by Mike Shea on 26 August 2013
"I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."
- Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet
The idea of Sherlock Holmes's brain attic is quite compelling for the lazy dungeon master. Recent research into the limits of the human mind combined with the concept in Doyle's Sherlock character led to the writing of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova. You can read more in her article Sherlock Holmes and the infamous brain attic. If we take these ideas and focus them towards our D&D games, we might come up with the perfect DM's tool.
Imagine that a section of our brain can act as our own personal imaginary Twyla Tharp Campaign Box, a DM's brain attic. In this brain attic we can capture and process the information and details that, when used during our games, make our games rich, deep, and fun.
In this article we will discuss how we organize our DM's brain attic, what we choose to put in it, and how we process the information we have. When we're through we might become the Sherlock Holmes of Dungeons and Dragons, though hopefully without the arrogance and lack of friends.
In Konnikova's book, she brings up the concept of mindfulness as a way to help clarify and organize thoughts. This meditative thought process has helped cancer patients get through painful treatments, manage depression, reduce stress, and find greater satisfaction in their personal relationships.
It can also help us run kick ass D&D games (citation needed).
There are thousands of self help books written on the idea of mindfulness. We'll skip most of that and let Google define it for us:
Mindfulness: A mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.
Mindfunless helps us flush away all of the other random crap we have going on in our heads, push out invading worries, and build a clear mental area for us to work on a single idea.
Visual metaphors can help us achieve this state of mindfulness. Imagine having a desk cluttered with sticky notes and pieces of torn up paper, half-read books, and half-working computer systems. Imagine every commitment, every worry, every problem big or small sits on this desk. Now imagine you sweep everything off that desk and onto the floor, not caring how it crashes down and feeling a great satisfaction that it has all been swept away. What remains is a beautiful empty desk ready to handle a single problem. Imagine you take out your 3x5 note card and begin to outline the next introductory scene for your D&D game. We have cleared out our brain attic.
"If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that."
- Stephen King, On Writing
To have a useful DM's brain attic, we need to fill it with the right raw material. We need huge piles of creative stuff we can tap into, arrange, and develop into ideas we can use at our tables. Once we have this material, we can chew on it with background processes to help us develop ideas even when we aren't thinking about it at all. We'll get to that in a moment. For now, we want to load up our attic with the best material we can.
The best way to gain raw material is to experience things. Read great books, watch great movies and TV shows, listen to music that fuels your imagination. Play games, both electronic and tabletop, to give you ideas.
WOTC freelancer and engineer behind the Ashes of Athas living campaign, Teos Abadia, once mentioned how important travel can be to a D&D game. Spending time in real castles, real ruins, and the artifacts of ancient civilizations can fill your DM's brain attic with some excellent, and real, raw material from which to draw details.
In his quote from A Study in Scarlet, Doyle proposes that our brain attics are finite. This isn't too far from the truth. Research has shown how making many decisions leads to mental fatigue, poorer and poorer decisions, and the desire to stay in indecision.
The more we clutter our minds with every little thing, the harder it becomes for us to contemplate any one of those things.
If we want to build a strong DM's attic, we need to ensure we fill that attic with the right stuff and throw away the crap. What we let into our world, for example, can make a big difference. Do we read good books or crap? Do we finish watching movies that suck simply because we paid for them? Do we seek games that truly stimulate our imagination or just ones that trigger our desire to push buttons for a pellet of accomplishment?
Harder still, we must flush out all the tiny details that clutter our daily life if we want a clean desk upon which to build our worlds. Recently, an article made the rounds on Twitter discussing how creative people say no. We DMs like to have a lot of irons in our fires. Perhaps we would benefit from restricting our projects to just the ones that make the greatest impact to our happiness and the happiness of our group.
By limiting our choices, eliminating things that don't matter to us, and focusing on our game, we can flush away the crap and fill our brain attic with only those things useful to our game.
In computer science, processing large amounts of data to achieve interesting insights takes place through the creation of computer algorithms. Algorithms help us find information in search engines. Algorithms help Amazon and Netflix recommend other things you might be interested in. Algorithms help Facebook fleece a quarter of the world's population for the benefit of advertisers. These days, algorithms are big medicine.
We can develop our own algorithms in the form of seed questions to begin filling our DM's brain attic with all of the components to help make our game awesome. To stay focused, we should pick a single question at a time and let that question begin to generate the building blocks of a great game.
Here are some example seed questions we might ask once we have cleared our working space and filled our attic with many barrels of raw material.
"What is my main villain up to right now? What plots does he navigate?"
"Why was this dungeon created? How does it work?"
"What did this wizard's laboratory used to be? What is its history?"
"How do the people of the city feel about what's been going on?"
"What cults currently weave their villainy in the land?"
"Why does this innkeeper care about the adventurers? Why is he going out of his way?"
"What vile substances can be found in the chambers below the haunted mansion?"
"What is the economy of this small village? How do they stay prosperous?"
You'll note that these questions don't focus on the PCs. Following the ways of the The Lazy Dungeon Master, we know to let the game grow from the actions of the players and the reactions of the world and people around them. Instead of worrying about what paths the PCs will take, we can instead focus our brain attic on the rest of the world — the bumpers on which the PCs will collide and smash back into the rest of the world.
These seed questions use the piles of raw material to come up with useful components we can use directly in our game.
"Just think about it deeply, then forget it. Then an idea will jump up in your face."
- Don Draper
We don't always need to spend time in our DM's brain attic to get use out of it. Sometimes the best thing we can do is build the right seed question, think hard on it, and then let it go. In the deep recesses of our mind, this algorithm will continue to chew. When we go back into the attic we may find all sorts of interesting ideas waiting for us. Many times, the ideas will explode out from the boundaries of our DM's brain attic and into the rest of our world. Grab it, marvel at it, and stick it back in the attic for use later.
Our brains are great at coming up with creative imaginative stuff. We're not always so good at remembering the details. Many great creative people talk about having pen and paper on hand anywhere and any time to capture these ideas. My personal tools of choice are the Moleskine plain pocket notebook and the Sakura Micron sketching pen. There are many other such tools, physical and digital, you might find just as useful.
Are you bored at your next PTA meeting? Are you stuck in line at the grocery store or waiting to get your tires rotated or stuck in traffic during your afternoon commute? Are you having trouble sleeping? These are perfect times to access your DM's brain attic, launch your seed question, and begin to process information into useful components for your next D&D game.
No one can control your DM's brain attic. No one can prevent you from accessing it. You can use it anywhere and anytime to build the best D&D game you can imagine.