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Hitting The Wall: When You've Got No Creativity And Have GM Burnout

RPT GM E. shared with me that they've got writer's block, and maybe a little GM burnout. Here's their email, paraphrased a bit:

RPGwise, I realized this week my creativity is gone.

I had to brainstorm and couldn't whip up anything.

Right now, I'm in a total slump gamewise.

Right now is a great opportunity to prep loads of stuff, but I'm at a total loss for creative energy.

Has anyone reported the same thing? Are you feeling like this?

Thank you for sharing this, E. I think other game masters are in the same situation, whether it's fatigue from GMing, stress from real life, or for other reasons.

I have written about GM burnout before, and will link to those tips at the end.

I also don't have any instant solutions for you, alas, as I see burnout and writer's block as part of every GM's journey.

Such journeys are personal, and so I could only offer you surface level solutions until I walked a thousand hexes in your shoes.

What I would like to speak to today, though, is mindset and approach.

Relax, Reflect, Take Care
For example, don't panic. To panic and stress about being stressed, uncreative, or unmotivated makes the situation worse. To panic creates a feedback loop where you become more blocked, making you panic more, making you more blocked.

If you're having a moment, which I've had many times, take several long deep breaths. Break the fight or flight response your body's having, and get oxygen flowing back to your brain. This will help drop your heart rate and put you in a better position make good decisions in the moment.

If you're having a day, feed yourself good nutritious stuff, go for a walk or do some light exercise to tire the body a bit, and get a full night's sleep. Things will look better and brighter in the morning.

If you're having a week, take a break. Change things up. I find life happens in cycles. Things not in our control bring us joy and sorrow, opportunity and stress, fun and challenge. Focus on what you can influence and control, which is primarily ourselves. Take good care of yourself.

If you're having a year, like I was in 2019 and I suspect many GMs are in 2020, reflect. Almost all results in our lives come from the (often hidden) structures of our lives. Whether we realize it or not, the habits of our thinking create the habits of our actions. And the sum of our actions represents the sum of our life so far.

Take a step back and think about what's bothering you. Your mind and spirit could be telling you something, such as to make better life decisions, or that something's out of balance, or that something's missing.

Find someplace you can be still, calm, and reflective so you can chill and see the big picture, hopefully with scales, filters, and biases cast off as best you can.

You might need to perform this exercise several times over days and weeks to get through the noise of your thoughts, the false directions of unprocessed feelings, and the stubbornness of needing to be right (which is not your fault — our brains are hardwired to "be right", which I call rightitus disease — a topic for another time perhaps).

Two awesome exercises I've learned that help me in these situations are gratitude and journaling.

I started a gratitude list. It really helps me stay grounded. And science is catching up to the fact that feelings of gratitude have huge benefits to your thinking, feelings, and sense of purpose and wellbeing.

I create a note in Evernote on June 1st, 2018. I wanted to get out of my head and feel good. So I decided to write down something I was thankful for.

Then I did it again the next day.

And the next.

Soon I made it a morning ritual. I wake up early, and before I begin writing Roleplaying Tips for you I open up my gratitude note and and add one thing I'm grateful for right now.

Noticing the small stuff is perfect for feeling gratitude. It's the warmth of the morning sun, my back feeling good, or that my dog likes me. :)

Big problems don't disappear from small tricks. But boy, feeling grateful makes you appreciate being alive and helps put things in perspective. In turn, this helps put you in a better position to think things through better, set the right priorities, and have more willpower to take good actions.

I got this technique from the fabulous book by Julia Cameron called The Artist's Way.

She calls the approach Morning Pages, and she describes the method here on her blog.

I did Morning Pages for a long time, and they worked great for me in clearing my internal garbage so I could see actual underlying issues and patterns. Those hidden structures I was talking about.

I've also done other types of journaling.

I regard writing this newsletter as a form of journaling. By getting my thoughts out on "paper" about the problems I face as a game master, I am bringing them to my awareness so I can think up solutions, ask for help from fellow RPT GMs, or expose them to light to see if they are true problems or illusions.

During the day, plants photosynthesize sunlight into oxygen and glucose and release excess oxygen. At night, they respire to consume oxygen and release carbon dioxide.

All living things respire or breathe like this. They take energy and nutrients in and "breathe" energy and gases out.

My grey hairs indicate I've been around long enough to notice this as part of a GM's creative cycle as well.

As creatives, we respire too. This speaks to Julia Cameron's filling the well technique.

Sometimes I feel creative. Sometimes I just want to read.

Instead of beating myself up when I want to be creative but feel like reading, I see it as my mind's way of wanting to take a break, chill, and get inspired.

It's a natural cycle. We build campaigns, improv like crazy, and make maps, monsters, and magic items. So much creative energy expended like that.

Then the cycle turns and we need a break. We need to do something different to restock our inventory of ideas, passion for expressing our creativeness, and desire to build.

Depending on whether you're having a moment, day, week, or year, go look for cool stuff to consume.

For example, in the moment I might put my headphones on and listen to favourite tunes. Over the longer term, I attempt to learn new things and try new hobbies.

In 2019 I got into board games. So many new ideas for GMing came from learning and playing a new game at a weekly board game group I joined.

This year I'm getting back into painting minis. I see the activity as a way to be quiet, relax, and meditate on my campaign as I add cool colour to detailed plastic NPCs and monsters.

There are times when you can brute force your way through a lack of inspiration. But be sensitive to that sometimes not working, and instead think about letting your creativity breathe by inhaling inspirational stuff.

Tips For GM Burnout
Today's musings are not to belittle anyone who has depression, anxiety, or other serious mental concerns.

These aren't hacks to fix serious stuff.

Take care of yourself. See a doctor if something doesn't feel right and it persists.

But in general, I've found taking a step back and looking at things differently helps a lot. It gives me the right perspective to be doing what I need to take care of myself, whether it's calling a break, listening harder to my spirit and body, or understanding that creativity comes and goes so I have confidence of its return.

Here are some tips I've written in the past on the topic of burnout:

9 Symptoms Of GM Burn-Out: Avoiding GM Burn-Out Part I

8 Tips For Recovering From GM Burn-Out: GM Burn-Out Tips Part II

GM Burnout: Tips For Prevention and Recovery

Playing With Fire: Dodging GM Burnout

Remedies For GM Burn-Out

The Care and Feeding of Your GM

Be well, my fellow game master. If you get anything out of my ramblings today, I hope it's to take care of yourself. Focus on that. The rest will come.
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This is interesting to me as I tend to find some inspiration everywhere to a greater or lesser degree.

With this whole quarantine thing, I find myself rewatching old TV shows and series lately. A cartoon from the mid-80's suddenly sparked a whole universe of ideas once my mind made the connection during episode 8 (of 65). This cartoon was a sci-fi deal, but I had a quite sudden epiphany that I could easily drop that entire world into the D&D fantasy setting. Change up a few place names perhaps, modify the characters to fit into the rules for archetypes and such, but I could otherwise drop it right in. I figured a free account at WorldAnvil and some freebie online map/world creators would give me a map and a some starting locations/towns/areas, which I could rename and add to as I wish.

As the show 'Firefly' was to space-westerns, I have a plan to recreate 'The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers' in the D&D fantasy setting. That whole universe would create a large world for me to use as a campaign setting for years to come, with persistent people and places and things for players to come back to again and again. Major villains that would just escape at the last moment one way or another, only to return again with a new evil plan for my players to figure out and foil. In that show, there are enough bad guys and running plots to keep us going for years (assuming I can also make the world fun and enjoyable, a place the players want to go back to again and again). Sure I need to change all the space travel to something else like sea travel maybe, instead of planets I can use regions or even other continents and islands, lots of the guns and space blasters need to flip to gunpowder and magic, lots of the nifty techie gadgets need to become magic items... essentially a lot of work on my part. But, as most of gaming group is unfamiliar with the show, and the one player that has seen it as a kid will likely never remember all the details, I could use the stories from each episode of the show to create a campaign at least 65 sessions long, likely closer to 100 or more, meaning this could easily go on for a couple years with my group (we only play every couple weeks when we aren't forced to stay at home and live like hermits).

My point here is that inspiration is all around you. Look at the books and movies and TV and comics you really enjoy, and then see if you can make a few simple 'leaps in logic' to drop that into D&D without having to rewrite the whole of creation to make it work. And while doing that, don't be surprised if you suddenly get hit with inspiration for something even better. Another option is to take those same sources and see if you can convert a few favorite episodes or chapters into an adventure module or series of modules to enhance your existing world and story. And that in turn could just itself evolve into a campaign all its own. I also at times find that just flipping through the Monster Manual or one of the other sourcebooks suddenly gives me a flash of insight into something that spawns several adventure ideas based on something that happened in my life or some other thing I read about. So if your in a rut, shake things up a bit. Go back to things you haven't looked at in years. Revisit notes from prior game sessions and maybe you'll find that a player made some off-hand comment or remark that can fork the story into a side adventure or spawn a whole new plot line. You do keep notes about what your players say and do, right? Promises they make (and keep or break), people they meet and part with (on good or bad terms), etc. etc. When I did nothing but play the games, are number 1 standing rule was "Don't give the DM any ideas" and some other variations of that wording. But try as we might, we kept sprinkling little hints and seeds of ideas into the game, and our DM was taking notes the whole time. Simple things like a player saying "I'm glad we didn't wake those guys up and have to fight them all to get the thing." made our DM write down "Players succeeded on stealth all the way to the outer wall, where they were spotted and identified by an underling minion. That minion will EVENTUALLY share his info with the boss." So-in came a side adventure of us having to run for our lives and figure out a way to defeat the boss-baddie and get out from under the whole situation. That was 7 game sessions by itself, from just one little crumb of an idea from a player side-comment. So when yer stuck, go back over the past sessions and look at what worked, what didn't, what happened, and what can be wrung out of that result to spawn another sub-plot or side-plot or a main plot line extension.


My solution to burnout is simple: I write down every idea I think of, when I think of them. I have a file full of adventure ideas, hooks, story titles, etc. It's 56 pages long at this point, and contains about 120 unused ideas. When I can't think of anything to write for an adventure, I open up that file and start reading. Something will catch my attention, and I'm off to the races.
Those idea notebooks are great - I usually carry a small notebook with me, and still have several old books filled with tiny handwriting and barely comprehensible jot downs.

But I confess that I have betrayed the oldskool cause and started using Google Keep more and more. It's instantly available as long as I have access to my phone, tablet, or computer. Tags and freeform search help me to find the right content, and I can use check boxes to mark (and un-mark) ideas. And I don't have to worry about misplacing that goldmine. :)