FRPG campaigns come in all flavors, and different styles appeal to different players. Stay with me on this one, because I think if you better understand what you’re doing subconsciously, you’ll either change direction or do it intentionally and better.
Some campaigns are like World of Warcraft. They have numerous combat encounters with some story lines in the background. Face it - Most WOW players don’t read the mission text, they see what they need to accomplish and get to it. Your game might be like that. I had players whose favorite line at the beginning of a mission was “I get in the car and go.” They were blatantly saying that they didn’t care why they were doing it, didn’t intend to do any planning, and just wanted to get into the action. You know what? They’re the most common. At major tournaments, the best players only listen to the mission intro in hopes of getting a clue as to how to beat the boss monster at the end. They aren’t there to participate in a grand story, but instead to kill some stuff for fun. Hey, no judgment here.
Some campaigns are more like Game of Thrones, but very few. Here you have to listen to what everybody says. If you listen carefully to all the subtext, you can get an idea of what everybody’s motivation is and knowing their motivation you can use it against them. These campaigns are more often run in game rules like Amber with fewer die rolls and more role-playing. Combat heavy games (those without actual social skill “rolls”) cannot handle these types of campaigns. Here the players get really invested, but they have to pay really close attention and to be honest, few are willing to do the work. Fewer GMs are willing (or able) to put in the front time to make these work.
Some campaigns are more like Lord of the Rings. These are epic battles against horrific sounding enemies and in some way the actions of a party of adventurers turns out to be more important than what all the kings and armies are doing, though the kings and armies set a pretty cool back drop to the “actual” action.
Having been a GM for a bunch of decades, I have some theories about these. I think the WOW style constant action with just the hint or pretense of a story are the kind of campaigns that many of the beginning players and GMs go for. They want the action; it’s like going to see a Schwarzenegger movie. They’re fun, but can be a little like rock candy - too much of a good thing. I think those guys grow into the more LoTR style campaign. Now the GM has a better handle on his world, and the players have “been there-done that” with most of the major monsters. Now they need something bigger, something grander. But it is a little hollow. The party has saved the world from destruction multiple times, but still needs to pay a copper coin in the bar for a beer. As the GM writes more and more for his world, he wants to draw the players in deeper and deeper. Now he’s getting into the GoT style of game. There are more NPCs than the players can keep track of and more plots then either the players or the GM will ever be able to get to the end of.
So what’s the best? The obvious answer is that the best solution is a mixture of all three, but how do you do that? First off, you need to make sure that what the GM wants and what the players want is the same thing. Assuming they’re close, you lean towards what everybody wants. I’ve made every mistake I have alluded to in this post, but you get to learn from my mistakes. Let me give you some hints:
Combat action is probably necessary in every FRPG mission. If nobody fights, it really doesn’t feel like an RPG. But the fights should make sense. Fighting through random encounters in the woods that occur because the random encounter die roll says it should is a waste of everyone’s time no matter how much experience or gold the PCs get. Stationary monsters with no food sources make no sense. It really isn’t that tough to say - I know there’s a pack of wolves in this forest that the PCs need to get through. I assume that they eat the deer and lesser animals in the forest, but they must be hunting. When the party comes into their territory, the wolves will hunt them too. Just having the wolves come from behind the party or ambush at night makes so much more sense than acting like they were cockroaches that go scrambling into battle when someone enters their clearing.
Epics can be very cool, but you should probably align the party with someone or something that has true power. If the party is a group of scouts for the main cavalry force in the country, they can still get into scrapes that matter without being the ring bearer. Something like this allows the king/general to be the huge hero and the party to be his favorite group of problem solvers instead of them actually being the end all and be all. King, general, court wizard, dean of the college, historian, admiral, mob boss - any of these guys could be the big boss, and the party works with and for him. Still part of epic stuff, just a touch more realistic when after they help to save the world, they’re still not worshipped in the temples. After a while, one of them might become that general or maybe king consort, but then you’re really going to be moving into the next style.
If you truly want to have an expansive world where everyone has their own motivations and their own personalities, then as a GM you need to be ready to adjust the outcomes for what your players do. Whether your players are saints or jackasses they are going to kill off one of the important people. Then you have to adjust. How does that change things you were planning? Don’t get mad, get clever. Also - They are not going to remember everyone from week to week. There is nothing wrong with giving your players cheat sheets. Make multiple copies or they’ll fight over it. Give them notes on who is who and what they already know. Being less confused, they are going to be a lot happier and not feel like they had to study for a test.
This was really long, I know. Maybe you see something you’re doing or not doing. Hopefully you got an idea or more than one. There’s nothing wrong with playing the way you want to play, but none of these styles of play taken in the extreme is going to please everyone in a moderately sized group of players. Blending is the absolute key!