This is as much one method I use to keep from railroading players for others to use as it is an invitation for you to share your favorite methods with me and others. Finding the balance between planning an adventure and letting the players influence or change the outcome is a difficult task for any GM. While there are many ways to do it, here’s one I’ve used that works well.
Have a specific goal but get there in broad strokes.
Specific goal: world domination.
Broad strokes: willing to achieve world domination through:
– Military might/occupying power sustained through violence or the threat of violence.
– Gaining contacts and pull to influence key world leaders to what they wants while convincing them it is in their own best interest. They could also use mind control to make key leaders enact their plan.
– Introducing or creating a new challenger (aliens, extradimensional monsters, super powered individuals, etc.) to overthrow existing powers while influencing or ruling the force that overthrew the world.
– Manufacture a grassroots revolution and manipulate it to make sure the villain lands on top at the end.
Using those examples, your villain probably won’t solely focus on one. They probably have two, three, or four agendas going that could eventually work together to achieve their goal. They may have leverage over world leaders from the legitimate threat of an elite group of super powered individuals that answer to them. As one plot excels, they can let the others fall off and stop putting time and resources into them.
As the game progresses I start to get a guideline for the specific type of game the players want to play. Do they want a game with politics involved? Lots of fighting? An emphasis on solving problems multiple ways? Are there personal journey’s or a group journey happening? These things change from group to group, and often from game to game within the same group. Learning how players and characters act together can narrow the means which the villain will try to complete their task.
If you want to play it a bit looser, you can also use this approach to keep the players in suspense on who the real villain is. With a cast of NPCs, you could give each of them the secret resources and reasons to be the villain. As the story progresses, the NPC that is the best fit for the game can come out as the antagonist based on how to make a better game for the group.
Let me be clear, this is NOT a way to have your players guess the villain and then always pick the one they don’t suspect. This shouldn’t be a gotcha moment. This is a way of remaining fluid and letting the players influence the story.
For example: I ran an Eberron game where three of the main antagonists were a brainstealer dragon, a mindflayer, and a kobold tribe. Based on how the game went, what the players favored, and the player’s interest in each of the three, I could deliver the base story I had ready while allowing whoever became the main antagonist to give the players the best story and most wanted experience possible.
Alternatively, you could always know which one would become the antagonist but shuffle their resources around behind the screen to make it more fluid and fun for the game.
This is one of the tools I sometimes use to keep from railroading the players into a specific path, and I do mean one. There are a lot of different ways to accommodate players for each game.
My hope is that this will open discussion in the comments and on Reddit with people sharing their own tips and tricks when it comes to having a cohesive story without railroading the players. I know there are a lot of great ideas. So share if you can. I’d love to hear your ideas.