Thank you for your feedback! I think this is exactly what I needed. I ran a campaign in the spring of last year, and I think the reason the first few encounters went well is because I was communicating well with my players, and not trying to surprise them all the time.
Yeah, I haven't seen much good come from "surprises" in D&D. They can work well, but they can also fall flat with tremendous ease.
I've find that my DM in a campaign that I'm a player in is relatively adept at designing things that we'd want to experience, despite keeping a few key important points he keeps secret. He routinely asks "where do you plan on going?" And we answer, and we don't feel slighted, because we had input on where we were supposed to go.
Being able to give players choice is important, but it's only part of what I'm talking about.
So, in a nutshell, I should really include the players on the decision-making process more. To let them come up with what THEY think is fun. Maybe go with what they say, or maybe put it in my file of ideas for later. But the point is that they make the decisions on where to go. And instead of being so rigid, I should be willing to improvise, which comes with practice.
Close. They don't just make the desicions on where to go, but they have some say over where they can go, and what's there that might be of interest to them. Anything is fair play, if there's trust around the table.
I think this was the real answer I was looking for. I need to include my players (who have already expressed interest in contributing somehow), though leave details to them. For example, in the world I've created so far, halflings and gnomes work together: Gnomes create illusions and distract anyone who might get too close to the halfling lands, and in return, the gnomes get good food and solid pay. However, little details about the place should be left to my halfling player, because then he'll have a vested interest in what happens to them, because they are HIS creation.
Yes, this is a good example of when a player should really be brought in to help create the details. Maybe the player really hates gnomes and decides that the gnome-halfling alliance is an uneasy one. That's great fodder for future NPC reactions, and perhaps even entire adventures.
However, I also need to know when too much is too much, or something breaks the versimillitude of the game world, and let them know that it kind of clashes.
Keeping a consistent tone can be hard with lots of disparate input. This is where leading questions and DM guidance can come in. But if the players are suggesting it, then they probably feel it fits. Be prepared to stretch your own sense of verisimilitude, if it means you can accommodate player ideas.
And sometimes I can pleasantly surprise a player by using an idea not right away, but at a later date, subverting their expectations but later fulfilling them. Looking back on it, my more successful plot pieces worked best when they included player input.
Yes, I think that's probably true for a lot of people.
It comes down to trust. If you have trust at the table, amazing things can happen, that the rules themselves can only do so much to bring about. Players are exhorted to trust the DM, and many do, but that trust can also be built, and accepting player input and ideas, and using them, really helps.
[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy