So, you've got your rule book handy, you've got your players, and you know what game you want to play. The question is, and you might not have even thought to ask yourself this, are you looking to run a Campaign or are you looking to run a Story? The question is a little misleading since, at least to me, Campaign actually has two definitions when it comes to table top RPGs. The first one is basically any prolonged game of a tabletop RPG, basically the term used for the collection of all the sessions in one game, is called a campaign. The other though, is a type of game, a term that tells you the focus of what the game is going to be about. Something you need to know ahead of time which you want to do, because it changes how you prepare for the game and the setting.
So, lets start right off with defining what, to me, a Campaign entails. A campaign is a game without a strongly set over-arching meta plot. Sure you can have stories, you can have stories leading into stories, you can even have stories contained in over-arcing plots, but they are not the main focus of the game. The focus of the game is the world and the people in it, the focus is the PCs and how they interact with the world.
Campaigns can go for very long times, there is no set ending, there is just a series of adventures and different stories in people's life. Maybe some will die, maybe some will retire, if you run for long enough it is entirely possible that some will grow old, marry, have kids, and the player will be playing the descendant before very long. A campaign is, to me, the very definition of '100% Character Focused' because very little else aside from the PCs matters in the long run of things, unless the PCs make them matter. That town where they all come from? Only important if they stay there or ever go back. That queen they saved from the dragon? Only important if one of them (or all of them) hang around, go back to visit, or try to marry her daughter/son/her/whatever.
As I said above, a Campaign is not the lack of a story, it is a shift in focus. A campaign's story is not "The plot to fight back against the Evil Sorceror Alejandro and save the world" it is "The story of these 4-6 adventurers who may or may not have realized they saved the world one tuesday when they took down the Evil Sorceror Alejandro". Do you see the difference?
A story game on the other hand is the opposite. The game can still be character focused, but from the very start (or close to it) the game is working towards some end or another. There is a distinct Beginning, Middle, and End that are in sight to the GM as the game goes on. The characters are being swept up in events, and the story is less focused entirely on them. Instead, they play the main characters, the protagonists, in a story with conflict, stakes, and all sorts of other common things you see in a story.
In a story the PCs are slightly less powerful because the events of the plot guide them. They may still have (and should have) freedom to move around and make decisions, but the plot is there making little bumper rails that guide them back down the path things need to go. The GM has more say over something's importance by its relevance to the plot. That home village, and that queen may become important even if the PCs don't otherwise care too much about them because of the movement of plot items.
Basically, a Story game is the opposite of the little blurb above, "The story of how 4-6 heroes saved the world from the Evil Sorceror Alejandro" and not the other option above.
In my experience, different GMs like different things. I personally tend to run Stories a whole lot. I'm not sure why, but I do. I like having the defined end, I like having the trail that leads to somewhere. Being able to plot, and scheme, and make things happen around the players. I'm not sure why, but that is what I like to do.
Of late though I've felt the desire to run a campaign. The possibility of a longer running game, focusing on the PCs and their interactions with a world. Let it run long, perhaps move time forward so that by the end of the game (when-ever it got called quits) the players are playing their descendants or something else. I may try my hand at it after one of my current games end.
How about you? Which do you prefer? Which do you normally run? Do you have any strange desires to change your standard operating procedure to give the other one a whirl?
final note: I apologize for any typos, the keyboard this was written on is having a variety of issues with hard and sticky keys. I hopefully caught most/all of them as they were made.