Game Mastering
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December 22, 2007, 4:06 am

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GM's Block


GM’s block is a serious problem in the roleplaying world. Related to writer’s or actor’s block, it prevents the GM from being creative and enthusiastic about their work.

GM’s block is a serious problem in the roleplaying world. Related to writer’s or actor’s block, it prevents the GM from being creative and enthusiastic about their work.  GMing can be very demanding. Each GM needs to be creative consultant, a director, an author, a referee, and still be everyones friend after it is all said and done. That is a lot of candles to be burning at one time. It is only natural that one or more occasionally goes out. However, once the GM begins to falter, so does the game.  To be honest, nothing stops a campaign cold than a burned out GM.

The signs of burn out are obvious, if you know what to look for: a) lack of enthusiasm for your own play, b) throwing the same old plots at your players time and time again, c) seeing your scenarios fall flat on a regular basis, d) not finding a new hook or thing to do in your campaign, e) players expressing dissatisfaction about the game which they never have before. If you believe any of these are happening to you, you might be suffering from some degree of burn out.  If your players notice it, then you are definitely suffering from burn out. 

There is hope. There are a number of things you can do to revitalize your creative juices and GMing power.

Sometimes there are physical reasons for why you are not feeling creative. Try to make sure you are getting enough quality sleep, taking in a little exercise, and limiting the amount of chemical modifiers you are taking (caffeine and nicotine being the biggest contributors). If you have any physical ailments, try to get them resolved. You can’t do your best when you don’t feel your best.

Sometimes you just need a change of pace. Trying going someplace new, or just different, from where you normally go. The change of location may help you to dislodge the GM’s block.

Most people have a time of day when they’re the most creative. Do your brainstorming then. If you don’t know what time you are most creative, try a number of times out till you hit the magic time.  Always leave a notebook and pencil by your bedside. You might wake up with a new approach that can get you started again.  Also, carry a "little writers notebook" with you.  That way you can capture good ideas as they occur. 

Read! I’ve been burned out before, and reading new things always reawakens my imagination. I read fantasy books to stimulate my creativity, but any genre will work. They do not have to game related fiction. In fact, books of a type you never normally read are best for inspiring you.  Along the same theme, watch movies with different themes. A western can give you ideas completely different from ideas inspired by a martial arts movie. Get ideas from dramas, mysteries, suspense, horror, whatever. Reading and watching movies may have some feature that might provide the spark of inspiration from which a campaign might be born.

Use your eyes and your ears. Artwork, both fine and graphic, are great sources of inspiration. You can get ideas from a painting of the countryside, a castle, or maybe just a portrait. Flip through your books and see what kind of artwork is in them. I recommend the annual Spectrum book series as the best inspiration art book of all time. On the same note, music can be a great inspiration. Check out music (and its lyrics) of genres and nationalities other than what you normally listen to or used to listen to all the time. Many songs tell stories other than boy+ girl +complication = love of some sort.  Those songs can inspire adventures.  

Sometimes you need some help to get over the rough spots in your creative drought. Don’t be afraid to read and borrow stuff from others. Take ideas and add them together. Role playing magazines always have little things that help a GM, and they can be scoured for ideas you could use.

Review your previous work. It might help to go looking through some of your old material. Look back at other things you have written, and try revising them to fit your current campaign. Also, the players may react differently to a situation than another group of players. If they do, this will get you thinking on a different line.

Try developing different parts of a campaign that you haven’t already. See what the players could explore, be it physical, emotional or spiritual. Try a moral dilemma instead of your normal court intrigue or combat. Take the group to a new part of your world as yet unexplored. An invasion from space will always take a game in new directions.

Another tactic is writing small pieces of information or creative thought. These could be one lines of scene description, three sentences describing the organization of a religion, the fast write up for an NPC, some game mechanics that when a piece of description added could be a new monster, or even a game tip. Once you can begin to write things down, they can inspire you to move on to other things.

Note: The hardest part of being creative is "the starting". Try taking pieces of the middle of what you want to do, then go back and work on the beginning.

Ask a friend who is not involved in your current campaign read over your work. Talk about it and see what ideas he or she has that can be integrated. There is no such thing as bad constructive criticism. If the friend doesn’t like something about it, change it or make it better. Listen to their comments and suggestions no matter how negative they are regarding your work. After all, you don’t have a better idea - at this time.

If you can, try writing a little short story or stories. Make your brain work in a different way. Put something down, anything. Make it small. Start in the middle or write just a piece of it. Make an outline. Think creatively about something unrelated. Spend time just sitting quietly day dreaming. Take a break. Give up for awhile and do something different. Most likely you are burned out because you are overworked. Enjoy some down time to rest your brain. Curl up with a good book and let yourself drift to a different place.

If it does not work for you one way, try another. Consider switching to another campaign setting or system. A new setting may be a refreshing break from the standard things your players are used to. If you play Fantasy all the time, use a different section of your brain and try a science fiction game. Sometimes you really need a break from the usual. A change is definitely required if you’re out of ideas on a topic.

A major change is that you can even try playing for a while. Recharge your batteries by not using them, but not growing rusty by still playing. 

Something I can not stress too much, tell people. As you are working through a case of GM block or GM burnout, make sure to inform your players that you are blocked. Sometimes this is in the form of an apology for the games you have been running. This way they know about your issue and can adjust. Sometimes they can even help.

There is no magic formula for resolving GM’s block.  It is as individual as each individual GM.  However, these techniques have worked for many GMs (and authors and actors)  over the years and are a great place to start.

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Comments ( 10 )
Commenters gain extra XP from Author votes.

December 15, 2005, 18:13
Sometimes, if I start getting the ole GM burnout, it's because I'm over thinking everything, planning TOO much. I find that letting of the reins and letting the players lead more, they can sometimes take the game in a direction I wouldn't have thought of and it inspires me to think in a new direction.
December 15, 2005, 18:14
This is not directly a technique I have tried, this is more a private ritual I do before the session itself. Before the game I look through the many lists of random items, effects and random whatevers I have, you guess it, randomly.

Besides all the other good advices, try to find new sense in already existing things. What if that item they always carry around is magical? What if that insignificant NPC is a villain of some some sort? What if, what if, what if?
December 15, 2005, 18:14
Good article Moonhunter, as always.

I agree with your sources of inspiration - I'd also like to add a few reflections:

The best campaigns seem to be self-perpetuating. I don't know what the recipe is - but things go best when events seem to precipitate other events and you feel you are on a 'roll'.

Another thought I have is that it helps to not always think in terms of 'adventures'. I more often find myself thinking - what interesting event will break up this journey, what kind of person might cause some laughter if the group met them, what interesting things might happen as a result of a occupation, relationship, ancestory or location - that are not necessarily 'adventures' but provide other RP opportunities. All of which helps to deliver a varied and stimulating session.

'Buffy' was mentioned and of course the success of that is not all about wide apocalyptic story arcs, but relationships, humour and coping with 'everyday' issues as well.
Voted Michael Jotne Slayer
December 17, 2005, 20:40
A great article that is an inspiration in itself when one is cursed with the dreaded GM's block.
Voted Ancient Gamer
December 22, 2005, 7:02
Only voted
Voted the Wanderer
November 3, 2006, 10:56
That was helpful....
Voted Mourngrymn
November 3, 2006, 11:39
Why I never voted on this I don't know.
Voted Cheka Man
December 21, 2007, 18:19
I have GM block right now, and thank you to Moon for showing me this. 5/5
Voted valadaar
December 21, 2007, 18:59
Definately one to add to the ol GM's notebook.
Voted Kassy
November 18, 2008, 12:25
Very handy article, i was expieriencing GM's block about a week back.

Not nice.

Random Idea Seed View All Idea Seeds

You Can't Go Home Again -- Thomas Hardy

       By: rickster

An adventuress, Semma, has returned to her home village, but something has gone badly wrong: it's the furtive glances, the conversations that stop when she approaches, the childhood friends who now have no time for her. She returns to the town or city and enlists your party to help her find out what's going on.

The party must find out what is wrong: something (perhaps a Cthulhoid monster, perhaps a gang of vampires, perhaps just a bunch of bandits) is extorting obedience from the villagers by threatening their loved ones with at least death. Once the source is discovered, Semma and the party and a few brave yeomen (and women) must deal with the threat by finding its base and defeating it, and then deal with the remnant corrupted villagers who willingly served the Evil Force. These may prove to be the most difficult foe...

Ideas  ( Plots ) | June 18, 2014 | View | UpVote 4xp

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