There are times as GMs when we get burned out. We have too much going on, the game is not going right, etc. We get to a point where we don’t want to run the game, and we either cancel a session or sometimes kill a campaign to end the suffering. Other times, everything is great with your game, but scheduling does not work out, and weeks go by before you get a session going. In that time, between games, where nothing comes together, you are in the doldrums. Right now, that is exactly where I am. So let’s talk about it.
The name comes from the nautical community for an equatorial region of the Atlantic Ocean with calms, sudden storms, and light unpredictable winds, where sometimes ships just grind to a halt, trapped, and waiting for a change of wind to push them out. Today, it is synonymous with a state or period of inactivity, stagnation, or depression. For our discussion, we are going to focus on the period of inactivity and stagnation. Depression is something else and beyond the scope of this article.
Games only progress when they are being played. The act of playing a session progresses the story. There are other activities we can do to help support the game when we are not running sessions, like session prep, campaign prep, etc., but a game only progresses when it is played.
The doldrums then, are cases where the game is not progressing. The most common case for this is scheduling issues. Life is complicated and the pandemic has only made it more complex. Canceled games are not uncommon, and a canceled game every now and then is not an issue, it only becomes an issue when those cancellations stack up.
For me, my current doldrums is a mix of vacation plans, family activities, and covid, among myself and the members of my group. Those things are just life being life. It is how they have stacked up, resulting in my two main campaigns having not run since July.
The Pitfall of The Doldrums
There are two issues with the doldrums. The first is loss or lack of energy. In a recent article, I wrote about ERI, the energy return on investment, that gaming provides. We get emotional energy out of the games we run. If we are not running them, then we are not getting an influx of positive emotional energy. Prolonged, this lack of energy can cause your excitement for the game to wane or your interest to fade.
The second is somewhat related to the first and that is the new shiny. For those unfamiliar, the new shiny is a reference to a new game that captures your interest and excitement causing you to drop your current game and chase the new shiny and get it to the table. While the new shiny is really a constant threat, when you are in the doldrums, your current game is both not feeding your positive energy nor are you busy running it, which can cause you to get bored and seek that excitement elsewhere.
Combatting the Doldrums
Often there is not much you can do to make the doldrums end. The events that have blocked your game day are likely the kind of life things that we have little control over – a child’s birthday party, someone getting covid, or someone’s vacation.
You can try to do some scheduling juggling and reschedule games on off-nights, but depending on how busy the members of your group are, that will have limited success.
Riding out the Doldrums
Your better plan is to find a way to ride out the doldrums. You need to keep that positive energy up while fighting off the urges of the new shiny. There is no one way to do this, so let me give you a few different sets of ideas:
Work on Your Game
You can do things that are not running the game during the doldrums to keep your interest and energy up. Here are some ideas:
- Get an in-character chat going on text
- Update your campaign notes.
- Make some terrain/Paint some minis
- Re-read the rulebook (trust me, you will learn something new every time)
- Read some supplements
Work on Gaming-Related Things
If you don’t want to work on your game directly, then do some gaming-related things like this:
- Organize your gaming gear/space
- Binge/catch up on some gaming podcasts (like this and this)
- Make some terrain/Paint some minis for something that is not for your game
- Read up on some other games (as long as you are not worried about the new shiny)
- Play some board games/video games
- Play a solo/journaling game
Do some non-Gaming Related Things
This might be the time you take a break from RPGs and charge up. Here are some ideas:
- Read a book (getting ideas from media is always good)
- Watch some shows (same thing)
- Get outside and make some vitamin D
- Engage your other non-gaming hobbies
- Organize your living space
For me, I did some gaming-related and some non-gaming things. I played a bunch of Minecraft, worked on a one-shot Cortex Prime game, did a bunch of cooking and baking, and caught up on a bunch of shows I was behind on.
I am still a bit restless about getting back to the table, as I really want to resume both of my campaigns, but I am happy with the things I did during that time.
Getting Back to the Table
When the doldrums come to an end, it is important to spark some energy for the return to the game. Take some time and send out a message to your group reminding them of the upcoming game, and include some notes on what was going on just before you stopped playing. Get people excited to get to the game.
When you do start playing, do an extensive recap to help get people back up to speed on where you were and what you were doing. If your game hit the doldrums when it was fairly new, go back and re-introduce the characters so that everyone remembers who they are. Then get gaming.
The Winds of Change
The doldrums are hard to avoid. They are often the convergence of scheduled events and unexpected things that knock a game out for a longer-than-desired period of time. During that time we can get bored and restless as our influx of positive emotional energy is interrupted. It is important that during that time we do things to help us keep that energy up so that when schedules align, we return to the table excited and ready to play.
Have you hit the doldrums before? What did you do to combat them?
For me one thing that helps with dealing with the doldrums is reviewing the old logs for my games. Looking over the records of the earlier games reminds me what made me excited abou the game in the first place.
What helps me is to do something inspiring. Like watching another group play (e.g. Critical Role) or reading a book with a medieval or fantasy setting.