Creativity: The Driving Force in Games?

A photo of a sunset being painted by a hand holding an artist's paintbrush, symbolising the creativity of painting the world.The Oatmeal recently released a comic about creativity. In a nutshell, it points out that creativity is like breathing. You have to breathe in before you can breathe out. In this analogy, you can’t produce creative content if you don’t also consume creative content. Creativity is an energy, like electricity or heat; in order to use that energy, you have to get it from somewhere. This can come in the form of reading, watching TV or movies, listening to music, looking at visual arts, and many other forms besides. But in consuming the creativity of others, one becomes more able to create works of one’s own.

This is in part because ideas don’t spring fully formed into a creative person’s head. They are reworkings of things these people have seen or heard or felt or experienced. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, ‘Good artists borrow. Great artists steal!‘ Which is a valid, if somewhat flippant, way of saying that consuming the creative works of others is the essential fuel for one’s own creativity.

Why are we discussing creativity?

You may be wondering why we’re talking about creativity in a gaming blog. Well, the first and most obvious answer is that the people who create these games have to get the ideas for their games from somewhere. It can be a very daunting prospect, coming up with all of these ideas. Especially in reference to the post I wrote two weeks ago about the Golden Age of Board Games, where I linked to a video talking about how awesome games have become. In that video, starting around the 17:30 mark, the speaker talks about how the game Dominion was released in 2008, and was the first deck building game to be released. This was a very creative game, being the first of a new mechanic introduced into the board game community. But as creative as it was, it sparked the creativity of a new wave of games. The following year, the game Thunderstone came out. It was, in essence, the same game as Dominion, with a new theme (travelling into a dungeon to fight monsters instead of being medieval land owners trying to expand their territory). The year after that saw the release of Puzzle Strike, another deck builder that expanded upon what had gone before by implementing new ways of allowing player interaction, which had been lacking in previous iterations of the deck builder mechanic. And then the very next year, the deck builder game was improved yet again with the release of A Few Acres of Snow, in which the deck builder mechanic is used to accurately portray the realities of trying to manage resources in a war during the colonial era. By taking the ideas that others had implemented and reworking and improving upon them, creative individuals can expand their own creativity to make something even greater.

In addition, there’s no reason that people can’t take an existing game and put their own twist on it, making it even better. Perhaps the best example of this is the series Super Fun Awesome Party Game Time on the Geek and Sundry YouTube channel. Each episode takes an existing game and puts a twist on it to make it even more fun! Examples include ‘Blind Pictionary’ (you must draw on a paper plate on your head, so you can’t see what you’re drawing, then your teammate(s) have sixty seconds to guess what you’ve drawn), or playing Thin Ice whilst blindfolded, or playing Guess Who? using descriptions of personalities instead of physical appearance. Tweaking existing games to come up with amazing new games is a wonderful application of creativity in the gaming community!

And perhaps the most important reason that creativity is important for games is in playing storytelling games, from board games or card games with storytelling elements (GloomWinter Tales, or Rory’s Story Cubes) to games that are almost entirely about telling stories (Fiasco, Strange Conversations, or North, South, East, Quest) all the way up to standard roleplaying games (the purest of which are nothing more than frameworks for characters to collaboratively tell a story). I know that I’ve put a ridiculous amount of creativity into the games I’ve run, and most good GMs have to be just as creative in designing their campaigns.

How to be creative

Creative individuals (mostly authors, but other creators as well) often get asked, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ I wrote about this some on my other blog, but the general consensus is that they don’t really know where they get their ideas. Prominent writers, from Neil Gaiman to Alan Moore to Harlan Ellison to Gary Larson to Phillip Pullman have all answered this question with variations on the theme, ‘We don’t know where we get our ideas.’ The entry linked above describes a time when I was asked where I get my ideas. I thought it was such a ludicrous thing for me to be asked that I laughed when the question was posed (and then felt bad when I realised the person was serious).

But there are ways to fuel one’s creativity. Neil Gaiman wrote a very useful and interesting essay on the topic, which I highly recommend. My blog post pointed out that, in the end, it’s not really the ideas that are the important part. It’s what you do with it. The ideas come from observing the world around you, often noticing other people’s creative works and coming up with a different spin on that idea. My best RPG campaign was inspired by a single song by Blackmore’s Night.

Take the idea and work it out. The idea is just the starting point. You have to flesh it out into a workable story (or other art form). With the story based on a song (‘World of Stone,’ in case you’re wondering), I had the germ of an idea: Ok, so there’s a village in which all the inhabitants have been turned to stone, and the PCs must go on a quest to restore them. But a good story needs much more than that! I spent time deciding who had turned them to stone, and why. I needed a way for the PCs to find this village in the first place (I had a single villager get lost in the forest before it happened, and when he finally found his way home, he saw all his friends and family petrified, and sought out the PCs to help him). I needed to know how it had been done. I needed to know how the story was going to end, so I could work towards it without having to randomly improvise (which always makes my stories end up being uninteresting). I needed to map out a timeline of events leading from the beginning to the ending. I needed to add some exciting events to the story so it wasn’t just a beginning and a conclusion.

In Conclusion

Don’t be discouraged if you’re not creative. There are always ways to learn to be creative. Take baby steps. Read lists like 100 Adventure Ideas, and see which one sounds interesting to you, and spend some time thinking about what sort of story you might tell based on that idea. Look up simple writing prompts to get your creativity flowing, like this one from Buzzfeed. Just googling ‘writing prompts’ will give you an unending supply of ideas. Try playing games that encourage creativity (Gloom is great for this one!). One of the best story ideas I had came from a website that basically just recycled plots from mythology and literature, and eventually inspired me to write a story that was a combination of the Finnish myth of Ilmarinen, the Irish tale of Niamh of the Golden Hair, the Welsh legend known as ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen, and a sci-fi tale of a dictator taking prisoners to be used as sacrifices (this story ended up being the tale of a troll who’d been reincarnated in modern times and was questing to find the gwrawgedd anwnn who’d been his lover, only to discover that she’d been brainwashed into joining a delusional cult that was imprisoning people to be used as sacrificial offerings when the Fomorians returned from their ancient slumber).

Just remember, the idea isn’t the important part. It’s what you do with the idea once you have it that matters.

I’ll see you here again next week. Until then, remember to

Game on!

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J was introduced to tabletop roleplaying games in high school, where he found that he enjoyed telling epic stories through the medium of games. Since then, he has only grown more fond of games, and is now an active supporter of his local board game cafe. He's been blogging about games at for a while, and is even working on play testing his own original RPG. He lives in Oklahoma with his wife, a cat, and two rats.

About J

J was introduced to tabletop roleplaying games in high school, where he found that he enjoyed telling epic stories through the medium of games. Since then, he has only grown more fond of games, and is now an active supporter of his local board game cafe. He's been blogging about games at for a while, and is even working on play testing his own original RPG. He lives in Oklahoma with his wife, a cat, and two rats.