Dear Old Me, aka When Superheroes Fight

There are just some projects you should never finish. At some stage they become too unwieldy, too ridiculous, too pointless to continue. Your time is better spent working on something else.

At least, that’s what Old Me thinks. Old Me is wrong. So very, very wrong.

Old Me is a loser. What has he ever created? He, like me, is addicted to the thrill of new ideas. We both spend our days and nights dreaming up upside-down board games and edible computer games and novels that defy all conventions of plot, character, narrative and the defiance of convention. There are so many ideas in our heads that we would need to win lotto, retire, clone ourselves and wait for the clones to retire to get enough time to pursue the top 10% of ideas we have.

So Old Me starts on his project where the players are cards and the deck shuffles them, full of an obsessive enthusiasm normally reserved for Socca Maum, the secret identity of the Soccer-mum-themed Batman villain that just popped into his head and, huh, wouldn’t she be interesting? Meanwhile now he is thinking about how Socca would get mad at Batman when he beat up one of her henchmen and start accusing him of foul play and then when Batman leaves she yells at the henchman for embarrassing her like that in front of the other crime bosses.

Suddenly the card game that blurs the line between player and playing card seems less interesting. Old Me is finding it a chore to work on, rather than the release it once was. At the first major obstacle he throws in the towel. After all, if it’s the right project, it should all flow easily.

Yeah, like how the right relationship never requires any effort and the right job never has a boss that asks you to make 13 photocopies of a 47-page document but make sure they have different fonts because I’m really into papier mache these days and find human tears to be the perfect solvent.

This is a message from me to Old Me. This is how it’s done. You don’t get to walk away from your projects just because they are hard or lame or everything is going wrong. You have to finish, then – and only then – are you allowed to walk away. Think it’s a waste of time to continue down this dark and broken alley? You are wrong, Old Me. Learning how to finish things will help you more than ten clones ever could.

I wrote this program to celebrate the release of Captain America: Civil War and mourn the release of Batman versus Superman: Dawn of Justice. It takes two superheroes, gives each two random superpowers and then gets them to fight. One wins, one loses.

Now, this program has problems. I wrote it in R because I have somehow fallen out of the Python habit. The code is messier than a train full of Mentos crashing into a train full of Diet Coke after being derailed by Socca Maum placing a large bowl of spaghetti on the tracks. The output is lame. Too often, the fights are resolved by a coin flip. The program calls for no user input whatsoever – though the raw data is there, free for the editing.

But who cares, Old Me. These were all the things you were afraid of and, guess what? They all came true. But you know what else? It doesn’t matter. It’s done, it’s finished, it does what I set out for it to do. And to show how little it matters, I shared it. I could have left it on my computer for me to rediscover in three years with a nervous, embarrassed chuckle, but no. You forced my hand, Old Me. You hid behind the fear of making something terrible, so I did just that and then uploaded it to the internet. Everyone can see how flawed and awful it is. And yet here I am, slightly smarter from the experience.

Oh hey, since we’re talking. You know Matthew Reilly, Old Me? The author we both enjoy, whose books are so action-packed they need their own CGI budgets? Well, visit his website. He has some free short stories up there. Go ahead, take a moment to read a few of them.

Notice anything? They are pretty bad, aren’t they? The writing is clumsy, the pacing is off, the drama often misses the mark. They have cool ideas that are fumbled in execution. Does that sound familiar, Old Me? Does that sound so intimately familiar that you suspect that one day during an autopsy they will find those words etched on your femur? Yeah, you bet it does.

Matthew hasn’t taken those short stories down. They are like bad versions of his novels but he doesn’t hide from that. If he is doesn’t hide from his own failures, why should you?

And yes, Old Me, I am comparing us to a successful DeLorean-owner. I am that shameless now because I don’t do shame. I’m past shame. I transcended it. Finishing projects – some good, some bad – cures you of that emotional anchor pretty quickly. The only reasons I’m smarter than you are the mistakes that lie ahead of you. So get off your butt and make them already.

Resources: Less-than-logical Puzzles

My last post about puzzles in roleplaying games included a few examples. I’m quite proud of those – they’re fun in their own right and fit in well with fantasy settings. They’re a good difficulty level, too.

But they were all a similar style – logic puzzles. Okay, one had some riddles layered on top and it worked really well, but solving the riddle was only part of it. Now, logic puzzles are great. It’s just that sometimes you want variety or maybe your group hates that style of game.

Okay, no worries. Lay one of these puzzles on them. Continue reading

Creative Forces: Focus

If you read this blog, you know that I talk a lot about creativity. Creativity and what enables it. Rather than some unknowable quantity or fixed biological trait, the ability to create arises from the interplay of so many dynamic factors. These factors can be nurtured and enhanced. Creativity is a skill, one that you can learn.

Everything changes your creative state. So far I’ve mentioned a few factors in particular. Continue reading

Resources: Evil PCs

I’m in a bit of a dark and morally ambiguous mood, so what better time to talk about evil PCs? Campaigns with characters of less-than-stellar life choices aren’t uncommon, but I wonder how much more popular they would be if they didn’t… well… sometimes go catastrophically wrong.

Any gaming group can fall apart for dozens of reasons. You probably know what these are so I won’t list them. The issue is that campaigns with evil PCs – even when all the PCs are evil (mixed alignment groups have even more difficulties to overcome) – is that there are different definitions of ‘evil’. And some have the potential to crack your group wide-open.

Consider Penguin and the Joker. Penguin wants to build a criminal empire, manipulate people and get filthy rich. The Joker also wants to manipulate people, but mainly wants to burn down everything. For the usual inscrutable reasons, they decide to team up as part of a party.

So far, so good. Now, what happens when they meet some gangsters who have information and who work for a potential ally? Penguin turns on the charm, tries to flatter or bribe or intimidate the information out of them. Nothing too heavy, though. There’s no point turning a potential ally into a definite enemy. The Joker disagrees. He tortures them for information, kills them anyway, then sets fire to the nearby ganghouse.

There’s nothing particularly evil about that – a group of PCs of any alignment will have characters that approach things these ways. But what about when they want to buy weapons from a merchant or hire mercenaries or stock up on supplies from irrelevant NPCs? Penguin will know that the attention of the town guard hurts his plans. The Joker, again, disagrees. Bring on the town guards. All the more people to kill.

Soon the party can’t go near any settlement or talk to any tribes. Everyone knows they can’t work with them. Even radical anarchists need to trust the guy next to them. The plot stalls, Penguin’s plans fail and the party is reduced to dungeon crawls with no roleplaying.

The details vary, but I’ve seen this happen with parties of good/neutral PCs (never at my own table, of course). At least with these PCs, the players can be slapped on the head and told to cut it out. But “hey, I’m just being evil” is a pretty good defence when you are supposed to be, well, evil.

This issue stems from character design. If there’s no plot, there’s no issue, but Jokers will kill all your NPCs and destroy all your villages. If you want the party to have a goal (and PCs, especially evil ones, need a goal to keep them together) then characters built on the line “I want to kill everything with my own two hands” won’t fit. They can’t.

The usual rules of PC backstories apply. In addition, it is vital – vital! – that they have a solid, specific motivation. Maybe they want to conquer the world. Maybe they want to destroy it. It doesn’t matter, it just has to be something to make them say “hmm, this NPC is worth something to me alive”. Oh, and also: “nah, maybe I won’t betray the other PCs at the first opportunity.”

I’ll end the article here. Haha, just kidding, you’re reading Rulewalker, after all. Have some example evil PC backstories, ones that that allow them to function in your world rather than break it.

Continue reading

Memory and Creativity

What is the link between memory and creativity? Is there one? If so, how does it work? How does the ability to recall facts and situations impact on your ability to imagine new concepts?

I’ve heard a lot of opinions on this topic. Since I’m on a quest to understand and explore creativity, I decided to dig into these opinions and see where the facts lie.

Possibility 1: Memory and Creativity are Unrelated

I’m not sure how popular this opinion is. In my circles, this is a minority view. Even though memory and creativity seem, at first glance, like very different skills, most people I know suspect that there will be a connection between any two brain functions. Even if memory and creativity don’t directly influence each other, there are likely to be indirect effects. One will impact on something, which will tweak something, that will alter something else… until every aspect of the brain is affected.

It’s also hard to prove a negative. If there is no link at all, we will struggle to see that in the data. The only thing we can be sure of in neuroscience is that it is complex beyond our wildest dreams – we will likely see patterns even where none are there.

Still, let’s assume we can trust our data. We’ll put this possibility on the backburner and revisit it if none of the others fit.

Possibility 2: Poor Memory Fosters Strong Creativity

This is an interesting idea. I think it becomes more plausible if, like myself, you have a pretty poor memory.

Memory is a fiendishly complicated thing, so this will be an oversimplification. But imagine someone with excellent memory for details. If they wish to recall a fact, it usually comes easily to them. If they can’t recall something, chances are they can remember where to find the information. They consult some repository – a book, a colleague, a website – and are reacquainted with the information.

Contrast this with a bad memory. Details often slip through the mental cracks, leaving behind the gist of things (if that). If such a person tries to remember something, it is a struggle. Their brain digs deep and works hard, testing a range of memorised facts and concepts to see if any fit. Such a person is mentally equipped to deal with broad concepts (at the expense of details) and their mind is constantly churning unrelated information together. It sounds exactly like the creative process.

On some level, this feels right to me. As a creative individual with a poor memory, I can attest that this struggle to recall information is weirdly similar to the act of synthesis. After all, it is clear that even good memories don’t take perfect replications of what they experience – rather, each time you remember something, your brain is imagining it. This is why false memories are so common – your brain can’t distinguish between a memory and an imagined scenario.

On the other hand, something about this feels off. Although there are different types of intelligences, it seems counterintuitive that a mind that fails at something as fundamental as memory could excel at something as high-level as creativity. At best, this possibility seems… incomplete.

Possibility 3: Memory and Creativity Nurture Each Other

Have you ever tried to deconstruct your own creative process? If you have, you know it’s a difficult task. Self-analysis of any kind is hindered by your own brain tricking itself. Your mind wears blinders when it gazes upon its own inner workings.

Having said that, you probably understand your creative process enough to know this: ideas are not born in a vacuum. Every thought, no matter how unique or innovative, is built on others. Maybe it is taking two concepts and blending them to create a third. Maybe it’s taking the mental tools of one discipline and applying them to another. Maybe it’s taking an idea and tweaking it, then tweaking it again until it no longer resembles the original. Whether you are designing an engine or writing a novel, you are standing on the shoulders of giants and nothing is original.

Now, it seems a little late in the post to ask what we mean by ‘memory’. After all, the term covers many functions of the brain. But in this view of creativity as a process of modification rather than genesis, it doesn’t matter – all types of memory are useful:

  • Working memory – storing the words in this sentence and the details in your mind right now.
  • Short-term memory – storing what you had for breakfast and the gist of whatever you read before this.
  • Long-term memory – everything that the mind can draw on days or decades later.

We would expect the creative process to draw on all of this. A strong working memory holds the thoughts as they are mutated, mixed, tested and refined; a strong short-term memory adds useful recent acquisitions to the working memory frenzy; a strong long-term memory provides a vast library of resources and raw materials for you to work with.

The Verdict

The argument linking creativity and memory is compelling. But just because I convinced myself, it doesn’t mean the question is answered (remember what I said about the brain tricking itself)? When you can’t trust your own opinion, it helps to find others.

For example, there is this article from Psychology Today:

“…the only route to finding creative solutions to a problem is to find information in your memory that will help you to solve the problem…”

In the article, Art Markman Ph.D. argues that creativity requires existing knowledge. This makes sense, as raw talent only gets you so far. Consider skilled chess players – chess is seemingly a game of pure calculation and analysis, but the best players have vast repertoires of moves stored in their mind. The right answer is as much remembered as deduced.

How about this quote from Brain Pickings?:

“… perhaps the most potent use of memory in the creative mind is the cross-pollination of accumulated ideas and the fusing together of seemingly unrelated concepts into novel configurations…”

I recommend reading the whole article. But while opinions are nice, does science back it up? Well, according to a paper titled Effects of an Episodic-Specificity Induction on Divergent Thinking published last year in Psychological Science:

“These experiments provide novel evidence that episodic memory is involved in divergent creative thinking.”

So it seems that a strong memory plays a role in creativity. Quite interesting, don’t you think? But there is more evidence of a link between these faculties, evidence which deepens this connection: memory nurtures creativity, yes, but creativity also nurtures memory.

How can creative thinking (the act of coming up with something new) help memory (the act of accurately storing information)? Talk to a mental athlete – you know, the people who competitively memorise decks of shuffled cards and random numbers. If, like me, you don’t know anyone matching that description, read Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer.

According to people who have trained themselves to have the best memories in the world, the trick is to take what you want to memorise, mentally change it to something bizarre and surprising, and remember that instead. This process takes things like numbers – abstract and dull – and makes them vivid, visual, memorable. And it’s not surprising to learn that this skill takes enormous amounts of imagination. If you use it right, a good imagination is the best tool for improving your memory.

Congratulations. Having read this far, you have learned more about how the mind operates. The more you understand creativity, the more creativity you will feel. This is a journey, an education, and this short article is an important part of it. Why? Because the next time you feel creative, a small part of you will observe the process and remember these words. You will feel your memory and creativity working in tandem as new ideas blossom from your mind.

Create well.

The Two Modes

The Brain, the Mind and You

Let’s talk about your brain. How is it feeling right now? Maybe it’s a bit tired or sluggish, or maybe you are feeling wide awake. If you were to describe your current emotional state in one word, what would you pick? As I write this, I’d pick content.

Your brain is a separate entity from both you and itself. Imagine your brain resting cosily inside your skull. It feels like you can control it like your hands and feet. So give it a try. Make yourself feel happy right now. Create enthusiasm. Did it work? Maybe not, maybe a little. Maybe you are feeling really pumped right now.

You can control your brain as you can control your hands. That is to say, not very well. Raise your hands in front of you, palms down. Now try to wiggle your middle finger keeping everything else still. Personally, I find that difficult. My point is that control is elusive and illusory. You can give your hands orders and directions, but sometimes it feels as though how they follow them is up to them.

So it is with your mind. Think pleasant thoughts and you will feel happy. But this control works at a distance. It’s not like flipping a switch – happiness will increase overall and slowly, but it won’t be a smooth ride. It will have its ups and downs, even if you jam the lever to ‘up’.

But this is a good thing. When you feel how your brain works, you can coax it to do what you need. Everyone is unique, so how you learn the rules is up to you. Once you know how your mind works, you can drive it to new heights of creativity, energy and wellness.

Your brain has two modes of operation. Let’s work through them together, shall we?


The Diffuse Mode

I wonder if you can get comfortable right now. You can’t let yourself fully relax, so relax as much as you like. As you feel yourself easing into your seat, feel the tension unwind from your shoulders and torso.

When you take some deep breaths, especially while your body is comfortable and your mind is still, your brain shifts into a different style of thinking. This is the Diffuse Mode, where thoughts wash over you like waves and memories bubble up to the surface. Everything is a jumble, but a pleasant one. Slow, steady, relaxed.

Connections between your thoughts are loose. Your brain creates new sounds and images automatically. Most you notice are junk, but some are new and shiny. When you notice this, let it happen. This sensation is the creative process – easy, automatic, peaceful. Imagine your mind widening, and as it does, it touches on more and more thoughts. With each contact, new connections are formed. Your conscious mind sits this process out, noticing all the good idea fragments your unconscious mind is creating.

It feels like falling asleep, yet your brain is working as hard as ever. Uncritical and unburdened, your thoughts tumble together in beautiful harmony. People find that time distorts because time no longer matters.

The Diffuse Mode gives you distance and perspective. From this height, what seemed like an impenetrable maze is a simple path. Solutions that eluded you while you were concentrating float freely before you.

Ever had inspiration strike while driving the car or in the shower? That’s your diffuse way of thinking at work. Your thoughts wrap themselves around the problem rather than trying to burrow straight through them.

As you drift out of Diffuse Mode, you may find your thinking has reset. Familiar objects seem different as old ideas are swept away. Your mind is fresh and clean – the only contents being whatever floated to the surface. Time flows once again as your breathing returns to normal.


Focused Mode

The Diffuse Mode is how the brain thinks creatively. But when the job needs doing, it shifts gears and engages the Focused Mode. This mode allows you to blot out distractions, buckle down and pursue your goal. If Diffuse Mode is your whole body relaxing, Focused Mode is becoming aware of how the top of your head feels, or your left shoulder, or your pelvis. Precise attention.

The Focused Mode is powerful. Your mind is fully locked onto the task at hand. Things run smoothly and efficiently, like a machine. It is here where you are critical, calculating, judging, assessing.

Focus is a powerful thing. Rather than assembling loose connections, your mind draws on tightly related concepts and memories. It is a state of control – interestingly, some even consider it the key to making yourself happier.

Now, you might think that the Focused Mode is an intense exertion. The truth is, it’s quite a relaxed process. Visualise an apple – its colour, the waxy sheen, the sweet and crunchy flesh. That’s focus, applied to fruit. Notice how effortless it is? Focus is something you direct, not push. It’s an easy, natural attention – the sort that’s easy to sustain over a long time.

If you realise you’re tensing or straining any muscles, you’re concentrating too hard. Take a deep breath. Dial it back a notch.

Using The Two Modes

So what does this mean for you, brain-user? Quite simply, if you know how and when to use each mode, you become immensely more effective.

The Diffuse Mode is vital during the generation phase of any endeavour – brainstorming thoughts, yes, but also writing, drawing, sculpting… anything where you are producing output. As I write this I am relaxed, my thoughts are loose and I’m simply letting the words flow.

The Focused Mode comes into play when you have your output. Whatever you created will be rough – embarrassingly so in some parts – and in eager need of the critical skills that focus brings. For me, the Focused Mode will be used later, after I’ve written a draft and slept on it. With it, I will clean up the wording, drop sentences, fix the grammar and decide it needs rewriting.

Both stages are important. What is vital to remember is that they can’t happen simultaneously. Your brain is either in Focused Mode or Diffuse Mode, never both. You can’t write and edit at the same time – not effectively, anyway.

You might be one of those enviable people who can switch between the two modes quickly and effortlessly. If so, I’m happy for you. For the rest of us mortals, the trick comes in knowing what supports each mode and what hurts it. Some people need silence to enter the Diffuse Mode, others like a bit of background music. Can you focus if your desk is messy or does your brain thrive on the chaos?

The connection between these thinking modes and creativity is clear. Diffuse thinking opens your mind up to the muses. It is when inspiration strikes, when you see something that you have never seen before. Focus brings this lightning bolt into reality, carving away the dead branches and testing it with ruthless detachment. Together, they harness the powers of Quantity and Quality. Together, you create magic.

Encounter: The Cracking Sky

There’s a flash of light from the direction of the Capital, as if the sky itself is straining. Thunder rolls over the land, rattling your bones even from this distance. You see demons, thousands of them, descending from the tortured sky upon the helpless city…

Another thrilling encounter for everyone to enjoy. This one is a grand battle, a worthy climax to an epic story-arc. Speaking of which: players of my campaign, please look elsewhere. Here lies crazy spoilers.

Like the Nest of Steel, this design is modular – you can take any of its three parts in isolation, or mix and match as you see fit. A shorter version of this would involve dropping either Part A or Part B – the encounter would still run smoothly. Also like Nest of Steel, this is a system-neutral overview. This allows you to tailor it to your system and your party’s level.

It’s also long, deep and meaningful.

I’ve had an idea like this brewing in the back of my mind for a while, but what made this gel was the inspiration for Part B. And that inspiration was, of all things, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice. Now, I won’t give my opinion about that trainwreck of a movie here, but I will say that I mostly enjoyed the scene near the start: Bruce Wayne in Metropolis as everything goes to hell. The city is (literally) falling apart and he is on the clock. Like your PCs in this encounter, he is in the middle of something much bigger and more dangerous than he can handle.

Naturally, Part B is an unusual sort of encounter. Part A – sneaking through the siege – can’t be beaten by standing and fighting. Part C is the closest thing to a “normal” fight, with an objective more important than Kill all the Enemy. The result is something memorable. I’m sure your players will enjoy it.

The Cracking Sky (PDF)