Unearthed Mundana: Imposter Syndrome

Unearthed Mundana: Imposter Syndrome

This article was first broadcast in Episode Fifty-Nine on 30th January 2019.

“The psychological experience of believing that one’s accomplishments came about not through genuine ability, but as a result of having been lucky, having worked harder than others, or having manipulated other people’s impressions”


Many, many people when they begin playing D&D or when they take on a new role within the game start to get pervasive feelings of doubt that don’t go away. In their head, they have a refrain going of “I don’t know what I’m doing,” “So many other people could do this better than I can,” “Everyone’s just humoring me until it all comes crashing down and they ask me not to come back” and similar, intrusive thoughts.

All of those feelings are the result of what psychologists call “Impostor Syndrome”.

Though every person is different, usually people with impostor syndrome convince themselves that they aren’t actually able to do a task, despite the fact that they are either currently doing it or they’ve done it before (sometimes even hundreds of times before). The common responses to that are procrastination, which leads to them rushing and cramming to finish the task at the last minute, or over preparation, where they spend a lot of extra time getting ready for whatever they’re going to do.

The key thing with this is that the person isn’t failing, but they convince themselves they’re still not good at whatever they did. If they procrastinated and rushed, they tell themselves they only got through it because they got lucky. If they over-prepared, they believe that the amount of prep they did is the only reason they didn’t crash and burn. Also, because of that mindset, even if someone tells them they did a good job or they’re doing a good job, they will dismiss the compliment and think they just successfully faked everyone out (again).

For D&D, this phenomenon is very common with people DMing. As soon as side discussions start to pop up, or the DM has to look up a rule, or they’re stumbling about how to play out an encounter, or a player says “on Critical Role Matt Mercer did X”; a DM with Imposter Syndrome will think they’ve failed and they aren’t good at DMing. But it can also hit players who are just starting out or are trying a new class; they believe, for example, that the only reason they’re playing the class well is because people are telling them what to do, or they think that because they don’t have most of their abilities memorized like some other player they’re ruining everyone else’s fun.

Now, again, each individual is different, but we’re going to do a quick reality check.

Here is what you need to be a successful DM:
• Something for the players to do during a game session
• Players that are enjoying themselves.

That’s it. Seriously. If your players are having fun, and you’re doing something vaguely related to D&D, congratulations, you’re a DM.

Now the players.

Here’s what you need to be a successful player:
• You show up during a session
• When the DM says something, you occasionally respond and make a decision based on that.

Again, that’s the whole list. If you’ve done those two things, you’re a successful player.

Now obviously that’s an oversimplification, but what a fun D&D game looks like is wildly different for everyone. There are games that meet once a month and the people get together for four to six hours but always play one shots and get through with those in an hour or two. Then, at the other end of the scale are other groups that meet weekly for eight hours, cell phones off, dressed in character, addressing each other with their D&D names, and the DM has an entire cross-referenced database of adventures and characters stretching back twenty years. I run my games differently from Ryu, who runs hers differently from Ostron. No two games of D&D will be the same — and that’s OK!

Multiple people from WoTC and other D&D groups have reinforced this message. Simply Googling for the information will get you examples of Chris Perkins, Jeremy Crawford, Satine Phoenix, Todd Kenrick, Matthews both Mercer and Colville, Mike Mearles, and countless other D&D “professionals” reinforcing that your game doesn’t have to look like other peoples, and you don’t have to play like people on live play shows. The gold standard for D&D is just having fun.

If you can’t convince yourself of that, listen to the other people around you. If you’re a DM and people keep showing up to your game on a regular basis, they’re probably not doing that just to humor you. And if your DM is asking you when you’re going to be showing up to sessions, they aren’t trying to fill a quota, they really want you to attend. Now that doesn’t mean there won’t be people who have corrections, constructive criticism, or some who might actually be jerks. But except in very rare cases, they’re trying to improve what you’re already doing. And if you weren’t doing it, they wouldn’t want to help you do it more.