Externalize, Simplify, Visualize

Earlier in the week I presented a step-by-step process to solve problems, which could be used to deal with any number of life challenges and problems – including those that arise while preparing and running roleplaying game sessions. The process was culled from a psychological treatment approach titled Problem Solving Therapy (PST), and PST details other skills that can be utilized to diagnose and solve problems. Below, I present three of the skills and demonstrate how they can be used to become a more effective Dungeon Master – and truly a more effective person as the skills can be applied to any aspect of one’s life.

Externalize – Just Get it Out of Your Head

Wizard Externalization
Externalization can be MAGICAL!

The process of externalization is extremely useful when attempting to solve a problem. At any given moment in time, there are a cacophony of thoughts and emotions echoing around inside our brain. It is very easy to get lost in the noise and never take action to process or resolve any single thought or emotion. One method to assist with this is to externalize – to write it down or say it out loud so there is a tangible visual or audio manifestation of the thought or emotion. Examples of this include writing a journal or talking to a friend. The problem-solving method I presented earlier in the week relied heavily on externalization because the person is encouraged to write the problem and possible solutions.

The process of taking the thoughts buzzing through our brain and committing them to paper/computer screen is powerful; at the very least, it organizes our thinking on any given subject. My blog, The Id DM, is a three-year example of externalization. Each time I participated in a gaming session, I experienced new things that left me with more questions about various rules, player dynamics, and how best to function as a DM. Preparing the articles for the blog forced me to organize my thoughts and reactions to a specific topic because I wanted to ensure those articles were coherent to readers. I became a better DM by merely writing those articles over the years; it clarified my thoughts, highlighted areas of weakness I needed to address, and boosted my confidence when I noted I was improving.

Players of D&D are already using externalization during every gaming session. The Character Sheet is a wonderful example of externalizing content; rather than memorize all those scores, skills and items for a character, the player has the information readily available on an organized sheet of paper. Consider the problem of buying groceries at a grocery store; one enters a large boxy store containing tens of thousands of products, and the individual must select a fraction of those products to bring home. A common method to solve this problem is to create a grocery list – before even stepping foot into a grocery store, the items one desires are listed on a sheet of paper or typed into a smartphone. The consumer is able to ignore the tens of thousands of items except for the select few items he wants to buy. Character Sheets are basically grocery lists for the players to organize their gaming experience!

It benefits DMs to externalize as well; there is too much to manage otherwise. Writing down initiative, listing potential NPCs, using random tables to determine outcomes, relying on campaign setting manuals, drawing maps, logging monster damage on a scrap piece of paper – all of these actions are examples of externalization. It is an exciting time for D&D because players and DMs will soon be able to use DungeonScape, an official companion application to assist with the externalization process. I previously used MasterPlan to externalize while running 4th Edition games; the software allowed me to organize plot points, manage combat encounters and skills challenges, and write down notes for each gaming session. When preparing for a game – or running a game – externalize to help ease the process.

Simplify – Break It Down

Barbarians are really good at keeping things simple.

A patient once asked me a question, “How do you eat an elephant?” He grinned and answered his own question, “One bite at a time.” The process of breaking down a problem into smaller and smaller pieces is extremely helpful when solving problems. It is easy to get wrapped in knots by large problems or long-term goals. The problem can seem overwhelming because it is just so damn big to resolve all at once. The solution is to move away from solving “the big problem” all at once and slicing that problem into smaller pieces, and then slice those pieces into even smaller pieces. Break down the problem into the smallest and simplest pieces you can imagine using clear and concrete language, and it will ease the process of finding a suitable solution.

The management of a roleplaying game campaign is a complex task that could be summarized by the following big problem, “How am I going to run a campaign successfully?” Many people may remain stuck at that level of problem solving. A more effective approach would be to simplify the tasks needed to run a campaign successfully. For example, write a list (externalize!) of the various elements that need to come together for a single session to run smoothly:

  • Players – How will I find players?
  • Environment – Where can we play the game?
  • Materials – Do I have everything I need to play the game?
  • Rules – Do I understand the rules well enough to run the game?
  • Time – When can I find the time to play the game?
  • Format – What aspects of roleplaying games do my players and I find most enjoyable?

Already, the focus has been shifted from “running a campaign” to managing a single session. At this point it time, it causes needless suffering to worry about how the campaign will play out over the course of the coming months or years. Instead, focus on the present and the next session. Now that running a campaign has been sliced into smaller pieces, the problem solving skills described earlier in the week can be applied to each element of the problem.

For example, a DM may be concerned that he does not know the rules well enough – especially if he happens to be running a campaign for veteran gamers. To simplify the rules’ element of the process the DM could:

  • Dedicate small chunks of time to read through the rules leading up to the next session.
  • Learn about common rule questions that arise when playing the gaming system by speaking with other DMs
  • Keep a readily available list of these common rule questions and their answers for easy access during the session
  • Communicate with the players before the session about any rules that appear unclear to clarify rulings ahead of time
  • Plan out encounters for the next session with rules that are familiar
  • Designate one of the players to be the official rules’ lawyer for the next session

By breaking down the large problem of running a successful campaign into smaller pieces, it allows the DM to focus her attention on specific questions and potential solutions.

Visualize – Imagine Success

Once a problem has been externalized and simplified, a useful final step is to visualize a successful outcome. Any problem will take action to solve, yet it is quite worthwhile to imagine a world in which the problem is solved. The visualization can take varies forms; one method is to rehearse the solution before implementing it. Staying with the example above, the DM could spend a few moments to visualize communicating with his players about rules before the next session. He could visualize sending out a group email before the next session or getting online for a group Skype call, or meeting up for dinner before the next session to discuss common rule issues in the gaming system, or imagine which player is best suited to take on the role of rules’ lawyer from the session. By visualizing how the solution will play out, it helps to further understand the problem and possible solutions.

Another form of visualization that can be useful is to imagine a world beyond the problem. This skips the above step of imagining how various solutions might be successful. Instead, visualization in this way is used to imagine what it would be like to have the problem solved. Visualizing the experience of what it would be like after the problem is solved can be a motivating force for taking action. The key piece in this visualization process is to not worry about how the problem will be solved, but to think about what it would be like to have the problem solved. Returning to the DM worrying about the problems of running a gaming session, useful questions for a visualization exercise would include:

  • What would I be thinking if I notice my players thoroughly enjoying a session I’m running?
  • What emotions would I feel after running a successful game?
  • What would it be like to hear players thank me for running the session?
  • What would it be like to have players urging me to run sessions more often because they enjoyed the experience so much?
  • How would running a successful session change my thoughts and emotions compared to before the problem was solved?

Again, the person does not need to visualize how the problem is solved – but what it would be like after the problem is solved. The guided visualization exercise below provides an example of this technique; zip ahead to the 4:50 mark of the video if you want to skip the introduction:

The first benefit of these visualization techniques is that it can enhance one’s motivation when attempting to solve a problem, and it is especially useful when one is feeling stuck in the problem-solving process. A second benefit is these techniques increases our level of relaxation. Whenever we slow down our breathing, which is a typical component of these visualization exercises, it triggers our entire nervous system to slow down. And when our nervous system is relaxed, it is easier to think clearly, be creative, and generate solutions for problems. I encourage all DMs to practice this exercise before their next session; slow down, take some deep breaths, and visualize how the next session is going to be an amazing experience with moments that will be retold for years to come!


The three skills – externalize, simplify, visualize – presented above can increase one’s ability to effectively solve problems. These techniques can be used by DMs to efficiently prepare for gaming sessions and run them more effectively. Like any new skill, it takes patience and practice to master. Experiment with externalization prior to your next gaming session. Spend some time to simplify areas of your game during preparation. Spend at least five minutes a few days each week visualizing a successful session – and bask in the warm glow of the positive feelings of a job well done.







Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

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