Burnout Mechanic for *W games

edited May 2014 in Story Games
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. This thread is an excellent place to get your bearings on thinking about this subject.


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.


  • Wow! This is very curious and interesting.

    Lots to think about.

    Not sure how I feel about Burnout being linked to successful and failed rolls, though. I think that might be missing the boat a bit here (but, of course, it depends on the particular moves the game you're using this with has).
  • edited May 2014
    Designed for a game in which combating stress and trying to gain respect is a major (i.e. constant) part of the character arc. I don't know what the moves are, since I wrote it for someone else's hack in progress. But it's a big boat. I don't think I missed it since the BP taken on a 6- roll represents failure to achieve Results, which is one of the literal causes of Burnout I am modeling.

    Perhaps you're concerned that +1 BP AND a Hard Move is a bit much. Maybe. In that case you might use that +1 BP AS a Hard Move.

    Personally I wouldn't. I consider that negative to be offset by the -1 BP I give to 10+ rolls AND experience granted for other reasons (which I do happen to know exists in the hack). But only playtesting will tell for sure!
  • The biggest thought rattling around in my head is "those are a couple BIG lists!" Obviously it depends on the exact context of the hack, but since Burnout seems to be quite core here I'd want it on the reference sheet I have in front of me while I play and that's a lot to put on such a sheet.
    In the book, it'd make a lot of sense as suggestions of "what are some examples of things that cause burnout" while the specific thing you put on the handouts is more of a "When you [broader statement about when you lose BP], reduce your Burnout Points by 1." or some similar thing. You know, putting it into an easier to digest single (or maybe a couple) clause while giving advice on what that means.
    (of course, maybe this was the plan and this is just a brainstormed list, just thought I'd mention it)

    Especially since you can fluctuate out of it fairly quickly, should the clock be a whole six hits? Depending on how punishing the game is and how central this theme is to it, dropping the clock to 4 hits could be a bit heavier on making its effect obvious.

    And a question: on recovering, you say "as each stage is left behind, its Symptom is removed." Does this mean when you take a symptom you should write which stage you got it for, or is it looser in the sense that if I go from Stage 3 up to Stage 2 can I just choose which of my three symptoms to lose?

    This is cool. Interested in seeing more of the context.
  • edited May 2014
    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.

    Yeah 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). Now I'm picturing a totally different layout for these BP hits, your post suggests 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.

    4 hits = interesting idea. I was sticking with 6 out of habit, but I actually think 6 hits x 4 stages is a good sized space to flux in. It gives you 24 chances to blow it. :-) Here's some of my thinking... In a session you might make 10 rolls and half of them are failures. Add to that the 1 BP for just doing the job (24 hours). This would put you in the first Burnout Stage after only one mission, and you'd need to do something to avoid falling into the first stage (getting paid would be one way, getting laid would be another). That sounds about right to me.

    Note that I also wanted the system to recognize (model) the fact that it's possible to live for months or even years while hovering in one of the four stages, changing altitude only slightly as small fluxes go up and down. Maybe you know some people like that :-)

    So I wanted it to be crunchy and fluxxy, but not so deadly that you couldn't become one of those kind of people. Like a cigar-chomping, hard-living grumblefish. Maybe with hemorrhoids, a spiteful ex and anger management issues. :-) Of course, I would love to hear feedback from playtesters! Until then, we don't really know how it drives.
  • Yeah, I would be more worried about the opposite: that you accumulate those ticks too fast.

    If I need to stay up all night to finish some important project (making some kind of "push myself to the limits" roll), I miss the roll, which means that the next I get passed over for a promotion instead of my rival, does that mean I take 4 hits?

    As for the moves, I was just thinking that sometimes succeeding an interesting move isn't necessarily positive for the character, and vice-versa. Especially if the moves are things you would do under desperate circumstances! Maybe trying to intidimate someone and failing would actually be a humanizing moment rather than the other way around? Something to think about.

    (Also, it can be good in a *World game for the GM to offer opportunities on missed rolls and stuff like that.)

    On the other hand, if you want to tie this concept of burnout to the player's state, this is a good way to do it. Maybe the character seems to be doing OK today, but because he's missing all these rolls, things are actually headed downhill at the moment...
  • I think I kinda do see these tied to the player's state, because this is admittedly the sort of thing that's best suited for an "actorly" type of player (one who appreciates having the system take away some control or define his "direction" in this scene, etc). Like I said in the OP, this type of play is not everyone's cup of meat.

    Interesting observation about a negative result being a potentially positive event & v.v. It's definitely true, but I feel that would have to be up to the MC and/or player to decide.

    Each list could definitely use a catch-all phrase, like "For any other event the MC rules" (even though that sounds a tad OSR). Ooorrr..... Maybe "Positive Scene = -1 BP" and one for "Negative Scene = +1 BP". I might add something like that.

    Here's the dirty hippy version: The player and MC decide whether the scene was positive or negative by consensus. If they disagree, it's neither.
  • That's not bad, sure - and good and bad rolls definitely play into that in a more organic way. :)

    If there's someone who might play a character's superior, or someone who they care about, you could have that player make the decision, passing the "black die" or the "white die" after each scene. :)

    Maybe include a way to score two bad dice once in a while, to make sure you don't just bounce back and forth all the time without any unpredictability.

    Another way to do it which would be very AW-like would be to make it a move:

    When you try to pull yourself together after a rough episode, roll+steady. On a 10+, you're doing well... blah blah (gain one BP). On a 7-9, you've got a tough choice, and you lose one BP. On a 6 or less, you're feeling crushed under the pressure - what will you do to relieve it? Lose 2 BP.

    Here the MC calls for it, but clearly it's only legit if everyone agrees the character just went through something hard, so it satisfied your criteria.
  • edited May 2014
    It's interesting how you slipped into FIASCO terminology there for a second. I was also thinking about the black and white dice when I wrote that last post.
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