Let’s use a grammatical analogy…
If scenes are words, short term goals are commas, medium term goals and full-stops (or periods for our American audience), and long term goals are paragraph breaks.
I like to inject short term goals into a story to alter the flow and pacing of things, while medium term goals signify a new pattern of thought complicating and transforming the narrative, and long term goals are conclusions.
I also like to make sure at least half of my goals are generated from the players. In a small game, I might have more control over the destiny of things, in a large game I let the players do most of the work because otherwise I’d burn myself out. Player-inspired short term goals are derived from individual character backgrounds, they play out after a set timeframe or once at least a quarter of the players have a vested interest (one way or the other) in the outcome.
Player-inspired medium term goals manifest through the interaction of characters with the game world, these tend to have an introduction and an end game. They switch to “end game” mode once a half of the players in the game are aware of it. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, in my experience when you’re dealing with other people, nothing can ever follow a specific set of rules and consistently remain fun. If the story needs a push, you switch gears.
The important thing to remember with each of these goals, is that every one of them needs to have an impact on the world. Such a change may be as little as making an adjustment to dramatic as a complete attitude change (or even elimination) of one of the races or cultures. Try to think in advance what might happen to the world if such changes were to occur.
A change in a relationship – Who ends up better off? How does this affect their life?
Loss of a character – Who would suffer as a result of this loss? Who would benefit? How does this alter local power structures?
Introduction of a character – How powerful is this character? Who would be upset by this introduction? Who might try to start a working relationship with this character? Are they related to anyone already in play? Where would they be likely to settle?
Loss of Cultural/Racial status – Why was the status lost? Who is unhappy about this loss? What are they going to do about it? Who is going to benefit from this loss (if we assume a zero sum environment, then every loss of status will be matched by a gain somewhere else)?
Gain of Cultural/Racial status – Why was the status gained? Who is unhappy about this gain? What are they going to do about it?
Loss of a location – Who frequented this location? What do they think of the loss? Where will they go now?
Gain of a location – What kinds of people would be attracted to this location? Why would they come?
A change in the economy (change in rarity of a commodity, a new resource, etc.) – Who might be affected by this change? How will they respond?
Stasis is one of the things I have issue with in just about every published setting I’ve encountered. I understand that every setting is basically a snapshot of a specific place at a specific time, but it would be nice to have an understanding of how things might change at the local level once changes do start to occur. A few settings have two or three released sourcebooks, offering general changes to the environment, but such things could never take into consideration all the possible actions that might occur due to actions undertaken by different sets of player characters in different games around the world.
The first game I ever saw that handled this sort of thing well was L5R, which based the changes of it’s setting on the official tournament results collated from events round the world (where some character cards gained more experienced versions, certain new cards were added to the set to reflect specific plays made by wining players, etc.). Other games might have done it before, but I’m not familiar with them.
A couple of other games have done things that seem similar, in the form of a sequence of books that explain the changes to an area over the course of a military campaign (or some other wide sweeping event). But like a GM railroading the plt of their players, such games don’t consider the specific actions of players they just rely on deus ex machina
When it comes to long term goals, I have a few ideas in mind, roughly thought out. The whole shape of the island is inspired by impact craters, implying something crash landed here in the forgotten past. Also, the island has a volcano (south side, central west) with a few mines heading into it, this land feature probably arose from an impact that plunged through the planet’s crust. Something is buried in the ground, the resources that sustain the island’s mines are actually stripping away the components of the unknown thing that crashed. I’m seeing ancient nanotechnology or mutagens infecting the miners, or releasing monstrous defenders once the mines pierce the protective shells of the “things that crashed”. Such things would be gradually hinted at in the medium term goals, and ramped up if things get quiet in other areas of the game.
On a more grounded level, I’m seeing some kind of open war rage between at least two of the cultures. Perhaps revolution where the settlers (possibly aided by the pirates) try to overthrow the empire, or a guerrilla war between the natives (possibly aided by the cult) and the combined force of settlers and empire, maybe a three-way battle between natives, settlers and empire. Such a war would be fought physically, economically and mystically, to draw everyone into it.
There is long term potential to introduce new cultures and races, perhaps another of the kingdoms from the old world becomes so tempted by the riches in the area, that they send ships of their own to negotiate with the colonists, privateers, and natives (the pirates down like any regimented force in the area). Would this force compete with the empire, or join other cultures in a war against the empire, then simply replace it? If mutagens infect the miners, and turn them into “something else”, what will this new race look like?
I don’t get bogged down with details, I just leave them as possible directions for the story to go. Adding a bit more detail to one of the long term goals if the story seems to be heading in that direction. When a bit of detail is added, a few hints are dropped into the narrative for players to uncover. If they like it they investigate further and that goal becomes more likely. If they don’t care about it, then we switch focus to another long term goal. Eventually something will stick.