Over the weekend I ended up talking to one of the players from my L5R game. The player is new to the kind of story heavy games that our group plays in, and is considering taking their first steps into the big, wide world of GMing. On this topic, they asked me about how I set up my stories for my more story heavy games. Now, unfortunately for this player, this is something I've thought about a good deal - and have even read some books on (i.e. the DXM, Robin's Laws of Good GMing, Play Dirty), so I kind of talked his ear off about it for a bit. Today, I want to talk about it a bit more concisely here in the hopes of it being a help to other potential fledging GMs.
If I had to design my story structure for when I GM, I would have to say it looks like a pentagon with the point at the base of it. Essentially, it starts at the narrowest point, quickly expands to the widest point (the middle) and then slowly, and slightly, narrows to the myriad of potential endings. Now, in actuality, the players will only be able to reach one ending. As a matter of fact, the players will only be able to follow one path - however much it zigs and zags in the process - but the pentagon still gives a good example for how I plan the general shape at the beginning.
How it works in execution is equally simple. The players can go wherever they want inside the shape, but they can not leave the shape. As they get closer to the lines, the world encourages them to go a different direction more and more. When they aren't near a wall, or are moving away from a wall, then there isn't much immediate sense that walls are even present.
An example of how this might work is presented rather nicely in Tracy Hickman's DXM. It goes basically like this. Your players ask where they might be able to go, and you detail what is going on and mention a war to the west. They go west, and do the same thing. You again detail where things might go, and detail that that war to the west is going badly with monsters coming closer. They keep going west. Now they're running into refugees that are fleeing the monsters. They go even further west. Mysteriously, there is a war that the 'good guys' are losing and, well, things may get a little nasty for them. Hey, not like they weren't warned they were running straight into a war zone.
Now, the shape also shows the pacing of the story more or less as well. At the beginning the PCs have very little control over where they go, what options are present, and what is going on. As they move along with the plot, things open up more and more for them, until when they find out the main crux of the story they have the most options for how they proceed with things. As they go along from there, options narrow - but not that much - and really, there are about as many possible endings as there are things they can do at that key part where the story actually opens up for them.
This is the middle ground path of the three types of ways story can be told games can go, according to the DXM. For the other two, I'd recommend you buy and read the book. Though, I'm sure I'll be talking more about this sort of thing in the future too.
Now, my next question is, how do you set up your stories?