It seems like, every f$&%ing day, someone is asking me a question. I’m like the Dalai Lama with swearing. And the thing is that I’m a goddamned altruist. I’m like Mother Teresa with swearing. Shut up, I am. F$&% you. I really do want to help everyone. I spend hours and hours writing this crap in the hopes of just helping people write and run better games. And my blackened, shriveled lump of a heart really does leap for joy whenever I get a message thanking me for helping someone make themselves a better GM. Well, it doesn’t LEAP for joy. But it does struggle to its feet, wheezing and coughing, and wave it’s hand a little. And then it chokes a bit and collapses from the effort. Metaphorically and physically, my heart is just not a healthy f$&%er.
Now, I can’t handle absolutely every question. Especially because I can’t stop at giving a one-word answer. Or even a ten-word answer. Or a fifty-word answer. If you come to me, you’d better prepared for the best damned answer that several thousand words can deliver. Because that’s how I roll. The BEST way to get a question in front of me is by e-mailing me at Ask Angry. And even then, I’m so overburdened with questions that I could turn that into a full-time, five-day-a-week blog on its own if I had the time. And I don’t. So, I pick out the questions that I think lots of people can identify with, that give me something to talk about, or that lots of people are asking.
The worst way to get me to answer a question is to send it to me on Twitter. Seriously. What the f$&% makes you think I could answer questions on a platform that limits me to 140 characters and frequently decides I Tweet too much and literally shuts me off. There’s also certain questions I ignore. I kind of hate those “what are your opinions on” or “how do you feel about” or “what do you think” type questions. Those questions suck. You just want me to babble randomly about a topic. Give me a meaty thing that has an actual question.
Every so often, though, someone WILL come to me on Twitter and they will manage to catch me in just the right mood with just the right question and suddenly, I will kidnap them off to some private channel and talk to them for an hour. Like actually talk. Like human beings. Well, like a powerful, charismatic, lecturing human being to a humble but attentive student, because of the ego thing, but those are technically human beings. And the interaction will lead into something that would make a good topic for a discussion.
And that’s what happened when I started talking to GM Sarah Pea (@SarahPeaThatsMe). It turns out she’d recently gotten herself into running Shadowrun. Oldschool Shadowrun. 2nd Edition Shadowrun. You know, the GOOD one. And I happened to have some old books and she needed them so we had a book exchange. And THEN we started talking about writing plots and motivating players.
And then that question came up. The one every content creator who actually manages to keep a regular schedule always gets asked. It came up in a roundabout way. But it came up. It’s basically the world’s second oldest question. The first is, of course, “hello sailor, looking for a good time?”
“Where do you get your ideas?”
Now, this is especially useful because, lately, I’ve been showing off my more creative side. I talk a lot about mechanics and game design theory and managing the game and all that s$&%. But, between showing off the city I created for my very complicated “World that Never Was” campaign and basically building a megadungeon in front of the entire Internet, I’ve been injecting a lot more of my own creativity into my stuff.
And so, suddenly, I’m hearing that a lot. “Wow, those are great ideas, how do you come up with them?” “Where do you get your ideas?” And so on. I also hear a lot of “I understand how to run a game, but I’m bad at coming up with ideas.” “I want to run my own game, but I can’t think of any good ideas.” And on and on and on.
Ideas on a Deadline
If you’re a GM and you DON’T run published modules and campaigns and adventure paths, you actually have a lot in common with paid, professional content creators. And also amateur, sort-of-paid content creators like me. And amateur, unpaid content creators like I used to be before a whole bunch of amazing people told me to start a goddamned Patreon already. Actually, the Patreon thing created a weird problem for me. And it’s the best damned problem that could have happened to me. Let me explain and then we’ll talk about what we all have in common, even though the section header already gives it away if you’re not a f$&%ing moron.
The thing is, it used to be that if I didn’t have anything to write about in a given week, I’d skip posting. And that lead to me keeping a very erratic update schedule. I would churn out a series of three or four articles on something and then go quiet for weeks or months. But then, I got tricked into starting a Patreon. And my sense of integrity and professionalism basically MADE ME tie the donations to my actual content output. Because I’m basically lawful-stupid. And that meant that if I didn’t produce content, I didn’t get paid.
And that’s a problem because my Patreon has become kind of the tentpole of my financial situation, what with moving and trying to get actual game publishing started up. So, now, if I don’t produce content, I don’t eat.
And that means, if I don’t come up with ideas, I can literally die. Well, okay, it’d take a while to starve to death AND my financial situation is not THAT desperate and I have fallbacks and safety nets in place in case the Internet explodes or Chris Perkins’ ninjas finally manage to eliminate me for good. But not coming up with ideas is a pretty dangerous situation now.
I’ve been a GM for a lot of f$&%ing years. For the last 28 years, I’ve managed to run regular games pretty consistently. And long, LONG ago, I realized I was the only one who could actually write settings and adventures worth a damn, so I was creating my own content. And that means, if I didn’t come up with an idea for the next adventure, the game didn’t happen. And four or five people who bafflingly considered me a friend would be disappointed.
All GMs who run regular games are content creators. Unpaid, unprofessional content creators. Welcome to hell, here’s your accordion.
It’s a Far Side reference. Do any of you zygotes even KNOW The Far Side by Gary Larson anymore? F$&%ing kids these days.
Now, there are two types of content creators in the world. There are those ones you hate who update randomly and infrequently. You have to keep following their stuff, because it’s good stuff, but you never know how long you’ll have to wait for the next one. And eventually those people hemorrhage fans and/or burn out. And that goes for GMs who cancel games frequently or spend a lot of time spinning their wheels or just give up every so often and run some crap module published by Paizo.
And then there are the ones who crank out regular content every week or every month or whatever. They are reliable. And you like following them or coming to their games because they always manage to have some new content for you.
And, if you’re a person who struggles with ideas – one of the former infrequent, struggling types – you look at the other folks and you think “why do some people seem to be squirting inspiration out of their nipples and others are like the overmilked dairy cow whose shriveled teats only give an occasional halfhearted spurt of something dry and unpleasant?” You… probably don’t phrase it like that. And ultimately, it comes down to one magic word: inspiration.
The Myth of Inspiration
Once upon a time, this dude named Plato tried to convince everyone that there was a mystical other universe alongside ours where concepts and ideas were real. Math existed there. And perfect concepts. Somewhere, floating out there was the Platonic concept of “two” or “symmetry” or “love” or “chair.” And as we were born into this world, we drifted across the river of forgetfulness, Lethe, and lost all of those concepts from our brain. And we had to relearn it all.
Now, if that sounds perfectly rational and reasonable to you, close this f$&%ing website and go away. Plato was kind of a moron. He gets a lot of credit now as being pretty brilliant, but if you put all of his ideas side by side, you’ll find the Good Idea column is DRASTICALLY outweighed by the Bats$&% Insane and Incredibly Stupid idea column.
And yet, we believe that. We believe in this magical idea called Inspiration. Basically, ideas are floating around in the universe. Remember in Harry Potter, where Harry Potter meets the crazy girl who explains about some stupid creature called Thestrals or Hagrids or something that float around and drift in your ear hole and get stuck in your brain? Yeah, that’s what we think Inspiration is. Inspiration is literally magical idea spirits that get sucked into your earhole and make your brain work.
It’s bulls&$%. Sure, some people’s brains are wired up a little better for absorbing ideas and churning them around and popping something out. But that’s just natural human perception, pattern recognition, and associative thinking at work. Everyone has it. Some people have it a little better. But it’s just a thing your brain does.
The only difference between Plato and Luna Granger and people who actually manage to crank out new content on a deadline every week is that the content creators don’t believe in inspiration. They don’t wait for Dumbledores to get caught in mental flypaper.
How Do You Force Yourself to Create Ideas
Okay, so how do you force yourself to create ideas. You can’t. You just can’t. You can’t just squeeze the right muscle or work really hard and suddenly have an idea for an adventure. Creating isn’t like pooping. Sorry.
I hope this article helped you. Come back next week and we’ll talk about scenes or adventure structure or some bulls$&%.
Okay, fine. I guess that really didn’t help. And I barely hit 1,800 words, so this article isn’t worth those sweet, sweet Patreon dollars. So, let’s talk about a few ways to create without waiting for inspiration.
Creating without Ideas
First of all, it turns out that you can get pretty deep into a creative process without any actual creativity or original thought at all. Look at the Megadungeon Project on this very site. How far did I get into spreadsheets, math, and analyzing things before I even knew who built the dungeon and why it existed and what things lived there?
So, let’s say you’re trying to create an adventure for Wednesday night’s game and you’ve got nothing. Open your Monster Manual, check out the monster list by CR, find a monster or combination of monsters that would make a good challenge for your party, and build a f$&%ing combat encounter. Write some stat blocks, give them some different equipment, roll for random treasure, and map a combat arena. That takes literally NO thought at all.
Alternatively, start drawing something. You don’t have to be good at drawing. Start drawing a side-view of a dungeon site. I mean, look at this bulls$&%. This is just a doodle. I was just scribbling while Sailor Moon or something was on the TV. And yet, megadungeon.
If you’re writing something like a story or an article or something, you can even start writing without any thought or creativity. The process is called Free Writing. Basically, open up a blank document and start typing. Type whatever bulls$&% crosses your mind. Don’t stop. DON’T STOP! Yes, it’s crap. It’s complete garbage and you will throw it away. But it will force your mind to think about the project. Here’s what Free Writing looks like.
This is an example of free writing. I’m just writing whatever happens to enter my head. I’m not even hitting th backspace key. I do use good punctuation though. It seems like punctuation and capitalizing are just habit now. Which is good. I just wish I could stop doing amateur mistakes. When I get on a roll I can crank out a lot of wrods. But what comes out of my fingers is screwed up sometimes. Like I know the difference between too and to and two but sometimes when I go really fast I f5$@ it up really bad. And that’s embarrassing because I’m not a moron. Also ive been dropping a lot of words latyely. I have to pay more attention to that. I wonder if there are better revision techniques I coud be using. I’ll have to check.
See? That’s just stream of consciousness bulls$&% I literally cranked out just now. And, honestly, if I were writing for a website, I might have just lead myself to an article about revision and editing. I also noticed that the grawlicks have almost become second nature to me too. Wow. I’m really far-gone.
Anyway, free writing is a great way to prime your mental pump. If you let your mind wander a little bit, it’ll go to interesting places. Free write for as long as you need until useful things start coming out of you.
How Can This Be True
Creating without creativity is great when you have time and don’t feel pressured. And, frankly, it’s a good habit to get into. While you’re idly watching TV or listening to a podcast, let your hand doodle on a piece of paper. Set aside fifteen minutes out of every day to free write about nothing in particular. That sort of thing keeps your brain bits lubricated so that, when you need them, they don’t seize up. It turns out that cars and brains need oil. Or else they cost THOUSANDS OF F$&%ING DOLLARS TO FIX!
But that s$&% doesn’t work for everyone. And some people don’t have idle time at all. Some people have exactly three hours to prep for their game, no more, no less. And they spend their lives running around so they can’t eke out any extra time to watch Sailor Moon and doodle dungeons.
And that’s when it’s time for a game I like to call “how can this be true?”
Once upon a time, before Marvel comics decided to give up fun, joy, and quality in favor of s$&%ing out social and political screed and insulting half their audience to chase a bunch of shrieking morons who don’t read comics and never will, they used to offer a thing called a No Prize. A No Prize was exactly what it sounds like. It was an empty envelope with nothing in it. Because that was cheap and funny.
The way to earn a No Prize? First, you had to notice a continuity error in their comics. Actually, that was a lot harder than it might seem because Marvel – in addition to fun – also used to take continuity pretty f$&%ing seriously. But still, mistakes happen. So you might notice something like when Spider Man was accidentally thrown back in time by Mephisto and had to team up with old-school Tony Stark in 1980 and Tony Stark uses some sort of repulsor blast that wouldn’t be built into the Iron Man suit until 1992. I don’t know if that really happened. I do not now and never will read Marvel comics.
Anyway, you notice the “mistake.” And then you had to figure out an explanation. Like you had to explain that Spider Man wasn’t thrown into the past of his own timeline. But, in fact, was thrown into Earth #654 which is nearly identical to Earth whichever one we’re in. And in Earth #654, the Skrulls had invaded Earth in 1979 and Tony Stark had to invent an advanced repulsor blast earlier than our Tony Stark because the Skrulls were using the Tesseract to bulls$&% bulls$&% Marvel words.
And if Stan Lee liked your explanation, he sent you a no prize.
Why do I bring this up? Because a lot of nerds have crippled their creativity in exactly the sort of way that Marvel was trying to make fun of. See, nerds and geeks are really good at spotting inconsistencies and plot holes and changes. In fact, it’s a mark of honor. It proves who knowledgeable and attentive you are. When Picard reroutes power using an auxiliary EPS control console in Deflector Control, a true nerd would remember that six episodes ago, when Picard was trapped in Deflector Control with no power for the doors or turbolifts, he SPECIFICALLY SAID there are no EPS consoles accessible from Deflector Control so they would have to climb through the Jeffries Tubes. That’s the nerd brain at work.
But that sort of s$&% RUINS your brain. If you train your brain to scream “that’s impossible,” it’ll stop being able to embrace the fantastic. I s$&% you not.
Instead, a creative plays a game called “how can this be true?” The game works like this: you accept everything on screen as true. Whatever you are seeing, it really did happen. Screaming “that’s impossible” won’t help because YOU SAW IT HAPPEN! Instead, the puzzle is to figure out what you didn’t see that made it all work.
Obviously, shortly after Picard got trapped in Deflector Control, he raised the issue of such a critical location on the ship not having auxiliary access to the EPS system. I mean, the dish is charged with anti-protons. If containment fails, it’ll blow up half the damned ship. So, if there’s a power issue, you need to be able to fix it ASAP. So, he had Geordi add an EPS junction and auxiliary control station to deflector control. He also raised the issue with Starfleet. As a result, many ships were retrofitted with EPS control consoles in Deflector Control.
Now, this might seem silly. But there’s actually a SERIOUS bit of psychology behind it. Your brain is not actually great at inventing things out of nothing. That’s just not a super useful survival skill we’ve needed over the past tens of thousands of years. What your brain IS really good at is making connections, associations, and explanations. In fact, it turns out that a lot of the choices we make are kind of instinctive, visceral, and automatic and it’s only after the fact that the brain analyzes the snap judgment and tries to figure out why the hell it made that choice.
By the way, that sort of thing makes playtests and market research a MAJOR pain in the a$&.
The point is, your brain is REALLY good at explaining s$&% and not so good at inventing s$&%. And that is why “how can this be true” is super useful.
For example, when talking with GM SarahPea, she was trying to decide on the villain for a plot. And she was stuck on “evil corporation.” She listed three or four different ideas that were all “evil corporation.” And it’s Shadowrun. Evil corporation is the default setting. It’s easy button of Shadowrun plots.
I grabbed my own Shadowrun book and opened to the list of NPC archetypes and picked one at random. I told her “it’s the shaman. Why is it the shaman?”
After some thought, she came up with a reason why the shaman did the thing. And from there, an adventure was born that was more interesting than “and then the corporation did bad things.”
In point of fact, “how can this be true” is how you use the crap you create without ideas. You sit in front of the TV and draw a dungeon made of crystals and fire. And now, you have to figure out, why is there a dungeon made of crystals and fire. And who would live there. And why would the PCs go in there.
And you have that encounter you built with an iron golem and a githyanki wizard. And now you need to figure out why the githyanki wizard and the iron golem are in the dungeon made of crystals and fire. Well, obviously, the wizard has set up his artifact forge in the dungeon of crystals and fire. He’s making things there. He’s forging a fire-crystal golem. His iron golem is his bodyguard. And the dungeon of crystals and fire is on the border of the elemental planes of Earth and Fire. And he’s been sending raids of enslaved fire archons into the material world to steal the other supplies he needs that he can’t get in his dungeon of crystal and fire.
I literally just created that now from typing random words.
The point is, you CAN’T create ideas on command. What you can do is take random elements, smash them together, and then explain them. As long as you don’t immediately default to “well, that’s impossible.”
Now, it is entirely possible to play “how can this be true” on a deadline. You have your random elements. You stare at them and come up with an explanation. But, me, I prefer to massage ideas when I can. The way it works is to come up with your random elements BEFORE you need to be creative. And to keep them in your head. And then, whenever you don’t need your brain, you think about your random elements.
For example, lay in bed for fifteen minutes before you get up for the day and just think about WHY a dungeon of crystals and fire is even a thing. Or, while you are showering, ask yourself what a githyanki wizard wants with crystals and fire. The problem is people nowadays spend a lot of time distracting their brain. They listen to podcasts in the shower or music in the car. They keep their brain heavily distracted with lots of inputs, but they never let their brain relax and daydream and wander. If you are constantly stimulated, your brain never gets to relax and play with things. I s$&% you not. Sometimes, you need quiet for your brain to just play with the toys you’re giving it.
Generating Random Ideas
Okay, once you get good at “how can this be true” – and you should get into the habit of playing it ALL THE TIME – once you get good at it, the only problem you have is where to find random things to smash together. And honestly, that’s the easiest part. Everything is an idea. You’re surrounded by ideas. Random doodles, art and monsters in RPG books, art and monsters in ANY book, video game elements, anything that strikes your fancy. When you are trying to be creative on a deadline, you need to keep yourself exposed to creative stuff. Just not so constantly that your brain doesn’t have any quiet time to play with toys.
But sometimes you also need the random ideas on a deadline. And you can get random ideas any way you want. You can start writing random words on a page. You can flip open books to random pages and seeing what your eye falls on. You can buy decks of cards that have pictures on them or dice that have pictures (like Story Cubes). You can type a random word into Google image search. Hell, you can mash your palm on your keyboard in Google image search. Google will say “did you mean xanthium?” and then show you some cool pictures. It doesn’t matter where the random elements come from.
But, whatever you get, just remember that they are true. So, “how can they be true” is the question.
“How Can This Be True” and the Forgotten Improv Step
Let me finish up by addressing a special case of “how can this be true.” A lot of people think that I am very down on improvisation. The fact is, I’m not. I use improvisation quite a lot in my games. All GMs eventually have to get good at improv. But I treat it as a very advanced GMing trick. It’s useful AFTER you know how to structure a good game and a good story. It’s useful AFTER you’ve got your running and planning techniques down so that you can use those skills to inform how you improvise. Other GMs tend to treat it as the easy way out. And, while some GMs do have a natural talent for all the other bits of GMing and so they can improvise well, a lot of GMs who take the easy way end up making crap.
But here’s a step that a LOT of improvisers forget. And it’s amazingly important to building a cohesive and consistent ongoing game. After you introduce some random element into your game because it seemed like a good idea, you’ve got to spend some time away from the table playing “how can this be true.” You HAVE TO figure out how the new element connects to everything that came before.
For example, I recently introduced an NPC into one of my D&D games because it seemed like a fun idea. Basically, an honorable and skilled warrior with a bit of an ego who was polite and respectful of the heroes, traded some banter, and then left. The only problem was that the NPC was working for a rival organization, a villainous organization. I just dropped the character into the game and started playing it because I suddenly wanted an interaction scene and the character just came out of my mouth when I started describing and acting.
Some improve GMs would stop there. They will just keep using the NPC and wait for the NPC to end up connected to things. And that’s no different than the bulls$&% of waiting for Idea Fairies to fly up your nose and finger your brain. A good GM spends the car ride home or the time cleaning up after the game thinking about who the NPC is and what they want and why they joined the villainous organization and what they were really up to. That way, they can build stories off of the NPC later and the NPC seems like a coherent part of the world.
“How can this be true” is the often forgotten but utterly vital step in improvisation. Other improvisers will tell you differently, but other improvisers are stupid. Don’t be one of those OTHER improvisers.