Tuesday, April 1, 2014

This Imaginary Life: GM Burnout & Long Campaigns

Yesterday I sat in with amazing gamers for a session of This Imaginary Life. TiL’s a G+ Hangout show affiliated with Canon Puncture- another great gaming resource. I got to chat with Rich Rogers and Judd Karlman. Rich does a ton of things beyond Canon Puncture, including Indie+ events and such. Judd blogs at The Githyanki Diaspora and was part of the Sons of Kryos podcast (which I’ve heard was awesome). He also wrote an amazing Sorcerer supplement, The Dictionary of Mu (which I had a dream about). I appreciate Rich asking me to sit in again; I love talking with other GMs about what they’re doing.
Judd mentions those kinds of conversations when we talk about GM Burnout. Gamemasters at low energy or on the brink might consider talking to - face to face, through G+, or on some other forum. I’ve seen some success with that- though online conversations run the risk of going off topic. That depends on the forum. Every once in a while I watch threads on Reddit's r/rpg go off the rails. But generally other GMs want to help and have ideas and suggestions. If a worried gamer asks a specific question, that’s easy to manage and respond to. But what if they (or you) just have a sense of vague unease, uncertainty about what’s gone on, or general dissatisfaction.

As I mention in the show, I think that might require something akin to a writers’ workshop. How would that work? You’d want to establish some ground rules- beginning with the idea of everyone gets a chance to present what they’re doing. We’re all gamers with the impulse to talk about our games so we’d need a safe space to discuss that. Well, not exactly safe- more a fair space- that everyone’s gets their turn. Beyond that you’d want to figure out what kinds of responses work. I know that when I’m uncertain about something and still trying to work it out in my head, more direct suggestions don’t help as much. Because the listener hasn’t been at the table, they don’t know the whole story. I can get in a cycle of frustration and defensiveness even with someone I trust, like my wife Sherri.

So perhaps we’d need to think about ways in which we give feedback. Reactions are fair- especially pointing out things that stood out as a GM-Listener. Point to cool things, to places that generated new ideas, to places which left you unsure, to scene breaks, to novel obstacles, to scenic details. If handled well you can help a GM make a map of what’s working or not. I think focusing on asking questions offers an even better opportunity. What do you see the players doing in this scene? How are you shifting from this event to the next? What kind of adversaries do you see there? What kinds of players are you running this for? As I’m writing those out I realize that’s harder than it looks. I want to ask questions that elicit info without implying a judgment (i.e. Doesn’t this power level seem too high here?).

I want to consider the "GM Workshop" some more and see what people have posted about best practices. Are there some accessible tools to use? I have an idea about how that structure might be made into something interesting, but it’s a little rough right now.

We also talk about Long Campaigns in this episode. I think there’s a clear and vital link between burnout and length. The longer a campaign goes on, the harder it is to track the shape of it. A GM may find themselves running a completely different campaign as it progresses. I ran a d20 Black Company mercenary game that doubled in length over what I'd imagained. The PCs had back up characters but they became as important as their primary ones. I ended up having to run both parties in parallel. The game shifted from gritty and easy death to something the players invested in more fully. That campaign was only about sixteen sessions.


The longest campaign I’ve run went bi-weekly from Feb of ’07 to Dec of ’13. I broke that Steampunk Fantasy game into chapters, but even then I could feel the runaway wagon of it start to splinter and buckle by the end. I managed to hold it together with spit, sealing wax, and shiny encounters. One issue we don't discuss in regard to Long Campaigns is the question of power creep. Players get more stuff, become more potent, use up the available rules options over time. Some games can handle that. But I ran a homebrew fantasy game I imagined going for perhaps a year. It ended up going almost three years- and the mechanics simply weren’t built for that. 

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the episode and find something useful in it!