Too Much Backstory

I think I have (finally) figured out why my solo games flame out and die: I am playing with too much backstory in my head. Instead of allowing the game to emerge, I find myself trying to steer it in a certain direction to meet the expectations which I’ve already established in my imagination. This addition of meta-story – of backstory and expectation – kills solo play.

For example, let’s talk about my games with Anima – a prehistoric female shaman’s apprentice whose family were killed in a beastman raid on their settlement. In my head, she has always had a particular moment of destiny which arose from a dream I experienced years ago:

Anima stood outside the barrow. The wind was blowing gently but steadily around her, the trees rustling in the forest that surrounded the small clearing in which the low hump of the barrow formed the central feature. There was little sign of anything special but Anima knew in her heart that this was the place. She knew that she needed to open the entrance way and find the courage to descend into the heart of that place. There awaited her destiny, the reason she had travelled all this way and suffered so many trials. This was the place. As that moment, she heard it for the first time: the voice of the wolf howling. It set her heart aflame. Anima knew what she must do.

At this point, I was on the brink of writing the story of Anima’s entry to the barrow, the discovery she would make, and the moment of destiny she would fulfil. I didn’t really need to play it out using a game. I should just write it as a short story and get it out of my system. It’s the anti-thesis of how I run my social RPGs where I play to discover, to explore the world through the eyes of the characters.

Instead, I need to simply find a place and a situation wherein to go explore the world I am wanting to imagine. I should create some characters – quickly, randomly, and without too much expectation – and put them into the situation. Then I can play to find out what happens, to explore the situation through the eyes of those characters, and see where it leads me.

The problem is coming to the table with a story half-formed in my mind. The solution is to turn up to the table with some dice, some tools, a rules set, and to simply imagine a situation to play with.

Game on!

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