Friday, August 6, 2010

Creativity and Breast-Feeding

Three weeks ago, Trollsmyth linked to a Newsweek article about creativity called 'The Creativity Crisis,' an article pitching the argument that creativity is an inherent quality and that it is something society is in danger of losing. Having established (through typical journalistic bias) from one source the existence of a ‘creativity score’ for individuals, the article naturally sells the fear that “creativity scores are declining,” rushing to blame TV and videogames, with the lack of creativity development in schools as the third culprit.

The article at one point bemoans, “All around us are matters of national and international importance that are crying out for creative solutions ...” – then claiming that it takes a ‘healthy marketplace’ to allow a populace to either be receptive to ideas or contribute.

The whole article is written in typical Newsweek style, punching forward the political agendas that the magazine has become famous for and making sure that you keep reading in case some terrible calamity might result when people no longer have ideas!

It's a big steaming pile of hooey, of course ... but Trollsmyth only wants to pull out the small bit about creativity being learnable and I can't fault him for the paragraph he chose.

Putting it more succinctly, my first wife went to high school with a very tall fellow who didn't play basketball, saying he didn't know how ... and the coach told him, "We can teach you how to play basketball - we can't teach you how to be tall."

There are, obviously, millions of ideas in the world, brilliant and otherwise, that won't be advanced in our lifetimes because they step on someone's toes, or are simply too difficult for a tight-fisted public to implement.  Ideas only have value if they can be sold - that's the guts of our world.  'Reception' of an idea in this culture, the one that pays Newsweek's bills, is the willingness of your average stranger to open up his or her wallet and give you twenty bucks.

But seriously, fuck all that.  There's an enormous amount of creativity that goes on continuously without money changing hands that doesn't have much to do with the marketplace, and is therefore of no interest to Newsweek.  It interests me, however, and I'd like to tackle the question that Trollsmyth quotes.\

Is creativity learnable?

I'd like to advance an unqualified YES.  But that's not going to do many of you a lot of good.  Because, you see, it isn't easily learnable.

Many of you are creatively working on worlds and developing adventures, and so you've learned that creation is hard.  Particularly, extended creation.  As the progress of your world increases, the number of variables and tasks that suggest themselves starts to seem like an insurmountable list ... leading to a great number who quit.  Those who quit simmer unhappily for months in their creative juices until they launch themselves into a new world, a new idea, a new game, hoping that THIS time the process will prove something within their scope of achievement.

I know something about creativity.  I'm going to take advantage of the evidence this blog provides to try to make a few points here about how you become more creative, and how you get to be better at it.  And since I'm a contentious old bugger, I'm not going to be nice about it.  Here's what you do:

Get Your Mouth Off The Tit

If you've been playing this game more than two to three years as a DM, and you are still buying modules and considering playing a new gaming system that's just come out, you have a dependency problem.  I think that twenty years ago it was worthwhile looking into new things, since a lot of the stuff that was being created and advanced in the world of RPG was actually new.  But there is an enormous amount of written material that has been piled up already, and you should have had plenty of time to peruse the lion's share of it in the space of three years (assuming you're serious about the craft - if you're not, what the fuck are you reading me for?).

If this is your twentieth year and you're still checking out the shelf at your gaming store for new games you've never heard of before, there's only one thing I have to say to you: you have a fetish.  For the love of the game, RPGs are not like the medical profession. There aren't any mind-boggling changes in the technology that you need to keep abreast of year-by-year.  If you're not happy with the combat tables that you have, after three years you ought to be expert enough to make your own tables.  What in hell is wrong with you?  Why are you plonking down another $25 dollars on another module when by this time you probably have more experience playing the game than the fuckwit designer?

Okay, that's harsh.  But at some point its time to take stock of your life and ask yourself why you haven't learned how to draw rooms on a map and fill them with monsters and treasure.  You're obviously lacking where it comes to using your brain - it's time to dust the cobwebs off that thing and put it to use.

Yes, true, you probably won't design a dungeon as flashy and nuanced as the really great stuff you can find online ... but that's because you've had your lips firmly suckered to the tit all this time.  It's time to pull back and recognize that mother's milk doesn't need to be your favorite food any more.  Yes, with the end of the sucking there's going to be a lot of bad designing in your future.  But that's only because you should have been practicing, instead of becoming the best tit-hound in your neighborhood.

So, Expect To Be Bad At This ... For Awhile

If you had started creating your own shit at the right time, ie. the same month you were introduced to the game, you'd be way ahead of where you are now.  But you didn't, and you're older and you've got regular players now who have been sucking at the tit second-hand.  Thus, you will need to beg their forgiveness for your laziness and you will need to inform them that for a little while your world isn't going to be the first-rate puzzle-fest its been for the last however many years.  Chances are, some of them are going to raise an eyebrow at you, making flat out statements about your intellect and your abilities - hey, admit it, some of them don't think you're very bright.  Why?  Well, you've tried playing your own invented adventures in the past and you were really, really bad at it.  So bad, in fact, that there's been a tacit agreement among your players to quit your world if you even think about having an original thought again.

You see, they're only in your world because you've proven yourself to be the very best dunder-headed narrator serving as the vocal link between your players and the unseen and aforementioned designer.  You've been the convenient moneybag who has schlepped your way to the store every couple of months to plunk down the cash to buy the module to make it possible for your players to live vicariously through your blind acceptance of this routine.  They don't give a rat's ass about YOU - anyone reading the module would be satisfactory for them.  Chances are, as they slouch out of your kitchen promising never to return until you see some sense and agree to go back to running someone else's modules, they are right now deciding who will be the module-reader that takes your place.  If you're very, very lucky (as far as they are concerned), they'll let you sit in on the next Captain Dunsel's world.

If you have a backbone (get yourself tested if you're not sure), you'll wave good-bye to those discourteous assholes and accept that for a year or two you'll be running your children, your wife, your grandmother and possibly your dog in your world.  You have just entered the chrysalis stage of dungeon mastering.  This is the period when you'll sit and scratch out dungeon after dungeon, before contemplating the possibility of improving the dungeon generation tables in the DMs Guide.  This will help train you in the creation of tables, encouraging you to read a book or two about caves and caverns, and ultimately about the wilderness when it occurs that you should waste months and months struggling with an outdoor encounter table that might conceivably work.  And when you're done with that, you'll find yourself hip deep in the sketching out of  a world and its inhabitants and you won't even care that you haven't any players.

But nothing is going to work for awhile.  Face it, you haven't done much of this creativity stuff and every attempt you're going to make will fall far, far short of even Jerry Bruckheimer's limited imagination.  But I encourage you to stay with it, to improve and expand your world, at least until you get to the point where working on the actual world is something you'd do even if you never had any players again.

That doesn't always happen.  A lot of would-be independent-minded DMs return to the tit, begging forgiveness from their players and returning to the same hopeless state of mind they're utterly trapped by.  A particular few will raise that state of mind to the Nth degree, as though it is some kind of virtue to speak upon or write scads of drudged up verbiage about someone else's achievements.  I understand there's even a measure of respect or humble worship to be gained by such coattail-riding.  I can't speak to that myself.  I haven't got any experience with tit-sucking.  I was bottle-fed as a baby.

Creativity is a trait that is learned from practice.  If you won't practice - and that being if you won't do the work - you won't get better at it.

But if you do stay with it, the day will come when one of your old players, or one of the new ones you've gained, will say to you, "You have a great world!"  And from this you will realize, at last, that they are talking about the world you made, and not the world you bought from Sal's bargain-bin on 18th Ave and Cheap Street.


  1. Psychology of Creativity is one of the most interesting subjects to study, and deals with much of what you've written.
    The only way to learning to be creative is trying to be creative. Being receptive and accepting others' works will only help you to walk, but in order to run you need to develop the skills by yourself. Sooner or later (usually later) you'll be used to make creative works, but until then you need to force yourself to imagine, write and re-design.
    Yet I wonder if people are really used to imagine these days...

  2. Not much to say but "great post."

  3. Gotta' say I whole-heartedly agree that creativity is a muscle that needs to be exercised if it's going to grow...similar to imagination.

    Of course, I still scope the shelves at the game show to get momentary pops of inspiration as well as to incorporate things into the old "mind matrix." We can draw from the creative "pipeline" but we can also open ourselves up to outside-the-box thinking by not getting stuck in ruts (like our own little world). Stepping outside the box allows us to experience things we can then bring back to our world or (if we simply allow it to transform us a bit) give us the little extra oomph to explore our own, new avenues of creativity.

    But that's just what I think. And my wife was just telling me last weekend that I'm "not very creative."

  4. Nice post that I generally agree with. Out of ~25 years of playing D&D I've only run modules for two sessions when I was in junior high (single sessions of B3 and X1, respectively). For me, designing the world and NPCs is one of the main reasons to be a DM. And, yes, there is trial and error involved in making everything as fast and fun as possible for the players.


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