From the DM’s Chair: Burnout

It’s been a very long time since I’ve posted anything here, so I think before I dive into the subject of today’s article, I just want to take a quick moment to check in with everyone.

How is everyone doing?

Fine, I hope.

I know the world kind of went to hell for a second, but we seem to have reached the other side of it (all fingers crossed). I stopped writing blog posts on here before 2020, mainly because timings just got too tight. I had a thriving social life for the first time ever, a new full-time job to deal with and various other issues besides. From the DM’s Chair was a project I invented to get me writing more, and to push myself more into the public eye. I really enjoyed the feedback I received about it, especially from some old friends who popped up to tell me the blog was awesome and to ‘keep it up’. That was surprising and really cool, the exact thing you want to hear that will keep you going.

And then, I feel like I disappointed all of them by falling off the face of the Internet for a few years.

I believe those people, faithful readers and friends alike, are owed some sort of explanation for that long absence. The fact of the matter is that the explanation for my absence is quite simple. I got burnout. Burnout is something that I find myself dealing with a lot, especially recently, an unfortunate habit formed from my ‘dutiful’ work ethic. I like feeling productive, even in my free time, and, as a result, I rarely take the time for myself to properly rest. I push myself in my job, pursue creative hobbies and try to keep in step with friends and family. Warning signs of me reaching my own limits are dismissed, thrown through the nearest window, and I continue racing on towards every implosive impact. Life is demanding at times and I realised in 2019 that I didn’t have the time to write these articles on here, and do everything else in my life I wanted to alongside a new full time job and my other hobbies whilst still being happy.

That being said, I’ve gone through a lot of changes in my personal life since then too: moving homes, meeting new friends and developing more as an individual. Oh, and playing lots of Dungeons and Dragons, of course. Not just running anymore, either, but actually getting a chance to be a player too thanks to some amazing friends. It makes my schedule more packed, but it’s worth it to spend time with friends and tell these amazing stories. It was actually during one of these recent D&D sessions that I got a chance to reflect on my journey as a Dungeon Master and role-player. The subjects we were discussing surrounding the end of the campaign I was playing in were similar to feelings I’d been experiencing recently myself. It stirred thoughts in my mind, the kind of insightful commentary that I usually made a subject for From the DM’s Chair. Immediately, I was met with this wave of nostalgia and bitter resignation. The urge had returned, the will there even if the time was not, and it was up to me whether or not I should act on it again.

As you can tell from this current post, I did. I took up the proverbial baton, I climbed the metaphorical steps and have once more slipped, both regally and figuratively, back into the DM’s Chair once more. As is the cyclical nature of the world, it all ended with burnout, so burnout is exactly where we shall resume.

Welcome to From the DM’s Chair, I’m Shadowonthewall and, today, we’re going to be discussing DM burnout: what do you do when your campaign runs its course, your story loses its lustre or you simply just lose interest.

A group of goblins experiencing burnout…literally. Image taken from the Forgotten Realms wiki and  is property of Wizards of the Coast.

DM Burnout: Noticing the Signs

Usually, burnout is a phenomenon we associate with our work-life balance: the result of too much work and not enough rest, not something one would initially consider to occur in a hobby. Unfortunately, Dungeons and Dragons, by its very nature, costs perhaps more time and energy than many would first expect.

For one thing, Dungeons and Dragons sessions usually require quite a lot of planning. For module adventures, reading the main book and the setting might be all that is needed to effectively run a session, but for a homebrew campaign, it might cost a lot more time: inventing settings, creating NPCs and plots, building engaging Dungeons. All of that is also without taking into account the actual moment of sitting down to play. Dungeons and Dragons is something I’m incredibly passionate about because, as a writer and a self-proclaimed dramatic, I like to create experiences for my players. Whether it’s a cathartic victory over a powerful enemy, or an emotional reaction from a particular story beat, I live for the knowledge that I entertain other people.

But, even I will admit, it takes a lot of energy to do that. It’s even worse when you factor in that everyone at the table, you included, have lives outside of the game, other hobbies you’re interested in and work on top of all of that. Finding balance is as important in our gaming schedules as it is in life, but the problem I’ve always had is spotting moments of my own burnout and being aware of it. As DMs and people, we should all be checking in with ourselves and looking for signs of burnout in our lives, from general exhaustion, to reduced quality of our work, to loss of enthusiasm. No-one is immune to these things, so it’s good to keep yourself in perspective.

Now, obviously, with a subject like burnout, recognising burnout is just the tip of the iceberg. The next question is obviously how do we combat burnout as a Dungeon Master. The sad thing is that there really are no easy answers. I should know, because I’ve tried a lot of different methods over the past few…years. (God, it has been years, hasn’t it? I got Matt Mercer to sign my Dungeon Masters guide in 2018 and that feels so long ago. Where has the time actually gone?)

But, the good thing about taking so long to finally update this blog is that I have a lot of experience now to draw from to give advice about this. Hopefully, some of this helps if you’re having similar feelings. One thing should be clear in all of these instances though: open communication is key. Letting others know how you’re feeling helps set their expectations, but also gives you a chance to get some of that tension off your chest. Your players will understand this and be willing to make time and give you space. If they’re not, then, as unfortunate as it is say, maybe they’re not the kind of people you should be running for. The first rule of D&D is that this should be fun for everyone, including you, and Burnout, though a former hit video game driving series, is not fun in this instance.

Combating Poor Performance: …Lighten up a bit?

Having fun is the most important part of running D&D, which is why the greatest pain for any Dungeon Master is when you feel yourself start to lose focus for the campaign you’re running. My Dorvine campaign has been one of my longest running campaigns by a wide margin. It was full of a lot of amazing people and through it, I’ve developed some amazing friendships that I know I will carry with me throughout my entire life. That being said, as Dorvine was one of my longest campaigns, it was also a campaign that I had a lot of problems sticking with throughout the duration. Ambitious plots and a desire to impress and innovate began to cloud what was an otherwise brilliant experience. I feel like the early days of a lot of my campaigns are filled with this halcyon style glow to them. The first arc of the first campaign I ever ran was and still is hailed as a masterpiece, and so too, was Dorvine. The players were excited at the start, new people wanted to join, more than I could actually ever allow into the party. It felt flattering, it was perfect.

Obviously, the thing about halcyon times is that they cannot last forever. The more you try to perfect something, the more you try to make it the best that it can be, the more it ends up crumbling in your hands. This isn’t to be dour on the subject, of course. D&D is a sort of artform and real-play shows like Critical Role, High Rollers and Dimension 20 are a testament to that. But, the unfortunate matter is that art itself is highly flawed. It’s gritty and subjective and that means, unfortunately, not everything is going to be to everyone’s taste.

In trying to elevate Dorvine, in seeing it as this great saga and artform I was trying to craft, I almost lost sight of the most important part. There was a time playing Dorvine, probably several sessions at least, where I wasn’t having fun and, odds are, I’m willing to bet some of my players weren’t as well. Despite my desire to always keep things to the contrary, D&D is a sort of obligation. We all feel obliged to go and sit in and try to make the effort, never saying no even when we’re not in the mood. Saying no is actually one of the best things I’ve learned in recent years, though I sometimes forget my own rules.

In those times I was struggling with Dorvine, there are two things I reflect on: that I was working myself too hard and taking very few breaks in my real life, and I was desperate to make my players enjoy Dorvine. That raw desperation to create a product entertaining to every player completely undermined the fact that I wasn’t having fun. I had stopped enjoying my own story, and when I was running just for other people’s approval, I very much lost a lot of love for the campaign as a whole.

It was the moment I tried to reseize that enjoyment that a spark started to return to the campaign. Perfect should never be the enemy of the good and we should all accept, in life as in D&D, that nothing is perfect. Players will change the trajectory of your story in amazing ways, your own ideas might even change from session to session. If you want to tell your epic spellbinding saga, write a book. D&D can have story, and I believe that it can be used to create that emotional resonance that I, as a creative, chase so passionately. But if I am not having fun at my own table, it’s very hard to assume my players will do the same. So, make your games fun, put the things that you want in it and have a good time first and foremost. This is the easiest trick to staving off burnout, because you’re literally doing what you want to do.

I put to bed a long and complicated story arc of Dorvine. It ended with a city in ruins, sky-ships littering the bay and a Duchess rising to their place of prominence in a vacuum of power. I agreed with my players that we would have a six month time-skip in game and reset the campaign to focus on other ideas I had. When we returned to the table, gone were the confusing city politics that my players weren’t interested in, the obnoxiously large and convoluted cavalcade of henchman vanishing into thin air. I and my players received exactly what we needed: a fresh start.

Some changed into new characters, some kept their old favourites and I plunged the story into its next stage: a growing civil war cast in the backdrop of a gothic horror. Immediately, the atmosphere went through a noticeable change. A Nightmare-before-Christmas style monster movie dovetailed into a fiendish circus with a most reasonable ringmaster, which itself transformed into a cavalcade of roleplaying as the players confronted a set of NPCs who straddled the line between what was human and monster. It was a much more enjoyable experience and one I look back on fondly. It is proof that above all else you can run a silly game for your friends and still create something of artistic merit. So long as you’re having fun, the players will find something to enjoy.

Combating Loss of Enthusiasm: Changing Things Up

Not having fun is one thing, but not being excited to run at all is the death sentence for a campaign. A close friend of mine used to repeatedly lament that he had never actually finished a campaign. Eventually, we fixed that, but it does point out that unfortunate theme from the earlier sections: good things aren’t supposed to last forever. Most D&D campaigns peter out simply because the Dungeon Master loses steam. It no longer becomes a matter of enjoyment, and simply of exhaustion or even a restless desire for progress.

The Dorvine campaign I was recording on this blog so long ago officially ended last year. Though I had further desires for stories to tell and much more planned for the adventure, there was a restlessness in the air, as much from my players as from me. I can only speak personally, but I felt that I was reaching the point where I was done with Dorvine. I had played the same story, the same world, almost every week for almost three years. Once again, I thought, a change would be better than a real rest. Whilst running Dorvine for my friends, I had also been developing a new homebrew world: one that I hope to run all my future campaigns in and one in which Dorvine’s own story could be slotted into, albeit with altered lore and timeline to properly fit. Rather than leave the campaign in limbo, knowing that the last campaign this had occurred to never reached a satisfying finale, I brought the Vagabond’s adventure to a rushed conclusion, sacrificing plot coherency and epic plans for spectacle and grandeur.

Annoying, I think I think it’s some of my best work, especially as I got to reveal a twist years in the making that none of the players saw coming, despite lots of obvious foreshadowing (Praise Vecna everyone!)

Finishing Dorvine gave me the chance to start anew, which is something I think that every Dungeon Master should have the right to do. One of my newest players, a veteran Dungeon Master of his own spectacular game, also had a similar experience recently. I had been playing in his campaign for months and was loving the story, but it got to a point where the campaign ran its course and the DM was losing a bit of steam. It was less being overexposed and overspent with the story, and more him realising he had other things on his mind (Guys, let’s play D&D…but pirates!)

It was one night whilst talking about this with him that I realised I was looking at the quandary I’d be wrestling with not long before but now, I was from the outside looking in. Seeing things from a new perspective really helped see things more clearly. I realised something important about the campaigns we were both running, that being that it really doesn’t matter if the story you want to tell has an ending or not.

Not being able to finish a campaign sucks, I have at least three I can think of that I had lots of plans for that never really concluded, but the reality is that life gets in the way. Lots of factors contribute to the breakdown of a campaign, and whilst the experience of finishing one is great, I often find it’s mostly great because it’s the payoff to a long-time story. A campaign that only takes four sessions to finish definitely won’t hit as hard as a story years in the making. When rushed to completion for the sake of achieving something, the ending ultimately loses what made it special: getting to have fun and connect with people you care about. My first ever campaign is still one of my favourites, even if it is a story that I know I’ll never finish. Ending that campaign now wouldn’t necessarily improve any of the experience. When I think back on that first campaign, I don’t think about the missed opportunities. I think about the moments I spent with my friends, connecting with them in a fictional story and giving them an emotional experience that truly mattered to me.

Sometimes things don’t get a satisfying ending, in life or in D&D, and that’s okay. Sometimes, you just need to run a game for fun and that’s more than okay. Sometimes, you’ve got to throw your old campaign in the trash and go be pirates if that’s what’s calling to you. Changing the subject of your campaign is another great way to prevent burnout from setting in, and for some, it’s proven quite effective (we’re playing pirates again today, actually, and I’m hyped for whatever I know my brilliant DM has cooked up for us).

Going pirate: even the Mindflayers are doing it! Image taken from the Forgotten Realms wiki and  is property of Wizards of the Coast.

Combating General Exhaustion: Inevitability

The sections I’ve listed so far are all about how to improve the D&D experience to combat burnout. That’s all well and good, it’s exactly what this article is all about. However, sometimes, there is no fancy trick that can help you deal with burnout. As much as you can try to fight it off through changing plans or catering to yourself over others, ultimately, there is very little you can really do to fight burnout when it becomes just general exhaustion settling in.

Sometimes, it isn’t a problem with the game, or even the players. Sometimes, it’s just you and your body telling you to slow down. In moments like this, you shouldn’t fight it. I used to play the martyr when I ran a lot of my old campaigns, adapting the stance that it was alright for me to ‘suffer for my art’ so long as other people were happy and enjoying the story. I shouldn’t need to tell you all that this was not a very healthy stance. Your own personal health, mental and physical, should come before any game, even if that game is a personal passion. At times like this, when you hit the wall and you hit hard, there is only one real option and it’s an option that I do think every DM experiencing burnout might need at some point.

Stop running D&D.

Take a break.

Relax, come back refreshed.

Or don’t. There is no pressure for you to run, nor should there ever be. If you feel the itch to be creative, but you find yourself drained whenever you leave the table, or have a sense of anxiety setting in when you’re setting up, you can stop. You can put down the dice, put up your hands and walk away.

I started a new campaign shortly after completing Dorvine. It was a campaign I was really excited for with the same group of awesome friends I had run Dorvine for. Everyone entered the campaign with the same kind of excitement and joy I had, with promises of this new adventure in a far-off unclaimed frontier. Looking back on that experience now, I can’t help but shake the feeling that in trying to run that campaign, I stumbled into a lot of old problems. In failing to adapt and recognise them, I completely undermined whatever good the core campaign concept had going for it and, ultimately, set myself up for a fall.

I scheduled the new campaign as another weekly one, because I enjoy running and games that frequent are hard to come by. In hindsight, maybe there’s a very important reason for that. The party, similarly to the end of Dorvine, ballooned to a massive eight people. I had run games for at most nine people before, and thought, in pure hubris, that “eight would be fine”. This was of course ignoring the fact that I had run for those nine people on a weekend session at University years ago, when my schedule and the schedule of my friends were quite different to as they were now.

Problems started to crop up almost immediately. Life started getting in the way, as it often tends to do. First, it affected my intended start times, meaning there was less chance of really getting anything done. Next, the large party started causing complications. We were playing over Discord and despite my attempts to ensure everyone got a chance at the spotlight, nothing ever seemed to work just right. I poured a lot of passion into the story, all the creativity and ideas I could, and looking back, I don’t regret any of that. The only issue was that the large cast and loose pace meant that the campaign quickly became bogged down. The issues were becoming excessive: too many players, too short sessions and with each week, a general sense of exhaustion continued to grow. It wasn’t long before I started losing love for this new campaign and I think everyone else began to feel the same. Players began to stop turning up, which is something I don’t hold against them. Life is big and complicated and no-one should feel shackled to something they don’t want to do. It was a blow to my pride, but, honestly, at that point, I had been feeling the same sense of unease for a while. Even with the smaller base party, I was still feeling myself losing steam. I’d had enough, clearly, of whatever it was I was doing.

There are lots of possible reasons for why I lost interest in this campaign: I felt I was giving a poor performance every week, I was feeling a loss of enthusiasm in general and, of course, I was just exhausted because of more busy schedules, now that the world had opened back up. In the end, the only choice I had going forwards became clear. I said I was putting the campaign on the backburner, that I was going to rest. The next week, when no D&D came, I was hit with this surge of relief. It was peaceful. I did what I wanted, caught up on some writing and finally had a chance to relax to myself without burning the candle at both ends. It was after the second week I realised I was going to be putting the campaign into an indefinite hiatus.

Quitting your current campaign is not a sign of weakness, or an admittance of defeat. There is nothing you have to prove anything to but yourself and I feel I’ve finally learned that. For the past few weeks, I’ve been able to take a break, relax and catch up on things I really want to do. Putting yourself first is the most important thing you can do when combatting burnout. Unfortunately, the reality of that situation does mean that you might need to take a break from time to time. There’s nothing to be ashamed of with that, it’s just the way things are.

Post-Burnout: Getting Back on the Horse

Now, despite all that being said about taking a break, I didn’t actually stop DMing entirely. With the world back open and a few new lifestyle changes factored in, I realised it was a good idea to try and meet new people at my local gaming store, so I started running a game of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist for them, sessions held once a fortnight so I don’t lose steam again. In addition to that, I started running a lot of smaller games, like one-shot sessions for friends, and Duet campaigns, avoiding burnout by running infrequent sessions with more intimate stories focusing on only a single player. These new free schedules gave me a chance to reflect a little more on my process and how I DM in general.

A huge strength I have learned from my years of DMing has been adaptability. Having run for dozens of people over the years, I’ve learned that everyone has their own ideas and its best to change your plans to fit other people. It’s a useful skill to have in general and it’s one I’m glad I’ve learned to focus on more. However, the main point of Burnout is that there are some limits that we just cannot adapt to. Sometimes, there’s no real trick to the situation. Sometimes, you just crash. Therefore, it’s important to know your limits and to set good boundaries. Actively combatting burnout is a difficult fight, but that’s mainly because we shouldn’t be fighting it. Burnout is a way for our body to tell us that we need to rest and we should listen to it, even when it’s related to hobbies we love. After thinking heavily on the kind of games I’d like to run in the future, I came up with the following rules. They’re little limits I can place on myself that help me from suffering too much burnout in the future. I don’t know if they’ll help any of you out there, but I recommend thinking about your own little set of rules to help you get the most out of your own games you want to do.

-No more weekly campaigns. Fortnight sessions are the most frequent I should aim for, monthly sessions can be equally chill.

-If I don’t feel like running, I won’t run. I won’t force myself in order to “not to let anyone down”. I will look after myself.

-I will run for no more than five players. Preferably, four.

-No more trying to do twelve hour sessions. We are no longer a University student with ample time to waste on rolling dice, and sleep is our friend.

-After a big weekend of running D&D with friends, I will schedule in at least one night to myself that week to relax and will not run another D&D weekend until I have had one weekend of complete relaxation to recharge.

-If I decide to run multiple campaigns for multiple people, I will space out my schedule as much as possible to accommodate time for myself.

-I will try to run smaller more intimate story arcs to avoid a plotline overstaying its welcome.

-I will run modules over homebrew content if possible, for sake of ease.

-I will try to have fun because D&D is kind of rad.

That’s going to be it from this segment of From the DM’s Chair. I don’t know how regularly this may be updated in the future, or at all, but I hope you all got something out of this that might prove helpful to you in the future. Until next time, thank you everyone for reading and I hope you have all enjoyed today’s session of From the DM’s Chair. Please leave a comment. Positive criticism is welcome.

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