Sunday, July 5, 2015

'Where Do You Get Your Ideas?'

Many of the world's creative celebrities have spoken or written about occasions in which they get asked the question, 'Where do you get your ideas?'

Alan Moore (who, just on the off chance that you don't know, is the author of many of the world's greatest comics, including V for Vendetta and Watchmen), said, 'We imply that even to have voiced such a question places [a person] irretrievably in the same intellectual category as the common pencil-sharpener. ... I know it isn't nice.'s something that we have to do. The reason why we have to do it is pretty straightforward. Firstly, in the dismal and confused sludge of opinion and half-truth that make up all artistic theory and criticism, it is the only question worth asking. Secondly, we don’t know the answer and we’re scared that somebody will find out.'

Gary Larson, creator of The Far Side, says, 'I've always found the question interesting, because it seems to embody a belief that there exists some secret, tangible place of origin for cartoon ideas. Every time I hear it, I'm struck by this mental image where I see myself rummaging through my grandparents' attic and coming across some old, musty trunk. Inside, I find this equally old and elegant-looking book... embossed on the front cover in large, gold script is the title, Five Thousand and One Weird Cartoon Ideas. I’m afraid the real answer is much more mundane: I don't know where my ideas come from.

Harlan Ellison, a legendary sci-fi author, describes it like this: '...they ask and ask, always the same damned question, and we plead ignorance; and... the question is asked again and again, without change, without compassion. We would tell if we knew, honestly we would.'

Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Material trilogy, wrote, 'This is the question that every author gets asked, and none of us know, so we all have to make up something that sounds as if it’s helpful. People are genuinely interested, I know, and it isn't polite to be facetious about it. For one thing, people don’t always know you’re making a joke. I once said in answer to this that I subscribed to Ideas ‘R’ Us, and someone wrote in and asked for the address.'

This is such a common question for celebrities to get asked (especially celebrities who work in the nerdier genres, such as the above-mentioned authors), that I thought the answers were well known. And so it was that one day as I was having lunch with some friends, when the boyfriend of one of those friends asked me that very question, I laughed.

When he continued to press me on the subject, I realised that he had been serious. I felt like crap for having laughed at him, because I thought he was joking. Firstly, it seemed like such a ridiculous thing for me to be asked, the same question that is so often posed to much more eminent and well-known creators, being asked of me, an unknown nobody in the middle of nowhere. Secondly, given how often that question is answered with some variation of 'I don't know,' and how well documented that answer is, I thought that he was making a jest of the 'Everyone knows the answer to this question, but I'm going to ask it anyway because it's funny to retread such a thoroughly-covered area' variety.

But as the conversation progressed, it became obvious to me that he was impressed with my ability to GM. More specifically, he wanted to know how I came up with the idea for a story to tell through the course of my game.

That's a difficult question. I could be flip, and say, 'I don't know.' And to an extent, it would be true, but that's not entirely accurate. As Gary Larson suggests, it's not a physical place. The ideas come from our heads. I'm certain that it's different for every creative person. But mostly, my ideas come from listening to other people, and thinking, and realising, 'Hey, that would be an interesting theme to explore in a game!' Or, 'That would be an amusing setting for a game!'

Just a few examples of ideas for games I've had, and how they popped into my head (not all of these ideas have actually turned into games, but I still think they'd be fun to do if I had a chance):
  • A friend was describing her visit to a 24 hour Wal-Mart at 3 AM, and telling me that the fluorescent lights on the already-depressingly-wan faces of the customers and staff made her fear that David Lo-Pan (from Big Trouble in Little China) was going to pop out and kidnap her to his hidden fortress in the basement of the store. I thought, 'Wouldn't that be an interesting game if David Lo-Pan actually were using a Wal-Mart as a front for his operations?'
  • I read about how part of Joss Whedon's inspiration for Firefly was thinking about the estrangement that former Confederate soldiers must have felt being part of a nation against which they had once fought. I combined this concept with the notion that I'd read somewhere about how, in a 'realistic' sword-and-sorcery fantasy world, races would likely not mingle as freely as they do in D&D, but most individuals would know almost nothing about other races if they even knew that the other races existed in the first place.
  • I was listening to the song 'World of Stone' by Blackmore's Night, and the lyrics became a story in my head, and I adapted the story to become a game.
  • I read about how Tolkien used elements from Norse mythology to create the races of Middle Earth, and began wondering why no one else had done that (every fantasy setting since that time has been the standard elves/dwarves/goblins/trolls/etc, with some occasional variation, if it includes non-human races at all, with the notable exception of The Dark Crystal). So I created a setting using fantasy races based on Celtic Mythology, and another using races based on Aztec mythology.
  • I had a dream in which an ancient Irish warrior brought his three young sons with him into a cave lined with quartz crystals, where the embodiment of winter dwelt, to show them how to be strong, by demanding that she give him her powers. Instead of responding to him, she gave a crystal shard to each of the three sons, telling them that they were a gift. She then turned to the father and informed him that whoever had all three shards would possess her powers. I woke up then, but I knew what she had done: how could the father take the gifts away from his own sons? How would the sons get the shards from their brothers? With a father so obsessed with strength and power, how could any of the sons be willing to share their shards? And I then thought, 'Wouldn't it be interesting for a group to go on a quest to find the three shards? What happened to them after all these centuries? What powers would they have? And when they do get all three shards, won't the embodiments of the other three seasons appear to demand the shards back, so they can restore the lady of winter?'
So to anyone who's looking to find ideas for stories to tell as a GM (or really, any other purpose), it's not a 'where.' It's not even a case of having ideas spring fully-formed into your head. It's a case of hearing things, or reading things, or thinking about things, and realising, 'Hey, I bet this would make an interesting story!' Don't worry if the idea wasn't entirely yours to begin with; as a good friend of mine often says, 'Good writers borrow. Great writers steal.'

That's not even the important part. The idea is only the starting point. Once you have your idea, you have to make sure that you can maintain the momentum. You have to ensure that you can follow through to the end. You have to make sure you know where you're going with the story.

I often have great ideas for starting points. 'Hey, that would make a great setting!' 'Hey, that's a great plot hook!' 'Hey, that idea would catch my interest! I wonder where it would lead?' And that's my biggest weakness as a GM. If I jumped off half-cocked with a great idea for the beginning of the story, but I'm not 100% sure what the ending is going to be, I won't be able to lead the story in an interesting direction.  I won't be able to hold the players' interest. I won't be able to make good story decisions on the fly. It's happened many times; I have a great idea for a story, but after a few sessions, when I'm kind of pulling stuff out of my butt on the spot because I haven't planned ahead, the group falls apart, and the story never finishes.

The most successful story I've run so far, in my opinion, is the one I ran last summer, based on the lyrics to 'World of Stone.' I took the advice from Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering and set up a progression of set-piece scenes: an aerial chase scene on mad-scientist-invented flying contraptions, an underwater battle with a shark, and a climactic battle with a steampunk-style tank that fired balls of molten lava. Then I worked out ways to get from one scene to the next (easily if they'd been successful in the previous scene, but with a more difficult – though not impossible – path if they'd been defeated in the previous scene). With this definite plan and already-determined ending in mind, I was able to run the game without the hesitation or random BS that has plagued many of my other games.

So that's my advice to anyone that wants to know where I get my ideas. Don't worry about where your ideas come from. It's far more important what you do with the ideas that you do have. With some planning, foresight, and care, the most mediocre ideas can become the greatest adventures.

Anyway, I've ranted quite long enough. Sorry this was a lengthy entry. I'll see you back here next week. Until then,

Game on!

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