Well, I’m going to share one of the great secrets of awesome campaign design, and indeed any interactive story. Don’t say I never did anything for you.
The essential point to keep in mind when designing a campaign is that you’re not writing a novel. You don’t have complete control over the characters, the events, or even the plot–you only have control over the setting. The challenge lies in creating a story with all the things good stories have–interesting characters, engaging plot, and a dramatic story arc that suspends disbelief and keeps a disparate audience enraptured. This task might seem impossible given the lack of control you have over the elements of the story, but at least you have one great tool in your arsenal: the micro-story.
The term “micro-story” refers to the way that tiny, minuscule interactions with a game can form their own stories. In a single encounter, tensions rise as the monster takes more and more damage, while the players have to struggle harder and harder to defeat it, until (if things go well) in one spectacular finish, the beast is destroyed, and the micro-story resolves as the heroes count up their treasure.
Better yet, in a D20 system the micro-stories go even deeper. The reason so many people find the 20 system so satisfying is because of the micro-stories inherent to the game. Every time you roll a die, you participate in an extremely brief dramatic tale: with a specific goal in mind, you roll the die across the table. The tension rises as it slows, stops, and a number appears…a flurry of checking modifiers follows, and the story resolves in either triumphant success or dismal failure!
As a gamemaster, you can harness this power of good gaming if you wish. Sure, great campaigns can consist of strict storylines and linear dramatic arcs–but that’s a lot less fun for the players. The truly fun campaigns aren’t simply “sandbox-style” either, where the players are essentially involved in a massive board game. The best kinds of campaigns have plenty of leeway for the players yet feel satisfying no matter what choices they make or how they shape the story. No matter what happens, it should feel right, as well-crafted as the best novel, yet still full of possibility for the players.
The only way to make this freedom into a cohesive story is through micro-stories. They make the campaign satisfying. You need to think in micro-stories: design adventures around the idea, as well as encounters and even small things like skill checks. You can make climbing a mountain memorable if you think of it as a story arc–an easy climb check followed by a hard one, followed by a dramatic rise all the way to a combat with vrocks on a swinging rope bridge (an encounter that itself possesses dramatic tension as the vrocks increase one by one).
Perhaps you never expected the players to go up that mountain. Heck, maybe it was a random decision by one of the players who’s ignoring a major plot-directed adventure in a completely different direction. That doesn’t matter. Maybe you have to slip in a clue or hook somewhere on this mountain that sends the party back in the direction of the main storyline; that’s fine and necessary. It’s going to feel organic to the main story, it’s going to feel right–all because this mountain adventure felt like a story in itself.
An interactive story, whose main characters can make independent decisions, only feels right when the story happens in every direction. Your story arc can be as twisted as a corkscrew, but with the right application of micro-stories it will seem, looking back, that there was only one way the story could have happened.