GM BURNOUT, and how I fix mine

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Doctors get a lot of burnout: long hours, lots of regs, busted technology, and
patients with problems they cannot solve.


I saw this comment under a Youtube video once.

"My biggest burnout problems are as a GM, never as a player. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in the preparation for a campaign, the research, plotting and NPC development that the actual playing becomes a bit of an anti-climax. I put it down to throwing all my "creative juices" into creating the game and not having any left to actually run it."

Burnout. Its a friend of mine. Seriously.

Burnout, I am truly beginning to think, is a natural occurrence in the human mind. I'm still with Pressfield in the fact that there is a Resistance-type force or even boogeyman that fights our creative endeavors, but sometimes I get so much healing from fighting with or waiting out my blocks that I get the impression that this is a natural part of the process, at least for me. I'm not advanced enough in this theory to really pick apart which part is a Resistance type thing, and which is tantamount to a computer needing a restart, so I wont try in this article. Let's just assume for this article I am talking about exhaustion, an inability to continue without rest, rather than a fear or hatred of the work that prevents you from acting when your perfectly capable.

BTW, like most of my articles, I am attempting to tell people how things go FOR ME. I do that because I have found that to be the advice I want most. I like to gather lots of different methods and ways that have worked on an individual level and find the threads between them, so I assume my readers feel the same way. Therefore, do not take this as a prescription or medical gospel, and no that I claim not expertise or know how, other than being something of primary source in regards to myself, naturally.


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Not this. It looks alot more fun than what I feel.

Burnout, for me and the purposes of this article, is when a DM sits at the table and thinks "I do not want to do this. I want to take a break." and can't stop thinking it, to the point that it affects the game negatively.

Many, many times this is something that DM can and should ignore (i.e Resistance can make you think you don't want to do something, and five minutes later you forgot that you were supposed to be hating this drudgery and have been having a blast this whole time), but when it is impossible, measures must be taken.

Rest is the most obvious prescription, but too much rest can just make it harder to start playing again. Most of the time its overkill to say "I need a three week hiatus" for a game that meets weekly. Its reasonable to say "The next week's game is canceled." or "This next week let's just hang out or watch a movie or do a one shot." Then you might have enough time to process and plan and even enjoy yourself.

For me, burnout begins when I can't help but think "The next thing I am about to say or do sounds stupid". Whether Im trying to respond to my players actions with something I planned, something I have to pull out of my ass, or some shiny new idea I just came up with, it sounds rotten, cliched, and contrived. Dialogue is wooden. Distraction is high.

Fro example, I can normally roleplay like this.

Player: "I walk up the bar counter and ask the barkeep the latest news."

Normal DM: "We'll the blackguard got caught with the priestess of the Goddess of mercy again, but his wife the black dragon keeps taking him back. Got to be the money I say: You see the blackgaurd's father...."

But when burnout is begining to grow in me, like a cancer or a smelly infection, i'm more like this.

Player: "I walk up the bar counter and ask the barkeep the latest news."

Burnout DM: .....

Inside Burnout DM's head "This sounds so fucking stupid. I don't know. I don't fucking know! He shrugs and says stuff!? Nothing! Fuck... Well maybe the blackguard is sleeping around with some ironically diametrically aligned person OH THAT'S STUPID!" 

The funny part is that, when I'm burnt out and say that having a Blackguard sleep with a diametrically opposed person is a stupid, over done joke of a plot idea, I'm not wrong! It is stupid. So is having a blackguard at all (dedicating your life to an evil god that will fuck you over is a bit of a stretch). So is having a dragon be married to a mortal. So is... well, the very idea of a dragon (too heavy to fly or even breathe, and how would something have a breath weapon of acid anyway, and...)

When I am my usual gaming self, dumb ideas not only are fun, but I can make them make sense, at least enough to enjoy them. When I am burnt out though, even the genius of high literature seems fake, and for some reason that fakeness is bad. I read trashy romance novels and sometimes, the trashier it is the better! One of the chief components of "Trashiness" is that its too outrageous to be real, so normally I love "fakeness".

I believe that it is, in fact, the slow realization that everything is stupid is why my burnout tends to expand. I think, well if this current idea is dumb, what makes any idea any better?

And indeed, like gangrene, my fault finding mind goes from shooting down my very next action to shooting down the plot, shooting down the characters, then the campaign, then the setting, then playing altogether. Sometimes, the burnout seems to start with hating the gaming experience in general, then from this broad infection individual systems begin to die until I am paralyzed with malaise.

Also, when I get to this stage, I usually begin to dread and resent attempts to return to the game, and this seems to be the most critical part. I begin to hate the game, and that hate is strongest in the first few minutes of my attempts to play again. After those minutes, usually I actually start having fun, and this fun I am defintely having strangely feels like "an accident" or even "a delusion", like I'm only pretending to have fun. This "imposter fun syndrome" is very similar to when I read a book I am really in love with but I know if I were to tell someone how great the book was they would look at me like a freak, because they know (They as in THEY: the boogeyman of society's enigmatic, draconian judgement of its members)the book is trash, or childish, or even barbaric.

So in all, burnout does this

Stage I: Victim doubts the quality over their very next action in the game
Stage II: Victim doubts of the whole campaign
Stage III: Victim resents playing at all
Stage IV: Attempts to resume play are met with extreme resentment and bitterness, and an enjoyment is perceived as insencere


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Peppermint Patty: Sage for our times

There is never any reason to not try to battle moments like this. Even if it is far more serious than not being able to play a game very well (if you have felt what I am talking about, then you know what I'm talking about), there is no reason to not try.

Usually, the burnout is saying the opposite "There is no point in trying".

I have found that fighting it directly is of strange effectiveness. What I mean by "strange" is that I can never be sure, on the opposite side of this burnout, if it was the fact that I mightily and futilely spent energy on pushing against the wall that it finally broke, or if I could have gotten the same effect just by waiting.

I can say this: If a brute force, willpower sort of attack on Burnout works, then its probably a different kind of burnout then what I discuss here. In fact, brute force willpower pushes seem to be most effective after the ennui of the burnout has lifted. In fact, I dare say its necessary: the emotional drain and fear that are left over after the ennui lifts is like a net that needs to be cast off, or you'll just be wasting time being afraid that the burnout will happen again.

If brute force is not working though, I dare to say its a matter of rest. Now, what rest is most effective?

For me, bed rest seems pretty good, certainly as a first aid. While I'm awake though, I think the best thing I do to help with burnout is nothing.

Its a Zen kind of nothing. Reading my books doesn't help: it seems my book reading and my gaming are so compartmentalized that one does not heal the other. Playing games or even roleplaying in a different game does'nt hit the spot either: they are also compartments unto themselves. However, a healthy dose of brain relaxing thoughts, or non thoughts, seems to scrap or wash away the burnout, and makes the Stage IV "dread" go away.

Last time I had theis type of burnout, Christmas 2018 in fact, I told myself "Im not reading, I'm not studying, I'm not playing my hidden object games, I'm not even writing. The only thing I will write are possible new plots pertinant to my game."

That last bit was rather easier than I thought it would be, and I know actually working on my game (usually I don't actually plan of them at all), probably helped with this burnout becuase it made the game interesting. But I think even that prep would not have happened without some good old "zoning out".

I watched videos and wrote things out and surfed the web with zero intention, zero control, zero expectation. It was truly meditation when I mindlessly surfed the web. I don't even remember what I looked at my mind was so relaxed, and it felt like a breath of air filled my skull.

Its critical for me to remind you, gentle reader, that rabbit holing across the web so loosley that I basically blacked out is something that worked for me. Web surfing may exacerbate the problem for you simply be being a distraction, or worse, cause you further stress if you rabbit hole into triggering or echo chamber type things (I don't click what makes me mad). Good old fashioned meditation will work better for others, or running or screwing like a rabbit or playing that one vidoe game that always melts your brain like a good grilled cheese might do it for you.

What seemed to be the active ingredient for me was that fact that my brain had to analyze nothing, did not have to put two and two or one and one or jack shit together. No evaluation, no concentration, no entertainment even. Books often require all that of me. Music sometimes does that too, so I didn't even listen to music.

It was like I was sleeping wide awake. This is actually the same state we often are dreading our lives will become in dystopian fictions and in literary fiction. We dread becoming Orwell's proles and we don't want to be so bored with our lives that we seek to destroy them, like in Revolutionary Road. But, those are extremes. Sometimes we are closer to a Johnny Mnemomic type overstimulation scenario, and at these times a bit of brain blah ness seems to help. I am more confident that this brain relaxation technique will work when I notice that, even though I am coming up with nothing, I am extremely anxious and thinking rather obesessively over the material.


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Its dead, Jim

Faith in your ability to heal is paramount. Very few things work, especially in mental health, when you don't believe they will, or your unwilling to take the risk of trusting them. I notice in alcholic memoirs that usually the victim tries rehab many times before the greater "aha" that sets them toward recovery, and they almost invariably enter the various treatments with heavy skepticism, almost a cynical "You can heal me? Over my dead body." type of attitude. But, when they have had enough, they go back to rehab and really give it a chance for the first time, and you can sort of tell that they are willing to believe the process is effective this time. And also, at that point, any process at all seems to be effective, even archaic AA or other 12 step programs.

If you have faith that you can, and will, overcome this, then you will. You will naturally pull yourself, slowly or quickly, to the otherside.

I have also found it is absoultley important to right down these things when they happen. Prejorative-filled screaming ALL CAPS rant screeds are vital, especially if they have dates and times. Then, after it passes, journaling about that is also vital, again with dates and times. Doing this allows you to see that you were burntout on Sept 1st and were fine by Sept 2nd that one time, but one time in 2015 you were burntout for three months. Writing down what you did to recover, however breifly, seems key too. That's partly why I'm doing this all over the place kind of article: I'm telling myself what I did to get better as much as I am telling you.

With that, I think I beat this dead horse enough. Thank you for your patience with your favorite necromancer, and see you at the next Barn Raising.


Problems and Oppurtunities: Controling your Players

How do I make people do what I want them to do?

This is not only a question that Game Masters have asked the cold unfeeling void of dark basements for decades. This is a question that made the heads that where the crown heavy, that cause middle managers to pop ambien like PEZ, that cause grown men and women to weep in the middle of the floor whilst their children wreck havoc, invincible because their parents love them.
What should give GM's hope though is that, unlike Kings and Managers and Parents, tight fine control over the people under them in not nearly as critical to the mission. Also, the very strategies and tactics used by kings and parents alike can be helpful.

In my experience, direct control is impossible to achieve fully in any roleplaying game. Let me play dictionary though: Direct Control, by my reckoning, is a state in which you can predict with 100% certainty that a person will act in a way that moves your story in a direction you deem positive.

I could say Direct Control is "I tell the players what to do and they do it", but that is a useless definition because even the Train Conductors of our hobby don't really want that. Their playstyle may be such that their stories implode if that condition is not fulfilled, but they still don't want puppets. They want people to do decide to do exactly what they want independently.

Also, even partial Direct Control is not only difficult to achieve, but undesirable. Its alot of work for the Game Master, and what they gain is mostly butt-hurt and bored players. Player agency has been a somewhat touchy word in these climes, but barring the chatter, it really just means that when a player is presented with a problem, they feel as though they have a say in how to handle it.

And that last sentence is critical. "When the players are presented with a problem..."

Being presented with problems is the very basis of all storytelling. Books, movies, video games and roleplaying games all present Human(ish) characters with problems. Characters act on those problems, generating action, suspense, excitement, insight, profundity, comedy, drama, and horror. Sometimes the problem is framed as an opportunity (which happens alot in Grand Olde D&D): the characters hear rumors of a hug bounty being offered for the head of Kalabrax Vainogre, the handsomest Ogre Mage Pirate of the Acid Seas. The characters react by going to the local sheriff and signing up for the quest.

Or... really they don't. For some reason, some smart ass character makes a comment that they would rather ride WITH the pretty boy Ogre, because he has such an awesome sounding outfit. And yes, the players are all ostensibly good aligned and Kalabrax is a rapey, murdery kind of pirate not a fun loving plucky one and the DM has planned huge naval battles and treasure hunts and getting the players deserted on an island filled with native with alot of magic and very little understanding of Common and now is breathing into a paper sack.

However, in this scenario, nothing is lost. At all in fact.

The Dm did their job: They presented a problem/oppurtunity (problotunity? Oppurblem?). And that's all you ever really need to do as a DM: present Problotunities.

Some Problotunities will be just flatly ignored, and that can be within a DMs control to a point. If you present a problem that the character have no reason to care about or they feel they can't solve, that's a sucky problem. If you present an opportunity that is too difficult for the pay or just not rewarding enough or is a bit too on the nose with prizes without good reason, then it tends to be ignored.

But lets just say that the players already expressed an interest in doing a piratey game (they just didn't tell you that they wanted to BE pirates...or you weren't listening....), so this oppurtunity is one they are interested, and are taking it a completely different way then you intended.

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Can't beat em...

Again, when the smart ass said "Let's join Kalabrax instead of turning him in", the DM lost absolutely nothing. Even the possibility of getting stranded on an island full of angry natives is actually still fairly likely.

As a dungeon master, if you take it into your mind that you are a professional problem maker, then you will be prepared. These problems you make up do not disappear as soon as the PCs do. Kalabrax does not give one farthing about your PCs existence, not when there are merchant boats to plunder and seawitches to bed. That distant maritime empire that wants to blockade the Island Elves until the king gives up his Daughter in marriage is still going to tap Kalabrax to weaken the Island's navy. That hurricane off the coast is still going to tear ass through the trading lanes and sink a few boats. The sheriff of whatever is still going to put up Royal Warrants for Kalabrax's arrest. Kalabrax would only care in two very general scenarios, 1), if the PCs become an enemy or 2) if the PCs become an ally.

So what if they chose ally? I say run with it.

The PCs get on the boat, and Kalabrax assuages them that the terrible tales that the party has heard of them are exaggerations and propaganda, and plies them with ale and food and TREASURE! Scrolls for th mage, new weapons for the fighter, missionary opportunities for the cleric, smuggling contacts for the rouge and gold for all! Yaaaargh piracy!

But they are good aligned you say! If there is a Paladin in the bunch, he may be like F this crap and try to attack. Play out the combat however you like, but if your Paladin is casting about for excuse to go, let his God tell him that there are ways he can minister goodness and light even on a filthy pirate ship, and to be watchful. And guess what, the god will be right.

They have not lost their good cards yet: they are in bed with the pirate but they haven't bumped uglies yet.

The players are going along an its time for you to present a problem. You look in the world you created. You have a few geopolitical tensions to play with: that distant empire may send some mail via wyvern or boat to the captain, asking in cloaked (or uncloaked) terms for him to sink a huge gunship that is being donated to the elven island nation by the Good Empire or whoever. Kalabrax orders his men to chart a course to intercept her fat gunny ass, and tells his first mate to retrieve Stormmaker, a great big trident that blasts a shit load of lightning.

First mate says: "Cap'n! She ain't got the power!" and indeed, there are fewer charges in the staff than they were expecting! It can only mean that 1), the staff is leaking power, 2) someone managed to use the staff without his knowledge or 3) someone stole power directly from the staff.

Kalabrax shows some of his true colors by accusing the mage directly, in front of everyone, with maternal insults for flavor. Already, we have an interesting problem for the supposed Pirate Loyalists to deal with? Does the party defend the mage or leave him hanging? Does the mage roll Knowledge Arcana to see any obvious evidence or tampering? Here's the Paladin's opportunity to smite evil if he can provoke them to attack, or maybe the Paladin has already discovered innocents on the ship and wants to give diplomacy a try for once to save them.  And, are your players starting to wonder what the weapon is for? Is the rouge wondering which side to be on now, or is he just going to Use Magic device to blow the captain away and take over the ship?

What if you tried to force this line of decision making though? A DM would mostly likely show their hand when they were setting up the game, maybe just in the way they present the wanted poster, they would unintentionally signal to the players that they WANTED them to join Kalabrax (and the contrarian player would be like "lets smash him instead", which is the opposite problem of the first scenario, where the DM was trying to MAKE the players choose to smash the pirate, but they joined up instead.

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More moving parts, more to break

Instead, if you present opportunities and problems, you have more options in how to handle how your players react. After this confrontation regarding Stormmaker, the players could decide that Kalabrax is the asshole people have been saying he is. Or, they could assuage him and help him, and become more loyal and beloved crew members. Maybe their kindness will change Kalabrax, maybe his evil will change the players, and maybe a stray harpoon will stab Kalabrax through the eye and the crew will pick the Cleric to be captain because he or she is an awesome cook. Whatever happens, so long as your just creating problems and opportunities you will keep your players moving, and you can keep reacting, and they can react to you!

How to make problems

You need only two ingredients to make a problem: a resource and people willing to exploit it.

Coming up with problems comes with practice, but I always start with the foundations of human sentient behavior. There are hundreds of these little bonbons of why people do what they do, but these six come to mind in this discussion.

1. Sentient always want more than they have.
2. The higher up in the food chain a sentient is, the more willing they are to compromise their morals
3. The higher up in the food chain a sentient is, the more they HAVE to compromise their morals
4. Sentient priorities tend to be, in order of greatest to least: Themselves; Their children and Spouse; Their friends; their social group; their nation; others of their species; other sentients ; everything else.
5. Plenty of people however have completely different orders. Some have the above priorities but put themselves at the bottom. Some have something more like God; nation; unit; family; self. Some are just Self; Self; More self. Rearrange for fun and profit.

I say "sentient" because I assume that elves, elder gods, and being that exist outside linear time have the same motivations. Maybe yours don't, but mine tend not to, for now at least. I may look into different motivations in the future. Again, mix and match for fun and profit: maybe an extraplanar being knows better than to worry about temporal power and material possessions but if you so much look at its chosen copulation partner you are its mortal enemy.

Lets put some people and resources together and see what we get.

A small list of people
1. A large, distant empire
2. An island full of elves
3. an underwater nation of magic users
4. Pirates
5. A middling, mostly peaceful nation full of land-based exports

A small list of resources
1. A well of infinite magical power that is on the Island of the Island Elves
2. An empire with vast amounts of gold and tiny amounts of scruples
3. A sea full of pirates with alot of gold, alot of guns, alot of guts, but not alot of scruples
4. A nation with not as much gold, but still a contender in world politics
5. An underwater nation of Sea Witches, Ocean Druids, and Abyssal Necromancers
6. Magical artifacts created by above sea nation over the millennia of their histories

You notice than some of the people are resources, and some of the resources are people. This is usually true in life: that's why they call it that department at work Human Resources afterall.

Let's put 1 and 1 together. The empire is large and already has alot of gold, so it needs nothing. So thats means it would not want a well of infinite magical power right? Fuck no of course it wants it. So, it will do anything and everything to get it (afterall, the cost analysis of going after a well of infinite power is nothing but positive. They are almost obligated to grab it.) One of their ideas on how to get it might to be to force Island elves to give it up through marriage. Princess don't want to marry Evil Empire's old ass King, so they plan pretend to want an alliance while secretly using pirates to destroy and eventually blockade the island nation. 

This creates a bit of intrigue: why aren't the island elves a nation of incredible power themselves? Why don't they just crank up a fireball to the size of the Evil Nation's capital city and drop it on them? Is this well "really" infinite afterall...

Lets put 5 and 3 together. This nation doesn't have deep pockets, so they can't have a huge standing navy, nor can they keep bribing pirates. They need to either get rid of the pirates or make their navy so mighty that they can protect the merchant ships that bring them their stuff, and they need to do it cheap. Maybe if they can get their kindly Prince to woo the Princess of the underwater nation, then the underwater people will help them sink the pirates, in return for stuff Ocean people can't have like cotton or gold or land magic or something.
It doesn't take long to come up with more and more twisty scenarios. All you need to do after make these situations up is make not of them and find one or two that they players can get involved in. Remember, just because the PCs don't care that the Island Elves are getting bamboozled by Evil Empire doesn't mean that the Evil Empire will stop its bamboozling. Maybe they hear the Prince needs an escort to the Sea Nation and ignore the call to destroy Kalabrax and go help the Prince woo his lady love. They may never encounter Kalabrax at all, but I would not throw away his stat blocks of backstory, not even if the campaign is over to be honest because you can always reuse him for another game. Because you don't have control over your player's actions, you don't know if, maybe one day they may make all the right choices to encounter the evil pirate. And still decide to run with him...

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Mind you, its also pretty easy to get carried away with too many scenarios. Don't come up with too many, and dont expose your players to even HALF of what you come up with.


Direct Control is impossible, and not really profitable. Better, in my experience, is to create a world full of problems and opportunity, and know how they are interconnected and how they operate independent of the players. Your players will react to one or more of the problems/opportunities, and then you have them involved in the plot of their own volition. To create a problotunity, simply come up with a person or group of people, come up with a resource, and come up with why the person/people would want to exploit the resource and how. Then create an opportunity for the players to affect that exploitation.


Full-Armor Alexa and more fiction excerpts!

More Alexa concept art, this time regarding the heavier armor that she brings along when she knows she will need it.

At first, I was really in love with the bottom row, the heavier stuff. But now that I have sometime to think about it, I really like the upper row too. I, frankly, love how "ugly" it is. I mean, this isn't supposed to be a pretty thing, really, and it seems like its more, I don't know, buggy? Like it would be easier to hide, or at least detach. 

Please my fans, let me know what you think about these concepts.

In return, I am offering you not just one, but TWO excepts of stories I'm working on. 

One is from a sci-fi romance, the other is from a weird fiction short story I'm editing one more time. 
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