- Gnome Stew - https://gnomestew.com -

Sometimes the Well Runs Dry…

Recently I had a game to prep for and I was mentally bankrupt. I had no good ideas whatsoever. Every concept that I came up with seemed tired and mediocre. Nothing clicked for me.

I thought about just foregoing my prep work and improvising the entire session, but I am making a serious effort to no longer rely on improvising as a GM. If a game goes over the edge and I have to rely on an improvised plot or encounter that is fine. I just do not want to show up with an empty notebook for my games as a GM anymore. I want to strive to become a master of the prepped game as well.

And there I was staring at a blank computer screen. Not a single idea seemed worthy of my players’ time.

What is a GM to do at this point?

#1 – Keep Brainstorming

Yeah it is easy to say “the mood is not right” or to convince yourself that you do your best work at another time. Even if those statements are true, so what? Keep pushing yourself anyhow. Force yourself to do the work, because it will only make you a better GM if you get yourself used to doing prep work when the mood is wrong and the time is not ideal for you.

#2 – Use a “Bad” Idea

The idea is probably fine, but for some reason it just does not excite you. Do not discard the idea just because it did not make you jump out of your seat screaming “I’m a genius!!!”

Take that “bad” idea and wrestle with it. Change the villain, change the setting, change the hook, and keep making changes until the idea starts to appeal to you. You might end up with something completely different, or you might only need to tweak one detail, but do not abandon that idea. You are already stumped, so the next idea is going to be just as “bad” anyhow. Time to condemn yourself to a fate of having to make this one particular idea work.

#3 – Stop Criticizing

Mentally you might be saying “This idea sucks. I can do better.”

Sure you can, but can and will are not the same thing. You must commit to “will”. You will make this game a great one. You will make this idea work for your game. You will not give up just because you feel like the well of ideas has run dry.

Push yourself past your own doubts and criticisms, and do not settle for “good enough.” You will deliver a great game by toughing out the moments when you feel that you have no good ideas left.


Designing sessions is not always easy, but it is through difficult work that we become masters of our craft.

By sticking with my objective and pushing myself to do my prep work I did eventually develop a couple of ideas for my next game. We played last Friday night and my players had a great time, and so did I.

Were these ideas my best? No. That did not matter though. The game was still fun.

Keep these three steps in mind if you ever feel like you have no good ideas. The truth is that you have plenty of good ideas, but you just have to commit yourself to making them work when they appear to be less than stellar.

Have you ever suffered from a lack of ideas? Leave a comment below and share with the rest of us how you overcame a lack of inspiration.

20 Comments (Open | Close)

20 Comments To "Sometimes the Well Runs Dry…"

#1 Comment By shortymonster On September 25, 2012 @ 1:51 am

Using bad ideas has gotten me through some doldrums in the past. It’s also worth pointing out that players can take a basic idea and turn into something amazing without much effort from the GM.

#2 Comment By Roxysteve On September 25, 2012 @ 8:13 am

True, but the idea must be interesting enough to hook them and their busy little brains. Of course, once hooked it’s like herding kittens in a ping-pong ball factory.

#3 Comment By Patrick Benson On September 25, 2012 @ 12:11 pm

Great point, Shortymonster! The GM might initiate the story, concept, or encounter, but it is the collective input of the players and the GM that creates the final product.

#4 Comment By Roxysteve On September 25, 2012 @ 8:11 am

[TONE=FAKE_INNOCENCE] But Patrick, surely you had your trusty copy of Eureka to hand?

Ow! Ow!Ow! Ow!Ow!Ow!

In all seriousness I have a constant problem with plot-block with my self-authored Delta Green campaign and your advice has been my working plan more times than I can remember. It seems I cannot get a new idea to gel until the Thursday before the Saturday game, forcing me to work like a madman on my commute.

Thank Azathoth for my trusty laptop and Scrivener, and the Dread Curse upon WoC for not making their D20 version of Call of Cthulhu available as a pdf, which makes the whole affair a lot more bloody than it need be.

While I’m here I’d like to put in a heartfelt thank-you to two companies that, by virtue of their great attitude to pricing, have made commute-based plot-fiddling a dream: Paizo and PEG (Savage Worlds). Because of their very sensible approach to e-versions of their books I own both paper and electronic versions of all my regular settings and those I plan on running some time before the heat death of the universe.

Bundle deals mean that these and other companies (Notably Pelgrane and Evil Hat) often offer both versions in a very attractively priced package, but I usually cannot take advantage of these as I have a firm policy of buying paper copies through my LFGS.

Pats on the back all round to those companies and kudos for their fine product lines.

#5 Comment By Patrick Benson On September 25, 2012 @ 12:03 pm

I have a very unique problem when it comes to Eureka: For others it is a great resource. For me it is revisiting past work. Much like an actor who does not want to see their own films I do not like to use Eureka plots for game prep, not because of the quality but because of my familiarity with the plots.

Now as a resource for running improvised games I use it quite a bit. For my prepped games though I never use the plots as they are written even if the plot was written by another gnome. So every Eureka plot ends up going through my mental meat grinder and can therefore fall victim to my false assumptions.

I just know the product too well since I wrote about a ninth of it, and in case you haven’t noticed I am an “ever forward and upward” type person. Build upon the past, but don’t live in it.

#6 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 25, 2012 @ 11:46 am

My solution to writer’s block is to write. Yes, you’re going to write crap, but keep going. Don’t do research, don’t look for inspiration, don’t surf the web, just start writing. Something. Anything, as long as it’s game-related. Eventually, your lazy-assed neurons will get the clue, and start delivering you something you can use.

It’s not easy, nor is it comfortable, but it has never failed me.

#7 Comment By Patrick Benson On September 25, 2012 @ 12:07 pm

Yep, that is this article in a nutshell. Just do the work. 🙂

#8 Comment By Roxysteve On September 25, 2012 @ 1:27 pm

This is like saying the cure for insomnia is sleep. True, but likely to get one a slap in the face with a wet fish.

#9 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 25, 2012 @ 2:30 pm

It’s nothing at all like that. Sleep can be elusive for many reasons, but writing takes an act of self-discipline, especially when the words don’t flow.

Most people, faced with writer’s block, will do anything but write. They’ll procrastinate, surf the web, do research, read a book, surf the web, go for a walk, call someone, drink, rearrange their socks, surf the web, and any number of things, but they won’t actually buckle down and start writing. The excuses will flow, but the words won’t.

Write something, even if it’s crap, especially if it’s crap. Free-write. Recap the last session. Write the most eloquent way to tell a joke; now write the quickest way to tell the same joke. Find an object or action, and write about how it’s different in your world. Describe a character’s favorite weapon, or the house they grew up in. Don’t just copy text, but create and write something. And tell your internal editor to STFU.

It takes an act of will and confidence, a leap of faith as it were, but doing so will kick-start the creative centers of your brain (and all without pestering your friends about your latest kickstarter).

#10 Comment By Roxysteve On September 26, 2012 @ 11:30 am

Thing is, sometimes that process ends in Lord of Light, sometimes it ends up with a ream of All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy and people chopping through the bathroom door with an axe.


#11 Comment By Roxysteve On September 25, 2012 @ 3:26 pm

Well, I’ve heard many writers echo that same advice but you know what? Doesn’t work for me. If the juice ain’t flowing it won’t start just because I use a big hammer. If I don’t have the germ of an idea, writing crap will only use paper needlessly.

It’s interesting to me that every author that espouses this line will also get mightily upset at the question “where do you get your ideas?”

The obvious answer, if you truly subscribe to the “write crap until it starts to smell good” school of thought is obviously “I write anything until it looks clever enough to stop”.

Yes that is silly, but no more silly than the idea that the creative process can be sparked into life the same way for everyone. That it works for you, Patrick and (apparently) for the late Roger Zelazny, Connie Willis and many other I-Con visiting authors is great, but to assume it would work for me is, to say the least, presumptuous.

Amazon’s Kindle store is a testament to the fact that the method you suggest does not work in all cases (or even most to judge by the output there). 8o)

#12 Comment By Patrick Benson On September 25, 2012 @ 3:46 pm

Like working out you have to be consistent and make it a regular routine. The guy who gets in shape works out no matter what. The guy who stays out of shape makes excuses and doesn’t do the workout.

My experience with the art of writing has been the same, and that is why I agree with Telas. You have to do the work. It isn’t the same as insomnia and being unable to sleep. It is a practice that requires dedication, and that you must choose to commit to fully.

#13 Comment By Roxysteve On September 26, 2012 @ 7:26 am

You are right and my reply reads much grumpier in the light of a new day than it sounded at the end of a very long one the night before.

Apologies for the tone to you and Kurt.

#14 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On September 25, 2012 @ 7:34 pm

I don’t think you can draw a connection between quality and the “OMG” idea. A lot of really great stories have been written around the same tired ideas we’ve seen over and over. Hell, Polti said there’s only 36 plots, and he was really reaching to get those.

Quality, I’d argue comes with the skill you get from practice. You can practice getting the “OMG” ideas too but they’re two different skills and only one of them is necessary to get your game prepped on time.

#15 Comment By randite On September 26, 2012 @ 1:28 am

At a fundamental level there are really only three plots. Man vs Man. Man vs Nature. Man vs Himself.

I’ve found muddling through to be partially useful on rare occasions. I have better luck with some “on task” work without actually just pounding out the verbiage.

For instance, if they’re available, I’ll re-read my previous notes to get back into whatever my mindset was earlier in a campaign. Also, I’ve had luck with researching things related to the adventure at hand or at least the setting of the adventure. There are countless things to draw inspiration from as long as you don’t let them draw you too far off.

#16 Comment By Roxysteve On September 26, 2012 @ 7:32 am

But to point out the obvious: not *all* writing is plot-driven.

See the output of Clark Ashton Smith for many examples of plotless prose.

Also: many poetic forms are not driven by plot.

Silverberg is a plot first writer, but his version of writing is purposed to sell to the most markets. Many of his contemporaries disagree with the focus of his seminal writing courses.

#17 Comment By Roxysteve On September 26, 2012 @ 7:34 am

However, I concede that all RPG writing is likely to be plot-driven.

#18 Comment By OberonViking On September 25, 2012 @ 4:51 pm

I write NPCs when I have no plot ideas. I think up a concept and create a level 1 NPC, then build them up to the appropriate level, usually in two steps. It is often a mechanical idea that I want to explore – what does a high Int fighter look? Can I create an arenea using PC classes and race? Pyromaniac cleric anyone?
What this creation does for me is it enables me to get inside the head of the NPC, and then I place them inside my world. What do they want short- and long-term? How do the PCs fit or threaten this? What lengths will they go to achieve their goals?
…and from this my campaigns often end up as “NPC of the Week” gaming, though I try to tie some of the sessions together with a Boss NPC.

#19 Comment By MuadMouse On September 25, 2012 @ 6:55 pm

I’ve found that when I get stuck, it’s usually because I’m in a rut, like my brain’s encrusted with old ideas that stop anything new from reaching me. In these situations, I find random generation to be an invaluable help.

In addition to the decks I mentioned in [1], I’ve used shuffled playlists, blind picks from bookcases, an object in the room indicated by a scatter die, and so forth. Whatever it takes to give my thoughts a new, unexpected direction.

The best part is that the results often seem absurd at first. The challenge that gets my creative juices flowing is in coming up with a way, any way, to make it work in the context. Usually it works, and I come up with a plot that actually makes sense.

Sometimes, of course, the new direction turns out to be impossible to work into the game. It happens, but even then it’s pushed me into a mode of thinking that’s conducive to solving such problems, perhaps with a new random item.

#20 Comment By PaulTurnerToo On October 22, 2012 @ 7:15 am

Good stuff. Bad ideas can actually turn into good ideas. The players can take your idea in directions you never thought it could go.