With the holidays approaching and schedules becoming more and more hectic many Game Masters are likely to suffer from cases of GM burnout. GMs aren’t the only ones susceptible to burning out on gaming though. Players can burnout on gaming and not bring their usual gusto to the table or even decide not to show up at all. Here are some reasons for gamer burnout and some tips to help avoid it.

Schedule Hecticness

  • Problem
    A lot of times GM and player burnout is a result of a schedule that is too full to handle involved interactive entertainment. I know when I start pulling 13 and 14 hour days at work I have no desire to even sit down and play a video game, read a book or even watch a movie that makes me think too deeply. My mind just doesn’t want to put any more effort into it.
  • Solutions
    The key to preventing burnout from schedule hecticness is to mix up the action a little. Change things around and engage different parts of the mind. If you usually play D&D for 4 hours a night, play for 3 and do the first hour as a game of munchkin. Play a boardgame like Kill Dr. Lucky, Descent or even Battleship to change the pace. You could even integrate it into the regular game being played. Maybe the players meet a crazy Malkavian who will only provide information if they beat him in his favorite card game . . . Lunch Money. Have them do it in character. It’ll be awesome and distracting enough to shake them loose from the feeling that game is just one more thing they have to work at.

    Another solution to hectic schedules and tired minds is to change the mood of the RPG being played. If you normally do dungeon crawls, then have a session that focuses on political intrigue. If you normally do deep social interaction, then move into a hack and slash. The key thing to making this work is to change some tangible element of the game. Have the players write down the two stats that will be most useful, and then take away their character sheets. Give them tokens to redeem as “favors” from their negotiations. Use minis if you haven’t previously. The tangible change will jump their mind to a different path in a way that just changing the mood only partly achieves.

Slow Character Progression

  • Problem
    Sometimes player burnout comes from annoyance that their character has progressed too slowly. The rigidness of a system might cause annoyance while a player waits to get that one cool power that they choose this character for. While this isn’t necessarily a problem, if the game truly isn’t fun for the majority of players then something should be done. This is true if players are burning out by grinding their wheels trying to get someplace but seem to be stuck in neutral.
  • Solutions
    My favorite solution to problems like this is to take a week break from the game and then announce a big jump in level/xp and story time. Let the players think through their character progression without having to pay attention to actually playing the game. This helps players get close to the levels they wanted and lets them think about long term character goals instead of need it today goals. You might even throw in that the party split for the down time and let the first session back be a shared narrative experiment where the characters get to recount stories of their time off.

Bored with the System

  • Problem
    Sometimes player, and Game Master, burnout comes from being bored by the system. Every roleplaying system is great in at least one thing. Many are good at multiple things, but they are all great at some thing. Eventually, no matter how good the system is, people are going to get bored doing that one thing. Playing Shadowrun I get bored of “going on missions”. Playing D&D I get bored of combat. Playing White-Wolf I get bored of the intense world setting. Playing B.E.S.M. I get bored of overt anime craziness, etc, etc, etc, etc. It just happens.
  • Solutions
    Luckily, the solution to this kind of burnout is simple. Play something else. Whether you run a campaign in a new world or just run a pallete cleansing one-shot, doing something else can make you realize the differences in systems and appreciate them all the more. You might switch from D20 to Iron heroes. Something that is just 15 degrees away from the original can make you long for how well it does whatever it does well. Doing something completely different can have many different benefits. It lets you get a taste of the other side. You get to explore new powers and styles of gaming. You may find you don’t like it but you may find it hits different taste buds on your gamer tongue.

So now comes the time when I ask you, the reader, to contribute and help prevent my writer burnout. What reasons for burnout have I missed? What solutions have you come up with in the past for burnout? What other ways can you think of?

16 replies
  1. nblade
    nblade says:

    Good suggestions all around. I also try to host a miniature painting night. That way everyone can get together socialize and paint miniatures. I also try to do Hirst Arts Castle Molds for game pieces.

    I agree , Non-RPG games are a great way to shake things ups and to have something to do if a session might be canceled due to lack of people showing up.

    Personally, I like changing the system every once in a while, but players tend to try to stick to what they know.

  2. Troy E. Taylor
    Troy E. Taylor says:

    I love mini painting nights! You can always count me in Nblade!

    Rather than be bored with the system, per se, I wonder if the boredom comes more often from genre than the rules. I think the solution John suggested, say moving from D&D to Iron Heroes, is a good one. But I think the subtle difference from Tolkenesque fantasy gaming to Swords’n'(sorcery) might be more compelling than the specific rules. Either way, you are making a slight shift.

    I think the typical Halloween/horror switch is usually a good way to mix things up in the autumn. Board/dice/card games work in the winter (Inn Fighting or Three Dragon Ante, anyone?).

    Sometimes a one-shot infusion of unexplored gaming type is all that is needed.

  3. peter
    peter says:

    nblade wrote:

    Non-RPG games are a great way to shake things ups and to have something to do if a session might be canceled due to lack of people showing up.

    Our dm suggested this in our group. But to me this is a bad idea. I don’t like the fact that we are not roleplaying but that I am wasting time on boardgames or videogames. I”m not a big fan of competetive games and feel that the time I use while doing that is time I could use do to something usefull (or relaxing)

    just to illustrate that different gamers have different needs and that you should be carefull with solutions for the whole of a group

  4. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @Troy E. Taylor: It all depends on why the boredom is occurring. I had a player who got so bored/frustrated with D&D 3.5 because of how limited he felt by the classes. He still wanted the fantasy feel, but hated the way it was done. Conversely, I’ve had exactly the situation you describe. Players who are bored with fantasy and wanted a different genre. One shots are definitely the way to go when experimenting. If everyone likes the one shot you always have the option of switching.

    @ nblade and peter: It all depends on the gamers and the timing of the switch. It would be bad to drop a card or board game into the middle of an intricate fight or detailed plot where things are happening and story is being moved forward, but when there is a lull or an appropriate junction it can work wonderfully. I ran a chess game once where the group met a contact in a restaurant. Before he would give them the information someone had to show that they were worthy enough in chess. So we played a quick game (of the knights chase variation, or king arthur chess) and then moved on. We were about 1 degree away from actually larping because I, playing the NPC, and the player, playing his character, were talking in character and deeply immersed in the in-game conversations parries and retorts. We terminated the chess game half-way through because we wanted to get on with the action but it made for an excellent distraction and story immersion exercise.

  5. nblade
    nblade says:

    @John and Peter – My suggestion of Non-RPG games is purely a suggestion to the gamers in question and not something that is forced. Sometimes, players have to cancel at the last moment and a player or two have already arrived. The idea is to have some alternative things to do with this players, if the session was going to be canceled otherwise.

    @Peter – You are correct, different things for different people. That’s what makes this hobby great.

    @Troy – There are those that will complain about using miniatures, but for me, its always fun. It always fun to ask who is this person, what does s/he desire, and what colors would s/he wear?

  6. Troy E. Taylor
    Troy E. Taylor says:

    Nblade: Often times, investment in a miniature represents an investment in a character. At least, I do. The DM has to respect that. It doesn’t mean that character can’t die — but players who make genuine investments in characters shouldn’t have the DM capriciously off them.

    When players paint a mini, it means they’re into the game, into what you’re trying to accomplish as a DM and that’s cool.

  7. BryanB
    BryanB says:

    I think a change in system and/or genre is a good idea when feelings of burnout set in. One-shots are a good idea for a change of pace as are boardgames, mini-games, or an evening of cards. In small groups, the ROCK BAND game might even do the trick. I’ve often found movie and dinner nights to be a nice break in the routine, especially if there is a particular movie that the entire group would like to see.

  8. Samuel Van Der Wall
    Samuel Van Der Wall says:

    Sometimes people just get stuck in a rut outside of gaming, and it gets carried into their gaming. That can really suck because it can bring other players down with them.

    I definitely agree with the switching the system and setting parts of this article. Go from D20 Fantasy to Savage Worlds Sci-Fi or BRP Horror. If you switch the setting and system up, it really changes the flow of the game for everyone.

  9. Kurt "Telas" Schneider
    Kurt "Telas" Schneider says:

    Good suggestions. I especially like the “take a few weeks, gain some XP, tell me what you did” approach for those times when the next couple of levels just look like a boring uphill trudge.

    John – That player who loves fantasy, but finds D&D a bit too constricting? That could totally be me.

  10. Sarlax
    Sarlax says:

    One thing to check is not just whether the majority of players are having fun, but whether all players are having fun. If one player is just phoning it because they’re not digging the game, the others, including the GM, can get burned out.

    We’ve all been there – one guy in the group just isn’t digging the game. He still shows up to hang out with friends, but his heart isn’t in it. Everyone else starts to feel it, and the malaise gets to everyone.

    If you proactively check to see that players are getting the game they want, you can reduce the odds of one player’s boredom becoming everyone’s burnout.

  11. The Stray7
    The Stray7 says:

    I had one time when I was just so frustrated with the limitations of a game system (D&D 3.5) that I burned out completely. I solved this by putting the campaign on hold indefinitely and becoming a player again. The 8 month break helped recharge my batteries. Of course, I never did go back to D&D 3.5. My problems with the system were that it was taking too long to prepare encounters and monsters for high level characters, and that just killed my interest in the system. We moved to Mutants & Masterminds, then on to Star Wars Saga, with some brief breaks in between for other game experiments. We knew that we’d come back to D&D eventually, though, and we did when 4th edition came out.

  12. edcalaban
    edcalaban says:

    Some friends an I, when we were all relatively new to RPing and Shadowrun in particular, burned out fast because we couldn’t work out a stable system for DMing. You can only start the same module over so many times before people just stop showing up.

    Our solution was to run an extremely pointless campaign in D&D 3.5 where we pretty much rampaged around doing whatever we wanted. Hilarity ensued, and eventually people showed up again. It’s not necessary to change the system though, just take a day and ignore any sane limits ingame.

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