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Use Your Mental Back Burners (Dec. 2005)

Treasure Tables is in reruns [1] from November 1st through December 9th. I’m writing a novel as part of National Novel Writing Month [2], and there’s no way I can write posts here while retaining my (questionable) sanity. In the meantime, enjoy this post from our archives.
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I view my mind as having a few “front burners,” where I do my active thinking, and lots of “back burners” — where most of my brainstorming takes place. When it comes to GMing (or any other creative endeavor), those back burners are my best friends.

When I’m in the shower, or driving to work, or dozing off, my mental gears are turning — and generating ideas for my game (or my next writing project, etc.) — without much active effort on my part.

Once the seed of an idea is planted, it almost seems to germinate on its own — and when you’re thinking about your game, throwing ideas on your mental back burners can be very handy.

There are a few key elements to making the best use of your brain’s “idle cycles” to generate ideas for your game:

Let’s look at each of these elements in a bit more detail.

Provide plenty of grist for the mill

You need to get the seeds of your ideas from somewhere, and while they’ll sometimes pop into your head with no clear source of inspiration, usually they come from something you’ve read, watched or played.

Just as playing in games — as opposed to only running them — is a good way to improve your GMing [3], it’s also a great way to get ideas. The same goes for reading and watching movies/TV — even stuff that has nothing to do with your campaign’s genre can give you ideas.

And they don’t have to be big, earth-shattering ideas: Sometimes the coolest things in your game will come out of tiny, unrelated snippets — “idealets” — from other sources. (Several of my contributions to Expeditious Retreat Press’s Seeds [4] line were just that: idea seeds that wound up forming the basis of an entire campaign.)

Write your idea seeds down

Unless you have a flawless memory, you’re going to need to jot down your idea seeds.

Even if you have a very good memory, and can keep track of lots of different ideas at the same time, it can be very useful to write down what you first thought of when the idea came to mind. For me, this is the hardest part to recover later on — the spark.

It can be a few words, a sentence or two or a whole paragraph — but whatever it is, write it down right away.

Always carry something to write on

This one’s pretty obvious, but it’s worth mentioning: You can only scrawl notes about your ideas if you have something to scrawl them on.

There are lots of options available, from the humble pocket pad all the way up to your laptop or PDA. One nifty option is the PocketMod [5], mentioned previously here on TT [6].

Personally, I keep a pad (or a stack of index cards) next to my computer and a pocket pad in the car. If I’m going to be away from the car for awhile, I take a little leatherbound pad-folio with me. This way, I’m never far from something to write on.

This also makes it easier to follow up on the idea seed you originally jotted down, which is important when you’ve got something on a back burner for weeks or months at a time.

Consider your timeframe

Do you need to develop this idea for your next session? If so, consider putting it on the back burner for a little while — a day or two, tops — and then kicking it out for development on paper (an active brainstorming session).

I find that if I’m not careful, I’ll tuck away an idea that really needs to be worked on because “I’ll get to it later” — which, of course, doesn’t happen. This ties into Lead With the Cool Stuff [7], too: Don’t sit on your best ideas for too long.

Are you coming up with the theme of your next campaign, which won’t start for another six months? Then this process — using your mental back burners — is perfect for your situation.

What tricks and techniques do you use to develop your ideas, particularly the ones you’ve filed for future use (but don’t need right away)?
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Normally there’d be a discussion going on in the comments below, but due to time constraints I’ve turned off all comments during reruns — sorry about that! You can read the comments on the first-run version of this post [8], and if you need a GMing discussion fix, why not head on over to our GMing forums [9]?