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The Hidden Costs of Game Mastering

We all know about the burdens of game mastering. But depending on the game, there can also be a physical and emotional cost.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Like Playing Three-Dimensional Chess​

Game masters, depending on the circumstances of the game, are playing with or against multiple opponents. In both cases, this requires significantly more brain power than playing alone. Of course, some of this varies by the type of game and the mental requirements involved. A highly tactical game with many opponents can require multiple calculations with a variety of unknown factors that have to be calculated on the fly. It's no wonder that some game masters are tired after a game. Compared to the players (who are focusing on just one character), it's like playing three-dimensional chess:

"Three-dimensional chess" is used colloquially to describe complex, dynamic systems with many competing entities and interests, including politics, diplomacy and warfare. To describe an individual as "playing three-dimensional chess" implies a higher-order understanding and mastery of the system beyond the comprehension of their peers or ordinary observers, who are implied to be "playing" regular chess.

The chess parallel is relevant because there is a real concern about the amount of calories burned in playing it. In 1984, the World Chess Championship was called off because Anatoly Karpov had lost 22 pounds. Years later in 2004, winner Rustam Kasimdzhanov lost 17 pounds. In 2018, Russian grandmaster Mikhail Antipov burned 560 calories in two hours of sitting and playing chess. By some estimates, a chess player can burn up to 6,000 calories a day while playing in a tournament, three times what an average person consumes in a day.

But is it really the intense thinking causing weight loss? The extreme weight loss during high profile chess matches seems more attributable to stress. There are both good and bad kinds of stress, so it's still possible for game masters to experience stress in preparing and playing a game and still have fun. But that's not the only way a game might be draining.

The Costs of Improv
In addition to the frequent tactical calculations of one player (the GM) versus multiple opponents, including the possibility of playing against oneself in the case of allied NPCs, there's a potential emotional cost. Storytelling involves role-playing, which is essentially method acting:

Fatigue, or emotional fatigue, comes mainly when actors “create dissonance between their actions and their actual feelings.”. A mode of acting referred to as “surface acting” involves only changing one’s actions without altering the deeper thought processes. Method acting, when employed correctly, is mainly deep acting, or changing thoughts as well as actions, proven to generally avoid excessive fatigue. Surface acting is statistically “positively associated with a negative mood and this explains some of the association of surface acting with increased emotional exhaustion.” This negative mood that is created leads to fear, anxiety, feelings of shame and sleep deprivation.

Most game masters aren't trained actors and the emotional costs of role-playing a particularly intense situation, or from just role-playing multiple characters in a single session, can be taxing.

Take Care of Yourself​

Adding all these factors together, and it's no wonder that some game masters are wiped out after a game. So what to do about it?

The same self-care you should practice before or after any activity that requires focus: get plenty of rest, stay hydrated, and eat right. Of course, gamers are notorious for not doing any of these things, and for game masters at a convention or up late with friends, this can be particularly tough. A little self care of the game master is worth it, for them and for the game.

Your Turn: Do you ever feel emotionally or physically exhausted after game mastering a session?
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Mortus

Explorer
Interesting article. GMing to me is energizing and cathartic. That’s probably why I’m almost always the GM. My only real stress associated with GMing is the prep work for some crunchy games. I can how stress during the game is possible, it’s just not the case for me.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
My biggest energy-type problem when I'm GMing is that sometimes my brain won't spin down after the session. Well, that and I have (unsurprisingly) noticed that the quality of my GMing goes down steeply if I'm underslept or some other form of tired going in.
 

sevenbastard

Explorer
Most of my stress with DMing comes because I play online these days and it is harder to stay "in the zone' than when I am in person.

It was easy to wing it when i drew maps on a vinyl mat. If players go somewhere I haven't mapped or the fog of war or darkness has glitches then eqverything grinds to a halt.

Second the audio connection issues pop up or some one lose connection and the game grinds.

I love VT because I get to play with my group even though I live 5 hours away, it just makes it harder to stay in the flow of DMing
 

I was just having a similar conversation with a friend over the weekend. He recently was given a new position at work and has had to learn alot of new information and software and that usually by the end of Monday and Tuesday is exhausted. My reply was, "exactly, I've had jobs where I had to comb through 100's of pages of ASME, API and TEMA codes for 10 hrs to make sure the pressure vessel I was designing wasnt going to blow up in some poor souls face 10 years down the line. Sometimes I came to the conclusion that I'd rather do a days worth of strictly physical labor as it wouldnt be as taxing."

In years past I'd do lots of prep as a DM for my games because I took tat responsibility seriously. These were in the days when we played more frequently and consistently so I knew the rules lots better than I do now. I didnt take the toll that it does on me now. Nowadays Ive decided that prepping for me consists of a decent outline, with a minimal details, a loose plot and a few choices for the players to decide on. I'll pick a few monsters or NPCs, and a couple of random tables that I can use and run with that. For me learning how to improvise and react to that players actions and a rudimentary to proficient knowledge of the rules will result in a better game than pouring over the minutia of the core books every time.

A few other hidden costs of running games I've found is time and financial costs are somethings I think players dont realize at times. Even if I do moderate prep over 1 or 2 days before I run a game thats usually at a minimum of 4 hours I could use to do other things. I don't count books in that cost cause I would buy them regardless most likely but things like printer ink and paper, pencils & paper, wet/dry erase markers, battle mats, minis, etc. Im not complaining as enjoy DMing and I would foot this cost anyway but I think its something overlooked at times. On the rare occasion I've asked for my players to contribute a few dollars to cover a portion of these costs they are more than willing.

In closing, as I take pride in my game I want decent session for my players and a clean and comfortable area for us to play. That all takes time, money, mental and physical energy. As I love playing its well worth all that effort.
 

the fog of war or darkness has glitches then eqverything grinds to a halt.
I ran into this same problem, spent 2 or 3 days figuring this out on Roll20 and 2 minutes into the game I had to turn it off as everything just stopped working. We played VTT for about 2 months last March-April and it just didnt work for us, so we stopped and resumed face to face gaming a month later. I spent a decent amount of time learning the program so I could keep a session moving but in the end the players needed to be taught and we spent more time screwing with the program so it just wasnt worth it. I believe for VTT to work either the person running the game needs to really know the program in and out to direct the players or the players need to spend some out of game time to familiarize themselves with it.
 

Absolutely! Sometimes all I want after a session, depending on the time, is to eat and/or mix up a nice cocktail.

When there's drama at the table (which thankfully is very rare with my groups, but it happens), that can be extra-draining. Heck, sometimes having had drama the last session makes it draining just thinking about the next session, stressing that there will be drama again.

I always sit down to game with a nice cup of herbal tea. I'm generally good about staying hydrated on most days.
 

Kodiak3D

Explorer
DM'ing can be exhausting. I try to learn as much as I can about my game world because if someone asks me a question, I want to know the answer (or at least where to quickly find it). I also print a lot of minis and terrain for my games, and prepping those can take a lot of work.

I am always worried that my game isn't good enough. My players have always told me that it's more than enough. They love playing in my games, but it's a mental thing for me. I have an idea in my head of everything I want my game to be, but I don't always live up to it. It's all in my head, I know, but it gets me to the point sometimes that I don't even want to DM anymore because I feel like I'm no good at it.

On the other hand, I do occasionally run a game I'm very satisfied with and it's a great feeling afterwards.
 

Doctor Futurity

Adventurer
I just took a month long break from GMing, first time in ages. Work necessitated it, but its been nice to get a break. I have found that while I greatly enjoy face to face gaming, the Roll20/Astral environments for GMing are stressful in ways that I am just getting tired of dealing with. Like others mentioned, my real issue with GMing at the end of a session is winding down/decompressing, and it can take me 2-4 hours to "chill."
 


The one buying most core books
LOL, same here as I imagine most people answering this thread.

DM: Hey I just picked up "Magdrials Magnificent Guide to Mastering Your Players", I might incorporate some into the game.
Player: Can I borrow it?
DM: Drop dead, buy your own.

5E could do better to get players to buy something else beside the PHB. Only 2 I can think of is XGtE or TCoE.
 


prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
5E could do better to get players to buy something else beside the PHB. Only 2 I can think of is XGtE or TCoE.
I'm not recommending this, but if you have the right kind of subscription on D&D Beyond, you can share books you have on there with your players.
 

Refereeing a game is the opposite of stressful to me. It's neurochemically addictive: following a session, I nearly always experience literal "runner's high."
I always have some beers while we play so I dont feel this way. I do remeber when I was young my mother dated a lounge singer in the Royal Yorkes hotel in Toronto. He always said it took him hours after coming off stage to wind down. He'd wake us up after at 2AM and take us into China Town for some of the best Chinese food I ever had. I was 8.
 

Yora

Hero
When hanging out with people to have fun is causing you distress, then something went seriously wrong.

That's not normal! That's something that goes way beyond the game.
 


Jaegermonstrous

Swamp Cryptid
I definitely experience more fatigue from being a GM than being a player, but I find both pretty tiring. I'm very much an introvert, and social situations are often draining.

I think for me the GM fatigue can be due to a few different reasons:
- I find social situations exhausting, and being the focus of a gaming session is like that x3
- I second-guess my actions and dissect my players' actions for hours, sometimes days, after the gaming session. This is both in preparation for the next session, and my own natural reaction to all social situations.
- I get a kind of "GM hangover" immediately afterward and in the days following, when all the build-up and work I've put in to making the gaming session happen has now released.

I do still find being a GM very rewarding, but it's a careful balance for me. I'm not really able to do VTT because it adds another layer of complexity I can't manage very well.
 

Voadam

Legend
I enjoy the high energy engagement of the different elements of plot, roleplaying, combat tactics, improv, rule application, adjudications, reacting to players, humor, and creative solutions.

I get a bit stressed about wanting to read and know stuff exhaustively ahead of time to handle rules and module details and additional options I want to include.

I get more than a little frustrated at Fantasy Grounds, I have some basics figured out and some work arounds of reskinning existing stuff, but I really want a better handle on things so I could throw in new maps and build monsters or NPCs from the ground up and so on. I know there are ways to do so out there, but I have not found useable instructions that work for me to learn how in my downtime.

For me the big problem is that I usually stay up after gaming late at night and it disrupts my normal sleep patterns. Just going to sleep soon after a late game would probably be a health improvement for me.
 

I'm not recommending this, but if you have the right kind of subscription on D&D Beyond, you can share books you have on there with your players.
I dont buy digital books aside from the random one pdf here and there. I always buy hard copies. I've had lots of files over the years get corrupted on my hard drive and I dont like the fact of potentially having my digital books yanked. Ive never invested in the RPG digital format so I dont even know if thats a thing but I read stories. Then again dont believe everything you read on line. Lets face it, then I have to teach my players how to use D&D Beyond...sounds like a sunk cost to me.
 

That's a good way to put it. Sometimes when it's really good, I'm so psyched after concluding a session that I can't get to sleep, despite being tuckered.

I usually feel both tired and energized at the same time after a game. I'm also excited about the next session and have an easier time of planning things. This is especially the case when I feel that the players had fun.
 

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