Fixing DM Burnout

This is a two-part article on DM anxiety, so the first part may be helpful to you: How To Overcome DM Anxiety.

Once you're comfortable with DMing, it's important to stay that way and avoid burnout. If you're anxious about DMing then you probably also over-prepare for your games in order to help soothe the anxiety you feel about not being ready or good enough. The problem is if you keep over-preparing then you're stressing yourself out before every session which also isn't going to help your anxiety. You'll eventually relate DMing with work and not want to do it anymore. This is typically called burnout and the advice is typically to take a break until you feel like DMing again. How curious that the solution is to stop preparing for sessions until you're “recharged” and ready to start preparing sessions again. It's like there's a limited amount of energy you're able to expend completely, but are also able to recharge over time. You could opt for a more renewable source of DMing by simply expending less energy on DMing than what you're able to recharge over time.

DM Energy

This, again, comes down to your own perceptions of what constitutes an acceptable amount of effort and prep in order to be a “good enough” DM. There is no guide anywhere on how much you're supposed to prepare for every session, so it's a restriction you invented and placed on yourself. Some DMs do zero preparation at all, they just show up and ad-lib the whole thing. Maybe that's terrifying to you, but that's because you've decided that a session must be made up of things that are difficult for you to come up with on the spot. Have you even tested this theory of yours that these things are difficult to come up with on the spot? If you've never improv'd an entire session, then you simply don't know how good you are at it. It's clearly not a universal rule, otherwise these improv DMs wouldn't exist. You might just decide that these DMs are very good at DMing and are able to do that after years of practice. Again this doesn't reflect reality, many improv DMs are brand new to the game, and many aren't very “good” in the sense that if YOU played you wouldn't enjoy yourself and decide to leave. Yet they've got players, and those players keep showing up, so we must accept that they're having fun and enjoy that style of play. If we universally decided that things must be scripted and planned carefully then improv and shows like Whose Line Is It Anyway wouldn't exist. If we universally decided that things must be “good” in order to exist and enjoyed then nothing would, because nothing starts good, it just becomes good eventually. Dare to be bad, and dare to have fun while being bad. I'm sure there are plenty of movies and games you love dearly that were universally panned by critics.

How do you avoid burnout? By avoiding preparation. Write out your standard “to-do” list for everything you need to get done in order to be ready for the session. You should have an idea of what that involves by dealing with your anxious thoughts. Which of those things can go? Which of those things can you simply make up on the spot? Run a few experiments to see which things you're able to come up with during the game and which things you can't, then you'll know for sure which things you need to spend time on and which things you don't.

Once you've trimmed down your list to the bare essentials, see if there's any way you can speed those steps up. Generators can help with this, and there's a whole bunch available here. Other things can be simplified. Instead of having to have a full map for every area ready to go, is there any way you can simplify it? Maybe find a map someone else made and use it, or draw the map more simply or as you go. D&D is supposed to be a game of imagination, so why be so dependent on maps and other imagery? Any task you can speed up and simplify will make DMing that much easier and less daunting, so really try to pare it down as much as you can.

In addition to session preparation there's also other things a DM typically has to deal with that can expend energy. Scheduling, player disputes, recaps, tracking, world-building, rules questions, and so on. However none of these things are strictly the DM's job to do. We've just established how easy it is to play (make a character and show up) so perhaps those freeloaders can help do some of the work as well. If dealing with scheduling is stressing you out, have someone else do it. Require that your players sort out disputes themselves, there's an abundance of eager players waiting to play so problem players can very easily become non-players if they're causing you grief. Have the players do the recap, not only does it help them remember better it also helps you see which parts they remember and which parts they don't, or if their idea of what happened is different from reality. Players can track their own stats and resources without relying on you to, and cheaters can be kicked out with zero tolerance. Have one of the more knowledgeable players handle rule questions. Even world-building can be done by the players, have them come up with all the details about their hometown, then once they've done all the work you can use it in your session without having to prep.


Lastly, your problem with over-preparing might be that you want to account for every curve-ball or unexpected thing that can happen during a session. Not only will you find that this doesn't work and that your players are very good at throwing a wrench in even the most detailed plan, it's unnecessary. Going into more detail actually makes you less prepared for the unexpected, by giving you less of an idea for the natural flow of the game. I go into this in another article, 4 ways to speed up session prep, but having a high-level plan by creating simple answers to a series of questions makes you more adaptable during the session. Any time something unexpected happens that ruins your plan, insert a new plan by answering the same question as before just with the new information.

Reference and use these techniques every time you feel anxious. It's a good idea to reference these frequently for your first few sessions as well until you get a feel for them. Hopefully now you're feeling less anxious, and have a better idea of what you need to do in order to be ready and feel comfortable. I wasn't kidding about running a game in 2 days, give it a try.

Want even more help with your D&D session? Check out all the other tools, generators, and articles: https://www.kassoon.com/dnd/

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