Indiana Jones is irrelevant is the statement made in The Big Bang Theory. The character does nothing in the Raiders of the Lost Ark movie that would not have happened without him. Some people have even said if Indiana had not intervened then the Ark would be brought before Hitler and opened as was planned.
I don’t know if I agree or disagree but it is a compelling argument that also should be made around RPG adventures. Does the players presence change the events in some way, for better or worse. If the story would play out the same way with or without them, consider changing things about.
Video games have a long history of removing ‘choice’, as they began in limits of what the system would allow. You couldn’t have Mario say Peach wasn’t worth rescuing, Mega Man had to fight the Robot Masters though everyone knew it was Wily’s doing, and so on. Even most games nowadays with open worlds and story driven interactions, the player is put into a viewer seat because the story is pre-written.
Games so rarely get to push a fully interactive envelope and have players influence events. Imagine if after playthroughs of The Walking Dead chapters, majority rules dictated what events are canon? Mortal Kombat statistics determine who the game canon champion is when they make the next game, perhaps? Remember that the closest we’ve got so far to an interactive conversation is an AIM chatbot, so we’re stuck with it being measurable stats like faction wars in an MMO determining who gets ownership of a new area, perhaps.
In an RPG, the players are essentially part of the story as well as part of the audience. If the players want to see something happen, they make it happen. If the players figure out the killer in act 1, they’ll seek them out and no ‘You don’t have enough evidence’ will stop them as this is not a board game with specific rules, this is a ‘real’ world. Hopefully you have some little twists or small adventures/encounters you can throw to fill in the gaps when a storyline ends early, as it will.
Of course, the opposite of being too important to your storyline is not good either. Players should not be the only factor of moving the storyline along, or else we come back to the video games lack of choice. The bad guy is going to do something evil but you just manage to get there in time to stop them… even with the week you took grinding XP. Good thing they waited for you, right?
I try to think of it like an archery target.
Bullseye is the key people, usually the NPCs doing the actions. PCs can be at this level if the plot is about them.
Next ring is their support. Second in command, captain of the army, the majordomo, etc. These people can majorly help or hinder events due to access they have to central figures. PCs are likely here if hired by an important person or the story is about a close NPC.
Next ring is the general connections. The Royal Court in an intrigue drama, the town guardsmen, the villages in an invasion story, etc. These people cannot directly impact a decision but are able to influence because of majority numbers or other abilities. PCs might be here if in a new area, or if outside their ‘usual’ like fighters in a social plot.
Final ring is the extras. These are the people who do not matter to the plot but may be someone your PCs choose to visit or may run into. PCs usually won’t stay here unless a plot doesn’t interest them. These are the people like talking to your doctor contact regarding a weapons smuggling operation. They’ll know very little of direct use, but can direct you to the next circle.
You can go from one circle to another via connections, and you can move outwards at will; hired by the king, you can talk to anyone. You just cannot move inward without making connections and those can be quests in themselves. Villagers hired you to save the city? Great, but the king’s bodyguard isn’t going to let you just talk to the king about the kingdom contributing funds.
This design allows you to have circles of influence arranged in tiers, each level up is smaller and smaller until there are few key movers. You can climb down, but there is a ‘boss challenge’ you must beat to move up.