Roll For Insight: The Imagination Gate

May 17, 2019 by brennon

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I consider myself quite a creative person but very often I'm struck by bouts of what most people would consider something akin to writer's block.


It usually happens when I'm writing a role-playing game session and I'll find my flow completely broken by something or other, unable to really plan out the next adventure or encounter. I call this The Imagination Gate.

A Slippery Slope

When I come to points where I find my flow broken it's very much like the scene just pauses. The characters come to a stop, the world freezes and any images I have of these characters in my head slowly start to fade away.

Gates Of Jotunheim by Joris Dewolf

This can be disheartening. If you're in the middle of a pressured scenario where you need to get something planned for an upcoming role-playing session, losing your thread and seeing the story dissolve before you can end up meaning that you shelve more than just that encounter but perhaps the entire story.

It also causes you to take shortcuts and try and fudge things. I can't tell you the number of terrible decisions I've made when telling a story only to try and think my way out of a problem which effectively ended in a cliff edge during my planning.

This, in no way, makes for a good story and looking back with hindsight I should have done a lot more to avoid this. Maybe postponing a session or letting the players take more of a lead. It happens to everyone in storytelling but it can hurt all the more when you ruin the fun for others by trying to fly by the seat of your pants.

Ill-Fated Choices

The Imagination Gate works two ways in my mind. Sometimes it shuts you out and doesn't let you progress and other times it lets you through but shuts the gate behind you. You can become so utterly absorbed in the moment and your interpretation of the event that you don't have room for the player's interaction with your story.

Last Woman Standing by Jarreau Wimberly

Again, this has led to more moments than I'd like to admit where I'd almost tanked a campaign because of being locked into a certain course of action. I've on occasion ended up accidentally killing a character or NPC in a strange way or pushing them towards a storyline that I thought would be epic, completely misreading the tone. This can be demoralising for pretty much everyone involved.

So, what do you do to try and combat this?

Finding The Key

There are a couple of ways I've found to get past the problems posed by The Imagination Gate. The first of these is simply to admit that you got it wrong.

Dark Portal By Jonathan Berube

If you fall into the trap and plough ahead with a session that just didn't work, hold your hands up to your players and ask them if they want to either start over again when you've had more time or work out with them how best to proceed. I've done this before and if you have the right group you can make sure things get back on track.

Another option here is to do as I mentioned previously. Just take a backseat and postpone the session until you're ready. Yes, it's tough to get a group together every week but just take the time to read through your story a few times making sure you've got it all right in your head.

Thirdly, take inspiration from other sources. A lot of what we write as storytellers for role-playing games finds its way into our games so if your favourite author or filmmaker came up with a way for a problem to be solved, build on that and work it into your story. Yes, it's not as original as doing it yourself but if it's a tried and tested answer...why not use it to help yourself out?

There is a flip side to this, however. One of the pitfalls of storytelling can be believing that you have to craft your campaign a certain way or it won't be good enough.

Mighty Nein by Alice Monstrinho

For example, you might have watched Critical Role and Matt Mercer describing an awesome twist where a villain pops up out of nowhere and things go badly for the group. It might have worked for their game but it won't always work for your own. Trust me. I threw a story together in a certain direction once but I didn't really consider just how my players were different from the Critical Role crew. They play a very different game and so the way Mercer tells stories just didn't work for me and, you guessed it, the story nosedived into the ground.

You need to really, really consider your players and the game they want to play. Railroading and storytelling with a bull-headed attitude can be good at times but if you're not flexible you're likely to end up breaking the fragile branches of your story.

A Meeting Of Minds

The final piece of advice I wanted to give is one stolen shamelessly from Brian Foster. He talked about how he shares the responsibility of storytelling with another friend, both of them taking the reigns of the story from time to time, working in tandem to temper each other's wild ideas and bring them in line with something the players are going to enjoy.

Two Friends by Andrei Riabovitchev

I honestly think that if you have the chance to do this, every storyteller should give it a go. Lifting the weight off your shoulders and having someone else standing with you there at the gate to help you push through could be just what you need in order to be creative and yet also bring things in line mechanically too.

This isn't going to work for everyone but simply having someone to talk to and bounce ideas off can make a massive difference.

Passing Through

The Imagination Gate has hit me pretty hard of late. I've found it very tough to come up with stories for role-playing sessions or indeed push my creatively through it so that it develops into something 'on paper' so to speak.

Banned Book Library by Tianyu Li

Using the techniques outlined above I'm hoping to push through and bring at least one of the dozens of ideas in my head down to earth, focusing it into something that will be useful for a session! I don't imagine it helps that, internally, I'm always working away or two or three different ideas, flitting like a butterfly between what I think could be fascinating or cool.

Keeping at it is key though. Making sure that, even if you do become demoralised by a failure of creativity, you're always jotting something down or writing out a line of dialogue somewhere, coming up with a cool villain in your head.

If anyone out there has any good ideas for getting to the other side of that Imagination Gate then feel free to share them in the comments below!

Art by Tianyu Li, Andrei Riabovitchev, Alice Monstrinho, Jonathan Berube, Jarraeu Wimberly, Joris Dewolf

Have you had any moments as a storyteller where you've realised you're going off in the wrong direction?

"...what do you do to try and combat this?"

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"He talked about how he shares the responsibility of storytelling with another friend, both of them taking the reigns of the story from time to time..."

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