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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

pemerton

Legend
Another thought: I recently bought Agon 2nd ed, and it has the following advice for the Strife Player (= GM), on p 74 under the heading "Things to Avoid":

* Don't try to tell a story to the other players. Stick to your three steps as Strife Player [= GM; the steps are Reveal, Ask, Judge] and let a story emerge naturally.​
* Don't worry about anyone else's fun. They're the Hero Players and you're the Strife Player. They're entertaining you, and vice versa. The whole outcome of the session isn't on your shoulders.​
* Don't pull your punches. Heroes are defined by adversity. If harpies attack the people and the heroes fail to defend them, then many are slaughtered. It's dark, but that's what was at stake. Follow through on the threats of the opponents.​

I think this is good advice for avoiding stress.
 

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tmanbeaubien

Explorer
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.
And if the players all kick in $5, it's a shared cost everybody gets to benefit from. That's how several books with player options got bought at my table.
 

Your Turn: Do you ever feel emotionally or physically exhausted after game mastering a session?
Weirdly, almost never.

On the direct contrary I'm typically massively mentally energised by it (though sometimes physically tired - not exhausted) just because of what time of night it is.

There have been RPGs which left me feeling drained every time I ran them - 3.XE D&D was one. But I typically don't run them for long, for that reason.
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.
Yup same experience here.

I get more stress as a player, honestly. If a DM is running a game I'm not familiar with and doing even an okay job that's not stressful, but if a DM is DMing a game I am very familiar with and/or doing a less-than-ideal job, that can be pretty stressful, especially as as I have to resist the urge to "help them out". I did have one DM who treated me like a kinda-assistant, and always wanted me to help out when I could, and butt in with rules corrections and so on, and that was waaaaaaaaaaaay less stressful.

I do wonder, if I was DMing literally every week, end on end, it might get tiring, but I think only if I was running a crunch-heavy game. So I wouldn't.
Disagree, if youre putting energy into something you love if youre not somewhat tired after, theres something seriously wrong.
I think that's making some unfortunately gross assumptions about neurotypicality which you might not want to make. I have ADHD and D&D DMing gives me the "hyperfocus" that comes with that, and the hyperfocus is energising. Suggesting to strangers you don't know that there's something "seriously wrong" (implying a clear and unarguable need to for medical help), because they're failing to have the same physical/mental reaction as you, or as what you regard as "within the acceptable range" is not really appropriate.
 
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Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
A good emotional scene can be draining or exhilarating, both as player or DM. As player tension if we're going to succeed and/or survive is draining - I pity those who either aren't invested enough for the risk/reward to be real or just aren't challenged enough so it's always sure thing.

I love running. I don't find it work, though after a good session I am pleasantly wiped. And usually too keyed up to sleep immediately.

Prep isn't hard work - I love the planning and big picture and plot arcs and NPCs motivations and personas and quirk parts. It's the mechanical interfaces - stat blocks, balanced encounters, not too many magic items, etc. WotC explicitly makes that part harder by refusing to sell books in PDF so I can't cut-n-paste like I do with other systems. And NO, I am not talking about buying it in some other form that I can't also read through as the book.
 

Voadam

Legend
It's the mechanical interfaces - stat blocks, balanced encounters, not too many magic items, etc. WotC explicitly makes that part harder by refusing to sell books in PDF so I can't cut-n-paste like I do with other systems.
Pathfinder 1e with multiple full bestiaries on their online srd was fantastic in that regards.

I used a lot of 3rd party material in the d20 era because copying and pasting statblocks and power descriptions from my pdfs was easy and convenient when prepping.
 

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

Your Turn: Do you ever feel emotionally or physically exhausted after game mastering a session?
Usually, physically tired, but also slightly manic.

Some systems (Burning Wheel, Burning Empires, Pendragon) also also emotionally exhausting. (Note: Due to the differences, I do NOT get that emotional drain from Mouse Guard.)

Some, like any edition of Traveller, Space Opera, Pendragon, GURPS, BI/FFG 40K RPGs, WFRP 1 or 2... they are intellectually exhausting. The amount of bookkeeping (short term) is literally tiresome.

But the other hidden costs... are financial and social.
Social: A GMed game cannot run without the GM. So, the GM has a higher than the players expectation of availability. Also, the GM is socially often expected to be the mediator/mediatrix for the table on not just rules, but behavior.

Financial: When I was able to work, I several times turned down extra shifts due to a game. (At $120/shift in the mid-00's that was a hit.)

Not to mention the printer, the toner, the paper, the software, the prep time, the distraction while at work if you aren't prepped for the game coming.
 

MGibster

Legend
Your Turn: Do you ever feel emotionally or physically exhausted after game mastering a session?
Not typically, no. I do have a hard time winding down after I run a game though. And since I run my games on Sunday evening it does mean I go to work tired on Monday mornings. At times I am frustrated when I plan a decent campaign and the players and I can never get on the same page regarding the tone or the direction of the game. i.e. I expect to be running a game for heroes and here you are executing prisoners and murdering cops.
 

Another thought: I recently bought Agon 2nd ed, and it has the following advice for the Strife Player (= GM), on p 74 under the heading "Things to Avoid":

* Don't try to tell a story to the other players. Stick to your three steps as Strife Player [= GM; the steps are Reveal, Ask, Judge] and let a story emerge naturally.​
* Don't worry about anyone else's fun. They're the Hero Players and you're the Strife Player. They're entertaining you, and vice versa. The whole outcome of the session isn't on your shoulders.​
* Don't pull your punches. Heroes are defined by adversity. If harpies attack the people and the heroes fail to defend them, then many are slaughtered. It's dark, but that's what was at stake. Follow through on the threats of the opponents.​

I think this is good advice for avoiding stress.
Good advice, Yes.
Stress preventative? Not my nor my kids (both) experiences.
(When you're dealing with persons with anxiety disorders, #2 is pretty much never going to happen.)
 

Marc_C

Solitary Role Playing
The hidden cost of DMing is that you have to accept that you will always loose. The PCs always wins. They always kill your beautiful monsters and BBEGs... A DM is a looser by definition.

Psychologically that is very hard to accept. 41 years of always loosing so far... don't know how much longer a can maintain this loosing streak before I break down mentally. :p
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
Your Turn: Do you ever feel emotionally or physically exhausted after game mastering a session?
Exhausted, no. But it can definitely be tiring and a bit stressful. I'm an introvert by nature, and every time I run the game, I have to push over a hump to get the game started. Once I get over that hump, I'm usually good from that perspective and the actual stress is lifted. But even so, when a game session is over, I often feel a bit tired - but it's a good tired, like after an enjoyable hike or workout or particularly productive day at work when you figured a lot of things out and got a lot done.
 

Galandris

Foggy Bottom Campaign Setting Fan
Another thought: I recently bought Agon 2nd ed, and it has the following advice for the Strife Player (= GM), on p 74 under the heading "Things to Avoid":

* Don't try to tell a story to the other players. Stick to your three steps as Strife Player [= GM; the steps are Reveal, Ask, Judge] and let a story emerge naturally.​
* Don't worry about anyone else's fun. They're the Hero Players and you're the Strife Player. They're entertaining you, and vice versa. The whole outcome of the session isn't on your shoulders.​
* Don't pull your punches. Heroes are defined by adversity. If harpies attack the people and the heroes fail to defend them, then many are slaughtered. It's dark, but that's what was at stake. Follow through on the threats of the opponents.​

I think this is good advice for avoiding stress.

This is excellent advice. I am failing to implement the second one, though, and I do feel mentally exhausted sometimes (especially when I think things went poorly, even if the players didn't notice the problem). I noticed that I wonder if players had a good time when GMing, but I never wonder if the GM had a good time when playing. As if I was subconsciously thinking that it's the GM's burden not only to adjudicate the game but also to make it selflessly fun for everyone (and the wording of only calling the players "players" is also probably interesting at some level)... And when the stress is intense from other source, like a peak of activity at work, I prefer to play. Partly because it removes the workload of preparing the session, partly because it's just less exhausting to me.
 

pemerton

Legend
I noticed that I wonder if players had a good time when GMing, but I never wonder if the GM had a good time when playing. As if I was subconsciously thinking that it's the GM's burden not only to adjudicate the game but also to make it selflessly fun for everyone (and the wording of only calling the players "players" is also probably interesting at some level)
That's why I like framings like Hero Player and Strife Player (from Agon). Or even the instructions to (non-GM) players in Burning Wheel which in places use the term "duty".

I think the notion of players as audience for the GM's performance isn't really a healthy one.
 

GM/DM burnout is a thing, even among the most dedicated. After a campaign or two, it's often advisable to take a sabbatical, allowing someone else to take the reigns for a bit. I ran L5E for about 15-16 years, usually only taking a 1month break between campaigns, but occasionally needing up to 3 to recharge. I've just started my first sabbatical for 5E after 6 years, which I expect to last 6 months to a year. I know I can't stop being a GM/DM, but pushing myself too hard, too long just makes the game bad for everyone.
 

The hidden cost of DMing is that you have to accept that you will always loose. The PCs always wins. They always kill your beautiful monsters and BBEGs... A DM is a looser by definition.

Psychologically that is very hard to accept. 41 years of always loosing so far... don't know how much longer a can maintain this loosing streak before I break down mentally. :p
Many campaigns end in TPKs... Which makes your assessment inherently untrue.
And that's before the experiential version of success - everyone having an enjoyable experience... whether or not their characters succeeded or failed... which. by the way, is the definition in many games.
 

Marc_C

Solitary Role Playing
Many campaigns end in TPKs... Which makes your assessment inherently untrue.
And that's before the experiential version of success - everyone having an enjoyable experience... whether or not their characters succeeded or failed... which. by the way, is the definition in many games.
Dude I was joking around, pulling 'your' virtual leg. Hence the emoticon. ;-)
 

willrali

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

A thousand times this. I've grown to absolutely detest playing online, even more than I detest the Slack-and-Zoom remote work meeting treadmill. Nuance gets lost, silly misunderstandings get exaggerated, people speak over each other, lag is a bitch, there's no immediacy.

Enough. I GM in person or not at all.
 

I've found myself both hyped and enervated after GMing depending on how a game has gone--and occasionally both at the same time.

I haven't found virtual games any worse, and in the cases of ones I ran elsewhere, better, because I don't need to drive home afterwards.

Most of the downsides I have with GMing is when I end up leaving people upset or down, which I tend to take hard.
 

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