DM burnout is an issue many long term DMs come across at least once. I’ve seen a few posts on social media from people who have had enough, feel disheartened or have writer’s block and just can’t come up with any ideas for their next session. This is so normal that the term “DM Burnout” is well established in the community and there’s at least one post each week on every major online community discussing the issue. So in this article I will be trying to analyze the issue through the lens of my own experiences.
How I got DM Burnout
I had been running D&D for a while and my weekly West Marches style game had been going strong for a few months. We had some great sessions and some not so great but overall the experience was a pleasant one. Until one Sunday (1 day before our scheduled game) I realized that I had come up with nothing to run all week. So I thought “this will be easy enough” and opened up my Monster Manual to look for ideas. An hour passed and I could come up with nothing. I had writer’s block.
So I did the next best thing, I looked through my collection of one-shots and found one that seemed interesting enough. I read through it once or twice and game day came. I could tell that something was wrong because I was not as excited as I used to be before running the game. I secretly hoped that my players would all cancel at the last minute. But they didn’t.
The game started and by the end I just felt tired. It wasn’t a bad game as the players seemed to have enjoyed it, but at that point I knew I was burned out. If the thought of preparing for and running D&D makes you feel more anxious than excited, then something’s definitely wrong.
Causes of DM Burnout and how to address them
So what causes DM burnout I hear you ask? Well in my experience there’s a myriad of reasons, some of them external (meaning that they have nothing to do with the game itself) and others are internal (meaning that there’s something in-game that hinders your fun). Some of them are explained below.
Sometimes we, as DMs, don’t consider this possibility because it means that one or more of our players are ruining the experience, and since most often the people we play with are our friends it means that one of our friends is ruining the experience. But it can happen and we should address it.
A problem player is not necessarily a bad person but he can be a bad person to play with. Usually it is someone who just wants something different from the game than the rest of the group and that is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be disruptive.
Other times, the case is that some people are just assholes. D&D is a fundamentally social game and as in everything that involves people and relationships, there can also be those who just want to watch the world burn.
Addressing this issue means that you need to talk to the player in question, and if it comes to it, kick them from the game. This may sound mean, and depending on how you handle it it can be, but at the end of the day it is better for your group and for your game.
Life gets in the way
I’ve never wished to be a kid again more, than when I started playing D&D. The lack of any responsibility when you are a kid really lends itself to the nature of the game. But sadly most of us have lives to get back to when the game ends and sometimes it piles up. As a DM this can get to a point where you can’t really focus and preparing for a weekly game can seem like extra work on top of your other responsibilities.
This is a really common reason why DMs get burnt out but luckily there is a simple enough solution. Take a break. Talk to your players and tell them you need a break for a few weeks. You will come back stronger after it and your head will be filled with ideas. Someone might even offer to run a game so might get to play as a character for a few weeks, which can also be really relaxing.
This might seem obvious but it wasn’t for me.
D&D is an amazing game but it can get repetitive. Why not try to play something else? This coincides with taking a break from DMing D&D and can be an opportunity to try something that requires less grey matter investment. Try that board game you always wanted to try, or that other RPG System that seemed interesting to you.
Preparing too much
Another reason why you might be feeling burnt out is that you might be preparing too much for your sessions. I’m a firm believer in preparing just enough that you are not caught off guard, but little enough that there is room for improvisation. In my article about creating an adventure, I outline the method I usually use to prepare an adventure.
If you find yourself writing pages of content and lore that the players probably won’t ever see, then this might leave you in a state of constant anxiety.
The solution to DM Burnout
In the paragraphs above I’ve offered some solutions to solving this issue but I think there is one that fits any case, even those that do not fit to the specific scenarios in this article.
Take a break from the game, from D&D and from fantasy in general. This might look like what I’ve already said but there is a subtle difference in that it requires you to take some general distance from this specific hobby. Stop watching videos about D&D and DMing, stop discussing D&D online and stop thinking about it in the shower.
It might seem extreme, but sometimes it comes to that. It will give you a new appreciation for the hobby, and you mind juices (that sounds disgusting; unless you’re a mind flayer) will be flowing when you are ready to come back.
Conclusion – Running D&D should be fun
Being a DM is not a job (unless you chose to make it one). It should be as fun for you as it is for your players but I can’t deny that it takes a lot more work to be a DM than it does to be a player. Most of the time, you can’t just show up.
When your next session looks to you like something that you have to do instead of something that you want to do, I think it’s time to address the underlying issue so you can get back the excitement of running D&D.