Five Signs of GM Burnout

Posted by Labyrinthian in ,

GMing a tough job.  The strain of running a game for months, or even years, begins to wear on people sooner or later.  When this starts to happen there are warning signs.  Here are the five most easily recognizable.

1. Lack of Enjoyment
Once you no longer look forward to the game you know that action is called for. It is a game afterall and the entire point is to have fun. If you aren't then you are burnt out. This is often times easier to spot in yourself, but if you look closely you can spot it in others as well.

2. Angry
Conversely anger is a sign easier to spot in other people. When I speak of Anger as a sign I mean anger for no apparent reason, or just generally being short tempered. A burnt out GM is often angry and just about anything can set him or her off.

3. Defensive
Simple and honest questions can be taken the wrong way, and offense can be taken where none was meant. Often people who are frustrated with the rules (see below) fall under this category as well. Being the GM can often be a lonely job and can lead to the feeling that the players are ganging up on you. If you feel this way really step back and ask yourself if you rationally think that is the case, if the facts don't support your feelings then you are probably burnt out.

4. Stressed
Dreading the upcoming game? Often put off your prep or blow it off altogether? Wish you were doing anything else but working on your game? These are signs of burnout as well. GMing is a stressful job, people are counting on you to supply them with a game regularly. It's a lot of pressure and a lot of work and can leave you feeling like you have little or no free time. Again, this is a game and is supposed to be fun. Feeling stressed or trapped is anything but.

5. Frustration
This one often pertains to either the actions of the players or to the rules system itself.  For me and my group this usually comes in the form of the latter.  We have played 3rd edition for the most part over the last few years, but the GM usually finds the rules frustrating, even hamstringing, particularly at high levels.

Burnout: A GM's Perspective
Consider me a cautionary tale because I learned the hard way about GM burnout.  In fact, I would say that I burned out about as bad as it is possible to do.  I had been running a game for over a year called Nordis.  It was story driven, with a finite ending. I had done a lot of work on it, and at first it was great. The players were having fun, and so was I.  But as the game dragged on over a year with the players more involved and more interested in side quests than the main plot of the game things started to take a turn for the worse.  What's more the players were reaching the level threshold where Save or Die situations were becoming more and more common.  In the end the game petered out without the completion of the final adventure.  I was crushed, I was disappointed, and I was horribly burnt out.

When the time came to run a new game my group does what it usually does when we are seeking a new game, people make suggestions and list the games they are willing to run.  I had been working on this game for a while at school called Archipelago, sort of a Firefly meets Pirates of the Caribbean campaign.  I loved the idea, felt passionately about it, and the other members of the group were excited about the idea.  I felt really worn down, and the bitter taste of the end of the Nordis campaign hadn't left my mouth yet, but I thought I would be fine.


I will always look back on that campaign as a failure, and more so a disappointment.  Though the game ran for about a year it was a tough year and not as enjoyable as it should have been.  I was burnt out at the beginning and by the end I was a crisp husk.  I would say at one time or another I exhibited all five of the signs above.  The game became a chore that I no longer looked forward to, and that's when I knew it was time to get out from behind the shield.

It wasn't all bad, there were enjoyable memories from the campaign, but I think the best thing I took away from it was a lesson of when enough was enough.  For me, I never plan on running back to back games ever again. For the last few years I've gone back and forth with the Professor and that has worked out well for me.  It allows me to play for a while, get inspired, and recharge the creative juices. 

But enough of my cautionary tale.  Here are some solutions to GM burnout...

1. Take a Break
The nuclear option to rectify GM burnout is to step away from the game altogether. This could mean playing board games for a while or it could mean going fishing with your extra time. Whatever the case you are far from the table pursuing other interests.

2. Change Sides of the Screen
This is, in my opinion, the best option available.  You are burned out running the game, so let someone else take a turn behind the shield.  Not only does this give you a break, but it gives you a chance to see how someone else runs things.  A great GM will make you a better one, so learn as you go.  You can also take notes on the great things they do and incorporate it into your games when you go back to GMing.

3. Double Up
It may seem strange to suggest adding another game to your schedule, and indeed if you find yourself stressed because of lack of time and too many responsibilities this probably isn't for you.   But if you do have the time and you are just burned out because of lack of ideas or inspiration picking up a second game in the role of a player can be a great thing.  It provides you with all the benefits I mentioned above with the added bonus of being able to implement them as you go. 

4. Change it Up
Maybe it's time for a new campaign or some serious shake up in the one that you are currently running.  Give the game a fresh feel somehow and you may find yourself with renewed interest.  Be careful though, you may find this is only a temporary fix.

5. Keep yourself Happy
GMs focus on making their players happy, but they must also learn to make themselves happy too.  If you aren't having fun and enjoying the game you are going to burn out, no matter how happy your players are.  Take some time to consider what elements of the game you like.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 04, 2010 at Tuesday, May 04, 2010 and is filed under , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


Sometimes changing the system you are playing can help. I had a lot of burnout when I used to GM games that were dungeon based. Moving to a more political/social game style like Vampire might be a good switch, just for the elimination of having to design hard environments all the time.

Lately, I have found GMing to be much more enjoyable because I am writing Synapse as a game that is easy to GM. So when I am playtesting and think "this is kinda annoying me, the GM", I just take that and rework it. The last few versions have been real breezes to GM.

May 4, 2010 at 5:46 PM

When I used to play 2nd edition D&D, I would get burned out all the time simply because I got tired of the players arguing. When I ran for other gaming groups, it would be players who cheated. I'm not talking about one problem player, I'm talking about the entire gaming group. It was an exhausting experience of having to babysit whining players who argued every rule call you make, or cheated, or argued with each other. At the end of the session, everyone left the table upset in some way that carrying onto the next session was a real chore.

When I moved and played with a more mature group of players, I didn't suffer any burn out. I've ran several successful campaigns from beginning to end since my move and am still going strong. So, in my experience, having players who are enjoying themselves and not hassling you or hassling each other keeps me from burning out.

May 4, 2010 at 6:12 PM

I've experienced quite a bit of burnout in the past. Normally, I'll just have one of the players take over for a while so that I can recharge and play as a player. It's worked out well for me in the past.

May 4, 2010 at 6:46 PM

I'd add that taking a break playing something completely different once in a while can do wonders too. Hopefully someone else is running an occasional game that a DM can act as a player in, even if it is a one shot session. I'd even consider not playing a RPG and just have a night getting together to play a board game. DM burnout is a problem, great stuff in your post to help alleviate it.

May 4, 2010 at 10:00 PM

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