Saturday, April 18, 2015

It's NOT Better to Burn Out!

Today I want to talk about how NOT to burn out as a Dungeon Master. This won’t be your typical trite 10 tips to avoid burnout garbage. I want to tell you how I am constantly inspired to create and run a campaign so you can do the same. It’s not something that comes naturally but takes effort, although not hard effort. Maybe effort is the wrong word. What I’m trying to say is it merely takes Action. I think I’m going to channel Yoda here: Do or do not. For the sake of argument let’s choose Do.

What is it I do to not maintain but create inspiration? Think of something you want to do - storywise. Imagine how you can do that in Dungeons & Dragons. Let’s talk straight here. I’m not saying you can solve all your problems with the power of imagination, just that it’s the first step on the path to becoming an endless font of inspiration and ideas. Here’s my game for example. The players are pirates, and a few months ago I’d had my fill of the pirate trope. I was getting bored. At that point I had two options: stop being a dungeon master or get inspired. I love this game, and even though it was getting a little stale I still wanted to recapture that excitement when seeing something I create take on a life of its own.

I have aspirations of becoming a novelist, so naturally I’ve done some research on how to make it happen. The BEST book I ever read on the subject was a short paperback by Nancy Lamb called The Art and Craft of Storytelling (check the widget on the right). It was interesting to note she included Role Playing Games in her chapter on genres. One of the best pieces of advice, though, came much later in the book. In fact she devoted a whole chapter to it, “The Care and Feeding of Your Muse.” It boils down to this: find things that inspire you, then channel it.

Back to my little example. Pirating was getting a little boring - a lot in part because I had yet to find my inspiration to create a worthwhile game structure for naval combat - and so I fed my muse. Sci-fi and fantasy are my go to for recharging the creative batteries, whether it’s books, tv, or movies. I got hooked on a Supernatural kick and a bit of Constantine (please don’t cancel this show!) so naturally my interest went to angels and demons. Then when turning to the game of Civ 4 I use for my campaign map, I forwarded it a couple of turns and some civilization summoned the Infernals, but in the MagisterModmod there’s more than one Infernal civ getting summoned. A whole city which happened to be the only one of mine to be tainted with the Ashen Veil religion had now become the center of a new Infernal civilization! The countryside around the city became hell terrain. The players were nearby and I thought, “How cool would this be for my players to have to journey through a hell city?” So that’s what I wrote the next quest to be. A journey through hell on Erebus - this was during my railroading phase.

You might be thinking how can I apply this to a sandbox? It’s up to the players where they go, not the Dungeon Master. You can’t make them do something, that’s railroading! Think about it, though. You’re building the world. Everywhere the players go is somewhere you created. I’m not advocating dropping whatever themed encounters you find interesting on your group wherever they go. We can go about this with a little subtlety while taking care to maintain player agency.

Layers, leads, NPCs, locations, keyed encounters. This is our bread and butter. When we open our toolbox this is what’s there. If you want your next game(s) to change things up from the high seas to a struggle between heaven and hell (or replacing whatever you find stale with something interesting) use those tools. Create several NPCs that lead to locations or encounters that interest you. Add a new layer to your city. In the Three Clue Rule the concept is to drop enough clues so your players are bound to run into them sooner or later. When the amount of clues they collect reaches critical mass, more often than not the players will draw the conclusion you want them to make. It’s the same concept here. Drop enough leads and encounters in the general area of your players. Most likely sooner rather than later they’ll pick up the thread to see where it goes.

Don’t forget Bangs, either. Have something happen to introduce your new theme and let the players decide what to do with it. If they put it aside at least they know its there. Time structures help, too. If the heroes find out there’s a group of cultists about to summon hell, and they don’t pursue it then hell gets summoned. The problem escalates, but do so in increments small enough not to eliminate player choice (i.e. stop hell now or they conquer the whole world) but significant enough that ignoring the problem has consequences (stop hell now or they conquer another city). Ignoring something is a choice, and every choice in a sandbox should have consequences. Sometimes those consequences are a boon, and sometimes a bane.

Like those trite 10 tip columns tell you to do, what happens when you want to take a break from DMing and be a player for a little while but can’t? You know if you take a break from DMing your group is going to fall apart. The gap in your players’ schedules will get filled in whether they know it or not. Life happens. It’s the natural way of things. So if you think being a player will help you recharge the batteries but there’s no opportunity to do that, then go ahead and make that character. Min-max the hell out of it! Or make the perfect RP concept. Whatever floats your boat. Now drop it into your game. Play that character a little bit as an NPC for a quest or two and have some fun.

There are a couple of caveats to this approach. First, don’t let this NPC become the DM’s PC. This character must have a short half-life or it will ruin your game. No matter what you do, any character you drop in is a Non-Player Character, not a hero. Giving it more than a temporary spotlight is taking that spotlight away from your players. Second, be completely comfortable with the idea that your dream NPC is going to get killed. Even if it’s not a villain. D&D heroes are naturally murder-hobos and NPC death is a real possibility. The players may also not take the NPC seriously, or undermine whatever authority you give it. When you’re receiving this reaction it’s usually because your cool NPC is crossing the line into Dungeon Master PC. All that aside, have a little fun but take care not to infringe on the player’s roles in the game.

Today’s takeaway is this: create your own inspiration. Sometimes a great idea will just come and you’ll bang out some great content for your game, but the muses are fickle. You never know when those ideas will come so the best thing you can do is put yourself in a position to be inspired. Recharge the batteries with that series you’ve wanted to binge watch but have been putting off. Take that really cool board game you were playing last week and see how it translates into D&D. I read a great J.K. Rowling quote once which said, “All great writers started out as great readers.” I say great Dungeon Masters all start out as great readers, movie-goers, couch potatoes, and gamers. So the next time you’re feeling burned out, don’t forget to feed your muse.


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