Sometimes while playing this fantastic game of Dungeons and Dragons people get burnt out. Players, DMs, even consumers of D&D based media, at some point tend to run into this obstacle. I know, blasphemous, right? How could anyone get tired of such a fantastic game. But the reality is is that it happens, whether we like it or not. So how do we, as DMs, combat when we get burnt out from running the game, or when our players get burnt out from playing?
Originally on this blog I had intended to recap the sessions I had DMed up to the present day and impart the lessons I learned from those games onto you before moving on to more strictly generic advice posts. However, I have recently begun to experience burnout, and I felt that it was pertinent and appropriate to bring this up on my blog. Today I want to tackle things like why burnout happens and different ways to overcome it.
My players and I all have busy lives with work and (in most of our cases) school. This plus the distance between some of us makes it difficult for us to play, so we try to schedule a monthly all-day session. While it works well for us, most of my players would love to play more. However, I know from experience that it takes me nearly a month to prepare everything I need for the next session (which would probably not happen if we were to play four hours instead of eight, but I digress). Often after each session, I give myself some time to stew over what the players did in the last session and brainstorm what I can do for the next session. Since I have had problems with railroading them in the past, I want to be careful and make sure that there are plenty of ways that players can choose to go or multiple options for them to solve a puzzle. If you’ve been a DM, you know how much work this is. If you’re not a DM, keep this in mind for if you ever do want to try your hand at it.
I tend to work on my session plans on Thursdays. One of my jobs is a tutor at the local community college, and this semester I work 1-8 on Thursdays. (Yes, I know boring personal stuff. Feel free to skip to the actual advice but I promise this won’t take long.) If there are no students to tutor, the tutors and teachers are free to do as they please, be it doing homework, reading a book, or working on D&D stuff. This semester has been fairly slow for students, meaning that I essentially have seven hours to work on my campaign. Last Thursday (11/16) was the first Thursday after our latest session, and normally I would take things slow when planning for the next session, but I had thrown something pretty important at my players that I hadn’t really fleshed out at all and I knew that I needed to get to work on these elements ASAP.
However, as I was trying to work on my campaign it felt like I was crawling through mud. Every time I would try to type something into my document, I wanted to cry. Thinking about what I needed to do made my chest feel heavy. I simply could not bring myself to work on a game that had, for the past year and a half, brought me such joy. I’ve never been diagnosed with depression or anxiety, and I don’t think I have either one, but that day I think I had a taste of what both must feel like.
That day I wound up closing my laptop, putting away my books, and contemplating why I felt that way and what I could do about it. After a bit I realized that I had tried to plan so soon after the latest session, and that I must have gotten burnt out for the game. I resolved to spend the weekend not thinking about D&D at all, giving myself a break and allowing me to reinvigorate my love for the game. What I did spend time thinking about however was different ways that DMs can prevent or recover from burnout either themselves or with their group. I think that this list will be particularly helpful for games that meet more than once a month.
- Try a different system
Sure, D&D is an awesome game with lots of versatility and wonder, but there are a lot of options, a lot of rules, and a looooot of dice. Trying a new system for a one-shot can be something that allows you, as the DM, to engage in a story that you otherwise might not have been able to tell using the rules of Dungeons and Dragons. Three systems that are simple to learn and use but lend themselves to a different kind of story are Dread, Honey Heist, and Roll for Shoes. All of these are tabletop RPGs with relatively simple premises and executions.
Dread stories usually take the form of a horror story, perhaps an abandoned spaceship infested with aliens or a monster stalking a group of kids through the woods. Instead of dice and character sheets, however, the system uses simple character questionnaires and a Jenga tower. When a player wants to do something that their character would not or could not normally do, they make a pull from the tower. If they manage to pull without knocking over the tower, they succeed. However, if the tower falls during a pull, the character is removed from the game, usually due to death or insanity. Players can choose to stop pulling if they feel that the tower will give out, at the consequence of something bad happening. Alternatively, a player can choose to knock over the tower on purpose to sacrifice themselves. The tower provides a unique suspense that lends itself to horror stories, and allows for a very simple roleplaying experience.
Honey Heist is nearly the opposite of Dread. In this game, the players are bears attending HoneyCon and they are attempting to steal the honey. The players have two stats, Bear and Criminal, that they are trying to keep balanced. To achieve something, the players must roll a d6 (or two depending on if they are particularly good at that skill) for either Bear or Criminal, and try to get below the number of their stat. There are six different bear types to choose from, six different roles to fill (from driver to hacker and even the brains of the operation) and seven-that’s right, seven-different hats that can be worn. The rules are simple, one page for the players and one page for the GM. If you’re looking for a silly, unique, and fun roleplaying experience, Honey Heist is one that your players will love and will require little preparation.
Roll for Shoes is another simple role-playing game that can be used for almost any scenario, from sci-fi to fantasy or anything you can imagine. Once again using d6s, players roll the corresponding skill with the appropriate amount of dice and try to get a higher roll than their opposition. For instance, all players start with the skill Do Anything-1. This means that the first time they try to do literally anything, they will roll one d6 and try to get a higher number than either the GM or another player (depending on the situation). If they succeed any roll with all sixes, they get to add a new skill related to whatever they were doing at one number higher. If they fail, they gain one experience point, which can later be used to turn a dice into a six for the purpose of leveling up a skill but not to win the roll. This system is a tad more complicated than Honey Heist or Dread, but it is still simple and enjoyable.
All of these systems are simple and unique, and allow for a very different form of storytelling than D&D normally would. However, because of the simplicity of the rules, these games rely more on the storytelling aspect. If you are like me and not very talented at stroytelling, this might not be the solution for you. I often get ideas for what to do with my players next by looking in guide books and examining creatures, traps, magical items, and other things that you won’t find in these systems. So if you have trouble coming up with a story for you group, it might be best to either use a pre-written adventure or stick to D&D.
- Run a one shot
If you like the idea of changing things up but don’t want to change systems, another option is running a one shot using the same system you have been using. This can give your players a break from characters that they might find difficult to play or tiresome to keep track of. You can also explore new parts of your world this way too. If your main campaign is currently based in the northern human kingdom, try basing your one shot in the middle of the continent in the dwarven kingdom, or in the south where your elves live. Or if you have more than one continent, change things up even more. While this can be a fair bit of work, this will allow you to expand your world and figure out things you had no clue you needed to know. Your players will also be amazed at how big the world is, and it will help your world feel like a living entity with more than one set of adventurers.
- Let someone else take over the DM’s seat for a while
If you have been the DM for so long you’ve forgotten what it feels like to play, it can be a weird feeling to just hand over the reins to another person. A lot of DMs like to feel in control of the game table, and that can be fine as long as it doesn’t go too far. But allowing one of your players to have a shot at being Dungeon Master for a bit can be a freeing experience. Your players are all unique people who have different stories to tell, and allowing those stories to shine can be one of the best things you as a DM will do. Even if it’s just for one session, taking a step back from the head of the table can do so much. Most of the time playing is a much less stressful experience than DMing, particularly if you play as something like a barbarian that doesn’t have twenty million spells and abilities to keep track of. Allowing yourself to experience D&D through the eyes of a player can be invigorating, fun, and a good way to destress.
- Simply take a break
I know it sucks to not be able to play, but sometimes you have to do it. Life gets in the way, as much as we all wish it didn’t, and in the end D&D is a game. It’s supposed to be fun, and if it becomes more of an obligation or a chore, then maybe it’s time to take a break. This can be particularly helpful for groups that meet more often, such as those that gather once a week or once every other week. For monthly groups, or groups that only get to meet when everyone comes home from school or to visit for the holidays, taking a break is often less effective because they get to play so little anyways. This type of situation would lend itself more towards switching systems or letting someone else DM for a turn. Whether you end up taking a break or not, it is a good option to consider, especially if more than one person at the table is experiencing burnout.
In the end, players are often a sort of family. If anyone, especially the DM, is experiencing any kind of burnout, the most important thing is to be open and honest with their players. Sometimes you have to try new things. Other times, such as for me, you just have to spend a weekend refusing to even think about the game and things will return to normal. You as the DM are responsible for communication with your players and listening to them, just as it is your players’ responsibility to tell you if they are having a problem. An open, friendly, and communicative role-playing table is a happy role-playing table, and the sooner players talk about their issues, the sooner everyone can get back to killing dragons and cursing the DM.