Burnout Mechanic for PbtA games

Tod's picture

According to "The Four Stages of Burnout" model (Mark Gorkin), professional burnout works like this: If Results, Rewards, Recognition and Relief are continually withheld from a hardworking person who constantly gives their all, that person will begin to advance through these four stages in order: (1) Exhaustion, (2) Shame/Doubt, (3) Cynicism/Callousness, and (4) Helplessness/Crisis.

This system is designed to model that dynamic. It is especially intended for *W-style games focusing on high-stress high-performance jobs, such as cops, military, EMTs, doctors, nurses, private detectives, etc. It's intended for the sort of player who's into complex characters, conflicting emotions and deep roleplay; I wouldn't really suggest it for casual players.

NOTE: The fourth stage "Crisis" may include an attempted suicide, whether consciously intended or not. Note that this is a potentially loaded topic, and the MC should have a clear idea of the player's lines and veils before going there.


Burnout Points work on a "countdown clock" similar to hits.
You basically have 6 of them before entering the next stage of burnout.

Every 24 hours, the workload of each Client/Job causes 1 BP to be acquired automatically.
In addition, game events may affect this value in play:


  • Any 6- roll
  • Losing something to a rival
  • Any sort of Bad Relationship scene
  • Getting screwed on pay, conned or misled
  • Being passed over for a promotion or sweet assignment
  • Getting dissed/misquoted in the news, name spelled wrong
  • Getting transferred to a crappy location
  • Being belittled by a respected character or someone with rank
  • Having sex with strings tied to it, the kind you wish you hadn't
  • Losing a competent underling
  • Losing a night's sleep
  • Going on a bender


  • Get a new job/client
  • Any 10+ roll
  • Getting 1 XP for anything else
  • Getting paid in full or fairly compensated
  • Winning an award, being treated to a luxurious meal/drinks
  • Being assigned or inheriting something valuable or useful
  • Getting mentioned in the news, interviewed, photographed
  • Getting a promotion or transfer to a better location
  • Having an important character acknowledge their debt to you
  • Having sex with nothing negative about it
  • Hiring/acquiring a competent underling
  • Taking two days off

When you take your 6th Burnout Point, you enter the next STAGE OF BURNOUT. Write it on your sheet (in pencil) and clear the BP clock.

1) Exhaustion (Physical, Mental and Emotional)
2) Shame or Doubt
3) Cynicism or Callousness
4) Failure, Helplessness or Crisis

Each time you progress to a new stage of Burnout, you must choose one of the following symptoms. NOTE: Choosing the same symptom multiple times IS allowed, provided they are each uniquely defined.

[ ] penalty to professional efficacy, ability to perform (-1 to one stat until this stage is removed)
[ ] mood swings, neuroses, forgetfulness, anger (roleplay)
[ ] chemical dependencies, self-medication (roleplay)
[ ] inability to support/tolerate those who depend on you (roleplay)

The Stages work the same backwards as forwards: As BP are reduced, you go back down through the stages one at a time. As each stage is left behind, its symptom is removed. If the character has an opportunity to take an extended vacation between sessions (at least one week for each Burnout Stage), the character may be assumed to have recovered in full - but only if the player wishes them to.

Tod's picture

The context is basically a hard-boiled cop/detective drama. High pressure, high performance, high expectations, and major personal issues. But I figure the same mechanic could be used for military, fire/rescue, EMTs, doctors/nurses, and other high-pressure professional jobs.

It would definitely be good to include this on the splat (or at least some indicators of the general types of things you might expect BP to be accrued for). I'm picturing a totally different layout for these BP hits, something like this, perhaps...

[ ] [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ] = Exhaustion  [Symptom: _____________________]
[ ] [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ] = Doubt/Shame [Symptom: _____________________]
[ ] [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ] = Cynicism    [Symptom: _____________________]
[ ] [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ] = Crisis      [Symptom: _____________________]

And that means you can easily see which symptom to remove when you go down a Stage.

Nathan H.'s picture

I wanna say something about how burn-out is necessary to show the growing pains before a perspective shift, and doesn't often effect ability.

How do you reflect the often circuitously obtained perspective shift in story, in something like a game.
I think just granting negatives to chance of success is gonna slow down play. I mean play is slowed down because you're waiting for approval from an authority, either a game, a person or likely a combination of both.

I think treating stress like the short-term reward it can sometimes feel like, would be better. The most interesting, to me, part of stress, is how it effects other people(players).

Like in The Shadow of Yesterday, the neatest Keys are the ones that effect other players, selfishly.

I mean, what you have written is Fright Checks, which are neat, but if nothing changes, if the character doesn't change, if the plot doesn't shift in some way, it's pointless(to me).

Tod's picture

This is nothing at all like Fright Checks, and only grants negatives to chances of success if that's the 1 out of the 4 symptoms you chose for yourself. You don't seem to have read me very clearly.
But: In the pursuit of experience or plot beats or whatever in the game motivates you, you are likely to take on more stress, and you may certainly choose to connect the symptoms of stress (and its overcoming) to your roleplay in a more long-term way, i.e. character development. (I mean, please do, but I'm not gonna force you by making that a rule.)

Demiurge's picture

Hi Tod,

I like this idea even if it hits a bit too close to home (all four of those stages and I are close, personal friends).

In the rules as written, it seems that there is no difference between the four stages, aside from accumulating symptoms after each stage. Shouldn't there be different lists for each level of burnout? Otherwise, they all look kind of the same. I wouldn't expect someone to become drug-dependent right away at the Exhaustion stage, and neither would I expect some additional irritability at the Crisis stage.

Some other ideas regarding symptoms:
- Difficulty concentrating (early stage) through to inability to work at all (later stage)
- Actual physical symptoms (nausea, chronic pain, even a new disease like heart disease, diabetes, or stomach ulcers)
- Difficulty sleeping (early stage) through to total insomnia (later stage)
- Depression
- Quitting job
- Extended medical leave
- Suicidality

I'm not sure this sounds fun to me, but it's realistic! :D

I hope that helps,

Tod's picture

Thanks! I like your list and the point you made, so I'm thinking about that now. Here's where I was coming from:

My intent is to be non-prescriptive at the symptom level, allowing players to pick up the reins and be descriptive, tying things together in whatever way works for their character and their narrative arc (which of course I cannot foresee). So from our "meta" level, yes, the four lists look identical and that might cause a failure of player imagination (i.e. it might be a design problem)... but then again it also allows for personalized responses to burnout that another person (like you or me) might not have considered associated with a particular stage.

For example: You believe Drug Addiction sounds unlike Exhaustion, but in my life it was the first symptom I picked up when I experienced my first burnout back in the late 90s: I started doing speed to stay awake and "get my brain going"... which led to dependency, and more problems, and eventually I needed to kick it. Now, If I view myself as a PC, certainly I didn't know I was in the first stage of burnout. I was in denial. I viewed my behavior as a solution (a bad solution) to my problem. But my Player could have totally known it, and selected addiction as the symptom.

Demiurge's picture

Hi Tod,

Yeah, that makes total sense. So in the rules themselves you're focusing on the mechanical effect, and letting the players figure out what it means story-wise to their character?

I could see this working in a campaign that focuses less on combat (and hit points and wounds) and where you want the focus to be more on mental health instead and dig in with some detail. I don't know much about those 4 stages of burnout, so maybe an extra sentence or two of description of each would help me, as a player, to come up with symptoms that feel right for that stage?

I'm sorry to hear you went through such a crappy burnout experience. I've so far avoided substance abuse. Instead, I squash my misery and emotions through pure willpower and then become depressed (it turns out that joy and sorrow are two sides of the same coin--if you throw out the coin you lose both). Things have been going a bit better lately and I've been feeling less burned out. I hope your characters feel better soon too ;)


DeReel's picture

I wish you the best in your life.
I want to add a note : combat and wounds (obviously, not hit points, but Harm ? totally) can be totally descriptive, too, @Demiurge : old habits...

Demiurge's picture

Yes, vacation is so important to ending burnout. As a parent, it's very hard for me to have a real vacation (where *I* actually get to relax). I think it's a big part of why I feel burnt out all the time...

Demiurge's picture

Paul, some friends, and I are currently playing Freebooting Venus. It has a very descriptive hit point system that's been interesting to try out. If you're interested we can start a new thread and talk about it.