I’ve Lost That GM Feelin…

So, I’ve been gamer for just a few months shy of 30 years. In that time, probably 85% of my gaming career has been spent in the GM seat. I’ve been a player but really, my time as a player pales in comparison to my time logged running the game. I’m a strong believer in the role of the GM at the table and the value a strong GM brings to a game… but I find that, recently, something’s wrong.

I don’t think it’s gaming as a whole… I am playing in a fun Pathfinder game (though I do keep dying) and at the recent local convention I ran a wonderful Battletech game that was a ton of fun as well as a panel on being engaged at the table which I found to be a blast (and generated wonderful conversation). I got to play some board games and some card games (Miskatonic School for Girls is a strangely fun game) and I played with strangers and people I know well…

So I don’t think it’s gaming… I think it’s just GMing. I seem dry of ideas – and when I do have an idea my enthusiasm seems to last only as far as the first gaming session and then… poof, it’s gone. And I’m not sure what to do. My Amber game which ran for about 6 months was a lot of fun but died because we had too many time commitment problems, and that’s the only game I’ve been able to sustain any enthusiasm for before or since. My last game that I really ran – the Kingmaker AP – feels like forever ago…

I find myself desperately in need of help. I don’t really have another game I can join as a player, I don’t have a real grasp on what’s wrong (other than perhaps that I’m a little burnt out on mechanically-complex fantasy), and I don’t have the strongest player base to take a risk with some of the more odd games I have around me… I’ve thought about starting a revolving door game of Shadowrun – where whoever shows up that week plays – but that just feels like a recipe for disaster when I’m already struggling to maintain my own momentum from week to week. This struggle has translated into the blog as well, which is why I’ve been posting less… I’m looking for inspiration.

Any thoughts, suggestions, ideas for stoking the GM fire again? I love GMing. It’s always been the part of gaming I’m most happy doing… but first the first time that enthusiasm is just genuinely gone… so if this happens to you, what would you do?

Thanks for reading – and here’s hoping for some useful advice.

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18 responses

  1. Not the most helpful:

    What did I do? I took a break. I ended my Dresden game. I plan on scheduling some board gaming days.

    And I know I’ve still got the itch to run something, but I don’t really have the focus to figure out what I want to run. 13th Age and go for some high heroics? Maybe. Do something brand new and run super heroes? Perhaps. Or go for the bleak gallows humor of having 200 left boots, 200 hundred winter jackets, and be stuck on a jungle planet of Only War? Definitely a strong contender.

    It is most definitely not going to be Urban Fantasy of any sort, I need to switch genres between campaigns so I don’t feel like it is getting stale for me.

    1. I’m on a break now… but, like a junkie, I think I’m in withdrawal.

  2. I am of course biased, but my suggestions are as follows:

    1) Put the responsibility for character design and party content entirely on the players and/or the leader of the players. Stay out of it entirely except to make a ruling or clarify a rule.

    2) Pick a rule set and scenario concept that supports session concepts that can be randomly generated on the spot. The idea is to get out of the storytelling and plotting business entirely.

    These two planks will let you lean almost entirely on the players and the dice– you’ll transition you into more of a facilitator type role as well. Instead of reflecting on how the players navigate your pre-determined situations, you can instead take satisfaction in seeing an adventure unfold right before your eyes.

    You’ll burn out if you have to be responsible for everything. Put the players in control of the game and let the dice do some work– invest in a gamemastering style that is more improvisational and that requires minimal prep. The increased inputs from the dice and players can fire up your creativity when you are running dry.

    1. That’s the kind of game I was running with Amber. I had a group of folks who were really into their characters and driving the plot/storylines without my needing to be too directive. Nonetheless – I find that running such a game does rely significantly on the quality/comfort level of the players in your game. I have considered going old school and running some original D&D but I’m worried that I won’t find players for that kind of game…

  3. Honestly take a break. A few years ago I hit a really bad case of GM burnout (http://wrathofzombie.wordpress.com/2010/11/04/gm-burnout-hits-everyone-how-im-dealing-with-it/), and I took some time off… It helped a little. Now in my case part of the problem was lazy fucking players and their unwillingness to do ANYTHING… So eventually I disbanded the group.

    So while I had started to crawl out of the GMing fatigue, playing with them again and running into the same problems, I relapsed. Eventually I disbanded the group and took a look at my GMing style. I really looked at what I sucked at, what I wanted in a group, how I wanted to run games, etc (http://wrathofzombie.wordpress.com/2011/05/24/how-my-gming-style-has-changed-and-where-i-want-to-go-from-here/), and after a bit of a break and reflection I’m totally fine.

    Honestly a break will do you wonders… recharge the battery.

    1. I’m trying to take a break. It’s strange but not running a game is actually… weird. I’m taking a look at your links – thank you – and I have to say, not even so much “bad” players, but I think something I’m suffering from is not having a group of consistent players that I’m actually friends with Outside of the game is a problem for me. It makes me feel as if the game is this weird bubble that just happens once a week and then we all don’t know each other, and that’s something new for me too.

  4. Robert Eaglestone | Reply

    I agree with the two gentlemen above. But also, is it possible that you’ve fallen into the time trap? Being in busy mode with no priority-driven time management tends to sap my energy.

    1. I don’t think so. Prep is never a problem for me if I’m engaged. I’m as busy as anyone these days but less so than in some times past when I was running multiple games. I think my problem is engagement.

  5. I feel myself having a similar need to change things up at my current table. I don’t know what if anything should be done next, but I don’t see the game I’m currently a player in lasting much longer. Mostly it’s due to a lack of cohesion: The Tone is shapeshifting between dark and silly (mostly silly, despite being billed as dark fantasy). The GM is way too arbitrary with story hooks, to the point where even the most central motivations for the characters are treated like MacGuffins to be ignored on a whim. Also, nothing ever gets accomplished in the story. Taking a short break can be a good idea. That’s probably what I should do, in my case. I’m most creative when I don’t HAVE to be, but rather when I WANT to be.

    One source of possible inspiration is an (oldish) podcast called “Shakespeare and Dragons” which is designed almost like an English teacher’s audio-course on various worldbuilding concepts and approaches. Topics such as Theme, Tone, Party Dynamics, Plot Structure, Setting, Culture and more are covered. I’m certain you are at least intuitively familiar with most if not all of the course content, due to the excellent games you ran while I was in college, but perhaps there is something for you there anyways, or something you’ve forgotten since. Worth a listen if you haven’t already listened to it. Heck, it’s probably worth another listen even if you have!

    Another familiar approach for inspiration is reading, of course. Beyond Sci-Fi and Fantasy, reading some non-fiction (science, history, sociology, anthropology, etc) can be great for these as well. I imagine taking the lessons learned from these kinds of books to paint detailed, realistic, and memorable settings, characters, and worlds. I find myself putting more and more effort into character building, with over 95% of it going to non-mechanical issues. The inspiration to be as authentic as possible often comes from these kinds of books.

    I find the approach jeffro is suggesting to be a good idea in principle, but very difficult to do well in practice. For point 1) this of course depends on having excellent players. For point 2) It could be a decent source of inspiration, but any randomly generated set will always seem arbitrary to me, leading to other kinds of problems like the ones described above. Without some editorial control of the story, I find the game often spirals out of control thematically, or the tone becomes oddly skewed in ways I don’t like. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve seen such games lose focus alittle too much, due to lack of cohesion. Of course, improvising is always a worthwhile skill to have, and using it liberally allows your players to trust that their choices have meaning in directing the story. Of course, like everything in roleplaying, the player and gm quality and dynamic are more important than anything else, so this will always depend on that.

    1. Dave – you’re right. It does help to read outside of the game/genre… I’ve found plenty of inspiration in weird places before. Lately I’ve been reading the original James Bond novels, a book about behavioral theory and an economics textbook… all fascinating but not doing the trick. Any suggestions for a good read?

      I agree that Jeffro’s approach is actually my preferred GMing style BUT it really does rely on the players being (and staying) engaged.

      1. “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond is a great world building guide. It’s essentially a brief scientific history of the world and why it turned out the way it did. This is a bucket list worthy book that I feel everyone should read, but especially gamers interested in world building.

        “1491” is another I just finished by Charles C. Mann. It is the most up to date picture of Pre-Columbian Americas and the people who lived there, what they were really like, and what happened to them. This is a good follow up to the first. A favorite part was concerning the potentially huge influence the Iroqouis culture may have had on the colonies regarding ideals of Liberty and Egalitarianism. I haven’t read “1493” yet, but it’s supposed to illustrate how the New World was transformed even on an ecological level by the colonists.

        I read some of “1423: The Year China Discovered America” and found that history may not always be as we were led to believe in school. It also paints a colorful picture contrasting Europe of that time to the Middle Kingdom.

        Any books that tell the dramatic stories of history in an accurate and entertaining way can inspire entire campaigns around the “feel” of those times, like books about the Revolutionary War, World War 2, the Crusades, or anything else with a setting or culture that interests you. You can even take a broad knowledge of history and ask “what if I changed this one thing, what would happen down the line?” and boom, you have an entirely different world to explore. One that only exists in your head, waiting for you to figure it out.

        On the Sci-Fi side, you can pick up speculative books about the future of space travel, like colonizing the Solar System, mining asteroids and so forth. “Mining the Sky” and “Entering Space” are great books for that genre. Anything that has more grounding in science than Star Trek and Star Wars will feel more authentic, at least to me.

        Hope these help!

  6. well I could get someone to run a Dungeon World game for you If you wanted to check out a less mechanically-complex fantasy game. Although it would have to be online and I am aware of your feelings on that. it might open a lot of options for you though as you can pretty much find a group of people to almost any game system under the sun.

    1. Thank you! That’s a very friendly suggestion. And I broke down and picked up Dungeon World. I’m planning a review – it’s a very cool read. But I’m still not sold on online play. I’ve never had a good experience with it that lasted more than a session or two. I’ve really struggled with making a game like that work… I find that I just thrive on that feeling of having people crowded around a room/table really into it… I dunno… it’s probably just me.

      Actually, looking over my responses that I’ve put up here, I’m starting to think that my problem is really me. Well, not just me but rather, the fact that over the last few years I’ve pretty much lost 90% of the people I’ve gamed with for a long time (to moving, etc.) and I think I’m having trouble engaging with my groups being mostly strangers… That’s something I was peripherally aware of but it’s sinking in how much that’s been bothering me…

  7. Thank you everyone for all the great comments and suggestions. I think I’m gonna stick with taking a break until it stops feeling weird, then I’ll get the itch back and I’ll try again.

  8. One of the things I tried to do was make a gaming getaway weekend. I invited players I trusted who would keep engaged and really on track and set aside a weekend where I could get away from everything. (We actually went camping.) The idea was to play a whole campaign that weekend and I deliberately made a 3-act plot arc that could be self contained and completed for good or for bad.

    Instead of long epic campaigns that have GM/player engagement burnout, maybe try shorter runs of storytelling goodness? How often as a GM do we get a chance to practice finishing a story to a satisfactory conclusion? It doesn’t mean all players live, but that their deaths make sense to the story?

    I really want to get back into doing a gaming camping trip again, but it’s going to be a while since I have another child added to my brood of future tabletop gamers.

  9. Very late to the party with my question, unless you are one of those blog writers who reads new comments to old posts, but I am reading through your older posts and it occurs to me one of the problems here is the group (all of you) and the expectations you (all of you) bring to the table.

    I am filtering this through my experience and projecting this but I think it is a worthwhile shot in the dark. I have been living in a foreign country going on 14+ years now. I returned to RPGs about 5 years ago as a way to make friends. This is what I did as the kid no one wanted to hang out with in 1980. I was not simply ignored but physically and psychologically beaten by others. So, because I made friends of some of these very teenagers by participating in role-playing games, I thought I would not-reinvent the wheel in my mid 40s.

    The approach to gaming however changed. After 4 years of trying to get a group of friends through playing roles in a collaborative game together, I am no further ahead. This has led me to burn out in a very real way. I love to play but I am adverse to the players, imagine that. Over the last years, playing with new-to-the-hobby players, I have seen they, too, were turned off by what they might term serious gamers. I suppose if I was an expert on systems and had a huge library of RPGs and knew a variety of systems like the back of my hand – like sports nuts collect baseball cards and can tell you every stat from every game ever played – I would have a support group.

    I just like to have fun. I like to experience a kind of team building thing where the group plays together as a unit in a story that is cohesive to the group (not just some guy’s made up back story about how he was descendent of Napoleon….) but a group where you meet in a tavern and 4-real-years later you’re all reminiscing as players about that tavern you burnt down as players 4-real-years ago. All the new-to-the-hobby people were like me. And, if I were not the GM ringleader of the social awkward, I would have left the game group long before I did too.

    I have lots of creativity to spare. I have energy to be involved and invested in a story. I have lots of hooks I would like to see players (mind you, players not chess piece avatars) overcome. I would like to be wowed with the creative responses from players – the kind where game when I pause and learn something about myself as well as others. The kind of system agnostic fun that system players cannot seem to have before they argue, like old men debating baseball statistics in a barber shop.

    You wrote about systems framing games as arguments and I think the problem here is the group. You even mention you feel like an outsider: RPGs housemother for a group of players that may (or may not) feel more like a long convention game than an actual organic living experience of shared fantasy rather than rulebooks.
    .
    Anyways, just thought I would share that with you because that is the source of my burn out. I am fed up with being alone and away from friends and rather than help remedy this situation for me, as it did once, RPGs with the group I found only accentuated it. Call it cognitive dissonance from player expectations.

    Still love the game! But I won’t play it while it feels like clutching a dead lover. That makes me sad.

    1. Could it be this is what you were going through when you wrote this post?

    2. Hey,

      Thanks for sharing this. It’s a truth. I wouldn’t think too hard about much of what I’ve written here though – I often use this blog as a place to think out loud and just consider my own current game feelings/issues.

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