One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced recently is planning a massive campaign in a persistent world that already has certain... expectations. Depending on your approach, there’s several ways to work through some of the problems, but to be honest, most of it’s like writing a novel.
Possibly a fan fiction novel but still, a novel nonetheless.
The reason I related it to fan fiction is because in most cases, even when writing your own setting, you’re going to be letting people play in a world that you’ve at least set up some parameters for. So, you’ve created the world, and defined the rules, and others (or yourself) then create campaigns of variable lengths within that world.
And, much like fan fiction, you’ve got NPCs who are probably big players in the world. Your characters might have to interact with them, or they might not. As a GM, using an NPC that’s got clout can often feel like a huge plot stick, so it’s something that can be used sparingly, or the players will feel like bit parts in a bigger story, and not in a good way.
And then there's the plot stick. Or in this case, a path with the occasional "jump up and smack you in the face" rake. I was once told by a very wise GM that even if you've got the map, the best GMs let their players explore and tend not to hit people with the plot stick – but sometimes catch them a shot with a clue-by-four. Even if this means that your story is entirely ignored and they go off and do something else - that's OK! In fact, that's the sign of a good campaign. And yes, it means you're thinking on your toes and it’s one of them most exhilarating thing you'll ever do. Just like novel writing - you gotta give in and let the characters or the story shine through.
And like layering the stories, when you get down to it, the best systems are designed around two core ideas - the characters run the story and the story isn't bogged down by minutiae and dice rolling every thirty seconds.
Having structure to the game isn't a bad thing - in fact quite the opposite, but instead of using it as a ring fence and keeping your players in strictures - they should be the jumping off point for everything that they want to do and every area that they feel the story should go.
On top of that though, there should be tools to make the storytelling easy - giving GMs the freedom to take players on jaunts and campaigns, to create worlds to explore, save or trash - with a skeleton to ladle the flesh of the story onto that gives people what they need.
D Kai Wilson-Viola is marrying that "very wise GM".