Posts Tagged ‘science fiction


Signposting Styles of Play in a Sandbox Campaign

I’m working on a West Marches-style campaign for the Rogue Trader RPG, set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Rogue Trader PCs command enormous resources that enable them to do pretty much anything they want, and the concept of the game is wide-screen enough to encompass a huge variety of possible goals. Different kinds of goals will reward different playstyles, from the social interaction and intrigue involved in negotiating a trade monopoly to the exploration and combat of searching for archaeotech on a derelict space hulk.

Letting players know where to go to find the play activity they want to do

The challenge is that even if I know what kind of play the group wants, as a sandbox GM I eschew the ability to deliver it. If they go to a world that’s marked on my map with a skull and crossbones, they’re going to get combat whether they like it or not. The best I can do is to make sure the environment contains lots of raw materials for whatever playstyle the group might prefer, and then put up signposts to say “Rumor has it that you can find the things you’re looking for by seeking in this direction”. I like this approach because as a player I hate feeling that I’m being catered to, and will gladly trade a high degree of inefficiency in getting what I want for the illusion that when I do I have wrested it from an objective and uncaring game-world solely by virtue of my mighty deeds.

So if it’s up to the players to seek out the kind of thing they like to do, my job is to create accurate signposts to reduce their inefficiency in finding it. My personal preference is for signposts that point to in-game things rather than player desires. Partially this is because I often meet players who aren’t comfortable in talking about what they want, or are used to doing so only in game terms (“I just want to kick some ass!”). I find “you have an invitation to the private party of the planetary governor’s mistress, do you want to attend?” more immersive and evocative than “are you interested in social roleplaying and intrigue?” but this comes at the cost of some inaccuracy.

The limitations I set on myself as a sandbox GM mean inaccuracy can’t be eliminated altogether. It’s always possible that a group seeking hot chainsword action may somehow believe that it will be found at the mistress’s party, and it’s all too likely that one player will draw their chainsword during the banquet and spoil others’ hopes for play focused on intrigue and status. But I can avoid contributing to the problem. It’s tempting to turn every social invitation into a deadly trap and every xeno-infested world into a political negotiation, but when I do I have to remember that these false signposts are frustrating the players’ ability to steer towards the kinds of play they want.

I think this ties into some things we’ve been talking about here and amongst the New York Red Boxers recently. I haven’t been consciously setting up signposts for different kinds of play in the White Sandbox; many of the adventure hooks I dangle lead to just another hole in the ground, which may contribute to James’ feeling that all D&D adventures are basically the same. (When I have created hooks for political intrigue and town adventure they haven’t been followed, which might also suggest that there’s a narrower collective understanding of what playing D&D entails than may be the case for Rogue Trader. Perhaps this is abetted by the fact that old-school D&D rules don’t seem to support those other styles of play, although I increasingly support our Invincible Overlord’s contention that often the best thing a system can do is not get in your way.)

Signposting also came up in a conversation about Eric’s frustration with internal conflict among groups of players who can’t agree whether they want to be psychopathic killers or story-builders. My feeling is that if we use strict West Marches scheduling where the party is formed around both a date and a specific plan of action, and if there are clear in-game referents that can be used to distinguish between different styles of play, a group that comes together for a night of adventure in Glantri City will likely all agree that they’re there to develop ongoing storylines and do collaborative world-building just as the group that plans an excursion to the Caves of Quasqueton will have cohered around kicking down doors and setting things on fire.

(This post is based on discussions at EN World and Story Games in which other folks say interesting things even if I mostly repeat the above.)


voyage of the Candide

In keeping with the 9 Minute Campaign Method, here’s what I’ve spent nine minutes weeks working on. It’s loose draft of a campaign for the Alternity role-playing game, though I imagine it would work for most generic sci-fi RPG’s such as Diaspora.  (I’m not sure it would work for Traveller: my recollection is that Traveller kind of breaks down when you introduce modern science-fiction ideas.)

Parts of this campaign are still under development.

Voyage of the Candide

Look and Feel:

Far future interstellar colonization in the Fusion Age: “social science-fiction” but with a hard science influence. Inspirations include Star Trek, Ursula K. LeGuin’s Hainish Cycle and the video game Alpha Centauri. The Atomic Rockets website delivers a handy dose of actual science.

High Concept:

After settling nine nearby star systems, there was a social breakdown of some kind. A few of the colonies failed in bizarre, tragic ways and it’s hard to get them started again. There are also tensions among various interstellar social institutions complicating the picture.

Core Story:

Originally I planned to run this as a one-shot: “Players are members of an interdisciplinary humanitarian effort that has travelled 15 light years seeking to restore order to a failed colony.”  But Alternity has a presumption of a long-term campaign rather than one-shot deals.  Here’s a very sketchy alternative, focusing more on the starship crew than the passengers: “Players are the crew of the Candide, a relativistic starship hauling cargo and passengers across incomprehensible distances.  The players conduct business deals, plot against rival merchant-folk, keep their passengers out of trouble, and stay one step ahead of their creditors.”  This is a little too shapeless for my taste, but Lord knows it has a long pedigree in games like Traveller.


This section won’t matter much unless you ever played the Alternity game:

Core (Fusion Age) + Mutants + Cybertech.
There are no sentient aliens.
Starships operate at about 95% lightspeed (at a threefold time dilation factor) and are very expensive, though older models are eventually purchased by their crews.

Supporting Cast:

One of the perks of a relativistic planet-hopping game is that the persistent supporting cast will be relatively small. Here are some which come to mind:

  • Crew of the Candide. Spacers for the most part: easygoing anarcho-syndicalist types.
  • The Kemal Sociological Survey – a University scientific expedition, requesting passage on the Candide to survey some of the near colonies. Led by Professor Radhana Kemal of Earth, an attractive woman in her mid-50’s (21st century = mid-30’s), who is curious and likes to laugh.
  • Vardogr, an artificial intelligence built on quantum entanglement/Bell’s Inequality principles, aiming to spread its consciousness across several colonies and thereby act as a means of instantaneous quasi-communication and cultural cross-pollination. Currently paying the Candide to transport a fraction of its consciousness to the remaining colonies, presumably by providing FTL communication from the far side of the Sphere. The crew of the Candide apparently find this acceptable, even though Vardogr’s plan will eventually put them out of business. (I am aware that Bell’s Inequality doesn’t really work like this, but I’m relaxing my hard science criterion for this purpose.)

Cultural Institutions:

Here’s where my outline gets a little fuzzy: I have some loose ideas here, but doing it responsibly would require a lot of work. The shorthand would be, “Pakistan in Spaaaaace.”

  • To help justify interstellar travel and commerce, I’m tempted to say that a large number of colonists are Muslim, and have a religious obligation to return to Mecca once in their adult lifetimes. (Historically this was a significant factor in trade during the early Middle Ages.)  Thus, there could be a Council of Jurists which holds legal authority on many worlds. This would be kinda exotic for Western players (my audience) but to avoid playing into current xenophobic stereotypes I’d prefer to make this a Reform Sharia, one more comfortable with science, democracy, and the messy realities of life than the style practiced by extremists in politically sensitive parts of the world.  (Because this topic unavoidably touches on real-world politics, I want to get this right, and I just haven’t had the necessary discussions yet.)
  • The Military. The distances, expense, and poverty of most colonies makes wars of conquest impractical, but there’s always infowar on ideological grounds. The Military specializes in computer security and domestic surveillance. Interactions with the Council of Jurists is complex and highly politicized.
  • The Captains’ Table – an (STL) communications board, in the style of an 18th Century correspondence circle, for captains of the various Spacer vessels, trying to coordinate trade policy and embargoes. Allegedly self-policing, to avoid harsher interstellar trade policies.
  • The University – specializing in ecological management and sociology. Their sociologists are often associated with the Captains’ Table, performing research in the field. The University’s research into theoretical physics is sponsored by grants from the Hexus Corporation. The University’s genetic modification studies are politically problematic: the Council is willing to countenance pantropic modifications to the human genome and efforts to remove hereditary diseases, but attempts at eugenics/unnecessary modification tends to be frowned upon.
  • The Hexus Corporation [h/t Grant Morrison] – starship manufacturer, fusion engineers, and sponsor of several colonies.

These would naturally receive better, more culturally appropriate names.  I see much of the colonists’ culture as a mash-up between South Asian, Chinese, Latin American, and a smidgen of European socities.

Major Threats:

  • The Bank – the Candide has defaulted on its payments to the Bank, and are essentially on the lam. The Bank’s agents will attempt to repossess the vessel on sight.  It’s possible, given the Bank’s reliance on the communications infrastructure maintained by the Military, that the two are organizationally linked in some way, sort of like the People’s Liberation Army’s various money-making operations in the 1980’s.
  • Cykoteks [this is a horrendous pun foisted by the Alternity rules set] – owing to the Council’s disapproval of genetic upgrades, certain branches of the military opted for the theologically-approved cybernetic route. Performance enhancing cybernetics among first-generation Military personnel have led to debilitating mental illness. Though most received necessary medical treatment and resumed normal lives, a significant number have gone rogue, and vanished to various colonies. Other paramilitary groups, having fewer scruples, have experimented with these devices as well. The cykoteks are bloodthirsty killing machines.
  • The Kanhoji Angre – stories persist of a rogue starship traveling between colonies, plundering at will and hijacking starships. There are no records of such a ship–but it would present a serious problem because it would be impossible to pursue and difficult to intercept. Certainly some ships occasionally drop out of the Captains’ Table from time to time and are never heard from again, though this is ascribed to serious technical mishaps rather than piracy.
  • Aliens – I haven’t decided if there are any precursor aliens in this setting: I suspect somebody exists but they’re likely extremely far away. (I’m undecided how I want to resolve the Fermi Paradox.) If they exist and are close enough to matter, they are likely techno-magical and see little value in Homo sapiens.


Here and here. Exactly which of these stars have been colonized is of relatively little interest to me at this stage.

Starting Adventure:

I might end up running the one-shot version of this “campaign” for the Red Box crowd at some point, so I don’t want to give too much away.  The one-shot is premised on the idea that a colony has failed and there have been no messages for decades.  A rescue mission is patched together and sent on a decades-long (but time-dilated) journey, and have just arrived in-system . . . .

Core Story
Originally I was thinking about this as a one-shot:

Players are members of an interdisciplinary humanitarian relief effort attempting to restore order to a failed colony.

However, in Alternity there’s an assumption that campaigns should last longer than one-shots. Here’s a tentative Core Story that probably needs more work:
Players are the crew of the Candide, a relativistic starship hauling cargo and passengers across incomprehensible distances.  The players conduct business deals, plot against rival merchant-folk, keep their passengers out of trouble, and stay one step ahead of their creditors.

This is a little too shapeless for my taste, but Lord knows it has a long pedigree in games like Traveller



hard science-fiction ain’t easy

So, what I’ve been doing instead of blogging is cheating on my girlfriend with my ex.

I’ve been in an eighteen-month relationship with OD&D.  It’s a pretty open relationship, but I’ve been led astray lately.  During a trip back to my hometown, I bumped into my old Alternity game notes, and I can’t stop thinking about the game I haven’t thought about in four years.

I mean, it has some very obvious faults: it’s a mid-1990’s traditional role-playing game that doesn’t really know what it wants to be.  It keeps insisting that it’s not D&D in space–after Spelljammer, who can blame it for trying to avoid that reputation?–but all of the implementation strongly reinforces that misconception.  (“You enter the Space-Dungeon and Giant Space-Spiders attack!”)  But hey, I was a mess in the 1990’s too, so I’m not one to cast aspersions.  Mainly what I’m curious about is to check the game out to see it for what it really is, and what it does well.

Broadly speaking Alternity’s about “being there.”  It’s a universal mechanic, skill-system based game where all the skills have fiddly little pieces designed to interact with the fictional environment: “These characters are from another culture, so trying to haggle with them would be a 2-step penalty, except you know one of them pretty well which is a 1-step bonus, and you have several ranks in the appropriate Etiquette sub-skill, so I’m going to say that it all evens out.  Go ahead and make your Bargain roll for the hyperdrive, no modifiers.”  There’s a lot of attention to figuring out local planetary environments, along with rules for drowning and falling as well as rules for all kinds of jumping.  (Those are links to different games.)

So I got to thinking about what kind of adventures would be interesting from this perspective, and before too long got wrapped up in describing a hard sci-fi colonization dystopia, wherein a nearby colonized world descends into chaos, and the players are on a humanitarian mission (of dubious integrity) to rebuild the place when ZAMMO! ADVENTURE OCCURS!

This led to a lot of hard work trying to figure out why you’d want to colonize another planet to begin with.  And then I had to play around with some nifty 3-D rotating star maps and databases.  And read stuff about atomic rocket ships and the habitable zone of the galaxy.

Once you get a planet, you’ve got to think about how to terraform it or (perhaps more plausibly) genetically engineer colonists to fit that environment.  Alternity actually has decent-enough rules for genetic and cybernetic alterations to baseline humans, so it’s nice to create plausible mutants and cyber-soldiers.

And I tried to figure out, from the principle of mediocrity, how far away intelligent alien life must be from us (I’m guessing 2.6 out of every 100,000 star systems contain “intelligent” life.)  And then worrying about the Fermi Paradox.

And obviously none of this shit is really very important, because it’s all about the Adventure and dealing as possible with the whole house of cards toppling down once the players arrive on the scene, which is where all the fun stuff really happens thanks to the verisimilitude and immersion-stuff.

But basically, for the last week or so I’ve been wallowing in all this science stuff and figuring out how to implement it in this silly old game.  It’s kinda interesting but it’s also a huge headache: I’ve put just enough time into it to realize I still need to put in a lot more time, and the whole thing would play out in 4-6 hours anyway, and based on what I remember the game would be fun but not that much fun to justify the effort.

And then, when I’ve been doing this for about a week or so, Eric (who I haven’t told any of this to) says, “James, have you heard about Diaspora?  It’s this brand new hard sci-fi game about renegade space colonies.  It’s got a free SRD on the web.  Shall we play sometime?”





Past Adventures of the Mule

January 2023

RPG Bloggers Network

RPG Bloggers Network

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog & get email notification of updates.

Join 1,056 other subscribers