Wisdom of the Masters: When to Take a Break
This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Sixty Four on 5 May 2021.
(outside the stables)
Ryu: All right everyone, I’m packed, I’ll see you all later.
Lennon: Wait, where are you going?
Ryu: I have time off.
Lennon: Who authorized that?
Ostron: I did. Things are looking to be kind of slow for the upcoming week. And think of it this way, if Ryu’s not here, neither is the KDM.
Lennon: I suppose that’s true.
Ryu: Everyone needs a break, man. You should consider taking one, in fact.
Lennon: Nah. No breaks, no sleep, just focussing on the job at hand. It’s never done me any harm.
Ostron: Last week you spent three days walking around with a piece of raw chicken, offering it to the furniture.
Lennon: Look, I swear we missed one of the mimics from that infestation. You know my feelings on meat; that hurt me far more than it hurt you.
Ryu: Yeah because when you got to the Alchemy cave Cinder snapped it out of your hands.
Ostron: I reaally think a break would be a good idea for you, pal. Look, let’s talk it over.
Whether it’s a continual scheduling conflict, need to creatively recharge, or reaching a major breakpoint in a campaign, taking a break from D&D is something that can and possibly should happen. While most breaks are unintentional, there is wisdom in planning a break.
Assuming it isn’t just happening because one of your players was accosted by a hungry panther, it helps to recognize signs that a group is in need of some time apart from the game. Big ones include obvious tension in the group where none existed, and engagement with the story. If players are snapping at each other more than usual, or having their characters do it, or if there is a lot more indecision or apathy about directions in the campaign, it could be a sign that the players are getting burned out. Similarly if you as the DM are having trouble pushing the story forward, are feeling unprepared even though you have a lot of your info ready to go, or if you’re approaching game sessions with a sense of obligation or even fear, all of those could be warning signs that a break is necessary.
Now, a lot of that can happen once in a while; players or DMs can have a bad day, or have something big happen. If nothing else, the year 2020 taught us that outside influences can directly affect the games we play even if the games are perfectly fine. A bad session or two isn’t a warning sign. We’re talking about an emerging pattern, where player groups that used to coordinate and work together are now constantly at odds both on and off the table, or where you would breeze through combat sessions and now you’re constantly trying to remember to get initiative and find stat blocks.
If you decide a break is necessary, it’s worth checking with your players first. Some of them likely don’t need or don’t think they need a break.
Lennon: Stop looking at me like that.
Games that don’t meet as often are less likely to have burnout issues. Games where the meeting is once a month are unlikely to have players feeling overwhelmed very often, but pressure will increase faster with weekly games. It’s very possible some of the players may not need a break while others do. For some of your players, yours may be their only game, but it’s possible some of them may be playing in 2 other games and DMing a third. If a majority of them say they’re burning out it’s better to deal with it early than wait for the last holdouts to cave, because by then the ones who are already on the edge may make the decision for you.
If you determine a break is warranted, there are two approaches you can take; what we’re calling a total break, or a soft break.
A total break is a complete suspension of anything planned. No meetings, no games, nada. Everyone to their corners, we’ll reconvene whenever. If you do decide to take a break from meeting altogether, however, be sure that it is planned. Have a clearly defined start and end time for the break, and confirm with the entire party before taking one.
Some people, particularly those who’ve been burned in the past, will interpret a break as the end. Unfortunately D&D games can suffer the same fate as relationships: a short break will turn into a longer break and then suddenly months have gone by and everyone’s talking about that game you used to play together. Apart from discussing it in advance, be sure to stay in communication during the break; oftentimes groups will dissolve due to lack of communication, which can lead to a lack of enthusiasm or excitement.
Ideally these types of breaks should be short; probably only the length of one or two spans of time when you would normally meet. If you met weekly, take up to two weeks off. If you met biweekly, don’t go more than a month. Taking them too often or having a break last too long can lead to dissolution of a group due to ever-increasing scheduling conflicts. Additionally, players may find another group to play in, or in the worst case, fall of the face of the planet.
An alternative that may work just as well is what we’re calling a soft break. This just means you try other activities during the same time slot. If you want to keep the gathering D&D themed, you can try some other DnD-themed games, such as Lords of Waterdeep or Dungeon Mayhem. If you want to try some DM-less adventures, give Blood Queen’s Defiance a shot to encourage players to learn how to DM – after all, there are a dearth of DMs in 5th edition, but a glut of content.
If the group doesn’t want to do D&D during the break, play other games you might not normally be able to – be it a minis game, social game, or other board game the group likes or enjoy. These “off weeks” are great for casual socializing, which is often when new ideas can bubble up while chatting around the table.
Another benefit is getting refreshed. While DnD games can be tremendously fun, they can be tiring after playing non-stop. Players and DMs alike can take the non-meeting time to recharge their creative batteries. Often this can lead to more engaged players, a DM that has the mental capacity for creating new content on the fly, and everyone’s mood will generally be more engaged. Best of all, having some downtime can lead to fun “backroom” discussions, where players can discuss new ideas with their DM and vice versa.
When the party finally comes back together, you may want to spend some time spinning everyone back up on what’s going on. If you’re starting a new campaign, have it be a session zero. Most importantly, make sure everyone around the table is still having fun. DnD shouldn’t ever feel like an obligation, and if you as a DM or player start to feel that way, discussing it with the group in the context of possibly taking a break is always a good place to start.
Lennon: All right, fine, I suppose a break might be a good idea.
Ryu: Music to my ears, I’ll see you next week.
Ryu: Come on! You approved this!
Ostron: I approved it to start after the scrying pool is taken care of. And that wasn’t my decision; that was RaeRae.
Ryu: Ugh, fine. Peaches, heel. Why is she growling at that water trough anyway, she just drinks from the reservoir? Anyway, let’s go.