Ok, lets talk about campaign types. There are 3 basic types of campaigns that I have seen DM’s run. The Epic “Destruction of the known Universe, and you’re the only people capable of doing anything about it” campaign, the Regional “Save the princess” or “ stop Dr. Evil before he takes over the kingdom” type campaign, and the Not so Hot but only the parties reputation is damaged if they fail to disarm the bomb type campaign.
Lets start with the Epic version. You have a world you have created, and you want some sort of astronomical event happening that only your players can stop. Have you thought about what might happen if they fail? Will you let the event occur as it should? If you don’t, then the players will have less faith in your scare tactics. Also, will you let them fail? Or will you some how fudge the rolls for a guaranteed success? If you do that, then the players will get lazy and not fear death as much as they should.
Do you begin to see how much railroading you need to do to get your players to follow along your storyline yet?
However, if your truly in love with the idea of Epic Earth-shattering stories. Consider throwing in other parties that are trying to accomplish the same thing. You can have these NPC parties even following your Players around. Perhaps these NPC’s can interfere with the Players. And if the players decide to give up on the Mega Quest, you have an excuse to be able to say “Oh, it got thwarted by another group called Blankety Blank. And their names are being sung in all the taverns from coast to coast.” …. Or, if you really wanted the event to happen… “It’s a good thing you guys bailed on that quest. All the other parties that were going for it, Died! Horrible, agonizing, mutilated deaths. People are now going in search of the equipment these parties left behind”….ie; adventure hook anyone?
Now, lets flip to the opposite end of the spectrum. The Penny Ante adventures. These are the little quests that a shopkeeper asks your party to complete. “Find my son, who likes to wander in the hills.” Or “Clean out the sewers of its giant (and possibly wererat) infestation”. These quests are kind of your bread and butter. Players like to do them because they are quick, easy, and usually profitable, with very little risk of death. (yeah right! J mwahah.. ahem). These are the sorts of adventures that you throw into the middle of larger events. These things are so small that the Players… Might… anger 1 person in town for failing. And they won’t get songs sung about them if they succeed. Now, if your players do enough of them, it certainly helps their reputations. And if they always succeed quickly and efficiently, then they might be called upon to do more dangerous, and of course more profitable, quests for the locals.
You can’t really run a campaign effectively off these kinds of quests. And you definitely can’t have them all occur in the same city/town for your players to go from 1st thru 30th levels or become gods. It stretches believability beyond ridiculous. Now, these Are great for throwing your players Off the track of something larger. Or for creating “red herrings” (false rumors, something just to make players waste their time in search of nothing). They are great at “re-equipping” your characters, if the party got thrown in jail. Or if they have been robbed recently. Or for boosting their equipment to where it belongs for their levels.
Now for normal adventures; Regional. There is a very good reason why these types of campaigns are what you see most modules made out of. They are large enough to draw you Players attention. Yet small enough that failure (or, god forbid, your players not biting at your adventure hooks) will only allow a limited (if any) change in your campaign world. “An evil lich is spreading undead throughout the land in an attempt to create his own Land of the Dead”. Or the ever popular “The magical Blank object is missing and we need you to find it before the bad guys do.”
These are the events that will truly shape your world, with the aid of your players. You see, players love to find out that their actions have caused some sort of effect in the world. If they let the princess die and failed to rescue her, maybe they have been banished from the kingdom. Or perhaps the King has put a ransom on their heads for allowing his precious to be killed. What if they succeed? Perhaps the princess’ hand is offered to a party member for marriage. Or they have the thanks of King, who gives them each a Barony, and is willing to step in on their behalf if they run into trouble in neighboring Kingdoms. Or perhaps the party now has such a reputation as heros, that the locals buy them drinks, and woman/men fawn all over them. All this, because they stopped the evil plague that was threatening the local crops/herds.
These kinds of campaigns can easily be strewn across an entire continent or world. Perhaps they need to get part 1 of Blank artifact, to be combined with part 2 which is across the ocean, and part 3… etc, etc. A party can easily be led on such quests. The best part about these, is you can allow the players to succeed OR fail, and all it does is help shape another corner of your world/universe. In this kind of campaign, try to add flavor to your surroundings to remind the players that the world is watching what they do. Have bards sing songs, have festivals that celebrate the parties success, have anniversary funeral gatherings for the dead the party has left behind in their careless wake. You don’t have to go into much detail if you don’t want. Or you can get extravagant with it, having the Players get wrapped up for 3 game sessions on the various games at their own festival.
You can even do the “time travel” thing. I ran a campaign through my brand new world, over the course of 3 years (for the characters, not real life) the Players were shaping events in an area. When that group of Players finally broke up, I started another group at the same city, at the same time as my first campaign group, and had the events of that 1st party as a background story of events for my current players to deal with the repercussions. For example, both parties were sent to an unknown city as criminals, the 1st group explored out of that city, and then came back with trade ships (it was a port city) for the 1st time. Which caused other kingdoms to now know the location of this lost city, one of those kingdoms sent an army to this Criminal city and took it over by military force. My 2nd party was in the city as the military forces from this other kingdom showed up and started laying siege.
So, have fun, and good luck in your campaign.