I’ve changed how I run tabletop games over the past thirteen years. I used to define everything about the world, leaving the characters fairly constrained in an approach referred to by M. Joseph Young as trailblazing. My partner John has referred to trailblazing before as ‘the tour bus’. The GM drives you to Plot Point 1, points out some stuff, and entertains the PCs with a canned scene while they act the peanut gallery and do their quirks/traits at each other. Sometimes there’s a scripted fight. Then back onto the tour bus for the next destination.
I eventually realized that I find it exhausting to author the story. I like building a world, but I’ll leave gaps and such that I’ll want the players to fill in out of game because it’s tiring to figure out etiquette systems of fourteen different countries. Also, during the game, other people will often have better ideas than I do about what and who is in the world and what they want. I mostly learned this from having co-GMs. A game is a big thing to put on just one person. I like to think that I know some of my weaknesses and can find people to shore them up to contribute to a richer game.
What I value most in the games I’ve been involved in is the PC’s interactions and relationships with each other. The environment that I make when I run a game is to facilitate and complicate these. All the giant machines, crystal owls, mathemagicians, foreign spies, and elemental rituals are there to define the characters and how they see each other. It’s about what they do in their environment. For me it’s more interesting when the character goals and values do not completely overlap the original GM plot. The character Lorenzo of Logos had concrete goals he started with: recover a stolen statue from a thief, investigate and discredit a secret society, fend off his mother’s matchmaking. He discarded, changed, or attained more of these during the course of the game: have another PC actually confront her sister about her shady blood magic cult, buy as many diamonds as possible, stop one country from invading another, create the ultimate sympathetic-magic guitar solo. Some of these ideas and events I had a hand in, others were completely proposed by the PCs. They took me in directions I’d never think to go myself, and I think there’s much value in that.
Whenever I run a game now, I talk to the participants beforehand about this more hands-off approach. It definitely should be explicit that I’m not asking them to play any specific characters or themes, that there is nothing they are ‘supposed’ to do. This is a jam session, and I’ll help keep the time and drop a few hooks, but it shouldn’t just be my story.