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Avoiding Burnout

March 31, 2019

I’ve been playing in two consistent games a week for over a year now.  One is rotating GMs, the other is me, GMing and it’s generally prep heavy.  Between that, work, life… things were getting hard.  However, playing/running in a game that is effort light while also running a game that is prep heavy is a pretty great way to start seeing places for contrast and what options you have.

System 

The first and biggest impact is the system you play by.  (As always, this also includes houserules or modifications you are actually playing by.)  There’s some games that only run on improv and give you good tools to play, and there’s some games that require significant planning ahead, and design work by the GM.

For example, if you’re playing a game that involves tactical combat, maps, and encounter balance – you’re doing the equivalent of videogame level design.  Except you don’t get to play test it, and you will only use it once.  And you’re not getting paid like a videogame dev would be, so… yeah, it’s a bit of work.

Alternatively, if you’re running a story-focal game but the GM is the primary producer of “story”, and the one who must always push the pacing and action, then yes, that’s effectively the same thing, even if there’s less math or maps involved.

The easiest games to run make it easy to improvise in play, whether that is because the prep stuff is all done for you, like a prepared dungeon for a dungeon crawl, OR, if the rules make the players the primary pushers of new events and conflicts.  This distributes the workload, but also allows players more input and ability to shape the direction of play.

Reduce Time Cost to Play

There’s a ton of things in life I’d like to go do more of, but there’s a time cost around the actual activity that makes it a very hard choice.

For example, I may want to go see a music show, I just don’t want to have to be out and about and still away by 12:30 am when the band I want to see finally gets on, then drag myself back home, and get up for work the next day.  The actual performance might be 45 minutes, but whew, it’s the stuff around it that make it hard.

For your games, consider both the direct logistics of play – travel time for face to face games, actual time spent playing, hangout time etc. but also consider the time cost of what people might be giving up instead.

If you pick a time that overlaps with other social possibilities, people are choosing to give up another thing to play with you.  Perhaps they have to schedule even more time out of the day to make it work – travel time, when to eat, making sure they get enough sleep, and so on.  That’s before we talk about anything like child care for parents, or extra accessibility needs for disability.

Part of why this is important to burnout is that if there’s a lot of extra requirements around the game itself, that also contributes to the burnout for both GMs and players.  If there’s people cancelling, understand some of that time cost might be taken up still – driving out to someone’s house to discover the game isn’t happening still means driving back home.

I like to make sure that everyone tries to give as much advance warning as possible for disruptions (understanding, of course, that life happens).  But there’s a far difference between “Oh, no, got food poisoning this afternoon” vs. no message at all, or, worse, “I went to a concert that I bought tickets for 3 weeks prior”.  Basic social contract of respect for everyone’s time – TTRPGs suffer from the fact that, much like playing in a music band, they are easily disrupted when one member is gone.

One thing that helps is to have a central means of communication.  This could be a group chat on a social media site, or a group email or whatever.  If everyone knows there’s one place to look, and one place to post if something comes up, that’s easier to work with.

Schedule Break Time

Plan break time for weeks to not play.  Holidays are the obvious thing, but also regularly ask the group what things look like in the next month or two.  Special events like vacation trips, weddings, or life events like moving house or having visits from friends and family might force you to take breaks.

This planning ahead also allows everyone to avoid that extra time cost we just covered.

I’m starting a new practice as well, for my weekly game that has the highest prep, I’ve decided to take one week out of the month as a skip week.  It gives me a little more time for prep, but also just recovery time in general from things like work stress and so on.

This pre-emptive time scheduling allows other people to get that time too, and then you have less cancellations from illness or people being completely burned out.  For me, I was hitting a point where work stress + trying to meet deadlines to keep up prep for play was combining and my health was not doing great for it, and, my ability to stay focused while running was also suffering.  When it stops being fun and starts being work, you need a break.

Life Comes First

Many years ago, one of the things I wrote as a pushback against broken gamer culture was my “Fun Now Manifesto” and part of it was that this is a game, not a marriage.  Games are fun, and so is hanging out with friends, but you should never have to feel guilty or bad that you might have to take care of other things first.

It’s easier to realize up front you don’t have time for games right now, but you might in the future, than it is to try to force it to work and make yourself unhappy both in the time spent gaming and the stuff you need to do outside of it as well.

No Magic Solution?

There’s no magic solution to burnout.  There’s no infinite well of energy and time you can draw upon, despite the fact there’s a million and one “productivity” articles everywhere you look promising to let you make the impossible happen.

The real solutions I pointed out above are all variations of “Do less”.  However, much like pacing yourself for a marathon – planned doing less is more functional and valuable than unplanned doing less (burning out and collapsing).

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