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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.

chess-2855056_960_720.jpg

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


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prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
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 reasonable. I'm not super-thrilled about it in general, but A) it's a lot like having a paper sheet, and B) when my wife needed to spend two months with her mom in a different state, it was less expensive than buying second copies of the books.
 

That's reasonable. I'm not super-thrilled about it in general, but A) it's a lot like having a paper sheet, and B) when my wife needed to spend two months with her mom in a different state, it was less expensive than buying second copies of the books.
Im sure it has merit and if it kept you playing sounds like it was worth it, just not my thing. Something to be said for the tactile sensation of holding that brand new book in your hand. Plus Id imagine the resale value is low on digital format if available at all?
 

Mattia

Villager
Well, I spent most of my time as a GM, and, yes, it has become a burden. Maybe because I noticed how much time it takes preparing the sessions right, and I know there are other things I like apart from RPG books. My interest usually decreases as the games grow complex with new not very meaningful material. Also, I do not like playing online. Result? My last game as a GM was January 2020, before the virus. I stay a passionate reader, but there also other things in life, so I try to balance my interests. :)
 

I love being on stage making music, and no matter how much I love being up there, there's going to be stress if there are technical difficulties. And at the end of the night, even if everything goes perfectly, I'm going to be buzzed but seriously tuckered. Gaming is the same way. Now, I wouldn't say it has to be that way for everyone, since people experience things differently, but experiencing stress or exhaustion from something you love isn't unnatural.

Disagree, if youre putting energy into something you love if youre not somewhat tired after, theres something seriously wrong.
 

I love being on stage making music, and no matter how much I love being up there, there's going to be stress if there are technical difficulties. And at the end of the night, even if everything goes perfectly, I'm going to be buzzed but seriously tuckered. Gaming is the same way.
Totally irrelavant but here goes. I bought a Guild S300 off of a friend for $100 in 1995. Im still kicking myself in the ass 20+ years later. You could play Into the Void and Searching With My Good Eye Closed back to back and not miss a beat. I saw Kim Thyail in 2010 and he was playing one.

 

Ramaster

Explorer
Great article, very insightful.

Sometimes I feel completely floored after running some sessions and I just want to go to bed.

6.000 calories "just" playing chess... those are very interesting numbers!
 

Some pieces of gear just resonate with a person. I've got effects pedals that, while not high end, I am still using almost 30 years later (an Ibanez Chorus and RockTek Flanger).

Totally irrelavant but here goes. I bought a Guild S300 off of a friend for $100 in 1995. Im still kicking myself in the ass 20+ years later. You could play Into the Void and Searching With My Good Eye Closed back to back and not miss a beat. I saw Kim Thyail in 2010 and he was playing one.


Back to the subject at hand, that tiredness is another reason why I stopped running full-length sessions that start later in the day. When you're not wrapping up until 10pm or later, someone's going to be tired (sometimes me, sometimes a player, sometimes all of us). And it's likely going to be at the climactic battle, so people are going to be not thinking straight. I'm going to forget to use that fancy ability, or a player is going to be nodding off and just barely managing to roll a d20 to attack, let along bring the exciting moment to life.
 

John R White

Villager
I try to arrive early at the club before starting a game and also try spend time after the game with friends having a drink or two to unwind. This sometimes involves discussing the game/games just played [they are often up to six running on an evening] and besides being amusing this provides useful feedback. Even if I go straight home afterwards, its usually a lift with a mate and we usually can chat about the evening's gaming experiences.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Seems like some of you stress over DMing far more than I do. :)

I try to, when I can, set things up by doing advance homework etc. such that the actual session will as far as possible run itself; this so if I have an extra beer the whole thing doesn't fall apart. Obviously sometimes the players are going to go in unforeseen directions etc. and this is fine, but most of the time I've usually got a reasonably good idea what's coming and can be ready for it.

The only thing that causes me any real stress as a DM comes after the game if-when I realize I made some blatant mistake or other during the session; I'll spend half the week being mad at myself.
 

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

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:



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:



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?
To answer the question at the end: no, I don't. In fact, I'm often stressed and wound up before running a session, and find focusing on the game and having an enjoyable experience with nice people to be relieving and invigorating. Ymmv, of course :)
 

pogre

Legend
I did not experience anything like this until I ran virtual games during the height of the pandemic. I still run some virtual games, but I have greatly reduced the amount of time for a session. I can go all day in-person - three hours is my limit for virtual games.
 

Oh yes, I find it quite stressful at times.

If I'm running for a new group the pre-game jitters get quite bad.

If I'm running something mechanically complex (high level DnD/PF) I stress that I won't run the bad guys "right."

If I have a big scene/session (one that has some heavy roleplay or that has a lot of effect on the plot) I find myself quite drained afterward.

But overall I find it's the good kind of stress. The stress that leaves you with a great high after the session. That's one of the reasons I keep doing it.
 



Campbell

Legend
Speaking as someone who regularly plays and runs games I find the mental fatigue tends to be higher when I GM, but the emotional fatigue is substantially higher as a player. As a GM I don't often have the time to really slip into character and experience emotional bleed in the same way I do when I play in our more intense games.
 

Darth Solo

Explorer
As a GM, you lose a lot of energy designing adventures. Scene by scene. If you used random encounters, it spares most of that RP energy.

Have tables for everything in between.
 

Hussar

Legend
I'd also point out that the stresses, or at least the type of stress can be extremely different depending on the group dynamic. If you have a group that is working well together and generally sharing similar playstyles, the DM stress load, for me anyway, is totally different than if you have a group where there is a mismatch of styles.

I know that the reason I left my last group was a mismatch of styles was causing me to actually dislike playing. It was a chore to start up each session and I left each session just feeling more and more frustrated. Now, I've managed to find a group of players that line up with my playstyle much better and I am so excited to play each week that, sure, I'm tired afterwards but, it's a good kind of tired. If that makes sense. More that "runners high" that someone mentioned before than the teeth grinding frustration that I had before.

Not sure if what I'm saying here is making sense.
 

Nilbog

Snotling Herder
While virtual gaming has been a god send in these times, for me it does add stress to the game, both from a technical standpoint (getting everything to work) and more importantly from a prep point of view.
Improv is a lot lot harder in the virtual world, and I always feel like I'm somewhat rail roading my players, which leads to dissatisfaction and a level of stress. I try my best to try and prepare for what they may do and have appropriate battlemaps and encounters prepared, but it's either never enough or wasted effort.
Oh for the days of just being able to throw a few minis down!
 

pemerton

Legend
Speaking as someone who regularly plays and runs games I find the mental fatigue tends to be higher when I GM, but the emotional fatigue is substantially higher as a player. As a GM I don't often have the time to really slip into character and experience emotional bleed in the same way I do when I play in our more intense games.
I may not be taking either my GMing or playing seriously enough! - as I wouldn't say I get tired RPGing, any more than any other mentally-involved activity.

The OP is actually a bit weird to me - I certainly don't find GMing stressful. I find it enjoyable! I like making stuff up, and finding out what the other people at the table make up.

I guess one way I do agree with you is that playing is more intense in the sense that there's all this stuff happening to ME! But I don't tend to find it lingers. That said, I've been described as a pretty chill guy more generally, so maybe I'm just applying my ordinary life approach to my RPGing experiences!
 

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