For me, 2017 was the Year of Starfinder.
The year began with putting the final touches on the Starfinder Core Rulebook, and that system has taken the vast majority of my professional time. I even opted to do Starfinder work outside the office, due to how excited I was about the system, in both professional and personal capacities. That was part of a long string of decisions I made about what work to do, and how much of it, and not all of those decisions were smart ones. I do not regret any of the work I accomplished, but early in the year it became clear I had taken on too much, and that I had been flirting with burnout for months if not years.
For me, 2017 was the year I burned out.
Burnout, like anything, comes in degrees. I’ve gotten slightly burned out before, and always managed to use coping mechanisms to power through it. But I’m not in the my 30s anymore, and honestly I’m well into the tail end of my 40s. Some of the things I used to do, like pull all-nighters to get work done more quickly to catch up. I’m not physically capable of anymore. Other things require specific support networks that I don’t have ready access to anymore. To be clear I have awesome support networks in Washington, but they are different from the ones I had in Oklahoma, and I need to learn how to use what I have the right way, rather than try to use it the way I used my old social circles.
This was the year I first felt total burnout.
I began taking steps to deal with the burnout in the first third of the year… and those steps have begun to be executed but still aren’t fully implemented. Hopefully, in the next 30 days or so, I’ll be where I wanted to be with those. I had hoped to get everything in place over my long winter break, of which this is the last day, but healing my psyche from the damage I did by 8 months of burnout took pretty much this whole time. I’m not fully recovered as it is, but I am mentally upgraded from a casualty to walking wounded. I forced myself to socialize, rather than forcing myself to work, and I let me brain go wherever it wanted when I sat down at my keyboard. (And, most, it went to the Really Wild West setting hack.) That was bad for my long-term plans, but good for my soul.
In August, Starfinder was released, and that put a whole new kind of pressure, almost entirely self-inflicted, on myself. I am proud of what we have done with this game, which required herculean efforts from everyone involved. There were many late nights from many people in multiple departments, there was weekend read-throughs and long playtest sessions and heated debates about what the right choice was… but while it was all in the office, it was all handled on a professional level. Once the book, and the game, were out in the hands of fans, I had to decide to what degree I wanted to engage. As a social awkward depressive introvert with mobility issues, a big part of me wanted to step back from fans and public games and discussions. Those things take effort, and I was firmly burned out when they hit, though buoyed for a time by the rush of seeing the game sell out so quickly. But in the end, I decided to engage pretty heavily.
I’ve been a professional game designer for 20 years. And, as noted, I’m not producing the volume of material I did even a decade ago. I may not have another opportunity to be a big part of a major RPG release. And I was more involved with Starfinder than any core game that came before except the Star Wars Saga edition, and even with that I was much less involved with the line after the core rulebook than I am already being with Starfinder. The title Starfinder Lead Designer only means something if I choose for it to, and I don’t want to insulate myself from the people who have the most important option about the game—the players. So, even when it drains or frustrates me, I want to engage with those fans, online and in person. From reading forums to offering examples of my personal work on my blog to speaking at the PaizoCon Preview Dinner to running a game at the AFK Tavern for the public on Free RPG Day, I took the opportunities I had and tried to make more, to be part of the community building up around the game. Things like public speaking and running games for people I don’t know and trust are hard for me, but I also think I am good at them and that they are an important part of making a mark in my chosen field.
There is work to a successful RPG career beyond the work on making games, and for many years I didn’t understand that. I have advantages many other smarter, more talented, designers don’t and I want to use them. Much of that is for my own benefit, which I think is reasonable. But also, I want to have a voice in shaping this culture, as minor as my voice may be, and staying engaged is the only way to boost how far that voice is heard.
Beyond my own trials, which were almost entirely self-inflicted and involved helping to make an incredible popular and successful game launch, I also had a lot of friends and colleagues have just fucking shitty years. I normally watch my word choice when writing a piece such as this, that people may share more than my game rules for Halfling space-muffins, but there’s nothing weaker than “fucking shitty” that can convey how rough some of the people I love most had it this year. Those stories and how they handled them belong to my friends, but I had multiple trusted, well-known people talk to me about suicide, or leaving the industry forever, or withdrawing from society as a whole. Fear, anger, and despair were not limited to just a few people in my circles in 2017. I hate it when my friends are in pain, and I hate it more when there’s nothing I can do to reduce the pain.
I have tried to be supportive. I have also tried to take better care of myself, because while these folks will leap up and carry me if I stumble… they’re tired and limping themselves. I have to love them enough to not ask them to hold my hand over self-inflicted injuries. I certainly am not saying I won’t ask for help if I need it. I am saying I owe it to the people who will give of themselves to aid me when I am in trouble to not get into trouble I could avoid by being smart.
For much of 2017, my personal gaming level fell dramatically. Though computer games and console games can take up some of that slack, to me nothing it more fulfilling than RPGs with friends. Nor was I lacking offers and opportunities, I just couldn’t make time. I have improved that situation some over the past few weeks, and look to dip my toe in more improvement on this front in the months to come. But I used to play 2 to 3 games nearly every week without fail, and living a life where I barely have time for 2 in a month is an adjustment I have not managed yet.
Obviously much more happened in 2017. Politics cast a shadow over everything, and seem to have damaged my relationships with people I love, but this isn’t a post about politics (and I think my positions have been made clear enough elsewhere). I broke a sofa. I got sick less than recent previous years. I took dental maintenance seriously for the first time in 30 years. I stepped way back in my role at various game companies, in part to try to deal with stepping up at other companies. I learned some life lessons, and unlearned some backed-in BS I’ve carried for decades.
In the balance, my 2017 was more good than bad. But it was also more hard work and worry than either good or bad.
I hope the next year will be one in which I can apply the lessons I have learned, and perhaps leave society better than I found it.
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This is about the sexual abuse I suffered as a child. It’s the most I have ever said about it, and I say it simply in the hopes that others who have suffered will find some strength in knowing they are not alone, and it’s not their fault. If you don’t want to read about that, I certainly understand.
I’m not sure how old I was. Older than 7, younger than 12, but I can’t tell you where in that range. The abuser was someone I and my entire family trusted, but not a family member. They were my friend. The abuse occurred once, that I can recall.
I never told anyone. I didn’t know how, and the transgressive nature of what happened to me was so great I was afraid. Afraid I’d get in trouble. Afraid I’d be blamed. I felt too much shame to tell my family, and had too many bad experiences with trust violations or lack of belief with other authority figures.
I was also afraid I’d be a social outcast. I didn’t have a lot of friends. I mean, 3 or fewer. Often only 1. Losing someone I could hang out with, that my tiny number of friends hung out with, someone important to my social existence outside the home, was more than I could handle. The idea I had to spend time with my abuser or be alone was horrible, but ultimately I decided to be with my abuser. I know that doesn’t make sense, but it happens. One reason I have said RPGs saved my life is that they gave me a way to make more friends. Once I had a few more friends, sometime in the 6th grade, I stopped ever speaking to my abuser. I think that hurt their feelings. I don’t care. As I was making that transition to new friends, suicide had begun to be a practical solution for me.
For years, I couldn’t tell anyone. I was in a youth support group for most of my teens. These were people I trusted, literally with my life in a few cases. But I couldn’t even hint that I had been abused. It has been so long, people would wonder why I hadn’t said anything.
I told one of them, a young woman slightly older than me, on a weekend retreat to a rent house. She burst into tears, and told me how many times she’d been raped. We talked about her, not me, and I think that was the right call. She swore me to secrecy. I’ve never said anything about it, and only mention it now because it’s impossible even for people who know me to identify her, for various reasons. She never brought it up in group. In fact, she really never talked to me again, and I understand. I hope she got help.
I had been married for years before I told my wife. I had been in therapy with the same therapist for years before I could talk about it in therapy, and it’s still something that makes me freeze if I try to talk about it in person. Writing is safer. And writing about it, when I can, is the main way I try, still, more than 35 years later, to someone grapple with it.
There are emotions I simply don’t handle well. Anger. Embarrassment. Doubt. Pride. They mess me up, sometimes quite badly. So, when I was young, I suppressed them.
This did not turn out to be a viable long-term plan.
It took therapy to realize that.
I can be slow.
Now I have many coping mechanisms to try to make sure these emotions don’t kill or incapacitate me. Mostly that involves dealing with them at the time they happen so I have less need to suppress them.
But like I said, I can be slow. Even now, that isn’t always what happens.
So, sometimes I need catharsis.
Specifically, I need to watch or read something that will get through a chink in my emotional armor, poke a floodgate, and make it all come pouring out. It’s not perfect, but it can genuinely give me relief from stress that builds when anxiety, fear, or rage have gone too long unaddressed and unexpressed.
There are things from my childhood that work well, and things that call back to my childhood. I can watch the first time the Yamato fires the Wave Motion Gun (in either series or the live action movie), and be blubbering so hard I can’t see half the events. But I don’t need to. Because that’s ingrained in my psyche from the time I was 8.
Now to be clear, the tears, or hysterical laughter, or fist-pump of vengeance delivered, is not limited to those times when I need the emotional shock paddles. I am a sap, and some stuff gets me no matter what. If Luke is looking longingly at two suns, or you even play five notes of that music, I tear up. I am a sap.
But as long as that’s true anyway, it’s useful for me to take advantage of it from time to time.
I try to be open about my various mental, emotional, and physical issues. But I also try to not harp on them. I’m not sure what the right balance is, but as I sit 10 days from Gen Con, and the release date for a whole series of books that have eaten up a lot of my headspace, it seemed reasonable to offer a snapshot of how I am doing.
The idea here is not to bemoan my circumstances (I am fortunate and privileged in many, many ways) or ask for help (I have the support I need). But I do want people who feel their own limitations puts various achievements out of reach to be able to see the spectacular level of imperfection that is normal for me. Your path may well be much harder. I’m not trying to give some life coach pep talk. Just honestly share where I am, and let all of you who care to read it decide what that information means for you.
There’s more work to be done than hours or brain cells to do it, and even when I have the time I don’t always have the capacity. Numerous things that trigger many of my anxieties are all happening at one, and even knowing I have been through these things many times before doesn’t really seem to help me keep a handle on things. This is a spectacular confluence of events hammering my sense of calm. As an analogy–knowing ripping the band-aid off will hurt, and that it’s both necessary and temporary, doesn’t reduce the pain of doing it.
I’m not getting enough sleep, and I am stressing too much. These factors will build until after Gen Con, and then, maybe (but only maybe) I can get my life back to some semblance of normalcy. Until then, I am desperately trying not to let anyone down, not turn over sub-par work for anyone else to have to clean up (a task at which I have apparently already failed a couple of times), and not cry in public. That last is trickier now that I work in an office than it was when I worked from home 90% of the time.
I know, intellectually, I am going to get through this. I am even proud of a lot of the things I am accomplishing, and I have no intention of giving up. But I also am being honest with myself–there are yet more rough times ahead. There will be great times mixed in with them, too. That’s kinda how life works. My depression is a wild card, but even that I’ll get through if it rears up. The important thing is to keep doing everything I can, whenever I can. Some days will be good. Some will be bad. And I need to keep to my coping mechanisms, and forgive myself when they break down.
I’m exhausted, and repetitious, and run down, and worried. But sometimes I am proud and excited, too.
To a lesser extend, this is what any major new release or convention appearance does to me. this year is just magnified significantly in all regards.
It’s all imperfectly normal for me.
This industry eats people alive. That’s because it’s extremely demanding, draws in those who are passionate, but doesn’t pay well. I’ve been a full time game writer for most of the past 20 years, and more than a decade of that was freelance. A lot of people who began when I did have left, for computer games, novels, or in some cases security guard gigs or farming. They leave because the time demands, creativity demands, occasional unprofessional ruining either your projected income or something you love, and the pay is, compared to other things with similar demands, low. And often, they leave broken, vowing to never return.
To be clear, I don’t blame anyone for those facts. That’s the way the industry is. I work for, and with, a lot of great people who do their absolute best to take care of everyone they can. I’m not railing against some corporate greed, or claiming I could do better. heck, I’m a publisher as well as a writer and developer. I know what the economic realities are. I am very fortunate to have as many great employers as I do. It’s just a rough business, and it’s somewhere between hard and impossible to do well by only putting in 40 hours a week.
So, I do more than that. But that’s not a universally good thing. I know I take on a lot, and I try to give everyone what is expected. And, I fail sometimes. Sometimes very publicly. I’m in my late 40s, I have two decades under my belt, and I still feel like this is all a learning experience.
And like a lot of game designers, I live locked in battle with two extremes—burnout, and the rent.
Burnout is real, and if you fully burn out you are done. There are lots of signs of burnout—never enjoying the work instead of only not liking some parts of it; not being able to force yourself to work on a specific project; depression; panic; confusion, as to why what used to work to get projects finished doesn’t anymore; apathy; slowing of new ideas; reduced quality; a willingness to cut corners in ways you know aren’t right (be that ethically, legally, or just not the kind of work you like to produce, depending on who you are and how badly you burned out).
But just because you can see potential burnout, doesn’t mean you can walk away. Everyone will tell you to… but they don’t know your budget, your needs, your situation overall. If you have people depending on your to provide for them, if you know you can’t survive a loss of income, if you’re going to be homeless if a project falls through, “taking a break” may not be a realistic option for you.
I have flirted with burnout more than once over the years. Sometimes I’d love to have walked away, but at that moment it wasn’t financially practical. Other times I knew if I could push through some specific project, I’d be fine. It isn’t always the big projects, either. Sometimes something small will suck up hundreds of hours of time, because you just can’t get it right.
On the other hand, you also can’t just ignore signs of burnout. If you see it coming, you need to do something. Stepping back from even one big responsibility can make a huge difference. So can powering through something to see the results of your hard work. So can assign for help, if you have people you can ask.
In my experience, those things don’t fix problems immediately. But if you don’t take steps like that, and burnout gets worse, you are traveling a dark path. One that has taken out better designers than I.
Big and important projects—new core rulebooks, connected series of adventures, new jobs that have extremely steep learning curves, ventures with partners counting on you—can be particularly brutal. And if you do more than one of those at a time, the effects multiple, rather than add.
But such projects also, eventually, smooth out. Either you finish them, or you learn the ropes.
It’s all too easy to end up in a position that is unsustainable, caught between burnout and the rent. But small changes do, eventually, make a different. Not everything must be sustained forever.
Also, know what helps. Or if you don’t know, look. I’ve been very public with a lot of my mental issues, and I have posted a lot of retrospectives, like this. These are both a release valve for me–a cheap and useful form of stress relief–and something I do because I would have loved to have this information in 1997, when I was writing freelance material but nothing had been published yet. It helps me, and I hope it helps someone else.
Each person must navigate their own path between these creative and financial Scylla and Charybdis. And sometimes you just have to strap yourself to the tiller, lay on sail, and hope you are still above water when you reach the far side.
But if you do that…keep those navigational charts, and try to avoid those waters in the future. Most people, myself included, bring burnout down on themselves. Try to learn from it.
You’ll keep making mistakes, of course. Just try not to make the same mistakes over and over.
I have a patreon. It’s one way I try to navigate between burnout and the rent, and it has some exclusive content.
If you ever find my posts to be entertaining or useful, consider offering a dollar or two a month of support.
It’s late, and I’m tired. Today was a massive failure. As a result, I feel like a massive failure.
So, to coping mechanisms.
Though I do not believe it emotionally, or intellectually, I am going to keep telling myself everything is going to be all right, and that things will get better. There are risks to this, but it serves me better than despair, so that’s the mechanism. It has to be rote, or I won’t do it when I most need it. I have sometimes dug up my old checklist, from when I literally could not trust myself to make smart care decisions on nights like this. I’d stare at the times, and feel total apathy. But doing something seemed smart, so I’d do those things. And check them off, each as I did it, no matter how minor. Some lists even include not doing things, so I get to mark those off just by properly focusing my sloth.
The coping mechanism says I have to go forward assuming I can fix things tomorrow. I can’t keep the failure of today with me, count all my progress against the negative value of this and all the failed days that came before. That’s stacking the deck against myself. I need to have a realistic assessment of what is possible, but that’s about looking forward not weighing down measures of success with things I could have gotten done if I just hadn’t failed miserably on a range of occasions.
I do know, looking at my track record, that sometimes I pull it out, and sometimes I don’t. I also know I am a bad judge of my ratios of success to failure, and that smart people I trust often have a very different opinion of how I am doing. That all gets added to the coping mechanism calculations.
But there’s no point on hammering my brain any harder about this tonight. That hasn’t worked since I was 35. When I am done, I am done.
I need to go through my checklist of things to try to give tomorrow the best chance. What I eat, what I read or watch, how late I stay up, whether I take my prescriptions—these things feel utterly pointless right now, but I know they are not. However bad things are, there is no point in making them worse.
I am bad at self-care, but making every effort I am able to is part of the coping mechanism.
Also do the best you can to take care of yourself, and forgive yourself of your failures.
One of the realities of struggling with clinical depression is that even with therapy, even with prescriptions, even with support systems and coping strategies…
Some days you’re just so fucking depressed it’s hard to move. To think. To even open your eyes.
Nothing has to happen. The biggest problem, in fact, is that is can be causeless and sourceless. There’s nothing to fix, nothing “getting you down,” nothing “wrong.”
Except your joy is broken, and your entire existence boils down to justifying each breath.
It is, I have concluded, inevitable that making my living creating role-playing games means I am going to often see people accuse me of being stupid, lazy, short-sited, and ignorant (as specifically different from stupid) on a fairly regular basis. I believe the reason for this is twofold.
First, roleplaying games, by their nature, invite deep senses of involvement. They are designed to be extremely engaging, to suck in players and GMs and provide glimpses of alternate lives where (hopefully) those playing are more interesting and more able to affect change than they are in reality. This is obviously a place where the small percentage of really dedicated fans will have deep senses of ownership. And since any addition or alteration I create for such games (which is kinda inevitable for someone paid to make stuff for them) can’t please everyone, SOMEONE is going to think the things they don’t like are a result of being unsmart, or being uninterested in doing the hard work to produce something better, or not being able to see the consequences that “should be obvious,” or not be well-educated and informed on either technical or emotional aspects of the material I am working with.
Second, the internet means the information about what has been added or altered can be easily (though often incompletely) disseminated to a large audience quickly, and cheaply, so the total population of people who know about it can be enormous, and thus the small percentage of those people that may hate a change, and the percentage of those people who feel that is a result of some failing on my part (as opposed to personal preference), still leaves a big enough pool that the percentage of THOSE people who are assholes about expressing those opinions have no trouble finding the places where their opinion can be quickly and easily (and perhaps incompletely) transmitted to me.
I understand and accept that.
It does not, however, either justify or indemnify the people who choose to be assholes for the dickish nature of their actions.
If you say in your living room that only a total moron would make a specific change, you’re venting.
If you take the time to type that as a post in a online venue the entire point of which is to allow you to give feedback to the people who made that change, you are calling those people total morons. Backpeddling and claiming that obviously your hyperbolic language is just your opinion doesn’t change the fact you were a dick.
It makes me wonder if the consequences for trying to make games that make people happy may not, inherently and inevitably, involve more abuse than if I wrote ad copy for a cereal company for a living.
Of course, as I note, I know this, and have for a long time. Being able to accept that fact, and work to deescalate where possible, and certainly avoid fanning flames, it part of my job whether expressly called out as such or not.
As long as I am here, I am choosing to place myself in that situation, and I need to take ownership of that as well—though my acceptance is still not license to those who act rudely or inappropriately.
One of my many coping mechanisms for my various mental issues is my Sap Scale. The more exhausted, emotionally drained, and prone to panic attacks I am, the more likely I am to cry at things that don’t really deserve it. Thus I have “The Sap Scale,” which helps determine how big a sap I am being, and what the appropriate steps to take care of myself are. Obviously, this scale is personalized for just me, and this level of detail is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I do use this kind of detail to keep an eye on things.
The Sap Scale
- Cry at the end of “Old Yeller.” This is normal. Not crying here actually indicates a different problem (see “Landmarks of Emotional Numbness” chart)
- Cry at the end of Iron Giant. Still normal, and only noteworthy because I have done it up to 10 times in a single day, and still seem fully affected.
- Cry at the end of a CW superhero show’s season finale episode. Normal level of Sappiness. Take two deep breaths and check again in 4-6 hours. Consider the potential benefit for catharsis.
- Cry during a particularly intense RPG encounter involving debate, philosophy, morality, and characters you care about. Enhanced Sappiness detected. Engage and maintain internal monitoring of mental well-being, but do not stress over it. Really, don’t. It’s okay. You are allowed to have emotions.
- Cry at unexpected insults or disappointment. Despite feeling otherwise, this is normal and a reasonable baseline. Engage reality-checks, and be prepared to escalate self-care if Sap Scale number rises. Avoid beginning arguments and hard conversations until Sap Scale number declines. Check for self-care levels (Are you short on sleep? Short on food? Facing long-term stress of discomfort? If so, try to address these issues quickly.)
- Cry at the memory of tragedies and losses from 3 or more years ago. Check mental processes for signs of a death-spiral, and examine if this is really what you are crying about. As able, use stress release and/or low-impact support network contacts to ensure if things get worse, you have the needed mental assistance.
- Cry during a typical RPG encounter. Emotional alert. Alter or delay any stressful plans, and proceed as for scale level 6.
- Cry at a McDonald’s commercial. Emotional high alert. Take self-café steps immediately.
- Cry at the trailer for a Michael Bay movie. Active emotional emergency. Move to safe space asap.
- Crying. No apparent reason. Tears won’t stop, may drown in own phlegm. If this happens just because you woke up and have to face the day, call support network for help without delay. Yes, even though you don’t want to be a bother. Do it. Right now.
As much as I dislike talking about money on posts discussing mental health… my coping mechanisms are good enough to generally let me realize it’s reasonable to add a small note about the way people who enjoy reading what I write can help me afford the time it takes to write it.
So, if you like, check out my Patreon here. 🙂