Last night we played Pathfinder again after a long hiatus - it was an initially somber occurrence, given that some of the reasons for not playing pertained to a player at the table losing a loved one, but by the end of the evening things turned joyous and people were having a lot of fun.
It wasn't an ending point to any "storyline" but it was the moment when we looked at each other and realized we were getting there, that a "climax" of sort is coming and that when that happens, however it happens, we will be done with this game and characters.
In this light it was a good time for me to reflect about the situations in play and how things evolved. It may be interesting to provide as an example - not as a case study because I'm not claiming this was "how it's done" and because there's several stages where bad practices were implemented by me to keep things running in the face of problems with the ruleset and people's motivation. But the situation building may have elements of interest.
For the initial premise of this game I had a "session zero" of sort to align with players' expectations. I'm not generally a huge fan of session zero (I feel like in a lot of game session zero exausts a lot of what play is meant to be about and it turns the rest into performance) but here it was necessary as the game's setting is sprawling and we needed to decide what we wanted to play.
Following this, I had the naturally extremely diverse cast that this type of D&D-like game produces, but there's a few recurring themes. Two characters are very goal oriented, one being a young noble who's looking into an opportunity as he's assigned to reclaiming an old colony in the frigid north, and the other who's on a revenge mission that has taken him to that same general area. Then we have three characters who are running from something, and what's better than some cold, forgotten dump in the least populated area of the world?
So next I create the old colony - a small village full of disgrunted people, local norsemen who hate the old empire but like the money they bring, a few people with similar backgrounds to the players looking for a place to be forgotten in, plus whoever was left behind by the noble's uncle, who was tasked with the same mission and disappeared a few months earlier. The mystery of what happened to the expedition is our initial "quest", but my mindset is having them interact with the people there and let things go from there.
During prep, more things come up as making sense. We have weird, primal cultists in the woods (the people the revenge guy is looking for); the town is the last stop before the long and isolated trade routes that lead to the richer northern towns, so we have a large brothel run by some belligerent and very indipendent women; we have the ancient forth from the colonial times with its mysteries and monsters.
All this is nice and dandy but the events that really shape the group's priorities emerge from those personal interactions. One of the players becomes friend with the goblin cook of the local brothel; later on, another player's actions lead to a local girl being kidnapped by the cultists, and the jarl ends up framing the same goblin (racism is fairly rampant among these people). This leads to a long streak of conflict that shift the focus from those stereotypical fantasy tropes to actually reclaiming the town for the noble and banishing the corrupt leadership. It works well enough, but I notice that at this stage my prep-behaviour is still too predictive and not really reactive. I'm still getting to grips with the game's instrumentation and rules, so I try to come prepared and that frequently at least partially gets in the way of real play.
Fast forward 2 years, and now we're in a completely different region of the world (well, a neighbouring country), the uncle turned out to be a visionary madman with some form of immortality, players have awakened old behemoths and collapsed towns, burned forests and fought in sieges, hunted a dragon and lost people they loved, changed their religious affiliations and developed new friendships.
I had a pervasive feeling of lack of consequences hitting hard, but looking back a lot has happened and probably I've been thinking too hard about it.
Now looking at how I prepared this last situation - which is directly built on the flow of short and long term consequences from previous scenes and situations - I did notice a considerable increase in the amount of bounce involved in the prep itself. We've reached a point where the players have chased the uncle up to his relationship with the ruler this kingdom (Irrisen), which is *drumroll* the Baba Yaga. They have their own set of personal reasons to be here, but they are mostly (dare I say, fairly organically) motivated to at least have a meeting with the tzarina. One wants to kill her, one wants to parley, one is just after a final showdown with his uncle.
But it's clear that things moved a lot and not at the same speed for everyone. If we were to imagine those diagrams for each individual player, we would obviously have different arrows for scenes but after this much play we probably have different arrows even between situations. The momentum isn't the same, some thread lines get broken. I can think of one player character who was fundamentally dragged along during the main situation shift (to the point I suggested his character would stay there and he would create a new one) who is now one of the major driving forces in this stage of the "story". One who had a lot of personal things going on has (gracefully) evolved into the group's "dad figure" and became collateral to a lot of other personal plots. The inter-party relationships are at this point their own situation, in a way, to the point that players behave toward each other's character much like they do with NPCs. This may seem counter-intuitive but I've found that when players approach other characters as autonomous entities that can be instrumental to creating individual, focused storyline instead of as "party members" it's when the game gains its traction.
Another interesting element is how prep can create the situation in real time. I don't see this as improvisation, even if sometimes some correlations are sheer luck.
For example, as they arrived to a new location a couple sessions ago I started preparing the community living there and I looked at possible threats in the area. This is a country run by a caste of witches who obey the mother of all witches; whatever preys on these communities must be weird and bad. So I start scrolling pages in my monster book and decide it's probably some fey stuff: the Baba Yaga has created perpetual winter and nature mustn't be that happy about it. I stumble into a knight who turns into a crow and then into a wolf with crow wings and boom, I'm sold.
Then I start reading some stuff about it and lo and behold, this thing hates anyone who crafts things with metal and coal. And the Baba Yaga has brought back Rasputin from Earth (it's her son, in this continuity), so he's clearly teaching people how to craft guns and steam tanks and all that stuff. They're going to war with the faux-vikings and it won't be fair. So now there's a factory up north, where they're doing stuff, and the fey-demon has moved here and he's killing workers and witches and guards. Good.
And without me noticing, once this stuff enters play, one of the more "passive" players in this part of the story is now motivated because he's an Artificier and he's curious about this stuff, and another wants to understand what this "labor" thing is because it sounds like slavery and she's all about breaking chains.
This huge luggage of experiences and ideas and unresolved or almost forgotten character threads has its own life at this point, and the pieces fall together like Lego. By the end of the night they find the demon, and all the confrontation I had ready gets bypassed because one of the players says something that was impossible to foresee an hour ago and makes so much sense now, so we make a reaction roll and not only we don't have a fight, but next session will go to a completely new and different location. I need to bring in some NPCs that I figured I wouldn't need and so on. The amount of yellow arrows going from scene to situation and back was huge, and as this happened and people were having a blast, I did absolutely notice the risk of some of those arrows to turn backwards and change the situation retroactively, not changing something that was into something new but erasing something that was and replacing it with something that makes oh so much sense now, that would be so interesting, just because players will never know.
I feel this can be its own topic, because the process of bringing consequences from scene to situation feels extremely delicate to me.