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.

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