The world may be your oyster, but you don’t run the show. Your role as GM is to provide a structured sandbox in which your players, and you, can collaboratively tell the story. This can be daunting for first time GMs. Many GMs never understand this principle. What this means is that if you are doing your job right as a GM, your story will be guided by the players and their characters. You will have to improvise whole scenes, including characters, towns, even planets. Do not fear, you can do it!
Even the best GMs (often the best GMs) improvise at least a few encounters every session. You cannot predict everything your players will do. If you could, it would be boring. When your players do something ‘off-script’ the first thing to remember is, as the guide says in friendly, comforting letters, Don’t Panic. Maintain your composure, and run through the encounter as if you had the whole thing planned from the start.
Here’s where the magic happens. First, you should know some basics for your world such as goods available, what you can expect from the average people, religions, holidays, guards/police officers basic armaments, and skills, etc. Second, whatever type of encounter it is, give the main non-player character (NPC) they are dealing with at least one outstanding ability, usually related to what they are talking about (e.g. the crafty rogue informant is good at bluffing, and negotiating), but not necessarily related (e.g. the random barkeep is a war veteran, and can handle a sword, and shield much better than your average commoner). Third, name the NPC, and write the name down on a notebook page, or computer file specifically dedicated to your improvised NPCs. You should include a note on the NPCs location, profession, and any relevant information. Do it quickly. Do not agonize over the name of a random NPC that they will probably never see again. You could decide just to call all random NPCs by a nickname like [COLOR + ANIMAL] as a quick naming convention. This adds a level of mystery to your random NPCs that may intrigue your players enough to come back to the same NPC for more. Another option is to have a few common names written out before the game begins that you can choose from. If the characters want to go back to visit the NPC again, come up with some back story in between sessions. Fourth, improvise! It’s a roleplaying game, so give the random NPC a sprinkle of personality - hard-nosed, flirty, pious, etc. - and then jump into the role. I usually like to throw in a few hints at the main plotline in my random encounters in order to get them back on track. I do this with the NPC’s perspective on the events that led to the quest in the first place, dropped cryptic notes, interruptions by other encounters, or whatever else fits the situation.
Now you can handle anything ‘off-script’ that the players do. But what about getting them to do your carefully crafted quest? First, most players will want to do the quest that you have set up for them. After all, they came to play in the game for some reason. If you’ve spoken with your players ahead of time, and taken their desires for the story and type of game they want to play into consideration (more on this in another post), then it’s safe to assume that they actually want to be there. Second, know what motivates your players. Some people just want to hack and slash, and the bloodier the descriptions, the better. Some people want a deeply immersive story with few dice rolls and little combat. Usually your players will be somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. It pays to know what your players are there for before the game begins so that you can tailor your story to them. Third, know what motivates the characters. If your players can roleplay worth their salt, they should be able to differentiate between what they want and what their character wants. If the character wants money, have rumors about town of a hidden treasure stash. If the character wants to save innocents, have a monster, or group of monsters threaten a town. If they have a family that they want to provide for and protect, have monsters kidnap the family.
Here’s the trick: combine all of the motivations of all of the characters to motivate the group as a whole. In the above examples rumors fly about town of a hidden treasure. On further investigation it is hidden in the crypt of a town a few days’ travel away. One of the group member’s relative lives in that town. When they arrive the relative has been kidnapped by a cult, along with several other townsfolk, and taken into the crypt. Now, all three party members have a reason to go to the crypt, even though they have different motivations. Often, as long as the majority of the characters have a reason for going along with your plans the other characters will go along out of friendship. Beware that sometimes this can feel a bit heavy-handed. Subtle motivating factors, like finding magic item components, arcane knowledge, or discovering who hired the assassin that tried to kill someone in the group last session are better than having a family member kidnapped each game session, and they make the players feel like their characters are making choices that affect the flow and story of the game.
Characters and players motivations will change over time. As a GM, it is important to take time and talk with your players about their thoughts and feelings about the game,and how things are going. I like to take about 15 minutes before each session begins to go over that kind of thing. Some GMs do it after the session, some in between. Find something that works for you and your players and run with it, but do not neglect it. The time you spend speaking with your players about this will save you planning time, and create a more fulfilling experience for the whole group.
Let your players and their characters guide the story through your world. If you do this it will be more fulfilling for them, and you. Previously shy roleplayers will come out of their shells when they see your world as an opportunity to explore a role that never would be possible in the real world. More experienced players will appreciate the opportunity to tell their own stories, rather than be railroaded by the constraints of specific plot events. Your world is the oyster. How will you serve it?