Finding Inspiration in the Real World

Onondaga Cave

Onondaga Cave

Absolutely everything can provide inspiration for a creative endeavor—whether it’s writing, painting, or even game design.

I recently took a month and drove the entirety of Route 66—backwards, from Santa Monica to Chicago—and there is so much just here in the states that can ignite new ways of seeing or thinking about things. [Editor’s Note: Backwards, but not literally in reverse gear…] I visited three different cave systems over the course of the trip: the Grand Canyon Caverns, Onondaga Cave, and Meramec Caverns. Getting into the cool features and differences of each—state owned versus privately owned, dry versus wet, and so on—would take a blog post of its very own (comment if you’d like to see such a post!), but suffice to say that I learned quite a bit about what made each one unique. It gave me a new way of thinking about caves in

Onondaga Cave

Onondaga Cave

adventures—what they could hold, and what it might really be like trying to navigate through them with just a few torches. I took many photos—some for beauty, but some just for reference. I want to be able to look at them and imagine an elf, a gnome, and a couple humans crawling through the stalagmites, stalactites, and low ceilings. What else might they find?

I saw cliff dwellings—abandoned for centuries, but still up there. I saw the Grand Canyon and hiked around the Rim Trail, thinking about how strange and wonderful it was that I could get so close to the edge of the canyon (parts of the trail are inches from the 7,000-foot drop). Now, fighting through encounters along a ledge or in a cave are by no means novel, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a new or interesting way to approach these things—especially when

Grand Canyon Caverns

Grand Canyon Caverns: Sleep in a cave!

you have a physical place to work from, a physical cliff to study, a physical cave to get down on your hands and knees in. It’s one thing to imagine your players in a hypothetical cave—it’s another to imagine them right here, in exactly this spot, their hands as cold and wet as yours as you crouch down to see the path through the columns.

Natural wonders are, of course, not the only thing from which to draw inspiration. There are plenty of strange and wonderful museums out there that focus on everything from mechanical dolls to westerns to vacuums (really). The thing to remember is that if you’re willing to look hard enough, everything has something to offer you. Learning the history of the most mundane item can spark something you didn’t even realize was inside you.

Meramec Caverns

Meramec Caverns

I doubt very much I’m espousing any new information at all, but every now and then, we can all use a reminder. Travelling absolutely anywhere—even just hiking near your home or going to see a nearby art exhibit—can be just the thing you need to get exactly the right setting or the right encounter or the right NPC for the adventure you’re working on. Keep your creative glasses on, and everything becomes fodder. The chipper, totally-with-it person who checked you into your hotel room or the cousin you’d never met who welcomed you into his home like an old friend—these are real people in the world, and they can be real people in your adventure. They may even be the emotional hook that brings your players into the game.

Meramec Caverns

Meramec Caverns: Light show!

The more you can use the real world to influence your game world, the more fleshed out it becomes. Pulling from the physical world gives players something to connect with, something to feel more invested in. Even if they themselves have never been inside a cave or walked along a canyon’s edge, adding real-world details often feels more authentic.

The thing to remember when creating a game world is that everything in the real world has something to offer you. Everything has a piece you can take home. You just have to keep an eye out for it.

On Creating the Gaslight, Part 1: Confronting Humanity through Games

When I started writing this post, is was quite short. It highlighted the mechanics of my thought process then segued into the mechanics of monster creation. After discussing it with Dave, however, I realized there were really two aspects of creation I wanted to talk about. One was the crunchier aspect of monster design (which you can read about in Part 2 soon), but the first was more personal than I’d originally given credence.

DASTOW Games Gaslight

Artwork by Liz Green

A few months ago, DASTOW Games published Monster Mausoleum, our first non-adventure and our first release for 5th edition D&D. Alongside the undead monster classics like the pennangalan and the huecuva, this book also featured our new monster, the gaslight.

The gaslight began with me wanting to create a physical manifestation of gaslighting, the phenomenon of making someone think that their valid ideas or concerns are crazy or unfounded. Gaslighting is an all-too-common way of controlling someone else, and I know many people—myself included—who have experienced it. At first, I just thought the concept would make for a really interesting breed of monster (and I think it’s turned out to be so), but as I thought about it more, I considered some of the more interesting aspects.

Let’s take a step back for a moment to look at the power of games.  Some, certainly, offer nothing more than entertainment. They’re fluff if they’re anything, and they’re intended to be that way. That’s totally fine, and there’s nothing wrong with playing a game for that very reason. Other games, however, aim to dig at your subconscious, whether it be with conflicting moral choices or very significant parallels to certain horrors of reality. Some games aim to make you think about the world or the people in it differently.

In the same way that different games aim to fulfill different roles, so too do people come at different games for different reasons. Sometimes I’m looking for a game to make me feel something, and sometimes I just want to hit pixelated monsters with pixelated sticks or beat some internet rando at a card game. I think Gone Home is one of the most beautifully honest games I’ve ever played, but I also just got my fourth golden hero in Hearthstone (#humblebrag). Often, we come to games to feel powerful, whether it’s as a gun-toting soldier or a fiery mage. Some studies have even shown that a short stint of playing a powerful character can make a person feel more confident and decisive for over a day. Games are actually good for us.

I’ve referenced video games here, but this is arguably even more true with roleplaying games. Video games have the limits of financing and time and hardware, but in a roleplaying game, the only limit on what you can do is your imagination and the GM’s approval. Facing things in real life is often difficult. Facing things in a fantasy world where you wear magical armor while shooting arrows or swinging swords or blasting out a few fireballs is way easier by comparison. When you imagine yourself as a powerful character, a lot of things become easier to face.

So let’s bring this back around to the physical manifestation of gaslighting. One of the real hells of being on the receiving end is that you can never be sure it’s happening. By the very nature of gaslighting, it casts doubt on your interpretation of the situation, and breaking free can be extremely difficult. But now let’s say you think you’re struggling with this very issue. If pretending to be a powerful character for an hour can make you feel powerful in real life for a day, maybe facing a gaslight head-on can do something similar. Maybe it can wipe away some of the cobwebs and give someone a chance to really figure out the truth of their situation. And then maybe it can’t. But if the cost of finding out is creating what Dave and I think turned out to be a pretty cool monster anyway, then there’s no reason not to try.

Games are a powerful medium. Many still see them as infantile, and that’s a damn shame because I have had games deliver more deliberate, honest, heart-wrenching stories than half of whatever’s on TV. Many are truly immersive art, and well-done art can change you. Games can make us stronger in our day-to-day lives. I want to add to that. I want to be part of that—part of using games as a way to not just entertain, but make people stronger. I want to be part of what pushes the industry forward and gives it more freedom to examine that side of itself.

That’s one of the reasons the gaslight exists. That, and because you simply can’t have enough creepy floating skulls in D&D.

(The second part of this two-part article, On Creating the Gaslight, Part 2: Working out the Mechanics, is now live.)