Restrictions Breed Creativity

Hello and welcome to Only On Tuesdays! This week I will be discussing how Restrictions Breed Creativity, a phrase coined by the Head Designer of Magic The Gathering, Mark Rosewater, and why it is important to you in your Dnd game.

Restrictions Breed Creativity

For those of you who don’t know, I play a lot of Magic the Gathering. I love this game. I eat up content about this game all the time, from podcasts discussing the best decks in the format, to articles that talk about certain characters in the lore, to YouTube videos of competitive tournaments. Recently, I came across a video from the Head Designer of Magic, Mark Rosewater. This video was his presentation at the Game Developers Conference in 2016 titled Twenty Years, Twenty Lessons Learned. In this video, Mark goes into great depth on how to entertain an audience, and how to be creative. If you are fascinated by the design of games, I would highly recommend watching that, even if you understand nothing about Magic.

Image result for magic the gathering

All 20 of his lessons are great to listen to and learn from, but one, in particular, struck me. At the 53:20 point in the video, Mark begins to discuss lesson 18. For those of you who can’t watch the video at the moment, I will include a transcription below:

Every week I write a column. Some weeks are theme weeks when I write to match the theme. Other weeks are open-ended weeks when I can write whatever I want. Of the two, which is harder to write: theme weeks or open-ended weeks?

The answer is open-ended weeks. The theme weeks force my hand and make me explore options I might not otherwise. For instance, my favorite article I’ve ever done was called “To Err Is Human,” and it was the very first of my Topical Blend articles, where I had the audience provide me with a Magic topic and a non-Magic topic, which I then intertwined in the article. For “To Err Is Human,” the Magic topic was my ten biggest design mistakes, and my non-Magic topic was girls. (If you’ve never had the pleasure to read it, click here.) I would have never written that article on my own. Only by forcing myself into a new area did I create something unique.

This leads us to the next question. Which is harder to design, a themed set or an open-ended set? The answer is the same, the open-ended set. Themed sets push me in new directions that I’ve never explored before, whereas open-ended sets tend to lead to similar places, areas I’ve already visited. This leads to our next lesson:

Lesson #18: Restrictions breed creativity

Of all my lessons, this is the one I’m most associated with. In fact, if you’re a longtime reader, you’ve heard me say it many times in this very column. This lesson is tied into a myth about creativity. Many people believe that the more options available, the more creative a person can be. This is a myth because it contradicts what we know about how the brain works. The brain is an amazing organ. It’s very smart. When asked to solve a problem, most brains check their data banks and ask “Have I solved this before?” If the answer is yes, the brain solves the problem the exact same way it solved it last time.

Most of the time, this is efficient. It lets you avoid relearning tasks each time you do them, but it causes a problem with creative thought. You see, if you use the same neural pathways, you get to the same answers, and with creativity, that’s not your goal. So here’s the trick I’ve learned. If you want your brain to get to new places, start from somewhere you’ve never started before. That’s why I make sure to begin each expansion from a new vantage point. This forces me to think in different ways and create new problems to solve, which results in new ideas and new solutions. What this means is that restrictions aren’t an obstacle but rather a valuable tool. You can make use of restrictions to help you be more creative.

Image result for magic the gathering 25 years anniversary

Magic as a game has existed for 25 years at this point in time. Each year they create new worlds that are fascinating and fun to play in. In these 25 years, we have seen worlds that have things such as floating continents, gothic horror, massive cityscapes, and even Indian steampunk. Magic continues to create amazing settings, and the reason behind this is because of the restrictions placed on the creative team. Restrictions help to breed creativity because restrictions give you something to work with. If you are told to create a world from scratch, it is incredibly difficult, but if you are told to create a world with Dinosaurs and Pirates, you are already off to the drawing board. Restrictions are important for creative people because it forces you to come up with something that you may have not thought of otherwise.

How Restrictions Can Help You DM

This concept can apply to far more than just Magic. Part of being a Dungeon Master requires some element of creativity to it. If it didn’t, all people would need to play Dnd is a good robot. Applying restrictions to a game that advertises itself as one of the most open-ended games ever seems counter-intuitive, but restrictions will allow you to do so many more things than a blank slate ever could.

Image result for sandbox dnd

Take a sandbox setting for example. For many DM’s and players, this is an ideal campaign setting. The freedom to do anything whenever you want. However, a common problem this kind of campaign can suffer from is that once the players are actually ready to play, they don’t know what to do. With everything to choose from, they shut down and suffer what’s called Analysis Paralysis. If you restrict their options down to 3-4 different avenues, the players are able to immediately jump into the action and start having fun.

Setting restrictions can also be valuable for you as the Dungeon Master. Many DM’s get caught in the act of creating very similar encounters because it’s what they know how to do. To keep things feeling fresh and unique, limit what you are allowed to do. Make an encounter with only ranged attackers. Create terrain that only monsters with blindsight can see through. Take monsters from a desert setting and explain why they are at this lake. Restrictions are helpful because they force you to do something you would never do. This can help you from building encounters, to designing a world. By setting limitations for yourself, you allow greater expression within those restrictions.


Restrictions breed creativity because it forces you to do something you would never do. This is a valuable tool to have as a DM and will allow you to come up with amazing things even if you feel like you can’t come up with anything. By setting limits for yourself or for your players, you grant yourself the opportunity to design something unique or to allow the players to express themselves through their own choices. Thank you for reading, I hope you have a great week and an amazing Tuesday!

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