View Full Version : DMs: How do you get ideas?

2009-06-30, 07:43 PM
Exactly what it says on the tin. Since I'm currently one session in to a campaign I'm running, I'm curious as to how other DMs come up with new ideas, whether they be concepts for a campaign setting, for interesting NPCs, or just for what kind of adventure the PCs will experience next. Put simply, what sparks your creativity when you're running a game?

As for myself:
When I'm coming up with a new setting, I tend to create it out of whole cloth relying on 3 or 4 random ideas. For instance, when I was working on my current setting, the 13 Kingdoms, I knew I wanted: a) A highly political game, with lots of Kings/Ruling Councils/Dictators/etc.; b) A game where the PCs could be epic heroes, as in the Odyssey or the Aeneid; and c) A world full of racial tension. From that starting point, everything else followed as I thought about each part of my world - each of the titular 13 Kingdoms, the various races, the classes, and so on. "Well, I've always liked Halfling traders... But I should defy that stereotype. What about a militant Halfling kingdom? But why would it be so military-focused..? Ah! What if I put them right next to that human-supremacist kingdom I created earlier!" I just sort of throw together concepts until I have a working model.

After I've got a created world, though, my ideas tend to come in from the outside. I'll encounter something - a song, a Youtube video, a strange turn of phrase, a good story, whatever - and then I twist it until it fits in with my world. Example: I was listening to the Irish folk song "Arthur McBride" (which is about a couple of fellows violently resisting two military officers' attempts to recruit them), and I immediately got the image of the same two officers trying to recruit my players. Thinking about it, I was able to place this idea perfectly in my world: there just so happens to be an ongoing civil war just south of the PC's current location, not to mention the fact that they happened to seek out a tavern patronized almost solely by soldiers from that army as their stereotypical PC hangout. And this is not an isolated instance, either. It happens so often that I've had to start a word document labeled "Ideas" to keep up with them, and I've still lost a few because I didn't write them down immediately.
Anyway, just wondering if this is a common technique for DMs, or looking for any other good ways of coming up with the endless parade of ideas required to run a game. Or, feel free to post any great ideas you've had that came about in odd ways. :smallbiggrin:

2009-06-30, 07:44 PM
When I'm in bed, I tend to think of new stuff. I also tend to think of things as the players bring up new situations.

2009-06-30, 07:47 PM
Even before I read your spoiler, I thought to myself "That's easy. You steal them."

I plunder my ideas wholesale from wherever I can get them, even if the players are familiar with the idea. I like to include literary references to things in my games. Alas, I am a bad student for not reading as much as I should. But T.S. Eliot basically read everything that ever existed, and his work is considered all the better for it. It makes you a better writer, and it would probably make you a better DM.

Kris Strife
2009-06-30, 07:49 PM
I don't sleep on the weekends.

2009-06-30, 07:53 PM
Books and occasionally vidya games. I've also just been able to page through the monster manuals and monster-related D&D sourcebooks and when I find something really cool I can't help but design an encounter around it... then I try to fit it into the campaign world. Just reading about the Mind Flayers of Thoon was enough for me to create an entire campaign.

2009-06-30, 08:10 PM
My Ideas are a mixed mashed, hammered together, conglomerate of every TV show, movie, book, and story that I’ve managed to have contact with.
Stealing ideas is only the beginning!

Sir Homeslice
2009-06-30, 08:18 PM
Video games, music, internet, more video games, other people's campaigns, etc. Liberally rip cool things off that you like, and then spend however much you need stripping it down and rebuilding it to your campaign/likes. If you don't like it, or it doesn't fit, scrap it. Find places to put it in without it being blatant. Repeat to however you feel is nessecary.

2009-06-30, 08:31 PM
Sometimes, it's the stuff around me. Shakespeare's plays, TV Shows, Video Games, Classical Music.

Sometimes it's the delicious insanity that comes from not sleeping. And when I do get sleep, the nightmares.

Weird dreams and sleep deprivation bring out the best in me.

Decoy Lockbox
2009-06-30, 08:37 PM
Shakespeare, power metal, original ideas that come to me in dreams or shamanic trances.

But seriously, power metal (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZXgU_gPskUI) can be really inspirational for coming up with fantasy ideas.

2009-06-30, 08:40 PM
TV shows.




Take any parts form these I find interesting and throw them together in some hodge podge creation.

News stories also have great ideas in them. Truth is often stranger than fiction, so you can get some good ideas from the news.

2009-06-30, 08:41 PM
While I'm a member of the "rip stuff off" group, there is one little gem I'd like to point out...

The players.

It's amazing, just how many ideas I've gotten from talking to my players about their characters.

Also, when I have ideas that are a little blurry, I usually sharpen their edges a bit by discussing them with others.

2009-06-30, 09:01 PM
Everything, but usually just my own thinking and what I would want to happen. Perhaps I can fit in a good lesson and I think of ways to do that, or I think at all times of the day and stuff just comes to me. Sometimes the players give me good ideas, and very rarely do I directly steal an idea. :P

2009-06-30, 09:11 PM
When going to bed, my brain likes to kick into overdrive - coming up with new ideas, new stories, new scenes. I don't always write them down, but the ones that do get remembered, I try to work in some way.

A lot of times, when I see a preview or partial review, my brain goes into "What If...?" mode. The end result isn't always useful, or even sensible, after such thought processes... but it does produce some interesting personalities and events.

I will n-th the "steal ideas" recommendation. I generally use this for settings - just describe something that looks interesting in your own words, then use it as a room/forest/monster description later. Some things that you may find very common (because you've been watching them or reading about them for several series/episodes) will come off as original and well thought out to people who haven't see the source material.

And finally, when I start an overbranching storyline, I like to pick a theme. Consider what would fit into that theme. Consider what would be fighting against what fits into that theme, and what would support. Consider what the various characters/factions would do, and what their motivations are. It's the easiest way I can think of to create an overreaching plot without resorting to strict railroading between events.

2009-06-30, 09:27 PM
Ideas are easy. They're all around you. Current news, that novel you're reading, some TV show or movie, history (real life is often stranger than fiction), mythology, art, and - most of all - the players / characters. Coming up with ideas is the easy part.

What takes work is manipulating, reshaping, and filling out ideas until you have a coherent plot.

2009-06-30, 11:04 PM
Through the power of ...


Also, drugs.

2009-06-30, 11:10 PM
The number of times we the players have actually come up with the villains evil scheme FOR our DM is probably higher than the number of times he planned an evil scheme from the start.

We all get chattering about what we're up against, what they must be doing, and how we can stop it... our DM is sitting there scribbling notes and nodding quietly to himself :smalltongue:
He readily admits that listening to our bickering gives our enemies their best ideas.

2009-06-30, 11:19 PM
Sometimes I just draw things, and then realize that it would be interesting if I included such a character into my campaign.

1. Reading
2. These forums
3. Video games and other media.

2009-06-30, 11:53 PM
These forums, even when I don't try to rip off ideas. Its amazing what things you can think of on this place.

WWTD? (what would Tippy do?) I like a lot of his concepts, so I imagine it for my mostly high fantasy, and then tone it back enough that I won't TPK them constantly.

Random D&D brain farts of awesome.

BS it at the session. This mostly works. Mostly...

2009-07-01, 12:45 AM
#1: What could go wrong for the PCs?
The PCs are doing [insert thing here]. So, how could things really really go sour for them???

#2: Grand Scheme of Doom
I begin with some "giant scheme of doom". e.g. 3 Mindflayers are working together to overthrow a society by slowly mentally manipulating the nobility.
a) How are they going to know everything?
b) How are they going to know that a band of random adventurers won't just knock on their door with a +5 mace?
c) How do they know that their plans will work? Have they tested them?
d) How will they react to [insert thing here]?

So you start with "Grand Scheme of Doom" goal and then you beaver away at the random different things that could go into getting to the end goal. Then just figure out what the PCs should know (or not know) about all of that.

#3: Plagiarism Blender
I saw 2 zombie action movies, read 3 Lovecraft Stories and the Campaign Setting Book in the last month... I'll just "blender" them and see what pops out.

#4: Let the PCs tell you...
"We want to do [insert thing here]..." so you let them wander off to do it and cause them headaches the whole way.

2009-07-01, 07:39 AM
By mail order. :smalltongue:

Seriously. Note down anything (and I do mean anything) that looks interesting as game fodder. Let it ferment in your mind for a bit. Dip into this ever-replenished cauldron of brainfodder whenever you need more stuff...

2009-07-01, 07:49 AM
Want ideas? Skim some fantasy books, write down important events/ideas/etc, then combine and warp thyem.
Or just take a monster and think, "WWTRMD?"What Would This Random Monster Do?

Zen Master
2009-07-01, 09:29 AM
There are all sorts of sources - but I have one method I find rather funny.

I take something that doesn't work.

For instance, I've always been bothered by kobolds. They are intelligent, organised, and their skill bonuses seems to indicate that they actually are capable of getting work done. This, to me, indicates a fairly advanced race - or at least one that has what it takes to become so.

So I mull that over - and over and over - in my head, until I get something that starts working. Sure, a lot of kobolds may be simply slaves of orcs or other more physically powerful creatures - and those might not get much out of their own potential.

But somewhere there will be groups of kobold who have fared better. In fact, kobolds being decent crafters would not be so inferior to orcs - they would have decent armor in addition to natural armor, decent ranged weapons, their infamous traps and the brains to use intelligent tactics to combat orcs. Actually, I pity the orc who'd try to wield brute strength against such a foe.

So being individually weak might have taught the kobolds the value of teamwork. Possibly teamwork interpreted as 'if I can convince or force these other kobolds to cooperate, we kobolds will prosper - and I will prosper the most. But still.

So kobolds become - in my campaign, now that I've finally converted them to something that works for me - something of a sinister force, wicked little bastards playing perfectly to their strengths and avoiding their weaknesses, manipulating stronger races via magic - and so on.

And behind their defences, their twisting crawlspaces, traps and fortifications are their cities - sort of inverse halfling burrows, brimming with vileness, industry and powersquabbles. I imagine them sort of like hives, three-dimensional spaces filled with bridges, latter, lifts and so on.

They are actually still a work in progress - I'd also like to play on their dragon heritage in some way. For instance, I'd like to make kobold hues - one for each chromatic dragon - with minor differences and special abilities.

2009-07-01, 09:38 AM
drugs and watching erotic movies.
sometimes reading novels, fantasy novels and sci fi novels.
legends and fairytales, in combination with the above as well.

2009-07-01, 09:56 AM
I'm also a member of the "stealing things" camp, although my thefts tend to be more thematic. The campaign setting I'm currently designing is a maritime campaign based mainly on contemporary Space Operas like Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly and particularly Farscape (which are, of course, themselves mainly based on the Odyssey). The stolen theme is a relatively insular group of travelers visiting strange new worlds and dealing with their unusual customs, monsters and challenges, all with the overarching quest of finding their way home.

I take a lot of inspiration from movies, tv, books and video games. I designed two characters to go as a pair (don't know how I'll pull it off... maybe convince a fellow player to take one of them on): a Binder princess and her Knight/Crusader bodyguard... inspiration came from a combination of summoner/bodyguards from Final Fantasy (Garnet & Steiner, Yuna & Everybody) with the characters Jena and Bombatta from Conan the Destroyer.

I think a fair bit of it comes from seeing or reading something and saying "You know, I bet I could have done that better."

2009-07-01, 09:58 AM
History. Even the wackiest stuff in my campaign setting has happened sometime, somewhere, by someone crazy enough to do it.

2009-07-01, 11:47 AM
I steal from wherever I can.

That said, I won't everything. I'll just take pluck out an idea or two and arrange them into a new context. The result is something that looks unique and original.

I'm also rarely the DM but I'm always planning. It's usually a couple years between games for me. During those years, whenever I get an idea I add it to my wiki. Sometimes I go through the wiki and find all the ideas with a common theme. If there's a whole bunch of them, I wrap a story around it and call it a game.

Here's a post I made a while ago talking about stealing ideas (but with fun examples): http://gm.sagotsky.com/?p=11

2009-07-01, 12:08 PM
I walk around for hours on end (only stopping to eat) during the weekends. It works for me.
- J

2009-07-01, 12:12 PM
I get ideas for games like I do for writing.

I bushwhack the idea-fairy.

Seriously, I'm just always thinking "that's neat" *scribble*. I'll have an entire scenario in my head all imagined. Then I'll forget about it, and when I find that scrap of paper again, I'll try to make sense of it, coming up with something very different.

I'll also take something and modify it, break the stereotypes, and then re-establish new ones.

I have more, but you don't have clearance for that, citizen.

2009-07-01, 12:46 PM
All sorts of randomness can be incorporated into games. I was driving with a friend past a Red Lobster restaurant while talking about a game, and suddenly had a flash: the Lead Robster -- a thief turned to metal as a warning not to try burgling a particular magic shop.

Zeta Kai
2009-07-01, 12:54 PM
1) I take an idea from a media source that I enjoy (fantasy novels & video games are particularly fruitful).

2) I squeeze as much creative juice out of the concept as I can, taking the idea as far as it will go.

3) I convert my thoughts into game rules, based on the homebrewing guidelines laid out by Fax Celestis & the Vorpal Tribble.

4) I wait until people call me a genius. :smallbiggrin:

2009-07-01, 01:01 PM
As JRR Tolkien said, (or at least the gist of what he said), "The names come first, everything else follows."

First are the names, usually rolled softly off my tongue when I'm half awake at night.

Then come the images- everything those names describe, whether they're soaring mountains, mighty rivers cascading down into the sea, towering castles, the shadowy eaves of a forest, or a red-skyed battlefield where great armies clash, rife with blood and screams and the singing of cold fire as steel meets steel.

Then come the stories behind those things, and then comes the game.

2009-07-01, 01:11 PM
Steal stuff from everywhere-- books, TV, movies, history, current events, etc-- and warp it to fit into your world.

And the players. One game I'm in, I'm playing a spymaster. Made up an in-depth backstory for my character. Gave said backstory to the DM, assuming there'd be a small sidequest for my character to go and deal with her outstanding issues. My character's plot arc has been driving the game ever since we finished the pre-written module, about six months ago. All because my DM was like "hey, cool, I can run with this." And then he did.

This is not advisable if you have a high death rate in your party, though. You need a character or two who will stay alive long enough to see their plot arc through. But it's a lot of fun-- it gives the characters internal motivation to keep going, rather than the normal external motivations that most adventurers have.

2009-07-01, 01:23 PM
Typically, I'll end up with a scene stuck in my head (maybe inspired by the forums, or just reading through one of the books, or whatever), and I'll say to myself, "Ok, how could I get this scene to take place, and what events will lead up to it? What will the consequences be?"

For example: Once I had a random idea of the party having to frantically get onto a pirate ship before it could sail away; fighting their way down the docks, swinging onto the ship, etc. After that it was simply a matter of saying "ok, why do they need to get on the ship? What kinds of people would they be fighting? Where do I want the ship to be when they're fighting it?"

Flipping through some of the more fluff-oriented books (Manual of the Planes is a recent example) can give you all sorts of ideas ("Ok, I want the party to fight on the corpse of Nehrul. How do they get there?)

The Vorpal Tribble
2009-07-01, 07:17 PM
Truth be told, don't have a frigging clue. A few things come from my dreams but for the most part they pop up out of the blue.

2009-07-01, 07:58 PM
Flipping through some of the more fluff-oriented books (Manual of the Planes is a recent example) can give you all sorts of ideas ("Ok, I want the party to fight on the corpse of Nehrul. How do they get there?)

I read things like this. Fight on corpse of Nerull triggered the mental image of a city built on an enormous floating skeleton, subjective gravity and all. That's right, there's buildings on every side of each rib bone.

I'll probably never use that idea, but if it becomes useful at some point, that image will return to my mind.

In general, I let myself be influenced by anything I read/see/hear/consume. I'll take concepts from the last half-dozen things I've taken in, mix them, then work out how and why these things would combine. I almost always end up with something entirely different in the end. If not, I look at what I've got, and I change something, then go back and make sure it's all internally consistent - or at least has a reason that it isn't.

2009-07-01, 08:38 PM
In truth, ideas tend to pop in my head as I'm reading the Monster Manual. "Oh, that's a cool monster. I wonder how I could use it ... Wait, of course!"

2009-07-01, 11:41 PM
I haven't DM'ed in years, mostly cos i haven't got the prep time any more, but I loved the creativity of the whole thing :smallsmile: Nowadays I run a business, doing graphic design and illustration so I get my creative outlet through that.

Some tips for coming up with ideas (that aren't necessarily D&D specific):
To visualise what something looks like:
• Scribble on a blank page and see what you see. Then refine it. Then do another scribble with that idea in your head. Really triggers some visual cues in your mind. I use this a lot when I'm trying to imagine what something looks like.

To create an interesting NPC
• Take a hero or villain from literature that you know well. Then imagine the character in a movie with a totally unexpected actor playing the part: Morgan Freeman as Aragorn maybe, or Megan Fox as James Bond.

To create a situation:
• Look at the latest news headline on some major foreign news site... Maybe there's pirate activity in the Indian Ocean, or some journalists trapped in a hostage drama. Then translate it to your campaign: Journalists become pilgrims, presidents become kings, technology becomes magic and so on.

Never strive for completion... Getting too in depth too soon closes doors to further ideas. Sometimes it's great to just have a single sentence, that you can go back to later and build upon. Raymond E. Feist's Riftwar saga is set in the distant past of his roleplaying campaign... years after playing in his setting he built the entirity of Magician on the sentence "Greater Magic returned to Midkemia during the first Riftwar". :smallsmile:

2009-07-02, 12:19 AM
Hehehe. The last campaign I was in, the DM's basically ripped everything off. The city was a direct ripoff of Ankh-Morpork, down to the "river," one of the villains was called "Captain Lugnut" and the PC squad became renowned as the "Evil League of Evil," we encountered some star-crossed lover gnomes called Gnomeo and Gnomliet, and so on.

As for me, I generally start with some very, very simple idea and BAM, a story pops up (and thence, a game). The campaign I'm currently running with my lil' brother, started as the idea to have a situation where the villagers were upset with the local lord, the lord was upset with the villagers, and the PC's have to decide who to trust - except there's deception and evil intentions on BOTH sides, OMG! Pretty soon, it's a LOT more complicated than that, with three evil factions and at least one good non-PC one vying for power.

Earlier than that, I had an idea that I haven't followed through on, for a character who basically sprung out of the idea "Hey, what if I made a hybrid between the half-fiend and half-celestial templates? What would a character with such a history be LIKE?" A few minutes of cogitation, and I have the idea for an NPC, motivations (hint: they change a LOT due to the inherently chaotic nature of his very being), a few appearances...

And before that, I started with the idea "Wouldn't it be COOL to have a campaign that started with huge arena battles where the PC's always die, but get rewarded for how long it took and how much they did beforehand, until they find some way to escape and figure out what's REALLY going on?" An hour or two of hard thought revealed the chilling, horrible truth of what was, in fact, going on.