One of the hardest things about running a tabletop RPG is keeping each session new, fresh and exciting. It takes time out of your days, not to mention energy out of other creative pursuits in your life. To make a four hour game of in-depth, compelling narrative you need to put in at least half that time to create unique beats, filling the world with NPCs, loot and plot hooks.
Some DMs I have come to find, skip a lot of this with randomization charts. That can be ideal for treasure, and your occasional rando-NPC you find walking down a city street, but for absorbing creation, I will sometimes have 2-3 NPCs, who may be in the general vicinity, sitting behind my DM screen. Just in case the players have a need to speak to someone outside of the overall narrative.
I often get players, who may be in a large-scale environment, bustling with people, like markets, courthouses, a king’s throne room, or just walking from one town to the next ask “Is there anyone near who looks like ____.” Although they see what you have laid out in front of them, they may not be ready to engage it. This could be that the players do not know how to interact with the story, or they may have their own agenda linking their character to the setting. As the DM you have to let them forego your NPCs or plot hooks to satisfy their needs. The answer to that question above very well may be "No. No one else is around like that." Still, I try to say "Yes and ___." Think improv, but be prepared with NPCs up your sleeve.
Let me use an example of what I mean. A few games ago I had my players take up a mystery in a small town: a girl was missing, while this was not strange to the people around (the girl would sometimes disappear for a few hours at a time), the mother knew this time it was different. I had the mother (my main NPC) lay out a few stops around town where they could get information. Instead of going to any of those stops, my player’s first inclination was to go straight to the local tavern and start asking about the girl to patrons there. I didn’t set up NPCs at the tavern. I didn’t think there was a need to do so.
Luckily, however, I did know that tavern would have a waitress who would have heard some stories about the girl; I had thought that far in advance. I had to railroad them a bit, saying a bunch of drunken farmers would have no information about the girl. The game would be bogged down by each of them going up to every person in the bar otherwise. They still ended up speaking to the girl behind the bar.
Now, to keep things realistic, I had a set of NPCs the waitress behind the bar would know. Some of them overlapped with the mother, but I offered up a few different names. A chart to roll on the outcome may have worked, but I think my way of populating the town beforehand works best here. She gave distinct names of two half-elves (ones the mother didn’t know about). This jumped my plot ahead, but the roleplaying that took place in the tavern, and then in the next shop (the two half-elves owned) made up for that time.
These two NPCs that were a footnote in the back of my mind turned out to be essential to the plot my players created, and one that they re-visit, along with the waitress, for almost every game. “What are they doing?” “Let’s go talk to them.” They’ve turned into fun spots in town. They are callbacks to that one game and great running gags.
All of this takes time. Setting up the world, the story, the monsters, creating the dungeons, the layouts, the personalities, treasure, learning the rules and powers for not only the game but for each player in case they have questions… It’s a lot.
Some of the nitty-gritty can be done on the fly. Some, as I said before, use charts. I have used both strategies in the past, but for my style, I work best with pre-generating as much as possible.
When you pre-generate this much content, it can sap from other areas of your life. At the end of working up the story for our next session, I feel like I just finished a thesis paper. I don’t want to write a blog post, write that next batch of Dag strips, or even toy with the short stories I tend to have floating around my computer and desk. The only thing I want is to play the game I just wrote. I want to burn off that story, so I don’t forget any of the details; I want what I created to come to life as quick as possible.
That’s why setting a day aside just for writing a game works best for me. I’m not a professional writer, of course, so taking a day out to focus solely on the creation of a tabletop session does not affect me like it would some. If I did write for a living I am a bit afraid of what my custom campaigns would look like. Would I still have time to play? Would I become a player instead of running the game? And who would run the game? It is a looming task, and I hate when DMs come to the table with it barely together.
To run a truly fantastic game it needs to be fully fleshed out, I feel, but seemingly organic to the players. Otherwise, you just end up playing a step by step story that you cannot deviate from.
Everyone hates it when in the video game there is a mountain in the distance you want to explore, but you’ve hit that invisible wall. The game’s world is finite, and now you have to turn around to Windhelm. You get my meaning. It takes you out of the world.
So, if you’ve got a looming workload, or need to create for a living, or just do very long hours at whatever career you’ve made for yourself and still want to DM I say, go for it. But, it shouldn’t be taken lightly. You shouldn’t have a story so precious you are unwilling to let your players ruin it, or explore everything around but your story. If that idea bothers you, go buy some pre-made campaigns. These can be fun, but be forewarned they still take the time to read, set up and run.