It's time to talk adventure design, Barking Alien style.
As I mentioned in the first post on this subject, this is the part that stymies me every time. Putting it into words on a page...er...screen, is really difficult for me for some reason.
Essentially, my campaign preparation is very, heavily frontloaded.
In this case, I am defining frontloaded as, "Arranged or planned so that a large portion of the necessary work occurs at the very beginning of an endeavor, or early in a process."
As described in my earlier posts on the subject, I design a large number of NPCs, alien species and/or monsters, locations, vehicles, starships, equipment, magic items, and anything else I might need well before the first session.
With all the places the Player Characters could possibly go noted, the NPCs in those areas jotted down along with their motivations and goals, the creatures and treasures in those regions identified, I pick a starting point, and say:
"OK, boys and girls, where are we going today? What do you want to do?"
The PC group is then free to travel wherever they wish, pursue whatever course of action they like, and become involved with the goings on of the world, or not. The only parameters are:
#1. They have to be able to get where they want to go, or hire/convince someone to take them there.
Example: If you want to go from Tatooine to Bespin in a Star Wars campaign, and you don't have a starship, you better charter one, or you aren't going anywhere pal.
#2. My Storybox campaigns are living, breathing places. If you go to Point A instead of Point B, don't be surprised if Point B isn't the same when you get back as it was when you left.
Example: Rumor has it Doctor Doom is up to something, but the PCs don't know exactly what. Right now however, it looks like there is trouble in Hong Kong, as Fin Fang Foom is tearing up the place.
If the PCs go to defend Hong Kong, Doctor Doom continues with his plans. I, as GM, don't have Doom wait for the PCs to come investigate him. Doom waits for no one.
#3. They have to understand that there are consequences, both positive and negative, for any choice they make.
There are places that are not wise to visit, but that doesn't mean you can't go there. There are people, and things, you should not antagonize, but feel free to do so. Just make sure you are prepared for the coming hurt.
As noted in another post back in 2013, I keep lists of 'general' NPCs around for when PCs go somewhere, and need to randomly stop someone on the street, or in a tavern to talk to them.
Important NPCs are written down, focusing more on their dispositions, plans, relationships to the PCs, and/or other NPCs, and their long term goals. When a player has their PC interact with these NPCs, be they allies or enemies, I have a good idea how the NPC will respond.
It is exceptionally rare that the actions of the PCs through me off in any way in regards to their dealings with NPCs as a result.
I have the planets worked out within one or two jumps from wherever the PCs were last. It doesn't matter where they go, as I have a dozen planets with three to five possible adventure seeds on each world. As they travel further from their starting point I work on a few new worlds at a time, keeping things vague, and then creating more details as needed.
The players can not go off the map. The map is largely than they can see. If they walk to the end of the image of the forest surrounding the dungeon, fine. I know what's in the woods. I know what lies beyond it. I got it covered.
At this point, it sounds like I still haven't explained how I come up with the actual adventure/scenario design part of the gaming process. But I have. You see, that is all I do. I design a setting, place people in it, those people are doing things (good things, bad things - a little of both), they live in places, and the PCs can go to these places, meet these people, or explore the setting and do things of their own.
For any given action a PC takes, I have an average of 5 pre-considered outcomes based on who is involved, and how they think, and feel. Those pre-considered ideas serve as building blocks for further possible actions if the PC in question does something I hadn't considered, but which still works with the established canon, and continuity the campaign has developed.
So in my current Traveller campaign for instance, a former Solomani Admiral turned politician is planning to get himself elected to a higher office. Once in office, he plans a coup to secede his Sector from the rest of the Galactic Imperium. In addition to a secret army he has been developing for years, and years, he has alien allies willing to back him up.
If the PCs interact with the politician, his allies, their henchmen, or any element of his plot, I am ready. If they go on the offensive (which they do periodically), they will see just how far their enemy's support network stretches. If they decide to lay low on a distant world for a while, I know the various worlds, what they are like, their dangers, their benefits, etc.
In a way, I don't write adventures at all. The PCs' actions write the adventure.
I still don't know if I've adequately explained what I do, but that's the best I can do to explain it for now. I may/hope to revisit this subject at a later time. As with all my posts, please leave your comments, questions, and opinions.
Note that for games that are less sandbox-y, I usually take a slightly more traditional approach. I can create a specific, more linear story, and NPCs whose purposes are to do very specific things, in a very specific place.
Even then however, I prefer to rule out there being 'one correct course of action', or 'one right answer'. NPCs will still act, and react based on their personalities, agendas, etc.
I mentioned to a friend whom I ran Star Trek for recently, that although I had a scenario in mind, I thought of five different ways to introduce it, five ways to respond to it, and it (the scenario) to the group, and at least five ways out of the relevant conundrum.
He said, "That sounds exhausting."
It is. Or it would be, if I didn't love it, and didn't have insomnia.