Like my previous post, this is an inchoate one -- notes toward a thesis to be published later, if you will. I thought I'd share a very memorable example from my own gaming history of how a campaign with a referee-created succumbed to what I see as the inherent danger of such things: the referee came to love his own ideas so much that those of his players weren't even considered. I'll say again that I am not saying this outcome is inevitable or even unavoidable, only that it's likely and highly problematic and one of the reasons why I have come to eschew the notion of "theme" or "story" in planning a new campaign. It's only an anecdote and thus highly specific and idiosyncratic. Nevertheless, I think it illustrates well what I'm talking about.
Some years ago, I joined a campaign in which a character who'd previously been established as the last surviving heir of a far-off kingdom received an invitation by members of a rebel faction who wished him to return to his ancestral homeland and claim his rightful throne. The reason they wished him to do this was because, after the deposition of his ancestor (I think it was his grandfather but it may have been more distant), the priesthood of an evil ice goddess -- this was a northern realm -- took over the reins of power and they were nasty and tyrannical, as evil priests usually are in fantasy worlds.
The character in question knew of his ancestry but never gave much thought of returning to his homeland. He certainly had no interest in becoming a king, but he was good-aligned and the rebels told of the horrible atrocities committed by the evil priests, so he eventually agreed to return and lead this rebellion that had been fighting in his name for some time. He collected some mercenaries and brothers in arms to join him (my character was one of them) and together they set off into the frozen north to fight against the minions of the ice goddess.
So far, so good. The problem was that, as we soon discovered, even the rebellion worshiped this evil ice goddess and propitiated her with human sacrifices each winter in order to keep the worst weather away. The referee explained to us (through the rebel NPCs) that the state religion had always been devoted to the ice goddess. The objection to the priesthood was not their beliefs as such, but that they had usurped the proper place of the king. Their "tyranny" was mostly that they had upset the social order, not that they had imposed an evil religion upon the land.
Needless to say, none of us, least of the character of the heir to the throne, would have any truck with the idea of participating in a rebellion dedicated to evil (we were all good-aligned as well), even they did so as appeasement rather as piety. Now, it had previously been established in the game world that the beliefs of mortals were what gave gods their power and that new "aspects" of a god might spring into being if there were enough mortals with a heretical/heterodox interpretation of that god's teachings. We then hit upon the plan to use the rebellion not just to place the heir upon the throne, but to create an alternate, "friendlier" version of the ice goddess by manipulating the beliefs of the common folk of the northern kingdom -- the ultimate in psychological warfare. We thought it a great idea and one with a bizarre fantasy feel to it. In short, it'd be the basis for a memorable campaign.
The referee, though, would have none of it. His plan for the campaign was about the heir's having to come to grips with the nature of the society whose rulership he had inherited. Over time, there'd be many other aspects of his people that he'd learn about that would "challenge" his previously held notions and this would lead to a great campaign. There was also, if I recall, the introduction of a woman, unpleasant in some way, who belonged to some important faction or other and thus was intended to be betrothed to the heir. My friend, who played the heir, would have none of it; his character had been led to the northern realm under false pretenses and he felt it reasonable that he'd take action accordingly. More to the point, the ideas he and the rest of us players had come up with were exciting and interesting and at least worth a try. Even if we failed, who can say that plotting to use a rebellion to give birth to a new god isn't fantasy roleplaying at its finest?
The referee simply wouldn't budge on this point. He had already made it clear what the campaign was about and had done a lot of work to plot out this campaign. He wasn't interested in taking our alternate ideas and running with them -- ideas, I might add, that made perfect sense given the setting and the nature of the characters involved. I still look back on this failed campaign as an opportunity lost, because it could very well have been an amazing one. The setup for the campaign was fine and the reaction of the players to that setup reasonable. The problem was that the referee didn't see that reaction as reasonable at all, because it was strongly at variance with the "story" he wanted to tell. And so the campaign died before it ever got very far.
I tell this not to suggest that there is nothing to be gained by considering long-term plans in a campaign or that there's something inherently wrong with a campaign's focusing on a particular activity or activities. However, I do believe there's a great danger in attempting to plan story arcs for characters or settings. That danger is identifying these plans as what the campaign is about, when, in point of fact, a campaign is about what the players say it's about through their choices and actions in-game. Sandbox play is not the only way to ensure no one forgets this, but it's a very good one. The further one gets away from that style of campaign, the greater the danger that what I experienced in that long-ago campaign will come to pass.