You need direction at the table. If you’re reading this I’ll assume you aren’t trying to flesh out your Imperial Assault or Descent games just for that little extra bit of story. I mention this because the standard villain of the week approach is boring. It’s boring on TV and it’s boring on the table. A campaign has structure. A campaign needs structure, even if it’s loose, otherwise you and the players will spin your wheels after a while and people will drift away.
I’ve given up on TV shows because of stagnation, most particularly Angel, BattleStar, DS9, the wannabe Sherlock with the British guy, and the dude from Dead Poets Society. The shows are revving their creative engines without engaging and doing the same thing they did last episode. Once they finally get into gear something happens and it becomes interesting again, but the desert of impetus for the characters makes it so all that’s keeping things going is ‘fun’. Fun is fickle. What’s great for two people to listen to can be dreadfully boring for another. As soon as the third person is out they’re really out.
There are two points in a campaign that matter from a plot and inertia point of view. The beginning and the end, why are the characters doing something now and what sort of end will it entail. Having the two points firmly in mind allows for variations and the stretching of the line between, but it also allows you to start seeing how the characters actions reflect in the world. The start gives the push to have adventure, and the end gives some meaning to the characters machinations.
While you are only one of several people at the table, you still need to have a direction for the players to go. This is an inciting incident and a climactic occurrence that needs to happen and these are the characters involved for a variety of reasons. This imparts some initial action momentum that you work with the players to keep going, and it also gives a direction allowing the players to know which way they are headed. While every so often you can have an insightful retrograde session, you can’t keep tacking back and forth between directions of momentum before it’s all lost.
The living breathing world is the normal shingle we hang on a campaign that’s going places. When the players can do something more than increase the coin in their impossibly huge money pouch and put more equipment into their massive bag of iWin, seeing that their actions are rewarded helps give the players a reason to do the weird and wacky things that the GM wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. In the immediate present it allows for you to do something different today when the setup is near the same as last week, but in the long term it is creating a downward slope for the party’s’ momentum to increase as they reach the end point of the campaign.
I know I’ve talked about endings in the past and I can’t emphasize enough that there needs to be an end. The end should be there around the same time that you start planning the campaign. It doesn’t have to be huge or detailed, but it needs to be there. When creating my latest campaign the whole end was “there is a hidden shipyard the party needs to destroy.” That the campaign was going to be in a GM created sector was immaterial, that the end is in sight was and still is the core shaping force for the campaign.
The idea was discussed on a recent potelbat. When doing campaigns, you can give a very large amount of choice to players, but keep things within a certain amount of bounds. Having an end is a very concrete boundary that allows you to shape NPC responses. This end allows any sort of new development needed to have a relationship to the others going on around them because it can all be in related by answering the question: “Why?”
For a campaign of the variety I’m talking about, it is all about answering the question “Why”. All forward motion in the campaign can be related back to why the big thing is happening, or why this big thing just happened. You can play around with hints for where you want things to go, and see how the players deal with them. Do the players follow the hints as far as they can before the object of their interest disappears into a secret door? Are they keeping track of who they keep talking to? Have they been plagued by bounty hunters?
Giving a push and a direction for your campaign lets you relax a little about how hard you have to work to create the next adventure. Being able to take the last sessions events and doing a slight thought experiment of “what did that mean?” can bring a direction and shove for the start of the next session. Each of these shoves can help move things forward and create a nice bit of tension for the players.