Setting up Space Sandboxes for Scoundrels with a Starship

Yora

Legend
Since the original release of Star Wars, Space Scoundrels has basically become a subgenre of Space Opera in itself. And it's apparently quite popular in space adventure RPGs as well. Traveller, Stars Without Number, Coriolis, and Scum and Villainy all have it as one of their main play modes, and of course every Star Wars game has it as a default party option as well.
To me, the main draw of RPGs has always been "you can do anything!", and having a story already prepared for the players is missing out on the most interesting aspect of RPGs that makes them unique as a medium. Heroes answering a call and fulfilling their destiny can kind of get away with it, but when the main pitch to the players is to play characters with flexible morals who work on the edge of legality and don't let anyone tell them what they have to do, you really can't expect them to quietly go along with what has been prepared for their characters to happen. This style of campaign really requires the game to be a sandbox where the players chart their own course and have to deal with the consequences of their actions.

Preparing a dozen or two planets and a handful of main political factions who are in control of their respective turfs is probably the easiest part. There's plenty of guides and random generation tables for people who want additional tools to help with that.

Preparing a location and populating it with NPCs once the players have decided where they want to go to next and what they want to do there also generally isn't that hard and not much different from preparing adventures for any other type of campaign.

It's the step between these two where very little has been written about, and the part of a sandbox campaign where players most likely feel lost and start feeling that sandboxes are boring because there's nothing interesting or even worthwhile to do.

Ideas for how GMs can put out hooks that are interesting for players to pursue and how to establish structures and procedures that enable players to become proactive instead of just picking from a numbered of offered jobs is what I want to discuss here. At the start of a sandbox campaign, players usually find themselves in an unknown place with control over a ship that can take them anywhere, with only the vague instruction to "go looking for adventures!", or at least work that pays for gas. Simply offering them one (or better two) jobs that they can take right now and go straight into the action is a start to get them going, but the campaign can all too easy come back to a stop once the cargo is delivered and the payment recieved. There needs to be more to make the players get excited about continuing on their own initiative than just hoping that it will magically happen by itself while they play the first adventure. That is why sandbox campaigns have gained a reputation for being boring and usually very short. We need to know how we can make a sandbox campaign reach self-sustaining momentum reliably rather than coincidentally.

Perhaps the quickest and easiest tool that GMs have is already part of the rules of most of these games. Regular costs to keep the ship flying. Be it fuel, maintenance, or loan payments. When the players have no current plan or goal of their own, the GM can offer them a regular paying job. The players can decide to take on the job or keep looking for something more interesting or otherwise more attractive to them. But each time they want to keep looking, they have to make another of the regular payments to keep access to their ship.
This is of course a form of the GM presenting an adventure to the players. But I think there is a very important difference in that it really is a suggested option that the players actually can take or leave. Both options are valid choices. But the players won't be able to wait for something fun sounding forever. Eventually they will have to take the next best thing they come across because they have no more money to burn through. And probably want to pick something that pays long before that.

Another important thing that makes this type of setting different from most typical fantasy campaign is that there's never really going to be a point where there's nothing useful left to buy with money. You can always get a bigger ship and upgrade it with more weapons and stronger shields and a wide range of other extras. In many fantasy games you can have the best equipment that money can buy after the first adventure or two and after that it's really just randomly finding magic items on adventures that might alter your gear. But the reward money for doing the adventures tends to become irrelevant pretty quickly. In a space sandbox with endlessly upgradeable ships, big offers of payment always remain an effective motivation in themselves.

But I think both these elements still only serve to provide ingame motivation for the players to take on jobs theh are not particularly invested in to keep the action going and not leave them floundering completely clueless about what they might do next. A series of generic one-shots isn't much of a sandbox yet, and also not something many players would be interesting in playing for long. Ultimately, they players need to get personally invested in something that is going on in the game world, typically some kind of conflict, and have a desire and also the ability to interfere with it. A more powerful ship really is only going to be rewarding if it gives you the power to do things that you couldn't (effectively) do before.

What tools do we have to create and present content to players that looks appealing to get invested in?

I think perhaps a start is to begin a campaign by not giving the players the instruction to "find something to do", but instead go "find something you want to get invested in"? It's only a tiny thing, but I think it does change the expectation that the players are meant to keep looking until they see something cool they want to interact with, and instead actively start digging by asking questions and poking at things.
 

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Dioltach

Legend
In my latest Star Wars d20 campaign (unfortunately on hold while I'm abroad), I presented the players with a model of a Corellian YT-2400 light freighter. "This is the ship you just bought with your savings and a loan." [Gleee!] "Unfortunately, the lender has been taken over by a local crimelord who's sent someone to seize your ship. You have a week to come up with the cash."

Just being able to see and play with the model made the players immediately invested. The crimelord is evil, his henchman is dispicable. And they'll work hard to get the money.
 

aco175

Legend
Can the ship be looked at more like owning a business. You kind of hinted at this with upgrades and loan payments, but I'm thinking there are monthly problems like some D&D systems have. Things like rats spoiling the cargo and you need to replace it or now do something for the merchant is was going to. A part breaks and the junkyard that has it also is filled with bandits you need to talk your way around. The fuel line pokes a hole leaving you stranded and who knows who shows up to raid you before your friends can get to you.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
What tools do we have to create and present content to players that looks appealing to get invested in?
You sort of answer the question when talking about the characters needing money to keep the ship flying. The characters might not like the job, but they like eating and having fuel, so they take the job. If the players are into this style of sci-fi sandbox game, they shouldn’t need convincing to take the next job. It’s a basic part of the game play loop.

Find out what kinds of things excite your players about the premise and provide them with hooks to adventures/jobs similar to that. Check out the Alexandrian blog about scenario hooks and Sly Flourish’s Return of the Lazy DM.
 

Yora

Legend
I just feel that the loop of "take job - complete job - take next job" is not very sandboxy and rather passive. That's waiting for adventures to come to the players instead of exercising proactive agency and establishing goals.
I see it as an emergency tool to bridge moments when the players stall out on goals they can realistically pursue right now. But as a gameplay loop I find it insufficient.
Just being able to see and play with the model made the players immediately invested. The crimelord is evil, his henchman is dispicable. And they'll work hard to get the money.
I think gun fights with a major cover system probably require detailed floor plans for all conflict encounters. So at least a floorplan for their ship will need to be provided for the players anyway. Using it extensively (and perhaps keeping it out any time no other plan is needed) seems like a great idea to help build attachment.
Also a good reason to have all the gunner seats on the sides, so they are always visible as well. :giggle:
 

I just feel that the loop of "take job - complete job - take next job" is not very sandboxy and rather passive. That's waiting for adventures to come to the players instead of exercising proactive agency and establishing goals.
The way we typically handle this in Traveller is the "job" is an ancillary action that we determine based on where the action part of the game is specifying where we are leaving from and heading to (and even then only because one of the players enjoys the brokering part of the game - if we didn't have him playing we would gloss over).
 

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