So it finally happened. After two years of continuously running game I reached dreaded DM Burnout. I realized what happened after noticing that I had abruptly cut short my last three sessions, I had a much harder time improvising when BF would do something unexpected, I had been increasingly hung-up on the minutia of scenes, and that (most damningly) I really just felt flat when prepping for and running game. Not excited. Not nervous. Just... blank. Going through the motions.
Boyfriend and I agreed I needed a break.
It feels strange not to be doing Dungeon Master stuff right now. Normally I spend free time prepping for game, writing up monsters and NPCs, looking for good maps, making flowchart outlines for the current adventure, and thinking up good complications and conflicts for BF to overcome. If I wasn't currently running a game then I'd be casting a wide net, going through many different books, movies, video games and blogs looking for inspiration and fine-tuning my campaign ideas. Now I'm just hanging out, listening to The Black Keys, eating burritos. It's... strange.
Here is what I learned from two years DMing:
1.) Use campaign pitches. When I first started DMing I followed in the footsteps of my early DMs and would say, "Make whatever you want!" to BF while cheerfully prepping away on my end. When we got to the gaming table we would have no idea what the other had been doing, and those games quickly fell apart. Now when I start gearing up to do game I make a pitch first. It helps me nail down what it is I'm trying to do with the game, the feel of it and the direction I hope to take it in, and it helps BF create a PC that fits. Here is one of my pitches for an example.
Grasp of the Grave
When an ancient relic is found by adventurers it attracts much attention from the curious and the greedy. Now the hunt is on to reclaim the lost pieces of the Black Book before its sinister magics can cause untold harm--and before it can find its way into its original master’s hands.
--An adventure with a classic feel, focused on reaching forgotten ruins and defeating evil wizards
As you can see I have the name of the adventure (cheesy, but it builds interest), a Back-of-the-Book-esque blurb, and a more plain summary detailing what the adventure is like. I threw this pitch out along with two others, each one quite different, to see what BF was interested in before buckling down and doing the detailed DM work.
2.) An easy way to run a sandbox is by using broad strokes as a skeleton. I have a hard time being the Firm Guiding Hand of the DM. As I only have one player it's easy (and beneficial to the longevity of the game) to let that one player run around getting involved in an area as he sees fit. Because I'm never sure what he'll want to do, I create towns with one or two conflicts built in (monsters attacking caravans as they travel through the mountains, tensions rise as merchant class butt heads with religious orders) and let things flow out from there.
I've tried detailing tons of little quest hooks and flavor pieces connected to a dozen different NPCs before but realistically BF can't get to all or even most of them in a few sessions, nor would he even be interested in all of them.
Obviously some people might not like this method. It definitely requires a lot of improvisation to bring such broad strokes to life. Maybe this point should be Don't be afraid to experiment to see what works with you and your table? :)
3.) Something should always happen. Again, this one is fairly subjective, but in my experience games run best when there are no throwaway rolls or actions. As a player it sucks to come up with a clever way to handle a problem, only to have a low die roll leave you in the exact same place, minus 30 seconds of your life. If a player rolls a skill check and doesn't succeed, instead of saying, "Oh, you don't sneak/intimidate/what-have-you," make something unexpected happen. If your paldin botches his diplomacy roll, then maybe the guard captain still agrees to get extra men to patrol the waterfront district and keep an eye out for the missing warlock... but only if the paladin agrees to play chaperone to the captain's daughter during the Rose Ball. Oh, and her boyfriend is a very handsy young noble.
I've written on this before but that's because I really think it's important to keeping a game fun and interesting. And hey, if a player doesn't want to bite, then they're right back in the place their original low roll left them.
4.) The most important thing a DM can do to make a game fun is bring lots of energy to the table. I feel a DM sets the tone of their table in how they act, what they allow and what they discourage, and this is doubly true when your table is just you and one other person. I've noticed that when I sulk up to the table with my books, say, "Okay... it's Saturday morning so I guess it's game time or whatever... I'm not totally done with my adventure so you'll just have to deal with however it is..." my game (shockingly!) doesn't go so well.
Even when you're inexperienced, or nervous--maybe even especially when you're inexperienced or nervous--it really helps a lot just to come to the table with a smile and say, "We're going to have a great time today!" The point of D&D is to have fun, so try not to get hung up on the little stuff and just keep the game moving. In the end players don't even remember that you stumbled when describing the guards' uniforms, they remember besting the most renowned mercenary in town in a crazy epic tavern brawl.
Though I'm not DMing right now, that doesn't mean I'm not gaming! Boyfriend has agreed to take up the mantle after his long hiatus and is running me a game. We've already had the first session, and I had a blast. I forgot how good he is at doing NPC voices. I seriously think BF is the best Dungeon Master in the world, but I'm a little biased. ;)
So I'm taking a break from running game. I hope some time spent in the player's chair will remind me of what's fun when playing D&D. I think after so long I've just lost some perspective. Ah well.