Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Sci-Fi Sandbox

The Sandbox
Since my Dwimmermount campaign remains on hiatus (and is likely to meet only once a month at any rate), I started up a second campaign in its absence. I batted around a few other ideas, which I'll talk about in a future post, but, after consulting with my potential players, we settled on my SF RPG, Thousand Suns. This is convenient, since I'm in the process of revising the rulebook, and because I've been feeling a bit of a sci-fi itch lately anyway. As I've probably said more times than anyone cares to hear, science fiction is actually my preferred genre for roleplaying. However, most other people don't share my preference and so I've likely played fantasy RPGs far more often than SF ones.

As written, Thousand Suns is a toolbox game. It provides only a very thin setting based on the tropes of what I call "imperial science fiction," which is to say, SF stories written from the 1940s to the 1970s by authors like Poul Anderson, Bertram Chandler, H. Beam Piper, and E.C. Tubb, among many others. The game doesn't even specify whether the primary galactic government is a federation or an empire and in fact provides for either option.

Consequently, in this campaign, I'll be doing something very similar to what I'd done with Dwimmermount: making up the details as I go along, using my players' ideas and the actions of their characters as a springboard for setting development. So, I started with a basic jumpline map of the frontier sector of Limzano and established only that the Federation -- I decided to go with a corrupt but democratic galactic government rather than the more clichéd benevolent but autocratic empire -- laid claim to the whole sector but only exercised direct control over about half its worlds. Sizable portions are in the hands of two non-Federation powers (one of the alien) and another chunk is made up of independent worlds founded by Terran colonists who left the Federation in hopes of making a better life for themselves. Beyond that, I didn't tell my players much else and figured, as I did with Dwimmermount, that it'd be more fun to let the setting evolve according to the logic and demands of actual play.

The first character created was Malos Vermilion. He hails from a "barbarian" world beyond Federation space. This world was colonized by genetically engineered soldiers who eventually reverted to a pre-industrial, animistic society subject to periodic raiding by space pirates and slavers. His player decided that Malos was captured on one of these raids but soon impressed his captors with his courage and skill at arms. They eventually trained him to be part of their crew, learning the ins and outs of starship operation and other high-tech vocations. Ambitious, Malos wanted a ship of his own, which he got through a deal with a sector-wide criminal syndicate known as the Malavara Entrepreno -- "Bountiful Enterprise" -- who now expect him to act on their behalf.

To ensure that this happens, Malos was assigned a "consultant" named Jakomo Bahun, who's a technical prodigy and hacker, as well as an initiated member of the Malavara Entrepreno. Possessed of an eidetic memory and a devotion to rationality, Jakomo doesn't just keep Malos focused on their mutual employers' business. He also acts as the ship's engineer and keeps its transponder ID changing constantly in order to keep it from being pursued by the Federation Navy. Also aboard ship is Lajla Suleiman, an evangelist for a religion whose exact tenets seem to change every time anyone asks her about them. She claims to have been persecuted for her beliefs on another world of the sector and is thus in need of quick transport elsewhere, but it's pretty clear that Lajla is a con artist possessed of considerable people skills, thereby making her a useful person to have around.

The campaign began with my asking the players to pick a planet on the sector map and I'd take it from there. The chosen world was Nova Nova Kalifornio, which I immediately decided was a rhodium mining world, rhodium being a particularly valuable metal and thus a source of much smuggling to avoid Federation tariffs. The PCs set down on the planet carrying a cargo of "fortified sodium-positive imitation shrimp food" for sale to the miners. In reality, they were there to meet with a criminal contact with whom they could arrange the smuggling of a shipment of rhodium. Naturally, that was far too free of complications to provide a basis for conflict, so I quickly decided that security had been tightened at the mine, thanks to the presence of a new administrator from the megacorp running the place, and the PCs would need to go to the mine and find another way to acquire the shipment in question. thereby kicking the campaign off.

What I discovered is that it's far, far easier to start off an open-ended D&D campaign than an open-ended sci-fi one, especially if the PCs have their own starship. I was lucky in this case because the players decided their characters would be associated with a sector-wide organization. This gave me an easy means to give them hooks into possible adventures, but, unless I choose to be heavy-handed about it -- and I don't -- there's still a great deal of scope for the players to wander very far afield into areas I haven't the slightest notion about. I won't deny that I was more than a little worried about this and so the first session of the campaign, most of which was taken up by character creation, was probably rockier and more tentative than I would have liked, as I struggled to stay one step ahead of the players in creating NPCs and situations for their characters to encounter.

In the end, I think it went very well and am sure future sessions will be more relaxed on my part. Having now laid down some basic information in that first session, I have a better sense of what might exist on Nova Nova Kalifornio and beyond it into the wider sector. I've also got plenty more ideas of hooks to offer the players. As in Dwimmermount, though, I won't be sitting down and filling notebooks with details of worlds and NPCs and adventures before the players make any decisions in play. If anything, I'm even more dedicated to this campaign's being a seat of your pants style affair and, while it'll probably be a bit more harrowing than was Dwimmermount, since I don't even have a dungeon to fall back upon, I also think it has the potential to be a lot more fun for me personally, since I'm getting the chance to referee a sci-fi sandbox, something I've wanted to do for quite some time now.

31 comments:

  1. My Rogue Trader sandbox ground to a halt, in part I think because the players were too wary of exploring, so I'll be following your science fiction adventures with interest!

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  2. Esperanto really brings a feeling of odd consistency to the setting (as it did in Sprague de Camp's Krishna setting).

    Does Limzano mean anything in Esperanto?

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  3. I've had the same experience with Sandbox SciFi when I ran my Traveller Trade Authority game. I think that at least part of it is that in a fantasy setting (whatever it is), there don't usually seem to be that many options. A bunch of broke adventurers can only realistically do so many things and have to get from A to B. But guys in a space-ship can (usually) go anywhere and do anything, which produces a bit of confusion.

    I've wondered if it might not be better to use a much smaller setting, so the scope for travel, money-making, and staying ahead of the police is more tangible. I'm blanking on the name, but Paul Elliott (I think) did a hack of Traveller which was limited to our solar system. It looked intriguing.

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  4. I started a Star Wars Saga sandbox style game. The one thing that helped was I wasn't going to be a slave to cannon. The downside is I don't always have cannon to fall back on.

    I agree with you about the PCs having a ship, yet I was able to keep part of the adventure hooked into the ship with needing the crew to complete the ship. (Long story).

    I also look forward to reading more about this sandbox sci-fi game.

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  5. In my own experience, a GM's best friend in a sandbox sci-fi game is the five-minute pause when the PCs decide to do something totally outre or go completely off the known map. That, and a campaign folder containing some stock situations with the game math already done, so you can just reskin them with the particulars of wherever the players happen to be.

    I'd also suggest cracking open Stars Without Number and liberally plundering the world tag and adventure seed sections when the players hare off in a random planetary direction. Roll twice for tags, merge them, roll on the adventure seed table, insert the tag elements into the seed's blanks, and you've got a situation to dump the PCs into in under five minutes. It's not going to give you the mechanical crunch of the NPCs involved, it's true, but that's why the filler folder is my friend.

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  6. ...but only exercised direct control over about half its worlds.

    Does this make the remaining states protectorates or client states (without actual representation in the Federation)? And we know how most democracies treat the disenfranchised, don't we...

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  7. As you have a sci-fi itch, I think you might enjoy my new game Humanspace Empires. It's set in Tékumel's ancient star-faring past and runs on a rules system that is mash-up of OD&D by way of Labyrinth Lord and 1975 EPT.

    I feel a bit bad about the self-promotion but you and some of your readers may not know it's out there, it's free to download and the more feedback that I get on the play-test draft, which includes everything you need for space dungeon exploration, the better the final game will be.

    It can be dowloaded from by blog ix

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  8. Does this make the remaining states protectorates or client states (without actual representation in the Federation)? And we know how most democracies treat the disenfranchised, don't we...

    We'll probably see how that works as we go along, but my impression right now that they're neither. The Federation claims to have jurisdiction over this area of space but those worlds consider themselves independent.

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  9. I've got a few science fictional rpg elements you might like. I'm not tooting my own horn here but you never know. http://swordsandstitchery.blogspot.com/

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  10. Does the corrupt but bureaucratic federation refer to Terry Nation's Blake's 7 or to Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality?

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  11. I am curious... what form does FTL travel take in Thousand Suns? Or is that yet to be decided as well? (I see the sector map has numbers on the routes between systems, so I am assuming there is some kind of framework there.)

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  12. @rentagurkha: Cool too! No doubt things will gain shape* as they enter your story.

    * Probably pear.

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  13. A side-point re layout: it looks like the background was a star field that you then inverted, so that the black lines between planets would show up.

    I don't think this works very well: it looks more like old parchment, which isn't very science-fiction.

    I'd leave the planets as they are, and invert everything else (so the routes between planets, their names, and the numbers are all white, and the background is mostly black). Then perhaps put a white line around the planets if they don't show up well enough.

    This is assuming it's for publication.

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  14. Jim,

    Good to see you coming over from the Dark Side. I agree Sci-Fi gaming is where its at for me too. Really for the longest time I just didnt get D&D form a DM's perspective so I was much more comfortable with sci fi games.

    Kudos on Thousand Suns - Its a great game. What I hope happens with your upcoming campaign is you get the inspiration to support Thousand Suns in the same manner Colonial Gothic is getting supported. I love the dedication to Colonial Gothic.

    Also I'd +1 to Kevin Crawford's suggestion to use some support from his wonderful SWN. In deed I'd can see a great mirage comeing from that and you keep some OSR flavorful too only with 12* giving tags more depth as hooks ...

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  15. Does Limzano mean anything in Esperanto?

    It means "frontier."

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  16. I'd also suggest cracking open Stars Without Number and liberally plundering the world tag and adventure seed sections when the players hare off in a random planetary direction.

    Thousand Suns already has a very similar system of "hooks" to describe NPCs, worlds, starships, etc. -- which likely explains why I so appreciated the tags system in SWN. It's a terrific way to spark the imagination with just a couple of dice rolls.

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  17. I feel a bit bad about the self-promotion but you and some of your readers may not know it's out there, it's free to download and the more feedback that I get on the play-test draft, which includes everything you need for space dungeon exploration, the better the final game will be.

    No need to feel bad about promoting it here! I probably should have done so myself, but I'm so far behind in posting about news that it's slipped off my radar. Thanks for the reminder.

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  18. The Federation claims to have jurisdiction over this area of space but those worlds consider themselves independent.

    That's right. The Federation's claim is thin, as they have no presence on these worlds and any colonies there were established without Federation governmental assistance.

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  19. Does the corrupt but bureaucratic federation refer to Terry Nation's Blake's 7 or to Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality?

    Neither. It's most heavily influenced by Piper's Federation, with additional inspiration from Chandler's Federation, the late Roman Republic, and a dash of Old Republic from Star Wars.

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  20. I am curious... what form does FTL travel take in Thousand Suns?

    It uses a slow jumpline system. FTL travel is point to point and doesn't necessarily correspond to real-space in terms of distance. The numbers on the map are the number of weeks travel between worlds. As there's no FTL communications, many worlds are quite isolated.

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  21. What I hope happens with your upcoming campaign is you get the inspiration to support Thousand Suns in the same manner Colonial Gothic is getting supported.

    That's more or less the plan. I was never very happy with the presentation of the original rulebook, so unhappy in fact that I nearly abandoned the game several times. With the revision of the rulebook and a much better layout, my enthusiasm has returned in full force, so you can expect to see more support for the game in the future.

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  22. Two comments!

    1. I have to say, I am eager for more Thousand Suns -- but I was saddened to see the final cover of the Starships book. The colored starfield of the original rulebook and Transmissions are quiet evocative.

    2. The biggest problem in running an SF sandbox game for me has always been information. The sheer amount of info the players ought to have access to is staggering, and making it all up on the fly (and then keeping it straight (and still being happy with it three days later)) is a real challenge.

    The problem is only compounded when you realize just how much of it is (or can be) tied to very specific setting details, and just how hard it is to grow that sort of thing in play.

    Fantasy gets to gloss this problem with shared assumptions and a common symbolic language: monsters and wizards and swords and castles and anachronistic faux-medieval trappings. But a horse is a horse.

    Then compare and contrast Star Wars, Star Trek, Foundation, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Pulling out the common DNA of two or three SF settings is possible, but it has always felt like you got less of a usable RPG foundation when you did it with SF than you did with Fantasy.

    YMMV. Shrug.

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  23. 1. I have to say, I am eager for more Thousand Suns -- but I was saddened to see the final cover of the Starships book. The colored starfield of the original rulebook and Transmissions are quiet evocative.

    FWIW, I'm not a huge fan of the cover of Starships either. The revised rulebook and all future supplements will have covers like that of the original rulebook.

    Fantasy gets to gloss this problem with shared assumptions and a common symbolic language: monsters and wizards and swords and castles and anachronistic faux-medieval trappings. But a horse is a horse.

    This is very true and it's definitely a problem for SF RPGs. I suspect it's a big part of why, aside from Traveller, successful science fiction roleplaying games tend to be licensed ones.

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  24. I think that a lot of the burden of sci-fi sandboxing also comes from the fact that there's so comparatively little that a GM can reuse in a campaign. In one session the PCs touch down on Shen Tian, and the GM has to provide a distinct and flavorful planet for them to explore. But the very next session they decide to up stakes and fly over to Volgrad, and all the work that the GM did to flesh out Shen Tian is now largely irrelevant unless the PCs decide to go back there for some reason.

    It's as if a fantasy sandbox GM were faced with a group of players that could be in a completely different nation every session- or multiple ones within the same session. The only effective solution I've found is to keep a lot of "generic" adventure or social situations on hand and be ready to reskin things in a hurry.

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  25. It's as if a fantasy sandbox GM were faced with a group of players that could be in a completely different nation every session- or multiple ones within the same session. The only effective solution I've found is to keep a lot of "generic" adventure or social situations on hand and be ready to reskin things in a hurry.

    Yes, which is why it's so important that a SF RPG have copious and easy to use random tables to take a little of the load off the referee in this task. It's one of the things I really like about Stars Without Number.

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  26. This is reminding me of a thread I vaguely remember from rpg.net where the entire settings of other game systems were resin Ned whole cloth into individual episode/adventure settings for Doctor Who... :)

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  27. I've found that, as James noted, simply drawing a boundary around the playing area helps immensely. The 'universe' can still be big, but it shouldn't be infinite.

    I'm also a big fan of planets that can be described in a single phrase: desert nomads, ice planet, criminal syndicate, imperial stronghold. Sure it's cartoonish, but melodrama and stereotypes work in RPGs. I've built several of these types of sandboxes in the past, fairly successfully. My latest effort (since abandoned for several years) is here: http://home.comcast.net/~max.velocity/

    As to the information question, I like to think of most planets as similar to the third world. Most of them are well behind the Imperial (or whatever) standard of technology, but they adopt and adapt what they can. They're a crazy mix of primitive and modern tech, like Afghan bandits traveling on mules and camels, armed with 50-year-old AK-47s and RPGs fresh from the factory, and communicating with satellite phones.

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  28. Er, that's 'reskinned'. Stupid autocorrect. :/

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  29. James, sounds like fun! But what I don't get, is why you aren't a fan of "Firefly"...

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  30. But what I don't get, is why you aren't a fan of "Firefly"...

    It's a topic I learned long ago rarely admits of rational discussion, so I simply say that it's not to my liking and leave it at that.

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  31. After reading Asimov and Fredric Brown this summer, a sci-fi sandbox campaign sounds really interesting... I'm eager to read more about it!

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