this”. Watch out, this is just yourself looking for another excuse to drop this campaign and start a new one under another system.

It’s Not Fun Any More

The biggest, most serious symptom is that you no longer enjoy GMing. Do you look forward to game night? Do you look at your watch mid-game and wish sessions would end sooner? Do you suggest playing board games or video games instead of roleplaying? Do you purposefully delay starting sessions, take longer than necessary to handle in-game meals, call long breaks, and end early? Do you frequently cancel or post-pone sessions?

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These are the major symptoms of GM burn-out. You might have one or two of these symptoms and not be burned out at all– so avoid becoming a hypochondriac! However, if you exhibit more than a few, especially #9, then give yourself an honest evaluation and be open to the idea that you’re suffering from a little burn-out.

The toughest part of diagnosis is denial, possibly stemming from a fear you might lose interest and never want to play again if you stop. The good news is that there are remedies! Stay tuned for Part 2 coming next week where I’ll provide several options and ideas for curing GM burn-out.

Dragon Scale Counters Lets You Fight Anywhere!

The new combat mats from Dragon Scale Counters are portable and affordable. At 8? x 10?, they fit snugly in the pocket of your gaming folder. At $2 each, everyone can afford to have at least one. Because their laminated you can mark on them over and over (with a wet-erase marker of course!)



Seriously. For free. Just tell us which ones you want, (issues 60 and later) and you may have them, if you pay for shipping. Realms of Fantasy magazines, too!


Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

A Valuable GM Technique: Post-Game Self-Assessments

From Keith M.

After a game I always spend about 10 minutes writing down 4- 5 things that went well and 4-5 things that didn’t go so well.

I keep all of these in my GM folder and go through them regularly. This allows me to keep track of what is going on in my games. If something comes off poorly I’ll try it again, and if it doesn’t ever seem to work, I scrap it or change it around.

I don’t limit the comments to game related incidents either. For instance, we have recently been having problems with time: we always run out of it! The games weren’t getting any longer or more complicated, so what was the problem? I checked through my notes and immediately noted that food (we always eat on game night) was taking up more and more time. So we changed the format to eat first, with an informal time limit, and the problem was solved.

Here are examples on notes I’ve taken on three recent game sessions:

  • Return to Glindor Session 12
    1. Do not enter into long, protracted arguments (good natured though they may be). They take up too much time. Just make a decision and live with it
    2. New printed character reference sheets worked very well, especially the spell details and descriptions from the Players Handbook.
    3. Need to lighten up and relax more during the game. Although I was annoyed at the events unfolding, the players all enjoyed the game.
    4. Game organisation was ok but need to spend a little longer in setting up so that all relevant details are at hand and not in briefcase, bookshelves, etc.
    5. Floor plan printouts worked well but stick them on card to make them more rigid, similar to older GW floor plans
    6. Food wasn’t ordered till late and didn’t arrive for a while so long gap in play.
    7. E-mailed campaign notes from previous game were a success. Players all had read them and this eliminated the usual what happened/I don?t remember that session.
    8. Need to look at NPC preparation in more detail, e.g. if better thought out then Suliman?s bodyguards would have been better prepared to deal with an attack on their employer.
  • Return to Glindor Session 13
    1. Need to keep new character reference sheets updated between sessions.
    2. Use of weather effects and wilderness encounters and events worked well on journey to Tinfell’s Tower. PCs caught out in the storm unprepared and had to seek shelter, which led to an interesting and unplanned side trek.
    3. Food still a problem. Need to change the format of the evening. Order takeout as soon as all arrive. Use the waiting time to get the inevitable non-game conversations out of the way and start gaming straight after eating.
    4. Card mounted floor plans worked better. Make sure when printing the scaling is the same as existing GW card floor plans. Now how do I protect them from Curry?
    5. Aerial combat with Ravinkin worked well and was very entertaining. The extra time spent checking this was well worth it.
    6. The puzzles were also a big hit though perhaps a little too time-consuming.
    7. Kids woke towards the end. BIG Problem–lost an hour while trying to get them back to sleep.
    8. Finally completed the game. It has taken four sessions for something I thought would take 2 sessions max. All said game was good but time factor a big problem. Difficult to sustain atmosphere and pace over 12 weeks.Look at packaging sessions into mini games i.e. break long games into episodes each with defined goals that all contribute towards the end product. This way interest/energy is maintained, as there is a deliverable each session.
    9. NPC preparation still a problem. Check web, RoleplayingTips.com/Dragon Magazine for NPC tips.
  • Return to Glindor Session 14
    1. E-mailed updated Character Sheets complete with interim figures for hit points, spell usage, etc. worked well.
    2. E-mailed campaign notes still continue to be a success. The rumourmill notes I added led to a thought provoking conversation about possible investments in property and a thoroughly enjoyable encounter with Gilbraith. Continue with
    3. NPC log was a success. By giving them access to a listing of all NPCs they have met/heard about stopped them relying on my memory and made them think for themselves.
    4. Food ordered early and arrived early. Off-topic conversation and eating completed within an hour of arrival. A new record!
    5. Introduction of d20 principles went generally ok
    6. Combat much easier to control and smoother with new rules. Richard convinced that he has been done in by calculation of AC. All others still laughing!
    7. Use of mini events/encounters to show how skill system etc. works went well.
    8. I need to familiarise myself better with new rules. Use summary sheets downloaded off net.
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Use Our Real World’s Cultural Diversity To Build Strong Characters

From Oliver Claycamp

After being a role-player for many years I took a break and lived in Asia for a year and had a truly eye opening experience about how different each culture on our planet is. I have thought about how this concept could be related to D&D and have come up with some successful ideas.

One basic premise of multiple races in one party is that they all speak a ‘common’ language. In the real world, there is no such thing as a truly common language among second language speakers, even first language depending on the area they come from and whatever else.

So, have each character come up with 5 words that are used when they speak this language by their race. They should try to use these words whenever appropriate.

The Indians call this adding your own Marsala or spice to the language. This will add amazing depth to your games by giving each race a little distinctiveness.

An example: A character race from a hot climate when confused says “Bamboo!” meaning my thoughts have been blocked by bamboo. A few more examples:

  • Dragon’s Blood!
  • This has the Troll stink.
  • Vecna! (Or who ever their god is, or opposing god as a mild swear word.)

It’s also helpful to have each character write down a few things about their race. Death and marriage practices, holidays, etc. If there are two characters of the same race they should work together on it. One very interesting thing is stereotypes from race to race. What do the dwarves think of the elves? What do Humans think of Halflings? Have them make a few racial jokes by just changing the names around from already known jokes.

You probably want to avoid any character race taking a strong stance against another race though, because this could change the party dynamics in negative ways.

This will hopefully add diversity and tension and help the players build stronger characters.

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6 D&D GMing Tips

From Ian Hatchett

The infamous Six Hints of Snorvik Gunnorson:

  1. Do not force a pre-rolled character upon a player, they will not like it, especially human Clerics of Pelor.
  2. Do not volunteer additional hints in whodunnit sessions, just give them the evidence. If the pace dies because the party wants to talk about their conclusions while walking about a lord’s castle, get a guard to “overhear” them and haul them into a small cell (especially Human Clerics of Pelor, have I mentioned how much I hate them?).
  3. Encourage players to design their characters before giving them the rulebooks, especially in D&D, and then work from their character concept.
  4. Create magic items with benefits *and* drawbacks.Thief Player: Cool! Magic plate with no dex penalty!GM: Yes, that armour gives you a magical +4 to armour resistance and does not have a check penalty, but glows when enemies are close – think carefully when you want to wear it.
  5. Alignment is a game tool rather than a restriction. i.e. allow Chaotic Evil Paladins, however their code of conduct should reflect their nature and their abilities should be dictated by their alignment.
  6. Do not be afraid to bend, or indeed break, the D&D mould to your own. The PCs could bump into a renegade Drow group who pray to Pelor (well someone’s got to) and wish to overthrow the Demon Queens’ Theocracy. As such they may have their Sunlight penalties reduced or even Negated by their god.
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Spam: An Unexpected Name Resource

From William S.

I’ve just started using this trick. It’s rather strange, but it’s a good way to generate names for a contemporary campaign.

Like many of us on the ‘net, my e-mail Inbox gets filled with spam. Most of it I delete as soon as I see it. However, there is one thread of spam, which I’ve so far been unable to block, that I pause a moment to look at. I don’t actually open it and read it – goodness no! – but I do take a look at the Sender line. This particular spammer uses a different name with each message, and they’re pretty good names. I wish I had this jerk’s name generator.

So, every day now, I write down the false names (ignoring the pornographic ones, of course), and THEN I delete the spam. Later, I’ll print out the list and use it when I need a name off the cuff.

I figure, when life gives you lemons…

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