Creating the Unknown from the Known

I have enjoyed my brief forays into playing RPGs by myself, but I continue to struggle with keeping at least some things a surprise. I want to go through a game on my own with the same sense of wonder that I have when I play with my Thursday night crew. I know it’s impossible for now (I’m looking at you, IBM Watson!), but I think we can do some things to mitigate the situation.

Don’t Finish the Story Mentally

One thing I really have a problem with is that I tend to let my mind wander when I get in a new game situation. Rather than immediately playing or acting in the game, I begin to mentally engage in the story instead. Playing the story out in my mind is fun too, but once I’m ready to actually commit to actions, I find that I’ve already basically pre-determined the plot outcomes. I’m tainted from that point on. The story is biased towards those outcomes. So what’s a guy to do?

I think there are two things that can help with this situation. The first is to pick adventure ideas that are less epic and more mundane. If I choose a huge sprawling epic of taking down a god who has been turned into a barely mortal dragon, then I’m imagining the end right from the beginning. Instead, if I pick adventures that seem to be one-shots such as stopping an undead infestation in a small village or finding a lost child who has gone missing in the sewers, I might eventually see how all of these little stories are really symptoms of a bigger narrative. Without the end in mind ahead of time, my thoughts don’t wander to places I’m not ready for them to go yet.

The second thing I need to do is learn to not have analysis paralysis. I over analyze every situation whether in real life or in my games. The nice thing about solo play for RPGs is that you can write out the story in narrative form as a stream of consciousness flowing from one thought to the next. Since you’re the only reading the narrative (at least at first if you’re sharing on a blog or something), that can keep you in the moment and prevent you from thinking too far ahead and ruining the story for yourself.

Think of It as a Movie

Movies and TV do a good job of ramping up the tension and excitement by giving the audience lots more information than the characters have. I have found, particularly in my Red Markets solo run, that treating my PC as a character in a movie really helped so that the anticipation for me as a player was seeing how my character would handle the situations.

For example, in one leg of my job I came across this old lady by a fire who tried to poison me. I knew about the poison, but obviously my PC did not. The fun was in how my PC would find out about the poison. I’m not really a rogue-like game player, so I knew I wanted my character to eventually notice the poison and make it out alive, but the tension for me kept building as my character didn’t notice the poison the first roll or two. I kept thinking, “How am I going to get out of this?” It was fun!

Don’t Solo Play Alone

What? Isn’t that the point? Yes, but you don’t normally watch movies that you filmed, do you? You don’t write your favorite TV shows either, correct?

What I’m saying is that I think all the solo gamers out there should start writing solo games for each other. There are great interactive storytelling platforms out there like Twine, but I think we could even go old school like a Choose Your Own Adventure book of old but with less restrictions on choices. If you don’t have to come up with the story yourself while keeping the story presented in a such a way that it unfolds naturally, maybe we can make solo gaming a community effort.

I’ve had some success with looking other people’s 5-Room Dungeons and running them without reading the whole thing ahead of time. Now imagine doing that where the next room in the 5-Room Dungeon set-up had been randomized through branching tables? In a book format, all that flipping is annoying and breaks the flow of the game, but a little bit of JavaScript magic should allow us to do that. In fact, I think that may be my next project to build a tool so that users can submit stories in the 5-Room Dungeon format but with branching choices for each successive room.

I’ll get to work and let you know how it goes!