You know, of all the questions I’ve answered in my career, there’s one that doesn’t come up with the frequency it deserves. I mean, yes, I’ve answered it before, but I didn’t give it the answer it deserved, either. That question is, “Where do you get your ideas?”
Nearly every writer and game designer finds themselves confronted by this question at some point or another, and depending on the project we’re working on, we’re most likely to rattle off a litany of the particular sources we used for a project.
What Do You Know?
For instance, with Birthright, I read Mallory again, studied feudal structures, played war games, looked into tribal cultures (African and Asiatic), and listened to lots of mildly grim classical and synth music. For Planescape, it was industrial music, Piranesi, Hieronymous Bosch, Joel-Peter Witkin’s photographs, Hellraiser, Roger Zelazny, Michael Moorcock, Goya, and anything I could find that represented at least a small deviation from the mainstream, finding darker and darker materials with every door I opened…
But as the old parable goes, listing these influences is like giving someone a fish. These answers tell someone what influences we used for a particular project, and if they want to build on our work for that particular world, we’ve given them a foundation of ideas. How they choose to pursue it beyond this point is up to them, naturally, but the choices we’ve taken from our source material can inform and direct their choices. A good and accurate list of our sources ensures they’re able to make quality decisions that maintain the flavor of the world.
Diversity of Knowledge
If people don’t ask you about a specific work, but instead ask where you get your ideas in general, you serve them better by describing not the sources of your inspiration but how you find those sources in the first place. You teach them inspiration.
When you design games, you need to be able to come up with ideas, and you need to be able to do this quickly. This means you must be well prepared to discuss a variety of topics and be willing to dive into matters you don’t know anything about. That means you need a good diving board, or if I may be permitted to change metaphors quickly, you need to have established a strong ecosystem of knowledge, so that you can quickly relate one idea to the next.
My primary influences are naturally different from, say, Wolfgang Baur’s. He has a strong background in the sciences while mine is almost purely in the humanities with a special focus on philosophy and theology. Yet underpinning both our interests is the fantastical and mythical, and this helps us approach our work with a common language. I don’t want to break down a list of books we should all read (though if you haven’t read your Greek myths and at least one other major world mythology, get on it), movies we should all see, music we should all know, and so forth since so many of those lists already exist.
Look, for instance, in the back of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook and you’ll see a great list. If you happen to have a copy of the 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide, there’s a list there, too.
Shake It Up
Instead, I want to offer a broad guideline for how to expand your knowledge. The first step: Look beyond your comfort zone. If your primary focus is philosophy, then you should look into science; remember that science was born from philosophy and that both branches of knowledge focus on the pursuit of a greater truth. Further, reading magazines like Popular Mechanics or Scientific American or National Geographic will open a world of ideas for you. Even if you don’t understand the science behind string theory, knowing its broad outlines provides you a launching pad for further investigations.
If your primary focus is mathematics, then look into history. Find an event that speaks to you, and look into its causes and effects. Wikipedia, for all its faults, is a fantastic resource for this, and well-followed links can drive you to some excellent original sources—or, at least, sources that are entertaining in their falsity, and for game designers, that’s almost as good a source.
But you can’t be indiscriminate. You need to read widely, and you need to read well. Knowing all the episodes of Pokémon is not going to elevate your knowledge base, just as eating at McDonald’s daily is not going to improve your health. If you’re really that interested in anime monsters, start exploring the references, trace them back to their roots, and follow those roots in different directions. For most of the media we consume, there is not one clear, inevitable path down which the trend must continue, and it pays to examine the road less traveled.
The older I get, the more I realize what I don’t know. I’ve come to accept I’ll never be a world-class musician—in fact, I doubt I’ll ever be a bar-class musician—but I still enjoy practicing guitar, even though I’m only barely getting a grasp on the theory, because it shows me how much I still have to learn. Studying karate has opened up the history of Asia in a way that kung-fu movies never did. And playing a variety of games has taught me how to approach problem-solving in new and different ways, providing a basis for shifting strategies and perspectives I might never have learned on my own.
This is perhaps the fundamental lesson for inspiration: keep looking, keep asking questions, keep learning. Apply what you learn in life to what you love in life, and you’ll be able to draw connections from the entire depth and breadth of your experience.