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The GM’s High

Posted By Phil Vecchione On March 16, 2012 @ 4:00 am In GMing Advice | 17 Comments

I am frequently tired on Monday’s after I GM. At first it would be easy to say that my source of fatigue is from gaming until midnight on a Sunday. If I just went to bed right after the game, perhaps I would be less tired. The key word is “if”; if I would go to bed, or perhaps better stated, if I could go to bed. Today’s article is not so much about advice, but about something that I observed lately from being a GM, and a discovery about why I enjoy GMing so much. It just might be the reason you like GMing as well.

A Progression of Enjoyment

When I started GMing, I really liked the work that went into creating worlds. I loved to be creative and think about locations and cultures, or what stores were in the town. All of that is great, and I still love doing that today.

Years later I thought that what appealed to me about GMing was creating and telling a story to my players. I love crafting the rising action, the plot twists, and those jaw dropping reveals. To keep my players on the story arc, I had mastered the ability to subtly guide them through the story, and to anticipate their reactions so that the story always stayed on track.

As my GMing style evolved, I realized that while I liked to craft a story and have it play out to the players, what I liked even more was when I collaborated with the players and we cultured a story from the bit of sand that I brought, and watched it grow into a pearl through their input and actions, countered by my reactions. To me this has become the pinnacle of my enjoyment: collaboration.

I Can’t Sleep

As I mentioned, I game on Sunday nights, often from 8 to about 11:30. I run one of three ongoing campaigns, and am a player in the other two. On the nights that I am a player, the game wraps up, I clean up the game room, stay up for a bit, and then go to bed. On the nights that I GM, the game completes and I am buzzing. I am full of energy and creative ideas. I often have to sit and watch some TV to let my brain cool down. In those cases I wind up staying up too late, and thus come Monday morning I am tired.

I started to call this phenomenon the GM’s High (see, I got back to the title). I guess it would be like a Runners High, but honestly in this case I am a more of a stereotypical gamer in terms of physical activity. Regardless, it is a high of some sort. My wife will often tease me because I am talking to her a mile a minute, telling her about the game. It is quite real.

What Is It?

So I started to think about where this high came from and why I don’t have it on the nights when I am a player. My conclusion is that it has to do with stimulation. When you are a player you are engaging the game at a specific level. You have your times in the spotlight; you have your turns in combat. You have a lot of downtime as a player, but when you are a GM you are always on.

A GM has a lot of things to manage during a game: the players (both as a group and individuals), the NPC’s, the campaign world, the evening’s story, the rules, the pacing of the game, the timing of the game, etc. There is a lot of mental activity taking place in your mind. When the game ends, all that stimulation does not just turn off. It slowly fades, and thus you wind up too excited to just go to bed.

Getting My Fix

I don’t always get the GM’s high when I run my sessions. A tough session, where the chemistry is off, or where the game plodded along, does not produce the same level of stimulation as an intense game. So the GM’s High becomes kind of a barometer for how your game is going. If your game is running on all cylinders and your players are fully engaged and interacting with you, then your brain is fully lit up. If you don’t like your campaign, or you are having a bad session, then your mind is not as active and thus the high is lacking.

The GM High is also addictive. That feeling of excitation at the end of the game feels great. It feels so good that you want to get that same feeling again. Which can be a good thing, since you can use that as a motivator to work hard to produce a good session. But if it becomes lacking you can become restless and start looking for a different campaign, something that will produce that GM’s High. This has for me, on more than one occasion, lead to me ending a campaign to start another.

Looking For That Next Hit

The GM’s High is a great feeling, and surely one of the reasons I enjoy GMing. I love the mental challenge that GMing brings, and the endorphin-laced rewards for my labor. Though when I don’t get my fix, I start to look in other places, at other games. This can be frustrating to players, who may have never GM-ed and not experienced the high that comes with a great session.

Have you ever experienced the GM’s high? What symptoms do you have when you get the GM’s High? Have you ever jonsed for it after not getting it for a while?

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.




17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "The GM’s High"

#1 Comment By Riklurt On March 16, 2012 @ 4:56 am

I recognize this feeling – the kind of high you experience during a great session. But I wonder, does anyone else experience kind of a “crash” afterwards? Often, after a really good session, I’ll get sluggish and depressed the following day, even if I have managed to get enough sleep. I’ve always attributed this to a drop of hormones or something – does anyone else recognize it?

#2 Comment By mmoritz80 On March 16, 2012 @ 5:21 am

I’ve experienced “Gamer’s High” many times and use the term quite often when speaking to other gamers about the condition. It seems to take around 2 hours to calm down enough to actually fall asleep. This happens to me after a great game, whether I’ve GM’d or Played.

#3 Comment By Razjah On March 16, 2012 @ 6:54 am

@Riklurt – I experience a crash, but the same day. I game on Saturday from 3:30 until 7-7:30. We are playing Burning Wheel and I do my best to throw myself into the NPCs and overact everything. So far no one has any trouble remembering characters. I get a high after the game, but in a hour or so I am exhausted. I think it is kind of an emotional overload, like feeling depleted after an intense argument.

Or the crash is a receding amount of hormones and the result is the crash.

#4 Comment By JR Parsons On March 16, 2012 @ 7:19 am

I definitely experience this! I will frequently be standing at the table, bouncing on the balls of my feet and downing glass after glass of water, while my players are mostly seated. When the session ends around 10pm, I’ll immediately take Valerian and Calcium supplements to begin calming down. Even so, I spend the next two hours amped up – usually in front of the keyboard blasting ideas into my DM outlines. Some of my best ideas and concepts come out during that high!

#5 Comment By Clawfoot On March 16, 2012 @ 8:25 am

Oh, yes, I get this, too. Like you, I used to go home and sit up for a while, often jotting down notes or doing some extra prep work for the game I just finished running — riding that wave of productivity, even if it’s at 1am.

I just recently moved about an hour and a half away from my regular gaming group, so these days I actually have a “cool-down” period in the car. I turn off the stereo and let the game turn over in my head all the way home. I often come up with some good plot twists or NPCs that way. At first I was lamenting the fact that I was so far away now, but I’m actually starting to appreciate the down-time the drive affords me.

#6 Comment By John Arcadian On March 16, 2012 @ 9:08 am

This is the number one thing that wears me out at conventions. I’ll run a game, then take a break move into running the next game or a short demo, then if I have a 3rd game scheduled, I’m just toast for it. That constant up and down and feeling the endorphins takes it out of you.

#7 Comment By RocksFallBlog On March 16, 2012 @ 10:37 am

After a good session, it’s not just the GM that gets the high – often times after wrapping things up the players and I will just stand around (with their things gathered up essentially in ‘about-to-leave’ mode) and just excitedly chatter with me about the session or the future possibilities (Especially if their character leveled up!).

#8 Comment By GirlsGM2 On March 16, 2012 @ 2:46 pm

Sometimes after a really long session, I’m too tired to still have the high. I’m just ready to pass out. But in general, I would agree. It is definitely hard work because it is so mentally taxing… a glass of wine is usually my preferred calming down method, combined with post game chit chat.

#9 Comment By ouzelum On March 16, 2012 @ 5:19 pm

I’m the opposite. After long periods of tabletop gaming I have a pretty intense headache, and after I GM it’s even worse. My brain is going a mile a minute and then when all’s said and done it needs time to recover from being overworked.

#10 Comment By clight101 On March 16, 2012 @ 5:21 pm

This happens to me too as I run games. Since I don’t run most of my games at home I tend to let the high play out as I’m driving home with whoever is in my car at the moment. On the converse side I find myself to be overly reflective and trying to figure out what happened during the session if I don’t achieve this high. The funny thing is I’d never thought of it this way until I read this article and only now realize the truth of it.

#11 Comment By Lee Hanna On March 16, 2012 @ 9:35 pm

Oh, yes. I’ve noticed my speech speeding up for good sessions, and standing in the driveway or parking lot for an hour or more with gamebooks in hand, not ready to go.

It’s not just GMing. One of my annual cons is strictly monster-sized war games– we play the same game for 12 hours, 7 days straight, and no one wants to go to bed at midnight. Even then I lie awake for 2 more hours, just geeked, and wake up early to do it all over again.

I have felt the emotional crash (“Aw who am I kidding, that sucked!”), but usually, the immediate post-game is the best time to start planning the next session. Often, I will do that for an hour or two after cleanup, and then leave the game alone until a few days before the next session.

#12 Comment By iserith On March 16, 2012 @ 10:19 pm

And here I thought this was the booze and…

#13 Comment By danroth On March 16, 2012 @ 10:20 pm

Aw hellz yeah, and I love it!

I’ve never had a crash afterwards, though.

As a player, I don’t feel the same way after a game, though it does generally put me in a good mood (or else I wouldn’t do it, I suppose). If I go more than a few months without gaming, I realize how fulfilling it is for me. Usually the reason I don’t game for a while is time constraints, but when I start feeling the emptiness and longing, I realize how important it actually is to me, and I MAKE the time.

#14 Comment By Redcrow On March 16, 2012 @ 11:41 pm

I definitely have experienced the GM ‘high’ after some game sessions.

Over the years I’ve noticed certain patterns that for me seem to contribute to my enjoyment of a game session and effectiveness as a GM.

First I try to make sure I am well rested before a game and will often take a short nap or even just sit, relax, and imagine scenes from the approaching game session. Real life isn’t always so accomodating and on occasion I find myself working on a non-gaming related project or other right before the game and if its too strenuous it can be debilitating to my GMing ability for the night. Though whenever possible I try to rest immediately before the game.

Second I make sure to eat something BEFORE the game. Years ago I would pitch in with everyone else and get pizza, burgers, tacos, etc.; but I have noticed that those types of foods also seem to have a debilitating effect on my GMing. Something simple and light 30 minutes to 1 hour before the game works best for me.

Third is that immediately after the game I spend at least an hour unwinding by writing game related notes while the session is still fresh in my mind. This often consists of recounting events to see if everyone had some time in the spotlight and if not to try and include something for the next session.

As long as I’m able to accomplish those 3 things I find I’m much more effective as a GM and the game session is much more enjoyable for everyone. I also don’t suffer from any sort of crash after the GM ‘high’ wears off.

#15 Comment By BryanB On March 19, 2012 @ 3:20 pm

There are times when I can’t shut my brain off, particularly after a good game session. I’ve also run into this with playing computer games or reading really good books late at night. It’s like my brain revs up for maximum processing and enjoyment and then it won’t slow back down when it is time for bed.

#16 Comment By Scott Martin On March 19, 2012 @ 3:43 pm

I’ve enjoyed it the feeling too; not every session or every session that I GM, but often. Often I unwind by thinking or talking through what needs to happen on the drive home, but I hate losing the good ideas that crop up on the drive but don’t get cemented with paper. I usually remember them just after I present the choice that leads the players away from whatever cool thing I’d imagined…

#17 Comment By Locke On March 23, 2012 @ 2:20 pm

No crash after the GM High for me, except for being exhausted the next day and my wife grumbling because I stayed up too late. :)

I hadn’t thought of using my after-session feelings as a barometer for how the game is going, but I have to agree. When the session drags and my players start rules-lawyering, I end the session and head up to bed, eager to put the whole thing behind me. When everyone is having fun and the halfling is jumping out of windows (long story), I just can’t quiet down enough to sleep. I’ll have to evaluate those down times to see what I can do to make sure they don’t happen very often.


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