As a GM the most important tool you have is your creativity. Your creativity is what allows you to create amazing adventures, thrilling NPC’s, witty dialog, enthralling descriptions, and the ability to shape your game in response to your players. Your creativity needs to be taken care of and cultivated. When treated well the power of your creativity is at your disposal, but when it becomes fatigued it can lead to the dreaded burn-out. But fear not, for I have the Creativity Owner’s Manual, and I will share with you tips for keeping your creativity in the best condition.
Feed Your Creativity
To quote the all-knowing Wikipedia, Creativity  is:
… a mental and social process involving the generation of new ideas or concepts, or new associations of the creative mind between existing ideas or concepts.
In order to be able to generate new ideas and make new associations between existing ideas, you need to feed your mind with ideas and concepts, both new and old. The best way to do that is to read, watch TV, watch movies, etc. Expose yourself to all sorts of materials to create a rich pool of tropes, concepts, and scenes. It will be from this pool that your mind will pull together ideas, some from scratch, and others by stitching various existing pieces of knowledge together to create your next great idea.
The best way to feed your creativity is to feed upon diverse sources of information. The more diverse your pool of sources are, the more unique pieces you will have in your mind and the more original your ideas will be. A diet of only fantasy books, while you are running a D&D campaign, is going to leave you with a lot of classical and worn ideas. On the other hand, reading a magazine article about theoretical physics, watching Dirty Jobs, and reading some historical biographies creates a more diverse pool of ideas, leading to more original ideas.
Two examples: I once came up with a Star Wars campaign based on the barbeque at Twelve Oaks in Gone With The Wind, where the southern gentlemen are talking about the impending Civil War. Another time, I came up with a plot for a Corporation session based on a Business Week article on executive kidnappings in Mexico. In both cases, I did not watch Gone With The Wind or read Business Week to get ideas for a game, but by exposing myself to both, I created building blocks for my own creativity, when it was time to put it to use.
There is a common misconception that creativity strikes likes lightning, that it is some random event, striking when you least expect it. This is a misconception. There are plenty of occupations that require regular acts of creativity such as Advertising, Designers, and Writers. People in these occupations are able to be creative on a regular basis. How do they do it?
Creativity is a learned skill, and when the skill is trained on a regular basis, you can expect it to perform with consistency. Those that master the act of creativity can call upon it, and not rely on those seemingly random flashes of insight.
How does one exercise their creativity in gaming? By creating elements for your game: an NPC, a description of a location, an idea for a plot. To hone your creativity, start by performing this act of creation, on a daily basis. The effort does not need to be formal, you can take a few minutes on your morning commute to think up a new NPC, or jot down a few lines of plot in between meetings. It’s not the writing down of the details that are important; it is the act of creation that is more important. As your skill improves, you can go from days to a few times a week, etc.
When your creativity has been properly exercised, you will find that new ideas will come quickly and more importantly will come to you on your schedule. That ability will take a great deal of stress off of you as a GM. When you know that you just need 30 minutes to come up with a plot for next week’s game, you will be much more relaxed, than someone who spends a week in a panic hoping that their plot will “come to them” before their players start sitting around the table.
A Well Deserved Rest
Creativity requires the expenditure of energy and it can be drained over time. When creativity is overused, or used for a prolonged period under stressful conditions, it can lead to burn-out, leaving you wandering in a creative desert. Just as it is important to exercise your creativity, you also must respect when your creativity needs rest, and then be willing to take the time to give it the rest it needs.
As a culture, we (Americans) undervalue the need for rest, believing that like some kind of medical student that we can push through the fatigue and keep going. Doing this for your game will lead you to pushing ill-formed ideas rather than creating fully formed creative ideas. The end result is at best strained, and at worst a disaster. In gaming terms we tend to create plots that are logically flawed, or that railroad players; NPC’s are cliché or two-dimensional.
There is an article on HarvardBusiness.org from Lifehacker’s Gina Trapani, about Creative Sabbaticals . There is a Designer, Stefan Sagmeister, who every 5 years closes his high-profile design studio and takes a year off, to re-charge his creativity batteries. While there are very few of us would want to take a year off from GMing, it makes an important point, that in order to keep peak creativity, you need time away in order to be refreshed.
In our campaigns, this rest can come in the form of skipping a scheduled session, and playing some board or card games in its place. Other times you need a slightly longer break; a hiatus may be required. In my gaming group, we take a few weeks off each Christmas holiday season. I honestly look forward to each December, when I have finished my notes for the year, and sitting back for a few weeks and not having to worry about writing my next session, and just relaxing. The funny part is that after a week, my mind starts flooding with ideas, as I start to mentally relax and the trained creativity takes over.
Be The Master Of Your Creativity
Creativity is tool that every GM needs to master. The best part is that mastery comes from practice, and that practice can be done anywhere. Banish from your mind any thoughts that creativity is some fickle muse that visits you out of the blue, and rather regard creativity as a tool that you can pick up and use whenever you wish.
Now it’s your turn. What shape is your creativity in? What exercises do you do that keeps it in top form? How do you rest your creativity?