Role-playing Games Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for gamemasters and players of tabletop, paper-and-pencil role-playing games. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

There are groups that share the role of GM/DM/Storyteller/Ref, and there are those that don't. In either type there is always the threat of burnout - too much responsibility is put into the hands of a single person or a couple of people. The game always takes place at the same house, with the same people cleaning up afterwards and providing tea and pizza. The same guy runs all the games, or it's always left to the same person to organize the players and their busy schedules (otherwise known as herding cats).

I'd like to hear suggestions and advice on ways to deal with this inevitable condition. Ways to maintain the enjoyment of role playing if you never actually get to be a player in the story or if your always the one who has to make the tea or fork out for the game books and the dice.

That being said, the obvious answer of "make everybody pull their own weight" is great advice but somewhat limited for certain groups. Not everybody has the ability or the drive to take the reins of the GM. Not everybody has a house they can let the group play in. As well as the advice on sharing the load I'd also like to see advice on dealing with groups where an even spread of the chores might not be possible. How to be the one stuck with the heavy load and still enjoy gaming.

So, what's worked for you?

share|improve this question
Picking out the "hosting" part... our gaming takes place at one home only, for various reasons (young kids, allergies). The GM made it clear that he enjoys playing host, but just couldn't afford it in the long run. For that reason, there is a piggy bank (actually, a "dragon bank") placed on the windowsill. Every once in a while, players "feed the dragon". It worked well for years now, without actually bringing up the "money" subject. – DevSolar Jun 28 '12 at 11:06

13 Answers 13

I think you are right in assuming that "everyone pulls their own weight" is not very helpful or realistic. However, everyone can pull different weight.

In my group I'm the host, which means I clean up after my friends. In return, I don't have to travel on game night - an even trade as far as I'm concerned.

I think when you are the "one in charge", you should delegate as much as is practical and enjoyable. Ask your friends to use their strengths to make the game better. Maybe one is a skilled cartographer - have him make a map and make it your challenge to incorporate it into play. Give another a particular faction and have her detail their motivations and plans and stat out some NPCs. Her reward will be seeing you breathe life into her creations, and you'll have both inspiration and a reduced workload. I really think the idea of the all-powerful GM who has to attend to every detail in isolation is unnecessary.

Maybe that isn't practical - all your friends are busy, talentless, lazy, whatever. In this case you can at least level with them, explain how much effort you put into the game, and ask for their ideas about how to make things easier or more equitable. Maybe they can split your share of the pizza as thanks. Maybe a candid discussion will lead them to decide they aren't so lazy, talentless, or busy after all!

share|improve this answer
This is a great answer – BBischof Sep 19 '10 at 20:16
@BBischof Agreed. I've played in a game where my GM approached me and, along with my character, told me (and each of the other players) to make up the nation he's from and its characteristics. The result was something that didn't take very much effort from us at all individually, but was quite satisfying when it was put together into a cogent world. – Lucas Leblanc Nov 5 '14 at 22:02

I'm currently running a weekly game and think I've hit upon a series of tactics that, for me, works better than anything else I've tried thus far.

1) Regularly Scheduled One Off Night - Most gamers suffer from a bit of magpie behavior (flitting from one shiny object to another) and that's not necessarily a bad thing. To create an outlet for this, we have instituted a monthly "one off" night where the DM (me) or any other player can run a one-off game in another system or setting. This allows everyone a chance to try something new and different without abandoning the current game. Generally speaking, I come back from one off night refreshed and ready to get back to the larger story (sort of a gaming palette cleanser).

2) Overarching Plot - In addition to the current campaign arc, I try to maintain one large scale plot running in the background that I can tap for a one off adventure or as something special to spice up a standard adventure (think along the lines of the "mythos" episodes of X-Files). It keeps the players really interested in what's going on (and gives the GM a bit of breathing room to recharge on the current plot).

3) Read. Lots. - I try to take 30 minutes out every day to read some RPG book (splat book, setting book, roleplaying theory, etc). While this seems like the sort of thing that can lead to burn out, I've found that by mixing it up (particularly reading outside of games I'm currently running) has helped to keep me excited about the game I'm currently in (generally because I want to borrow ideas from what I'm currently reading). I know some GMs like to use sci-fi/fantasy novels more broadly for this purpose, but I've found that using RPG-specific books tends to create less work on my part (which helps to mitigate the burn out).

4) Non-Planned Adventures - I try to mix up the adventures by designing some that have an absolute minimum of prep; adventures that are so open-ended that they allow me a chance to stretch as a GM, but also allow me a lot more "down" time during the week. These can be difficult to pull off depending on your level of experience, but I find it a great way to keep myself on my toes and to get new ideas for new directions for the campaign (players are typically the best plot devices in this regard).

share|improve this answer
+1 for regularly scheduled one night off; a good session of paranoia helps shift some of that gaming tension as you herd them all into the warbot training grounds with nothing but an unsharpened pencil and a mission statement :) – Rob Mar 26 '12 at 7:41
About one night off: It doesn't necessarily mean an escape from your current setting or campaign. Just run some festival in a village and make whole session humorous. Once, when I wanted to make one night off but without even stopping the main plot, I send my 21st century spies to login into a MMO game -- to search for some guy who was addicted to an online game, but couldn't be found in a real world. They played mages and warriors, fought dragons and run quests to gather more gold for him - all that to obtain important intel. Main plot advanced, yet night off occurred happily. – naliwajek Jul 5 '12 at 17:56

When I'm in this situation, I ask myself what I'm getting out of GMing. If I'm not getting anything out of it, well, that's something to think about right there. But let's assume that I am getting something out of it.

At that point, I want to start thinking about how the players can increase my enjoyment just like I work to increase theirs. In other words, I deliberately force myself to abandon the old paradigm where the GM is doing a job on behalf of the players. I think even in a very traditional GM/player relationship, it's reasonable to think of the whole gaming group as partners.

A practical example: I like roleplaying quirky NPCs, so it behooves me to make sure my NPCs are interesting to me as well as interesting to the players. If I think of myself as working for the players, I'm less likely to remember to do that. If I remember that everyone at the table including me deserves fun, I can remember to build in a trait that'll be fun to play as well as traits that will get player attention.

Going to far in this direction brings us to the cliche of the GM who's in it to tell his own story, regardless of what the PCs want, so keep that in mind. This is where my usual reliable recommendation comes in: talk to the players. Let them know what you're thinking about. A lot of people will recommend, quite accurately, that you talk to the players after a session and ask what they liked, what they didn't like, and so on. Don't be afraid to throw your own stuff in there as well. If you say "hey, I liked this, but the bit where you all slaughtered the lizardmen bugged me for some reason -- help me understand what's going through my head?" you'll engage your fellow players in the problem.

share|improve this answer
Ah, yes, one should never forget that one's responsibility to make sure everyone has a good time extends to one's own self. +1. – GMJoe Jan 24 '12 at 6:00

My gaming group has a number of people who are willing to GM, though for the past year it's been all me. Generally one person GMs for a longish while, before that game fizzles out, and someone new takes over. Or one someone gets interested in GMing a new system and we change gears.

As a rule, we never play at my place, which means that I'm not responsible for clean up and what not. The host usually provides dinner. People bring their own munchies, and we usually have plenty for all.

We've been playing together for years, and dice collect at the places we game, so that's not really an issue.

So that leaves the load of adventure prep - The biggest factors here that I lean on are to:

  1. Keep detailed prep to the next session or two only... I don't want to waste what prep time I have planning out something that's not going to get played for months, and where the PCs may change the plot on me before we get to it.

  2. Crib from published adventures as much as I can... ie make people outside the gaming group do the real heavy lifting.

  3. Use tools that focus my prep on the stuff that I can't improvise, rather than encourage me to go detailing stuff I don't need to. (The DnD 4e Masterplan tool is excellent in this regard)

  4. Don't be afraid to tell the group that I've not had enough prep time, and so we'll do something else... Break out a board game, watch movies or the like.

In general, I think it is normal that some people will put more into the (meta) game than others. My take is that as long as I'm GMing what I want to GM at an effort cost that is acceptable to me, then I'm cool.

share|improve this answer

I've never had this exact problem, but perhaps these suggestions could help for GM burnout:

If you are spending too much time on prep, setup or paperwork and it's hurting your enjoyment of the game, switch for a session or two to a low maintenance RPG. Since it's just a one or two parter, you won't have to worry about continuity or doing a lot of paperwork. Some good suggestions for this type of one-off is a Call of Cthulhu tournament or adventure, you can just have pre-gens and since it's a game with low survivability you won't have to worry about follow up. Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying is great for a one shot in a fantasy or sci fi milieu. The main thing is to plan to just have fun with a quick and easy game and not one with a lot of rules or prep-work.

Have another member of the group run an adventure, either in the campaign you are running now or something of their own invention, or a completely different session that they enjoy. I think you'll be surprised, a session or two as a player can really recharge the batteries.

Mix it up with a boardgame. Sometimes a session of Descent, Pandemic, Memoir '44, Red Dragon Inn or any other game is a good thing to toss in and gets everyone out of a rut.

This may seem obvious, but the next time you GM, throw it out for discussion among the players. Tell them you are getting a bit burnt out and you are looking for suggestions to spice it up a bit. After all, if you think running a Villains and Vigilantes one shot is a good cure for the blahs, and your group hates superhero games, you aren't going to be getting out of a rut as much as getting into a new one.

Another seemingly obvious suggestion is to take a bit of a break from gaming. I personally have done this but I don't advise it for everyone. Momentum is a tough thing to get back if you derail it, and it might lead to a break up of a group if you stretch it out too long. Personally, I've never had a group meet enough times in a row to worry about getting burnt out with too much gaming! But if you meet ever week for months maybe a one or two week break might get you back in the swing of things.

share|improve this answer
other suggestions for one-offs: Paranoia, Macho Women with Guns, or boardgames. – gbjbaanb Nov 28 '10 at 0:48

One of the things I've been doing to combat my recent GM burnout is playing systems where the story is not entirely the responsibility of the GM. It's not the solution for every group, but it's one worth adding to the toolkit of choices.

There are a number of systems that are structured so that players explicitly or inadvertently provide the twists and turns of plot, which takes a really huge burden off the GM's shoulders. Two that immediately come to mind are Burning Wheel and Apocalypse World, so I'll use those as examples for how it's possible to still have an entertaining game while the GM doesn't know what's going to happen next. I won't detail exactly how they accomplish what they do because that's beyond the scope of this question, but I can outline what dynamics their rules enable that make GMing less burdensome.

The overall gist of systems like this is that they give the players a bit more power to determine the course of the game. In the process, the players' input becomes fodder for on-the-spot GM creations, which is far easier to do than the usual pre-planned GM creation process, and the games give the GM tools to make that on-the-spot creation as painless and fruitful as possible. It means giving up some of the ultimate control that the GM usually enjoys, but in exchange what you get is the chance to be regularly surprised by the game, just like the players.

I find that freshness and surprise to be a wonderful antidote to GM burnout.

The rest of this is just what that actually means, using Burning Wheel and Apocalypse World as examples, which you can skip if the above is enough of an answer for you.

Both Burning Wheel and Apocalypse World have a basic GM tenet that you're there to find out what happens just as much as the players are. The systems are set up such that players are more easily able to say, "I want to do Big Huge Thing X," and make it so that they can actually accomplish that in-game if they want to invest effort in it enough. With that, the players take much of the prep work off the GM's shoulders, because they push the game in the direction that they want for their PC by themselves. At most, the GM might have some ideas about where to take things if necessary, but most likely the players will drive the game just fine, and all that's left to the GM to make the players work for what they want in interesting ways, and to surprise them with unintended (but interesting) consequences when they miss their rolls.

In most games this would be unworkable because it would be disruptive to ongoing plots and would often conflict with the other PCs. Both these example games are set up so that they stay interesting when the group has internal conflict, and both give the GM ways to nudge the unfolding story in interesting directions without needing to pre-plan much of anything.

In addition, the games have ways of giving setting-creation power to the players. In both the initial situation and setting are developed by the whole group in a bottom-up fashion ("start small and local, then expand as necessary"). During the game, Burning Wheel gives players a couple tools for adding things that would be advantageous right then: one is a mechanic that lets characters with relevant skills declare facts about the world if they succeed a roll; the other is a mechanic that lets the character conveniently know just the right person they need to find, again on a successful roll. To make it more interesting (and give the GM a chance to add their own bits of interestingness), both those mechanics can at the GM's option give the PCs what they wanted anyway on a failure, but with a GM-added twist that will make their life more "interesting".

Apocalypse World, for it's part, is entirely built around that kind of mechanic: Every time a PC wants to do something that counts as a roll, they either get what they want, sort of get what they want (with specific complications), or on a failed roll the GM gets to make a special GM move that adds complications to their lives (often "bad", but sometimes mixed good and "bad").

Both those sets of mechanics take yet more off the GM's shoulders. They put a little bit of the story development power into the players' hands, at the cost that what they wanted to happen might become inspiration for the GM to do something related but more challenging.

share|improve this answer
"giving up some of the ultimate control that the GM usually enjoys" could also be a good thing when talking about avoiding GM burnout. In my experience most of the burnout is due to me, the GM, being the one responsible for exerting a just control. The tremendous amount of fatigue that's involved in being always righteous and impartial makes me mad. In both the games you named the rules help you by giving you the right instruments to decide what to do without having to worry about players' satisfaction. – Zachiel Aug 21 '12 at 18:17

Change settings. While it won't fix the mechanical portion of the burnout, it just might work due to other potential burnout factors. I know I can only watch so many zombie movies before it gets to be too many. A high number but finite nonetheless.

Change systems. I saw this in other answers too. Part of what got me excited when I first started DMing was when I understood the rules well enough to mold them into what I wanted. There's only so many ways to skin a cat, so try another animal.

Change roles. Another popular option among other answers. If you can't game with your group as a PC then find another. Play-be-email and play-by-post are two options. Anything where the weight of the world and plot aren't on your shoulders but someone else's for a change.

Change mediums. I saw this one above and agree. While I don't mean it in the board game sense, I mean it in the creative expression sense. Drawing, writing, whatever suits your fancy. Another thing I really get into as DM is the artistic expression possible when the curtain (DM screen) falls. Collaborative means you've got a say in some story, too. If that's not doing it for you then find another way to be creative. The best thing about RPGs (IMO) is that almost anything one makes could be useful in-game. Possibly even anything, given enough imagination. Besides that creative expression is therapeutic. I'm all for this option more than the others, personally.

share|improve this answer

This is a pretty common occurrence- Being a GM is a lot of work, and can be very taxing at times, and doing that over months or years can become wearing. The best way to avoid this is to reduce the amount of work the GM does.

  1. Get the players involved in the plotting. What do they want to do for their characters? Maybe there's something that you threw out going along that one of them was really interested in.
  2. Make one of them an assistant to your more creative GM duties. You don't have to give them the keys to the kingdom... but maybe make them responsible for a plotline and some of the NPCs and their actions. This can also help in transitioning one of them to full GM.
  3. Make one of them an assistant to your more systematic GM duties. Combat can be wearing, with you having responsibility for the actions of several combatants. You can either outright give them a script of what some of the lesser monsters will do and let them handle them, or give them duties like tracking initiative or some sort of record keeping.
  4. Make your own character to go along with the party. This seems rather like saddling them with an NPC or counter-intuitive to the fact that you know where the bodies are hidden, but it can be done with limitations on your character (i.e. you don't weigh in during certain situations that would be a conflict of interests) and serves a couple of purposes- it gives you satisfaction in your character's advancement, and it gives you a more man-on-the-ground perspective.
  5. Like (4) above, but using an established NPC. This can actually be very rewarding to you, and surprising to your players. Perhaps they defeat a minor wizard in a town, but he gets away in one way or another. They move on, and so does he, and the next time they meet him, he's progressed. I usually do this with some side fiction, but it gives me a chance to be involved in the world that I created, which can sometimes be the most frustrating part of being GM.

In the end, discussion with the players about frustrations and the path to take is the most effective way to handling these feelings. These bullet points above are just tools to help in this conversation, and will vary per person as to their effectiveness.

share|improve this answer
Tread very lightly with #4/#5! There are a lot of GMs who will insert their own Mary Sue NPCs into the game and either make them infallible allies or untouchable enemies, since they're essentially an Avatar of the Omnipotent GM within the game world. It doesn't have to be that way, of course, but it's common enough that many players will react negatively to anything resembling a "GM PC" purely by reflex. – Dave Sherohman Jul 1 '12 at 9:42
@DaveSherohman - that's the reason for the limitations on the character. And of course, to stick to those. As far as the player reactions, as far as they're concerned, its another NPC if presented correctly, and sticking to those limitations. – SnakeDr68 Apr 10 '13 at 14:29

Either you divide the work or you give someone else the burden of being the GM. It might be fun to do all the work for a while, but you can't be the only one doing all the work with this hobby while everyone else only has to manage their character.

Dividing the work has several benefits. The players feel more connection to a place or a story line when it's 3/4 their work. They want to travel to distant places with flying ships and two moons? Fine, let 'em do half the work and have them come up with a description of the place. This way you only have to provide life and story for the setting and you don't have to invent, for example, a whole city and its contents.

Sometimes you might only need the players to provide inspiration. Ask them directly what they would like to play next. They want dragons? Give 'em dragons.

Also, if you know another group, exchange material. It's a win-win situation for both groups, and it cuts your work in half!

Players can also use their characters to take some of the GM's burden. Ask them to imagine how they want to develop their characters, what possibilities they see. Just asking, "Where do you see your character in 2-5 in-game years?" can give you a lot of plot hooks.

The best situation is really when your players are sort of self-runners. Players who have a lot of knowledge of their character and drive new game plots lighten the GM's burden. How many players know their character's favorite food, secret wishes, dreams, fears? It doesn't help if your players just want to stick to butt-kicking, but if you can cultivate the players' desire to see their characters change the setting you'll find the plots start to run themselves.

What helps me a lot is that I'm not the GM all the time. Every once in a while someone else GMs for 1–2 evenings. I get to just play a character, which is not only fun but also gives me more time to prepare the next adventure.

Finally, the GM needn't always be the one to host the game. Someone who doesn't have a place big enough to host can still be the GM if they have someone else be host. The energy it takes to host the game shouldn't be underestimated, and having someone else host the game lets you reserve that energy for the game itself.

share|improve this answer

Take a break before you start to burn out

I DM a very consistent game on Wednesday nights with a moderate block of time. Once every 4-6 Wednesdays is when I start to feel worn out, so I call an off night to recharge. This consistently disappoints the players, but I strive to give them plenty of warning.

I don't DM to the point of exhaustion. This has the fantastic positive effect of consistently good sessions and players that are always hungry for more. Often I will be as excited or more excited than my players to get to a game because I'm well rested and not strung out.

Usually on off nights I'll read a module or session transcript, work with my hands, play a card game with some other friends, or play a favorite video game. This gives me a great opportunity to relax and build anticipation for our next session.

share|improve this answer

In my group, we didn't have exactly the burnout problem. There were several of us able and willing to GM to a variable degree, but usually it was always the same guy who did it.

The problem was that he isn't exactly trustworthy, in the sense that he always arrives late, sometimes he doesn't come without even telling, etc. It was really annoying having to depend always on him for our weekly fun, so we discussed about a game setting, and decided to start a new campaign, in which the GM role rotates and every player, like it or not, will be GM sooner or later. So each of us GMs a small adventure (3-6 playing sessions).

In the group there are some people very shy, -e.g. myself- but we decided that it's not a valid excuse. Until now it seems to be working pretty well, although none of the less experienced players -some of them have never GM'd anything or even know well the rules, but again, we're in this for the fun- has had to master yet.

About the housing, that's not an issue in our group. Some of us have houses in which is possible to play. As someone stated before, cleaning vs traveling seems to even it out, and when we don't have any place available, we go to a cafe or something.

share|improve this answer

Old question but here's my answer. It's kind of a variation on the take-turns suggestion that so many have already suggested.

I can't stay focused or interested in a game as a DM long enough to have a large, over-arching plot. I just get bored and lose interest. I do not have the same problem with playing. What I do to get around this is to plan sort of a "miniseries" of gaming. I create a plot line, the major bad guys (or whatever), the setting, etc. and plan for 20 - 80 hours of gameplay. Depending on your group, this can be anywhere from two to twenty sessions, or maybe even more. I've found that, between characters interacting with each other and doing whatever other crazy things they do, they can easily fill half that time, and I'm entertained by whatever they come up with, and don't lose interest.

When the arc is done, you can move on to the next game. Even if it's you running again, that excitement about starting a new game can make it fresh again.

share|improve this answer

I also agree that getting every player to take a turn GMing is a good idea. Even if it only a couple of weeks short adventure. All the players get to appreciate what is involved DMing and the main GM gets to recharge their batteries.

For very inexperienced GMs the players have to play fair though.

share|improve this answer
What's fair play? – C. Ross Jul 1 '12 at 0:14

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.