Five “Off Label” Tools for Game Masters

I’m always looking for ideas, concepts and techniques from domains outside of games or storytelling that I can steal.

I call this “off label use.” Pharmacists call certain applications of drugs “off label” to describe the use of a drug for a condition without the approval from the relevant government agency. Prazosin is a drug used for hypertension. It is also used “off label” for nightmares. The FDA has approved Prazosin for hypertension but it has not approved it for nightmares.

Here are five tools I use when I’m working on gaming material that are “off label.”

Cognitive Distortions from Cognitive Behavior Therapy.

One of the exercises used in Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is for the patient to write down unhelpful thoughts, identify the type of distorted thinking category the thought falls into, and then reframe the thought in a helpful way.

In many stories, the protagonist believes something that is incorrect or doesn’t match reality. Until the character changes their belief and acts in coherence with this new belief, their life is a mess.

In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge has a whole set of “should” beliefs. He believes that people “should” behave in a certain way and is dismissive of anyone who doesn’t think and behave according to his ideals. This has cost him many relationships.

If you are struggling to find an internal conflict for a character, look through this list of cognitive distortions.

Put “cognitive distortions graphic” into your search engine of choice. You’ll come up with bunch of different images you can download and print out. I keep one of these on the wall next to my writing desk.

Bonus Tip: If you use Twitter, you can see all of these cognitive distortions on display to get a feel for exactly how they play out in reality.


Enneagram is a typology of personality. Practitioners of Enneagram claim that it is a “scientific” method of classifying and understanding a personality. It looks more like pseudoscience to me. No matter. We’re using it as a tool to create interesting characters.

The Enneagram breaks people into nine types. Each of these categories have characteristics that include Basic Fear, Basic Desire, Holy Idea, Vices and Virtues.

Using the types and their characteristics, you can imagine how a character who fits into a particular type might react to a certain situation. Tying into the cognitive distortion above, you can use the aspects of a particular type to create interesting characters in your stories or role-playing games.


I’m not the first person to recommend this, but it bears mentioning.

History is full of crazy events. Fiction writers have frequently observed that if they had manufactured some of the events that happened in history that their readers would throw up their arms about the impossibility of the plotline. George R.R. Martin stole a bunch of ideas for A Song of Fire and Ice from actual events of The War of the Roses and the conquests of Genghis Khan.

The Black Dinner of 1440

You can grab actual events, amplify them with magic, technology or Cthulu and they will seem novel to players.

Consider a single important event and start asking “What if?”

What if the printing press was used to disseminate powerful magical grimoires instead of The Bible?

What if aliens really did visit ancient Egypt?

What if an emperor really was the descendant of a god?

Discarded Scientific Theories

Humans are always trying to figure out how things work. The better we understand how our world works, the better we can manipulate our environment. Some ideas that humans have had about the world seem quaint and ridiculous today. Some of those ideas can be very useful for gaming and storytelling.

One of my favorite examples is the theory of spontaneous generation. The theory was that living creatures could arise out of non-living matter. Aristotle wrote about this at some length in The Generation of Animals.

I use this concept for the formation of monsters in my Swords and Wizardry campaigns.

There are no orc babies. Orcs are born from swine that consume humanoid corpses.

There are no goblin babies. Goblins emerge from middens and trash heaps.

Drama and Screenwriting Techniques

I came across a YouTube channel a few years ago called Film Courage. They interview people from across the movie business but most of the interviews are with screenwriters.

Working screenwriters tend to be very oriented toward craft and technique. They are doing a job that has processes and techniques. The greater your command over the craft, the better your work.

I’ve adapted (stolen) a number of ideas I picked up from Film Courage in my home campaigns and for this blog. The essays about dilemma, character backstory, superficial heros and non-player characters are have been directly influenced by studying screenwriting technique. Here’s an example.

Final Thoughts

One of the most powerful recommendations I have for game masters is to steal ideas from everywhere. Your players will think you are some sort of creative geniud.

The reality of creative genius is that creative geniuses are extremely rare or perhaps non-existent. Creativity is often the combination of two or more things that someone else already created. The “genius” merely recognized how the two things fit together.

Role-playing games emerged from a combination of war-gaming and storytelling. Dave Arneson didn’t invent those things, he mashed them together.

“Off label” use of things other people have already created is a powerful tool in your game master’s kit.

3 thoughts on “Five “Off Label” Tools for Game Masters

  1. Ben

    Hi Travis
    I like the idea to use the theory of spontaneous generation to create monster, but if their no goblie babies, how they appear in your game(I mean age or developmental stage)?
    And many thier are no babies, but if we clear the trash, does it likely killing goblie babies anyway?


    1. Hi Ben, Thanks for reading.

      Goblins form overnight randomly. They are not life, like a kitten or a human. They emerge fully formed from the muck.

      The sages say that a spark of Chaos combines with the unquiet soul of an evil man who died and did not find the afterlife. When that black soul finds some formerly living matter, it draws the material together. The power of Chaos imbues the form with a mockery of life that is the goblin.


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