There are two instant ways to overcome this...
- You can detail every part of the world. This is the method used by many high profile games in the 80s and 90s (D&D, Rifts, Shadowrun, Cyberpunk, MERP, GURPS, World of Darkness), inundating players and GMs with so much information that everything could be found written up somewhere... of course this had the down side that players might know more about the world than GMs, or people would find their games grinding to a standstill while information was cross referenced from three different books out of a pile of sourcebooks sitting two-feet high.
- The second method seen more commonly in recent years can be seen in games that have unshackled themselves from this idea entirely. Instead of preloading the story, everything begins minimally and details are only added to the setting and the characters as they are needed.
I tend to play somewhere between these extremes.
I like a setting or a story structure to have enough bone that I can know roughly where things are likely to end up, what aspects could be used as firesgadowing tools, or how elements can react to the actions of characters. But I like to make sure I can add details on the fly as reactions to the choices made by characters. The bones are there, maybe some musculature and hard tissue, but the soft tissue and skin is added on as we go. The final Frankenstein's monster may be made by committee, but we know it's going to animate because the framework is there and the spare parts are ready to go.
One of my favourite ways to get a character started in their story is to ask four questions about their life at the point when their story begins. As an analogue to engineering circles, this is effectively a SWOT analysis of the character.
- Strengths - What is the character good at? These are the one or two features that the character tends to use most often to solve their problems... often because they are good at these types of task, but maybe because they just like doing this sort of thing.
- Weaknesses - What does the character avoid? These are the one or two features that impede the character for some reason... they may be inherent disadvantages due to a character's biology, lack of training/skill, or social circumstances, or might be situations the character avoids for psychological reasons.
- Opportunities - What is the character trying to achieve? This is an indication of what opportunities the character is looking for, and what they might be hoping to gain from those opportunities. If Strengths and Weakness are a static measure of where the character currently is, then opportunities provide a directional vector to the character's story by indicating where they wish to go.
- Threats - What is stopping the character achieving their goals? If there was nothing in the character's way, there wouldn't be a particularly interesting story, there would be no real reason why that character hadn't already achieved their goals. Threats set the path of the story between where they begin, and where they hope to end.
(Note: this isn't a completely accurate reflection of a formal SWOT analysis, it has definitely been twisted to reflect storytelling priorities)
In short form games, I like every character to have a single narrative arc defined by a single answer to these questions. If characters need to work together, I'll try to work a way where one character's weakness is offset by the other character's strength, have two characters working toward or utilising the same opportunities, or have them share a common threat. If characters need to oppose one another, then I'll make the opportunity of one character mesh with the threat of another. The rest of the story hangs on those structural elements... we have no idea where we'll end up, but the mechanisms are in place and we know it's going to go somewhere.
In longer form games, I prefer characters to have two narrative arcs. The first long objective is the final goal of the character, it is designed to last over the course of many sessions and is the characters overall agenda. The second short objective is only intended to last a session or two, it is the immediate goal of the character and probably functions as a single step on the character's grander journey. The short objectives are regularly completed and rechosen, the long objective may remain the same or it may gradually evolve as those short objectives reveal more about the character or about the world.
Here's where I'm feeding these ideas into the spirit game, and The Law. I want the characters to have a SWOT analysis to define their narrative agendas, at the moment I think it works better than an alignment because it's more nuanced and more personalised. In the spirit game a characters basic strengths and weaknesses will be defined by their spiritual origins (and current position in the celestial status quo), in The Law these will be defined by their starting caste/culture (and their sub-department in the agency...but more about that later). Opportunities and threats are where the story arcs come into play. That's the bit I'm in deep thought about at the moment.
Warhammer Fantasy has it's career system, where each job has a few expected obligations, and some potential rewards that might be offered while you stay in that role. This covers the strengths and opportunities... I guess there are threats also associated with different jobs, but these are more implied rather than explicit in most cases. That's the kind of path I'm thinking of going with The Law as an optional character development system, where characters can choose to take on specific roles in the agency, in exchange for the opportunity to gain exclusive benefits. For the spirit game, I don't think this is a good fit. I'll just stick to the story fragments.
(As a side note: Benjamin Davis had a great idea about how to resolve my issue of ascending difficulties for a spirit's stories...where each story's resolution requires more buy-in from the other members of the table. From d4 to d6 is an automatic increase, from d6 to d8 requires a singld person on the table to agree that the effort deserves it's reward, from d8 to d10 requires a majority of the table to agree, and from d10 to d12 requires unanimous consensus. I think I got that right, and I really like this... but it would only really work with four or more players. I'm not sure how we'd handle it with less. It definitely something I'd like to incorporate at some level, even if only as an optional rule.
For the moment I'm thinking of ascending difficulties for story quests. The lowest quest level (d4 to d6) might only require one success on the threshold task, then the resolution of the story may be faced with another single success needed. The next level (d6 to d8) has it's two threshold tasks, each requiring two successes before the final resolution is confronted, itself requiring two successes. Etc... up to the last level (d12 to godhood ascension) where there are five threshold tasks each requiring five successes, before a final task requiring five successes determines whether the character transcends ths game. I might double the required number of successes on the resolution tasks, because at higher levels these need to be truly epic in scope.)