The Road to GM Burnout is Paved with . . .

When I ended my Age of Rebellion game, I didn’t think was had GM burnout.  I’ve had it before, and I didn’t think I was feeling the symptoms.  The problems with the campaign were problems with that specific campaign, and everyone was still having fun.  There was some painting into corners that happened, and I didn’t want to leave footprints.

In the mean time, I had been reading Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition, and actually getting really excited about the game.  I hadn’t run a long term d20-ish fantasy RPG in a while, and after running a few session online via hangouts, I was even more excited to put together a face to face game, even if it was a one shot.

That session didn’t go badly.  However, it didn’t go smoothly.  While it seemed like a lot of participants enjoyed the game, almost every effort I put into the game at the table that night felt like a chore.  It wasn’t flowing naturally, and I kept losing the player’s interest and attention.  I wasn’t attracting it by doing my job.

Even though the game was at worse average or maybe mediocre, not really bad, I started to question if I ever wanted to GM again.  It was so much work for so little return.  I felt like I was working for the table, and I definitely did have GM burnout.

Let me reiterate, there is not animosity towards anyone at the table, nor is any of the rest of what follows directed at any one person, but looking back over a career of GMing, some clearly drawn lines begin to show up in sharp contrast.  Last Thursday just helped remind me where the lines were.

So, with that preamble put in place, let me present the things that personally throw me into GM burnout faster than anything else.  I don’t expect this to be universal, but I would also be surprised if there aren’t a few other GMs that have run into similar walls in their illustrious careers.

Making your own characters when I made up pregens

When I’m running a one shot, and I make up pregens, part of the point is to be able to jump straight into the game.  I know it’s a new game system, and people are interested in making their new characters, but that’s probably something they could have done on their own time, rather than having the session start an hour later.

Not only did the session start later, and hold up all of the people that just took a pregen and were ready to play an hour ago, but I wasted a lot of time making up pregens.  It feels a lot like someone telling me, “I really don’t care how much time you put into this.  That’s your problem.”

That feeling comes up a lot on this list.

Nit picking the pregens I made up

Yeah, its a minor thing, but it builds up.  When I buy, read, and take notes on an adventure, and then make a pregen of every single class in the game, and you go through a few of them and point out things I forgot  (or even things that I didn’t forget, but I did differently on pregens I did one weekend as opposed to the later ones I did), I just feel like, again, you may not care how much time and effort I’m putting into the game.  If I’m not perfect, even with a new rules system, I need to be called out.  Thanks for that.

Playing the exact same character over and over again

I know that sometimes people don’t have a great idea on what to play next.  They just want to play.  But make an effort to make your next dwarf warrior a little different than the last one.  Personality, weapons, something.  If you are playing the exact same character over and over again, its really hard for me to not feel like just running the same encounters over and over again.

On on a related note–if you die, play someone else.  Don’t change the name and keep going.  Even in a one shot, with a very minimal amount of investment, that type of thing kills even a minimum of immersion.

I realize this is probably another thing I personally need to get over.  My expectations of having some modicum of immersion probably don’t count for much when everybody else just wants to roll dice, but that doesn’t make me want to GM that much either.

If you can’t prove otherwise, you are probably neutral

I’m not against alignment, but I do think that if it can be avoided on the player side, it should be.  Why?  Because people get weird ideas in their heads, and one of two things happen.

1.  People think that if their character is nice, they are also good.  I’ve seen Into the Woods, this is not the case.

2.  People think that the motivations in their head are clearly being broadcast to the party, so their long term plan for the greater good, or their convoluted reasoning about murdering an innocent NPC must be obvious to everyone without explaining it.

Here is my quick primer–if your character doesn’t do something for someone else every day, for no personal benefit, and potentially at a cost to themselves, assume your character is neutral.  You don’t need to be good to be a ranger or a paladin these days.  You can be a well meaning neutral person with a pleasant disposition.  But if you really want to be good, you should probably be making hard choices or at least be able to defend your choices with some degree of competent philosophy.  Otherwise be neutral.

“Why do you care?”

“Because I’m one of the idiots that lives there!”

And if you have a hard time picturing your neutral character saving the world, just remember Star-Lord’s answer to Rocket in Guardians of the Galaxy.

Disensentivising any non-humorous role playing at the table

Somewhat tied to the above.  What if someone really wants to be a pure and righteous good guy at the table?  They really want to spend time with orphans and doing charity work in their downtime.  They really want to spend five minutes after a battle to talk about how devastated their character is that so much slaughter had to happen.  They want to spend their action just before the BBEG is defeated trying to convert them back to the side of the angels before killing him.

“Sure, you can do that, but you better make it into some kind of joke, because that kind of character depth makes us uncomfortable with our murderhobos  (oh I hate that term).”

If you pressure the person wanting to play a true blue valiant good guy into joking about it, make them into the butt of jokes constantly, or in any way try to nudge them towards the way adventurers “should” be, how are you any different than the guy that bugs you when he plays a paladin and tells the party what they can and can’t do?

Looking up rules even when the GM says not to do so

“There has to be an entry on how long an average candle burns!”

“How do the rules handle X?”

“I don’t remember for sure, but for now we’ll just do this, and we’ll look it up later.”

Player doesn’t take turn, but rather looks in book.

“We’ll just roll with this for now, okay?”

Another player starts looking up rule as well.

“Fine, we’ll just ignore the GM and let the game grind to a halt so we can look up exactly what the rules say on this relatively minor subject.”

I’m not really the kind of guy that wants to be a tyrant GM.  But if I am running the game, I’m responsible for the pacing and the taking of turns and such, and if I say we run with something, we need to run with something.  If we stop to look up rules, everybody gets slapped in the face with the fact that this is a game first and a story second, and if that’s the case, why not just grab Talisman or Descent off the shelf instead of me wasting my time running the game?

Looking up rules when the GM is 99% certain of a given rule

Related to the above, if I say something works a certain way, we’re going to roll with it that way.  When I tell you I’m 99% sure it works the way I just said, the above is really, really in effect, and you looking up the rule, even if its just to say, “hey, you were right,” is pretty much like telling me you don’t trust me to run the game, and you want to make sure I don’t screw you over with my malice or incompetence.

Being coy with your actions

“I am place three stones equidistant across the entryway.”

“Uh, okay.”

“I have scratched the letter Z into the far wall in blood.”

“Uh, okay.”

“I have placed three broken arrows in the back pocket of a fallen friend.  Now it should all work.”

“What should work?”

“You know, that one ritual from that one book that I read where that ritual summons the Wild Hunt to murder the last guy that touched the dead guy with the arrows in his pocket.  So the encounter is over, because nobody can fight the Wild Hunt, and I’m going to start looking the treasure chests now.  How much XP do I get?”

When you do cryptic things without explicitly explaining your intent to the GM, and then expect some grandiose plan to come into place because he didn’t stop your sequence of events before you got rolling, you are either assuming that your GM is a genius that knows exactly what you are doing, and isn’t keeping track of the actions of the game world and five other people at the table, or you are trying to “beat” the GM, immediately casting the game in a competitive light.

So the GM either feels dumb or like the enemy.

Expecting the GM to remember what is on your character sheet

Depending on the game, you might have motivations, personality traits, or goals that might grant you bonus XP, fate points, bennies, or inspiration.  There might be six people at the table with similar attributes.  When its appropriate, and when it is the right time, let the GM know when you think something like this triggers, rather than grumbling after the session that you never get a chance to use a given rule.

By absolving yourself of the responsibility, you also imply that the GM’s job is to memorize every character sheet.   Even if he has copies of all of them, its going to slow the game down tremendously if he stops to look at every one of them after every exchange, just in case.

Fishing for bonuses

While you should bring up the above to the GM, and while its fine to ask a perfectly logical question, fishing for bonuses can get tiresome, especially when you aren’t pointing out the logic of the situations, but just trying to give your character a better chance at doing something that the game rules have already assigned a number to.

“I’m on the high ground!”

“Okay, you get +2.”

“And I know what those helmets are like, because my crafting skill lets me build them.”

“Eh, I don’t think that’s worth a bonus.”

“And I’ve killed a guy from above before.”

“Lots of people in this game have killed people from above before.”

“Oh, come on! I need a better chance to hit.  I have X, Y, and Z traits on the character sheet!”

“None of those have anything to do with this.  You just rattled them off because the names almost make them sound as if they are related.  They have a very specific use in the game, and this isn’t it.”

“Fine.  I guess I’ll get ready to take my action.  You do remember that I said I was reading a book on jumping on top of people back in the library, right?  I at least get that bonus, right?”

Not only does this get tiresome to the GM, but its a disservice to the other players, because unless you have an unlimited time to play the session, you fishing, and then complaining about not getting extra consideration, just just cut down on the amount of time they get to play their characters this session.

In fact, this kind of situation is what makes me cringe when I read GM advice that says, “don’t say no,” because that advice is predicated on reasonable behavior by the players.

Expecting the GM to know all of your options

Destiny of the Endless was the multiverse’s first GM.  He is also about to tell Superman that his flight and super speed are part of the same array so he can’t use them at the same time.

Some RPG rulebooks are big.  The basic rules may not be that complicated, but things like powers, spells, feats, traits, etc. can be daunting.  As a GM, I figure I should know the base rules, and skills, since most players will be able to use those with or without training.  I should know the spells/powers/traits/feats that my NPCs are likely to use, and how the overall system of powers or spells or what have you work.  But I can’t memorize the whole she-bang.

So when it gets to your turn and you ask the GM what this feat does, or what this spell does, I can only immediately think, “what were you doing while everyone else was taking their turn?”

Please, please look up the rules on your turn.  I know in a new game, if you aren’t familiar with things, you may not know what you are doing, but even then, asking someone where you would find information, especially before your turn, really helps everybody out.

Requiring a recap at the start of your turn because you weren’t paying attention

Once in a while you were looking up what your character can do, so you miss something.  I get that.  Once in a while, something happened on the turn right before yours and it didn’t sink in what just happened.  But if it is your turn, and every time you need a recap on everything that has happened since the last time you took a turn, as a GM, I’m going to feel like a failure, because my game is so abysmally boring that you can’t even be bothered to pay attention from round to round.

That said, it’s more and more understandable if people stop the game to look up rules, question the GM, ask the GM to remember all of their abilities, and/or argue about potential bonuses for hours at a time, and in that case, I’m already annoyed and may not think it’s my ability to run a game that’s boring you, but rather the constant roadblocks to a smooth game play experience.

And that spells BURNOUT

I guess what it boils down to is, if the amount of work that went into a game amounts in a bad, or even mediocre game, and the players don’t seem to appreciate what you did to run that game in the first place, even if said lack of appreciation is shown indirectly, it’s not going to do much to keep you coming back to the table.

And the real problem is, once you’ve failed to engage enough people, you do really start to wonder if it’s you.  It may be me, and if that’s the case, I don’t want to burden even people that do appreciate the effort with my GMing skills once they have begun to atrophy.


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