Chatty on Creativity: Muting the Judge and the What If Exercise.

Creativity Away From the Judge

Creativity is a strange, untamed beast. The mental process to generate ideas is a fickle one. I agree with author Stephen King when he says, in his essay “On Writing,” that ideas are not created but rather recognized and combined in one’s mind. Ideas are as much about opportunity (being receptive and available) as they are about the  willingness to use them creatively.

The obstacles that people have when trying to come up with ideas are many and covering them would go beyond the scope of this blog post. In the technical/scientific/geek circles I travel in though, I would probably say that the greatest idea killer is “The Judge,”* that state of mind where ideas get discarded before being given a fair amount of  consideration.

Ideas have no practical values, they are just glimpses of possibilities, most of which eventually get discarded. The problem with that is that judging ideas takes a lot of “brain space”, the same space that you need to generate ideas in the first place. In essence, people who evaluate and discard ideas as they are presented to them create a creative chokepoint that slows, and often kills the creative process.

Ideas are easy for me. I like to think it is because I can stem my internal judging process until after the point where I’ve had enough time to jot down enough ideas to start moving on to the next creative stage. Also, like many other things in my life, I’ve tried to make a game out of my creative process to motivate me to create more.

My favourite one remains the “What If” game. I’ve discussed it a few times before but I thought it would be fun to explore it in more detail here.

What if You Would Come Up with Ideas that Easily?

You can create whole campaigns by just asking yourself  a few “What If” questions while letting your mind make free association that steer you to the next questions. That’s how I created my last 2 D&D campaigns: Primal/Within and Gears of Ruin.

Let’s try it now, with no particular idea seed other than “let’s create a fantasy campaign.”

  • What if all the gods of a fantasy world but one had been slain?
  • What if the whole world, had, for a short moment of its history, united under the banner of a just and relatively benign monotheistic theocracy?
  • What if that Divine Empire split through corruption, heresies and dramatic decrease in “belief”?

So far this is pretty standard Fantasy fare…. but I ‘m not letting it go quite yet.

  • What if belief was a tangible currency in the world?
  • What if priests could tap in the dwindling power of belief to execute divine magic?
  • What if atheists rebels had discovered other sources of power? (Psionics, Arcane Magic, Outerworldy Pacts, Lost Gods from other parts of the multiverse)

Oh this is starting to be interesting as I LOVE having clear conflicts between 2 powers.

Do I have enough? Let’s try to push this a bit further…

  • What if belief in the one remaining (true?) Goddess prevented someone from tapping into other power sources?
  • What if belief (or non-belief) could be somehow coerced? (Calling in the Human-as-Batteries trope)
  • What if the drawn out holy/civil war was one of attrition to maintain the Empire’s access to divine power?

I would have enough to create a campaign based on that now.

Building From the What If Foundations

Of course, this opens many questions; some I’d like to address before play (i.e. Campaign Prep). Others I’d explore during play.

Here’s some:

  • How would Player Character figure in such a setting?
  • Would they HAVE to be on the same side initially?
  • Would they be the portent of something new that could bring peace to the world (a potential campaign ender)?
  • How damaged is the world? How survivable is it?
  • How advanced is War Technology (Or War Magic/Divine Power)?
  • Is technology different from Medieval European?
  • What races are present in the setting, and how are they affected by the setting?
  • What overarching story arc would hook my interest and that of my players?

Side What if Question: What if the remaining Goddess had been one of War? How would that affect current theology?

  • Would it be possible that part of the clergy helps the rebellion because the Goddess thrives as much on strife as she does on believers?
  • Does belief in the War give the goddess power?

Oh NOW we’re getting somewhere very interesting.

Refining Concepts to Initiate Prep Work

At this point, were I to play a D&D campaign I’d feel almost ready to pitch this to my players. I would just need to combine the ideas above into something that I would like to play. So let’s work on the elevator pitch…

As the surface world is ravaged by hundreds of years of holy wars in the name of the one true Goddess of War and Strife, a secret alliance has grown in the Underdark uniting all races under a common banner of self-defense and survival. Each race brought its own source of power into the alliance and has managed to stave off complete destruction. Explorers operate out from the many interconnected pockets of civilization searching among the ruins of the world for any kind of edge that could help prolong their survival against the relentlessness divine empire of the surface. A cache of undocumented artifacts will be uncovered that will change everything…

As I re-read I realize that I’ve unwittingly borrowed from the Midnight Campaign setting with a few twists. That is bound to happen. Creativity often isn’t about creating new ideas… but rearranging existing one in different ways and in a different context. Some parallel evolution is bound to happen as is the case in my post.

I wonder if that’s how the creators of Midnight stumbled on their ideas?

That being said, stealing other people’s ideas is not an issue if you have no intention of selling your campaign setting. They are perfectly valid fodder for your mental juggling when you prep for your games.

As you can see, what started as an undirected free association exercise has led me to a point where I would feel comfortable starting a campaign with about 2 hours of work on my side and a character generation session with my players similar to the one I did in my recent Marvel story.

What about you? What creative idea/generation tools do you use to help you create more effectively?

*From Roger Von Oech‘s seminal work: A Whack on the Side of the Head.


  1. I like the idea of doing an exercise like this with the players. Of course the players also need to understand that there’s no “blocking” (what you refer to as “judging”) in brainstorming, and no idea is a bad one. Some of the best ideas come from groups of people who build off of each others’ ideas and let them grow in a short non-judgemental brainstorm.

  2. I agree with you. The “No-blocking” element needs to be accepted around the table. I was told a story about a good way to stem that is to have the GM have one of those rubber Brains that Think Geek sells. Whenever someone goes into blocking mode, the GM throws the brain. The blocker can squish the brain as he/she fights the urge to squelch other people’s ideas… and gets to throw the brain at the next blocker…

  3. Yeah, I don’t consider myself to be exceptionally creative, but I did long ago realize that if I just went with what I came up with, combined it with a few other people’s ideas, and mainly just didn’t hit it with the critic hammer until there was a little substance there I can make a setting or a character or an adventure that is perfectly good. It isn’t likely going to be a work of genius, but it can turn out to be fun and creative enough. You can always put your critical faculties onto it AFTER you have the basic concepts.

  4. PaperObscura says:

    I actually usually start a campaign by thinking up images, things I could describe to my players to give the overall campaign a sense of cool. From there I break down the images into plausible world events that would make those possible. Then I brainstorm the hell out of those world events to create an over-arching history. Thus, when my players come to the table I have a logical and sound basis for creating something cool.
    For example, I’m just finishing long campaign that started with the image of the heroes entering the frozen wreckage of a deserted city. It’s obvious the city was once a marvel of beauty and architecture with sweeping curves wrought in iron and marble. As the heroes stare in wonder at empty city around them, skeletons begin to emerge from nearby buildings, ice shattering from their limbs as they once again move with unlife.
    It’s been a fun campaign.

  5. I agree with Terry Pratchett

    Inspiration Particles sleet through the universe, each heralding a moment of brilliance: a new symphony, a way of getting from A to B quicker than before, lines for a new play, or deeper understanding of something than was previously comprehended.

    Most of them are doomed to miss, or to reveal their brilliance to a brick wall or a starling, which is totally unequipped to deal with the revelation.

    Some however, hit the right mind at the right time, and a little later you are blinking foolishly in the TV lights and wondering how the hell you thought of sliced bread in the first place…

  6. Jeff Asselin says:

    I work in similar ways myself. I usually drum up a few premises, think of some cool setting tropes and themes that I want to weave into the campaign, and work up from there.

    My newest campaign I’ll be starting up in a few weeks is based upon an idea of two twin worlds separated by a mystical barrier. Then I thought where does it come from? What does it block? Why was it made? And went from there.

    My last campaign was very heavy on religion, so I’m muting this one a bit this time, it will play a role but minimal. Harmony will be the main theme this time, as well as “doing the wrong thing for good reasons”.

  7. ofthehillpeople says:

    I remember seeing a very similar article over at the wizards website recently by Chris Perkins that uses the same “What if” scenario of story building. And even references Stephen King while doing it. Coincidence?

  8. I love the idea of what if questions, but personally start with a bit more of a framework.

    My personal setting ideas mostly come from fiction, narratives I have heard, history (or alternate history where ‘what if’ propositions are the norm), or even a bit of cribbing from various sources.

    I like presenting players with an option to give me a paragraph statement of what they’re looking for in a game, and perhaps a questionnaire regarding my ‘current thoughts’ on what I’d like to run. From there I just sort of fill in the gaps, checking on pertinent details, THEN start going into the What Ifs, Hows, and Whys of the setting.

    Really some of the biggest quandaries of the games we play start with the What Ifs of the world. Assumptions of how the game starts and what goes on leads to thoughts on how the game would run if everything occurs, lead to Whys on why things turn out the way they do lead to What Ifs and Hows regarding twisting the ideas presented, making reasons why those ideas can exist in the vacuum of plot, and going from there.

    I have been away far too long from your blog. Going to have to read the (oh gods, last year?) and get to know how you’ve been doing.



  9. Sorry, I was away for the weekend and knee deep in taxes prep.

    @Alhazred That was the intent of my post. It can be hard to come up with ideas in the first place… judging them before you have enough “on the table” to do a little recombination makes it even worse. I’m happy to see that you have your own method that works adequately for you.

    @PaperObscura: I love this idea of picturing images, vistas and possible scenes and work from there. In fact, my Primal Dungeon/City Within campaign started with an image of the campaign’s final scene where the WHOLE planet the characters lived on transformed into a humanoid world elemental. (and had to fight it)

    @AnAxeToGrind: I’d have quoted Pratchett myself if I had the text at hand at the time. Thanks! Love that passage,

    @Jeff: I like your premise of exploring “Doing the Wrong Thing for the Right Reasons”, I love moral dilemmas and consequences in game worlds. Right on!

    @Ofthehillpeople: Can you believe that I haven’t read Chris’ column? Although having worked with him on a 2 Dungeon articles, I know he and I share some creative processes.

    @Loonook: Hey glad to see you again! Yes, I know that different creative processes are needed depending on how one’s brain is wired. I used to require a lot more structure before but as I gained experience and, more importantly, faith in my skillset, I found myself adapting my creative tools to my current train of thoughts. Happy reading!

  10. This is a fantastic technique. I know my ‘internal critic’ (as I call my Judge) often blocks my own creative process. It can take input from others sometimes to help me shake that loose.

    I love the world you ended up coming up with. I’d love to game in it!


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