Optimising your idea machine — getting the possible ideas from your mind into play

The problem — too many ideas, and they scatter to the wind

The basic problem is that I generate lots of ideas and thoughts, for games I’m running and games I’m not. I’m fairly good at writing them down, somehow and somewhere, but I’m not so good at getting them to the point where they are actually used in play. I think I miss a lot of opportunities to put the fruits of my mind into a position where players can experience them.

I had an idea. Now what?

Now, sure, there are some irreducible constraints on this. Play can’t always provide good context to bring in all the ideas you have — you may well generate ideas that require too many entirely different games. And even if everything lines up, you might produce more ideas than can ever be fitted in the playing time you have. Some ideas will fall on stony ground because the world is just like that.

But some losses are accidental. Sometimes, you’ll get an opportunity to use an idea, but miss it. This might be because you forgot it entirely. Or it might because you remember the general idea but you forgot important details (and can’t find them fast enough to not break game flow). Such losses can be minimised if we’re clever about it.

What I want to do is to be as efficient as possible at getting the best ideas from the seething ferment of my mind to the actual world where players can suffer them. I want maximise my ratio of (effort put in) to (amount and quality of ideas that make it to play).

A general model — engineering your idea machine

My general metaphor here is to think of yourself as having an idea machine — a system of tactics and behaviours that move ideas from your subconscious, or indeed from stimuli out there in the world, into actual use in play. If you run rpgs at all, or even idly toy around with ideas for running them, then you have such a machine. It just may not be the best you could have.

For example — imagine you run a weekly game. Your preparation is to think about it once or twice in the week, then to use the hour before the session to get extremely drunk. In play, you make up everything on the spot, and grab any idea a player gives you. You don’t write anything down (and indeed lost your game notebook some time ago).

That, there, is an idea machine. It might not be very good. It might not be the best you could have. It might lead to sessions that dissatisfy you, let alone your players. Or it might be fine, good even, perhaps because you’re a creative genius, or blessed of a god.

By contrast, my current habitual machine works something like this: I also randomly think of ideas at different times – at home, at work, while travelling. I very often write them down as I think of them, in as electronic a form as possible. I also make (brief, often unreadable) notes during the session, and dedicate time between sessions to pickup up my game notebook and dwelling on the game, writing ideas about things that I expect to matter (e.g. if they’ve offended the Baroness, what will she do? What does she want? And what is she keeping in that cellar?).

I keep a folder for general notes on the setting, organised by regions, and I sometimes update an electronic version of it. Often, my notes for a city or a region or a dungeon will encounter an encounter table, short and intense with just the ideas that matter most for that area – nothing is genre-generic, or just filler.

That is also an idea machine. And it largely works for me. But I think it could be better. And I’ve used other machines at other times, and would like to expand my options.

General principles

I don’t want to force this — I don’t want to railroad. That would make this a lot easier, but I’ve got lots of goals that conflict with that. So I’m only interested in tactics that allow a high degree of meaningful player choice.

A key principle is compression — we’re looking to get the maximum of ideas into a minimum amount of space — a minimum amount of effort-to-process and difficulty-to-remember. Often, but not always, this is about minimising the amount of text.

And, of course, not all ideas are good. Part of compression is filtering ideas entirely, and cutting out ideas that are mostly noise. I’ve previously linked some articles that explain why this is important. Of course, if we prioritise sufficiently well, and keep the ideas coming, the bad ideas will never get into play.

We can acknowledge that our idea-set has a long tail — in an extended campaign we’re going to build up a great mass of ideas at variable levels of development. Some ideas will just be in our heads, others will be right there on the character sheets. Most will be in between. We shouldn’t treat all equally, even if they’re all useful — we should continuously develop those ideas that are going to give us the best return on our invested effort. That way, we’re always making the best use of our time.

Specific tactics for the care and feeding of thoughts

There are at least three kinds of tactics — generation, processing, and staging. You generate ideas, you process them into some useful form, then you stage them ready to be delivered during play. Those are tangled and overlapping categories, not least because tactics in one category have to feed into those in the next, but I think they make useful distinctions.

Generation tactics

Generation tactics are about getting ideas from wherever the fuck they come from into some kind of concrete form.

Lots has been written about generative tactics, and they are vital for any idea machine. But my concern here is with what happens to ideas once they’re generated. I want them to get into play, in a way that players (and I) enjoy. So in this article I’m going to skip generation tactics.

Processing tactics

Processing tactics about what you do with ideas once you’ve got them – how you record them and work with them as you progress towards staging.

General kinds of tactics

  • Iterative revisions are a strong tool for compression. When you rewrite a note, you can merge it with others – get two ideas in one dungeon or table or paragraph or bullet point.
  • Using electronic notes makes it easier to do iterative revisions.
  • Transferring paper notes into electronic form, if you have reason to do it anyway, tends to lead to some “free” revision.
  • We can apply filters — we can cut out low quality ideas. There are at least two criteria we can filter on — quality per se (“is it any good?”) and relevance to our goals (e.g. “does match the themes of this campaign?”).
    • I do this, but I think I mostly do it implicitly, and often without noticing.
  • We can deliberately prioritise things using the same criteria as for filtering. We can leave all our ideas nominally “in our process”, but push good ones through to scripted events while leaving weak ones languishing forever in paper notes.
    • I do this much more than I actually filter. Lots of notes make it to paper, or two my notes mess (see later), but no further.
  • Both criteria can involve considering “Does this drive home the themes of my setting?”, “Does this involve, in some way, the major factions or themes of the setting?”, and “Does this idea bring me joy?”.

Specific tactics

  • Use a notes capture tool so you’ve got somewhere to put things that you find online or randomly come up with. I use Google Keep because it’s simple and cheap, has a standard way of archiving used notes, and has an app for my phone I can share text to.


  • I keep a “notes mess” file for every game. This gives me one electronic place for all notes that don’t go anywhere else.


  • I keep a “maybe do” list for every game. This is somewhere I can keep track of all my ideas, whatever form it’s in. It’s lightweight, because I don’t put many details there – if there are notes for a thing, they probably go somewhere else. I keep this list in rough priority order, with the most promising things at the top. If I realise that some idea is valuable, but don’t have time to act on it right now (perhaps because I have something even more valuable to do) I can move it up the list.

maybe example

  • Bonus tactic — when I do something from “maybe”, I don’t delete it. I strike it through, then move it to a “Done” section at the end of the document. This gives me the reward of seeing how much I’ve done.


  • Sometimes, I limit myself to a fixed page space. This forces me to compress. Writing for publication is good for this.

Staging tactics

Delivery tactics are about how you get ideas from their processed from into the something that’s primed for delivery to players.

Personally, this is my weakest area. I think maybe because it feels effortful, and to do it well you have to tune it quite specifically to this campaign, this session. Doesn’t generalise very well.

  • Keyed maps are useful, but very expensive to create, especially if the PCs might or might not go there. I rarely use these.
  • Possible event lists are my single-most-used prep tool. You can write a list of interesting events that might happen (whether this session, in this place, sometime and somewhere …). If there is an appropriate situation, or just if things have stalled, I have one of them happen.
  • Encounter tables are very valuable. I use them by game setting, by region, by city… sometimes I write small ones (2-4 entries) just for “this area during this coming session”. In the latter case, they replace (or serve double-duty as) event lists.
    • It occurs that if I put encounters on cards, I could pin my “top 3 encounters this session for this group” across the to of my screen.
  • Beyond encounters, setting and place and culture (etc) ideas can be captured by construction mini-systems
This is from Yoon-Suin

Residual complications

Much of the above is easier when you a use a computer more. In my case, I don’t play online, and I don’t want the inherent distraction/confusion of using a laptop at the table. I also already feel that I do too much computer time (not least by writing post like this one).

Wait — is this not just “all GM prep advice ever”?

It’s part of that, but here I’m very much concerned here about the problem I stated at the top of this article — I want to optimise my process so that I make the best use of all the fine wild shit I come up with. WRT that goal, most GM prep advice has some of these problems

  • It blurs generation, processing, and staging
  • It doesn’t address cost at all
  • It addresses cost, but only in “this should take about an hour” — it doesn’t talk about optimally using whatever ideas you happen to have available right then

Where now?

First, I’d like to know what you do — what tactics you use, and how you put them together. I’d like to try them, or at least think about them.

Longer term, I’m going to play with different tactics and combinations, hoping to make my machine work better.

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