Creative Problem Solving Types in D&D

Basadur Problem Solving Types

I'll be the first to admit that a lot of the frameworks, methodologies, and concepts that come out of the business world are shallow nonsense. Anytime I hear the word "synergy", I can't help but hear in my head SYNERGY. That being said, I'd like to share one that I believe provides a useful model for identifying and thinking about how different folks approach the creative process. Below, I've gone through and applied that to RPGs for both GMs/Designers and for players. As always, questions and comments are most welcome.

Brief Overview of the Basadur Applied Creativity Framework

The Basadur Applied Creativity Framework was developed by Dr. Min Basadur and details both an eight-step creative problem solving process and four problem-solving preference types. We're going to be talking about the problem-solving types today, but if you find this interesting, I urge you to check out the website to learn more. One of the great things about this framework, and one that makes it especially relevant to RPGs, is that it focuses on group problem solving, where many "how to be creative" approaches look only at individual creativity. 

The Framework for the Profiles

First off, a caveat: these profiles are not "personality types", none of them is better than the others, and no one is confined to only one. Everyone can and does use each of the four types, but almost everybody has a strong preference for one type and finds that piece of problem-solving/creativity easier than others.

This model is built on two axes: Generate-Evaluate and Action-Knowledge. "Generate" refers to folks' preference for coming up with ideas - think "brainstorming". "Evaluate" refers to looking at ideas and judging them against criteria - think looking at the long list of things brainstormed and picking the good ones. "Action" describes a preference for doing something like writing, manipulating, experimenting, moving to learn about the challenge, where "Knowledge" refers to a preference for research, abstract thinking, and analysis. Put the two together and folks fall into one of the quadrants pictured above and described below.

Applying the Profiles to RPGs

One benefit this approach has compared to some "player types" stuff is that it's empirically backed. Another is that it profitably suggests how the types can work together to make something better together. Zak and others have already pointed out how great RPGs can be for allowing multiple levels of engagement, but this framework goes in a slightly different direction by talking not about engagement per-se, but rather what pieces of problems are rather to make certain folks sit up and take notice. Each of the profiles is listed with what they find easy/enjoyable, along with some stuff that they might find challenging. I'll note again that you can train yourself to get over these challenges.

As a note, my analysis here assumes a fairly OSR-ish "challenge-based" approach to play, where actual problem-solving will be a big part of the game. For games with a more narrative/emotional bent, your mileage may vary. 

Also, I've included some names and links to folks who I think might lean towards these styles, but this may vary for the same person when they're a player versus a GM, and they are based on nothing but my own reading blogs, play reports, and occasional shared online sessions. Pure speculation on my part. Note especially that any of the challenges given for the profiles aren't being imputed to the examples I name.

Generators are the people who looked at 1d100 tables and asked "why not 1d1000?" Having a preference for Action and Generation (surprise), these folks like to come up with any and every possible idea related to the matter at hand. Or maybe not related. Their problem is not coming up with stuff, it's stopping.

As a GM/Designer/Blogger: Astounding new material, often with a lot of variation. Stuff where you ask yourself "how did they come up with that?" Perhaps some trouble following through with getting those astounding ideas into a finished form because they found something else new and awesome that they had to get out of their head.

As a Player: A million schemes. "Oh wait, but we could also. . ." Delights in the openness and possibility of a whole imaginary world where they could try something. Deeply torn between going to Voivoidja, Yoon-Suin, or the Swordfish Isles. Once they get there, will have an endless font of ways to engage with the place. Might have some trouble settling on just one, and might respond to attempts by the rest of the group to settle on something and get on with it with "oh, wait, but what about [something totally new to consider]."

Some Folks I Suspect Might Lean This Way: Tom Fitzgerald, Ben L., Scrap Princess

Preferring to generate ideas through analytical thought and abstract thinking, conceptualizers tend to enjoy taking one hazily defined thought and then dig into it and find every nook and cranny of that idea. "What if the dungeon really did have a functioning ecology?" "What would a society look like where everyone was psychic?" These folks often have whiteboards or other ways to easily visualize/mind-map stuff always at hand.

As a GM/Designer/Blogger: Deeply interesting stuff that starts from a fairly simple premise. Finding the bizarro logic that underlies something seemingly gonzo. Picking something they know they like and figuring out what makes it tick. Scenarios that present lots of open-ended challenge just from taking the implications of something seriously.

As a Player: Once a scheme/course of action has been picked, figuring out all of the angles, every contingency that might work. Thinking about all the ways we might break into the castle to get to the archpriest. Asking the GM about the logic that must be behind the detail they were given. May have some tendency toward completionism, wanting to see every room, find every secret, learn every nuance. Might have some trouble looking at the effectiveness of potential plans.

Some Folks I Suspect Might Lean This Way: Zak S. (with strong Generator leanings?), Patrick Stuart (as a Blogger/Designer), Arnold Kemp, David McGrogan

Here we move over from the "generator" types to the "evaluator" types. Optimizers find it much easier to look at an existing set of ideas/thoughts/evidence and group them, rank them, or cut them. Editors rather than writers. Like conceptualizers, they prefer to work with research and abstract thinking, but instead of figuring out every nuance of a certain concept, they want to find the best way to do it.

As a GM/Designer/Blogger: Likely a lot of thoughtful, nuanced discussion on mechanics, as those are easy to test and tweak and make "better." Might take published content and carefully curate/hack it to fit into their conceptually-consistent world. Possibly write insightful and detailed reviews, with lots of material on how it could have been better. Might find it challenging to come up with mind-blowingly original stuff from scratch. Might get lost trying to make something perfect before putting it into their game/getting it published.

As a Player: Will lovingly plan the heist. When the Generator says we could kidnap the archpriest, rip off the brewers' guild, sail to the new world, or become famous artists, and the Conceptualizer finds 10 different ways into the archpriest's castle, the Optimizer looks at them and goes "let's do this one. And here's how. We know the guards are on this schedule, the lighting is like this. . ." Will come up with and share the best tactics against certain foes with the party. Will find the most lucrative ways to spend treasure. Might tend toward min/maxing. Might get frustrated with non-"optimal" decisions by fellow adventurers.

Some Folks I Suspect Might Lean This Way: Jason Alexander, Brendan S, Myself, Gus L(?), Anne Hunter (but maybe more conceptualizer?)

Finally, we have the people that wonder why can't we just get the damn thing done. Implementers prefer to evaluate by way of more tangible action - try it, see what happens, adjust, try it again. Doers. Often the driving force that keeps the other three types from getting lost in their particular preference.

As a GM/Designer/Blogger: Shut up and let's play! Might make heavy use of published modules or settings. Might not worry too much about the aesthetic perfection or coherency of their world and more about but does it affect play? Will build tools ruthlessly whittled down to what is needed at the table. More likely to create interesting content based on giving the players buttons to push than to flesh out the fictional world in great detail. Might find it challenging to make a rich, vivid setting. Might not give some players the chance to plan and scheme deeply that they're looking for.

(There might not be that many Implementer bloggers, as blogging is inherently kind of navel-gazey).

As a Player: "Fuck this, I stab the guy." "I pull the lever." "Great, yeah, what was the last thing you said? The tomb? Yeah, let's go rob that, it'll be awesome." This style of play can sometimes get a bad rap, but it makes the game happen. In a world of buttons to push, levers to pull, and structures to topple, the Implementer player will make the chaos that gives all the other types interesting situations to think about and chew on. Likely less concerned with succeeding the best way as with getting to the challenge so we can beat it. Might cause some heartburn to other problem-solving types by mucking up their assumptions. Might bite off more than they or the party can chew.

Some Folks I Suspect Might Lean This Way: Patrick Young, Patrick Stuart (as a player), Dunkey Halton(?), Jeff Rients (?)

Putting It All Together

The beauty of this framework is that to most effectively solve problems, you need to do all of the things that the different types find easy/enjoyable. Some folks find it easier to switch between one mode and another, but if you have a group where different people excel at different parts of the problem-solving process, and they know about it,  you can start consciously taking advantage of it: "Right then, Alice [Generator] will come up with ten possible schemes, Bob [Conceptualizer] will then flesh out the details on what we all think the top 3 are, Carolyn [Optimizer] will take the one we pick out of those and streamline it, and Daryl [Implementer] will kick our asses into gear with getting it done." There's more to the problem-solving method Applied Creativity teaches, but I can write about that another time if anybody's interested.