Guidance – GMing 101: GM Fatigue

Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, Alex is going to be sharing some tips for combating GM fatigue.

So I’m going to be honest, folks, I’m tired. Very tired. Super, duper, extra special tired. When you’re reading this article, I’ll be at PaizoCon and although I’m writing this article in advanced, just looking at my schedule is leaving me exhausted!

But that’s not the type of “tired” that I’m going to talk about today. Today’s topic is GM fatigue.

What is GM Fatigue?

You come home from work, take off your shoes, and sit down in front of your computer. You check the date. Crap. Game’s tomorrow and you’ve got nothing done; don’t even have an idea in your head for what you’re going to do. You grab some books and paper and just start writing. Or better yet, maybe there’s an easier way. Even though you’ve been running your epic, homegrown campaign, you grab a cheap side adventure from a good 3PP and put it on top of your stack, confident that you can just “wing it.” Or better yet, maybe you’re running an Adventure Path and are currently sitting in between the volumes. You say, “Eh, I’ll wing it,” or maybe you too buy some sort of little side-quest adventure and drop it on your stack, certain that it’d be easier to run that adventure then whatever Paizo’s got in store for you next. Maybe its not even the content, but it’s the amount of work that you need to do to play a higher-level adventure. It would be so much easier to restart the PCs at Level 1; maybe you’ll try to persuade them to do a campaign reset….

If this has ever been you, chances are that you’ve had a bout with GM fatigue. GM fatigue is exactly what it sounds like: you’re tired of doing all of the work that a game requires, and believe me, as you level up higher and higher games need a LOT more time and thought put into them. That’s the nature of the GM’s job. What’s worse is when you peer out from behind the table as your friends talk about all of the fun, interesting things they’ve been doing. Things that you might have been able to do too if you hadn’t sat inside and prepped games all day for what seems like the past few weeks.

Today’s article is less of a, “This is what you do to get rid of GM fatigue,” piece, as what works for one person isn’t going to always work for another. People get tired of GMing for vastly different reasons, after all, and its unlikely that I’m going to be able to offer advice for every, specific case. (Although if you’re feeling fatigued, drop a note of what you’re feeling tired below and we can all work together to help you get over those feelings of fatigue, Know Direction Network style!) With that in mind, there are certainly a number of VERY common reasons that people feel fatigued, reasons that I myself have experienced too, so I’m going to go over five of the most common reasons for GM fatigue so hopefully, you can shake it off and get back into the game that you love!

Reason #1 — I Have No Time

This is by far the most common GM fatigue sign that I’ve ever heard, the dreaded, “I have no time” GM. I also like to call this type of person the “Binge GM,” or the “I don’t know how to manage my time effectively, GM.” These GMs tend to be REALLY good at playing low-level games, but GM fatigue starts to settle in around mid to high levels, when PCs and encounters get more complicated. A few goblins aren’t good enough anymore; now you’ve got to consider all of your players’ strengths and weaknesses in order to plan a good, challenging encounter. For these GMs, it isn’t actually running the game that’s the problem, it’s the prep work.

My number one piece of advice for GMs who have this type of fatigue is simple: split up your planning sessions better. I know plenty of “I Have No Time,” GMs who try to sit down and plan entire sessions and campaigns in a single night. To this, I have a James Jacobs quote: “We give our Adventure Path writers THREE MONTHS to design their volumes before they submit them.” That’s right, three months. Doesn’t matter if its Level two or Level twelve, THREE MONTHS.

Do you have three months to plan? Probably not. Do I have three months to plan? Heck no! Should you plan three months in advanced? Heck no. Planning three months in advance means that your game can’t be flexible; it can’t adapt to player choices. But planning in small doses is the best way to avoid GM fatigue. Personally, I like to pick specific days to do my planning; I’m big on the weekdays, because spending an hour or two researching options and planning out combats is something that’s relatively mindless compared to, say, writing a blog post or designing a new product. I like having easier jobs on the weekends. Also, it gives me the advantage to “advance my thought process,” as I like to call it. Basically, I’ll come up with an idea and let it sit for a few days while my brain generates new content for that idea. I carry around a little black book that I write said ideas down in, and presto! I’m literally letting my daydreams brainstorm for me. If you’re feeling fatigued because there’s just too much for you to do, try it. Set two hours up when your brain is at its most relaxed and focused (for me, its around 7 to 9) and make that your “get stuff done” time, then use everything else for you. Chances are you have a lot more time then you think you do if you split up the size of your tasks.

Reason #2 — I’m Out of Ideas / I Don’t Know Where To Take Them

This is not a problem I’ve ever experienced, but I’ve heard it enough times to sympathize. This type of fatigue happens when you’ve lost your creative muse, so in my humble opinion the only cure is to immerse yourself in creative pursuits. Instead of cancelling a game permanently, find a good place to set it down and go on break for a week or two. Before you do, go online and find some books to read or movies/ TV shows to watch and use them. Spend your time doing creative things, and if you can, get in on some games as a player (Pathfinder Society is AWESOME for this). Talk with people. Join a book circle. Find online communities where people share stories and ideas and read them. Go to sites like DeviantArt and browse artwork. However you learn best, embrace that medium. For instance, I learn best through auditory, visual, and interpersonal mediums, so I like to watch (and listen to) TV and movies, listen to music, and talk shop with people to get my creative spark. If you can, move out of your creative niche. For example, if you’re a fantasy guy, grab some Lovecraftian horror.

When your brain’s broth runs low, fill it with a hundred different ingredients so they can mix together into something truly spectacular. No one ever made a decent soup out of nothing but water and a hollow bone.

Reason #3 — I’ve Taken a Break and Don’t Know How to Start Up Again

This is another reason that’s SO common, my colleague Anthony Li wrote an ENTIRE ARTICLE about the art of “starting back up again.” He covered it so thoroughly, in fact, that I have nothing more to add. Check out his article if you’ve fallen and can’t get up!

Reason #4 — You’re Sick of Your Players

I’m a bit surprised about how often I hear this reason. Usually it happens when you have a player that you deem “undesirable,” such as a rules lawyer or a minmaxer and the like.

My first piece of advice is this: make sure you’re upset for the right reasons. People play Pathfinder for different reasons, just like people play games like Skyrim or World of Warcraft for different reasons. Just because I love pet battles and you’re a Mythic raider doesn’t mean that either of us is playing the game wrong, so long as we’re both having fun. The same is true for Pathfinder. Optimizers and roleplayers CAN have fun together (and they can even be traits belonging to the same person). The only time that player behavior should truly be considered a problem is when it makes the game unfun for the people at the table, and that’s something that can be hard to judge. A group of roleplayers might value an optimizer player because in blowing up encounters fast, the group is ensured to get to the next “scene” faster. Likewise, a group of optimizers might value a roleplayer because that person’s roleplaying might be rewarded with a circumstance bonus on skill checks or bonus XP or the like. Part of your job as a GM is to make sure that your games run in a way that make all players valuable to the group in some way, after all.

But if personalities are clashing and there’s ultimately NOTHING that you can do to rectify the situation, you need to have a group talk. It can’t be you as the GM ferrying comments around from player to player; that’s a tax on your personal energy (which is likely the source of your GM fatigue) and it’s likely to cause more trouble than harm because you can’t truly speak for every other player at your table. It also can’t be you lording your position as GM over the rest of your players, because the player who’s behavior you’re trying to change will likely resent you for your actions, which can spark some disharmony within the group. Keeping everyone’s feelings out in the open is crucial so you can fix the problem as quickly as possible.

To give a side story in this vein, I recently switched my group’s skill system over to Pathfinder Unchained’s skill group system, and two of my four players HATED it. They felt the system blurred the group’s specializations and homogenized all of the players. At first, we tried to talk it out via text messages and it wasn’t working; I didn’t understand them, they didn’t understand me. Finally, I got everyone on the phone (the two players are a married couple and one of the others is my brother) and we talked about the system and the effects that it had on our group’s dynamics. I wanted our group to have better skill coverage. Two of the players wanted more skill ranks so they felt like they contributed (they’re a fighter and a magus, respectively). The other two wanted the group to have its specialties so everyone felt unique and helpful and so they were better as a group then they were alone. I wrote down ALL of the feedback and wrote a new skill system that, on paper, everyone seems to like. We’ll be using it at our next game.

Our group didn’t need to end over our clashing, so keep that in mind before you develop the “you’re sick of your players” fatigue. (Or even worse, your players get sick of you….)

Reason #5 — You’re Sick of What You’re Running

Sometimes things that seem like an idea just don’t work out. I’ve heard a lot of GMs go through this in Wrath of the Righteous, where mythic is just too much for the player’s to handle and combats end too quick for the GM’s taste. Before you throw something away, you should try to revitalize your creative spark, as I mentioned in reason #2. If that doesn’t work, then maybe switching to a different game system is better for you. Put that AP down and play something different. Maybe take a break and try a new system altogether; that feeling of new-ness can do wonders for you. When you’re ready, your group will go back to what you were playing. Or maybe you won’t; maybe you’ll pick up a new game and never go back to the old one. That’s okay too. Ultimately, this is an easy problem to fix because this is about doing what’s the most fun for everyone. Having fun will make this fatigue go away.

Well, that’s my basic advice for getting rid of the five most common types of GM fatigue. What did you think? Have you encountered a source of fatigue that I didn’t mention? Or maybe you tried a different tactic to get rid of your fatigue? Tell me about in the comments below, and I’ll see you on Friday for an Iconic Design!

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex also cohosts the Private Sanctuary Podcast, along with fellow blogger Anthony Li, and you can follow their exploits on Facebook in the 3.5 Private Sanctuary Group, or on Alex’s Twitter, @AlJAug.

PS. Anthony and I haven’t decided what we’re doing yet, but there won’t be a new podcast on Wednesday on account of the fact that I’ll be at PaizoCon and will therefore be unavailable for recording. Rather than try to scramble to get something out the door by Friday, I’m opting to just do an article for this week and we’ll be back with another podcast later. But not to worry; Ryan, myself, and our team will be filming many of the seminars that we go to at PaizoCon, so you’ll be absolutely DROWING in content soon enough. Just wait and see….

Alex Augunas

Alexander Augunas lives outside of Philadelphia, USA where he tries to make a living as an educator. When he's not shaping the future leaders of tomorrow, Alex is a freelance writer for esteemed Pathfinder Roleplaying Game publishers such as Paizo, Inc, Radiance House, Raging Swan Press, and more, and also acts as a co-host and blogger on the Know Direction Network, where he has earned the nickname, "The Everyman Gamer." Recently, Alex has forayed into the realm of self-publishing through his company, Everyman Gaming, LLC.

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1 Comment

  1. David Slade Reply to David

    One thing you didn’t cover was the GM who wants to be a player for once. Some groups don’t have anyone else willing to step up and GM, society play isn’t available in all areas, and online play isn’t always an option. I give these examples because they are what I’ve heard suggested in the past.

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