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The Proper Care and Feeding of Your Creativity

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 [1] 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.

Regular Exercise

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 [2]. 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?

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "The Proper Care and Feeding of Your Creativity"

#1 Comment By trisj On November 13, 2009 @ 7:45 am

I like to troll Wikipedia and click on the featured items if they seem remotely interesting. Clicking on one usually sends me down a rabbit hole of craziness where one starts off looking up ‘diarrhea (for the correct spelling)’ and then winds up on ‘Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’ and ‘Ark of the Covenant.’ I kid you not, I have a game idea that has something to do with all this.

I also like to watch nature shows that show breathtaking, sweeping landscapes to give ideas for dungeons and settings. The Planet Earth series was phenomenal and the ‘Cave’ show especially was insane.

Listening to music and paying attention to the lyrics sometimes gets the ideas flowing. Nick Cave, The Black Heart Procession, Blonde Redhead, PJ Harvey…ideas for NPCs and story lines abound in their strange lyrics.

#2 Comment By Tyson J. Hayes On November 13, 2009 @ 12:08 pm

I couldn’t agree more with this article. I’m currently in an intense development cycle for the roleplaying game and I’m planning on a sabbatical from roleplaying to rest my creative juices and gear up for another run.

Great thoughts thanks for sharing them.

#3 Comment By John Arcadian On November 13, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

This is an awesome article, and something I need to take heed of. I get pulled into so many projects that I never take time off.

I also tend to feed my creativity when I get a new project, but not as a matter of course. If I’m world-building for a system then I look to sources that evoke the similar feel of what I want to get. I’ll play video games that are evocative, or charge the areas I want to be using, or read books that have a similar style. I’ll write little things down in a notebook and then, when looking over them later, wonder what piqued my interest in the first place. I’ll start trying to fill in holes as to why I wrote down “Square sword with holes in the blade” and it will blossom in multiple new directions. The end result rarely looks like the inspiration, but it gives me a starting ground to jump off of.

#4 Comment By callin On November 13, 2009 @ 3:44 pm

Very true.
I recently finished up creating a 4E character class. While I was working on it I kept referencing other character classes already made, primarily to make sure my numbers were right. I started rereading all the other classes, and sure enough, ideas would be sparked. It wasn’t even a case of lifting ideas and transplanting them but rather a new idea would form.
One idea I’ve heard related to Random Encounters. The individual puts his random encounters onto index cards, one per. Then once a week he spends about an hour adding index cards to his pile, thus keeping his random encounters fresh. At the same time he is inadvertnetly exercising.

My blog- [3]

#5 Comment By icarus1863 On November 15, 2009 @ 12:14 am

Planet Earth series is definitly awesome. So far my PCs have climbed mounds of bat guano, crossed swords on monolithic stalagmites, & encountered jack jumper ants. I have plans for the salt crystal caverans, and the spores.

Dirty Jobs: “There is always a pit.”

The PCs, who have performed pivital parts in ending the war against the barbarians, have been awarded a land grant. The base village located there Applewood – Is actually Walnut grove, from Little House on the Praire. Watched it as a child, Now i have a entire village of NPCs that i know -goals, jobs, reactions.

#6 Comment By Scott Martin On November 17, 2009 @ 11:51 am

I like the idea that frequent (or regular) creative exercise can increase your capability– or at least help creativity come on command. That’s a valuable skill, well worth some effort to develop. In some ways, I already recognized it– improvising as GM leads to better improvising and more confidence, encouraging a GM to step a little further away from the tracks and trust a little more. But I didn’t know it in as strong a form as you presented it– thanks for underlining it!

#7 Comment By Bercilac On November 17, 2009 @ 11:48 pm

All good points. I teach history, so I definitely go through having to exercise my creativity, come up with new ways to present dry material (guess what I use a lot of…), and some serious downtime after a lot of lesson planning.

#8 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On November 18, 2009 @ 1:31 pm

This probably won’t be a popular opinion among gamers…

General Patton once said that you shouldn’t sit down for more than twenty minutes; walking around or engaging in some other physical activity “stirred the juices”.

I’ve found this to be somewhat accurate, although I think the timeline is greater than twenty minutes. I’ve broken through a number of ‘writer’s blocks’ by doing something physical (as opposed to another intellectual activity).

#9 Comment By penguin133 On November 20, 2009 @ 6:35 am

I really like some of these suggestions. Creativity is the name of the game in roleplaying, for any game system or milieu. Telas, yer right, I found moving around was a great stimulus when actually GMing, let alone when writing or creating. Good way to keep up the interest and “Spark” characteristic of the best GM. Storytelling is very important; I honed my skills through my old Army mates and several generations of kids and then Grandkids!I have since developed great hopes of telling tales for another Generation with the recent birth of my first Great Grandchild!
Teaching and a good “Manner” are another prerequisite of the better GM. After all, you are expecting your Players to “believe” via their imaginations in some-hing that really exists only between your ears? This is one of the reasons I am a great believer in minis, even paper and card ones, Counters and almost anything that can represent the “real thing”, so that PCs can visualise things in a “video” manner.
(I sometimes wonder if the present pandemic of video
games is a good or a bad thing, it is certainly a stimulus to the imagination, but limiting, even stereotyping, perhaps to the creativity of the Players?) However I’m wandering off topic! “Handouts” are another thing which is a great help in creating the necessary “Belief”, or at least suspension of Disbelief. I tend to think of it as the “Quantum of Solace!”, the story by Ian Fleming, not the recent Bond movie? If you can hand the Player(s) a real map or a document in some authentic-looking Font (available on the Net and mostly totally free), and challenge them to get it translated (or feed some Dwarven(?)character the “Real” answer, which can provide some innocent amusement as you watch said PC try to wring some advantage out of what “he” knows, whether it be some ancient Diary (See Moria and the “Drums in the deep, extremely chilling IMO!)May IU in passibng congratulatethe maker of the Gnome standups,m by tyhe way, an excellent idea? I have been using card figures and counters to supplement my Figure collction for a long time, not only does it let you provide more figutres in greater quantity, and they will traveol i n hyour pocket with no problem;’ but it lets you have a greater variety of figures and “types”. And play differing milieux with figures you might not otherwise have? I also find that figures often give me an idea for a personality otr story?
Thanks, Ian

#10 Comment By rocketlettuce On November 20, 2009 @ 9:50 pm

Kudos to DNAPhil for pointing out the importance of caring for your creative self. GMing is an art and must be approached as such.

Julia Cameron, a filmmaker, writer, and creativity guru recommends writing “morning pages” every day. Morning pages are three pages of free-writing first thing in the morning. I have found this technique, coupled with weekly “artist dates,” to be invaluable to my games, my work, and my life as a whole.

Check out her book. It’s called, The Artists Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. (Don’t let the spiritual part scare you off. You’ll like it anyway.)


#11 Pingback By Blog Post: Friday Links for November 20, 2009 (on Sunday, November 22, 2009) | Moebius Adventures On November 22, 2009 @ 11:34 am

[…] And lastly, over at Gnome Stew, DNAPhil has encouraged us to properly care for and feed our creativity. Mine’s been starving a bit lately, so his advice is well received by yours truly. I love the idea of creating a new NPC, location description, or plot idea every day or every few days. It’s something I hope to put into practice soon! [4] […]

#12 Comment By Tollymain On March 5, 2010 @ 9:08 am

TvTropes is a good source for ideas concerning NPCs, plots, settings, etc. Just keep hitting the random page button until you find something interesting. I’ve found that doing this often gives me new ideas.