The last good handful of sessions have been really enjoyable. I mean, for the most part they all have been entertaining sessions, but these have become much more so. They've been laid-back and off-the-cuff and in a way I feel it is in part because I have hit a stride in running the games.
My prep time has diminished to almost zero. For the past year, the players have adventured in and around the city of Caladan so the area has been established pretty well (with the help of those players!). The small piece of the campaign world and the events have fleshed themselves out nicely
I've gotten comfortable playing on the fly. I have gathered enough charts and tables and dungeons and encounters that any play outside of the 'comfort zone' can be handled quite easily. Many times those sessions have proven to be our most memorable. I think it's also a part of the DM being more a part of the game as I posted a while ago. Even when I feel a bit worn out or tired, I think enough gets started at the table that before you know it, three hours have gone by.
I'm more interested in letting the players decide the course of action and just going with it then dump on them anything that I create or want them to do. That has always been the goal but it has now become my modus operandi. There's enough hooks and dangling plot threads that the world and events and player interactions are just running themselves. I also feel comfortable letting the game be what it is, everyone's contribution, both players and DM breathing life into this campaign world. We've run a sandbox campaign with options wide open but over the past year, a nice 'story' has developed.
The game is starting to feel more focused too. A good portion of that has to do with the players themselves. Early in our campaign, the PC's carousing opened up a ton of side-plots that, in most instances, eventually needed to be followed; interactions with the Black Hand, various debts to the Temple of Mithra, Adara's dreams (which are still open but are slowly affecting that character). This lead to everyone joking that their party has AADD (Adventurers Attention Deficit Disorder) as they were unable to complete tasks or quests. With a lot of these circumstances 'out of the way', events around the Tower of Zenopus have been slowly building and that is where the play has been focusing. There seems to be a certain tension and excitement as the players delve deeper below the tower knowing that they will be facing every more dangerous foes and perhaps Zenopus herself!
Finally, the camaraderie around the table has just been fantastic and great to be a part of. I think everyone has hit a comfort zone and that helps open the game up creatively.
Oh, and if you really want to freak a party of dungeon delvers out (and believe me, it doesn't take much), place shiny apple in the center of a room with piles of busted furniture. Good Times!