by Mike Shea on 9 September 2013
Note: This article has been updated from the original published 4 May 2009.
In his excellent book, On Writing, Stephen King discusses the most common question he receives when he's talking to his fans: "How do you get your ideas?". This is a common question for many successful writers of fiction, it seems. Neil Gaiman had one of the best responses: "From a little ideas shop in Bognor Regis".
The real answer to this question is "everywhere". Creativity comes from every part of our lives, from the strange guy who sold us Starbursts at CVS to the smell of a collapsed and rotting tree in the woods. We can channel all of our experiences back into the stories we tell. We can steal ideas for characters, environments, and situations from the people, places, and situations we find ourselves in throughout our lives. The more experiences we have, the more we can draw from.
Many creative types carry notebooks around with them all the time. A Moleskine Plain Pocket notebook and Micron sketching pen is a great set of tools. Anytime inspiration strikes, you can whip out the notebook and record it. Music, sounds, smells, anything can be captured and used later to fill in a story. Writing these ideas down and letting them jumble up in your head is how good creative works happen.
There's another common understanding among authors. There are few truly original ideas but there's lots of mashups. D&D is all about taking concepts found elsewhere and wiring them together. Take the story of "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly" and set it in a cave you once visited under a resort in Bermuda. Take the main characters from "No Country For Old Men" as your NPCs and villains. Take the gang fights from Gangs of New York, set them in the settings of the HBO show Rome, and use the music from the movie Kill Bill and you have yourself one hell of a Dark Sun game.
Dungeon mastering is a form of art as valid as any other. The more we take our discipline seriously and begin to consider the value of what we do, the better we will perform. RPGs are our medium. We're part writers, part performance artists, and part game designers. We have to combine all of these talents and all of our experiences into a single performance of storytelling and game management that others find entertaining.