What I had evolved to was presenting the adventure as a mind map: big circles for events that had to happen, small circles connecting them for facts that had to be doled out or for characters who had to be there, things I often forgot. The rest would be improvised, between the players and myself. Here's one I did for the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying "Breakout" session:
There was always a general sense of unspooling: we'd start with the opening and move from there. If we got to the end by the finish of the night, great! Usually we didn't--I'm famous in my group for following the digressions that the players want to take, so that "Waterloo Gamers Syndrome" means that a three session adventure takes eight.
Now, I don't want to get rid of some of that sandboxiness: the players should always be free to follow what they find interesting, and I will flag it and make sure it comes up in play (if not this week, next week, if I'm running). And I don't want to do railroading: I don't want to say, "No, you have to do this now." I'm perfectly happy with making stuff up if I have judged the players wrong, and they want to investigate something else, or assign great importance to something I thought was a throwaway.
In a way, the game is a set of events we play; the story is the meaning we apply to them later, in a kind of pareidolia. (Here's a Scientific American article on finding patterns where there are none.)
Still, the events aren't totally random. I usually have something in mind: a big bad for them to fight, and we figure out what the clues are along the way. I've just done it in a loose style.
But time is short. So why not work backwards, like I imagine you do for a con session? (I've never actually been to a gaming convention that I can recall, so I have to guess.)
Let's say that we're doing the Toybox adventure above. There are five parts and an epilogue. I've got three hours, one hundred and eighty minutes. That would be about thirty minutes a part. That's good for a start, but really, we'll spend longer on the last bit and on setting up in the beginning (I'd define the beginning as the hook--the first bit--and the definition of the problem or mission--that's the second bit). The middle is a bit more fluid. If this is a thing I get to run because Jim can't make it tonight, well, there ought to be a chance for the players to be their characters. Maybe we'll spend a whole hour on the beginning. Say forty-five minutes for the end. There are no surprises there, just a dilemma to solve.
So that's a hundred and five minutes, which leaves us seventy-five. Really, it's an hour because there will be chatter and catching up and so forth. So now the rough timeline looks like:
- The beginning: Hook ("The Loose Thread") Fifteen to thirty minutes.
- The beginning: Problem ("The Frayed Edge") Thirty to forty-five minutes.
- The middle: Attempt to solve ("Unraveling Seams")
- The middle: Reversal ("Lost Stuffing")
- The end and possibly the epilogue. Conclusion ("The Empty Skin") Forty-five minutes.
Does this work? I dunno--it's a new thought to me. "Planning." But I'll try it.
(I'd still rather play all sandboxy and let them go wherever they want...but that way lies months of gaming, and Jim will be back soon...)