And now, putting some of this together.
We've looked over some of the vocabulary and structure of a good story. Now, how to put it all together. I'm going to discuss character focused campaigns.
Let's pretend I'm running a DnD 4e game for two and maybe three of my friends. They're all casual gamers. Two of them have characters: an elephant-man Paladin and a human Necromancer.
Sidestepping the rules discussion about how to implement those two characters, let's instead examine how I might shape a story that involves them.
Theron's Big Fancy Guidelines, Number One: A good story comes from the characters. See also Firefly.
So we've got an obvious issue to hammer out: Why are the paladin and the necromancer hanging out, besides the obvious need for a guardian and striker?
The obvious answer I came up with is that the characters have known each other for a long time. I find I'm often able to forgive the moral shortcomings or self-righteousness of my friends, so while I can't decide that the characters grew up together, they must have been part of a community. The easiest way to do that is isolate the campaign starting area.
I've been thinking about Fallout a lot lately, so I steal a cue from it: I decide the campaign starts in an underground civilization, sealed off from a terrible catastrophe 500 years ago.
Theron's Big Fancy Guidelines, Number Two: A little backstory goes a long way. Too much backstory gets in the way. See also Star Wars Ep. 4-6 and compare to Ep. 1-3.
I decided that over the last 500 years, necromancy became a big part of life underground. When resources are at a premium, it's good to have an unskilled labor base you don't need to feed. This helps explain the character I had trouble with, and gave me an interesting little idea for creating tension once the characters reached the surface world (get to that later).
Now I have characters and a very basic setting idea. Then what?
Theron's Big Fancy Guidelines, Number Three: You must be able to answer this question: "What will characters in this world do?" See also Hunter: The Reckoning.
I started to envision their first dungeon crawl. Internal conflict didn't seem right, as I figured the community had to be reasonably stable for paladins and necromancers to exist side by side, working together for the betterment of all. Sending them deeper into the caves didn't do it for me either, nor did the idea that a bunch of goblins and other level 1 monsters somehow breach this fortress that survived untold forces.
My first solution was to involve a "proving grounds" within the community itself. I liked the idea that the community leaders would have cobbled together a dungeon in order to test the mettle of potential adventurers.
That led me to another idea: Maybe the elders didn't create the Proving Grounds (it's time to start capitalizing that for emphasis, I decide). Maybe whoever built the underground fortress did. I also happened upon an idea that the identity of the architects of this civilization has been lost. I decide to call them "The Architects" and file that away for later.
Theron's Big Fancy Guidelines, Number Four: It's never too late to add in a mysteriously named power group. See also The Flood.
So the Architects built a special training ground, and it will only open when whatever sensors exist determine that the outside world is safe to be explored. The Proving Grounds helps guard the exit with constructs, undead, and clever traps from one direction; from the other direction, it's a nice warmup dungeon.
Theron's Big Fancy Guidelines, Number Five: What is the purpose of a dungeon? See also Tomb of Terrors for an example gone horribly, horribly wrong.
Then I need an inciting incident.
TBFG, Number Six: Why these guys? Your heroes must be the only ones capable of overcoming the obstacles.
I decide to thrust the PCs into the harsh, cruel Overworld and lay the seeds for a plot by deciding the Proving Grounds have been somehow compromised. Since I'm toying with the idea that it's a postapocalyptic world, I added something akin to radiation to it. I called it "the Glow," which isn't too imaginative but I do not think my players will care. The Glow is dangerous, though nobody knows this yet, as the Underworlders don't know it exists. I decide the Glow also prevents zombies from being controlled, and may have an effect of driving golems mad. Probably it will become a roadblock to the PCs more than anything else, or at least a neat way to incorporate some magical traps, puzzles, and creatures (like a gibbering mouther).
But that hasn't answered the question yet: Why these guys? I decide to highlight the danger of the Glow by giving the players a couple allies. Maybe a zombie or two, a handful of assistants also trained for this kind of thing. However, the zombies go nuts when they're exposed to the Glow, and the assistants will serve as red shirts, dying in increasingly gory ways.
So, we've gotten our heroes into the world, warmed them up to the system, overcome some obstacles both surprising and otherwise, and killed off the nonessential characters. Now what?