Constraint & Creativity

As anyone who has engaged in creative endeavors probably knows, boundless freedom is often not an aid to creativity. Instead, limits and strictures seem to help channel ideas from chaos into some semblance of meaning and potential newness. Paradoxically, censorship is even a form of constraint which can foster creativity (especially clever ways of communicating that which is prohibited). This expands on my previous post about persistent settings, where I touched on the idea of constraint briefly.

I think constraints function in two main ways to help facilitate creativity. The first is that constraints often give you a place to start, helping to bypass the blank sheet problem. The second is that the task at hand is narrowed down to reconciliation of desired effect with particular limits. These properties should be familiar to people who have studied productivity techniques; methods to get started (getting past the blank page) and methods to break larger, complex tasks into smaller, simpler tasks.

Mixing results from random tables is thus a method of introducing constraints. How are these disparate results reconciled? How does it make sense that there are berserkers in the first room and goblins in the second room? Why is a dragon encountered only six miles from a town? Is it perhaps the hidden servant (or master) of the town mayor? Why is there a desert right next to the sea? How does the isolated town support itself? Matt Finch calls this process deep design in his Tome of Adventure Design (one of my favorite RPG books; I have not spent nearly enough time with it).

Some other ideas for limitations:

  1. Limit yourself to a core rulebook or boxed set. I’m leaning towards using the OD&D 3 LBBs (I already have a basic alignment-based taxonomy to use as an organizing principle).
  2. Only take monsters from one (non-standard) bestiary (there has been some blog discussion about this over the past few months regarding the Fiend Folio).
  3. Only use certain tools during creation. Scott Driver is doing this with his Dwarf-Land setting by using a typewriter. One could also hand-write everything.

5 thoughts on “Constraint & Creativity

  1. Brendan

    David Bowie would use this concept with his guitar players. He would put restrictions on them like “only use 1 string on the guitar solo” and stuff like that.

    1. Brendan

      Thanks for the links. I’m totally with you regarding non-digital techniques. I think it is at least partially because it is easier to adjust the process manually at any particular point, which allows for a nice mix of randomly determined content and consciously shaped content.

  2. Josh D.

    I like this idea a great deal. Setting the limits ahead of time is very liberating. For my (hopefully) upcoming DCC game maybe I will limit myself to the DCC book for rules, ToAD and S&W Monster Book for inspiration, and a composition book for everything else.


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