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The Idea Factory

"Pick a Card, Any Card"

Carl Cravens
October 27, 2000

Welcome back! I'm having fun writing these articles, but I don't know if you're finding them useful. If you've had a positive experience using the techniques I've presented in these columns, please share them in the forum. I'd love to hear how you're using these ideas.

This month, I'm going to revisit the theme from the first installment of The Idea Factory, but with a major twist. Instead of a dictionary, I want you to grab a handful of art cards. You don't know art cards? Don't turn away yet! They're like baseball cards, except they have fantasy and science fiction art on them. They're available from a wide variety of artists and some older collections can be had fairly cheap. (I'll tell you where to find some at the end of the article.) They're kind of like Magic cards without any text on them... and you can use your Magic cards for this just as easily. I like art cards better because the picture covers the whole card, making it much larger. (And besides, I sold my entire Magic collection years ago and used the money to make a down payment on my house.)

So get yourself a handful of art cards, or Magic cards in a pinch, and the more the better. Doesn't matter what's on them. Fantasy, science fiction, classic paintings from the Vatican, they all work well. (Really, there's an "Art Treasures of the Vatican Library" set.) The subject matter isn't as important as the symbolism and thoughts the images create. But stay away from stuff like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and X-Men cards. They carry too much pre-defined meaning and not enough symbolism. Art cards are usually book cover paintings and those artists are big into symbolism.

Because of copyright concerns, I can't show you the cards I'm using for my examples, so I'll have to describe them. It lessens the impact, but you'll get the idea. (By the way, I normally do not "cheat" to produce good examples. I struggle through them just like you have to in your own brainstorming sessions. But I had a lot of trouble describing some of the more complex images in a way that was easy to picture them, so I've had to pick simple images that are easy to understand in the textual medium.)

This technique works well for fleshing out characters, so let's start with an example using that knight we came up with in the first column. He's a religious person, rough-and-tumble, and at odds with his lord's fop of a son. We want to give him some more personality and flesh out his background. (His name's Conrad, by the way.)

So draw a card or two and let's go. (I'm using Everway Vision Cards from the expansion set if you've got them and would like to follow along. I'll list the card numbers as we go.)

Sometimes you'll be able to use the elements of the images directly for inspiration. An image of a primitive man with a spear sitting on a wooly mammoth trodding across a snow-covered slope (#45) might inspire you to create a barbarian character. Or even to create an ice age setting and run a game in it. But most of the time, you're going to have to look for symbolism. Otherwise you aren't going to be able to find much inspiration for a medieval knight in a picture of a starship battle.

Symbolism, as I said in the first installment of this column, is seeing love represented in a rose. So here we pull out a card with an image of huge, man-like beast with fangs and red eyes, struggling in the coils of a giant snake (#48). None of the elements of this image seem like they apply to Conrad, our knight-of-example. He's not a man-beast and he's not a snake. But let's pause a moment and consider what's going on in the image. Here's a man-beast locked in a struggle with a snake. The snake often represents evil or temptation. Does the man-beast represent Conrad? Conrad's not a beast, he's quite the gentleman, really. But every man has a bit of the beast in him, and maybe Conrad's inner beast struggles with some temptation. What temptation could Conrad be struggling with? There doesn't seem to be anything else in this card to indicate that, so let's draw another.

This next card is an image of a young, dark-haired woman in profile (#80), standing in a mist so that you see nothing but her, and even her black hair fades into the mist. Her eyes are closed and she looks solemn, maybe even sad. There's something white and swirly in her hair... it actually looks like daubs of paint to me.

So this this is Conrad's struggle, a woman and his love for her. A love which he has no room for in his life, having dedicated it to serving his lord and country. It may be that he struggles with his dedication to service as it conflicts with his desire for love.

Who is the woman? I'll answer them both with a leap of intuition that isn't answered by the image; the woman is the baroness, his lord's wife. And that white thing in her hair? It's kind of like looking at clouds, and if you look at it just right, you see the face of a man. I'm seeing this stuff as not in her hair, as first thought, but representing her mind... and what she has on her mind is Conrad. Conrad is trapped into being near her by his service to the baron. There's no way for him to remove himself from temptation, and apparently she's attracted to him, with his being in her thoughts.

What is the mist she stands in? What does it hide? Interesting questions, but I can't find anything useful in them right now. While you may have to push yourself to explore new possibilities, don't go overboard in trying to find meaning in everything. If you get one good idea out of an image in a session of brainstorming, you've done well. If you've gotten two or three, consider yourself fortunate and don't push to integrate everything in the image into a coherent story.

I should also note here that once you've used an image, you should throw it back in the pile. Today the rose may be love, tomorrow it may be blood. And you didn't find answers to all the questions you came up with. Reuse your images and look for new interpretations and applications. Every new concept you explore can lead to a different interpretation of an image. Context makes the images infinitely reusable.

Let's switch streams now and say that your player brings Conrad to your game. Here's this character who's got this burning desire eating away at him, but his honor and love for his lord keep him from acting on it. This is powerful stuff for roleplaying if we can some how spur Conrad into action. (Remembering the principle that action, not inaction, makes a story.) We need something to upset the balance between his passion and honor to force him to act. Let's draw another card, shall we?

This is some damned-ugly, orc-like thing (#63). And it's huge, wearing armor and weapons. Would probably make a good gladiator, too. It's sitting in a cave with skulls and bones surrounding it, apparently human bones and not ones of his own pig-snouted race. And this is supposed to give us ideas about how to push Conrad to act on his passion? My first impression is the easy way out. This beast makes me think of kidnapping the baroness, which forces Conrad to rescue her. Maybe at the side of the baron, maybe not, but he acts on her behalf and that puts him even physically closer to her. They'll probably share some traumatic experience, which puts them emotionally closer. And she's already falling for him, so it's going to be tough, especially if they have to spend time alone on their journey back to civilization.

The beast doesn't have to do the kidnapping, of course... it's just a symbol of a captor. It stirs our imagination to think of kidnapping, which we then apply to our game world. We see the beast, think of a captor in the generic sense, then look at our world to find an appropriate captor who would benefit from kidnapping the baroness.

Now here's a challenge. I said that the kidnapping scenario was the easy way out. It's kind of cliched, though it's a very useful cliche when handled properly. But for the sake of the exercise, let's say that kidnapping just doesn't fit. Let's look closer at the image and see if we can't find some other useful symbolism.

The beast is wearing some mighty fine bits of armor. Where'd he get them? They look too big to have been stolen from victims, so they had to be made for someone his size. His necklace has pointy teeth and some symbol on a medallion. What does the symbol mean? What kind of teeth are they? Who made the necklace? Do the earrings the beast wears in its nicked ears mean anything? Flip the card over. What's its title? "The Boar King." Hum. He's a king. Does he represent our king or someone else's? Let's say that he represents our own king. He's a man of large appetites. He likes fine things... and he likes our baroness, too. What if we threw a little more turmoil into Conrad's life by making our king lust after the baroness? Not a heart-consuming love like Conrad's, but a straight-from-the-gonads lust for a beautiful woman that he's not supposed to have. But he's king, and from the bones scattered about him, he seems to deal quite shortly with those who get in his way. So he sends our baron away on some mission, or just has him killed if we're willing to do away with our favorite baron, leaving our baroness alone and vulnerable. Except Conrad's there to defend her honor. Which puts him in close contact with her. What happens from there is up to the characters, as I think we've set up enough conflict for them now.

Let me try to solidify the technique I'm trying to convey here. Using random images, you're trying to find themes and symbols that spark the imagination. You'll sometimes take an image literally, but usually you'll ask, "What does the rose in this image represent?" Is it love? Sorrow? Blood? Does the person holding it remind you of someone or something? Look for symbolism in the elements of this image that you can tie into the creative work you're trying to complete. Notice that I didn't answer every question I raised. Ask lots of questions until you find an answer that sparks your imagination, but don't worry about answering all of them.

One last thing before I tell you where to get some cards. Don't be afraid to use the images literally when it works for you. If you find a card that just flat-out represents a character, place or situation, use it. I've got a card that is a picture of Conrad of the Silver Cup in the ceremonial dress of his knightly order. (And the whole Order of the Silver Cup was born out of the cup held by the knight in the image.) Having a pictures of things adds solidity to your mental images of them.

So where do you get these cards? For regular art cards just hit your local comic and card shops and ask for art cards. Look for the clearance bin or specials on entire display boxes. Buy lots of them. You should enjoy the art you get. Don't buy Frazetta art if you don't like his style. (He's got too much cheesecake and not enough symbolism anyway.) But don't be too picky, either. Even if you don't like some of the cards you get, they can still serve as symbols you can use.

One great source of cards is (as I've hinted) the Everway roleplaying game from Wizards of the Coast. It was Wizards' attempt at merging the collectible card craze with roleplaying, creating a game that had a Tarot-like deck (the "Fortune Deck") and a bunch of art cards ("Vision Cards") that were to be used in much the same way I describe here. They came out with one booster expansion set of art cards before realizing that Everway was a major flop. You can pick up the main box, a forty-dollar game, for under ten dollars and the entire set of expansion art cards for just a few dollars more on eBay. It's a good deal... next month I'll tell you how to use the Fortune Deck in your creative effort, too. Even if you never play Everway itself, the purchase will pay for itself as a creativity tool.

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What do you think?

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