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How Do You Stay Interested During a Long Break?

Here’s my dirty little GMing secret – I burn out quickly. I launch into a new campaign with great enthusiasm, boning up on the period and genre, purchasing all the supplementary material I can get my hands on, crafting a world, and putting an epic campaign into place. My problem is that my enthusiasm only seems to last for three or four months before I start getting antsy for the Next Awesome Campaign.

For a weekly game, this isn’t much of a problem and even with bi-weekly campaigns I’m usually good for about 6 months. It gets much more difficult for me when missed sessions start stretching the campaign into the better part of a year or more. That fresh idea I had now just seems stale and I have to force myself to stay the course.

Recently I warned my players that with convention season upon me I’d have to put the campaign on hold for a couple of months. One of my players sighed and said “well, that’s it for the campaign then.” I asked him why, as I was going to end on a natural breaking point and would be picking up with the next part in a couple of months, but he only laughed and said “yes, but I know you. The campaign is over.”

And he’s probably correct.

I hate to admit it, but my enthusiasm has already waned. Over the last two months we’ve only gotten to play twice due to scheduling conflicts and I find myself struggling to remain enthusiastic. If I’m struggling now, then I know it’s going to be very difficult for me to drop the campaign for two months and return to it. I have the best intentions, of course, and I still haven’t had an opportunity to bring the campaign to the sweet spot that inspired it in the first place.

So today, rather than regale you with Gnomish wisdom, I have a question for you instead. How do you keep up the enthusiasm when the campaign is no longer new and the breaks are long? Should I try to stay the course or bow to the inevitable? Should I just stop trying to run long campaigns at this stage in my life when weekly sessions aren’t an option?

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21 Comments To "How Do You Stay Interested During a Long Break?"

#1 Comment By TriangularRoom On May 11, 2015 @ 2:30 am

This is a really tricky one. I’ve been running the same campaign for ~2 years. We try for weekly games but there are often breaks of several weeks when our schedules just don’t work together.

The breaks are sometimes frustrating, but recently I’ve come to appreciate them as they actually helps me stay enthusiastic: I have more time to prepare interesting encounters, and it helps me with burnout that I tend to suffer from when we play for many weeks without a break.

For those times when I’m not as enthusiastic, I look for interesting challenges that I can throw at the PCs: either nasty high level monsters (or I build something off a lower-level creature), or I tie in to characters and plotlines that the characters have come across earlier in the campaign to help put a fresh twist on things. The prospect of getting ever closer to the Big Bad the PCs have been chasing for the last 15 levels also helps.

All that said, if nothing can get you excited about your campaign, it may be better for everyone to just move on to something new!

#2 Comment By Ser Raime On May 11, 2015 @ 6:19 am

Hello, been lurking here for a good while. Time to become active – your question is pertinent and while reading I found myself nodding along. I can also burn out quickly, and have started a number of campaigns that crashed and burned because I wasn’t invested anymore. This happened a lot back in the day when I had more time on my hands (no kids, no job).

And yet…and yet I’m running a campaign now, where my earliest surviving notes are dated 2004. So I guess I should make the effort to try and come up with a satisfying answer 🙂

Not that I really have one, but here are some thoughts.

* I have felt the onset of burn-out many times during the life of our campaign – at that point, I have simply stepped back and waited a while before feeling the enthusiasm again. While waiting, I did *not* play or prepare or research anything roleplaying game-related, except for reading novels and playing games (usually fantasy-related anyhow). Soon enough my creativity was firing up again.

* I run in a homebrew world, so there is always tinkering that can be done in any corner of the setting. This means that if I am a tad sick of the current story in the game, I can go tinker on something else in the world between sessions. Sometimes that tinkering results in ideas that I want to take into a session, if only something that gets mentioned in passing (for example, a traveler tells about a distant kingdom).

* The campaign we play is one of deep characterization (we try, at least), a fairly realistic (for fantasy) medieval fantasy milieu (closest comparison would perhaps be George R.R. Martin’s first books of his ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series), and as such I have read up a lot on actual medieval history, which is very interesting and makes me want to add touches to the campaign to make it feel more real. This too helps in mustering enthusiasm as it’s always lovely to “paint” the story with these small touches of medieval strangeness (or brutality, or whatever).

* Perhaps the most important part is to have enthusiastic players. I don’t have many players, but those I do have are very enthusiastic and eager to play and live their roles to the point that it does in fact infect me too. And they are also understanding when I am in need of a break, telling me to do so, and they will be waiting but eager to return to their roles. Perhaps that’s the best answer – talk with players about this (but of course, your promise would be to actually, eventually, return to the campaign).

* Make a story with so many layers that there’s always something you can focus on, while shifting away focus from the elements you are currently not enthusiastic about. This one is tricky but works really well for me. I can’t possibly retell our entire 11-year story here, but it is layered, and sometimes these layers overlap, and some are distinctly apart. At one moment, after having digested a certain fantasy series, I was really enthusiastic about borrowing some of the ideas; this became a layer in the story – one of which I quickly tired, I have to add, but implementing the ideas, they were now part of the campaign, and I just shifted my focus to a different layer. Don’t know if this makes sense, kind of hard to explain when English is not your first language… Sometimes I enjoy being on the “political intrigues” layer, and sometimes I’m more down with the “mass battle between two factions” layer, at one time we’re mostly on the “traveling on a quest” layer, at other times we’re operating on the “magics” layer etc. The thing is that if the campaign has a lot of things going (and it eventually will, when you spend eleven years on it, and the players often have to remind me of things I’ve said or ruled), it will eventually begin to generate ideas and stories and consequences which can be fun to add twists to, or give different perspectives on, and so forth, making it, again, more easy to become enthusiastic about, perhaps.

* Sometimes I need a good kicking to get going. I occasionally tell myself (whether I’m close to a burnout or not) to “Read this and find *something* you *must* add to the campaign.” It always generates at least one worthwhile idea (and hey, if the players aren’t hooked on the idea, that’s okay too).

* Another important bit (in my opinion) is that we play a game system which handles characters in such a way that the way they enhance their attributes will have an impact on the story itself. A lot of game systems these days have this, mechanics that are letting players make conscious decisions about what their characters goals are, or their motivations, their passions etc. Our campaign has made some interesting turns because of this.

Just the thoughts that came to me after reading this article.
Thanks for keeping up such an excellent and fun website.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On May 11, 2015 @ 5:13 pm

Those are great thoughts. I like the idea of shifting to another layer, another topic–so it’s still the same overall campaign, but you’re engaged with something that interests you at the moment.

Do you shift the focus with the existing PCs (so if you got excited about trade, the next plot would involve a merchant strategizing with the PCs about the route for a dangerous caravan), or do you shift to new PCs to explore the new aspect?

#4 Comment By Ser Raime On May 11, 2015 @ 11:47 pm

Well, there are several ways this can go down.

Usually I have read something that fascinates me enough to begin thinking of how the topic could become a part of my campaign.

Let’s say I suddenly get excited about trade – I could indeed do as you suggest, adding a merchant, plotting a route for a caravan, or I might feel like simply fleshing out trade – in fact, trade is one of my weak spots, so in this case I might begin to be more conscious about how trade should work in my campaign. Perhaps I’d have fun setting up lists of what goods are exported and imported, drawing up trade routes, perhaps coming up with some trade factions etc. In this process I’d usually find something that I could plop into a session whether it be an encounter, a brief mention, or introducing an entirely new faction that would become more prevalent and important as the story moves on.

I did something like this last year, when the PCs first encountered members of a secret organization. Since the organization was secret (they still have no clue except that members all have a distinct tattoo), I could retcon them backward into the campaign without anyone being the wiser (“Oh, it would be cool if these dudes were *actually* behind this or that event”). In this case I had read something about mercenary companies and took bits of it and twisted it into a semi-mercenary faction that now also want a piece of the pie – and thus encounters ensue.

The PCs have been extraordinarily lucky to still be alive, though one of them is a second build – but that player’s first character died quite early in the campaign (after two sessions) so I feel like the current group has been at it forever. And no, the players show no desire at all to switch to a new campaign – they are still having so much fun with the current story, as the stakes get higher and they accumulate more social power (we’re playing a skill-based system, no levels as such).

The thing is that layers get built up over time – like many others we started out small; I had a vague general idea about the larger world (I restricted myself to a vague outline describing a continent), and started out in a small, more detailed area. As the PCs explored the world around them, their radius of action increased and layers got put on.

So now we have..
– Personal Layer: Whatever revolves around the PCs and their families, kin
– Faction Layer: All the factions in play, divided in additional layers (mercenary companies, guilds, noble houses etc.)
– History layer: Events from the past (sometimes I add history for fun – one day while I was in the zone I “built” backward all the forefathers of the current noble lords, so occasionally I drop in a little history on one of these ancestors for added depth)
– Religion layer: The powers that be, temples, etc. (this one is where I’ve currently been at; one day I woke up and just realized I had the most awesome plot twist that I could do with the gods – and that got me excited and I began to flesh out this aspect of the world more. I wish I could explain in detail, but time is short and prying eyes may be looking this way – but that twist got me so excited I got goosebumps when I finally revealed it last week, and the great thing was that the players sat back, eyes wide, exhaled and said “of COURSE!”)
– Military layer: Armies clashing, war etc. Sometimes I’m in the mood to develop generals, or preparing a mass battle, or add a historic battle, anything.
– Political layer: Intrigue, who’s in charge, etc; for a long time we stayed on this layer, especially when one of the players became the steward of the group’s home province and he had to deal with all the nobles etc. I was excited about creating a web of intrigue around the PC, and watching him deciding who to trust and who not to trust etc.
– Geography layer: Whenever I feel like “building” something new, I move away from the area where the PCs operate and develop something beyond their horizon. The advantage of this is that I later can change it if I don’t like it or if I feel it doesn’t really suit my campaign after all and the PCs are none the wiser. If it’s something I really like, I either take it and bake it into their immediate surroundings (if possible), or I have an NPC from the new are arrive as a source of exposition, or I devise a storyline which takes them there.
– Player layer: I always ask the players what they would like to do, find out, experience etc. These guys have often enough taken the story in totally new and surprising directions, and that can generate spontaneous enthusiasm for me as well, because I’m forced to think quickly. Sometimes this leads to me doing mistakes (“But six years ago you said that…!”) – in this case I just act smug and they believe there’s something to uncover, and as they research they usually “find an answer” and I nod along as if I thought of it all the time ^^
– Slayer layer: When in doubt, listen to SLAYER.

Edit:
Feel free to ask more, it’s hard to explain.

#5 Comment By themensch On May 11, 2015 @ 7:12 am

One thing my group is trying is to rotate GMs duties every few months, so one GM get a couple months of “on time” with their story, then another takes over with theirs for a run. I am fortunate to play in a group with many capable GMs.

#6 Comment By John Kramer On May 11, 2015 @ 7:57 am

I tend to set out with the idea that the campaign will only last ten or twenty sessions and then I wrap it up and start the next one (or give up the GMing seat to another player for 10-20 sessions).

What is it about convention season that makes you put your game on hold? Is your regular game on a weekend? Or are you just too tired to keep up the regular game while also spending multiple weekends at cons? If the former, you might try and move your game night to a weeknight so you can continue playing even during con season (my weekly game is on Monday nights, so even if I stay in Indianapolis an extra night I’m still home in time for game on Monday [but I only live 12 hours away by car so that might not work out so well for everyone]). If the latter, well I don’t have a good solution.

#7 Comment By BluSponge On May 11, 2015 @ 8:03 am

Wow! It’s pretty hard to follow up Ser Raime’s post. He’s covered…a lot. I run a semi-monthly game, so if we miss a game for scheduling reasons, we only play once a month. So this is something I do wrestle with from time to time.

First thing to remember, it never hurts to take a mental break. Work on something different. Don’t feel it has to be your game 24/7. You sound like you get a break during con season, so that’s covered. You can also read a book that is outside the genre, whatever it takes to get your brain out of your world. No one wants to eat the same thing every night for a year, why should gaming be any different.

Rather than start a new game/campaign, play a board game or card game. Yeah, it doesn’t sound like this would help, but see above.

In the meantime, create! Do the things that excited you to begin with. Don’t get so wrapped up in your grand drama that you can’t change it. If your current campaign is stale and uninspiring, think about the direction its going and what you can do to change it. Add new layers to the onion, or a twist that leads in a completely different direction. But you don’t even have to do that. Challenge yourself. Create different things that you can use in play, but don’t necessarily involve the players. GM-level stuff. Keep it genre friendly so you can quickly reskin it for different game systems later on. Get outside of your comfort zone.

Example, I’m not a big spell guy. I don’t frequently play mages in games and don’t ever feel like I use them to their full extent in games I run. One of the little projects I’ve been working on, as I’ve been watching the second season of Salem, is to take the witchcraft presented on the show and turn it into spells and powers for the game I’m running (Witch Hunter: The Invisible World). Now, I’m not sure I’ll ever use any of it in my game, but its been a fun challenge and helps make me more comfortable with a part of the system I don’t use that often (yet!). I also create plenty of stuff that’s background “idea-generating” material that I can easily port to any other fantasy or horror game I should choose to run in the future. And if none of that inspires me, I have half a dozen other little projects on the list that I can take a stab at.

In short, follow your muse, don’t be afraid to indulge your creative spirit. Then bring it back to your regular game and apply it there. There are a million ways to freshen things up. Don’t hesitate–do it! Your players will probably enjoy them too.

#8 Comment By Airk On May 11, 2015 @ 9:42 am

I dunno, I almost feel like Ser Raine and BluSponge are trying to solve the opposite of the problem that I have (and that it sounds like Walt has, but I can’t say for sure). The reason I say so is the suggestions that say “Yeah! Go out and read and find some exciting new ideas!”

This is exactly the problem. You find some cool new ideas, and now you want to run a game about THEM, and it seems really difficult to grab the old bull by the nose and haul the campaign around to do the stuff that now sounds cool – especially without making it seem really forced and awkward.

My personal suggestion (which is echoed in some of the others here, I think, if not explicitly called out) is instead best summed up as “DON’T take a long break from a campaign.” Yes, you may not PLAY for a while, but take that time and review your notes. Flesh out some NPC motivations. Think up new scenes. Review the rules. Write up a synopsis of what has happened so far (this one is great, especially if you then share it with the players, but it only works once per ‘break’.). The idea being to keep the game present in your mind. There’s no way you’re going to be able to hold onto any level of enthusiasm for a game that you haven’t so much as thought about in 8 weeks. So try to do something (ideally something a little bit “formal” where you say ‘Okay, normally I’d be running the game right now, so instead I’m going to do ‘) to keep your attention on it.

#9 Comment By BluSponge On May 11, 2015 @ 2:29 pm

Airk,

Not at all. In fact, I believe I suggested exactly that in my comment. That the way to avoid stagnation is to continue to create. Create new things for your campaign: new hooks, new npcs, new monsters, new spells, new places. Create. If you can’t create for your game, bring it back to it. But you don’t have to starve yourself or live on a diet. You do need some discipline though. And I can’t imagine a writer who does not have discipline. So con season pulls you away, Walt? How would you reframe those convention scenarios to work in your existing campaign? What would your players make of them? What would you have to change, to twist, to make them work? What does the game you are running need to make it happen? Bring it back. Build on it. Make it new again.

Or is the problem that you are too locked into the plot to insert something spontaneous, or to twist it into a new direction? It’s a different question, but it can lead to the same result.

#10 Comment By Airk On May 11, 2015 @ 2:42 pm

It’s not a question of being “locked into” the plot, so much as the fact that you DO have certain things you CAN’T conveniently change, like your protagonists and your geography and the general shape of the world. So the idea that you can just take all these wonderful ideas and just add them to your game doesn’t work for me.

#11 Comment By Ser Raime On May 11, 2015 @ 11:50 pm

If you really want to make new kingdoms (geography) or change the world from a globe to a cactus-shape, you could either add kingdoms outside the players’ known world, or add the other world as a second planet, or a dimension, etc. depending on your style of game?

#12 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On May 11, 2015 @ 4:05 pm

Thanks for all of the responses! I’ll answer generally here.

My issue with con season is that I actively help Cubicle 7 prepare events, so much of my time during the previous month is spent prepping, playtesting, and gathering GMs. If I’m plotting 1 or 2 of the event scenarios myself then it doesn’t leave a lot of time to work on my home game, especially when my home players are often drafted as con playtesters.

My tendency to “burn out” is more “enthusiasm” than “lack of ideas.” My current campaign is designed in 5 parts and each is already mapped out in broad strokes. It’s taken me 8-9 months to get through Part 1 (and I have at least one session left), so there’s plenty of campaign left. I’m just finding my mind wandering into other interesting genres/settings/RPG systems.

#13 Comment By shaninator On May 12, 2015 @ 2:00 pm

Walt, it sounds like some of your burn-out could be avoided by not planning out months of campaign in advance. Let the players surprise you and help you build the story. Their ideas and investment could excite you more

Anytime you’re running something you prepared months ago (at least for the most part), it seems to me it would affect your enthusiasm. After all, its not fresh to you.

#14 Comment By BluSponge On May 13, 2015 @ 9:22 am

I have to second what Shaninator said. It’s hard to maintain enthusiasm when you are essentially “idling” in a way. If you’ve mapped things out before hand, its harder to keep things fresh and spontaneous.

Next time, try mapping out your beginning and your ending. Leave the middle a big “?”. Sure, you’ll have ideas and its fine to write those down, but don’t actually start to map things out until you are maybe a month out. See if that makes a difference.

#15 Comment By black campbell On May 11, 2015 @ 9:14 pm

Try this: if you have scheduling differences where some of the gamers can come, but not all, do one of these games that interests you as a convention style one shot with who can show up. You get to try it, sell it to the players as a possible campaign, and go back to your campaign already in progress. Later, once the other campaign is rolling you might consider rotating campaigns — I tend to plot out “episodes” two to three nights long, and when we have more that one game in rotation, we run an “episode”, swap to the other game, then back once that “episode” is done. You might find you lean toward wanting to play one or the other — it’s certainly happened to us — but you can transition from one campaign to the other as the main event.

#16 Comment By Centaur255 On May 12, 2015 @ 2:16 pm

This is a particularly interesting post for me as I’m relatively new to roleplay GMing (been a player a bit longer), and I GM for several groups at a college campus. With graduation last week six of my groups are on break and will be gone for three months. Thanks for some thoughts on how to move forward when interest wanes (I can already feel some of the interest in some of the story arcs I’m running starting to fade); this article is very helpful.

#17 Comment By Tomcollective On May 13, 2015 @ 2:10 pm

Burn out used to be a big problem for me. Then…it just wasn’t. And it’s because my style and prepping completely changed.

I used to be very big on hitting narrative goals, building scenes, essentially constructing the campaign like a series of video game DLCs.

At some point, not even sure when it happened, but I started playing off my players. If they zigged, I zagged. Instead of pushing for specific scenes, trying to hit notes, I would have my villains plan and react organically to the game’s events.

Soon, I was prepping entirely off the seat of my pants, but it never felt that way. It felt more like playing jazz. Scenes and situations created themselves. And I found that I was looking forward to the games, not having to power through them. We had several extended breaks, and resuming was never a problem on my end or the players. I had no concept to get tired of, because it was a continually evolving. I had a lot more brain space open, because I wasn’t building my games so much as playing them right along side my players (albeit with a few more pieces).

The other thing I learned was that gaming being what it is, all these HUGE EPIC IDEAS, or even just fun ones, are probably best used in a novel, because the delivery almost always misfires, timing lags and takes the piss out of things, and most importantly, players have a way of both killing your children and facilitating the creation of something better. So I’ve adopted compass points. Directions I want to go, but that’s about as far as I take it.

#18 Comment By Centaur255 On May 13, 2015 @ 2:13 pm

Huh – interesting approach Tomcollective. Do you find that having more of a “fly by the seat of your pants” approach makes it more difficult to have a cohesive story arc, or do you find it gets easier because you can modulate the arc as your players move the action?

#19 Comment By Tomcollective On May 14, 2015 @ 9:59 am

Easier, although I should probably qualify/explain more.

I start with a premise, and maybe a few actions I know my villains will take. This in turn creates the scenes and backdrops. If the players do something “off script”, I adjust and adapt as if I were playing a rival faction, then let the points of conflict play out more or less organically. Rinse, wash, repeat. Once set up, a feedback loop happens and provides more and more grist for your campaign mill.

Something else I did was make more and better use of my player’s background/origin stories also. This increases buy in, and often creates better story moments than I could come up with myself. So each player typically had some sort of active B story relating to them going, or at the very least something running in the back of their heads.

I can’t stress the jazz metaphor enough. There is definite crafting that takes place. It’s just that instead of sweating it out ahead of time, it feels more like brainstorming as the game happens, which is actually the part of writing/storytelling that the human brain most enjoys. (or my brain anyway…)

#20 Comment By Tomcollective On May 14, 2015 @ 10:04 am

Forgot to mention this: the “story arc” starts with your idea, and inevitably changes when your players start interacting with it. The party ends up providing and creating the story arc, and since they motivate the story’s outcome, they also feel more connected to it.

#21 Comment By Centaur255 On May 14, 2015 @ 10:10 am

That’s an extremely helpful way of looking at it. I’ll need to try it out, 🙂 Thanks man!