I had every intention this week of writing an article about using rules outside of their initial design, and the pitfalls and opportunities that surround that. That was the plan, and I promise that at some point I will come back to that topic. Instead, I wanted to talk about something that I think every GM who has been behind the screen long enough has encountered… a slump.

Not The S Word?!

Slump. S-l-u-m-p. There I said it. I have been trying to avoid admitting it for a while, but it’s been stalking me, session to session for some time. I am in a GMing Slump.

When I say slump, I am not burned out. That comes with a dread about running a game or even about the entire hobby. I have been there, and would have been less embarrassed to admit that. We all get burnout, and after unplugging for a time, most people recover and get back into gaming.

A slump is different. I want to run a game…I really want to run a game, but the combination of what I am running, how I am running it, and my group is producing something like soda that is about to go flat. There is some fleeting taste of something good, but you know that it’s off. If I know it’s off, my players have to know it as well.

The way I am sure we know it’s off is by looking at the wake of discarded campaigns in the past year: All For One, Corporation, Agents of Oblivion, and finally a Savage Worlds Supers game. Four campaigns in a year, and I only run every 2-3 weeks. It’s not a good sign.

What Caused My Slump?

Good question. I think I know some things that are factors, but if I knew the answer with any certainty I would be working to rectify the problem. What I do know is that I feel like I am not growing much as a GM at this time. I have a formula for starting up a campaign and for creating stories. I have it worked out to the point where it’s become too easy. There is no passion behind it.

One contributing factor is that I am running games that have a very traditional, scenario/scene type of session. What I mean is that as GM, I come up with a plot for the session, I break it down into scenes, frame them out, and stock them with challenges. Then as a group, the players come and we sit down, and I run them through the plot, they overcome the challenges…lather, rinse, repeat.

I am also struggling with the games I am running. I am yearning for less traditional types of games. I have a few heartbreaker games that I have never run; Underground and Star Trek. I have games that I have been intimidated to run: Burning Wheel and Dogs in the Vineyard. I have games that I would love to run, but my group does not want to play them: Burning Empires and Call/Trail of Cthulhu.

I have also been running for essentially the same group of people for 15 years, give or take a guy here and there. Don’t take that the wrong way, these guys are family to me, and we have grown up together, we have watched each other get married, divorced, have kids, etc. I love these guys. I also know them like the back of my hand, and they know me equally. They have seen my bag of tricks, and I can anticipate their moves most of the time.

There is also real life. The past few years have not always been easy. There have been ups and downs; responsibilities at home and work have increased; and life seems just a bit more serious than it did a few years ago. That seriousness has made it hard in my group to play things that are dark or gritty (a favorite tone and style of mine).

As these bleak stars aligned, I sank into this rut of running different games that are all kind of the same in the way they play, and how I run them. The end result has been a rather lackluster showing as a GM, and a quiet (mostly quiet) frustration.

Finding My Way Out

I am not sure how I got into this slump, but the first thing I did was to admit I was in one. The second thing I did, which was very hard for me, was to get out from behind the screen and stop GMing (for now…). I turned my game over to one of the guys in my group, who is going to GM for the near future, and I am going to be a player in the game.

The next part won’t be as easy. I need to shake things up; try new things; break out of that comfort zone. A plan has started to formulate over the past couple of weeks. I need to change everything up: run for some different people, run something different from what I have played before, change up my GMing style.

A year ago this plan would have been next to impossible, but this year I have been fortunate enough to meet some incredible gamers in my area, as well as became the advisor to the RPG and Anime club that runs on my campus. So finding people won’t be a problem. I am not saying abandon my group, but rather expand the people I game with to include others, some who I cannot anticipate, to keep me on my toes, and whom I can learn from.

As for what to run, I am going to treat myself, and run one of my heartbreakers, Underground. This is a game that I have wanted to run since I picked it up at Crazy Igor’s in Rochester NY, back in the 90′s when it came out. I own every supplement for it, in both print and PDF. I have tried to run it once for my group, but it never got off the ground due to lack of interest. I figure if I am going to run something, run something I am passionate about.

Finally, a way to change up my GMing style, and get away from the traditional scenario/scene type of play. I would like to move to a more reactive style of play, where the players drive the story, and I play off of them. Not so much total improv, as in not having anything prepared, but rather to have prepared groups, seeds of plots, etc, and based on the players actions bring them into and out of play.

For that I am going do to some old fashion hard work. I am going to study. There are a number of games that have these features, that I can learn from: Dresden Files (creating a city & aspects), Apocalypse  World (Fronts and moves), and Technoir (Transmissions). I plan to study and learn from these games, taking elements that appeal to me and working them into my game. Get back into experimenting with my style, try different things, and stop being safe.

There Is Only Up

Slumps happen, even to guys who spend their time blogging and writing books about GMing. What you do when you realize you are in a slump is what is important. It’s about getting back to that zone where your passion for the game drives your creativity, where your energy at the table becomes infectious to your players, and the combination of the story you tell and the actions the players take creates a dramatic fabric that you remember for years to come.

For me, it is a vision quest. A walk into the wilderness with the goal of finding something that I lost, so that I can return to my home group renewed, and GM for them once again. Sometime down the line, I promise you there will be an article called “How Phil Got His Groove Back.”

How about you? Have you ever been in a GMing slump? What caused it? How did you find your way out? For extra credit, feel free to impart any advice you might have for how I can get out of my slump.

About  Phil Vecchione

A gamer for 30 years, Phil cut his teeth on Moldvay D&D and has tried to run everything else since then. He has had the fortune to be gaming with the same group for almost 20 years. When not blogging or writing RPG books, Phil is a husband, father, and project manager. More about Phil.



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11 Responses to The Dreaded Slump

  1. You’ve been doing the same things for quite some time, and the structure of how you do something can seem cliché and therefore boring. Here are some ways to solve that.

    1) Ask your players. Do they think it’s the same thing again and again? Never ask questions that can be answered “yes” or “no”, because they wont give you anything. Instead, ask “What kind of elements in the stories do you think has been reoccuring?”. After asking your players, be more aware of it and change it. You don’t have to remove that element, just twist it a little. You could also discover that what you think is cliché is something that the players never thought of.

    2) Get some new energy into your world. Join a new group for a while or go to play on conventions. Try playing board or card games with your group. You probably have barbecues together. Try socialize with your friends with other means.

    3) Play RPGs with a different kind of play style. You suggest AW, but AW in it’s brilliance is still traditional gaming. Take a look at InSpectres or for a free RPG – Lady Blackbird. In both those games, the players are driving the story in a more kind of improve way than having preplanned scenarios. If you could speak either Swedish or French, I would recommend some GM less games with focus on relations. The English roleplaying games that I can think of are While The World Ends (a Swedish author) and Fiasco. I had some really strong sessions with WtWE, and if you search on Youtube you can find a video with Will Wheaton playing Fiasco.

  2. I’ve been feeling a little slumped recently as well. This was a nice pep-talk!

    I’m going to take several weeks off during the Holidays, spend some time with other hobbies, and come back refreshed in January.

  3. The slump…. yes, I know it well.

    Anytime you have been doing one hobby for 25-30+ years you are bound to have the slump. It is just about inevitable.

    This is particularly true if you have gamed with the same people for 10-15 plus of those years. People get to know each others playstyles and GM tendencies. This is both a boon and a curse.

    During a slump, I still maintain an interest in playing or even running games. What happens to me is a stifling of creativity. A sudden inability to both create interesting NPCs and to weave together the concepts/ideas needed to prepare a series for play.

    Sometimes you even have the “been there, done that” feeling no matter what you come up with. Or even worse, you get into a spot in your train of thought that you become unable to think out a logical or sensical resolution to a plot point you have worked on.

    Real life can have a huge impact on hobby time and hobby interest levels. 2012 has been the hardest year of my life. It was hard on my family and friends too. I lost my wife this year to a very rare and aggresive form of cancer. Last November we attended a gaming mini con together with friends in Denver. Last December she got really sick. In Feb/March, she was diagnosed with MPNST. In September she passed away. Gaming really meant nothing to me during this time. Even now, it just doesn’t hold the same level of appeal for me. I continue to game mostly out of habit and the need for comraderie. It also provides an outlet to take my mind off of this arduous and surreal year.

    I’m currently running the Kingmaker Adventure Path using Pathfinder. It is a published series of linked modules that comes closest to my GM style. I still suffer from a creative slump but the AP lets me run games with less prep effort and it still leaves me enough room to add my own ideas if creativity sparks. Even as an experienced GM, it is sometimes a good thing to fall back on the work of others and not have to fret so much over plots, NPCs, maps, and the like. I guess my message here is don’t be afraid to steal or borrow from published material. And don’t be afraid to try something new. The FATE engine rekindled my interest levels in the hobby back when I was actually burned out completely (2007).

    And that got way longer than I thought it would so I will stop now. :D

  4. I know the slump all too well. It happened to me right around the end of 3.5 D&D’s life span just before 4e got announced. That game was just so frustrating for me to run at the the time and the people I were playing with and the play style just didn’t work for me. I also didn’t realize what else was out there at the time. Nowadays I find the large group of players I have access too through the organization I’m involved with, 80+ players realistically, allows for me to play a variety of games and with a variety of people. I must say I’m very lucky but more to the point of people who are getting stuck in a rut there is some amazing stuff happening on G+ these days. So many hangout games and groups in the communities have sprung up and these days. Right now you can almost find a Fate Core game to play daily and that’s just one community. If you need a switch and don’t have the resource of a local organization then that’s where I’d go.

  5. From where I’m sitting the problem is that you have a group that has been together etc etc etc.

    Your instinct to get out and meet new groups is a good one. My further advice is that if you have a population of gamers you can tap into, don’t form a new group and then float a game, float the game in a public arena and see who shows up to play.

    I did this after much hemming and hawing about three years ago. I had a small group, but they wanted only to play X in Y fashion and I wanted to stretch my wings. So I relocated my gaming hobby to my local friendly gaming store and I’ve never looked back.

    From a rather forced monthly game of Call of Cthulhu that only I and one other wanted to play to a monthly Delta Green game people beg to get into, a bi-monthly Deadlands:Reloaded game that is getting more popular by the session, and an unexpectedly enjoyable Space 1889:Red Sands game I’m just now having difficulty getting on the calendar.

    Not only that, the failed experiments were all worth the effort: Dresden Files that failed because the players didn’t understand the GM isn’t supposed to do ALL the work in that one, A Song of Ice and Fire which had me (as a player) at loggerheads with the other players over stupid stuff, Solomon Kane where I found I cannot game with people who bring D&D wisdom to every game and Gamma World which was an excuse for Just Plain Fun and only failed in that I had to bail before the Big Ending. Sorry Joe, I had a ball.

    Your group is in a slump, not just you, because they won’t encompass the games you so obviously need to get out of your system (and you should not attempt them with this group because the experience will be forced and Not Good). This does not make them bad people.

    Get another group. Get several for Azathoth’s sake and do different style games with each. You’ll not have much fun trying to get WoD fanatics to play Dresden Files RPG, I can tell you from personal experience. This advice does not preclude gaming as always with your current group of course.

    This isn’t religion. You are allowed to have lots of different (even mutually un-mixable) groups with whom you associate in the hobby.

    Hell, years ago I used to turn up to my game club in my TR6, my other great interest at the time. You couldn’t get two more different worlds than the geek gaming and home mechanic ones. The people I met in them would definitely not mix well with each other for the most part. Didn’t mean they weren’t fun people to hang out with, just that I didn’t try and cross-pollinate the two groups.

    Good luck in the hunt. I’d LOVE to play in your Dresden files game so I could sanity check my own GM experience.

    • To use a colloquialism that’s a bit trite, you don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Sometimes revitalizing a group just takes adding a little new blood. One or two new players that are excited about the game can jazz things up for the players who’ve been around for a while.

      My group hit a slump a couple years ago. It didn’t matter who was running, we really couldn’t keep a game alive. I’d finally had it, so I kind of rebooted things for the group. I brought in two players (that everyone knew, but we didn’t get to game with regularly) and gave us a more systematic approach to gaming. It was what we needed to kind of get us in gear.

      • To use a colloquialism: WTF? Nobody suggested throwing out anything. What part of “This advice does not preclude gaming as always with your current group of course.” was difficult to understand?

        Phil’s article was quite clear in that he had been trying to revitalize his group and his games (plural) were still in a slump.

        Phil specifically writes that he is in a position to drastically widen his gaming circle and my personal experience is that why have one game group when you can have three? Or five? Or however many you feel you can handle, each populated by people who want to play that particular game more than any other?

        Phil writes explicitly that his group will not contemplate playing some of the games he dearly wants to run, and that attempts to force the issue have ended badly for everyone.

        Plus a clear tone of Burnout is coming across, which is as much about everyone knowing everyone’s moves as anything else.

        My own actual experience in identical circumstances is that getting a group who WANT to play a game is much more satisfying than persuading an established group to try something new against their general wishes. I want to run the game, not evangelize it as I GM. If I’m running Paranoia, I want people there who are into Paranoia, not whiners who need persuading to stop fiddling with an iPad every two minutes to play a game they clearly do not wish to get involved with and therefore will not engage with. It’s a waste of everyone’s energy that could better be used in creative play.

        Perhaps a less superficial reading of both the article and my response would have been in order before tossing out terms like “Trite” (with the baby and the bathwater, which were all hurled by your good self, not me).

  6. Understand the situation as I’ve been in a GM slump for about a year. Last campaign I ran regularly (using D&D 3.75 rules, err, 3.5 with a bunch of heavy modding on my part) wound up taking a nose dive when one of the players in the group passed away. I’ve looked at other systems, run a few things using 4e D&D Gamma World, SUPERS! RPG, ICONS RPG, D&D Next, and a couple others that I forget. Nothing has really clicked with me. Same group for past score years or so. Recently decided to start up a Warhammer Fantasy campaign using the 2nd ed rules but the 1st ed setting and after going through setting things up, reading the material and re-familiarizing myself with the rules, I find myself looking at other game systems, thinking about other settings, and wondering maybe something there might trigger a massive resurgence of desire to run things. Maybe it’s borderline burn-out but I DO want to run something regularly. Ehh, don’t know. Definitely be interested in seeing what you wind up doing.

  7. “I plan to study and learn from these games, taking elements that appeal to me and working them into my game. Get back into experimenting with my style, try different things, and stop being safe.”

    Phil, have you ever considered that taking elements that appeal to you and working them into your games perhaps is your safe comfort zone.

    If you want to get out of your habits run a game straight. No hacks, no picking out the best parts. Just do what the game book says.

    You’re clearly well read, I’m sure you have a game out there that you can make a small compromise for.

  8. Recently my mother (of all people!) brought me a book she found in a used bookstore, just because it had a pair of d6′s on the cover.

    The book is the Bare Bones Multiverse (published by scaldcrow games) Generic System Core Rulebook. If you ever wanted to try something that is driven by the players and the story, and can literally make everyone happy with their characters, give this a shot. It is designed to allow you to run any story, and I mean that.

    The first time I ran it, it took my players, with a bit of help from me, a half hour to make characters. And then we played for a solid 3 hours, with no problems. I was amazed at how complex my game became with no hitches at all, on its trial run!

    I hope you read this and give it a shot, it will make you a better gm regardless of what you ultimately wish to run.

  1. Revving the GM Slump « M. Darin Young

    [...] Phil Vecchione over at Gnome Stew posted awhile back that he had found himself in the dreaded S-word recently, the GM Slump. [...]

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