|The Big Model|
I get it. This is Herbie's big epic saga, and we're playing the heroes in it. No stress, no muss, no dissent, no bullshit. How does Herbie do it?
First, we face facts: he does impose a prepared concept of where the story "goes," and to do that, he often makes decisions for our player-characters very much as if he were the player. The way he makes it not annoying is to:
1) Start new scenes with our characters in them, such that they must have decided to be there in the "unknown space" between this scene and the last.
2) Provide solid information from NPCs as if the player-characters' presence alone were enough to get that information. Even an NPC who is totally isolated and wants to be totally left alone is either impressed, moved, or cowed enough by the player-character to give up what he or she knows. He doesn't block these scenes by imposing rolls, and he makes these NPCs interesting and emotionally moving.
3) Use failed conflicts as an opportunity - the characters do not get what they want, but they get something else useful and interesting. He tries to avoid cliches, as in losing a fight, but somehow grabbing an item that reveals where the NPC is going next.
We accept that he's doing this. We accept our characters being team-played because we trust him and he's not bullshitting us and pretending that we're somehow making the story. He's not trying to fool us and and trying to pretend that the story emerges right there in play as if from the ether.
Session by session, he doesn't let things stall out by holding back information, letting everyone mill around too long, not letting anything happen until they all hit Button X. He moves things along to make sure that we get opportunities and keep learning important stuff, without basically forcing "you do this now" down our throats. He never ever runs lame-ass waiting around and maundering in anticipation of how good his story is going to be later.
Our game works because we know our job is to enjoy his story and to play our characters to the hilt, in the roles that we are all secure they hold in that story.