Last month I wrote that a DM should erase any preconception of an ending or a resolution in building up a narrative. Some gentle readers might be asking why that should be the case, or even how can that be the case, since part of building a narrative should include some kind of point or purpose for it being there. How can you produce an adventure for a party if the goal of the adventure is not inherent in the narrative?
What I'm proposing is that the DM will do better overall if the goalposts are simply removed from the campaign. 'Goals' imply that one will cross a clearly defined and static line, spike the ball and shout victory. Life - despite what marketing managers might insist - is not like that. We strive for things we want, and we obtain those things sometimes, but the process does not end at a defined victory line. The process of life just goes forward.
Imagine, if you will, the incorporation of an NPC into your game, who informs the players of a potential MacGuffin which the players might like to obtain. In traditional RPGs, the circumstances around how this MacGuffin is obtained are rigorously determined; the existence of the NPC, and of other NPCs, depends wholly and completely upon the pre-ordained plan in the DMs mind. The party will do this, and then the party will do that, and then the NPCs will mess with the party just so, and the party will circumvent that messing, and the MacGuffin will be obtained. Thence, proceed with the adventure.
I am proposing that, instead, you imagine the NPC as a living, functioning being in the campaign. Rather than having ordained the purpose of his existence, you as DM merely propose that he is a being with no special importance or fate. He has knowledge of the MacGuffin. That is all he has. He wishes to obtain the MacGuffin, and he makes a proposition to the party to help him. But he has no better idea of how he fits into the game than the party does.
This is not to suggest that you are 'running' the NPC. Very often, I will deliver the NPC into the party's care, for them to employ, choosing to Veto anything the NPC might be said to do which does not fit into the personality of the NPC. Thus, if I perceive that he is a greedy, mildly sadistic thief, he wouldn't sacrifice himself for others; he wouldn't give up a chance at a nice gem; he wouldn't hesitate to murder someone, and so on. If the party indicated then that he chooses to spare a woman who gave the party information, I might say, "No, he's really not the merciful type," and have the NPC kill the woman. Whereupon the party would have to choose how they dealt with Him.
What I'm proposing is that instead of devising a purpose for your NPCs, making them cogs in your great machine, you devise instead a behavior for your NPCs ... which then makes itself evident as the adventure goes along. To devise a behavior, you must be able to conjecture how a person other than yourself would act in a given situation. It isn't enough to say that such-and-such is kindly, or pious, or selfish ... you have to have, in your mind, a very clear sense of how said person would respond to a wide variety of possible situations - and then in turn have that character respond in that fashion consistently.
This is, I am told, extremely difficult. It may be that I've had plenty of experience with creating characters for stories, or with taking on the traits of other persons when performing in theatre. I think it is more likely that I have a clear understanding of why I do things, and that I can imagine why another person might do different things for different reasons that make perfect sense to that person.
For example, I'm not a jock. I have played sports, and enjoyed them, but I don't identify with the ideals of sport and I'm not motivated to breaking my body for the purpose of winning or for personal glory in that manner. But I can understand how someone else might feel satisfied with success, and how they might be willing to take punishment and give commitment to ideals of that kind, and feel that a life spent that way was worthy and important. It's quite easy to imagine how a person like that might respond to loss, or personal attacks or success ... at least, enough to be able to predict the actions of an NPC with those characteristics, when confronted by something the party might do.
The quest, then, becomes less about the goal and more about the difficulties in communication between the players themselves, the players and the NPCs, and the reactions that both have towards obstacles that come up. If your NPC doesn't have to fit a shoehorned concept of what he is meant to do when Obstacle A arrives, you can simply sit back, observe how the party deals with Obstacle A all on their own, and employ the NPC as you think the NPC would react given the party's choices. And if the party can't figure a way to get past the obstacle, YOU as DM don't have to solve the problem for them. You are not contractually obligated to give the MacGuffin to the party. The party tries, the party meets some interesting people along the way, the party gets some experience fighting a few baddies, and when they run up against the thing they can't conquer, they shrug, they move on, and they think for the next three years of game time about how they could have done it.
Failure is a tremendous motivator.
Your role as a DM is to employ your worldly residents and your worldly circumstances in the here and now, and forget about the future. If you respond to the actions of NPCs as beings with no more conception of how the future will go than the players themselves have, then you have available many more options than you're giving yourself by having everything happen in cut and dried fashion.
When you ARE devising a campaign, with MacGuffins and obstacles, you want to think of what those things are, where they are, how they work, how they came into existence and who might be connected to them. But you should not be pre-planning the manner in which they are obtained, or who is meant to obtain them, or why they ought to be obtained ... and definitely not how they must be obtained before the next MacGuffin's existence is revealed to the party in order to make your world work.
All of that preplanning is exactly what we mean when we say you're laying the roadbed for the ties upon which you will spike down the tracks for the train that will run to the station you think ought to be the destination.
Let the party lay the tracks. Be satisfied with having the ground exist.