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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

WISH #92: Burn Out and Recovery

by Ken Newquist / April 25, 2004

Last week's WISH, which I'm only just now getting around to, dealt with gamer burn out. Ginger wrote:

Have you ever gotten burned out as a gamer? What did you do to combat burnout? Which things you tried helped, and which ones didn't? Which ones would you recommend to a gamer with burnout?

As I mentioned in Nuketown's Yahoo Group, I've never burned out on gaming, but I've come close. A few years back -- just before we converted to D&D 3.0 if memory serves -- there was a lot of inter-party conflict in my campaign, both in and out of character. It was a stressful time, and it was the closest I've come to wanting to take a break from gaming. Fortunately though, it all worked out, and I was able to dodge the burn out bullet.

For the most part though, I can't imagine not gaming or even not DMing. It's in my blood now, and when I'm forced to cut back on gaming -- as was the case when Jordan was born -- I find myself aching for a game of Clix, a night of Settlers of Catan, or one more turn behind the DM Shield. I fully hope to be gaming into my 90s and beyond, and to mutate a cliche, they can have my dice when they pry them from my cold, dead hands.

That said, burnout does loom, and I do occasionally find myself less-than-excited about our Friday night games. It could be a question of writer's block, stress at work, or a story arc that's just not going the way I want it to. I have a few strategies for dealing with this.

  • Watch Gamer Movies: Popping in some classic role-playing movies -- Conan the Barbarian, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Star Wars, Harry Potter, The 13th Warrior -- always helps to get my brain thinking about new stories and new challenges for my campaign. It helps me re-connect with the sort of worlds I'm trying to create. There's a second class of movie I find useful as well -- movies about gamers. Oh, they're not literally about gamers, but they include characters that do the sorts of things that gamers always do. Ghostbusters is a classic example ("Ray, if someone asks you if you're a god ... say yes!") as is Big Trouble in Little China ("Look out ... it's black blood of the earth. You mean oil? No! I mean black blood of the earth!"). They're both filled with well-meaning and occasionally brilliant characters that nonetheless nearly destroy everything they hold dear.
  • Take a Day Off to Write: When I find myself stress about writing each week's game, and that stress is eating into my enjoyment of the game, I know I can do one of two things -- let one of the other players DM for a while, or take one day and dedicated to nothing but writing for the campaign. I'll take a day off from work (preferably one when Sue's already planning to be out and about with Jordan) and lock myself in my office with my Lord of the Rings soundtrack, a 12 pack of Mountain Dew and all of my source books. Then I work on the adventure, concentrating on pounding out as much material as I can. Now of course, my players inevitably run off on tangents I didn't anticipate, but tweaking existing material that I already have written is much easier than writing it from scratch. Tweaking is easy to do between games, and one day's hard work can give me months of material -- and months of relatively stress-free DMing.
  • Try Something Different: For the most part, my gaming group is fantasy-oriented. Our main Greyhawk campaign has been running just about continuously for 8 years, and I'll admit to occasionally getting sick of sword and sorcery. That's were I find trying out other games to be helpful. My group's lucky when it comes to this sort of thing -- since I do a lot of game reviews for, I often call upon them to try out a new game, like Gamma World, Stargate SG-1 or Godlike. While in a perfect world I'd love to switch out of our fantasy game every few months (a la Knights of the Dinner Table) these occasional one shots do satisfy my cravings for something different.
  • Read Gaming Blogs: This is something I've only been doing in earnest for the last few months, but I've found that reading about other people's games -- as well as their role-playing theories and dreams -- to be invigorating and inspiring. Take the weekly WISHes for example -- they've compelled me to spend more time thinking about my theories on gaming, and as a result, about my actual games as well.