Sometimes ... and I am sure many modders will agree with me ... as much as our hobby of writing a story to be played in a module is a joy and a pleasure to create, there are times when the story refuses to play along. Note, I'm not talking about the main path or outcome to the story, but the "smaller" details that take place in between that help flesh out the game as a whole. It's a little like being faced with a blank page to fill between each event of the main story. These pages need to be filled in and made interesting, as they act as the glue between each other, and success in their writing can be the make or break of an otherwise well-built module.
The Main Plot
Let's take The Lord of the Rings (LotR) as an example of a story. The bottom line to the main point of the story is: Frodo has to take a magic ring to "Mordor" where it must be destroyed! That's it. Yet, look at the many books that make up the complete story and it's not hard to imagine that there is much more involved in that story than a simple journey. Writing a plot for a module is a similar task, in that a player needs to be presented with challenges and choices that help flesh out their experience of the story as they uncover it through play.
Note, I am not talking about side quests. It is true that modules can and do provide side-quests that help to give a module longevity, but, in my opinion, these should act as incidental events rather than experiences to replace the main story, which should be the crux of the game. In other words, side quests, while briefly entertaining should be something that, if missed by the player, would not detract from the module/story as a whole. Now, why do I mention this? Simply because, I believe that a good "litmus" test for a module is to remove the side-quests and to see what is left for the player to do to complete the story. If, for example, you find that a good percentage of a module is made from side quests, then I believe the experience of the game as a whole will quickly dissolve into disappointment, especially to experienced players who have played more than their fair share of RPGs.
Main Quest Events
The answer, as I see it, is to break the story into main quest events, which the player can explore at their own pace. However, this is not easy to achieve. When writing a book, the events are predetermined and the direction the reader has to take is controlled by the author. For a module story, however, the writer has to be careful not to railroad a player along a path just to ensure plot rigidity. Many modules are built this way, of course, and to some degree some direction-pushing cannot be avoided, but it should be minimised to allow at least an appearance of choice for the player playing through it. Now, for me, managing these main quest events is where the wrestling comes in. For starters, what makes a good quest event as opposed to an orchestrated plot? Secondly, how will one main event affect another?
Referring back to LotR, we can see how the choice to travel through the "Mines of Moria" after failing to cross the "Misty Mountains" acted as a great event in the course of the main story. Of course, if the same event was written into a module, a writer may like to consider writing both paths ahead of time, to allow a resourceful player the chance to succeed in crossing the Misty Mountains where in the book they are said to fail. Such a second path would, however, take more work and require extra creativity to ensure it fitted in with the spirit of the main story and offered similar pros and cons as taking the path through the Mines of Moria.
Whether both paths are written or not, these are what I would call main quest events - and it is these types of areas that form part of the main quest that I believe require careful attention to detail to ensure the whole story is made memorable and remains cohesive irrespective of the path taken. Note, while these quest events may share similarities to side quests in that they may have their own objectives to complete, they are still part of the main quest, as the player must do these quests to finish the game.
Better The Demon
In my own module, Better The Demon, I have a number of these main quest events already outlined and set in place. From the perspective of the main story, they all link together to move the plot from point A to point B - and I do not mean just in the way of transitions, but also from a perspective of the story as a whole. However, there are one or two areas (with their own main quest events) that currently refuse to work themselves out in my mind. The logical flow of one "internal" event into the next has just not revealed itself to me yet. I could force the issue of course, and perhaps many players would not notice, but I can also be sure that some will ... and that eats away at my need to get it right and not to leave a bad taste with the player.
As a simple comparison to LotR, while travelling through Moria, the heroes had to overcome a number of obstacles, defeat some monsters, and even overcome a puzzle before they could enter in the first place. i.e. The adventure in Moria felt like a whole quest in and of itself and added to the final weight making the whole adventure/story as memorable as it was. And while I have the equivalent "Moria" sections of my adventure in place, they do not yet currently meet my own expectations and are the areas of the module I am currently wrestling with. Once I have these parts clearer in my own mind, I can then start to place the final pieces of Chapter 1 into place. Such ideas and story development cannot be rushed and I thank readers for the time and patience they have already given me. Hopefully, a few more days and night's with the particular adventure locations in mind will help unravel these elements of the story within me soon enough, while avoiding orchestrated or cliched ideas. <- Probably impossible, but I will do my best to add an interesting slant.
In the meanwhile, I continue to write conversations for the NPC's that are already well established.