Posted by: Sean | September 5, 2008

Where do you get your ideas?

One of the age old questions in any creative endeavor; role-playing being no exception; and as such one prone to a great number of snarky answers. My favorite goes to Neil Gaiman’s answer that he subscribes to an ideas newsletter; £4.50 a month, get twelve new ideas a week. Because new ideas, when you have them, often seem to come from nowhere, people tend to believe in “inspiration” as a source. Now, don’t get me wrong, actual inspiration, whereby another source inspires you to create something new, is absolutely a godsend for ideas. But the idea of a moment of inspiration where, suddenly, you have an idea where before you didn’t? It does not happen. Oh, sure, that’s what it feels like when you have a new idea, but I assure you, those ideas are coming from somewhere. So, where do you get your ideas for new characters, new plots, even new ‘blog posts?

(Clearly, the answer to the latter is that you struggle for a topic, fail, and get meta-referential. Just kidding.)

Scott Adams, best known for authoring Dilbert, put forward the idea that creativity is “theft plus a lack of talent”. His assertion is that all writers steal. Every last one of them. (This is roughly correct, actually.) He then continues to note that, by being generally not as good as the person you’ve stolen from, you make mistakes that alter the work and voila! Creativity strikes again. While Adams was shooting for humour with his phrasing, I believe he genuinely believes something akin to this.

And people thought I was being cynical yesterday.

I don’t hold with this theory. Not because it posits that every writer steals from other writers; as noted before, this is absolutely true. Style is derivative, mine pulls from Roald Dahl, Eric Burns-White and (sometimes) Hunter S. Thompson, along with overt reference to E.B. White and William Strunk Jr. But even this hints at the problem with Adams’s theory; because he posits that we only steal from one source.

Gaiman himself had a much better theory, and one I hold to even now – Good ideas come from confluence. You’re listening to a song on the radio about a suicide, last night you were thinking about the concept of apotheosis, and there’s a TV special on Charles Manson running in the background. The three all mesh together in your head and soon you have a short story idea about a guy wanting to kill himself and become a god, but because he’s not sure how to make it work he’s drugging other people and making them try it first. See? Confluence. A + B + C = D, and D isn’t just the sum of the previous three but a wholly new idea.

So, let’s bring this back to Warcraft role-play. How can we use this understanding to make it easier to come up with new character ideas, short plots, and scene concepts?

  1. Read WoWWiki and other Lore sources. The more you understand about the World of Warcraft lore, the more things buzzing about in your head will be available to draw from. Don’t just keep the window open for reference when you need it, go and read pages at random, let ’em all bounce around in your ideaspace. Alex Ziebart’s “Ask a Lore Nerd” and “Know Your Lore” columns are also good for this, and should absolutely be on your regular reading list. The World of Warcraft RPG books are full of lore and are, if you’re prepared to pay for them, worthwhile too.
  2. Read, watch, and listen to as much as you can. If you ever see someone handing out flyers on the street for some charity or minor religion? Grab it. Read it front to back. At the doctors? Grab every medical pamphlet you can read while in the waiting room. Grab every iTunes free single of the week and listen to the damn thing. Go to the movies whenever you can. You never know what it is that will spark your imagination in the future. There’s a lot of stuff out there to draw inspiration from, and you never know which one it will be that proves useful.
  3. Map your inspiration sources, even if it’s only in your head. If you practice it, and think hard about when you have that “lightning bolt” moment to try and piece where exactly all the elements are coming from. If you can do this, it has two effects. First, it lets you probe deeper into the sources of your new idea, and possibly mine them for even more material to make the idea better. Second, if you start getting good at consciously identifying your idea sources, you’ll actually get better at having those lightning bolt moments.

The bottom line is that knowing more, even in utterly unrelated fields, improves your creativity. Knowledge, I firmly believe, begets creativity directly. But you have to connect it to the field you’re trying to create in. For World of Warcraft, this means blue-skying about whatever it is you know in a World of Warcraft context. If you’re doing an education degree, try to think about what school is like in Azeroth. If you work in a library (as I do,) think about how knowledge is kept by the orcs, who don’t seem to put much stock in books. Learn widely, and relate back. And do it with everything.



  1. You’re right; knowing more begets creativity. The more references you can draw from, the more ideas you’re likely to have.

    #3 is the most important point, though, but I have one word for it: Research. Brainstorming only gives you the germ of an idea; it’s research that gives the idea form. Not in a “crack open your textbooks” sort of way, but as you said, more in a sense of knowing where your idea is coming from.

    As a long-time DM/GM for various tabletop games, I’ve always believed that in order to play a character, one has to know the character, and where they are being drawn from, and most importantly, WHY. That takes research, and its something that most Roleplayers (if you can call them that) won’t do. Without research, characters are two-dimensional, at best.

    I wonder how many “roleplayers” stop to think about what their characters sound like. For the Horde, it’s a little different, sure, but with the Alliance, it’s something else. There’s nothing to differentiate between the voices of a Night Elf or a Human, really. Sure, Dwarves have that Scottish accent we’re all so fond of, and gnomes are high-pitched and precocious, but those are obvious in-game differences.

    Ask a Dwarf player why they talk the way they do, and they’ll likely respond with, “All dwarves talk like that.” Well, sure, but why? Why not have a Dwarf with less of an accent, since he spent most of his formative years in Stormwind with Humans?

    My warrior character, Lelissa, is modeled after two people: myself (obviously), with my somewhat brash nature and rough edges, and my grandmother. My grandmother is Ukranian, has been living in the United States for almost sixty years, and still has the same, thick accent when speaking English, because at home, she and my grandfather and their friends only spoke Ukranian. English was reserved for the grandchildren, because we only new a few Ukranian words and phrases. Since the Draenei have a similar accent, Lelissa speaks in the same mannerism as my grandmother does – no contractions, tends to use Draenei words when she doesn’t know the Common equivalent, that sort of thing.

    Research gives life to the character. Fleshes them out. Makes them more “real.”

    I think it also makes them more fun to play, and makes them more interesting to the people around you.

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