This week I employed the three act structure suggested by Chris Perkins. The story centered around the haunting of Adahn the fighter, distraught after killing the Yuan-Ti. An old hermit would reveal the god of justice and a side quest for the fighter’s absolution. Like many DM advice columns warn, the players didn't take the bait. I believed, having come out of a dungeon, they'd be ready for something different. I was wrong. They followed the jeweled map to the next dungeon.
I hadn't planned another dungeon crawl. No problem, I knew what the NPCs were going to do because I'd planned that out. I prepared an answer to question 3 from the "simple questions" format from The Lazy Dungeon Master: "What are your three notable NPCs up to?" So I knew how the Yuan-Ti would respond to the death of Hasathi and the theft of the dagger. I knew what the historian and the fortune teller were up to. And I knew what the hermit was doing.
The party travelled to Skorra and I said yes to a lot of what the players came up with. Their library research supported the push to the next dungeon or moved the story forward. I didn't know beforehand that the jewels would match heraldic symbols. Only once had I used livery to identify House Myoor. Whether jewel colors matched heraldry was a player question. I said yes.
After a lot of role playing and investigation the players were getting antsy to kill a monster so I rolled out the combat encounter I'd originally planned. The encounter felt a little bolted-on. Honestly, I trying to see if any of the threads I had planned would be interesting by isolating them rather than bundling them. The haunting fell flat, so what about the fighter’s divine quest? It looks like the Mage might pick up that thread. I was worried that neither thread would be picked up. But after what felt like a successful session, I don't care if either plot line is played out. I had fun anyway.
The combat itself was dramatic. The toughest character nearly died and the level 1 newbie saved the day. We ended on a high note, so that worked out okay in the end.
The list of NPCs and their actions helped me improvise more than I expected. I'll continue that practice. I had to take lots of notes to capture anything I made up on the spot. The players were also very patient if I didn't know the answer to a bit of story - like the heraldy found in the book the Druid picked up. I gave them the next piece, a next action and they were happy with that. I could fill in the rest later. In hindsight there are ways I could have handled it in game, but it worked out ok anyway.