The Fear Of Doing It Wrong

FODIW isn’t a very snappy acronym. That said, allowing myself the fear of doing it wrong has been the biggest regret I have in my gaming. For that reason, let’s get this out of the way: while I still battle with this fear, I recognise it for the colossal pile of Bantha do-do that it is.

The Backstory

My gaming life has been largely dominated by the quest for the best prescription for my gaming hobby. That is to say that, rather than trying to work on figuring out my own ways of playing, I spent way too many years buying, reading, and disliking other people’s designs. Each time I tried to break free of this by trying to build my own system, the fear of doing it wrong would roll in and paralyse me. Such is the way with anxiety.

More recently, say from around the turn of the 21st century, I began to seriously investigate some “generic” roleplaying systems – what I would now refer to as toolkit systems – but each time I was once again hit by the fear of doing it wrong. This process, beginning with FUDGE in the late 1990s, was fruitful for me in many ways but the nature of toolkits is working out which tools to use for which job. You guessed it, paralysis struck me down each time.

The Fear Defined

What is the fear of doing it wrong? It’s a combination of things: the worry that you are getting something in the system wrong; the suspicion that players are just humouring you and secretly hate the games you are running because they would prefer a specialised system instead; the paranoia that someone at the table knows a different – and presumably superior – way to get the same effect that you chose using the system.

Insecurity with the toolkit comes from lack of familiarity and skill with the chosen system as much as it does from one’s own build-in anxieties.

When I began using the HERO System, the biggest worries were around the maths involved because, right back to my school days, I never really had confidence with mathematics. But the more I stuck with the system, the more I felt confident that my solutions were workable. In the end, I found some systems that didn’t require so much calculation up front.

With Savage Worlds, the worries came from the lack of depth in the system. The generic nature of powers, for example, where the narrative colour comes from the descriptive flavour you append to some standard effects, my worries were about how easy it was to take advantage of the rules. Only by playing a little more did I come to appreciate the flexibility in the game once you learn to trust the others at the table.

The Middle Way

The most recent section of the journey away from limiting prescriptions into flexible toolkits for play has involved the “Generic Universal RolePlaying System” (aka GURPS). This descriptive toolkit for roleplaying has steadily grown on me as I have found the confidence to play with it, a little at a time. Yes, I fight the fear of doing it wrong all the time… but right now, I appear to be winning in that battle. Perhaps the reason is the sheer size and scope of the toolkit.

Steve Jackson Games, who publish GURPS, have given us a huge – colossal, even – tail of product designed to present worked examples and give GMs choices in how they want to design the games they wish to run. It’s easy to be cynical and see that as a recipe for cash flow for the company, but I think this misses the point: GURPS provides solutions but, ultimately, what has been communicated to me is the truth that there is no wrong way to play GURPS.

Since working with GURPS, I have found my spending decreasing. I am wasting less time on buying and reading games that disappoint me. I am mining old products for campaign and adventure ideas and I do pick up cool-looking products of a world- or character-focused style. But I am not really interested in new game systems – rules sets – because I am learning how to build what I want with the tools at hand.

This use of a toolkit system is a kind of middle way. One the one hand, I am not bound by the limited tastes of another game designer; on the other hand, I don’t have to build my own system whole-cloth and invest huge amounts of time and effort. The risks with a toolkit are lower than the creative possibility of failure with a homebrew game; the benefits are greater than with a prescriptive specialised game written to do just “that thing” well.

Through it all, I have learned that the fear of doing it wrong is fuelled by several external pressures in addition to whatever baggage I have been hauling around for 40 years. Those pressures include the product costs, the creative limitations of buying into someone else’s vision for your game, hours spent reading products that ultimately leave you feeling empty, and the stresses involved in trying to forge your own system from raw materials.

As someone who has been paralysed for far too long by the fear of doing it wrong, I have found something of a liberation from the middle way offered by great “generic” systems such as GURPS, HERO, Savage Worlds, Cypher System, and Basic Roleplaying. The more time you invest in learning and building confidence in using the tools, the quicker you find yourself constructing bolder and more engaging games for your friends.

Have fun and game on!


  1. Three things occur to me after reading this insightful piece:

    1. We learn by doing things, then reflecting back on those experiences to examine what we learned, how we might improve, etc. If we can overcome our fear, we can engage in the activity more, for better or worse, and learn (and hopefully improve) from that.

    2. All these fears are also valid from the perspective of people creating games and game material for publication. Goodness knows I wrestle with them all the time.

    3. If you’re having fun, you’re doing something right.

    Liked by 3 people

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