To all my fellow game masters out there, as the holiday season gets into gear you my notice your passion and drive for your ongoing campaigns starts to fizzle out. Fatigue and burn out starts to set in, and you start to dread each upcoming session rather than look forward to it.
This happens to me a lot.
Sometimes it doesn’t set in until 30 or more sessions into a long running campaign, other times it comes on fast, just half a dozen sessions into a new game. Eventually it’s something most Game Masters have to deal with: the careful balance of worldbuilding, characters, plot, mechanics, and unpredictable player decisions and behavior becomes too much to manage week after week.
Game Master Fatigue (or GM burnout) happens to the best of us. It’s okay to admit to it, and it’s okay to seek help or advice when dealing with it.
Here are five pieces of advice that I’ve found help the most for the kinds of games I run. I hope they help.
1. Talk to your players
This one should be a no brainer, but it’s something I always seem to forget in the moment. Most often GM Fatigue is triggered by player decisions and actions that disrupt things. Sometimes their actions are just inconvenient for you and your plans, other times they’re actively disruptive to the rest of the group and the other.
The best thing to do is talk things out with them, either individually or as a group. Problems like disruptive behavior, lack of attention paid, spotlight hogging, and such need to be addressed head on.
For many of us this can be an awkward or anxiety causing subject to bring up, but I promise you that these kinds of problems can only be fixed, and stay fixed, through direct communication.
2. Simplify and Streamline
My biggest GM drive is to create set piece encounters and interweaving narratives in my worlds. I like to make conspiracies, set up double and triple crosses, hidden motivations, all taking place in unique environs filled with new mechanics and monsters.
They’re a joy to craft, but doing them week after week can get exhausting. Sometimes this is made worse when a planned encounter or reveal fails to wow or impress. It’s disheartening, and can put a damper on planning new ones.
My advice is that when you’re getting fatigued with your complicated story or set pieces, don’t be afraid to simplify and streamline things. Some of my favorite D&D stories are ones where it was just us players exploring a dungeon, week after week. Simple, straightforward conflicts (get the bad guy, find the treasure, explore the dungeon) can often lead to the most satisfying sessions for players…and they tend to be much, much easier to prepare as a GM.
3. Refuel your Inspiration
Weekly storytelling and worldbuilding can be tough to keep up, and it’s hard to plan several sessions ahead while also keeping your world feeling vivid and detailed. Sometimes it’s hard to keep things feeling fresh week to week.
The best thing I’ve found for finding inspiration for a weekly D&D type games is serialized television. No media format does quite as good a job at presenting ongoing character-driven storytelling like television does. Watching a few episodes of an ongoing series is a great way to pick up on new NPC details, conflicts, locations, and all sorts of other things to breathe new life into your games.
My go to series for D&D are Outlander, Gilmore Girls, Adventure Time, and CW dramas like Teen Wolf and Vampire Diaries (I run a lot of Ravenloft). These shows offer a lot of characters, with new problems and conflicts every week.
When you’re feeling low on ideas and don’t know where to go next, pull up Netflix or Amazon Prime and binge a few series. They don’t have to be fantasy; you’ll have no trouble adapting all kinds of conflicts and characters to a fantasy setting.
4. Try Something New
Sometimes it’s not just GM’s who feel the effects of GM Fatigue. Your players can often tell when things are starting to feel overwhelming or too complicated, and they may be ready to try something new for a while.
This is where one-shots and mini 3-session campaigns can be beneficial. They give you and your players a breath of fresh air and a chance to explore playing new characters and in new worlds. I find that the more different and divergent they are from your ongoing campaign, the better.
I recommend settings like Dark Sun or Gamma World to give yourself and your players a kind of gaming vacation. If you want a new system to try, Call of Cthulhu or Alien the roleplaying game are good options for horror and sci-fi respectively.
Trying something new for a short time and mix things up for your group and keep tedium from setting in. It can also provide a spark of inspiration that can keep you going a while longer.
5. Take a Break
Nothing helps more than genuine rest and relaxation. Don’t be afraid to take a week off now and then, giving you and your players the chance to take it easy and have some time off.
For groups that want to stick together during that time, board game nights are a good thing to sub in during these break weeks. For online groups, I’ve found things like the Jackbox Party Games make for fun distractions and low-key breaks from D&D or other games.
Take the time to rest, clear your head, and come back to your weekly game refreshed.