When Josiah and I began to brainstorm ideas about our campaign, I personally did not have any way of starting the process. I was in a sense floating in this weird place known as the Thought Pool (I capitalized that because we’ll be back on that topic). Ideas came to me, some ideas connected, and a plot was generated from it. I had been floating in this pool for about a week now, and after quiet contemplation and a couple Jane Austen (Charlotte Bronte, actually…) stories, I found a way to convey it. In this vast darkness I had created, with little bubbles of ideas bouncing off others, Josiah and I had firmly established what we wanted for the end result of this campaign. We saw the finish line, the final product, the present wrapped in a box with a bow on top.
In essence, we had a puzzle in front of us. We could see the image on the box but had no idea how the pieces were going to fit together. I’m about to get metaphorical, so stick with me here.
Now when I am solving a 1000 piece puzzle, the first thing I do is dump out the pieces. Next, I look at the picture on the box. Look at all these colors and shapes and lines and other crazy stuff! But I can’t make anything until I know the frame in which I am working in. So I have to sort out all the corner pieces of the puzzle. This is the Big Picture – the idea and goal of my campaign that I want to work in, and what I want my players to take away. If I don’t have this, my frame will be unclear and no one will understand what they are looking at.
Now I’m going to sort these pieces into piles of the same color because those areas are closer to match with each other. This is where I categorize the ideas into sections, such as Organizations/Factions, Tiers of Adventure, Pantheons, etc. These can be put together separately from the others, and require as much time and energy as any other idea I am putting together. Although some ideas may be smaller than others, they are just as important as the big ones.
Now that I have my border and the various colors separated, next I get to figure out where to put everything in the frame. As I start to put things together, I see the different pictures bleed into others- some connect automatically, while others require more work to fill in the gaps. Once this process is complete, my entire puzzle is finished and I can immortalize it on my nightstand. The final idea is a world I created, with all the pieces connected and affected by my ideas.
Notice that there was no fixed starting line here. I could have begun the process with any of the puzzle pieces, and many ways exist to solve the puzzle. But there are two things needed: the puzzle box image, and the puzzle pieces. I can’t make a puzzle if I don’t have the initial image, otherwise, it’s an empty picture. And I can’t make the picture without all the pieces building on each other and starting from the same place. This is where the Thought Pool comes in (full circle!).
The Thought Pool is easy. It is a pool of ideas, strong enough to stand on its own, yet simple enough to build upon. These ideas are short and concise enough to fit on a sticky note with a Super Sharpie. Each idea is critically examined, bounced around, and abandoned if it’s not useful until only the great ones remain. These become the puzzle pieces for the picture. Each puzzle piece holds so much weight, that if it is missing from the picture, it leaves a hole in the final product. If I ask, “Why is this in my campaign?” and I say, “It’s just cool,” or “I don’t know,” it should probably leave the campaign or needs way more work than what I am giving it. Granted cool things are in campaigns, but they need more reasons than just being awesome. My world should be an assemblage of the coolest stuff ever, but still be cohesive and make some sense.
So how does this all relate? The Thought Pool is the place to build your ideas, your wacky and insane ideas that are eventually perfected into your puzzle pieces. The creative process is broken into different sections of ideas, all within a framing picture of what you want to accomplish. The Finish Line is the world you set out to make, with each individual piece set with intention and importance. There is no starting line, just open the box and start chugging.