Me: "The mass of shambling undead have been largely dispersed, and the townspeople have taken refuge in the buildings which Morrie didn't set on fire."
Morrie: "I said I was sorry!"
Me: Jashel has managed to fell the strange creature which appeared to lead the attacking force.
Jashel: "I loot the body."
Me: Aside from the greatsword which it used to attack you, there's nothing here but bones, meat, and a white tabard depicting two hands holding an eye between them. Jashel, do you have the Knowledge(Religion) skill?"
Me: "Then roll a wisdom check, please."
*A twenty sided die clatters across the table*
Jashel: With my wisdom modifier, that's 12.
Me: "That's enough for Jashel to recognize this symbol as similar to one which you've encountered in the past. The Cult of Vecna uses the same hand-and-eye motif. However, they only use one hand while this uses two. You also notice that one of the hands is distinctly smaller than the other."
The skills which a game master must cultivate are many. At the table they must be quick improvisors, skillful arbitrators, cunning liars, and more descriptive than an erotic novelist; among other things. But it is when a GM is away from the table that they must become the architects of whatever fiendish danger their players will soon face.
There are countless approaches to constructing a game session. I would guess that there are at least as many as there are Game Masters, and probably more. I've never met a GM who didn't have his own thoughts about how things should be done, and I've rarely met a GM who used the same methodology every time. The task requires an ambitious and creative individual. Most just aren't interested in doing things any way but their own. Nor should they be.
One of the two major campaigns I'm running at present is titled The Ascendant Crusade. Not everybody titles their games, but I do just so I can label my binders with something. The Ascendant Crusade has been running since about 2009. It started as an online game played with members of my World of Warcraft Guild. After a hiatus lasting through 2010, half the players didn't want to return to the game, and the other half lived near enough for us to start playing around a table.
There are a number of different facets to the way I approach The Ascendant Crusade, so I'll begin with the one which has the most affect on session-to-session design: the big bad evil guy, or BBEG for short. I won't say too much about the specifics of my BBEG, because my players read this blog, and as of now he's still an unknown player. And I use the word "player" very deliberately.
From the very first session, I had a plan for what I wanted the players to come up against in the final encounter of the game. However, as all good game masters know, guiding your players towards a specific end point is one of the cardinal sins of running a game. So I didn't treat the endpoint as my goal. But, rather, I made it the BBEG's goal. Ever since the first session, I've treated the BBEG as though he were a hidden player. He succeeds and fails in the background of the game, and I make sure that his plots never exceed his current resources.
Even in that very first game, back in 2009, my players lives began intersecting with his plans in ways which I did not foresee. Largely because my players forced me to continue the game for four hours after I ran out of planned material, and I had to quickly improvise something interesting for them to stumble into. Let that be a lesson for anyone who thinks improvisation skills are overrated. The group continued to encounter his plots as they traveled through the world, but thankfully never uncovered the grand scheme which wove everything together.
Which isn't to say they never had a chance. I've left dozens of clues and dropped several large hints over the years. Sometimes I thought I was being so transparent and obvious that they would surely find my BBEG out, but he always remained safely outside of their awareness. Once, the PCs even encountered the BBEG in the middle of something extremely incriminating. I thought I was caught, but I made up a feeble and obviously false lie to try and get out of it. And it worked.
Let that be a lesson to any GM who plans an entire game around their players finding and correctly interpreting a single clue. Players need a little more help than that.
Being discovered is not a problem anymore, fortunately. The snippet of gameplay I began the post with occurred two sessions ago. It was the BBEG's little way of saying "you missed your chance." After years of planning, he doesn't really need to hide any longer. From here on out their only hope is to disassemble the infrastructure he already has in place, if they can even find it.
Corruption is another theme which has played a major role in my adventure design throughout The Ascendant Crusade. Dungeons and Dragons is a game of very clear ethics. Good and evil are active forces which drive the actions of those devoted to them. Villains are rarely nuanced and complex characters with understandable justifications for their evil deeds. They're just plain evil. However, evil being obvious, and evil being attractive, are not mutually exclusive. Attempting to corrupt the PCs by making evil attractive to them has been a hallmark of this campaign.
My notes for the first adventure are actually split into two parts. At the start of the game, a bandit approaches them and offers them a fair share of the booty if they help his gang attack a wealthy caravan. After that, half of the notes are for if the players accept the offer, and half are for if they refuse. As it happened, most of them refused the bandit's offer (long story), and eventually killed him and disbanded his band. But I made it clear from the outset that the path of the hero was not the only one open to them.
In later games, I tempted them with magic items. My favorite among them was when I allowed the chaotic good cleric to find a greatsword (her weapon of choice) which was far beyond her level in power. It was called "The Bite of Reason," and aside from its attack bonus, it could be used to instantly rust away many common metals. The drawback was that the item was intelligent, and strongly lawful neutral in alignment. So in exchange for this powerful weapon, the cleric was forced to engage in a battle of wills anytime she wanted to subvert the law in the name of good. If I recall correctly, it was one such battle of wills in mid-combat which caused her to lose an arm whilst fighting a lich.
This is just how I run The Ascendant Crusade, though. I'm also running one other major campaign and a third campaign which is relatively low key so far. Each one of them uses a completely different approach. Not so much because my players need it, but because it's fun for me. Trying new things is one of the best parts of being a game master.