As a DM, I have but two jobs: run the world, and create drama.
Which is more all-encompassing that it first appears. Running the world includes everything that happens to the PCs, and adjudicating the results of the PC’s actions in my world. Managing the presentation of those things is how I create drama. It sounds simple, and really it is. Easy, on the other hand, well…
Realism and choice are the touchstones of my mission as a DM. The biggest things I do to promote those are 1) provide a world that is believable, comprehensible, and predictable; and 2) not handing out quests.
To explain: I have decided to set my world on what is essentially Earth, circa 1550. Granted, there are some differences (existence of magic, other humanoid races, etc.), but for the most part it is the earth that my player are already familiar with. That way I don’t have to go to great lengths to describe huge tracts of land and development to provide a world with depth, politics, history, and geography. It’s all right there for me on Google Earth and Wikipedia. I don’t have to invent a large metropolis and compare it to something the players are already aware of, I just set them down in London. Or Paris, or Madrid, or Munich, or Bangkok. Work’s done for me. That takes care of the comprehensible and believable part. For predictable, any actions or reactions that you could expect to happen here in real life will happen in my world. Punch a guy in the face, he’ll either punch back, fall down and give you his wallet, or pull a hammer off of his belt and clobber you. Most of the time. Invest in a shipping venture, and you’ve got something like a 70% chance to make a modest profit, a 25% chance to lose your shirt, and a 5% chance to make enough money to build a castle and take over Spain. I don’t feel like pulling everything out of my butt on a whim, it’s not fair to my players to have arbitrary results to studied actions.
I hate railroads. Nothing happens “because I said so,” “because it’s what the story requires” or any of that bull. Even if it comes down to “I don’t want you to succeed in this so you won’t.” If a plan is logically sound and there are no active background plots that have accounted for such a plan, it will probably succeed. Perhaps with unintended consequences, but if my PCs set something in action, results will occur, and not arbitrarily. Logically.
As for not handing out quests, that doesn’t mean there aren’t quests. I just don’t hand them out. Handing down quests from on high is the start of the railroad. There are video games if you want a selection of quests handed to you. I leave the agenda setting up to my players. I start them with no directions, no timetables, no prophetic dreams, no pressure of any kind. I give them the environment, and let them give me the quests. For example, in the campaign I just started, during the character generation process my players decided they wanted to travel to Oslo to visit relatives. Which is great. I have no idea what’s in Oslo yet, because they have to get there first. Which will involve finding passage on a ship to go there. On the way to find said ship they might find an abandoned corpse, be attacked by bandits, encounter ghosts (all depending on what road they take), and they can do with that encounter what they will. I don’t care. I don’t plan the future, it’s not my job. I run the present and invent the past. The future is up to the PCs, the dice, and the dictates of reason.
But how does all of this create drama? In the presentation. That’s the tricky part. The kind of game that brings players back to the table week after week is a game that they are invested in. They need to care about their characters, they need to care about NPCs, they need to care. Care and affection are a result of emotional ties. Emotional ties are built through drama.
Which is all fine theory. Now for some comprehensible examples. Let’s say you have a brother. Fine. Lots of people have brothers. Suppose you care about this brother because he protected you from bullies and such while you were growing up. Now say that you’ve asked him to go to the big city to watch over some business venture or other for you. Great, we’re happy for him, he’s helping us, wonderful. Then let us suppose that we get a letter one day from our solicitor saying our brother has three days to pay off a large debt or he will be thrown into debtor’s prison and probably starve to death. Uh-oh. Now emotions are starting to be manipulated. We care about our brother, and he’s in trouble due in part to us. Better go make this right. Then, about an hour before sundown on our way to town, as we are riding hard to make it to the city gate before nightfall and save our brother, we spy a column of smoke on the horizon, nearly in our path. Riding closer we discover that a building is on fire. A tall building, at least three stories. A crowd of people are gathered around it, pointing up at the top level and shouting. Closer still, and through the smoke billowing out of the second floor we see a window with several faces in it, people trapped above the conflagration. A choice! A moral dilemma! Do we stop and try to save the people from certain fiery death and sacrifice our brother to prison for a night, or possibly more if we perish ourselves in the fire? Ride on and surely save our brother but leave the innocent people to die?
Drama. Sure, sent your brother to London to take care of things for you. But your bro’s got a low wisdom score and gets himself in trouble. It happens. It’s a race against time. You’re on your way. Then I introduce a moral dilemma that is also time critical and drama happens. As the DM, I don’t care what you do one way or another. Heck, for all I care, you could decide to abandon both groups to their fates and ride off into the woods to hunt goblins. Like I said, the future is up to the PCs and the dice. I run the present and invent the past.
For me, this is DMing. Run the world. Insert drama. Let the PCs and the dice decide the future.