The Alphastream Game Design Blog
D&D and RPGs are more popular than ever! The most sales ever, the widest reach ever! Bestseller lists and coverage by major news outlets. A sitcom starring William Shatner and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the cool actors who play a coveted and exclusive game of D&D. These days, if you tell your colleagues at work or other parents at the play date that you play D&D… they will probably think it’s really cool.
And yet, despite this looking so much like a new golden era, for a lot of people it feels hollow. It’s common to see friends who feel left out. Who isn’t feeling left out? Why is it happening? What do we do about it?
Who isn’t feeling left out? It’s certainly not Matthew Mercer or anyone who took part in the event to launch Tomb of Annihilation. He posted the following in a tweet: “My fav thing said at the #StreamofAnnihilation: “This is the largest gathering of people with imposter syndrome.”” He also said, “Imposter Syndrome has haunted me pretty much every day of my adult life. “
If even Matthew is feeling down, who isn’t? Nearly everyone I can think of that has a measure of fame in the industry seems to feel the same way. To be sure, we all are winning at one time or another. Scroll through my Twitter feed and people are posting tons of awesome pictures from game nights, proudly revealing their role on the latest no-longer-secret project, or running a contest for when they hit the next sacred x-thousand follower count.
Just as easily, we all at times feel like we are losing. FOMO (fear of missing out) is a common feeling as we become increasingly connected. When I missed a convention in 2003, I had to deal with a few posts on a Yahoo group. Now? The awesome Sly Flourish (Mike Shea) said he felt FOMO at Origins 2018… and he was at the convention! He was even on a D&D Beyond livestream while there! A convention can have so many cool things, and be so vividly shared in real time, that we can be there and still feel like we missed out.
When I began writing for organized play, anyone who wrote an adventure felt accomplished. It was a feeling that lasted. Now, I speak to writers who achieve truly great things… and they are so worried about the next thing that they don’t pause to enjoy what they just did! I can’t think of an accomplishment that would help some writers feel permanently good. It seems winning can’t keep up with losing in this golden era. Why?
Why is this happening? What has changed? The world has changed in ways that make the golden era perilous. Being more connected than ever, particularly via the barrage of messages from social media, is driving our success. I think it also causes our increasing self-doubt. Being so connected impacts us in key ways.
Comparisons: We see every person’s success… and we can’t help but compare. On social media we portray ourselves as we want others to see us. It can create a mask of unattainable perfection. We are far more likely to share completing a project than the times we give up late at night, frustrated with the words on the page. We gloriously post when we are at an event, creating the illusion that everyone cool is at every event.
Misunderstanding Fame: I’ve had the chance to work with a number of people successful in film and music. It’s hard to understand just how hard those professions can be. There is a strong sense within those industries that perception is everything. It isn’t uncommon in Hollywood to be highly paid on a gig and then go for a long time without any meaningful work. And yet, you have to maintain appearances the whole time because connections matter and you are selling yourself constantly. That carries over to fans, who may think the person is perfect, or to detractors, who may think the person is overly egotistic and shallow. The famous person is often an emotional wreck, dealing with constant uncertainty they feel they must hide from the world. I think this is something that bleeds over to the rest of us. We act in the same way, struggling internally but externally acting like all is well (so much so that we may gain our own set of detractors).
No One Can Be Everywhere: Regardless of who we are, there will always be more cool things without us than cool things that include us. This is true of being an Adept, being an AL admin, being on livestreams, attending cons, Guild collaboration invitations, twitter conversations, you name it. The things we miss shouldn’t overshadow our accomplishments.
The Endless Chase: In an interconnected world, it can feel like an endless chase. Published on the Guild? Okay, now make Copper seller status… and did you hear about the Adamantine level? Get picked to write an Adventurer’s League adventure… but are you an Adept? What about that one person’s amazingly successful Kickstarter – surely they must have found happiness… are you planning your million-dollar Kickstarter? There is no finish line for this chase.
I think we can work, as a community, to find solutions. Being connected isn’t going away, but we can turn that around to become an agent of positive change. Here are some ways we can do that.
Bolster Others: Accomplishments feel real when others congratulate us. Post pictures with someone’s work, write why something impacted you, thank them for the hard work, leave positive reviews on sites, promote the good work people do. The more real your communication is, the better it is. In particular, it really helps to provide insight into what you liked. It makes a lasting difference, making achievements feel real. Bolstering reinforces community and helps combat doubt. Bolstering helps all of us rise together, creating a community with stronger positive ties.
Be Genuine: It is hard to acknowledge our faults, our privileges, and the hardships we overcome. It is hard to couch our accomplishments in the reality of the luck we had to land the opportunity in the first place or in the challenges we faced to get there. Being honest about who we are helps others better understand us and that our success also involves barriers – barriers others can overcome just as we have.
Stop and Celebrate: Take time to celebrate your accomplishments, no matter how small. If this is a problem for you, put a reminder on your calendar to check in with yourself monthly and think back on the good things you have done. Don’t worry about the mistakes or setbacks or what you didn’t get to do. Focus on what you did that was good and celebrate what you did!
Be Forgiving: Forgive yourself for what you didn’t get done. Life is a process. Life would be empty if you accomplished everything today and had nothing to do for the rest of your life. Recognize that your other duties, from parenting to a day job to other hobbies are important – often more important. Allow yourself to be human and take the time to improve over time. Similarly, be quick to forgive others as they move along the human process of making mistakes and learning. We are all flawed and all still valid and capable of good.
Understand Fame and Its Downside: Recognize that a person in Hollywood or with some measure of fame is still real. Being on stage, having many followers… none of it equates with inner peace or stability. The boom and bust life of Hollywood is extremely difficult and LA culture has a lot of toxicity. Forgive the demands of that world to appear larger than life and constantly self-promote. Importantly, resist the urge to embrace those aspects within yourself when you don’t have to do so. Finally, let’s remember that working in an entertainment industry is in no way correlated to how true a fan you are of RPGs – everyone gets to be a true fan.
Resist Negative Comparisons: Seeing what others accomplish can be great. Studying masters makes us better students and can eventually lead us to mastery and a wonderful life of continually learning and improving… if we do so in a positive fashion. Set realistic goals and be content with measured progress. If you do well at one thing, allow yourself to still be an apprentice in other areas. Experience livestreaming doesn’t grant aptitude at self-publishing. An amazing kickstarter launch doesn’t mean it’s easy to become an organized play admin. Writing an awesome RPG won’t guarantee you can attend every convention. Enjoy what you do and resist the urge to be everywhere, because you can’t be.
It’s Okay to Slow Down: Success can’t be maintained indefinitely. Sooner or later, any person that has tasted success will see it waver. They launch the Kickstarter that doesn’t do that well. They don’t get the VIP invite to the convention. The beloved RPG company decides they want to give work to someone else. It’s okay when it happens to you and okay when it happens to others. It can all happen for any number of reasons. There are amazing designers, cartographers, artists, spokespeople, and others who once were at the center of the spotlight. The world also changes. An intimate circle of bloggers might dominate your feed one year, WotC staff another, indie companies another, Hollywood stars yet another. The changes don’t mean you don’t matter. You do. If you did good work, it was meaningful and it will endure. If you continue to do good work, and continue to enjoy doing good work, happiness can still be yours.
Know When to Ignore Metrics: I recommend turning off notifications and ignore follower counts. It doesn’t matter. Be you, live in the moment. Every platform creates Pavlovian mechanisms to try to trap you into an endless chase. These elements were coded by programmers who are just as flawed as the rest of us. Ignore those elements and remember why you came to the platforms in the first place. Connect with people. Do good. Help others. Create lasting community. Be you.
Defend Others: Encourage those around you to focus on positive comments and to understand that every product has real people with real feelings behind it. When someone is gatekeeping, bullying, or harassing someone, step in and call out the bad behavior. Defend creators and help forge an uplifting community. When you see creators struggle, help lift them up.
Take a Stand Against Gatekeeping: It doesn’t matter if someone has seen one Acquisitions Inc episode, all of them, or none. They get to be an AI fan if they want to be one. Whether a person started with the original white box or still hasn’t rolled a die, whether they wrote a hardback book or are working on their first rough writing project, they deserve respect and to be a part of the community. Try to be sensitive to this when you discuss the game – how would someone just starting out react to what you are saying? Are you behaving in a way that only speaks to the established? To the privileged?
Use Success to Help Others Rise: If you find yourself in the spotlight, use that as an opportunity to help others. Highlight people who were part of the same project or who have inspired you and helped you get to where you are. Be a mentor to others. Help others attain what you have attained. If you have the opportunity to help others, consider helping those who need the assistance the most, including people from marginalized groups and those who are just starting out.
Don’t Forget the Everyday Gamer: You are organizing a VIP livestream for your convention… does it overshadow the many organizers, GMs, and players that have made your convention what it is today? Would an outside observer watching get an actual sense of what it’s like to be at your con? RPGs are made possible by the thousands to millions of gamers that have little notoriety. When booking podcasts, scheduling livestreams, coming up with collaborative writing projects, and designing marketing events, keep in mind whether the effort overshadows the majority of the community and how to change that.
I am generally a positive person. I don’t tend to suffer from imposter syndrome or FOMO. I don’t care how many followers I have on Twitter. And yet, I see the how the community struggles. People I care about, designers I look up to, they all struggle with depression and anxiety and a general feeling of not being enough.
As I wrote this blog post over the past few months, in and around projects, the solution never seemed to be technological. I don’t think we can undo how our apps work, and we will only become more connected and more aware of everyone else’s achievements and marketing efforts. I think we can take valuable mental steps as individuals, but I think the answer has to be found in how we behave towards one another and the type of community we choose to create together.