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GMing with Joy: Long Term Gamemastering

How do you keep a going for years on end?

If you pick up a core RPG book you will likely find a section on what is an RPG, how to roll dice, and hopefully some advice on running the actual RPG you are reading and maybe even a starting adventure. But what do you do to keep going month after month, decade after decade? How do you gamemaster for the long haul? And have fun doing it?

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Dragon Dice Play - Free photo on Pixabay

Basic Beginning

I start with a base of taking care of my relationships and health first. Basically, gaming is important to me but on the list of all the important things in my life, it is the very last important thing. Everything else of importance (faith, health, family, friends, citizenship, job et cetera) come before gaming. With all the other important things taken care of first, I then work on gaming.

I run a table top RPG every other week unless a family emergency or planned family event occurs. I’ve kept this schedule for over thirty years. I game in person unless I’m forced not to, on the same day and at the same time, unless group dynamics change dramatically. I game with the same core group, although players occasionally shuffle in and out.

The only major disruption to this long-running trend was D&D 4E. D&D 4E split my long running D&D 3.5 group into two camps (liked 4E or wanted to stick with 3.5) and I eventually lost everyone in that group (although I’m still friends with three of them) and had to start over. Forming a new group is a topic for another day however.

How, Though, Do You Game Every Other Week and Keep The Game Going?

Practical Answers

I run RPGs I like. I don’t run RPGs I don’t like.

Barring an emergency or planned absence, I show up every other week for game night ready to GM. I do this year after year and decade after decade. Even if I have to go virtual for a while, I show up ready to GM.

I start a campaign small, promising only a handful of adventures. If it goes well, I extend the campaign with more adventures. Which ties into the next thing I do.

I try my hardest not to end a campaign on a whim and try to bring each campaign to an actual conclusion (I sometimes fail at this, but I build up some grace with the group and if I go off the rails they trust me to get back on track).

I build on what came before. If the players liked a certain NPC, I bring them back. If a new monster design worked well (vampires (geeknative.com) in The One Ring!) I bring that monster back in a new challenge. If a PC wants some type of magic item, quest, or experience I try to bring it.

I get tired and can’t always write my own adventures or campaigns. I give myself all the help I need by falling back on other RPGs I own, reusing bits from previous adventures I’ve written, and repurposing parts of previous campaigns I’ve run. I currently like to run campaigns in a box (a core RPG with a supporting campaign and adventures).

How, Though, Do You Game Every Other Week and Keep The Game Going?

Mindset Answers

Gaming is a lifestyle. My whole family tells me I’m weird, nearly daily. They smile when they say this. My wife even hung classy looking prints of Tolkien landscapes in our basement for my yearly home gaming convention, Charlie Con, now on year six (another topic for later).

If I’m able to work I’m able to GM. This means even if I’m tired or not feeling it. This is just my approach. Life is hard (really hard right now) but if I’m able to get all my other responsibilities done, I don’t want to lose gaming. If I was healthy enough for work and my chores are done, I get to the game table to game. Of course that means I must work hard at my job and get my chores done on time before game night!

I appreciate what I have. We are seven people creating something new collectively, in person when possible, every other week for years at a time. That is an amazing social event to be part of. I rarely forgot what a blessing this social, mental, and creative endeavor is in my life. I have friendships, some decades long and some with people otherwise quite different from me, that started when I met someone gaming. I try to never forget that.

Gaming has gone so well a married couple in our group opened their home to us for gaming. We eat a home cooked meal before every game which creates a powerful bond in the group.

Expert Ending

If you want to GM, GM on a regular basis whether in person in virtual. Whenever possible, don’t stop a campaign before a natural ending point. Show up ready and have your affairs in order so you can concentrate as best you can. Have lots of fun, enjoy all the friends, and count your many blessings. Don’t give up. Like we said in the 80s: no retreat, no surrender. Embrace the gaming lifestyle and game on!
 

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Charles Dunwoody

Charles Dunwoody

Thomas Shey

Legend
I feel this, you have to put your relationships with the players before the game, but sometimes you have to set expectations for participation in the game as well. Kind of a razor’s edge when close friends and family are involved. If it preserves the preexisting relationships, I think you made the right call. If it’s not fun, it stops being a game for sure. Had to navigate some friends and family drama in relation to a game this year and it’s not fun. Sometimes you can decide the game works for some folks and not others and that okay too if it works. Hope you find a game that works better for you on an emotional health level!

It wasn't the first time I'd taken a break from this group, but I was kind of stubborn about it this time. But when you've had the same problems for, I want to say two full campaigns and it was starting up again, with very different genres, systems and tones, you just have to take the hint.
 

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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
The primary thing for a long-term GM is, simply put, commitment to running that game every week a) for as long as anyone you can put up with wants to play in it or b) until you simply run out of good ideas for it. Once you've got that commitment piece locked in, everything else kinda falls into place.

I've had two long (as in, 10+ years) campaigns end mostly due to b) above, though in both cases I was happy for the opportunity to remix the player lineup a bit. My current campaign is still going, 15 years in, and there's not yet any shortage of ideas.
 

Vincent55

Adventurer
i tend to have a problem with DM burnout, as I am an overachiever DM who will if I don't watch it try and do way too much. I really don't like premade adventures and make all the content for every game I run, I also try and keep it dynamic and very interactive. I like using background sound in the game for places like towns and even a night in the woods or if visiting a very spooky place, add a level to the game to draw in players beyond just describing it. The problem I have had was with players never giving me honest feedback on games and just saying everything is okay and then ending suddenly for no reason. I always tell them upfront what my games are and how I run things, I liked your advice and for me, my personal life is never the issue. I think for the most part the players underestimate me in just how far ahead I think in the game and my preparedness. As it stands ever you think you can do to toss a monkey wrench into a game, I always have a monkey to catch it and another plan to run in case.
 

Hussar

Legend
Just as a note, you have to think about the group (or groups) you're GMing for. I recently ended GMing for a group that included people I've known for in some cases decades, because I concluded GMing for them was more stress than fun, even though they didn't do anything beyond the pale on an individual level, or even something that was a full blown problem with any regularity; there was just a sort of death-of-a-thousand-cuts business of dealing with them and their interrelationships.

Took me a very long time to decide to do this, but you have to take the hint when you're mildly anxious before sessions and often slightly depressed after them.
This. A thousand times this.

And it's going to depend so much on so many things. If you're running a game in an FLGS during the school year and everyone's going off during the summer holidays and it's very likely that you won't be playing with these people again (or, maybe you're running a game for a couple of months over the summer holidays) or some other sort of short(ish) term group, then, well, you can put up with a lot.

OTOH, if you're playing with the same group of people year after year, and, again, for a bajillion different reasons, none of which have anything to do with anyone being at fault, you find yourself in the position that @Thomas Shey was, or I myself was for that matter a couple of years ago, it's just far, far healthier to take a step away. And it's hard. It's really hard to say to someone, "I'm sorry, but, I don't like playing games with you." It's hard to do that and not sound like a dick. When I recently stopped DMing for my last group, I handled it spectacularly poorly. Just said and did every single thing wrong.

It's far better to just be honest and up front with the group earlier than trying to sort of "grit your teeth and bear it". It won't ever get better. It will only get worse.

I really wish there was good advice on how to walk away from a group. I certainly haven't found it. Like @Thomas Shey, I found the game more stressful than fun. And every week it got worse and worse until I snapped, and said some stuff that in hindsight I wish I hadn't and left that group very badly. Very unfortunate.

I do agree with @Charles Dunwoody that this sort of advice would be really useful. Again, how do you say, "Hey, umm, I don't like gaming with you anymore" without sounding like a dick?
 

Unfortunately, while these were long time friends it was very heavily in a gaming context. What non-gaming interactions we had fell away literally years ago.

That makes sense to me. I think what helps me is to try to do more than just game with my group. Which can be difficult when the group is together only to game and really doesn't want to do other things like board games or movies or go out to dinner.

However, if you are in a space that allows it, I do think eating a meal together can establish bonds beyond the game table. It might only be 15 minutes and everyone brings Subway or Taco Bell but I'm beginning to believe those few minutes of breaking bread together may be the glue that holds the whole campaign and group together. We just started having dinner together a few months ago in my group and it has helped me quite a bit, and it let another person in the group flex his creative cooking muscles and cook for the group instead of the host doing it.

When people can talk not just about the game but also good food, it expands the connections the group has to each other. All human beings need to eat and the vast majority of people like eating in groups rather than eating alone. It is a bigger connection than gaming alone, at least it seems that way to me.
 

i tend to have a problem with DM burnout, as I am an overachiever DM who will if I don't watch it try and do way too much. I really don't like premade adventures and make all the content for every game I run, I also try and keep it dynamic and very interactive. I like using background sound in the game for places like towns and even a night in the woods or if visiting a very spooky place, add a level to the game to draw in players beyond just describing it. The problem I have had was with players never giving me honest feedback on games and just saying everything is okay and then ending suddenly for no reason. I always tell them upfront what my games are and how I run things, I liked your advice and for me, my personal life is never the issue. I think for the most part the players underestimate me in just how far ahead I think in the game and my preparedness. As it stands ever you think you can do to toss a monkey wrench into a game, I always have a monkey to catch it and another plan to run in case.

Another good topic here. Players don't really care about the GM. I don't mean the human being players don't care about the human being GM. The people around the table don't want me to come to harm and they want me to stay well. I mean the roles alone. If I have players who are not GMs themselves, they mostly don't care about my prep, other RPGs I'm looking at, burn out, or a thousand other things. They just want to keep playing their cool character and not have me wreck everything by trying to start over. I do believe having players like that is not just a normal thing but also a good thing.
 
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This. A thousand times this.

And it's going to depend so much on so many things. If you're running a game in an FLGS during the school year and everyone's going off during the summer holidays and it's very likely that you won't be playing with these people again (or, maybe you're running a game for a couple of months over the summer holidays) or some other sort of short(ish) term group, then, well, you can put up with a lot.

OTOH, if you're playing with the same group of people year after year, and, again, for a bajillion different reasons, none of which have anything to do with anyone being at fault, you find yourself in the position that @Thomas Shey was, or I myself was for that matter a couple of years ago, it's just far, far healthier to take a step away. And it's hard. It's really hard to say to someone, "I'm sorry, but, I don't like playing games with you." It's hard to do that and not sound like a dick. When I recently stopped DMing for my last group, I handled it spectacularly poorly. Just said and did every single thing wrong.

It's far better to just be honest and up front with the group earlier than trying to sort of "grit your teeth and bear it". It won't ever get better. It will only get worse.

I really wish there was good advice on how to walk away from a group. I certainly haven't found it. Like @Thomas Shey, I found the game more stressful than fun. And every week it got worse and worse until I snapped, and said some stuff that in hindsight I wish I hadn't and left that group very badly. Very unfortunate.

I do agree with @Charles Dunwoody that this sort of advice would be really useful. Again, how do you say, "Hey, umm, I don't like gaming with you anymore" without sounding like a dick?

You are correct that needing to stop gaming with someone is difficult. I think anyone who has GMed for any length of time has had to part ways with other people. I also agree with the adage that no gaming is better than bad gaming.

I do think you have some possible solutions presented as well. I will think further on it and maybe someone wiser than myself will come along with some additional sage advice for us.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
This. A thousand times this.

And it's going to depend so much on so many things. If you're running a game in an FLGS during the school year and everyone's going off during the summer holidays and it's very likely that you won't be playing with these people again (or, maybe you're running a game for a couple of months over the summer holidays) or some other sort of short(ish) term group, then, well, you can put up with a lot.

OTOH, if you're playing with the same group of people year after year, and, again, for a bajillion different reasons, none of which have anything to do with anyone being at fault, you find yourself in the position that @Thomas Shey was, or I myself was for that matter a couple of years ago, it's just far, far healthier to take a step away. And it's hard. It's really hard to say to someone, "I'm sorry, but, I don't like playing games with you." It's hard to do that and not sound like a dick. When I recently stopped DMing for my last group, I handled it spectacularly poorly. Just said and did every single thing wrong.

I was very civil about it when I did so and thanked them all for their participation, so as far as I can tell it went over okay. One of them told me he'd been expecting it for a while, and another (my now longest-single-surviving gaming friend--I've known him since 1975 when I was 18 and he was 16 (and we were, to different degrees, both kind of jerks in our own ways) who said while he'd enjoyed interacting with us and the games he'd kind of gotten where he hated seeing, to quote "you trying to roll that rock up the hill one more time".

I still didn't feel entirely good about it on a number of grounds. I don't entirely even now though I'm even more firmly of the opinion it was the right thing to do.

But like I said, you have to take the hint when you get it.

It's far better to just be honest and up front with the group earlier than trying to sort of "grit your teeth and bear it". It won't ever get better. It will only get worse.

The problem you can run into, like I said, is that unless you wait around for the perfect group, not all kinds of stressors are created equal. The other group I'm with has stressors too, but they're internal dynamic is less severe, so its just easier to take.

I really wish there was good advice on how to walk away from a group. I certainly haven't found it. Like @Thomas Shey, I found the game more stressful than fun. And every week it got worse and worse until I snapped, and said some stuff that in hindsight I wish I hadn't and left that group very badly. Very unfortunate.

The worst part, as I said, was I kept trying to tell myself it was the structure of a campaign or the game system that was the problem. When I was in a third campaign that had been chosen, in part, to minimize some of the specific problems that occurred in the prior two, and I was still seeing things that either directly aggravated me, or required me to intervene to not have one or more have problems, I realized I was kidding myself. The interior dynamic of the group just had some elements that were naturally toxic and nothing I was going to do was going to fix that (the same people who caused me grief were also the people who were the drivers in each campaign, so I couldn't really selectively trim, even if I'd been willing to).

I do agree with @Charles Dunwoody that this sort of advice would be really useful. Again, how do you say, "Hey, umm, I don't like gaming with you anymore" without sounding like a dick?

Like I said, if you're doing it to a whole group, you just take the responsibility (even if it isn't altogether true). "I just find I'm not up to GMing for you all any more" isn't dishonest, but it takes some of the weight on your shoulders, and the only people who will be really soggy about that are, frankly, not worth your time; they're being far worse jerks.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
That makes sense to me. I think what helps me is to try to do more than just game with my group. Which can be difficult when the group is together only to game and really doesn't want to do other things like board games or movies or go out to dinner.

And we used to do all those, but, well, I haven't gotten any more sociable as I've gotten older, and my time got more limited too.

However, if you are in a space that allows it, I do think eating a meal together can establish bonds beyond the game table. It might only be 15 minutes and everyone brings Subway or Taco Bell but I'm beginning to believe those few minutes of breaking bread together may be the glue that holds the whole campaign and group together. We just started having dinner together a few months ago in my group and it has helped me quite a bit, and it let another person in the group flex his creative cooking muscles and cook for the group instead of the host doing it.

I'd love to blame it on the pandemic (since we did go over to entirely remote play then and FTF never resumed) but honestly, these problems were emerging well before then.

When people can talk not just about the game but also good food, it expands the connections the group has to each other. All human beings need to eat and the vast majority of people like eating in groups rather than eating alone. It is a bigger connection than gaming alone, at least it seems that way to me.

We used to chat before the game for a while, but it didn't really help with the in-game problems which turned on a number of dynamics between everyone involved in play.
 


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