Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Generating Ideas

Scott asked about how I generate my ideas in connection with my sandbox wonders series so I thought I might talk a bit about that and come up with some wonders with you.  I'm not an expert but I have to do some of this at work and I've done my fair share of tables, so maybe it will be useful.

It's counter-intuitive, but putting constraints or boundaries on a topic is helpful.  If I were just generating interesting things to encounter in a sandbox I wouldn't know where to start.  But the first couple posts of this series I actually laid out a bunch of boundaries for what I wanted: wonders that evoke awe, aren't deadly, have a system to them, grant souvenirs worth gathering, etc.  Each can be a springboard for my mind.  If I can't think of something that evokes awe I can try to think of locations that might offer interesting souvenirs.

How do you take advantage of this?  Because really, most things you'll be trying to generate will come with their own constraints.  Well, it could mean trying to narrow down the category of what you want to come up with, say interesting coin treasures instead of just treasures in general.  But you could also impose artificial constraints, like only things starting with "G" to help you out.

So, how about now?  What is a wonder that starts with "G."  The first thing that comes to mind is "graves."  But if we go back to the constraint of having souvenirs I think of leaves.  Maybe each grave is under a tree and taking the leaves of a particular one will do something for you.  What would the system be?  Well, we could make the trees cycles through the seasons quickly so you would have to catch them at the right time, but with graves I like the idea that each buried person would offer different boons/banes and you would need to make a choice.

Once you start producing ideas, you can look for patterns in them that you can then use to come up with even more ideas.  For the wonders I quickly noticed some I'd come up with dealt with water or fire, the elements, and so tried to specifically come up with new wonders that were earth-based or air-based.  I also noticed I had a bunch of forest-based wonders and tried to think of some that would work in other biomes or regions of the sandbox: desert, swamp, mountain-top, ocean.  In a way recognizing a pattern is giving yourself a new constraint that comes from within the ideas you've already come up with.

I've found that opposites can be a kind of basic pattern to look for.  All of your wonders consist of something natural?  Maybe we can come up with something made by human hands.  I've been trying to avoid the works of people because they bring with them a lot of assumptions about your gameworld's history.  But maybe we could keep it simple.  How about huge boulders carved into natural towers, dotted around the countryside?  What system might they have if they are so scattered?  Maybe something will appear in each of them in turn, like a flame or a light.

Another thing you can do is combine patterns, which is a way of turning them into a constraint.  So, if we wanted an elemental earth type wonder that would appear in a swamp, what could that be?  It isn't really earth, but the first thing that comes to mind is a huge tusk emerging from the muck.  What systems could be involved with this?  Perhaps the light shining on different parts of it at different parts of the day-- aha, its scrimshawed and if the when the light falls on a certain part of the story magical flowers blossom around the base.

Associative Leaps
This whole post is based on the idea of logically figuring out how we generate things and then using it.  But our minds can be complex.  If I say "Apple" you may think of the fruit or the company; we each have different associations with various words based on our experiences.  But how do we tap into this if it isn't logical, just our mind leaping from one thing to another?  Well, to allow for it.  Write down lists of things and don't worry too much if they fit the constraints you set at first, just let stuff come.  Sometimes a stupid, completely useless idea is one leap away from something great.

While I have moved the order of wonders about a bit, they are mostly in the order I thought of them, so if you look at the whole list (and my list of city wonders too) closely you can see how my mind leapt from one thing to the next.

So how about we try "Apple"?  I think of the fruit and worms and seeds in it.  Worms make me think of huge petrified things or the worm-like tunnels of volcanic activity now I'm thinking that a volcano is producing apples, except they are smooth obsidian orbs.  Okay how about at a certain time of day a local volcano rains down perfectly smooth, spherical or tear-shaped bits of obsidian the size of a human head and these are highly sought as scrying devices, but deadly when raining down.

I hate the word inspiration.  It's usually used in a magical or religious sense, like we just have to sit around and wait until a good idea hits us.  Obviously I don't agree.  But it is true that you need to see and experience things to come up with fresh ideas.  My wonders are really limited by my own experiences in the Sierras (probably too many tree-based wonders).  If I could visit somewhere else I guarantee I could come up with some fresh angles.

Another thing I would put under this category though is ideas coming from others.  I was taught by my culture that ideas are a kind of property that are made by individuals and unique to them.  Which if you look around a bit is hogwash.  Similar contexts often lead to similar ideas and no idea comes from a vacuum-- your ideas are coming from the stew of stuff in your mind-- all you've read, heard, and seen.  So basically, if I want ideas I'm not afraid to make it a social thing and ask others and bounce ideas off them.  To that end, I've asked all my friends and most of my employees "You're walking through the woods and you see something that fills you with wonder.  What is it?"

I'm still essential to the generating process, because they don't understand all my goals and constraints.  If they give me something, invariably I have to shape it a bit.  For example, my brother's answer was "a beaver."  What!?  I think he meant as a suburban human he'd never seen one in the flesh and as cut off from nature as we are it would be pretty wondrous to see one. Our characters in a fantasy world won't have that problem.  So what do I do with it?  What if it isn't a beaver, but their handiwork?  How about a section of forest with the trees carved in the crude likenesses of people?  What would the system be?  Maybe you go there, then that night the beavers carve you into a new tree, then there is a boon/bane attached to you for a certain amount of time.

Incremental Improvement
You don't have to get the whole idea on the first go.  In this post I've the kernels for 5 more wonders but I don't have all the details.  I can let them sit for a few days and then look at them again, shifting details to fit my goals better, coming up with the benefits they give players (which is a separate act of generation in itself).  But even after I post them, I can decide later that one isn't a good fit and cut it for a better, more newly generated wonder.  Generating isn't a single-sitting performance, it is a goal you are working towards and any little step you make towards your goals are valuable revisions.

The Brain is a Muscle
The more we do this kind of generating, the easier it is to produce things in these ways.  But there are limits.  There are times when I don't have a single idea of a wonder left in my head and had to shift to doing other thing while that part of my brain recharged.


  1. Reading... Digesting... You have two gifts: one is the gift of logic, and the other is the gift of labor. Your wonders spring 90% brute-force.

    I don't want to say the rest is inspiration. It is all work. Maybe the rest of it is a sense of playfulness you can bring to bear.

    This response isn't quite right. Let me just say: thank you, and think about this a little more.

  2. Thanks for the comment and the question that led to this post.

    As my uncle used to say: "Brute force and awkwardness . . ." :)

    As with most human endeavors I think creativity is largely work, with skills and strategies you can learn. Poetry or dungeon mastery are both similar in that aspect. Sure, some people have a set of talents that sets them ahead on the continuum-- they have less to learn, or can make more with less effort-- but mostly making things is just work. But the most fun work I know.

  3. Telecanter, this is a good post that actually gets to the nub of creativity. Well done.