Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

A Sandbox Adventure that Encourages Empire-building

Friend of the blog Rob Eaglestone asks:

Can I write a sandbox adventure in a way that encourages empire-building?

The continuing campaign is the proverbial “stone soup”. Every player is gonna want to do something you can’t prepare for or they are not actually playing. Every campaign generates enough stray threads over time that you can’t follow up on them all. And yet as play continues, events occur which naturally call back those loose threads as if you had planned for it.

Time moving forward at a steady pace for all campaign elements encourages the referee to continually embellish everything such that they become useful in just this fashion. Also, each thread that is revisited is sufficiently different from the first encounter that everything remains interesting.

Core Traveller rules with something like 76 patrons allows you to keep things going even when you don’t have a prepared adventure. Just taking notes on everything you’ve improvised and honoring it going forward creates the campaign adventure. This process is how rpgs were intended to be played, even Traveller.

I conjecture that people that get modules– even really good ones that are not contrary to the above– these people they get them and the run the portions of the module that they are comfortable with in “stop time” or “variable timekeeping” and the campaign elements don’t really multiply or develop as much as they ought to and then they get to the point where they NEED to improvise more and NEED to start playing what the players want to do rather than what they have a prepared module for and then because they were trained on modules they are afraid to actually transition over to a REAL campaign.

Which is why my suggestion is to eschew modules and just make up stuff from the outset out of whatever it is that your players are putting into the game.

Now, all of this is standard Jeffro doctrine so far… but the question is specifically about encouraging empire-building. Particularly in Traveller. And I confess, that is a toughie with Traveller. The bookkeeping of something like Trillion Credit Squadron should consume the campaign in rather short order if you went down that particular path. But of course, an entire edition of Traveller was rigged to facilate an empire building campaign– the fan not-favorite The New Era!

Imagine you’re running a TNE campaign, though, and the players explore the nearby planets and then have adventures where they discover many more starships. They then work to refurbish them and find crews for them and become faction leaders in the process. They forge alliances with other worlds, forming a sort of pocket empire in the process– and then play out adventures where they defend their Confederation from threats internal and external. You don’t want perfect detail in the bookkeeping here in my view. You wouldn’t even play out all the missions the players send out with the ships they recover. The referee would have the subsector map and then use a couple of die rolls to resolve them– akin to the spying and assassination rules in AD&D. But gradually via a kind of pointillism, a sense of the region will gradually develop.

Above all, you want to keep things moving. You would possibly even want to use a ratio of “one real day equals one game week” or possibly even a tempo of “one real day equals one game month” in order to accommodate the scale of development you would like to see explored.

Note that what I am describing here does not leverage sort of thing that the BrOSR calls “patron play”. The players here are all cooperating to run a single polity together and can divide it up among themselves however they choose. The players may not be working at cross purposes per se, however if one player’s scout mission returns during downtime you would inform him of the results of the endeavor– and then it would be up to him to relay the details to his peers if he so chooses! This synthesis of decisions that are made independently over time and the interactions between the players throughout this is a key to what makes this type of gameplay so engaging. If you can build on this stuff as you set up succeeding scenarios, you are sure to win at rpgs!


One response to “A Sandbox Adventure that Encourages Empire-building

  1. wandererbill March 28, 2023 at 1:09 am

    Interesting …
    @Rob Eaglestone, isn’t T5 a system literally made for this? With scouts and nobles getting land grants during character creation? I feel there’s a stone soup right there.

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