Why We Love Other People’s Ideas

I’ve noticed something interesting about my thought process: the closer I am to a game or story, the harder a time I have thinking of things for it. I’ve been stalled on my own game for two weeks, haven’t really written anything that wasn’t either game-related or a blog post in more than a month; I still get regularly stuck on ideas for what to do for some of the company projects, and even my primary character, she of the contingency plan for everything, has been running low on ideas.

But then I happened across Chatty DM’s latest megadungeon post. More than a page of writing about process behind making the thing, and what spurred his inspiration; its old inhabitants, the burrowing monster that came into contact with the abandoned ruin, and ending with a couple of details the dungeon still needed. And what happened? I had Ideas, an abrupt surge of what was described later as “fluff gold”. If things had continued, I might have had still more ideas.

Photo courtesy of NYOBE of stock.xchng

This phenomenon—being unable to work on one’s own projects, but easily inspired by the seed of someone else’s idea—isn’t unique to me. I think every game master and every writer has had to deal with it at some point. The question then, is why? Why is it that other people’s ideas are so much more inspiring than our own?

  • Self-criticism. This one’s an obvious one, though I think it’s less important than it might be. See, if you get an idea for your own game, and it doesn’t work, you’re likely to blame yourself, because you should have remembered that, say, this character would react badly to that plan, or someone else would see through it in a moment. But when you’re coming up with ideas for someone else, you don’t have that problem; the other person knows more than you do, so if you come up with something that wouldn’t actually work because of something you didn’t know yet, it’s not your fault.
  • Collaboration. For some people, it’s just more fun to work with someone. When you’re working on your own project, it’s harder to get that; game masters don’t generally collaborate at full strength with their players for fear of giving their plot twists away, and writers often worry about showing people unfinished products or plots that haven’t been thought through. Besides, people who don’t know enough won’t be able to take into account all the variables, or might change something important. And as if that isn’t enough, saying we need help implies weakness. So it’s easier to offer help with something else than to ask for it for ourselves, which means that we’re likelier to arrange to collaborate on other people’s work than our own. (Fortunately for us, someone who Comes Bearing Nifty Ideas is hard to refuse, as whether the idea works or not, it probably sparks something.)
  • Feedback. Unless a writer has a chapter by chapter workshop group arranged, he’s probably not going to get anyone looking through his story until the manuscript’s finished. The GM has a somewhat shorter-term version of the same problem; she can’t talk about her new great idea to her players without spoiling it for them, and might not necessarily have anyone else to share it with. And it gets even worse when the players routinely take longer than expected to get to a given point in the game (it’s a running joke in my group that I plan six months ahead. Not all of that is because I have keen foresight, let’s put it that way. Is it any wonder I’m more punctual with my weblog than with my game prep?). But when we’re suggesting ideas for someone else, we’re probably going to get pretty quick responses. Which is it more rewarding to work on: an idea that may never actually see the light of day, or something that’s going to get results soon?
  • Pre-existing activity. Usually, if you’re catching someone with an idea you can expand on, it’s because they’ve been working on it. That means the project has a certain amount of momentum. We all know Newton’s First Law of Motion, right? Objects at rest tend to stay at rest, objects in motion remain in motion, unless a force is applied. Ideas are the same way; the ones people are at work on are likelier to get somewhere than the ones people are stuck on. And we know this. So if given a choice between our stuck ideas and someone else’s moving ones, we choose the ones that are in motion.

Has this ever happened to you? Are there any factors you think I missed?


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