By asking a question for my title, I’m not implying that I, your “beloved” author, is burned out in any way shape or form. (Though, I certainly have been before.) I want to talk about how to identify when someone is burned out, what to do to get yourself or a friend out of it, and how to avoid it.
As much as we’d like to be automatons chugging forward with endless reserves of energy for gaming, for nearly all of us roleplaying is a hobby. Yes, we devote a great deal of our lives to it, but most of us will never make a dime off it, so it won’t be our living (though that’s the dream, right?). We like to think that we have gigantic fun capacitors, storing the extra effort we’ve saved for the things we truly love – and to an extent, that’s true. Just like how you can eat just a little bit more of your favorite food, you always seem to be a little less tired when your favorite show comes on, I at least always seem to be able to tap that reserve for a game session.
However, That reserve depletes more rapidly than it fills . Everyone juggles lives – jobs, family, children, other hobbies, commuting, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, and so on. Many people can’t seem to even be able to afford the time to play a game with their busy lives.
I think the phenomenon of burnout is more common among Gamemasters than among players, but it would be folly to assume that players can’t get burned out, especially if those players are taking a very active role in the world. Some people are content to play an “island hopping” kind of game, where they bounce from session to session, never thinking about the game outside of the boundaries of the time at the tabletop. For many of us, like myself, we think about the game frequently even when we are players, always trying to add more to the world, deepen our characters’ backstories, or enhance and thicken their personalities. Gamemasters feel the blow of burnout doubly, since they also (often) spend a good bit of time behind the scenes, planning the world, designing the combats and the encounters, coming up with believable personages and realistic villains.
What does burnout look like?
It’s hard to say exactly what burnout looks like, because many victims tend to continue pushing along, hoping to struggle through the period of listlessness. I’d characterize it as a lack of excitement generally, but also a general fatigue. When I have been burned out, I would look at my gaming notes, knowing that the session was tomorrow, and just feel so daunted by the prospect of coming up with stuff. I would get nervous about the games, mostly because I wasn’t preparing enough material, but also because I lost that slight bit of confidence necessary to improvise. I didn’t feel that any of my creations had bite, which caused me to lose confidence, which made me want to work even less. Burnout is a vicious cycle.
It can be even more difficult to see in other people. Try to look for behavi0r changes, a movement toward more simple types of game situations. If your GM is normally a meticulous planner, and he wings a few sessions in a row, he might be burned out from all the planning (remember to take sample size into your consideration – everyone has a bad day here and there). Sometimes players and GMs get burned out when things don’t go the way they intend; they lose their buy-in to the game and then it becomes very easy to just view the whole thing as bothersome. Usually reliable players might start missing sessions because they’ve prioritized other things in their lives; typically attentive gamers might be more wont to check their phones or email at the table, or have way less stamina for the game. All of these could be symptoms of burnout (though they could be isolated incidents, or they could indicate burnout for another thing).
Almost certainly, the easiest solution is to simply take a break. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder”, or so they say. A few weeks or months without gaming certainly brings back that passion. Though I wouldn’t necessarily call this a panacea; you’ve probably experienced the feeling of coming back to something and just realizing that the spark you once had had still not returned.
No GM can just work and work and work, design worlds and NPCs, run scenarios and combats nonstop. Sometimes you just need a breather. Take the night off and let a friend GM for a month or two. Take some time off from the intense homebrewing and run a simple module. Run your friends through a randomly generated dungeon. Try a different kind of game during your normal gaming night (we tried Paranoia! for a bit of commie-mutant-betrayal). Go outside or go to the movies.
The other important aspect of repairing your burnout is to remember what it is you love about gaming. Nothing gets me more excited about my next DnD game than re-reading Lord of the Rings or the Once and Future King or any fantastical or semi-fantastical fiction. Really, any time I read fiction I’m always inspired and want to inject that flavor into my game, which is true to a lesser extent about seeing cool new movies. You have to reactivate those centers of your brain which make you want to play games or run games.
And I recommend this strategy whenever you’re feeling bummed out or burned out about anything – find what it is that inspires you about the activity, and start there. It’s not easy to be so introspective, but if you want to get out of your rut, just taking a break might not be enough. You are actually going to have to rediscover your passions, or even find some new passion.
It sounds sentimental, and maybe it’s not even true for all of us, but most of us have to remember that our gaming compatriots are also our friends, and that everyone puts a ton of work into the game. Sometimes we need to give them space to refocus, and sometimes we need to prop them up, and sometimes we just need to give them a kick in the pants. I’ll leave it up to you to decide which.
I’ve been tasked with coming up with a name for this column, which I think is a great idea. My ideas are all over the place though, so it’s hard to come up with a title that encapsulates all of my thoughts. I think I tend to question the status quo, so I was thinking maybe “The Inquisition” but that sounds very, I don’t know, Spanish. (also unexpected) I’ll ponder it; don’t be surprised if this spot has a new tag next week.