An unfortunate part of roleplaying games is that they’re inherently reliant upon a single person for them to work: The DM/GM/Keeper/Storyteller (etc). I say this is unfortunate, because while the reactivity and ability to think on the fly of a human GM is their best part, it’s something that can lead to the game falling apart. Most frequently there are multiple reasons for this, with the most common by far being the GM simply burns out and can’t get the motivation to run anymore. Another common reason is the dreaded “Real-Life”, which sometimes rears its ugly head to derail the GM and their plans.
Recently this happened to me. This is the major reason why I haven’t updated the guild with my usual stories of player based shenanigans. When I finally did cull my games for the moment, until I was in a better place and more capable of running them I felt pretty bad. I’ve played with a lot of these people for a long time and it very much felt like letting everyone down. On the other hand, I have had a lot of disruption and changes in life recently, including moving an entire city so change was difficult to adjust to. In the end, I had to make a decision about what to do for myself and my players.
For me, I ran into two major barriers and they proved to be a considerable difficulty. For one thing, I couldn’t seem to organize a time that suited most of my players very well. When I did, this time got disrupted by a number of unfortunate events cropping up or even myself on several ocassions. The net effect was that it became rather unpredictable if we could play, even when a session had been organized and everyone was supposedly coming. This was pretty hard on me, because I was extremely keen and excited to get started, but was continually frustrated when I couldn’t.
Eventually we ended up going several months without a session and most of that ended up being my fault. Moving away to another city was one of the major problems, but there were several things I did wrong here. I set difficult to achieve standards, such as only wanting to begin if all the players were around – especially with how busy people can be – or I found that online platforms weren’t compatible with my computer (which is basically a word processor, literally). Eventually it was becoming extremely hard to get off the ground, which meant the time I was putting in for preparation felt wasted. Additionally, I frustrated my players by not being readily available to help make characters or assist with building them into the world.
By far my biggest mistake, which I would not repeat again, was leaving my books in storage as I couldn’t take all of them with me the first time. This was a significant issue for me, because the Fantasy Flight Star Wars games do not have PDFs, making it difficult to help people make characters without it (unless they have those books). Additionally, even if my players did I find PDFs good for references but nowhere near easy to read on a computer. So even if I did have access to PDFs it slows down my preparation times quite considerably and I don’t find them easy to read. So there was an enormous amount of pressure on me to get back to my former home city, not only to start the games but also to retrieve my books.
It didn’t work out again recently and I had to cancel. This is where I realized I needed to make a tough decision.
Thinking neutrally and separating myself from the situation entirely, I asked a simple question: If I was hearing this all from another DM, what would I say? The advice I would have given would be that they had taken too much on, put too much expectations on something that’s supposed to be a fun hobby and if it’s begun to affect them personally it was time to walk away. Breaking up good established groups like this is never easy and even more so when you love playing with them. Unfortunately when any game starts to feel like a Sisyphean ordeal, it’s time to recognize the “fun hobby” part should never feel like work – or an obligation.
What especially got to me was my inability to be consistent anymore in running my games. Aside from the difficulties of being in another city, without an easy way to make or help characters for my players and a lot of other work going on (I always prioritize my professional writing over other kinds!), I was constantly canceling or shuffling sessions. This isn’t good for a multitude of reasons, because I value respecting my players time as much as I expect them to respect mine. When I schedule a game and say the time will be, 4-8 on a Sunday (or whatever), I anticipate my players will give me that time. A lot of GM advice talks about absentee players and similar, but when it’s the GM doing it you have an even bigger problem.
I ultimately felt like I was not respecting my players time, efforts in coming to the game and wasn’t sufficiently helpful in getting people into my games. A lot of this boils down to distance and being unable to see people face to face, but much of it as also me just being too busy to give time outside of certain periods. So after the most recent cancellation, I sat down and decided to tell my players the bad news: I wasn’t in a place in life where I could easily run these games. This didn’t mean I was never interested in playing with them again, quite the opposite in fact, but rather that for now everyone needed to be free from any commitment. For me, this meant just being able to separate myself from a stress inducing situation. For my players, this was to allow them to free up time “promised” to me that they could now schedule other things in (if they wished).
It was a difficult decision, but it was the right one and while it hurts for the moment, in a couple of months when I have gathered my things I can start anew. There are already people who I know will pretty much say yes if I ask to play in a game in future, where I will hopefully have resolved many of the issues above. Otherwise, I also presented my players with the option of someone taking over the old games. I didn’t delete any of the world information or pre-game build up from the groups – so I would have been perfectly happy to help another player step up to GM.
Ultimately GMing is actually a pretty creatively intensely experience in a lot of ways. It’s not only healthy, but acceptable to just step bake and take a break from games for a while to recharge your batteries. Especially if you’ve been having trouble consistently being able to start or other issues have been impacting the game. Causing yourself stress and trying to meet obligations you can’t succeed at will only start to drag you down: Both from the stress it causes and creatively. It’s okay to say you need a break and to step away, especially during stressful periods of your life. When you do come back to running a game again, you will always come back stronger for it.