Spooky action at a distance is a blog run by emmy verte, a fantasy writer and hypertext enthusiast. Here you will find musings on sci-fi, fantasy location exploration and short fiction. You can donate to support Ukraine here.
Continuing my Sojourner series, I was thinking about sandbox play. In this post I describe the way I run my sci-fi sandbox campaigns that is compatible with any system. To start off you will need a couple of worlds and factions with interconnected relationships.
Working for both sides of the blockade to make ends meet. Crushing starship debt. Time is nothing but adding weeks and subtracting credits. They say that a month in space is darker than any darker. No starlight reaches these depths ever. Human eyes were not meant to see it.
Campaign time is measured in months. In a month the crew can: visit a starport, travel between nearby worlds, or repair severe ship damage.
At the start of every month roll for an event:
|1||Encounter||Authority check, pirate ambush, patron meeting.|
|2||Setback||Ship damage, hyperspace misjump, unexpected costs.|
|3||Local||Event unique to the visited world. Festivity, seasons, eclipse.|
|4||Galactic||Event rippling through the galaxy. Coronation, recession, rebellion.|
|5||Omen||Rumours of future opportunities, consequences of past actions.|
|6||Free||No special event this month.|
Whenever the crew spends a month in a starport, follow these CORE steps:
Completing prospects is the main way for characters to gain access to new equipment, locations and other boons from factions.
The tables below provide generic examples. Customise to your own campaign world.
A job consists of several elements: task you are assigned with, reward for a successful mission, factions you gain and lose reputation with for completing the job, timeline that occurs if the job is not taken.
|1||Deliver||Hazardous material, VIP passenger, contraband goods.|
|2||Destroy||Merchant treasury, navy corvette.|
|3||Repair||Navigation beacon, damaged star gate.|
|4||Retrieve||Ancient relic, lost heirloom, derelict shipmind.|
|5||Explore||Planetary anomaly, distress signal coordinates.|
|6||Neutralise||Guild representative, pirate captain, aristocrat tyrant.|
Once the task is decided, decide which faction would benefit, and which faction would be weakened if the assignment was completed. If the job is of great weight, multiple factions may be affected on either side. Keep a tally of each faction’s attitude towards the crew.
You might keep a twist hidden from the players. They can be an interesting way to increase tension in otherwise routine missions, but if overdone they risk becoming expected.
|1||Pirates||Small payment||Derelict cruiser||Long haul travel|
|2||Crime Syndicate||Moderate payment||Deep space station||Enemy presence|
|3||Teamster Union||Generous payment||Outer rim world||Monstrosity threat|
|4||Merchant Guild||Faction location||Merchant star port||Rival crew|
|5||Local House||Faction equipment||Core world||Environment hazard|
|6||The Navy||Faction contact||Imperial palace||Uncharted system|
Be open about the timeline that occurs when a job is not taken. For example, if the crew doesn’t take a mission helping the teamster union in a strike, the next month they are weakened or totally destroyed. If a VIP guild representative is not taken to their destination, they call of an important trade deal with a local house. The players will have to carefully pick how they want to influence the world.
Now let’s place our jobs on the board.
The job board is how the players receive missions, and also how they receive updates on the state of the world. The board contains 3 jobs for the crew to follow. It is updated month to month based on the crew’s decisions. Here is an example of a job board in action:
Month 1 (F=Factions, R=Reward, T=Timeline):
New trade route. Repair Merchant Guild beacon between Harmony Point and Delta-IV. F: Guild [+], House Dener [-]. R: New starport location. T: House Dener keeps monopoly of local organic goods supply.
Blockade run. Deliver contraband through Navy checkpoints to Anat Prime. F: Union [+], Navy [-]. R: Moderate payment. T: Teamster Union rebellion is crushed.
The void gate. Explore local anomaly located on pirate territory. F: House Larkell [+], Pirates [-]. R: Contact with house representative. T: Strange creatures exit the void gate.
Jobs don’t have to be local to the current world. Making travel a requirement for missions is a great way to incentivise your crew to visit different worlds.
Note that the board can (and should!) be adapted to your crew. If they are more inclined to haul cargo and evade combat, include more missions concerned with delivery. As a rule of thumb, after a crew completes a job, include two jobs of that type or faction next month. Be sure to include new job types and factions each month to give the crew new opportunities.
It is assumed that the crew takes one job per session, so that you have the time to update and prepare the board for the next month. If you plan on playing several prospects per session, prepare several months worth of the board accordingly.
During month one the crew chose the Blockade run job to help the Teamster Union survive. They have successfully smuggled the goods, but on their way back got hit by a Navy turret. After resting and repairing their ship, the crew is low on cash. They looking for a mission to pay the bills.
Smuggling tea. Retrieve the hidden tea supply from House Dener and bring it to Delta-IV. F: Syndicate [+], House Dener [- -]. R: Generous payment. T: House Dener destroys Syndicate cargo ships. Tensions rise.
Union negotiations. As the blockade settles, deliver the Union VIP to a Navy station. F: Union [+], Navy [+], Syndicate [-]. R: Union will provide basic stealth tech. T: The negotiation is called off and the stalemate continues.
Void creatures. Destroy the void nest. F: Pirates [++], Navy [-]. R: Access to pirate hideout. T: The Navy gets a sample of void creatures.
If you want to slow down the pace of the campaign, you can refresh the board only every other month. This way the crew can pursue more jobs before they have to deal with the consequences.
When playing with several groups of players sharing the same universe, using the job boar is a good way to intertwine their actions. Events from one group can ripple to the other. Crews might be completing missions from rival factions and undermining each other’s progress.
To read: Planning a Campaign as a Series of Decisions - Retired Adventurer. I like how this post proposes asking questions as a way to add depth to your prep, without actually preparing for every single possible scenario.
Published on June 13, 2022.