The Alphastream Game Design Blog

How to Deal With Feeling Down in the Golden Era of RPGs

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?

An angel wearing a mask, surrounded by other possible masks. Art by Andrew Hou.
Angel with Masks, by Andrew Hou
Support my work - clicking leads to my product page on the DMs Guild.

Looking California, Feeling Minnesota

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?

The Root Cause

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.

Art by Toni Foti of a cleric or paladin healing a downed warrior.
Art by Toni Foti, from the Lords of Waterdeep board game

Finding Solutions

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.

One warrior helps another wounded warrior under a hail of arrows.
Art by William O’Connor

Why I Wrote This

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.

Pre-order the upcoming Acquisitions Incorporated book!

17 comments on “How to Deal With Feeling Down in the Golden Era of RPGs

  1. Shawn Merwin
    May 21, 2019

    Thanks for this, Teos. It is important for people to know and realize about our community and our industry.

  2. Jester David Gibson
    May 22, 2019

    Thanks for this. It very much does describe me. (I almost feel called out.)

    I love D&D to what is probably an unhealthy degree.
    Part of that is the result of dropping other side hobbies (comic books, fan fiction, heavy MMO play) so now D&D is my one Asspie obsession left. Far too much of my identity has become wrapped-up in D&D.
    Which makes it hard to watch other people online get so much more from D&D than I can. Seeing cool swag or exclusive items I can’t get. Opportunities to play stories I’ll never see. At times, it does feel like my game and experience is inferiour.

    It probably doesn’t help that I blew my chance to get a toe into the industry or make more of a name for myself, squandering my opportunities to see my name in an official book. So it’s FOMO intersecting with a midlife crisis.

    • Alphastream
      May 22, 2019

      I don’t think you ever blow a chance. I turned down my first real chance to be published with WotC, because I just couldn’t do it and work on Ashes of Athas. Other opportunities came later.

      My suggestion is to just create, as you did (I loved your creations you posted for 4E and the Guild 5E products you have made). Keep creating and sharing and being a positive part of the community. If you really love creating, then it’s already fun. You will improve the more you make (I get better every time) and there is a greater chance of being asked to do something official. I don’t think big events or attending cons is worth it, because the chances there are really small.

      Exclusive items are fun, but realistically they go on shelves. That’s fun, but it’s not important or necessary.

      • Jester David
        May 24, 2019

        Exclusive items may just end up on shelves… but I’d still *love* an ampersand d20 to pull out for clutch rolls. And to start my morning with a cup of coffee in an ampersand mug. Maybe a few stickers for my bike helmet.

        As for “blowing my chance” I think getting noticed is just that much more difficult. It’s hard to get noticed in the Guild; harder to compete for finite dollars against everything already on there *and* against the Guild Adepts. (To say nothing of having to compete with comic writers, streamers, and actors.) My odds were just better five or six years ago.
        Cold equations at work. The more people there are playing and writing for D&D, the more people out there who will simply be better than you and/or better connected.

        (But, then again, that could just be my depression talking. I recently gave up sugar, aspartame, and alcohol. So I’m pretty deep in an emotional valley.)

        • Alphastream
          May 24, 2019

          It may be depression talking (but I’m no expert). I think even back in the 4E days there was the feeling that there were a lot of blogs and a lot of people writing cool 4E bits, so standing out was hard. I think a good product on the Guild still gets attention. How much… it’s really hard to say. But I think it hasn’t changed much.

          A lot of this is being realistic about what we are offering and what our goals are. Adamantine Chef has had tons of acclaim, been featured on the official D&D podcast at least three times, recommended by Mike Mearls, Nathan Stewart, Greg Tito, James Introcasso, and many others… and it is finally about to hit Gold status. I think the idea of a funny adventure, and maybe a funny Asian-themed adventure, has limited appeal. It is what it is.

          There is a big difference between wishing something makes some people happy and wishing that we make Platinum. Or, between wanting to publish something that gets some coverage and wanting to publish something that gets us Adept status. Adept is something that isn’t a simple formula. There are some amazing people who aren’t Adepts. Dollar goals are similar. Publishing enough to quit our day job isn’t reasonable. Publishing enough to help take $50 off of rent is attainable if we publish a lot and get good at it. That’s where reasonable goals can really help us keep the perspective.

        • Mike Shea
          May 24, 2019

          Personally, I think chasing publication in “official” publications is a losing game. It’s like wanting to win the lottery REALLY BAD. I think we live in a wonderful time where we can be our own masters at this and write what we want to write the way we want to write it and get it out to as many people as are willing and able to find it and give it their attention. Think about how many D&D creators are out there and how many get to write for “official” material and you’ll see how hard it is to get in there. And, once you’re there, it probably isn’t everything you dreamed of anyway.

          I’m saying all of this because I feel it too and I have to remind myself that the freedom I have to write what I want for those I want to write it for is the best thing in the world.

          • Jester David
            May 24, 2019

            Sometimes I just stop and wonder that for all my passion and effort spent writing for the hobby, how much of that was just pissing into the wind?
            At its best, gaming is a little like dance. You throw yourself and your energy into a performance that vanishes after a single moment. It’s a transitory art.

            Which is a little why I invoked “midlife crisis”. Fewer days ahead than behind, and I look at what I’ve contributed so far.
            The 4e stuff mentioned. The many, many blogs on the WotC Community. Gone. The stuff for the At-Will blog. Gone.
            And the DMsGuild… here now, gone tomorrow? How long will that site last?

            Dust in the wind…

          • Alphastream
            May 24, 2019

            At the same time, you touch people with that, and you enjoy creation (hopefully) and you improve. I really enjoyed a number of your creations. I used the tavern fighting 4E rules you came up with in my Dark Sun home campaign and blogged about it – that’s how much I enjoyed them. You make us laugh too. It’s all good. It’s all transitory, and being famous doesn’t change that. What can make a huge difference is just making people’s lives a bit better here and there. It doesn’t have to last forever. A bit here, a bit there, and we make a difference.

  3. Curtis Glenn
    May 22, 2019

    Thanks for writing this. There is so much truth to it. I recently wrote my first AL CCC and premiered it earlier this year. It was very very well received and I have run it a few additional times locally.

    However, I now have lots of very negative and foreboding feelings:
    – should I do something else or should I wait until the new AL guidelines come out?
    – What should I do?
    – Should I reach out to the AL Admins again to find out what is taking so long on the final approval?
    – I really need to get this up on DMs Guild!!!
    – Will people like it once I post it? Hell, will they even buy it???
    – Why am I freaking out so much????

    I’m not in this for money, fame, or even recognition…but it is amazing how much some of that seeps into our psyche.

    • Alphastream
      May 22, 2019

      Ideally, we stay sane by enjoying the process. Seeing our work out there is cool, but as you said there is so much we can’t control. We can enjoy the process of creating and the accomplishment of finishing. Really… you wrote a CCC! That’s amazing! Most people can’t do that. It takes a lot to accomplish. Enjoy that as much as you can.

  4. Jim Ghiloni
    May 22, 2019

    Glad to see an update to your blog, the first since I bookmarked it! 🙂 I will say that another option might be “take a break from social media”. As a luddite who hit the social media off-ramp at Facebook, I spare myself some of this FOMO you speak of. 🙂

    • Alphastream
      May 22, 2019

      Hi Jim! Yeah, unplugging from social media would be very sane. I did manage to not be on Facebook or other platforms, so that helps.

      I hope to write more on my blog, but I have a new rule of not posting until my projects are done. Speaking of which… back to them.

  5. Bill Heron
    May 23, 2019

    Thank you for writing this. You nailed it. The worst critic is Self.

  6. Mike Shea
    May 24, 2019


  7. Symatt
    May 25, 2019

    On my weekly Twitter conversation hour #rpglifeuk
    I brought up the topic of Depression and is it linked to rpg.
    This did cause some hot conditions to talk in. But in this world we now engage with. Being a creator or just a player brings it’s own traumatising moments. Be they small or on a larger scale.
    We aim to make something because it’s fun, but once that fun subsidies what takes its place. A low point. Sad times. Some can control because they understand what’s happening in the first place. Chasing followers brings it’s own justification on why we do this and why we seek approval from others. Disconnect from social media may not be beneficial as this is they only way they can keep the down at bay.
    I’m rambling now, but FOMO is so destructive and yet I think it is also a motivation.
    We all deal with things differently which I’m sure we can all agree on. Twitter is my life line . My go to, my safe place.
    It has brought me acquaintances and friends I would have never met.
    Keep doing what we do, stop when we have to. Enjoy what others do.
    It is the GOLDEN age and I am happy to be a part of it and share in the joy it brings.

  8. Sersa Victory
    May 28, 2019

    Thanks for this post! I really enjoyed it. 🙂

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