Here's the thing - I like DMing. A lot. Underneath all the theory, work, etc. I just love working with friends and family to build stories.
But since, in my mind, RPGs are a form of interactive storytelling part of my job is build a plot. This means I think about RPGs like they were television series - episodic storytelling.
Now, TV shows with no continuity or overarching mythos can be great (Twilight Zone) and a series with a very limited mythos can also be very, very good (Mission: Impossible) but I want to build something where we have monster-of-the-week episods and long-term plots, too. How do you do this without railroading your players? Let me use some real-world examples from the campaign I am busy discussing, the Blackstone Campaign.
1) Let players do some of the work for you: During player creation S. rolled up a 2e Spells & Magic Fire Elementalist. He sat down with me and explained that he wanted his character to be an amnesiac. In a few minutes we worked out that he had been found washed up on a beach, lashed to a bit of ship decking, with no memory 1 year before the game started. I knew this had to be something saved for years of real time, so I looked at the other elements, below.
2) Have plans for long-term magic items. As I mention in this post, I like to mix in items that can grow with the characters. Try to plan for at least one of these for half the party before the first session.
3) Have a relic or artifact lurking about. Think of a relic or artifact that makes sense for your world (even if you must make it) and integrate it. Into the history, politics, etc. And keep that in your mind for long-term planning.
4) Have a few Big Bads for the characters to face 'someday'. Players like challenges and goals, so give them both in one package - a big villain. Having more than one around keeps the players from feeling railroaded and lets you adjust to the changes they will male.
5) Have NPCs be more than Sir Dwight of Plothook Hall. If all your NPCs are doing is delivering hints, plot hooks, and exposition please reconsider. NPCs should interact with players for reasons unrelated to the story but closely related to the NPC and their relationship with the character(s). Did the party rescue the son of the Dowager Duchess? Maybe they should get a cake on Midwinter Eve. After all, in real life people send gifts, right? Consider having a colorful character the players interact with who never advances the plot, gives a hint, etc. Why?
Because it adds depth and realism. Plus, some of the 'non-plot' NPCs might be critical later. Do it right and, just as in real life, you ignore people at your peril.
Now, how do you combine these things?
Here is an example;
As mentioned above one of the player wanted his character to start with amnesia. Fine, great idea. He picks a name for himself and begins adventuring as a fire elementalist. One the third adventure his character (still first level) discovers a Ring of Fire Resistance in the loot from a band of pirates. He likes it because it is related to his specialty and it is lovely, having a bloodstone in an elaborate setting. At the same time, the slightly dotty old lady who sells vegetables from a booth near the party's townhouse in the capitol talks to them whenever they pass.
Fast forward 1 year in the real world (3 in the campaign) and the now-5th level elementalist is buying a citron from the old lady when she clutches his hand and utters a prophecy about his ring and how it must bathe in the blood of dead fire. She lets go and continues on as if nothing had happened.
Nine months of game time later (6 months real time) the party visits the Empire of the Undying Witch-King to look for an obscure tome in a library. Every now and then someone is obviously startled when they see the elementalist, but they all hurry away. Except for one, who asks why he hasn't bothered to disguise himself, even wearing his family's ring openly. The Witch-King's assassins almost kill him, but the party is just able to slip away. Intrigued but forced to flee across the oceans, they continue.
After another year real time the 10th level fire elementalist kills a Salamander in solo combat then watches as the deal elemental creature spills its blood into a pool. Inspired, he quickly plunges his ring into the ichor, awakening a Ring of Fire Elemental Command. Another 3 months real time later they finally, after a great deal of time and money on research and spies, learn something else. The Ring was the family ring of a clan of Fire Elementalists from the Empire, a family believed wiped out after they rebelled against the Witch-King. The only survivor of the Witch-King's purge was the youngest son, but he was killed when pirates attacked the merchant ship he was fleeing in off the coast. The pirates looted the ship and then scuttled it in the deep ocean. Those pirates were then killed just over a year later by - the party.
This little story obviously isn't over yet, but you get the idea. This one plot line (and it is just one!) has been played out over 3 years real time and has only really been a direct part of play 4 times - yet it has a huge impact on how the character is played, perceived, and the arc of the party. Now, do this for every character and one or two for the party as a whole.... Suddenly no adventure is a one-off, no detail to be ignored, the players are interested in it all. And the great thing for the DM is, he only really needs to drop in an element for someone every few games or so!
Long term planning like this actually saves you time and effort.