That's not necessarily bad. But the lack of choice may annoy some players. And they may rightfully feel that they could just as well play a computer adventure instead of showing up at the game table.
So, there is the other extreme, which is often called a Sandbox game. I'm not sure if that's because it's like kids playing in a sandbox. But it does involve giving the players power to decide what the adventure is about. You want to go down the Tomb of Horrors? Cool. You want to wreck the town nearby? Fine. You want to explore the seven seas and smuggle green skinned aliens? Fine. You want to save the world economy with a diplomatic campaign among the nobility and their bankers? Great.
Sandboxing can be Scary
But running a sandbox game may scare most game masters. Because you either have to know and understand the world in detail, or you must be able to make it up as you go. And be consistent. For most of us, who may have trouble understanding the real world already, that's quite a feat you're asking.
So how do you pull it off? Scetching adventure worlds until you're ready? That may take decades. And be sure that the first thing your players will do is to jump on a space ship and travel to another world.
One solution I use is to scetch a rough framework of the game world, and fill in the details as I go along. And while I game master I make notes, so I may remember what I thought up later. In between sessions I try to guess where my players will want to go next, and do some research. Or instead, I decide for the players where they will go next, and do the same preparation.
So Where to Begin?
For example, I could decide that the first adventure session will take place around the town of Soest. So, if possible I'll have a rough idea of what the town looks like (I took a map of the real town Soest in Germany). Or at least what's special about the town (many buildings are made from green stone). I'll decide what kind of fellow the mayor is (tall and skinny, and a sneaky thief, named Herr Weymarck). Where the town inn is located (across the town square next to the church). Who the innkeeper and his daughter are (an amiable old Jew, with a somewhat naive daughter who talks with dead people – while she doesn't realize they're dead). What the main church looks like (a huge church and abbey of St. Patroklos, mostly in green stone, with a huge crypt under it, which is sealed because there are undead down there). Who the abbot is (a tall viking like fellow named Harald, who is smart but blends in the background). And what the general area looks like (mostly forests with a moon shaped lake in the south, between the low hills, maybe infested with monsters). What are the neighbouring towns (Paderborn, Dortmund and Koln – always easy to pick a real map). What is the country like (medieval Germany – but with orcs, vampyres and dragons).
Since there is a big church of saint Patroklos, I also look up the saint in Wikipedia, to jog my imagination a bit more. I notice the man was hunted in France, and there was a connection with dragons. As a twist I figure it would be cool if St. Patroklos was a dragon himself, and that's why he was hunted. Maybe that's why his bones are special too, and made a relic.
Fleshing Out the Framework
With this background, I can easily provide a few alleys for adventure. The heroes could be asked to clean out the undead in the crypt of St. Patroklos church. Or one of the heroes could become Schutzfrau of the town as an inheritance, and find out that the mayor robbed the town treasury. Which in turn might lead to him trying to kill the heroes off with a hired assassin. And why are building stones green? Are they poisonous perhaps? Maybe there is a problem with vampires, or with a roaming army of orcs. If so, I'll have to make up who hired this army. Wouldn't it be a cool twist if that was the Kaiser of Germany himself? Then there would be human mercenaries in the army that might point out that fact (let's call their leader Hagen, a ruthless plate clad tactician). The army might stage a full scale attack, and we get a siege adventure where the heroes have to defend the town. Maybe they also have a spy in the town. The boyfriend of the mayor's daughter perhaps. And so on.
As you may see, I don't fill in most of the details until I need them. I could, just for fun, fill them in before play. But I don't have to.
The framework provides a backdrop where my players can choose to do their own thing. And if I want, I can also run a normal adventure, with start, ending, enemy and stakes – on top of the background. In that way the backdrop and the straight adventure are intertwined. The one provides color for the other.
Next time: How NPC's and PC's can change the game world. Continually.