Deeper Roleplay Through Spells

In many games, including D&D 5e, there is a common pool of spells. Each class can access a subset of this pool. Many spells are available to several classes.

There is one unintended side effect of this. Casting spells feels pretty stale. One party could have a druid, ranger and wizard who all can cast Absorb Elements. They came into their magic in different ways. The wizard studied and practiced until perfect. The druid draws their power from nature. The ranger… I dunno, how do rangers get magic? Anyway, they do the same thing despite working differently.

Is this a problem? Not really. But fixing it forces to add extra richness to our character. And it forces us to confront how magic works.

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Review: Your Creative Brain, by Dr Shelley Carson

For some light reading, I recently read Neuroscience of Creativity (that sounds like a joke. Honestly, I found it relaxing). It was an enlightening read, covering the latest thinking (as of 2013) around how creativity happens, at a mechanical level. There are sections dedicated to neurophysiology, genetics, neurochemistry and more, all in relation to the creative process.

It’s a great read. I never even considered questions like how to measure creativity in animals before this.

But it has a problem. This problem is caused by it being a collection of scientific papers.

The book is completely useless.

Well, that’s not fair. It’s excellent at what it sets out to be: theory and research. What it fails at is as a practical guide. You learn a lot about how neurotransmitters control creative thought, great. But what does that mean? What strategies can you use for optimising these chemicals? The closest thing to practical advice is a study investigating whether improved working memory enhances creativity. Working memory can be developed through training, so this is promising. But their experiments found no improvement after extensive training.

That’s unfortunate for everyone except theorists. Because, rightly or wrongly, the whole make-your-brain-better genre has a bad reputation. There are many dubious claims, a lot of lacklustre science. The best science isn’t useful while the best guides aren’t accurate.

At least, that’s what I thought. I was happy to be proven wrong.

Dr Shelley Carson’s Your Creative Brain is gorgeous mix of theory and practice. Each chapter talks about the science of your brain and how it relates to thinking. Most impressively, each chapter includes exercises for improving creativity.

Firstly, I should mention the author’s credentials. Dr Carson has a PhD in Psychology from Harvard University. Her research has included creativity, which is a plus. And she has worked as a senior consultant for the Department of Defense – in other words, putting theory into practice.

She also wrote a book. Hence this review.

I briefly mentioned Carson’s CREATES model in one of my podcasts. With it, she classifies creative thought into seven skills (or “brainsets”). You can take a quick test to see where you’re strengths lie.

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Should you read it?

If you are a creative person, absolutely. There are two sides to this book. The first is gaining insight into your creative style, seeing its strengths and limitations. The other side is seeing other, valuable ways of thinking. In both cases, you’ll find exercises for accessing and developing these brainsets.

That’s incredibly valuable. To sweeten the deal, there are also exercises in developing the ultimate creative skill: rapidly switching between these brainsets.

Neuroscience is an evolving field. The CREATES model is wrong. But it is useful.

If you are not a creative person… well, you just broke my heart. You are a creative person, I promise. And if you learn the brainsets, you will see how wonderfully creative you are.

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The theory presented is simple. Arguably, that’s a strength – in something as complex as neuroscience, what do we know for sure? Well, we know about the gross structure of the brain and what different bits do. We know how brainwaves change if we’re concentrating versus zoned out. We know that certain chemicals regulate or enhance certain mental functions.

Dr Carson probably knows a lot more about the brain than this. But using these principles, she outlines how creativity works. Not just as a vague, overarching discipline, but how a rationally creative brainset differs from an evaluating one. It’s a simple, accessible, powerful view of your brain in action.

This makes it interesting. The exercises make it useful. With nothing more than a pencil and stopwatch, your brain shifts into strange ways of thinking. It helps you understand how others think, while rounding out your own thinking style.

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If you feel like your mind is in a rut, you should try thinking in different styles. Before that, read my posts on creativity.

Creativity and Pokemon Go

Can Pokemon Go increase your creativity? Absolutely. Learn how to get the most out of it:

I mentioned how Pokemon Go can help and hurt creativity. There’s something interesting about this. The ways it hurts creativity all relate to smartphone usage. But the benefits come from way the game works. If Pokemon Go were a disembodied app, there would be no downsides.

In any case, Pokemon Go’s boost to your creativity is strong. So now you have another excuse to download it.

A Horrible Cosmos: Combining High-Fantasy with Lovecraft

A great way to enrich your roleplaying experience is to take your setting and mix it with a new one. D&D and Pathfinder tend to be high-fantasy: a world where no one is skeptical about magic. No one doubts the existence of gods. Humans live beside impossible creatures.

Where the fantastic is normal.

I’m a fan of Lovecraft. I love existential horror – that is, horror that threatens your view of the universe. If we discovered that evil, bloodsucking vampires live among us, I would rejoice. It would be a relief to find something objectively evil for the first time in human history. No moral grey areas – killing a vampire is a good act. Phew. The simplicity would be refreshing.

That’s different from learning that Lovercraft’s vision is true. The universe, beyond the tiny speck we inhabit, is impossible to comprehend. No matter what humanity achieves, no matter what utopias we build, our species is destined for dark, ignoble extinction. There are forces beyond our understanding that could wipe us out without effort. We survive by floating unnoticed as pond scum on the surface of reality.

Now that’s scary.

So, can we add Lovecraftian elements to, say, D&D? The answer is obviously yes, as the official setting has done exactly that. The Far Realms is a Lovecraftian location full of Lovecraftian monsters. But adding elements is easy – can we take it further?

As the Angry GM pointed out recently (and what got me thinking down this path) is that there is a fundamental mismatch in the settings’ themes. D&D is inherently optimistic – all fights can be won, all evils can be vanquished and characters can literally ascend to become gods. Lovecraft is ultimately pessimistic – victories are unlikely, costly and barely delay the inevitable destruction of the world.

When you combine the two, something has to give. Angry gave a great example in the above post about a Lovecraftian campaign in D&D. But, as he said, he compromised the pessimism. The threat was defeated, which means it was beatable. It seems like a small compromise, but it’s a compromise of a core principle.

I liked his setting. It got me thinking. Here’s my take on the same problem.

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Yes, You Are Creative

If you are human and breathing, then you are creative.

The book I mention is Dr Shelley Carson’s Your Creative Brain. As her website explains, the seven creative thinking skills (or “brainsets”) are:

  • Connect,
  • Reason,
  • Envision,
  • Absorb,
  • Transform,
  • Evaluate, and
  • Stream.

If you are skilled with at least one of these brainsets, then you are creative. And I promise you, at least one of these feels natural to you.

If you want to learn how to be more creative, you should see this book. In the meantime, check out my posts on the subject.