covered the fundamentals, and by a stroke of luck did not mention the central points I wanted to make. Works out perfectly.
My suggestion is about bringing your NPCs to life. I'm calling on you to be an improv actor that really understands how different characters think, feel, and talk. Every NPC shou;d have a motivation. It might be as simple as getting away from dangerous strangers and back to their work. But agendas drive the story, those agendas come from needs and passions. Let the players drive the story with their own choices, and respond in a way that makes sense for the inhabitants of that world and scene. Maybe they want 20% off a rifle, and fail a haggle roll. Suddenly a simple transaction has gone wrong. They could be rudely escorted out, insulted, or even have the authorities called on them. The trick is not to be too heavy handed, arbitrary, or punishing. Get inside the headspace of an annoyed grumpy shopkeeper wary of cheapskates and swindlers. Maybe the merchant next door is easier to deal with but only sells worse quality.
Watch your player's heads spin as they have to decide between what's most effective in-game and what's most pleasant and easy to deal with as players..
As GM animating NPCs you are simply responding to actions the way a normal person would respond in real life. But you don't have to play a normal person all the time, you can play any twisted deviant or amazing hero you want. With more experience you will get better at acting and inventing on the fly.
It's simple cause and effect most of the time, action > reaction. But not all NPCs are standing around passively waiting to be called on. There might be pickpockets, hustlers, wandering merchants, curious wannabes, religious cultists, worried victims, or other people with a reason to talk to armed strangers. More often than not there will be a hint of desperation or deceit with these approaches. In the real world not every person that comes up to talk has good intentions.
Warn them with environmenta; clues before you hurt them. Build suspense, and let the player's own plans and efforts be their (temporary) undoing.
Never tell them no, just give them realistic consequences. It's up to them to learn the lessons.
"I want to hit the jerk shopkeep that wouldn't discount my rifle and called me names. What do I roll? Unarmed?"
GM:"You don't need to roll. You're a trained fighter and your sucker punch catches the merchant off guard. You feel a shock in your wrist as you connect with the man's chin. He stumbles backwards from the force of the blow, and falls over the counter. For a second he is out of sight, then a piercingly loud alarm sounds. Anyone without ear protection is at -2 to actions this round. You hear shouted voices and energy weapons charging up from the next room. Roll initiative."
At this point an undisciplined player, hearing the roll for initiative, believes they are in a combat and might start blasting. At that point your OP shop guards can put them on the ground with a non-lethal but humiliating set of moves, rolled for and not fudged in any way. But if instead ther action is to say, "Wait, hold up!" or "we surrender!" then combat does not take place.
Say a character is put down and the player protests. Now you can say, "you assaulted an arms merchant in his store. What were you expecting to happen?" but also take it as a sign to ease up the tension on the party and go a little easy on them for the next scene.
Maybe you don't have the city's legal syetm mapped out, or the life story of the sucker-punched merchant. No problem! Make it up as you go along within reason. But whatever you come up with, commit to it. Write it down. 'The penalty for assaulting a gentleman in the city of ClusterFook is ten lashes with a knotted rope. The arms merchant GIddyup Ridealong has a grudge against the character Madeupname for hitting him. He has three shop guards in exo-armor and armed with shock carbines and knives. The biggest one has a wounded foot, -2 to move and -1 to agility until Date ___".
Months of real time might pass before the party has a reason to visit the shop again. But you will have your notes and the important details are recorded as canon. Little by little these notes will help build the world. Combine your ad hoc invented details with basics like where food and water comes from, and what impact that survival economy might have on culture.
Also adjust to the mood of the party and whatever other plans you had. If you were really excited about running some dungeon, or the players are getting overly frustrated or disinterested, change the scene. Something happens. It's better if you can use the environment and characters already present, and more fair as a storyteller, but players don't show up to be bored. Use any trick you need to. An NPC enters from stage left. A monster attacks, or aircraft. A mysterious loud sound is heard from an adjacent building. Cries for help echo through the streets. If you're really desperate, a portal opens up.
If you used an emergency plot device you will need to work backwards at some point. Let's say a mysterious woman intervened in the shop to rescue the party from arrest, but is secretly a spy sent to manipulate the party. She expects a favor in return. That's more interesting and believable than a random customer just becoming an ally for no reason. There is a cost to the help and maybe some lies being told. Now you have the start of a plot going, all from one punch and some quick pivoting. But the players might reject the woman's help or flee the scene. Don't force their hand! Let them walk away from the plot hooks and maguffins. If you want, the lady was a spy and follows the party covertly. Or, you can decide it doesn't matter, you barely invested any effort in building the character, and she fades into the crowd forever. You can trim off the plot parts you need and move them to another NPC at any time, as long as it will still make sense. Lady says, 'I helped in the store, now you help me.' Party says, 'screw you' and walks off. It's no problem, really, because now you just change it so that someone they actually want to talk to is the new plot hook. Or scrap that story thread and get on with the prepared material. It's okay to change details on the fly as long as the players have no knowledge. Once it's announced, it happened and it's now a fact within your game world. Never retconn if you can avoid it. Just keep the flow going.
It's kind of like Schrodinger's Cat, details are neither true nor false until the observer (the players) take a look. No NPC needs to have a name, goals, or personality until they're spoken to. or spoken about. Consult your internet name generator and that's now their name forever. If you can come up with a unique voice or accent or mannerism and remember it, that will bring the NPC to life and give a reason for the characters to remember them.
However it is nice to have some preparation for what people and places. smell, sound, and look like. Compare: "You walk in and the bar is empty except for one barkeep, what do you want to buy?" versus:
"As you open the heavy oak door, you are blasted with the stench and clamor of over a dozen drunk hairy men. They are wearing scraps of furs poorly sewn together which gives them the appearance of discarded teddy bears. There seems to be some sort of team arm wrestling match in one corner on the left, threatening to turn into violent wrestling at any moment. A drumbeat thumps but is drowned out by the shouting and laughter. You can smell roasted meat and heavy amounts of pepper. A tall pale man behind a wicker countertop, with a long nose like a beak looks up from a scrap of paper he is reading. He is dressed in a long shiny coat that looks like it was taken from the nearby hospital. He slicks back oily grey hair. Behind him is a rack made from antlers and planks containing clay jars. A roaring fireplace and the body heat of dancing and struggling oafs makes the room far warmer than the crisp night air you came from. It's smoky, from the partially clogged fireplace...and several seated pipe smokers who seem to alternate between serene nods and suspicious glares, while tugging on their braided rust-colored beards.
'As you take this all in, a nervous woman also dressed in ragged furs slinks over to you. Her face is red and puffy as if she has been crying or stung by insects. She mutters a few words in a foreign tongue but is cut off by the shrill blast of a hunting horn. You look down and realize she is holding something moving, about the size of a small backpack. Two of the hairy drunk men stomp over towards you and the woman, outrage in their eyes. What do you do?"
Now you don't need to be that detailed with scenes and descriptions. This is laying it on pretty thick honestly, but I wanted to show ways of involving physical senses and contrasting appearances. The ambiguous nature of the encounter does not leave the party with clear and obvious actions. That might be confusing for new players. But the scene has life and tension to it, it's not some forgettable bar with no detail. Still, the players can choose to ignore all this setup and go fook off wherever the hell they please. But if they game is flowing right, they went to that location to fill a need or goal, so they have reason to stick around.
Plots should be driven by player character motivation, every character should have a need or goal you can use to prod them and also support them. Money by itself is a bit dull, but maybe they need money for a cure or a repair or food for their village. It's just gotta be something more personal than "I want to explore deadly confined areas so that I can swing swords better."
The more players invest in their character's motivations within the game world, the more rewarded they will be as you masterfully weave those details into your subplots.
This one is a bit of a stretch. but food for thought. Think of a TV sitcom or drama. They almost always use a variant of repeating a loop of A story >B Story >C Story with a scene change between each one. The better shows make all the subplots relevant or impactful to the main plot. Since you aren't running an editing room but a game, changing the scene does not always mean changing physical location the way shows jump around the world. You can shift through tone, from scary to sweet to funny and so on. Similar to A, B, C plotlines you can rotate between dialogue, deadly action, and problem solving. What gets the most focus depends on what your group enjoys most. A typical game is action oriented but it doesn;t have to be. Combat encounters kind of run themselves once you know the rules well, with obvious decisions for the GM. But you can always use the techniques mentioned so far to spice things up and bring in some personality. Problem-solving like puzzles, complex traps, and mysteries requires more preparation to pull off right.
You can still use gimmicks and cheap tricks though. Put in a mysterious object the players don't have time to investgate all the way. Last scene of the night: "You lift up the hood to reveal a face not-quite human, with bluish veins pulsing beneath the cheeks. Around their neck on a cord of scarlet silk is an amulet made from verdigris corroded bronze. Moving the hood caused it to shift and you could have sworn some sparks shot out of it. You hear more shrill scream coming from not far off and they seem to be getting closer. What do you do?"
Now this amulet could be notihng at all, costume jewlry, or a banned cult symbol, or it could even be the key to an ancient forbidden temple. Whatever you want! The amulet appeared from imagination as if by magic. It can go out the same way, and become irrelevant, or become a central plot maguffin. You have time to plan out the details and come up with backstory for whatever was teased as a sort of low-key cliffhanger. It's kind of funny to think you can get players guessing over some artifact before you actually decide what it does!
This undetermined, modular method of running an imaginary world does require some talent and practice. You don't have to share all information with the players or commit to unresolved possibilities. If it isn't going to be fun or interesting, switch it up! Scrap your plans if needed, this method allows for that. There's tricks involved behind the scenes, but this not lying. This is not poor planning., This is the art of building an interactive story as a team.
Never lie to players, fudge die rolls, or trick them with plot holes and mean-spirited gotchas. But NPCs can lie as much as they want to. If some really awful thing happens, roll with it, it's drama and it's faithful to the system. If this means a beloved character would die, let it happen, but offer a way to bring them back if the player is super attached. If characters know they can actually die and that you won't cheat on their behalf then the suspense raises that much more.
I barely get to run sessions but the last one I did had my player's hearts pounding by the end as if they had been in a real fight. Some of it was pure narrative involving no rolls at all because there were no mechanical consequences. Players: "We rush through and close the door." Me:" Right as you close the door, a crossbow bolt SLAMS into the door right in front of your face." Now did I have to consult a chart to see if this coincidence of timing was possible? No. I just saw an opportunity for a cinematic moment that scared the bejeezus out of both players, already rattled from fighting and escaping.
The PCs were trying to escape jail ( a botched stealth roll was one of the first rolls of the game, followed by poor decisions, lol.). We had a full board from a clip together set, and minis.
Since they weren't able to get out of the jail normally, and I wanted to wrap up with a satisfying conclusion, I gave them another kind of opportunity. After another tense moment crawling under a table of card-playing guards, and into a new area, they eventually encountered an evil spirit, basically a sentient shadow. The ratman bartered an unspecified amount of "life essence" in exchange for teleporting them out of the literal dungeon. The shade was weak, starving, and close to dissapating, but thanks to player choice it is now free to roam the countryside and leech of the PC it made pact with. The characters ended up in a bright blue jungle near a squad of patrolling cavalry that hadn't noticed them, yet as well as signs jungle monsters and sus plants. Was the squad from the cityt they just left? Were they even close? Would they be recognized as escaped prisoners? I was probably going to run them as soldiers that actually didn't care about them unless they did something foolish. Not out of mercy, but simply out of realism. The shade was too weak to send the party far away, so it sent them to a spot it could get to later. Tha meant they were still somewhat near the city. City guards stay in the city, it makes the most sense thaat the soldiers are moving from Point A to Point B under orders, and scruffy humanoids behind trees are not their concern. We will never know for sure their fates. I didn't need to exapand as that's where we stopped. The players were thrilled but exhausted! That was the one and only session due to circumstance. However I felt happy that I had left them with some setups that I could turn into encounters of any sort. And the freed shade, thanks to player choice would need to be reckoned with at some point as the ratman's (and others) lifeforce was taken. If the adventure was a campaign I could have grown the shade over time to be one of the main recurring villains, with a personal connection to their very first outing. But actually I hadn't planned the shade encounter ahead of time as a grand plot or anything at all. I was actually rooting for the PCs to manage to escape conventionally. They didn't, that happened, and so something else had to happen to move things along. I could have gone another way and had a escaping captive troll burst through a walll like Kool Aid man. But having a character bargain away their lifeforce willingly was too spicy to pass up, and that's the bait they took. That kind of thing gives you a lot of levers to pull because it was voluntary, not just some curse that just happened.
The method is to keep layering on reasonable consequences that you can then reference and leverage.
Or, you can even get radical with the storytelling. This is not for everyone. "After your first escape failed, you were beaten mercilessly as an example to the other convicts. A simple charge of resisting arrest and assaulting an officer that could have been worked off in time, has been changed to a lifetime sentence. You tried one more time to escape, but it ended up worse than before. Your days and nights are nothing more than hauling buckets of reeking brown water up a flight of stone stairs. The same stairs, over and over. 10 slaves are doing the work of one broken pump. Long ago you learned that silence was safer and now you're beginning to forget the sound of your own voice. YEARS PASS. Until one day, a visitor arrives from above. Your keen elvish hearing picks up some of the conversation. Something about "preperations are complete" and "ready the blood laboratory." A hazy memory swims up, the last thing you remember before your life of endlessly refilling puddles and sandstone steps, oh the cursed steps... the blood lab... elvish blood.... you were in that lab, but when? And what was it for? So many vials... meanwhile, the crack of a whip snaps you out of your reverie. You remember who who are again, more than a set of legs for dripping pails. But what now? Is it possible to pick the lock of shackles with a pickaxe?
Typical D&D has conditioned most RPG players that they are badasses who are expected to win every encounter the GM sets up for them in advance. That's not how I run my games at all. Realistic consequences when you're not a superhero are SCARY. The fun, exciting kind of scary.
The tradeoff for being flexible with the plot (to maintain high player interest) is that the rules and mechanics need to be reliable fixed point. Too many arbitrary calls or abrupt changes and the game will feel like it's a dream built on sand.
Movies have giant set pieces, but in a game too much dice-rolling and mechanics for a huge battle is not nearly as exciting. Fortunately you can switch to a narrative voice to speed things up. You can make up shortcuts as needed as long as it is slightly favorable to the party. "Ok, each of you can kill 2D6 minions + your strength value over the next minute. For every surviving minion you each take that much damage." or... "Your mighty blows are too much for the horde to withstand. Clearly outmatched despite their numbers, they begin shrieking and fleeing for cover. Three of the creatures are slowed, trying to drag injured comrades to safety. You can easily catch these three and cut them down if you choose. What do you do?"
If this sounds like not your thing or too much to deal with, you can always just run a module by the book until you and the group get more cozy. Feel free to beg, borrow and steal ideas from any fiction or even from this post.
I hope this isn't too overwhelming. These aren't expectations, they are options. Best of luck.