The Good News about Creativity

I’ve talked a lot about using energy and focus (and a little about using memory) to drive creativity. Now it’s time to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

Creativity… what is it, exactly?

You already have a definition in your mind, even if it’s ‘I know it when I see it’. That probably beats the most common definition I come across: the process of generating something both new and useful. It works but it feels a little flat. I think we can do better.

Creativity is magic.

I’m serious. Think about it – your senses pour information into your brain that gets stored as memories. Creativity is the act of pulling something out of your memories that was never there in the first place. Like a rabbit out of a hat, except there is no trick or illusion. Creativity is like remembering something you never learned. Magic.

Now, you might think that definition is a little odd. And you’d be right. After all, remembering is a smooth, clean process – you delve into your thoughts and retrieve the information you want. Creativity is a messier process where you combine and experiment and create and tweak. Except… that’s not right. You are not a computer. Memory isn’t a clean process; it’s a messy one. The act of remembering information requires you to imagine it. Each time you remember something, you change it a little. Memories don’t sit in well-organised boxes; they are an entangled mess like the cords behind your computer – follow one cord and you’ll likely end up at the wrong power point.

Simply put, you don’t remember information – you recreate it. This is how false memories work. Your mind creates something new and mistakes it for a recreation of something old.

This is excellent news, especially if you have ever described yourself as ‘not creative’. If you can remember, you can create.

Now, again, you might object to this oversimplification. And, again, that would be fair. Someone who memorises a book about painting doesn’t suddenly become a creative artist. That’s true, but there’s a couple of points I’d like to address about that.

Firstly, ‘creativity’ doesn’t mean ‘can paint beautiful landscapes that make you weep’. Obviously it can mean that. But normal, everyday creativity is something that everyone has. There are a few things in life that can be objectively optimised; for everything else, creativity plays a key role. Deciding what to cook for dinner or what shoes/shirt combo to wear invoke the same mental process of a grand artist, just smaller and faster.

Secondly, while memorising information about painting doesn’t automatically lead to creative art, the reverse is not true. Highly skilled creative people, by necessity, have memorised vast amounts of relevant information. Some of this information might be from books, but much of it will be informal: techniques observed from other artists, styles they have experimented with, and so forth. Any skill – every skill – involves memorising incredible amounts of information.

Think about a skill you do well. Now think about all the information in your head about that skill. If you wrote a book about it, it would fill volumes.

So, the good news about creativity. You already do it. Misidentifying yourself as ‘not a creative person’ because you cook by following recipes is neither helpful nor true. (Besides, even if you never deviate from recipes, there are infinite recipes out there – how did you choose your favourites? I doubt it was using some optimisation technique.) Rather than think of creativity as something ‘other people’ do, recognise that it is a core part of your life.

If it is something you already do, it is something you can improve.

A lot of creative skill relies on memory. You might never rival Picasso but, if you learn a lot about painting, you will exceed the average person.

It is easy – nay, inevitable – to learn lots about things that interest you.

So find what you know deeply and embrace your creativity.

Character Concept: Kagesan

Sometimes it’s nice to practice your creativity because you want to. I like sitting at my desk with an arbitrary, random, restrictive concept and seeing where it takes me.

(If you find yourself with writer’s block or similar, I recommend doing the same. Why? Because restrictions remove obstacles. You focus on what you can do, rather than 17 things you could do.

This works, like everything else, because of focus.)

For this exercise, I took a character concept and drilled down into it. Every concept can spawn infinite characters – this was about exploring a little of that space.

I decided to create four 4e characters and one 5e character. Why? Several reasons. D&D 4e was the edition I was introduced to. It is my baseline, my origin, my frame of reference. It rather handily classified each class as one of four combat roles (Striker, Defender, Leader, Controller), which gives me my four characters. And the notorious bloat of source material means there are so many classes, too many to experience – this gives me a little exposure to some I’ve never played.

As for the 5e character, well, I like 5e, so why not.

So. The character concept. It’s a little less open and a little less brief than my guidelines recommend, but it’s still within acceptable bounds. I would be thrilled if a player handed me this so it passes that rule of thumb.

The Sun Dragon Temple stands high over the valleys and fertile plains below. Though its members are elusive, the Temple’s doors remain open to all goodhearted visitors. Small villages flourish on the mountain’s slopes, sheltered from the dangers of the world as if by the blessings of the land. When bandits sought the Temple’s riches, they were defeated. When kobolds infested the tunnels under the mountain, they were wiped out.

Worshippers of the Sun Dragon are devout martial artists and cunning strategists. They see magic and warfare as art forms, following a philosophy of intelligent strength:  brute force applied at the perfect moment can topple empires. Disciples are regularly called on to defend the Temple and its surrounds.

Skilled warriors within the Temple can reach the rank of kagesan. Only kagesan are trusted to leave the mountain, stalk evil and fight it on its turf.

The recent goblin activity in the plains below is suspicious. Normally simple savages, these latest tribes have carried sophisticated weapons and employed impressive tactics. It is time for the Temple’s newest kagesan – impatient, manic and obsessed with beauty – to leave the sacred stone walls and fight this menace head on…

Kagesan Thales – Human Cleric (4e Leader)

A soldier, spy, general, raised in a monastery to oppose evil. Thematically, a cleric works quite well. 4e clerics are decent warriors, so the idea of Thales sneaking behind enemy lines to fight guerrilla wars or lead a rebellion makes a lot of sense.

Given his love of beauty, let’s make him a cleric of Corellon: the patron god of elves, art and spring in the 4e pantheon. As someone who needs to go unnoticed sometimes, let’s give him a ring as a holy symbol. And gloves to hide that symbol.

thales

Kagesan Secena – Human Invoker (4e Controller)

Sticking with the religion theme, let’s make ourselves a divine controller: an invoker. I kind of like the idea of invokers – mortals that have a small fragment of divine power in their souls. Rather than praying for blessings, they can tap into that magic directly. Cool, sure, we can have fun with that.

I imagine someone with a direct line to the gods would be eccentric at best. So let’s give our invoker a strange appearance – his obsession with beauty doesn’t extend to himself. Given the Sun Dragons’ fixation on military history, let’s say Secena came in contact with an artefact of Kord’s (4e pantheon’s god of battle) which imbued him with his powers. Not a bad hook – the DM can work that in or ignore it in equal measure.

secena

Kagesan Galiel – Eladrin Avenger (4e Striker)

Another divine class? Yep, because as arguably pointless as the avenger class is (are they really so thematically different from paladins?), they are a perfect fit for the Sun Dragon Temple. Crazed zealots who pursue the enemies of their god – it works.

Why Eladrin? Cos teleport.

Given that the Temple has ‘dragon’ in the name, at least one of these divine classes should worship Bahamut. Then again, given their purpose of protecting innocent villages and whatnot, I’m thinking Galiel should worship Erathis (4e pantheon’s patron god of civilisation).

galiel

Kagesan Milado – Dragonborn Warden (4e Defender)

Finally moving away from the divine power source, let’s now dabble in the primal. Why a warden? Well, it plays with the theme a little bit – instead of revering the Temple, Milado has a strong connection to the mountain itself. Also, wardens make weird adventurers – given what they are, I don’t expect them to do much travelling – but this context makes sense. To defeat the threats to the Temple and the mountain, Milado must face them head-on.

The main reason is because I like portmanteaus, and “dragonborden” rolls off the tongue.

milado

Kagesan Enlil – Halfling Eldritch Knight (5e)

I love the idea of a halfling sneaking through the land, causing massive havoc wherever he goes. To me, nothing says portable destruction like an eldritch knight – you have the brawling of a fighter coupled with the powers of a wizard. Having one of these turn up in your basecamp would be a very bad day, indeed.

He’s small but armoured, and lets add some pre-existing injury to the mix. Why does he wear an eyepatch? Maybe the BBEG stabbed him, or maybe his obsession with beauty led him to leer at a thug’s wife. A good hook there or maybe just a character flaw?

enlil

Alright, your turn. When you read about the Sun Dragon Temple and the kagesans, what came to mind? Share your take on this character concept because I’d love to see what you do with it.

Resources: Long Puzzles

I’ve written about puzzles once or twice. I even included some puzzles in the style that I use. So, why write about puzzles a third time?

Because I’m not done. Oh, no, I am far from done.

The puzzles covered before are the sorts of things you can plonk into a dungeon. They are there to slow down or reward the players as their characters delve deeper into abandoned dungeons or evil temples. They are the second room of the 5 Room Dungeon.

But maybe you don’t want that. Maybe your players love to feel smart (“maybe”?). Maybe the mystery should run a little deeper. Maybe the puzzle should be the entire dungeon.

I won’t claim that I’m blurring the lines between dungeons and puzzles. What I will do is demonstrate that you can have puzzles that are more than just a way to lock a door or seal the princess’ cage – what you can have are puzzles that permeate an entire quest, filling its every dark corner with its noodle-scratching delightfulness.

 

Reginald Enderplatt – Dungeon Architect

The PCs enter an abandon dungeon, having found the secret entrance and/or defeated the monster guarding the doorway. They quickly find a large, circular chamber. Several corridors lead off in different directions. On the walls of this chamber are 15 ornate, unlit torches fixed securely at equal intervals. One of these torches sits above a simple plague with the word FLY engraved in it. The other torches look like they had plaques at one point that are now missing.

Buried in the dust of this chamber is another plague (FLAME) – lining up the holes in the plaque to those on the wall, this plague sits below the torch to the left of the FLY one.

These plaques are treasured by the dungeon’s denizens as trophies and currency – as the PCs explore the rest of the dungeon, they are able to steal, buy or loot all 15 plaques. It is simple to assign them to their corresponding torches – each has holes that line up with only one set of holes in the wall, and the words are in alphabetical order starting from directly across from the entrance:

  1. AD
  2. BUT
  3. BYE
  4. DEATH
  5. FLAME
  6. FLY
  7. PAIR
  8. SENT
  9. SPIN
  10. STORE
  11. STRAIN
  12. TURN
  13. UNPACK
  14. WATER
  15. WINDOW

These plaques are not the only treasures of the dungeon – there is also the body of an unknown adventurer (maybe make it someone connected to the PCs, because why not). The adventurer had some cool gear, most treasured of which is his book. Whoever owns the book gloats about it – it’s not worth anything but the owner had to kill to steal it, as did the former owner, and so forth.

The book is, among other things, a diary. The adventurer wrote:

“I recognise a few of the features of this dungeon – the style of Reginald Endersplatt is distinctive. I wonder what treasure was worth hiring R.E. to protect. That dungeon architect was a genius, but an ass. Impossible to work with and incredibly arrogant… which, of course, is the answer to the torches chamber. He incorporated his own name by”

The page ends abruptly.

The solution is to light torches 1, 2, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12 and no others – these are words that when his initials, RE, are added to the front make new words. Lighting the wrong torch extinguishes the flames and summons a fire elemental. Lighting all correct torches causes a secret door to open.

 

Arranged in A-flat

In the centre of the Serpent God’s temple, the PCs stumble upon an alcove. In the alcove are three jars, each containing a different snake preserved in liquid. The left snake is flecked with red, the middle has bands of yellow and the right snake has dark purple swirls with a black tail. On the wall below this shelf reads:

OUR GREATEST WEAPON, ARRANGED IN A-FLAT

These snakes are exotic. They are clearly prized possessions of the snake cultists. This makes the PCs having knowledge about them unlikely. However, this information is scattered throughout the temple in books, murals, prayer sheets, etc:

  • The left snake, the red one, is a Firetongue. Its bite causes immense pain.
  • The middle snake, the yellow one, is a Wicked Serpent. Its bite causes temporary insanity.
  • The right snake, the purple one, is a Darktail. Its bite causes death.

The solution is to move or smash the Darktail’s jar – ‘A-flat’ arranged is ‘fatal’, which is what the greatest snake’s weapon is. Moving either of the other jars inflicts that snake’s venom on the unfortunate PC. Moving the Darktail’s jar requires bravery in the face of deadly serpents, and so opens up a hidden door to the inner sanctum.

 

The Moon Tower

This shrine to the moon glistens in the starlight, its polished stone and glass surfaces catching what little light there is. It towers over the thin trees as if aspiring to the heavens, as if the worshippers treasured every metre closer their monument brought them…

The treasures of the Moon Tower reveal themselves when moonlight reaches the shrine. There are two problems: one, the shrine is in the bottom floor of the tower’s basement; two, the new residents of the abandoned tower have sealed the skylights in each floor/ceiling. The only way moonlight can reach the shrine is if the adventurers open each skylight, exposing the basement to the night sky.

How tall the tower is and how the skylights are sealed is up to you. If monsters have built their nests across them then a little brute force will do the job. Or maybe the skylights are sealed by tricky locks for your rogue, or tricky spells for your wizard. Of course, if your party loves puzzles and you have a few up your sleeve, a small puzzle could protect each skylight.

It’s a good thing you know where to look if you want more puzzles

 

What Works For Me

I talked about energy and a simple exercise to help you understand it. It might be helpful to run through the exercise again so it is fresh in your mind. It will only take you a moment.

There’s a cheeky little trick with this exercise – some people find that when they survey their energy landscapes, they realise they have more energy than they feel. It seems odd, but I’ve felt it a few times – beneath a layer of fatigue is a glowing ball of energy, just waiting for you to grasp it. So when you do this exercise even once, you come out of it feeling refreshed.

After you do it a few times, though, you feel something on a whole new level.

This exercise is more than just a way to relax. It deepens the connection with your body. Patterns and rhythms stand out – most of which you already know, some of which surprises you. It brings you in touch with something at your core and helps it grow.

I can’t tell you what patterns you might find between your activities and your energy levels. Fortunately, you are already an expert in yourself – I’m just here to shine a light on some of the forgotten corners. What I can tell you is some of the stuff that worked for me.

Sleep

Relaxing into a warm, cosy bed is fun and soothing. And yet, I have to be disciplined to do it. There are only so many hours in the day and sometimes I get on a roll with something (frustratingly, I tend to do my best writing late at night). The temptation to put off sleep can anchor me to the real world as I squeeze a bit of extra time from the day.

This is fine, on occasion. It starts to lower my energy when it becomes a habit. How much sleep you need varies from person to person but the key is making sure you get enough. All the research in the world, plus your own observations, show that after a few weeks of even mild sleep deprivation, two things happen. This first is that your mental abilities drop. The second is that you delude yourself into thinking they haven’t.

Exercise

Some light exercise most days of the week – that’s all it takes to keep my energy levels high. Exercise boosts your mood, abilities and energy levels. Even if it didn’t, it adds some variety to your day – that alone helps keep things mentally fresh.

Not all exercise is equal, though it all helps. I find that bringing balance gives the best boost. I’m naturally a skinny, manic sort of guy – this means that lifting weights balances me more than cardio does and, sure enough, I find it makes my energy levels skyrocket. If you are more grounded with a solid frame, consider cardio. But like I say, anything is better than nothing.

Projects, Hobbies and Activities

It’s amazing how much you can get done when you add a little variety. I have quite a few things that keep me going – this blog being one – and if I stopped doing one, it would make it harder to do the others.

That’s not to say you take on so much that you burn out or neglect some of them. It’s about slowly and naturally adding things to your life. Dabble broadly and dive deeply. It’s surprisingly energising spending an hour working on one thing then switching to an hour on another… I find it more relaxing than watching TV for that time.

There’s an element of society that will guilt you for wasting even a single evening. These people will tell you that every day needs to be jampacked full of excitement and awesomeness. I don’t mean to add weight to the message but there’s truth to their crazy – but only if what you are doing energises and enriches you, instead of it being an obligation.

Diet

We’re talking about energy, so we have to mention the fuel. Eating the right foods for you is one of the most dramatic ways to improve your energy. Imagine being free of food comas and sugar crashes. Imagine having enough energy to clean the house and go to the gym even after a long day at work. Imagine being able to turn down – without effort or difficulty – bad foods that you normally can’t resist. It all happens when you eat right.

For me, the best improvement was when I cut out sugar. I didn’t think I could do it since I craved sugar all the time – the thing is, once it cleared my system those cravings went away. Everything improved, from my weight to my mood to my quality of sleep. My energy levels are not only higher but much more stable, too.

Maybe it won’t work for you like it did for me. The thing is, if you don’t experiment with your diet then nothing will change. Every year the quality of the food I put in my body improves and every year my energy levels climb straight up.

Career

My old job started off okay. But a few years in, I started to stagnate. I was bored, unchallenged and unfulfilled. I spent months working on projects that no one seemed to care about. There were few opportunities for promotion, learning, anything.

When I switched jobs, I realised how much energy I was using up just making it through the day. Even though I was working less hard than I am now, it was far more exhausting. My new job is challenging, engaging and packed with variety. Every day, I can see the difference I am making. I am learning new skills and even adding a few qualifications to my name. Doesn’t hurt that the office is a fun place to work, either. The difference this makes is that I have so much energy left over from work.

Focus

My energy levels have been higher than ever these past few months. Ever since I started writing about energy and creativity, my attention has been on how I feel and what works for me. Writing about it makes me think about it, so I think about it all the time. There’s no wonder that my energy levels have reached unparalleled heights.

This list isn’t complete. Something as simple as a few days without sun can throw off my energy levels. The thing is, most of the above will work for most people. Imagine living your life but with more energy – isn’t that worth a bit of practice?

Stealing the Style: Majora’s Mask

How Good is Majora’s Mask?

Seriously. It’s so good…

I’ve been dusting off the classic consoles recently, dabbling in a few N64 games from way back. What can I say – nostalgia is powerful. A lot of the games are not quite as I remember them. Certainly, the graphics are less impressive. But in terms of plot, atmosphere, gameplay, a precious few are even better than I recall.

I remember Zelda: Majora’s Mask as being beautiful and surreal. It is those. Yet it is far darker and more disturbing than I remember. Even just playing through the first three-day cycle – your quest to reclaim the Ocarina of Time – exposes you to a lot that makes you forget that this is, at its heart, a kids’ game.

Continue reading

Creative Forces: Energy

Pay attention to your energy levels right now. What words would you use to describe it? Rating how high it is is a great start but you can go deeper. Are you sleepy? Do you feel hydrated? Are your emotions calm or running on high? Are you physically tired? Mentally drained? Do you feel fulfilled and challenged?

‘Energy’ is a catch-all term to cover many states. Like all emotions and mindsets, many factors contribute to it and you know it when you feel it. If you are sleeping well, eating well and hitting the gym a little, you’ll probably have high energy… unless you are trapped in a job you hate. A lot of things can leave you feeling flat. Conversely, a lot of things can pep you up.

Think about how creative you are when you are in a high-energy state. In fact, try to imagine you being uncreative while pumping with energy. It’s hard. Feel-good moods tend to cluster – for example, if you have a runner’s high, you’ll feel love more deeply. It’s a fact of both neuroscience and common experience great feelings trigger each other. This is why energy is the beating heart of creativity.

Back to you and how you’re feeling. Take a deep breath and draw your focus inward. As you breathe in, feel your focus go deeper. Find that feeling of energy or fatigue deep within you. As you draw closer to it, notice how familiar it all is. Go past your first impression and really feel your current state.

Now, thinking back to the start of the article, notice four things about your energy state right now. Imagine all the factors that build your energy levels and mentally tick them off. Are you hungry or thirsty? Are you worn out? Are you sleepy? Are you fulfilled in life? There are no right or wrong answers, only honest and dishonest ones.

Take note of how energetic you feel. Really take note, beyond just a simple label of high or low. Feel it and remember the feeling. Store the full sensation in your mind as clearly as you can.

Now, think back to how you felt right before your last meal. If it was earlier today that’s good and if it was yesterday then that’s great too. Recall as well as you can how you felt. You probably felt a little hungry, but was this a gentle sensation or was it affecting your energy levels? Were you socially engaged? Mentally stimulated? Basking in the joy of exercise or a relaxing daydream? Think about how all of these created your energetic state. Relive the sensation as best you can.

You can probably guess what comes next. That’s right, I want you to go deeper back in time. Allow yourself to think positive thoughts. As you do, let your mind find a point in the last week that stands out. It doesn’t matter what you were doing, just let your mind do its thing. How was your energy state then? Something about this time imprinted itself on your memory – what was it? How did it make you feel? Did your body tingle with anticipation? Maybe it was more like a warm glow or a gentle softness. How were your energy levels during this time?

In your hands, you hold three energy landscapes from the past week. You’ll notice that there are similarities and differences between them. This is, of course, completely natural. Perhaps take a moment to explore these differences and similarities. How was the intensity of the energy? Where in your body did you feel it? These are questions only you can answer.

As you explore your own energy landscape, I want you to turn your mind to the future. What you are doing is a simple, pleasant exercise, one that you can do throughout the day. Just before each meal or snack, let your mind run through this game. Feel out the deepest roots of your energy. Do this regularly and allow yourself to understand the results. You are more than capable of the few moments of focus needed. Allow your mind to create a deep connection with your own sense of energy.

Do this throughout the day. Observe the rise and fall of your energy levels. Everyone is unique, following their own special rhythms. The outside world and your inside world harmonise to generate this energy landscape. Each is a fingerprint you leave on the world.

As your energy levels rise, it feels amazing. Always allow yourself to notice and enjoy the feeling. If your energy levels drop, that’s okay. Be aware of the feeling. Each bit of information lifts the connection to higher places. The more you notice the rises and falls, the higher your energy levels lift.

Feel free to go about your day soon. But before you go, I want you to appreciate the role that focus has in this. Practicing focus allows you to hold your attention longer and more powerfully, but that’s not the important part. The important part is that by focusing on your energy levels, you are telling your brain that this is important. Which, of course, it is. It trains your mind to notice your energy levels, to draw connections about how what happens in your day changes your energy landscape.

All you need to do is focus on your energy a few times a day. That’s it. Your brain will do the hard work. It will follow your focus and assume that this needs investigating. It will monitor your energy levels throughout the day and analyse patterns in the background. It will even do this while you sleep. Only if you remember to keep telling it that energy matters to you.

Think about some daily events now. Your morning coffee, the bus ride home, brushing your teeth. Let these act as reminders for you to focus on your energy. As you lift your head into the real world, new instincts will form that drive you towards energy-increasing behaviours. And as this starts to happen, you’ll be amazed at how creative you become.