On Creativity

David Tennant, the real Doctor

The worry I hear most often about GMing is “I can’t make things up when I need to.” It’s right there ahead of “Doesn’t GMing make me some kind of super-nerd?” (Yes it does).¬†When someone blindsides you with a question or no one’s picking up any hooks, it can get tough. Players interest can start to fade, or more likely, they take an interest in something that you never in a million years thought they would, so you didn’t prepare for that. There’s a fear of choking in those moments that seems to inhabit our skin, cold and wet under the muscles, a fear that saps our confidence and can make us rethink our decision to step behind the screen. Fear not. Through creativity and determination you will conquer it. Today I want to share three ways that I conquer this, make a thing up, and keep the game moving.


Pdunwin raised this point on last week’s post, and it’s well taken. When players come up with an answer, they own it. They’re going to retain it better than any answer you just hand them, and they have the same creative investment in the game that you do. Work with them to create cultures, cities, characters, villains and legends. Your mileage may vary a bit, but you can develop this by starting small and working with players to create elements from their own characters’ backgrounds and suggest ways that those elements, whether characters or history, can be integrated into the game. The feeling you want them to have when they see the results of their creativity is “I made that. That’s mine. Let’s go see that.” It transforms them from observers of the setting into authors, and gives them a new kind of agency.


I do a lot of creativity exercises. I do them for game, I also tutor on the weekends, and I do them with my student. My favourite is “That makes me think of,” which I learned from a ZeFrank video (that’s a transcript, his archive is still down). In my game notes, I always have huge lists of random things that I can connect. Names of people and places, family trees, and a list of Magic: the Gathering cards for when I need semi-generic fantasy ideas. Make your own lists of things or ideas you want to include, and draw from them when you need to. Stare at them and connect them in interesting ways, and share those interesting ways with people to make sure they’re actually interesting. A lot of practice is also preparation. As Ryan mentioned on Friday, know your world. Know what you have room for and what you don’t, it’ll help you keep things consistent and be confident about in your delivery to your players.


David Tennant, the real DoctorThey say imitation is the finest form of flattery. Sometimes it is also plagiarism. Hint: almost no one cares if your D&D game contains plagiarism. Placate those who do by referring to it as an homage. Also use this as a form of crass manipulation. And pandering. Here at TPK we heartily endorse both crass manipulation and pandering, but not plagiarism. Don’t steal characters or ideas wholesale, but get pieces of them. Having the Doctor in your game is weird and awkward unless you’re running a Doctor Who game, but having a hobo who lives in an ordinary blue police box and insists on being called the Doctor is a callback to Doctor Who without bearing the burden of having to be Doctor Who. Borrowing from things your players enjoy can help draw them in, though your mileage may vary, and it’s important to appreciate the tone that you’ve set for your setting.

Sometimes all of thee will fail you.Everyone has an off day, and it can be tough when you’re on the spot. When in doubt, be confident, listen to your players, know your setting, and just go with the flow.

One comment

  • Thanks for the nod. It was fear of underpreparation that really drove me to a collaborative mode. I realized I was experiencing relief when sessions had to be cancelled, because I hadn’t figured out a believable, unquestionable way for the next session to tie into the past sessions, or to explain how the society of a town worked, or some such. I realized that was a problem.

    I can improvise pretty well, and I don’t mind asking for a minute or two to think, but I realized a few things. One, improv works because a group of people are offering ideas, and the other people are accepting and adding on to those ideas. Maybe I’m lucky to have a group with active imaginations who are always leaping ahead to what they think is really going on, but I saw that my group was only too eager to offer ideas about reality. “This guy was a wizard, so he’d probably have a magical servant. Can I control it?” etc.

    Two, when I would take time to think, the players wouldn’t just sit there, but would be suggesting ways to move forward, sometimes I’d drop whatever vain hope I’d been picking at and just grab onto what they’d said, out of sheer desperation.

    In short, a DM’s greatest tools are the other brains sitting around the table. Anything else is hooked only into a single brain and whether you’re trying to outsmart or just entertain those other brains, odds are good that the lot of them, hooked in parallel, will out perform you every time. It’s better to have them on your side.

    (Some people don’t want to collaborate. They want the DM to be the game console, creating and serving reality to them. I think that’s pretty selfish and unfair, especially when those same players just want to find ways to short-circuit that reality anyway. I advise playing with people who will actively help you create.)

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