Like some tabletop RPGs where the GM is creating a world as a canvas on which the players can “paint” their stories, Skyrim is a sandbox-style game. The NPCs and events of the world, taken on their own, are somewhat flat. As various posters in the thread above noted, there are many examples of games where some player choice is sacrificed in favor of a more compelling story (as determined by the writers of the game.) But, in true sandbox style, it is up to players to discover what compels them in Skyrim.
This is the approach I’ve tried to take with my tabletop game as well. By having my players create some background information, and noting how they interact with and influence NPCs, I’m able to get a read on what they value in their characters, and in the story. The stuff they’re emotionally invested in. Of course this is much easier to do in a tabletop game than in a CRPG. But I think it’s one of the keys to a successful campaign.
Jared von Hindman, who writes for WotC in various forms recently posted an article on character development, and some of the differences and connections between the game-mechanical aspects of characters, and the emotional investment in story I’m talking about here.
There your characters are, living out a story, which is presented by the DM. Yet those characters are living out a story that, if TVTropes has taught us anything, often follows certain narrative imperatives. Stories have power. A story told enough times can reshape the world. Your adventuring party is creating a story, touching elements of older, darker stories that they might never see the end of because that's not their story.
— Jared von HindmanAs a GM, I’m creating stories in my campaign that are independent of the characters, yet may be influenced by them. Oftentimes, as von Hindman says, there is a certain narrative imperative to the story that creates an informal agreement between players and GMs, and the campaign will, for a time, follow a certain path. This is, to some extent, a matter of convenience for both players and GMs. We have a limited time in which to play, and a certain amount of narrative imperative keeps the game in a context that provides the illusion of full freedom of choice within a realm that is manageable by a GM (who most likely has a job, family, and other commitments that need attention.)
Ultimately though, what will make the campaign work is the emotional investment of players in their characters, their characters’ stories, and in the stories of those around them. Balancing this with game mechanics, the dynamics of individual game sessions (influenced by factors like attendance, distractions, and player capabilities, to name just a few), and maintaining a sense of continuity, is what keeps the campaign juggling-act such a challenge.
So that’s my goal for 2012. To see if I can engineer a successful combination of these factors, in hopes that they’ll foster a greater emotional involvement for my players in both their characters and in the campaign. If you have any suggestions on how I might be better able to do that, or if you think I should try another direction entirely, please let me know!