No GM is perfect (except one chap I know who is amazing and has nothing left to learn, but strangely sometimes finds himself without a group). All of us fail, from time to time.
As a GM, I don’t joyfully rush toward failure with open arms—I save that kind of thing for when I’m a player. That said, failure is part of my (gaming) life. It’s important to learn from my failures as it helps me become a better GM (and I’m keen to be as good at GMing as possible).
I’ve been running games for 35 years give or take. During that time, I’ve developed a pretty good feel for my GMing style. I know what I like and don’t like in a game and I’ve learnt how best to set myself up for a successful session behind the screen.
I still fail, though, and—annoyingly—I still fail at the same things.
Improvisation vs. Preparation
If you’ve read this blog for any length of time—or purchased any of Raging Swan Press’s books—it should be blindingly obvious I’m a huge fan of preparation and detail. When I’m prepared, I’m happy. When I’m not, I’m nervous. After all, Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.
I don’t mean by this that I’m incapable of improvising. I can ad-lib area descriptions, random minor NPCs, treasure descriptions and so on with the best of them. When I game, I excrete verisimilitude. (There’s a mental image for you!)
However, I like to know the “ground” the PCs will likely explore. For example, if the PCs are in a dungeon I want to have prepared all the areas they are likely to visit. That means, I’ve read the area descriptions, prepared all necessary stat blocks and so on. I don’t like to go into an adventure in a half-arsed, unprepared fashion. (This makes running urban adventures a particular nightmare for me as the PCs can go literally anywhere).
Part of the problem, of course, is Pathfinder—ad-libbing stat blocks on the fly is tricky unless you are pulling something directly from a Bestiary or suchlike. (And anyway, I don’t really want a stack of books behind my screen just in case). At the time of writing, we’ve just started a sporadic 2nd Edition AD&D campaign and I expect it will be much easier to add spur-of-the-moment encounters into the game. I’m looking forward to the relative simplicity.
Patience with My Players
As the GM, I’m naturally more invested in the game than the players—mainly because it’s my baby and I have to spend many extra hours between sessions preparing. Sometimes, I spend more hours preparing than playing.
I, therefore, get frustrated when players haven’t managed—for example—to knock up a rudimentary background, level their character or buy mundane equipment and so on between sessions. I mean, how long do these things take? If the game is important to them, surely they can find the time to get them done?
I think failing to do your “game homework” is particularly bad show because when you don’t do these things between sessions it inconveniences everyone else who has found the time.
Obviously, I acknowledge that sometimes people can be just too busy—they’ve just moved house, had a baby and so on (I’m not a complete swine). That said, generally, even the busiest person can find 30 spare minutes in any seven-day period.
As a player and a GM I just do so love watching someone else level their character or agonise over what mundane equipment to purchase while I sit around doing nothing. Of course, this frustration can bleed over into the game, which is less than ideal as we are all chums and gaming is meant to be fun.
What About You?
How do you fail as a GM? Let me know, in the comments below.
23 thoughts on “2 Ways I Fail as a GM”
I run a longstanding 2e game and definitely share both of these frustrations from time to time.
Regarding Improv vs. Prep, there definitely needs to be a balance. The difficulty, as you said, comes from the fact that the more detail you prep for a specific encounter, location, etc., the more likely you are to be tempted to railroad the game that way. I try not to prep too far in advance and pay attention to any interest the players show in terms of direction / story.
One thing I always need to work on is getting the details down for the next adventure based on what just transpired. After running a session, I am tired and the last thing I want to do is write a recap, but it’s incredible how easy it is to forget import, but unplanned turns of event and details, especially player generated ones.
As for the second part – Patience with Players – well, yeah of course they are going to drive you nuts doing things like going way off topic, goofing around, not remembering the names of the most important NPCs or other PCs for that matter. Sometimes they even forget their own character sheet!
But also remember that you’re probably the one running the game for a reason. Prepping can be a stressful time-crunch, especially if you have work, family and other obligations – but I’d rather do that and run a dynamic and interesting game for others than show up and get bored for six hours by a DM who thinks D&D is just a retrograde video game. Never forget that everyone is there to have fun and it is a social experience, it’s not supposed to be so serious that anyone gets upset, including you.
Thanks for the all the content you put out there!
Oh, man, that second one gets me, too. I’m surprised you say “sometimes” you spend more time preparing than playing. I’d say I always do. Though I may be doing something wrong.
But I get it. It’s so frustrating that no one gives the game a second thought between sessions when you’re spending your equally valuable time getting everything ready. I’ve gotten to where I just don’t send in-game emails out anymore because I can’t stand the frustration of the non-response. Related to this, is when a player bails on the session at the last minute. I definitely get that real life happens and that takes priority, but sometimes the reason given is fairly capricious and I wonder if they have a clue how much work goes into prepping a game. And my response carries and additional -1 to my Diplomacy check if I’ve written their character in for a good bit of focus in the coming session.
Again, the rational side of me says it’s all ok, it’s only a game, life happens, etc. But taken too far and I start resenting the time it takes for me to GM and players that seem to have little regard for my investment. So that is probably my biggest failing.
I’m pretty lousy on the reward distribution, as well. I keep a copy of All the Glimmers and the Mother of All Treasure Tables close at hand because, invariably, I’ve forgotten to add an amount of treasure commensurate to the challenge they just overcame…
Sorry, “All THAT Glimmers.” It’s saved me so many times it deserves the appropriate credit. =D
I have similar frustrations/challenges. In my last session the players took a route I was totally not expecting. It took me longer to create the lizard man raiding party they decided to ambush than I would have preferred. I think I’ve got a plan to avoid that in the future.
For the second one, I had a discussion of time limitations. (Guys, I can only run until 9p. If we spend 2 hours leveling and buying stuff that means we only have 2 hours to adventure.) I presented some suggestions on ways to handle that type of stuff pre-session. It has helped some.
(I have avoided the problem of people forgetting their sheets by keeping a GM copy I print each time we play.)
DM burn out… when you’ve spent hours designing and at the last moment you have to cancel your game. Like a Halloween themed special game session. I find it hard to get motivated to get back in the saddle sometimes.
This is great, and spot on! I havnt GMed in years, but I had the same Issues. Keeping things organized, researched, and prepared makes for an enjoyable and productive session. The fact that balancing scheduals and logistics can be so difficult underlines the respect a Gm has for the players (And vice versa), plus keeping things enjoyable. May I also mention this site and these blogs are very informative and HELLA useful! “Excrete Verisimilitude.” Priceless!
Karl–who doesn’t excrete verisimilitude?
The first failure of mine that comes to mind is power creep. I’ve allowed the current group of PC’s to become so powerful that it makes most encounters seem trivial. To counter that, I’ve had to make the NPC’s they’ve been battling (a thieves guild under the new leadership of a notorious and dastardly pirate lord) smarter and less reactive. Since the’ve failed every time to challenge the party with a direct approach, they have had to adjust their tactics. Work smarter, live longer!
My second failure, and one that I’ve come to terms with, is being disappointed by the players. These guys seem to enjoy going off in crazy directions, and there was a time when I’d get frustrated when they would go out of their way to NOT explore the dungeon I’ve planned and plotted for hours upon hours. How dare they? Now, though, I’ve learned to roll with it. My improvisational skills have improved, my prep is less specific and covers a wider range of possibilities, and it really doesn’t bother me much at all anymore when my group makes DM’ing for them as simple as herding feral cats.
My biggest fail as a DM is dealing with players who are not prepared. As an example, I had a player a couple of weeks ago who is a 1st level spellcaster, and did not know all of the spells on her spell sheet. She went out and bought the spell deck from WOtC, but “never had the time” to look at and understand her spells. Her lack of knowledge slowed down the game as she looked at her cards to figure out if a spell was right.
I told her to hang back after the session and I would go over it with her and make sure she had everything figured out and was set but she “didn’t have time”.
Last week, she faltered again. I stsarted counting backwards from 5 and, when I hit “zwro”, I moived on and she lost her turn. She complained and I unloaded on her.
Maybe it was a bit of an over reaction….
Likely an over-reaction, but at the same time you’ve pointed it out to the player previously, offered to help them figure it so game play gets smoother, and still the same player has the same problem and everyone has to deal with it, not just you.
I may not have ‘unloaded’ like you did, but I would’ve done pretty much the same thing in the same situation. “You lost your turn because your wizard is sitting there mumbling to himself about which spell to use and how did it go (like Fizban in the Dragonlance stories).”
I’ve been told not so much that I’m a failure at being a GM/DM, but rather I’ve been told that I’ve “overstocked” the dungeon so to speak or have to much treasure. I put the latter off to inexperience myself. I’ve even been accused of putting to much magic into various scenarios of mine. The interesting part of that though is that the town or small cities where the magic is is mainly cantrips and zero level spells because the town or small city in question is run by a mageocracy..
I’ve had on situation where my ‘dungeon’ had no treasure. The players felt cheated after spending a session exploring and clearing the place out only to find there was nothing of any value to bring out with them at the end.
“Two things…” I said. “One – this place has been here a long time and you aren’t the first ones here. Many others have come before you and have already cleaned it out.” They grumbled a bit at that. “Two – recall I had someone roll several times, and then a few more times after saying I can’t believe you failed that many times in a row, and even then fudged the numbers a bit on purpose to help you all after everyone started looking. But, in the end, you all missed the secret door down to the undiscovered level. That door hasn’t been opened in a hundred years, because no one has ever found it, and you actually had a good chance, better than 70%, to find it. And failed not once, or twice, but eleven times! Even after I added in an extra 10% because you all just ‘knew’ something had to be there! So it remains undiscovered.” They were going to go back the next session, so I had to quickly throw in a thing about how the secret doors moves randomly day to day, so it won’t be in that spot tomorrow, and may not be back on that location for more than a month.
Overstocking is fine, just as leaving it empty is too, if it fits with the game and situation. The players have to remember that they have an element of control over the world too. If they don’t like how things are working out in a particular town or region, they can always travel somewhere else.
Yep I agree, did one adventure where the party had to equip a ship, pay for seamen, food etc. when they retuned they had spend about 3k going on the adventure and came back with an assortment of junk (damaged armour, weapons and a few coins) that was worth about 1k. I believe I was lucky not to get too battered by the players… though one did try to poison me by putting salt in my tea instead of sugar.
I probably rely too much on improv – I am more of an ‘inspiration of desperation’ personality and am usually pretty good at winging it but sometime – esp. when dealing w/ a new game system that the players are more familiar with than I am – can underestimate how much the actual rules matter.
For prep I stick to having a pretty firm picture of the area in my head and a 1 – 2 page short summary of the monsters. I worked up a MS word file that puts all the needed combat stats into a simple chart for several monsters – I can usually fit 5 – 10 monsters / page depending on how many special abilities they have and how much detail I need to go into – and that is with a couple lines of description. But that is all I do for actual game mechanic prep. I do spend about a couple hours out of game for every hour in game mulling over the world, the major NPCs, their plans, etc. figuring out how the world moves when the players are off on some quest and what they find when they come home.
I have some pretty intimidating homebrew rules re: character creation and that scares off a lot of players that are likely to push my buttons or are not willing to invest some reasonable amount of out of game time dealing with things they need to (like knowing their spells).
I think some of my players are annoyed when I tell them that I’m there to create the world and facilitate their stories rather than provide a module like experience – they are not used to having an entire world to wander around in w/o much guidance. If they don’t have strong backstories or interests to pursue then my games can bog down while the players try to figure out what they want to do.
I’ve been DMing off and on since around 1980. My current group has been playing for over a decade and has revealed to me my weaknesses as a GM.
1. Time management. Every year just before Halloween I plan a one-off spooky adventure I can work into the current campaign. While I do my best to make it a one-off, it invariably runs into two, or often more, sessions than I’d planned. It’s indicative of my struggle with moving the adventure along at a reasonable pace. I still worry about not having enough material worked out for the current week’s session, but it rarely happens that we get anywhere near as far as I thought we would. Partly this is the nature of our group, but I must take the blame, too, for not encouraging a quicker flow to game play.
2. I still have trouble tailoring my games to the desires of my players. I’m an old school D&D DM in that I like to put in clever puzzles, but my group gets easily frustrated if I make them take more than ten minutes or so in solving one of my puzzles. I know now that my current group mostly likes participating in an interesting story line in which their characters interact, but this requires me to be almost the entire force behind driving the story line. They’re not big on, “what do you want to do now?” They’d much rather have me make it clear what they should be doing and let them do it. I struggle with this as it’s fairly alien to my own style of gaming, but I recognize that providing an experience that is enjoyable to everyone at the table is my primary goal.
I’m finding the comments here on preparation vs improv interesting. I’ve learned over the years that, while extreme preparation can be entertaining for the GM, it rarely pays off for the players unless the GM forces them into each location/encounter he/she has so painstakingly worked out in advance. I might enjoy writing page after page of details on a city halfway around the world, but it does no one any good if the campaign never even reaches that locale or I have little cause for them to encounter NPCs or plot lines involving the locale. Time management being necessary, what I find works best for me is to paint things with broad strokes, going in for more detail only when it is apparent it will be needed for an upcoming session. I’ve learned to keep plotting somewhat loose, meaning I have general ideas of what forces are in play, and where the story line is heading, but I don’t worry about working out all the details until I need to, largely because I want the actions of the party to influence those details. I am most relaxed before a weekly session not when I have every detail worked out, but more when I have some interesting things in play that I trust myself to be able to work into an interesting session regardless of what the party does or does not do. Case in point, the session before last ended with the party split into 3 groups. One group was trapped on a small island by a tentacled horror in the water, another group was facing an attack by gardener robots repurposed to kill intruders, and the last group consisted of one PC carried off by a large bird while another PC wizard flew off to rescue him. As I prepared for the next session, I felt confident that all three plot points would add up to an entertaining session. Yes, it meant I would have to improvise some – how could I not unless I shoot down everything the PCs try that doesn’t fit my carefully crafted plot? Which is the surest way to piss them off and make them lose interest in playing. I knew the first group would be tied up figuring out how to get off the island, the second group would be engaged in battling the gardener bots, and I worked out what was happening with the PC carried off by the giant bird. Did I know exactly what the outcomes would be? Nope. But I knew I had enough in play to make for an interesting session, and I’ve come to trust my own ability to work various details into something engaging on the spot. As for the campaign as a whole, having the entire thing planned from beginning to end prevents those amazing Aha moments when you suddenly realize how one insignificant plot point or NPC from earlier suddenly dovetails perfectly into the plot at its current, or an upcoming point. To the players, it feels like genius plotting, but they have no idea the twist and connection to older plot lines hadn’t even occurred to me until just before the current session.
I guess the first one maybe not putting enough thought into world building I kind of build the world as it goes. I do some world building but perhaps I don’t detail enough of the societies NPC’s, whether or not a war is going on and so on. I kind of flesh it out as the story develops and the characters reveal the world around them.
The second I have patience with the players but they can sometimes get off topic pretty quick. I have had to exercise more patience since my friend brought his 8 year old daughter to the table which is great but it is a challenge holding her attention for a while
I’m very impatient. I sit for three weeks between sessions, and usually, have a whole host of things that run through my head between sessions. I usually get my group to talk to me on Voxer, so between table time, we do have a back-and-forth going on the whole time. I had to learn to keep my butt planted at the table, to keep my players at the table.
I stopped running at the local store, because I have vape-smokers. I can’t build tension when half the group is outside googling customers or product, or they’re laughing about a movie on the sidewalk with lungfuls of smoke rolling out of their pieholes. I don’t do a lot of food-prep because when I get up, the players think it’s okay to get up.
I have to keep the words, “Sit the f**k down,” deep in the gut. I run a game I feel is potentially organic. Once I get everyone seated, I feel like it’s a small victory.
The second problem I have is keeping their butts not going back to town every thirty minutes. “I fought a kolbold, I need to restock.” Holy crap, you lousy logistical nightmare, buy a cart. I’m trying to get you your requisite eighth-of-the-way to your next level, if you’d keep your yap shut and not be so concerned about things that are a bit out of your league, Clarence.
Granted, my players are goal setters. The problem is, I telegraph a lot of what I would like to happen. Any set of sticks I produce for the donkey to follow, they immediately try to go back to civilization, and try to not be involved too much in things out of the kiddie pool. Eventually, their house of cards might fall, but they are sometimes happy to chat up every shop keeper before the Sheppard yanks them out to Pasture of Death. “Yes, indeed, I love the smell of the old books from the Fordewaithe Empire. Have you ever found their ancient ruins along the Maker’s Trail?”
“You see that cloud of acid in the sky? Under that is Tsar, an ancient city full of mystery and evil.” /Bruce has the book, The Slumbering Tsar Saga, a tome three inches thick, under his arm. Eight pages at the back of said book are empty with the header, “Obituaries.”
I exaggerate, but I think my players are happy to have a light campaign not so riddled with potential death and destruction. I appreciate having a game that requires good play, role-play and otherwise, but sometimes I get a little too happy when I smell blood in the water.
I know it’s a fun game, or the goal is to socialize, and have a game in the process. I probably take it personally when I shouldn’t, when there’s supposed to be a challenge, but oh, lookie-there, you rolled an amazing forty-plus on your skill check. Here’s the spell that you need to defeat said-monster of party snacking. I want everyone to have a fun time at the table, but if I feel like I’m running Shattered Star (the least challenging adventure path, and the AP that caused me to flee to Frog God Games’s pasture), I feel like I’m just running a game in tutorial mode. “And there’s enough experience points for your miserable character to get to second level. I’m so happy that this is a measured campaign with little ramp-up and no reason for a referee to have a reason to live.”
Everyone has their issue. Creighton, I would love to hear a podcast of your game, if you ever recorded it. I’m more than willing to take notes on what you do, to keep your players in the seats, and to keep them going session after session.
Thanks for the long reply, Bruce. Much appreciated. You’ve got me interested in the Slumbering Tsar. I’ve got some Frog God stuff, but not that. I might just pick up a copy!
I actually pretty much gave up GM’ing any games.
Often times I’ll put forth days or weeks worth of behind the scenes prep work, and then nobody even bothers to show up to play (that one really irks me to no end). Mostly though I keep hearing how people want to play the game, play in world, but they don’t find it interesting at all. That to me is a contradiction; how do you want to play in a world that you find uninteresting and don’t pay any attention to?
Flip-side is also true for me. I want to play in these games and worlds that my friends come up with, and they are very fleshed out with long and involved/detailed backstory and history and such, and just listening to the history of an area in the game is enough to make we want to buy the book and see the movie about it if you catch my meaning. The issue is that inevitably at some point the GM becomes or feels slighted by a comment a player made or action a character took and quite literally stops everything after that. My group was about 40% of the way into a Fantasy Craft campaign (we’d been playing every weekend or every other as schedules mandated for many months), and our group had just uncovered the bigger picture of the entire world (or universe depending on your vernacular) and discovered that what we were doing was THE key to bringing it all back to being good and right again, and then the GM announced he was done with the game, we weren’t playing anymore. When I pressed the issue, he mentioned that someone said something outside the game that upset him (I’m paraphrasing heavily here) and he didn’t want anything to do with that person in a gaming environment anymore. He also mentioned that he felt his world had been insulted, and was essentially going to keep it to himself from now on.
I know it seems foolish and petty and utterly stupid, especially since we’ve all been friends for almost 30 years (since the beginnings of high school), but still… I want to finish that game. The guy created a beautifully interwoven and intricate world, and we’d only scratched the surface of everything. He’d spent months preparing this all before even asking if any of us wanted to play. He had everything sorted and set, from the very beginning scene to the end game (and several alternate versions of it depending on how what we did affected the world over time). He had EVERYTHING ready, printed, prep’d, and within arms reach… and dropped it like a hot rock when he felt a little put-out.
I find similar with my games. I’ll spend the weeks getting everything ready for at least months worth of gaming (2 or 3 times a month), and have a sketchy outline of the remainder since things changed early in the game can change things later in the game. I find it easier to break it up into thirds, and work on the next section when we’re through most of the previous section so I can keep everything persistent throughout. We’ll start to play, then folks start falling off the board with things like their schedule not allowing them to game, or they have to work more weekends, or life is getting in the way, I’ve even heard “I don’t have any money for gaming” which is ridiculous since it’s free to begin with and the guy lives not 10 minutes from my house. Snacks and drinks were provided, as was an evening meal most times beyond that (it’s become a habit with my group; whoever is hosting also provides ‘dinner’ in some way usually, whether it be a giant frozen lasagna to cook or ordering up a bunch of pizzas).
I spend all this time creating the bad guys, the groups, the places, the things to find and things to do, the things to discover and uncover, and a story to weave it all together, and no one bothers to show up to play. One or two folks drop off, then the others start loosing interest because now other people aren’t showing up to play, and eventually the whole game just kind of stops since no is there to play but me. It’s akin to playing an MMORPG and finding that you are the only player for ‘miles around’ and nobody is talking to anybody about anything on chat.
These guys tell me I’m a good GM, they like the way I do things and the way I create and tell a story, and that they like the way I run things and such, and yet what they tell me and what they actually do don’t seem to coincide.
And we see the same kind of thing when the other guys GM. We all have the games we like to play, and a select few games we want or like to GM. For me, I love the D&D and similar game worlds. High Adventure and Fantasy and kind of my weakness; I need to play them. And I say ‘play’ meaning be a player, not a GM. For my GM side, I’m told I’m really good at sci-fi and modern fantasy (like superheroes and the like), and they really like playing when I run Marvel games (until people stop showing up and such as outlined above). Another guy is hot on Fantasy Craft and is truly an artist at it. We’ve said several times that he should take some of these games and write them as novels instead. He’d make a good bit of coin doing that, we’re certain of it.
We’ve recently started up a D&D5e game, on hiatus at the moment for the holiday season, but due to startup again in a couple weeks I hope. I say ‘hope’ because this is usually one of those times that folks suddenly lose interest and don’t come back to the game, and then weeks later start talking about how we should get a game going again sometime soon.
Anyway, back more to the topic, I see all these game starts and then eventually stops as a GM failure of a fashion. If the GM was good, and the world was good, and the game was fun and interesting, then people would keep coming back to play it, right? So if it isn’t all that, then the GM is largely the one to point the finger at. And I include myself in that statement. If my game of heroic quest to end the madness and save the world was truly fun and interesting, then people would keep coming back to play. They ‘say’ it is fun and all, but again that isn’t demonstrated by them.
How does on recover from that? How does one become a better GM? I hear people say repeatedly over the years that the only way to get better is to do it more until you are better, but that becomes a near impossible task if people won’t play in your world, you have no group. When it comes to cooking or programming or even car repairs, you can get better by simply watching and reading about it, and then trying to apply that new info yourself. GM’ing doesn’t seem to have that same kind of quality to it. Your either essentially good at it or you’re not, and assuming you find a group of guys to stay with you as you grow, you can eventually get good at it.
How do we improve, when we can’t actually exercise the skill needed? That is my conundrum, and I still haven’t found a way to surmount it. And in my mind, that makes me a less than good GM, and is why my games fail. I know lots of folks would say I need to find a different group to game with, but for us around here at our age (we aren’t anything close to young anymore) that is more than a minor challenge.
And the really sad part of it all is that, for each of us, the game we create and run is actually the game we want to play in as well. I want to be the hero, not the guy running the game. Another guy wants to be the swordsman that saves the world instead of the guy running the game the swordsman is in. I can run a D&D style game, and I’m familiar with the system rules and all, but that isn’t my forte, isn’t where I shine. The other guys are similar in that regard, each running games in worlds and systems that we want to play in and know well. The other issue is that the players and group tend to be overly shy at trying new games and systems, even if derived from known systems. The best example here is Pathfinder. Folks are familiar with D&D from the beginning, and they also know that Pathfinder is basically a branch of D&D3.5 using similar rules in a similar fantasy world. But they seem actually afraid to try it at all, so avoid it instead.
Perhaps maybe that indicates a failure of the group instead of just the 3 or 4 different GM’s we have in the group? That each GM wants to run they’re preferred game in their preferred world (or game system) instead of another? Perhaps I should dust of my old Palladium Fantasy GM skills and games, update them for 5e or Pathfinder and run them anew? In my case, a couple of the current players in the group might recognize them from ours does in and just after completing high school, but then again likely not and it would all seem new and fresh again. But getting them to diverge into Pathfinder from 5e or Fantasy Craft or Palladium Fantasy would be the most difficult thing to do in all honesty.
I guess what I’m saying is that in my experience a GM can fail in many ways, and it would seem to me that many of those ways are generic and shared amongst most all gaming groups. We need methods or advice on how to get around or beyond those failures, keep the players attuned and interested in pursuing the game through a few rough spots, and ways that also allow us as GM’s to grow and improve too. I’ve read a lot of material about what not to do, but little on what you should do or how to recover and reroute when things start going sideways. Some tried and true methods of doing those things would be quite helpful I think to a whole lot of people.
Sorry for being so long here, but it was all needed to flesh out your understanding of what I’m trying to explain and what my group sees year after year.
Wow that was long. I think perhaps you may benefit from a slight change to how you play. Perhaps pick a world/universe to explore, then ask each DM to make a 3-4 session adventure within that world. This way you can avoid DM fatigue and player lethargy, but still keep the same characters and the same in depth world development ongoing. As a DM you can still build a long storyline, as when its your turn to DM again you can continue your storyline or build on another DM plot. This does also mean you don’t have to take a year off playing to run a long campaign, and players will want to keep coming as if the a player is finding a story a bit dull, they know its only for a couple of weeks before it changes again. This method also allows for you to build specific modules for characters wishes, like the druid wants a lion companion, but will have to travel half way across the world to get it.
One area I fail is keeping the players focussed for long periods. They like to chat and so often as well. I don’t want them to stop coming and having fun so sometimes the actual game time gets pushed down a bit. Trouble is they are all friends & family so I don’t want to damage real-life relationships.
The other is fretting and over-preparing. I’ve noticed that can lead to a bit of rail-roading the story which I try to avoid. Sometimes spontaneous story around the planned adventure is more fun.
I like combat to be quick and fast paced to keep the players engaged and force the urgency and excitement of combat. So I do frustrated if a player has not been paying attention, or takes ages deciding who to hit next when it is their turn. This probably stems from my first DM experience when my cruel mentor had me DM for a table with something like 11 players!