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.
- 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?