Worlds of Design: Imposter Syndrome

What is “Imposter Syndrome?” It’s a common problem for “creatives.” In RPGs it primarily applies to game designers, but some homebrew GMs will also recognize it.


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

"Every single time I start to do a picture, without fail, I feel as if I don't know what I'm doing." - Tom Cruise

I have written 11 books but each time I think ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.” - Maya Angelou

I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.” - John Steinbeck (one of the most famous American writers, when I was in school)

What’s an Imposter?​

The Imposter Syndrome applies to game designers, but some GMs will also recognize it. It’s a common problem that’s difficult to defeat, but I’ll make some suggestions toward the end of this column.

Wikipedia defines Imposter Syndrome as:

a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. “Imposters” suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.

All kinds of creative people and even non-creative people can feel like imposters. Game designers will feel this occasionally. Not everyone feels this way of course. There are certainly arrogant game designers.

I suffer from Imposter Syndrome when I'm thinking about submitting “finished” games to publishers, at which point I'm terrible and it is chronic. I do recognize that creating entertainment, which is what games usually are, is not saving the world, or even saving lives. In that respect college teaching, which is what I retired from, felt like a much more “worthy” occupation.

Nonetheless, when I was deciding after my 20-year hiatus from the Game Hobby whether to write computer networking textbooks or to resume game design (I chose the latter), I considered “worthiness.” The thing I had done aside from teaching that offered the most utility to people in the world, was my game Britannia. I still enjoy it when I hear folks saying to each other what a fun game of Britannia they just played, or how fun playing Dragon Rage is. Writing textbooks might have been more lucrative, but it has its own set of problems.

Not Important Enough?​

There’s a larger version of this than the individual Imposter Syndrome.

Many video game developers evidently feel that creating entertainment is not a worthy way to spend their time. They think that they ought to be doing something Important (“Art” with a capital A) and that video games are “just kid’s stuff.” “Just kid’s stuff” is not correct, although some video games are certainly not intellectual. After all, a typical video game is “AthleticWare” rather than ThoughtWare (most tabletop games), where you do physical actions in order to succeed, and success often depends on athleticism (200 actions per minute in Starcraft) far more than once thought. Even if it was kid stuff, someone has to entertain the kids . . .

Fortunately, “games are not worthy” doesn’t seem to be a problem for most tabletop game designers.

The Flip Side​

There’s a reverse to this. Arrogant game designers give the profession a bad name; usually they are the “designers” most ignorant of how to behave properly as well as how to design. This is an example of the Dunning Kruger effect, where people who don't know much about a topic often think they know almost everything about it. All we can do about that is make those people aware of what they don't know.

In general, in tabletop game design there are not obvious measures that would tell how you compare as a designer, because there are few salaries posted and ratings are notoriously subjective. Add that the game industry is hardly a meritocracy, that poorly designed games sometimes sell well and well-designed games sometimes sell poorly, and what do we have to go on?

What to Do About It​

What can you do about the Syndrome? If people as experienced and well-known as Tom Cruise and Maya Angelou both suffer from it, you might suspect there’s no “cure.” But anything a person might do to fight feelings of inadequacy might help you with Imposter Syndrome.

You can keep received praise for your work recorded somewhere (audio or writing) so that, when you feel inadequate, you can fortify yourself on that praise. Players can help too, by being encouraging and supporting their GMs, and being a little less unkind when criticizing games.

Can you ever get rid of Imposter Syndrome entirely? When a top movie money-maker and a well-known author who won many awards and received more than 50 honorary degrees can feel like Imposters, we mere ordinary mortals have our work cut out for us. The Imposter Syndrome is something game designers, GMs, and others just have to live with. But we can certainly find ways to cope.

Your turn: How do you cope with Imposter Syndrome in your RPG-related activities?
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio


Rules Tinkerer and Freelance Writer
I'm having some success in writing. My imposter syndrome has been cruel about it. So I've worked to develop brilliant con(wo)man syndrome!

Basically rather than think of myself as a failure waiting to happen, I try to think of myself as a conman who is good at tricking people into thinking I'm better/smarter than I actually am, a façade of feigned skill and charm that baffles others into thinking that I, of all people, am somehow -good- at something.

Because that can't be true! I'm not good at things. I'm just me! But they keep -telling- me I'm good at things. Therefore they believe it to be true... so I must be lying to them. Tricking them into thinking I'm better than I think I am.

It helps in a roundabout way. I don't self-deprecate as much as I used to, and act with increased confidence long enough, maybe it'll stick.


It is a problem but I forge ahead. I prefer completing projects and having self doubt about them then being paralyzed by fear of discovery and having regrets of not having done anything.


One thing that I keep in mind and that helps is that what people regret the most in their old age is not the things they have done or tried, but the things they have not done (or tried).


As GM, I suffer from the "thief's syndrom" rather than "impostor". I always feel as I am just stealing ideas from other places and not doing something original. Even when I twist old ideas to something breathing new, I still feel as "just stealing another people ideas".

Ideas cannot be copyrighted or patented. You are free to reuse any idea. Just recombine them in distinctive ways so they look original.


@lewpuls, you designed Britannia?! I loved that game to bits back in 1980s. My granddad slipped me a tenner once when I was visiting, and I bought myself a copy. Was back in 1989.

I remember once I was playing with my parents. My dad had, among other peoples, the Angles. He lost a battle, and took an Angle army off the board and commented, "Off you go, to that great Geometry classroom in the sky."

Thanks for that. Happy memories.


Herr Doktor
I sometimes feel like I'm crap at my job.
But then I just have to look around me, see that most people are even worse at it, and say to myself: hey, at least I'm trying to improve, unlike these other people who all seem to have some degree of Dunnning-Kruger.

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