Self-Reflections from D&D: Creativity

Dungeons & Dragons has a had a profound impact on me. Through the last three years of playing this game, I’ve gone on epic adventures, laughed, cried, and made new friends. I’ve learned a bit more about storytelling, myself, and life in general.

“Self-Reflections” is a series about what I’ve learned as a DM, player, and all-around D&D nerd.

I had never thought of myself as the “creative” type. That was always someone else’s thing. I was never the best artist, nor was I ever the best musician, nor the best writer. Art never came naturally to me. What did come naturally was logic. The natural progression that if you were to do X, then the next thing you ought to do is Y (yes, I’m a control freak, I’m working on it). I was also very good at bossing people around. So in high school, rather than being the actor in the school production, I was the stage manager. Rather than being the creative, it was my job to keep the creatives in line.

Then along came Dungeons & Dragons.

For whatever reason, this game captivated me, and now, I’ve found myself in a position where I have to be the creative one. As the Dungeon Master, it’s my responsibility to come up with thriving worlds and engaging quests for my players to explore and conquer. I have to come up with puzzles, mysteries, and intrigue that captures their imagination, and bring the world to life. How in the world would I, a logical-machine deprived of any creative spark, be capable of doing that?

Spoiler: Anyone can be creative.

Welcome to Mercier. A land (and map) of my own creation.

It was through playing this game that I started to think about what being creative meant. For me (and I imagine for many people), being creative meant being able to create something out of nothing. I always thought of creativity as being given a blank canvas, and then creatives would just suddenly have this spark of inspiration that helps them conceptualize a deep piece of art (painting, music, screenplay, etc.). It took D&D for me to realize that this isn’t the one-all-be-all form of creativity. Creativity can come from anywhere, because it comes in different forms.

For some, creativity starts with a blank canvas. That never worked for me. And upon deeper introspection, I realized why. If I were given a blank canvas and told to produce a masterpiece, the possibilities would be endless. The canvas is blank. Where would I begin? What would I want to create? How do I go about creating it? All these questions would be going through my brain, and I would eventually drown in all those possibilities, to the point that I’m paralyzed. The presence of endless possibilities prevents me from choosing just one. For some, they can make that decision, they can choose one out of the many. But for me, I need structure. Unlike my creative classmates in high school, whom are capable of creating art from the beauty of chaos. I’ve realized that my art, my creativity, comes from order.

Rather than work with a blank canvas, I would prefer to receive a canvas with some lines already drawn in them. I can then use these lines as a springboard into creating my own form of art. The lines provide me with boundaries and structure. Rather than being given the unlimited possibilities which leads to my paralysis, I am given a loose framework. I now have a fixed “play-area” where I am free to do what I want, and to take my art in whichever directions I deem possible. Rather than confining, they are actually liberating. The first few lines frees me from my own indecision, and give me the ability to play to my strengths, logic. With the first few lines already been made, I can then infer where the next lines ought to be, I iterate, and iterate until I arrive at something of my own unique creation.

In the context of Dungeons & Dragons, this means that I depend a lot more on my players to provide those first few strokes. When playing D&D, you aren’t working alone. Your players bring something to the table, their characters. And with those characters, they set the canvas. With their help, I don’t have to create something out of nothing anymore. I have the backstories of my characters to work with. I can take the deep and tragic backstory of Shady Sudoku, with his thief guild upbringing, to create a deep and sophisticated criminal underworld. I can draw inspiration from Lord Judge Chief Justice’s goal of racial equality as a stepping stone to design racially unequal societies for him to interact with. Care Bare‘s [efn_note] Yes, these are all actual characters and goals that my players have given me.[/efn_note] backstory of protecting nature gives me a a forest to populate, and a world to save.

With my players, I no longer work with a blank canvas. I have a canvas with a catalyst in the form of the first few strokes that they provide. And from those first few strokes, I can start to create my own masterpiece.

I realize that this isn’t how everyone’s creative mind works. But I just hope that my own story of how I discovered that I could be creative leaves you with the impression that there is no such thing as have’s and have not’s when it comes to creativity. We all have it, we just all express it in different ways. For some, it’s a spark of inspiration, something out of nothing. For me, it’s working with what I am given, making logical steps in the direction that I have chosen. For you, it could be the same, it could be different. But that’s what’s great about creativity and the arts, it’s not like there’s a “right” way to do it anyway.