Steve Jackson Games - Site Navigation
Home General Info Follow Us Search Illuminator Store Forums What's New Other Games Ogre GURPS Munchkin Our Games: Home

Go Back   Steve Jackson Games Forums > Roleplaying > Roleplaying in General

Reply
 
Thread Tools Display Modes
Old 01-07-2022, 09:01 AM   #1
thrash
 
thrash's Avatar
 
Join Date: Aug 2004
Location: traveller
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?
thrash is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 01-07-2022, 09:28 AM   #2
The Colonel
 
The Colonel's Avatar
 
Join Date: Jul 2006
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.
The Colonel is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 01-07-2022, 01:11 PM   #3
Anthony
 
Join Date: Feb 2005
Location: Berkeley, CA
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.
__________________
My GURPS site and Blog.
Anthony is online now   Reply With Quote
Old 01-07-2022, 02:10 PM   #4
thrash
 
thrash's Avatar
 
Join Date: Aug 2004
Location: traveller
Default Re: Depicting the SF sandbox

Quote:
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 02:15 PM.
thrash is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 01-07-2022, 08:03 PM   #5
whswhs
 
Join Date: Jun 2005
Default Re: Depicting the SF sandbox

Quote:
Originally Posted by thrash View Post
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.
__________________
Bill Stoddard

I don't think we're in Oz any more.
whswhs is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 01-07-2022, 09:35 PM   #6
thrash
 
thrash's Avatar
 
Join Date: Aug 2004
Location: traveller
Default Re: Depicting the SF sandbox

Quote:
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.
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 09:50 PM.
thrash is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 01-07-2022, 09:39 PM   #7
Anthony
 
Join Date: Feb 2005
Location: Berkeley, CA
Default Re: Depicting the SF sandbox

Quote:
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.
__________________
My GURPS site and Blog.
Anthony is online now   Reply With Quote
Old 08-31-2022, 10:22 PM   #8
Agemegos
 
Agemegos's Avatar
 
Join Date: May 2005
Location: Oz
Default Re: Depicting the SF sandbox

Quote:
Originally Posted by thrash View Post
  • Provide a gazetteer, listing potentially interesting destinations.
Are there other options (or variations) that I've missed? What works? What doesn't?
One variation on a gazetteer would be a searchable database with positional data and systematic specification of social, governmental, and economic/technological characteristics. The representation system would need to be designed with intelligent care, but once that were done the content could perhaps be generated procedurally. As you say that's best when the means of interstellar travel doesn't impose a notion of adjacency or make proximity notably important, and it perhaps does well in putting the players into the same information-overloaded shoes as their character.

I am not proficient enough with programming and computer graphics to do this, but it seems within the capabilities of a keen amateur to augment such a database with an anaglyphic or rotatable display in which the user gets to specify on the fly which objects from the database are included and which data about nodes and links are displayed and how they are represented (with size, shape, colour, captions etc.).
__________________

Decay is inherent in all composite things.
Nod head. Get treat.
Agemegos is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 09-28-2022, 07:53 PM   #9
kirbwarrior
 
kirbwarrior's Avatar
 
Join Date: Jun 2010
Location: Dreamland
Default Re: Depicting the SF sandbox

Quote:
Originally Posted by thrash View Post
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?
I have no answers for anything SF in particular. I hope anything I say can be adapted regardless of setting.

1) I don't think I've ever done a setting that didn't have a mostly sandbox feel. I frankly could not explain to someone how to do a linear campaign. For me, I just seed the field either overtly, covertly, or even without telling the players. I keep track of things I think are important to keep track of and work out the rest. The players are then doing what their characters would do; Maybe they track down something immoral going on. Maybe they think they can sell the Ring of Clones. Maybe they have a clear plan irregardless of what is happening and all these things are obstacles in their paths. Really, the trick is to know both the players and the characters to know how to build the campaign for them because they'll go to what they want. Session Zero is super important.

As for preparation, I know that I'm no god, I literally can't prepare enough ahead of time to deal with any possible thing the players will do and know that they will usually go in a different direction no matter how much I prepare. For things like maps, dungeons, gear, minor characters, etc. I tend to 'map out' after the fact. Once something has happened, it is now set in stone and now true. I do still prepare some; I have characters I know will affect things even if they somehow don't show up. I know whatever I think is super important to know before session one. I know the PC's back stories and how to incorporate them into the world. And the line isn't clear on what is deemed important, which is why being able to come up with solid answers in the moment is nigh necessary.

2) Absolutely no clue. Any campaign I've been a player in involves about three sessions on average to really figure out things like who my character is, what this world is, what rules (exact or vague) the world and the GM abide by, etc. And after three sessions, it's pretty clear what the campaign is shaping up to be.
__________________
Quote:
Originally Posted by cosmicfish View Post
While I do not think that GURPS is perfect I do think that it is more balanced than what I am likely to create by GM fiat.
kirbwarrior is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 09-30-2022, 07:39 AM   #10
ak_aramis
 
ak_aramis's Avatar
 
Join Date: Jun 2010
Location: Alsea, OR
Default Re: Depicting the SF sandbox

Quote:
Originally Posted by thrash View Post
  • 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?
The "all bodies" cross-index table, as seen in WEG Star Wars, especially Lords of the Expanse

Code:
X	-	-	3	1	8	4	7	2
|	Y	-	8	9	9	1	6	1
|	|	1	🅖	🅕	🅔	🅓	🅒	🅑
3	4	🅐	4	5.4	7.1	3.2	4.5	3.2
2	1	🅑	7.1	8.1	10	2	7.1	
7	6	🅒	4.5	6.7	3.2	5.8		
4	1	🅓	7.1	8.5	8.9			
8	9	🅔	5.1	7				
1	9	🅕	2.2					
3	8
The above is a small cluster as a 2d map.
In Star Wars, tho, the route itself can modify travel time... (Some star trek stories imply similar, and the non-canon SFU explicitly does similar)
so, here's a table of routing multipliers...
Code:
	🅖	🅕	🅔	🅓	🅒	🅑
🅐	0.5	0.5	1	1	1	1
🅑	2	1	2	2	3	
🅒	2	2	1	1		
🅓	1	1	0.5			
🅔	1	1				
🅕	0.5
And the resulting standard durations...
Code:
1	🅖	🅕	🅔	🅓	🅒	🅑
🅐	2	2.7	7.1	3.2	4.5	3.2
🅑	14.2	8.1	20	4	21.3	
🅒	9	13.4	3.2	5.8		
🅓	7.1	8.5	4.5			
🅔	5.1	7				
🅕	1.1
If I were doing it with, say, Traveller world gen, I'd make the multiplier the inversion of the sum of the importances... (or the GT BTN - conceptually similar)

Provide the gazeteer with just the third, calculated, table, but if they ask, they can get the actual coords.

This works well enough for clusters up to about 20 worlds....

Here's the SS I used for calculating....
https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets...it?usp=sharing


I'll note that subway mapped wormhole settings (EG: Cole, Webber, & White's Starfire setting, Bujold's Vorkosiverse, Webber's Honorverse, Doohan & Stirling's Flight Engineer setting) are conceptually quite different than subway maps of open space a la 2300AD... as the latter leaves room for PC inventions to do something to go off the map, while wormholes don't, and tunnels with exits a la the Flight Engineer are somewhere in between...
ak_aramis is offline   Reply With Quote
Reply

Thread Tools
Display Modes

Posting Rules
You may not post new threads
You may not post replies
You may not post attachments
You may not edit your posts

BB code is On
Fnords are Off
[IMG] code is Off
HTML code is Off

Forum Jump


All times are GMT -6. The time now is 01:14 PM.


Powered by vBulletin® Version 3.8.9
Copyright ©2000 - 2023, vBulletin Solutions, Inc.