- A player objective more worthwhile than simply pillaging and killing.
- An intriguing story that is intricately woven into play itself.
- Dungeons with an architectural sense.
- An attainable and honorable end within one to two sessions playing time.
The Mule Abides and Grognardia deal with these issues eloquently, and how they are indicative of the (lamentable, to me) shift in RPG design philosophy which occurred during the 80s, so I won't cover them here - I provide all this by way of background.
What I would like to add is the missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to the shift towards GM-driven story - Hickman is not just a game designer. He is also a novelist. Indeed, I think that it's safe to say that he is primarily a novelist. And the four elements of his design manifesto are exactly the kind of thing that somebody who wants to be a novelist would want in a game: objectives (to drive the plot), and intriguing story, a world that makes sense, and closure/a happy ending.
They are not the kind of things that somebody who just wants to create role playing games would want in a game, which would be more like: objectives (to keep score), freedom (for players to pursue their own goals), challenging settings, and open-ended design.
There is a reason why Hickman's approach chimed with many gamers, and why ultimately it came to dominate the hobby during the 80s, 90s and 00s before story/hipster/forge games and the OSR began to slay the beast: many, I would say perhaps the majority, of GMs are frustrated novelists, just like Tracy Hickman was. To them, there was an allure in the idea that they could create games which were not mere games (a frivolous pursuit) but which were also stories - it was an outlet for their desire to be writers, which they could not fulfil due to lack of talent, time, dedication or all three.
Tracy Hickman turned out to be a decent story teller and writer, in actual fact (despite Dragonlance, the Death Gate Cycle, and so forth being terribly cliched and lightweight, the guy knows how to write). But the impact of his ideas, and those of others like him, on the hobby, have been rather negative, because all those frustrated-novelist GMs can't become writers too. Their desire to be novelists can only be channelled into their other imaginative activity - gaming - where they have a captive audience (their players) and a blank canvas (a 4 hour gaming session on a Saturday afternoon). This is the perfect storm for railroad-y, GM-led, story-obsessed play.
I feel bad for Tracy Hickman, as in our corner of the blogosphere his name seems to have become synonymous for "where it all went wrong". This is harsh, because he's obviously a very nice guy, and talented with it. This post is not to impugn him or his reputation. It's to lament the way in which D&D in particular has become a vehicle for so many people who really want to be doing something else than playing games: writing fantasy novels for a living. There is little that could be more detrimental to good gaming.