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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

DM Burnout: It's a Thing

They’re coming again.  Those needy, greedy people are coming over again to sit around my table, and they are going to want to have fun.  They know I have it.  Those people sat here last weekend, and the weekend before that and for twenty-five weekends in a row and they took all the fun I had.  They took the monsters, and the gold, and the good times at the inn, and the twisted plots and the bag of holding and the magic sword.  I gave and I gave, I enjoyed giving it.  I liked it.  At first I wanted it, and then I needed it, and now?

They took it all, and now I have nothing left to give.

When I started playing D&D in 1981, I was lost.  My friend gave me the Holmes Basic book and a week to read through it before our game.  He had gotten it as a birthday gift and need someone to play with.  He would be the DM.  Neither of us had a clue what we were doing, but I can tell you one very important thing about the entire affair.  I’m pretty sure we both had the most fun ever, in either of our 12 year old lives.

We played all the time, me as the player character and my buddy as the DM.  Weekend after weekend, after school, and sometime before school I rolled against him, and he pitted monsters, puzzles, and evil bad guys against me (I had many PCs.  They died alot).  We didn’t know anyone else who played.  After a few months of playing like this we involved another friend of ours, and the first words out of my buddy’s mouth were ‘Great, now I get to play!’  He looked at me and said, ‘You can be the DM, right?’

There are probably a good dozen or so wacky stories to be told about my bumbling my way through those first few games, but germane to this discussion is simply this...after six months of being the GM, I was ready to pass the torch.  I hungered for the easy life of a player.  All I needed was my character sheet, my dice, and my this time we had added some books to the DM pile.  A Monster Manual, the blue Expert rulebook, and soon thereafter the DMG.  It was a burden I was ready to pass on for the freedom of the simpler life of a player.

Over the years I have reprised both roles as player or DM many times, and I very much enjoy both.  There have been times, however, where I have been on ‘extended duty’ as the DM.  As time rolls on, I’ve noticed a deficit in the DM community.  Players abound, but folks willing and able to run a game are few and far between.  The end result for me is usually the same.  I stop playing.  I take a sabbatical, divest myself of players, and wait to find a new place to play.  Here’s the interesting thing...I do it as much for myself as for the players in my game.  I would rather end a game than have people walk away from the table thinking ,”well that was a shitty game.”

DM Burnout.  That’s what I call it.  It’s when the DM has been running, planning, plotting, and mapping out the game for so long that he simply runs out of gas, in this case, the desire to be the DM.  He needs a break.  Players rarely pay attention to this syndrome, perhaps because they don’t know the symptoms, and partially because the symptoms my differ from one DM to the next.

Here is what happens to me if I start suffering from it:

  1. I will cancel a game on somewhat short notice
  2. Failure to plan out any encounters will lead to moments of game slow-down so I can put an encounter together
  3. Rolls will begin to become meaningless as I simply ‘decide’ what happens
  4. Books remain closed, unreferenced

These are just a few of the more obvious things that will happen to me if I begin feeling DM burnout.  There are probably other, less obvious things I do but these are the ones I try and stay on the lookout for.

We don’t talk about this much, but I’m not sure why.  I mean, don’t get me wrong.  This isn’t a horrible, debilitating or terminal illness we’re discussing.  It would be nice though if someone (a player) could see it happening and intervene.  “Hey man, let me drive for a few games.  Take a break.  Let’s do a few one-offs.”  As a DM, maybe throw it out there, “Hey guys, I’m feeling a bit of DM Burnout...anyone wanna run something for a few months?”

Look, I get it.  I know that you may play in a group where no want wants to DM.  You’re their ‘guy’.  You’ve always been their ‘guy’ and there’s no chance of there being another ‘guy’ at that table.  It’s ok to take a break.  Just lay it on the table, see what shakes out.  

What have your experiences been with DM Burnout?  Do you have any symptoms that your players should be aware of?  Why aren’t there more DMs to pick up the slack when one of us needs a break?


  1. Go find another game to play for awhile. Getting back to that twelve year old feeling is key to overcoming 'DM burn out'

  2. If you can afford to do it, go to a convention as a player. Don't DM anything there, just play your little heart out. And play a variety of things, not just the game you normally DM. Get yourself exposed to some other systems, some new-to-you systems. It's seriously refreshing! If you can't attend a con, hunt around for an online one-shot in a system you've always been curious about. You may need to cancel one of your DMing sessions to do that, but so what? You're miserable anyway, aren't you? Recharge your batteries by being a player one week instead of the DM.

    As far as why there aren't more DMs to pick up the slack - I think you've answered your own question! :)

  3. That is what I like best about our online group...we share the responsibility of DM. One of us runs for a campaign or two, then someone else steps up and lets the DM take a break and play for awhile. Maybe that is why we have been together for 10+ unheard of amount of time, especially for a game played on a VTT. I think between the three of us we do a decent job...and get to experience very different ways of DMing and playing.

  4. There are two things that have helped me combat GM burnout:
    1. Rotate. Every group should have at least two people willing to run games, and rotate at least every six months. If you don't have a second GM in the group, it's time to start coaching one or more of your players into it.
    2. New game systems. My new favorite is games Powered by the Apocalypse because GM prep is so minimal. Once you read the rules, you really can spend about 30 minutes prepping for a 4-6 hour session. Then you just wind the players up, and watch them do the heavy lifting of running the game session themselves. The lower level of pressure of PbtA games has helped slow down burnout for me.

  5. Oh man. When I first started playing t-rpgs, about 6 years ago, I started as the DM (we're playing D&D 3.5 / Pathfinder back then, and the term sticked). Ever since I began I have played at least once a week, every week. Sometimes I take breaks, and who wouldn't. I've always remained the DM with only a few time been the player, and frankly I prefer it that way.

    The best way I have found to deal with burnout is to call the game off for a week or so. I get so emotionally attached to my games, that running leaves my exhausted. If not physically, mentally.

    During that break, of which my longest one has been of about a month, I usually keep thinking about the game, and how to use ideas I have on said game. Holding myself from actually playing said game, even though I could find the time to have it fit in, forces me to replenish my creative and emotional energies. That way, when I go back to the chair, I'm fresh and ready to roll.