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Old 01-07-2022, 08:01 AM   #1
thrash
 
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Default Depicting the SF sandbox

The essence of a sandbox campaign is that the GM presents (a portion of) the setting to the players and asks, "What do you want to do?" How does this work, however? My question is two-fold:
  1. How do you, as the GM, depict a sandbox setting for your players?
  2. What do you, as a player, want to see from your GM in a sandbox campaign?

My thoughts are below:

In planet-based settings, which account for most kinds of fantasy, all historical genres, and even the planetary romance side of science fiction, the typical solution is a map. Maps convey a tremendous amount of information -- terrain, points of interest, distances, relationships -- in a compact form, with easily adjustable levels of detail. For a sandbox campaign, a map makes the players' options readily apparent. The answer to "What do you want to do?" becomes "Let's go here."

In a planet-hopping SF setting (including some sorts of paratime travel), the situation is not so simple. First, there is potentially orders of magnitude more information to convey: every one of those destination worlds could (should) offer as much diversity as an entire planet-based campaign, more or less by definition. Second, the information is heavily quantized: the destinations are tightly constrained packets of interest in a vast space of almost literal nothingness. Third, depending on the method of inter-world transportation, the choices of destination may be only loosely (or not at all) constrained by proximity, making option paralysis a real possibility.

In reviewing my library of SF roleplaying games, I've identified four approaches to these problems.
  • Create a map anyway. The map could be abstract (Traveller) or realistic (Universe), detailed (Universe, again) or selective (Space Opera). There seems to be a consensus that 20-40 destinations are about right, whether those are confined to a single 8x10 hex array or spread across a cube 200 light-years on a side.
  • Provide a network diagram of destinations and their relationships. This is sometimes referred to as a "subway map," and often appears if the chosen mode of transportation (wormholes, jump lines, etc.) depends on defined linkages between nodes. Diaspora represents the low end of this spectrum, with just 2-5 worlds in each network; Thousand Suns recommends the same 20-40 as above. Other examples seem to fall between these extremes. There is also a hybrid case where a map is presented but the choices of destination are constrained to a network by the transportation physics (2300 AD).
  • Provide a gazetteer, listing potentially interesting destinations. This frequently occurs where the number of accessible destinations is high, or proximity doesn't matter much (if at all). This is essentially the approach of GURPS Infinite Worlds. If the presented options are few, this shades away from a sandbox campaign into a choose-your-own-adventure plot. Too many options may be just as bad, if the players are unable to process all the information into a decision without GM input.
  • Finally, there appears to be a handful of SF RPGs that haven't considered this question at all. I couldn't find a word in Other Suns about mapping its setting, for example. I infer that these either aren't intended for sandbox play (e.g., the GM is expected to present "the planet of the week") or implicitly fall into the gazetteer category (WEG's Star Wars).
Are there other options (or variations) that I've missed? What works? What doesn't?
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Old 01-07-2022, 08:28 AM   #2
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Default Re: Depicting the SF sandbox

Whether or not the PCs have their own ship should probably be a factor - if they do, you'll need to allow for them getting up to all sorts of nonsense rather than following the plot hooks, whereas if they need a ticket to the next planet, it's much easier to supply one with a hook attached.

Of course, even with a ship, if your FTL tech limits where they can go, it will make life easier - a choice of three jump gates beats a near infinite selection of routes any day.
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Old 01-07-2022, 12:11 PM   #3
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Default Re: Depicting the SF sandbox

In practice the limit on the size of a sandbox is the amount of stuff the GM is willing to prep, so if you have 20-40 systems those systems will get about as much detail as the 20-40 towns on your fantasy sandbox map.
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Old 01-07-2022, 01:10 PM   #4
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Default Re: Depicting the SF sandbox

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Originally Posted by Anthony View Post
In practice the limit on the size of a sandbox is the amount of stuff the GM is willing to prep, so if you have 20-40 systems those systems will get about as much detail as the 20-40 towns on your fantasy sandbox map.
That's true, as far as it goes. In both cases, there will likely be varying levels of detail among the offerings. Like the towns, some of those systems will have maps and backstories; others will just be names. If the players don't take the bait that leads to the more developed portions, the GM will have to improvise.

It seems to me much harder, though, to signal to the SF players that there is a derelict starship to explore in the Eastcote system than it is to put a ruined castle symbol near the town of Batch on the fantasy map. Certainly, the GM can lay a trail of breadcrumbs (rumors, patrons, etc.) leading to either one. But when the time comes to decide which trail to follow, the fantasy players generally have an easier time keeping track of their options, visualizing scope of obstacles they might face along the way, and making the call.

Traveller's UPP system is in a class by itself for this, in that (a) it summarize the "terrain" in readily digestible form, and (b) it lends itself to procedural generation on the fly, if the players truly wander away from the GM's prepared material.

It doesn't remove the need for special pleading that (for example) a pyramid complex is visible to the players' ship in orbit, but has somehow been missed by every other survey of the planet to that point. Yet that is what's required to get the SF party to the dungeon.

Last edited by thrash; 01-07-2022 at 01:15 PM.
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Old 01-07-2022, 07:03 PM   #5
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Default Re: Depicting the SF sandbox

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It doesn't remove the need for special pleading that (for example) a pyramid complex is visible to the players' ship in orbit, but has somehow been missed by every other survey of the planet to that point. Yet that is what's required to get the SF party to the dungeon.
If you're running a sandbox, why do you have a dungeon that you want to get the party to? I always assumed that a sandbox had no specific destinations for the player characters to reach—they would just wander around and have encounters, rather as, in a dungeon, they would open doors and have encounters.
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Old 01-07-2022, 08:35 PM   #6
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Default Re: Depicting the SF sandbox

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If you're running a sandbox, why do you have a dungeon that you want to get the party to? I always assumed that a sandbox had no specific destinations for the player characters to reach—they would just wander around and have encounters, rather as, in a dungeon, they would open doors and have encounters.
What constitutes an "encounter"? Is it a room, or a dungeon full of rooms? A single interaction, or the start of a longer engagement? The difference is a matter of taste, I suppose.

My understanding has always been that a sandbox is a setting seeded with interesting adventure possibilities, which the players may choose to pursue (or not) in any order they desire. There's no overarching plot or story line, no Hero's Journey, though there may be recurring NPCs (friends, rivals, or villains) or locations (particularly a home base). The adventures themselves, once embarked on, may be extended or consist of multiple connected activities, rather than one-and-done. Ideally for me each adventure would resolve in a single session (like an episodic TV series or a picaresque short story), but this is again a matter of taste.

The point of the example, however, was to illustrate the relative difficulty of presenting the interesting adventure possibilities to the players in a SF sandbox, over its fantasy counterpart. The same pyramidal structure that a party on foot might spot in the distance when temporarily lost in the mountains now has to catch the attention of a ship in orbit, out of a planet full of other possibilities. The scale is entirely different, making it much more challenging to offer the option to the players in a natural way.

Edit to add: It occurs to me that non-Traveller grognards may not spot the allusion, which is to Double Adventure 1: Shadows.

Last edited by thrash; 01-07-2022 at 08:50 PM.
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Old 01-07-2022, 08:39 PM   #7
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Default Re: Depicting the SF sandbox

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Originally Posted by whswhs View Post
If you're running a sandbox, why do you have a dungeon that you want to get the party to? I always assumed that a sandbox had no specific destinations for the player characters to reach—they would just wander around and have encounters, rather as, in a dungeon, they would open doors and have encounters.
Because RPGs have to be biased towards interesting stuff. That means you give them interesting things that they have the option to poke at, rather than having them continually poke at random things and discover that said random thing is boring.
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Old 01-08-2022, 09:25 AM   #8
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Default Re: Depicting the SF sandbox

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Because RPGs have to be biased towards interesting stuff. That means you give them interesting things that they have the option to poke at, rather than having them continually poke at random things and discover that said random thing is boring.
Of course, but (a) if your definition of "interesting stuff" is limited to dungeons, then you need to have multiple dungeons, and then you don't need to steer them toward a specific dungeon; (b) if you define "interesting stuff" more broadly, then you don't have to have them find a dungeon to have interesting stuff to interact with, so you don't need to steer them toward the dungeon. The classic "wilderness adventure" model in original D&D and in RQ had rules for populating spaces on maps with interesting creatures and encounters, but didn't assume that dungeons were there at all.

And then (c) my experience has been that players whose characters are in a vacant square on a map will either pass on quickly to the next square (because discourse time, the time spent presenting a story, is not proportionate to story time, the time experienced by the characters in the story) or find interesting things to do on their own. In fact, that's just the same as if the characters are in an unoccupied room in a dungeon. Surely you don't put monsters, traps, or treasure in every single room in your dungeons?
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Old 01-08-2022, 12:37 PM   #9
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Default Re: Depicting the SF sandbox

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Originally Posted by whswhs View Post
Of course, but (a) if your definition of "interesting stuff" is limited to dungeons, then you need to have multiple dungeons, and then you don't need to steer them toward a specific dungeon; (b) if you define "interesting stuff" more broadly, then you don't have to have them find a dungeon to have interesting stuff to interact with, so you don't need to steer them toward the dungeon.
The question was not how to steer them to a specific "dungeon" (however broadly defined), but how to let them know in the first place where any of the "dungeons" are. In a fantasy sandbox setting, it's easy enough to mark six or eight places on the map with an icon to indicate "something interesting that is not a city or castle." How, then, does one accomplish the same thing on a star chart or warp network diagram, without it becoming awkward or forced?

Quote:
The classic "wilderness adventure" model in original D&D and in RQ had rules for populating spaces on maps with interesting creatures and encounters, but didn't assume that dungeons were there at all.
On the contrary, the original D&D rules assumed that the "wilderness" centered on the dungeons:

"The so-called Wilderness really consists of unexplored land, cities and castles, not to mention the area immediately surrounding the castle (ruined or otherwise) which housed the dungeons...
"The terrain beyond the immediate surroundings of the dungeon area should be unknown to all but the referee...
"REFEREE’S MAP is a wilderness map unknown to the players. It should be for the territory around the dungeon location."

-- Dungeons & Dragons, Book III, pp. 14-16 (emphasis mine).

It might also be inferred from the first sample that at least some of the castles encountered are also dungeons, though there don't seem to be any rules for this.

Similarly, the map of Sartar (pp. 108-109) in my copy of RQ (probably 2nd ed.) includes a symbol for "ruins" in the legend and at least a dozen instances depicted, which neatly illustrates my point. The Sample Encounter Charts (p. 107) included both ruins and "Chaos nests."
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Old 01-08-2022, 01:14 PM   #10
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Default Re: Depicting the SF sandbox

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The question was not how to steer them to a specific "dungeon" (however broadly defined), but how to let them know in the first place where any of the "dungeons" are. In a fantasy sandbox setting, it's easy enough to mark six or eight places on the map with an icon to indicate "something interesting that is not a city or castle." How, then, does one accomplish the same thing on a star chart or warp network diagram, without it becoming awkward or forced?
Well, in Traveller an amber or red zone is a decent indicator of something. Weird things that are being quiet really need clues of some sort leading there, but that's true even on the scale of a fantasy country.
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