Dungeon master fatigue (preventing DM burnout)

Dungeon master fatigue

Dungeon master fatigue is the symptom before dungeon master burnout. You start to feel a little tired of being a dungeon master and the game doesn’t have the same allure that it once had.

Dungeon master fatigue is best caught early so that you can help yourself and your game. Identify what is causing the fatigue and fix it!

If you think that burning out is normal, it doesn’t have to be. There are some great ways to catch it before your fatigue turns into burnout.

Catching it early

If you are reading this article then you most likely are having doubts about your game. Is it going great? Are you enjoying the game? These are some common questions that a person experiencing fatigue has.

Note that you are not asking how to go on, play another session, or figure out when to quit. You are just starting to have doubts about the amount of planning.

You do not want to turn into the dungeon master in this comic. Catch these issues early on and not quit in a huff. Instead, you want to keep playing!

If being a dungeon master was completely toxic for your mental health people would not be able to pull it off for years. I myself have been a dungeon master for almost 20 years now and have almost always played weekly or more frequently. If I don’t, I crave it.

This is why you need to figure out what made you feel this way.

Are you having trouble with names? Are certain players getting on your nerves? Is it just the trouble of planning all week? Do you come home every day exhausted from a session and ask if it is worth it?

Find out what is causing your discomfort!

Do not attribute it to the game. Do not generalize your problem. Diagnose what is causing the game to not be enjoyable. Once you have figured it out, you can move forward.

If you generalize your problem you cannot solve it.

Once you focus in on your problem you can work to solve it. If you solve it then you won’t have to go through DM burnout like we describe in this article. We also talk about what to do for DM burnout, but hopefully, you should not get there!

Now let’s cover some of the potential causes and how to address them.

Being tired

We all feel like this after a session.

There are many variations of this problem. You can be tired in session, after session, or tired when you think of being a dungeon master.

If you are tired in session, cut the session time and/or add breaks. Also, drink water!

Generally, sessions that last 4+ hours are where most dungeon masters get drained. Being drained by playing weekly is a different problem. Session length can if dragged on make most dungeon masters tired and cause other problems.

When a session is 4+ hours long you are making up everything after an hour or 2. Most games have dungeon masters scrambling a bit near the end, and that is why 2-4 hours is ideal. You get a fight or 2, have some plot, and then can plan for the next session. Speaking from experience, 4+ hours means you cannot plan for where the players will go and everything is improved.

This will make anyone tired, and if you are playing 4+ hours you might be playing more than once a week. This is generally for new groups who get excited for D&D and I highly suggest that you cool down. Don’t try to burn yourself out!

Dungeon master fatigue can also happen when you do not have breaks. Our bodies were designed to move. Moving is good and helps us feel better. We also get extra energy from moving. So make breaks in order to get up and move! The break amount and lengths vary, but whether you are doing a break every hour, 2 hours, etc you shouldn’t break more than 15 minutes.

Everyone is tired after a session!

The players might not be, but every dungeon master is. You would be surprised to find out how many dungeon masters have this ‘problem’ and it is okay. After exerting an extreme amount of mental effort, adapting to murderous children, and making up things for 2-4 hours or more anyone would be tired!

I will say that the stress of screwing up does lessen over time, but we all have it. We all could have done better somewhere so don’t beat yourself up.

I have noticed that when I do exercise, eat better, and am generally more fit I am less tired after a session. This may help you, but if not that is fine. You can take a nap. I still do even after trying to make myself healthy.

I actually encourage you to nap after every session or have nothing mentally exhausting to do afterward. Your brain has been used up and needs to rest! Let the poor brain rest!

The other version of tired is a bit harder to address

Fatigue when thinking of dming

This form of dungeon master fatigue is harder to diagnose than just being tired in-game. If you are tired out of game there is not a controlled environment to figure out what is going on. Figuring out that you are tired out of game is much harder since the problem isn’t immediately apparent.

To figure out if you are tired out of the game outside of play think now. How do you feel about the game? Is it enjoyable and you can’t wait to play again? Is it a fun experience? Could things be improved? Do you have a negative feeling about the game overall?

If your main feeling about your game is negative, you are being fatigued outside of game. That is of course if you don’t have any immediate problem to point to.

If you have a problem to focus on like Timmy wanting to constantly start party infighting, you have a clear cause. This is for those people who just feel negative towards their game and can’t pinpoint the reason.

If you are tired of your game and not enthusiastic about it outside of game there can be a few reasons.

  1. You are planning too much
  2. Your players and you are not a good fit.
  3. You are not into the plot
  4. You want change!

If you are planning too much then you can spread out your planning.

Have a notebook or notepad on your phone. Write down an idea when it comes to you and think about the game in your off time. Driving, waiting, whatever. Don’t record when driving, but record after and keep that thought in your head by repeating it.

If you assign 1 block a week to think of plot you will feel pressured, overwhelmed, and unable to get it done eventually. This will cause a spiral of feeling like you cannot plan, and it will be bad.

With this method, you will spread out your time, let you come up with ideas naturally, and not feel boxed in to come up with something now! Just try to put it together a few days before the session so that you have breathing room and not the day before.

Not every group is a good fit.

I highly recommend having a session 0 as described here to figure out if this group wants what you do. If they do, great! If not, it is best to figure it out early.

Conflicting interests can really burn out a dungeon master fast. If you want a roleplay game and players just want to murder hobo the entire world, the game will cause problems for you. Find out if your group fits what you want and then work with them or find a new group.

Not being into the plot can be a death knell for you.

You are forced to play a game that you do not care about. Worse, you are forced to facilitate that game. It is like working a job that you do not like, and this is something that you should want to do in your free time.

If the plot is not to your liking, add factors that can make it fun. A strang NPC, a weird item that might break the world, anything to make it interesting!

Figuring out how to deal with an overpowered item is much better than figuring how to play a game you don’t enjoy. At least now you have an interesting problem to solve.

Maybe you want change!

The good news is that there are a lot of ways to implement change in your life and game. The best way to implement change into your life and make you appreciate your game more is to play. Play as a player in a different game. Most dungeon masters get an itch to Dm or become more inspired to Dm their own games when they are a player.

I have done this before and it has revitalized me. You do not need to wait until you are burned out. You can play in other games now!

If you cannot play in another game for whatever reason, you can add change to your game. Throw out the framework and do something wierd. Introduce a new item that has new mechanics. Make your players avatars of certain gods or alignments and give them a new power setup.

Make your games turn into anime! At least for the fights. We have a whole article dedicated to high-level fights turning into anime fights here.

Whatever you decide to do, spice it up! Make your games more interesting for yourself and your players will most likely enjoy it as well. You will be interested in these new ideas, so you will put enough time into them without realizing it to make a good new power, mechanic, or whatever!

Not everything is on you. Don’t feel like you are always the problem. We talked about how you might not fit the group, but there are other problems to address.

Problems in-game

Name generation. Idea stimulation. These are all problems in game that can cause many dungeon masters to panick. There is good news if you are having problems coming up with these ideas. Use a random generator.

For names, a random name generator is easy to find and I use one sometimes. If you want to be really lazy and have a lot of fun with it, then designate a player to be the one who names NPCs. Funny circumstances might arise when a player names the feebly older wizard Chad.

If you want to keep control and not let your game devolve a little bit into chaos, then use a name generator.

For idea stimulation, that is also an easy fix. Watch movies, read and/or consume media. This is generally done when a dungeon master burns out anyway, so why not do this before burning out?

Dungeon master fatigue almost always disappears when you get excited for the game. You do not have to rely on just watching shows or reading other books to get inspired though. Think about what your game is missing or what you think would be cool to add. Then find a way to add it.

A great example would be guns or a crashed spaceship. These things don’t seem to fit a D&D setting, but in early D&D there were modules based on exploring crashed spaceships and getting laser guns. There was a whole system based on flying in space with magic called Spelljammer so go wild.

If it is potentially too far then tell your players what you are planning and see if they are okay with it. 90% of the time players will love the idea of doing something completely new so don’t be afraid.

Speaking of players, they might be the reason that you are fatigued.

Players causing grief

Players can be finicky. They might end up stressing you out with constant weird ideas that defy the laws of reality. These ideas naturally succeed even when they shouldn’t.

If players are causing you grief this way then that is okay most of the time. Think about what the players are doing for the game. You are not trying to railroad them and players are adding strange new twists. If you view their antics as interesting and unique instead of tiring and frustrating you will enjoy the game more.

Players can take things too far though. If there is a player that constantly wants to kill everyone, or is just a pain to deal with you have a problem player. There are many different types of problem players. That topic is too big to discuss here but luckily I have a whole article dedicated to dealing with problem players here.

If your players are not causing problems they might want to play the game differently. We are different from one another and might have different expectations. This is where what you want differs from what your group wants. Not everyone wants to play a diablo hack and slash game. If you have different desires than your players you might need to find a new group.

Speaking of players.

Using the players

Dungeon master fatigue can be caused by players, but it can also be players who help cure that fatigue.

You are meant to weave a story with the players and not just by yourself.

That is why players can be used to help you. They are an integral part of the story and they should have a spotlight on them. The players are also not just a burden but can be a source of inspiration.

Let the players craft the story with you.

I personally do not plan too much. I plan with the method I talked about above. When I plan, I plan bullet points, maybe look up a monster and have a general idea of what to do. I know the environment that the players are in and can adapt to anything they do. This is because nothing goes as planned.

I expect the players to go help a noble who will pay them well but the players kill a random person on the street and decide to flee town out of fear.

You cannot predict players, but you can ask them what their intentions are and work around it. Ask what the players want in or out of session and they can give you ideas to work with. Players don’t just need to give you plot ideas. They can also enhance the story by their conversations.

D&D is a game about characters. You can make it about combat, but generally, the best games are about the characters. That is why you should allow for a lot of character interactions. Encourage the players to talk about the events that just transpired at camp. This will let them develop their characters while you figure out what in the world you are going to do next.

Work off your players if you can.

I will give a small disclaimer that this doesn’t work with every group. Some groups just want to follow the plot and desire to be railroaded. These groups will not help you develop the plot as described above. They might be new and just are not capable of doing so yet.

You can encourage them to do so and show them how to do so with NPCs, but that might not work. These players have their own strengths for you. These players will go with anything that you put forth. Space lizards are now the new enemy and they are portal hopping between planets? Sure. The plot wants us to do this so we shall.

Know your players and use them to make your game more fun.

New game!

You are bored and afraid that your game will lead to DM burnout. Your dungeon master fatigue is real, and this plot is unsalvageable. The world is boring, the characters are boring, and nothing is worth playing or salvaging.

In this case, burn it! Not literally (unless you want to burn the papers) but screw the world that you were playing in. Start a new game at level 1 with a new idea, or have the players start at a higher level. Carry on and make a cool new game or just play a different system.

I have been dungeon mastering for almost 20 years now (I am not 30 yet!). Do you honestly think that I just played D&D for 20 years? Did I just play the same edition? No way in the world could I pull that off! I made it about 7 years before I tried dungeon mastering different systems and that is an extremely long time.

Most people get bored after 3-5 years of just D&D and I highly suggest trying out new systems. Try call of Cthulu, Vampire the Masquerade, Star Wars, or some other game that seems cool. You do not have to do an entire campaign (although you can). You can just do a one-shot or a short campaign of 5 sessions or less.

Who knows? You might find a different game system that works better for your group. The skills you have learned as a dungeon master still apply though so looking for general dungeon master advice can help you in your new game most of the time.

In case you realize that D&D is timeless and possibly the best tabletop game, you can come back to it. I am still playing D&D after about 2/3 of my life which makes me feel old but also assured that D&D is great. There is something about it that always pulls people back. You might be drawn back into the fold as well.

Just remember, later never happens. If you put a game on hold, it is dead. You will not get back to it and players will not want to get back to it either. A game on hiatus is the end of a game. Try to give an ending instead of putting the game on hold if you can. That way when you look back on your game it can have a great resolution to give you all good memories.

If there is no reslution it will just fizzle and everyone won’t remember that campaign as fondly as they would otherwise. For help on ending your game, read this article!

Okay, I am done with the article linking!

Conclusion

Dungeon master fatigue is a terrible burden to deal with. It leads to DM burnout and that is not good for you or your players.

Instead of just burning out and accepting going mentally insane as normal do something about it! Catch it early, figure out why you are tired, and make sure to figure out the cause. Once you figure out the cause you can act.

Fix the problem! Do not let it persist. If you need a new group then get a new group. Talk to the players and figure something out. If you are bored of the game make it interesting. If the plot is too much to handle conscript your players!

There are an innumerable number of ways to help prevent or at least cure dungeon master fatigue. I hope that I have helped you figure out what is causing your fatigue and then fix it. So that you can keep gaming.

This has been Wizo and keep rolling!

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