GM Advice: How to Keep the Passion for Design Alive

GMing is a blast, except when it isn’t. The constant need to create and design can grind down even the most enthusiastic GM.

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)
By William McAusland (Outland Arts)


I recently had a request to talk a bit about how to keep the passion for design alive. Being a GM is a hard job. The campaign – and gaming session – rests on your shoulders. If you are not ready, the session will either suffer or be canceled. That’s a lot of responsibility. And like any responsibility, it can lead to stress and ultimately burnout.

Luckily, there are several ways you can combat design burnout. Some of the solutions below might not work for you. Alternatively, you might find a mix of solutions will save the day. Experiment and find the right mix for yourself.

  1. Work on Something in Tier Three: A change is as good as a rest. Hopefully, you already use Three-Tier Design For the Busy GM. Instead of focusing on what you have to design, take some time to design what you want to design. Several times in the last few years I’ve worked on stuff for my Borderland of Adventure campaign that had no immediate application. For example, I’ve already stated up the villain behind the troubles befalling the PCs’ nation. He’s CR 18 and they are level 6. They are very unlikely to meet him in the near future and I expect if they ever do meet him I’ll probably re-design him. Regardless, working on his stat block was fun and a welcome change – it was not time wasted.
  2. Play Something Else: If you really can’t face working on your main campaign, consider running a couple of one-shot adventures as a change of pace. Choose something for different level PCs and in a different adventure style. Make a complete break.
  3. Take a Break: Perhaps you need a break from GMing. Instead of just not playing anything, ask one of the players to run a couple of sessions for you. Its fun to be a player for a bit and likely you’ll gain insights you wouldn’t have got from the other side of the screen.
  4. Remember the Good Times: Your campaign has probably been running for some time if you are facing design burnout. Giving up could potentially throw away all those great times and shared experiences. Remember your burnout will be transitory and that the good times will return.
  5. Don’t Be Afraid to Do Something Else: Remember, gaming is a fun activity and for a GM design should be fun. There is nothing wrong with giving up and doing something else. Perhaps last year you were mad-keen on ninjas while now you really fancy doing something with pirates and dinosaurs. That’s fine. Trying to force yourself to design something you don’t really want to design is pointless, and will just cause you more stress. Don’t make this decision lightly, but if you do make it don’t look back.

Personally, I find a mix of #1 and #3 fire me up in no time. At the moment, we are on a break from my campaign and a friend is running some 5e. While I’m on the fence about the system itself, it’s tremendous fun to get down and dirty in the mud as a PC. After five sessions, I can feel my enthusiasm for GMing returning!

Help Fellow GMs

Have you suffered from GM Design Burnout? How did you get through it? Let us know in the comments below and help your fellows GMs hurl themselves back into the fray today!

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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

2 thoughts on “GM Advice: How to Keep the Passion for Design Alive”

  1. Campaign Momentum
    This is a critical issue for a lot of gaming groups and your advice is sound and appreciated. However, there are real dangers associated with numbers 2 and 3. Playing something else or taking a break often have the potential to lead to even more extended departures from the campaign. It can be hard to regain the momentum, for theGM and for the players, that sustains a long running campaign. I can’t count the number of times I saw a good game die because the GM needed a break or the players got into some card or board game craze and wanted to try that for a while. Obviously, you can’t force it, and it’s a game – it has to be fun or there is no point. Still, the decision to take a break is a serious one with potentially campaign lethal consequences.
    If you do really need to step away from the game for a while, but want to keep the campaign alive, one thing that worked very well for my gaming group – and helped us keep a campaign alive for a decade – was using what I call “tag team” GMing. This wont work if you only have one willing GM, but if you have even a pinch hitter GM it can be a campaign saver.
    We noticed that it was really hard to bring back old campaigns, even ones we and our players had loved, mostly because the world and the game seemed to lose momentum if we were away from it for too long. Our group was lucky enough to have one dedicated GM and an alternate (that was me). The two of us decided to keep our games in the same world and allow for crossover between our campaigns. The main DM ran a game for about a year, and then I took over in the same world and ran my own game with a new set of characters when he needed a break. The trick was, I referred frequently to things that had happened in the main GMs campaign. It kept the other game alive and vital in the player’s minds. We even had a cameo or two where some characters crossed over. Then, when I burned out, the main GM took over his old campaign and we just kept alternating and chugging along.
    Obviously this takes a lot of coordination and good will between DMs, but this method led to the longest single sustained game I’ve ever been a part of. The characters from it are legend in our group, and though our main DM moved out of state, and the group fell apart for a few years (don’t worry, there is a happy ending, we’ve since reconstituted it and the out of state DM is going to run online games with us as well) I still know we could pick that game back up in a heartbeat. It is evergreen in our imaginations.

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