Maro was right

Last updated . Copying over to this website. Slight re-formatting to fit the website, but the text is otherwise untouched. I might update the prose some time.

Originally posted on . Original post on Cohost.

Restriction breeds creativity.

Mark Rosewater (or Maro for short), the head designer of Magic: The Gathering, repeats the above mantra often in his articles. He repeats it a lot because it's true.

Recently I was involved in an argument about puzzle writing. I claimed that ideas were easy to come; it's usually the execution where people stumbled, from lack of motivation. (That latter part most certainly applies to me; I need to find my motivation and time to do things...) Some other people didn't agree...

⪥ Deusovi — 05/22/2023 at 3:52 PM
i *wish* ideas weren't hard to come by

...and we started arguing. The main reason I said ideas were easy was because of the above mantra, and I realized I had been applying this several times in my life, so I decided to write about it.

The trick to any creative endeavor is to give yourself some direction. The blank page is scary to look at; Maro even wrote an article about it. That's why you give something -- anything! — to let you start from somewhere. In the words of Maro (from the same article):

Your brain [...] studies how it does things and then copies them the next time you need to do the same task. [...] Consistency of execution is wanted in most daily functions. The one place it's not, though, is creative expression. [...] How do you do that? By giving yourself a mental problem that your brain registers as something new.

For my first example, I'll cite Maro's own example. An artist, faced with an empty canvas, might start with a random scribble somewhere. Now, instead of thinking about what the canvas could be, they would think, what this scribble could mean? Would this "3"-shaped scribble be part of a butterfly? Wind blowing? Two fingers of a hand? Each one gave some sort of direction, one that the artist could pursue into a larger drawing. Would it be a bright cheerful landscape with plants and animals, or a scary storm in the middle of the sea, or the climax of a rock-paper-scissors tournament? (Aside: the game Rhythm Doctor features a level (YouTube video) about this scribble technique, too. It's cute.)

Moreover, and more importantly, this scribble does not have to actually be part of the painting. It might just be one unimportant detail of the large picture. It might even have been erased in case a different outline suits it better. The important part is that the scribble serves as a jumping-off point, something to give the artist a more concrete idea to pursue.

As this essay was inspired by puzzle writing, my second example will be that. When writing hunts, some authors start with a puzzle idea -- be that subject matter, mechanical execution, etc -- and they wait for an answer to be assigned to it. Others, though, ask for any available answer, and write a puzzle inspired by it. What puzzle could have the answer SCARLET? It might be a color-based puzzle. It might be a Pokémon puzzle (Pokémon Scarlet is a recent game). It might be a wordplay puzzle of putting names in words (CARL in SET). Again, it's some sort of direction, letting you start brainstorming ideas.

Note that this is slightly different from the previous example: the answer generally cannot be changed, your puzzle has to have that answer. Sometimes you might get an idea, but when you pursue it, it goes in a different direction than what you initially envisioned it to be. That is okay! In some cases, you can diverge; the artist's scribble example above is one where you can do so (nobody will enforce you to put in what you had scribbled, unless you're using pen or something). In other cases, you cannot; this puzzle answer example is one of them. But that's okay; you can file the idea for later, and you can use that idea for another purpose, this time asking for an answer to be assigned to it.

For my third example, I'll actually cite what caused the argument in the first place (the impetus that led me to write this essay), which is more puzzle writing.

As you might know, I'm in the hunting team ⛎ UNICODE EQUIVALENCE. Internally, we have something called "Puzzligame", where someone suggests a particular prompt and we write puzzles to follow that prompt. Hmm, this reminds me of something... oh, yeah, this whole essay! By being given a prompt, you get to think from a new vantage point, and your brain will work hard to generate a new solution for this problem: about writing a puzzle for this prompt.

The very first prompt wasn't interesting for me ("small crossword that summarizes your life in 2022"; I'm just not generally interested in crosswords), but the second prompt caught my attention: weird word-searches. So, how did I think?

I have seen some weird word-searches. They are a classic in puzzlehunts, including one of the most infamous ones, In the Details by Derek Kisman (MIT Mystery Hunt 2013). I have even written one myself, Minute Details (in Silph Puzzle Hunt). The one that I remember most fondly is Star Search by Thomas Snyder, written as part of preparations for the U.S. Puzzle Championship 2011.

The problem is, because I have seen these, naturally these were also where my brain first went to. In fact, my first idea was just a variant of Star Search. I wanted to be more creative.

At this point while writing this essay, I looked at my submission for the Puzzligame and the chat I had with the one hosting this prompt. Turns out I actually had several other ideas that I ended up scrapping, either because I didn't like them or I didn't manage to execute them well. Here they are; sorry for anyone whose puzzle idea gets sniped by me:

So, what idea did I end up going with?

Before I spoil the thought process, let me just show you the puzzle I ended up submitting, so you can do that first. As a reminder, this is a hunt puzzle, which means you don't get the instructions; you have to figure out what the puzzle is about. (Well, the "weird word search" theme should give you a hint.) Moreover, the puzzle should end up giving an English word/phrase as the final answer; you can check for your answer.

Click to read the thought process behind the puzzle

My specialty is not exactly about hunt puzzles; I write logic puzzles better. Can I do something with logic?

Well, I surely can. Word-searches have appeared in logic contests as well; often it's the kind of "some squares are empty; fill with letters so you can find all the given words". I thought of this as well.

And then I thought further. Did the underlying genre have to be word-search? Couldn't it be something else; a logic puzzle genre, even? "Solve the logic puzzle so that all the given words can be found in the resulting grid." That sounds exciting.

Since I didn't want to include any rules, I wanted to find a common logic puzzle genre. Sudoku is easily the most common one. Unfortunately, at this point I think I was running out of time for the Puzzligame, so I just went with Sudoku. I could have gone with another genre if I had more time to iterate.

The result is a Word-search Sudoku. It's something that surely has existed before, but that's fine. If you didn't know this was one, it's still rather delightful to get the "a-ha!" moment that the puzzle was one. And even after you knew that, I made sure the solve path was still interesting and enjoyable from a logic perspective.

I also needed a way to extract. I admit that, for the puzzle, I'm very much lacking in this regard. The extraction method was poor and it could have been integrated more. I'll chalk it up to not having enough time to iterate, as well as me being better at logic puzzles than hunt puzzles.

The third and fourth Puzzligames were of a different nature, but the fifth returned to asking for a puzzle to a given prompt. The prompt, replicated here in full:

Puzzligame #5: No! That's Too Specific!

Write a puzzle about a weirdly specific thing. It doesn't have to be obscure! But it should be the sort of puzzle where people are like, "Really? A puzzle about ___? Why?"

I submitted two puzzles here. (One puzzle was previously written for a different hunt that failed to materialize, but some people were already spoiled on it, so I couldn't really use it anywhere else. I then realized it was certainly rather specific and niche in its subject matter, so I submitted it for this episode. The other puzzle was written new.) I might share them sometime later, but I can also say, I did this same approach for writing the new puzzle: I had a lot of very niche interests, so I jumped from one to the next, trying to find something that sparked an idea in my mind.

The fourth and final example is from my own experience when I did some world-building.

Warning: What follows, while not strictly NSFW, is definitely very weird. You should be able to skip it if you don't want to read it.

Click to read the fourth example

The setting is called Stillen, a world where it is normal for people to be willingly turned into something inanimate such as statues; in fact, in Stillen, this is an art form, with the informal phrase "to become art" to mean, well, exactly that.

First off, even this setting already raises some interesting questions to think about. I started from the above premise and asked myself: how would the world work? If people constantly became inanimate, wouldn't the population fall off? There were several possible answers I could think of. People might only become inanimate temporarily, for a brief period of time. The population might reproduce at such a fast rate to replace the ones that go.

I went with a third option: there was an extensive system of cloning people in place over the world. This gave me more questions for me to answer. How would such a system work? Would people abuse it? There were also other questions from the premise; for example, why would people willingly become art?

Each and every question gave me something new to think about, and my brain made new connections, formed new answers. In short, I did creative work. While this is the only time I have done any world-building (so far), I believe this applies to many people that also do world-building.

That said, that was not the point of this example, though. With the setting in place, I wanted to fill the world with locations and places. What did I do? I thought of buildings and places in our world, and tried to figure out what their versions in Stillen would be.

School is a place of teaching. What might be taught in Stillen? Perhaps the methods to help other people become art. So, the Stillen version of a school might be an art academy where these methods are taught.

Theater is a place for performances, and performances are art. Stillen is already a world full of art; a lot of people would love to show off their skills in turning others into art. This tells me there wouldn't be just one or two theaters, but a lot of stages for performances.

Sport stadium. What kind of sport takes place in Stillen? Since the world is so strongly associated with people turning inanimate, maybe it is a component in the sport. I came up with an idea of a team tag sport of sorts, with "Midas touch" on the fingertips of the players. Players would try to tag opposing team members, and doing so would aurify them, making them into gold statues. I wouldn't have thought about any of this if I didn't try asking myself about "stadium".

The point of all these examples is that, looking at a blank page is scary, so make it not blank. Give yourself a direction, and you'll find it's easier to come up with ideas.

In fact, the first two examples above were written on the spot. For the artist scribble, I asked myself for some kind of scribble that I could type with a keyboard, and the digit "3" popped up into my mind; after that, I thought of what objects it could represent, and what the main pictures would look like involving those objects. (I'm still tickled at how I managed to connect "a "3"-shaped scribble" to "the climax of a rock-paper-scissors tournament".) For the puzzle answer, I looked around my room to find a word; I had the case for Pokémon Violet, so I went with its partner game SCARLET as the answer. Then I forced myself to look for a wordplay thing and found CARL in SET.

Of course, getting an idea is just the first step in your creative endeavor journey. I alluded to this earlier, but after getting a direction, you want to come up with lots of ideas and see what sticks, what appeals to your mind to be polished further. (In Maro's article above, this is stage three, "throwing a lot of spaghetti on the wall". Nick Bentley, an avid designer of abstract games, wrote about the 100:10:1 method which essentially says the same thing.) Even after you get some favorite idea, you will need to iterate on it. This is the execution that is often exhausting, and I definitely fail in this aspect a lot.

But the ideas aren't the hard part. Or rather, you can train yourself to look from new vantage points and come up with new ideas.