Archives of Nethys

Pathfinder RPG (1st Edition) Starfinder RPG Pathfinder RPG (2nd Edition)

All Rules | Downtime Rules

Sandbox Adventures

Setting Design

Source Galaxy Exploration Manual pg. 133
When creating a sandbox setting in Starfinder, it’s important to take into account the game’s vast, interstellar scale. Starfinder assumes your player characters have a starship, and most starships have a Drift engine or other means of faster-than-light travel, which means any planet in the universe is just one Drift jump away. How does the GM prepare for a game session when players can go literally anywhere? In a universe of infinite choices, it’s important to help players avoid feeling overwhelmed by countless options.
Here are some things to keep in mind when you begin to create your own setting for sandbox play.
Limit player scope at the start. Initially limiting your setting to a handful of compelling details, such as a few interesting worlds or systems, not only makes it quicker and easier for you to prepare, but will also guide players with an initial course of action that’s easy to follow. You can expand on these options over time as the players become more experienced and the setting gains complexity.
Don’t fixate on fine details. While it’s exciting to detail every last aspect of your new sandbox setting—from starship factories, settlements, cultures and customs, all the way down to the last NPC—it’s more productive to focus on only those elements which you must have ready for the next session.
Focus on world-building rather than story-telling. Traditionally structured RPG adventures focus on the story of the player characters—everything in the setting is designed around their rise to power and glory as they overcome obstacles and challenges, with important milestones and the conclusion already defined before the game even starts. However, In a sandbox adventure the setting contains many independently moving parts. The PCs shape the story by interacting with these parts, making decisions, and dealing with the consequences. Focus on creating interesting situations for the PCs, instead of planning in advance where their adventures will take them.
Use the tools in the Galaxy Exploration Manual! This book contains extensive guidance and tools for generating new worlds, settlements, and the NPCs who inhabit those settlements. The Deck of Many Worlds and other Starfinder products supplement these tools. With these, you can quickly generate basic information that you can then expand upon.

Create The Pcs’ Home Base

Source Galaxy Exploration Manual pg. 133
So where do you start when you’re ready to begin building your settings? Start where the player characters start! They’re going to need some kind of home base, which allows you to restrict the sandbox to a manageable size. The following are some broad examples of some types of home bases.
Enormous Starship: The PCs’ base is a battleship, generation ship, or exploration cruiser that’s capable of Drift travel. The PCs might have their own personal craft, such as a fighter, shuttle, or exploration vessel, but the craft is usually not capable of Drift travel. After the PCs explore a solar system, the main starship can move on to a new location. With this option, your setting can include multiple star systems while still being manageable.
Settlement: The PCs live on a world that is the central focus of their adventures, and their central hub is a settlement on the world. They probably have a starship, and it may have a Drift engine, but most of their journeys away from their home world involve bringing back resources or investigating mysteries that directly affect their home planet.
Space Station: The PCs’ are based on a space station orbiting a celestial body or in deep space. Exploration can take place around the star system where the PCs are stationed, while starships visit the space station for trade, diplomacy, or something more nefarious. The PCs might have access to a Drift-capable starship that allows them to travel to distant worlds when necessary.
A home base should provide everything the PCs need at low level, such as shops or suppliers to hawk weapons and armor, a medical bay or hospital for when the PCs are injured, and workshops for PCs who need to rebuild a drone or craft a computer. There should be some kind of rumor mill—a place where the PCs can learn about new adventure opportunities. A rumor mill could be a cantina, a mercenary job board, an infosphere chat channel, someone’s conspiracy wall, or something else, as long as the PCs can readily access it. Its also likely to contain places of worship. Be sure to include representation for a couple of factions, such as a corporate office, arcane library, or smugglers’ den. The Settlement Toolbox on page 150 and the Starship Toolbox on page 152 help in creating settlements or starships to use as the PCs’ home base.
You don’t need to figure out every aspect of the home base before you start playing—just hash out details that might be immediately relevant. Start with a couple of key NPCs who are certain to interact with the player characters; the NPC Toolbox on page 148 provides resources for creating such NPCs. Give each of these NPCs a couple of simple, clearly identifiable traits that PCs will notice after just a few minutes of conversation.
Finally, you’ll need a map of the home base. You can create your map however you’d like, from drawing it by hand to creating it with a computer program. You can also consider adding multiple locations on the map that the PCs can detail as they explore their home base.

Expand Your Setting

Source Galaxy Exploration Manual pg. 133
The PCs might start at their home base, but their adventures will take them into the unknown. Now it’s time to flesh out what lies beyond. Surround the PCs’ home base with a handful of discrete locations, such as regions, planets, or universes, depending on the scope of your setting. If the PCs have a method of long distance travel, such as a starship, these locations don’t need to be nearby, they just have to stand out as worthy of exploration. It’s important to make these locations distinct from one another, as clearly identifiable attributes help the PCs make informed choices about which locations they’d like to visit. Consider varying the biomes of these locations to make them distinct, adjusting other attributes when the locations have similar biomes. For example, if you have two volcanic regions, one might have high magic and the other low magic. Some of these locations should be obviously and especially dangerous, and a few of them might even be out of reach, at least for low-level characters. Players often identify these hard-to-reach areas as goals—sites to explore when their characters are higher level and have access to more powerful abilities and gear, like teleportation or resistance to high radiation.
Add specific adventure locales inside the regions you have created. Each of these adventure locations should be a miniature sandbox nested within the larger sandbox that is your setting. Your adventure sites should vary in size and be clearly distinguishable from each other. For example, one might be the lair of a single creature, while another might be an abandoned mining complex that stretches for miles underground. The PCs could easily explore the lair in one play session, but the mining complex could take many such sessions to investigate. You can find more details on how to create sandbox adventure locations on page 136.
Depending on the home base you design, you might want to add some additional safe spots in your setting, such as settlements or hideouts outside of your PC’s home base, where they can rest and prepare. These safe spots allow the PCs to explore locations far away from their home base. You can use the NPC Toolbox on page 148 and the Settlement Toolbox on page 150 to generate details for these safe spots and some of the NPCs who live there. These safe spots should contrast with the PCs’ home base; change their cultural attributes and spotlight new species, factions, and deities to make them feel distinct. Note that these safe spots aren’t necessary if the PCs have means to easily return to their home base whenever they want, such as a starship.

Add Secrets To The Setting

Source Galaxy Exploration Manual pg. 134
As you add details to your setting, give each important NPC, location, or object a secret, such as a hidden motivation or history. These secrets serve as adventure hooks that help you add detail to your setting at a manageable pace. To make sure that the PCs can discover these secrets, place clues pointing to them throughout your setting. One clue in every important location is a good place to start. As your players adventure in the setting you’ve created, they can stumble across these clues. Some of those clues, and hopefully they will capture their attention. By following the breadcrumbs, the PCs can build their own story out of the setting you’ve created for them.

Modify Existing Material

Source Galaxy Exploration Manual pg. 134
Rather than creating all of your settings’ inhabitants, worlds, and settlements from scratch, you can save time by modifying existing creatures and locations from Starfinder products, modifying names and elements to fit your setting. If your setting calls for a large space station, for example, you could use Absalom Station or Conqueror’s Forge (Starfinder Near Space 62) as a base. Akiton makes an excellent Mars-like desert planet, and Bretheda could be a gas giant. Between Starfinder Pact Worlds, Near Space, and the Codex of Worlds entries found in each Starfinder Adventure Path volume, you have over a hundred worlds that you can modify to fit your setting. Similarly, you can use creatures from Alien Archive volumes and the Alien Archives entries found in each Starfinder Adventure Path volume, changing any details you think appropriate. For example, you could change drow to instead be humans who have been genetically modified to flourish in low-light environments.

Example: The Alqet Setting

Source Galaxy Exploration Manual pg. 134
To illustrate the process described in this chapter, here’s an example of a GM, Joan, creating a sandbox setting, which she names Alqet.
First, Joan needs a home base. Looking over the list of common choices, Joan decides the PCs live on an enormous starship with an important mission in the Alqet star system. The PCs’ personal starship isn’t capable of Drift travel, but they might be able to persuade the authorities in charge of the home starship to give them a lift to another star system they wish to visit. This also allows Joan to occasionally strand the PCs on a planet in the Alqet system while their home-base starship is away on another mission. She creates two NPCs for the home base. She decides the base is staffed primarily by spacefaring ecologists similar to the Xenowardens. Commander Laurel O’Brien is the stoic and veteran captain of the vessel, known for always wearing her regulation uniform, complete with cravat. Evan McConnacht is an engineer on the ship who hosts weekly poker games below decks and who seems to know everyone. The poker game is Joan’s first rumor mill—a place where PCs can learn about interesting adventures. Important NPCs should always have a secret, so Joan decides Commander O’Brien is hosting an increasingly aggressive symbiote; she’s kept this fact from everyone but has begun to lose control to the alien creature inside her. Evan’s father was a wanted criminal who disappeared in the Alqet system 20 years ago, and now Evan is desperately (but secretly) seeking any trace of him.
Joan creates 10 planets for the Alqet system and uses the Building Worlds section in this book (starting on page 46) and corresponding tables to create half of them. She generates a ringed gas giant she names Alqet II, a space station called Morpheus Station that orbits Alqet II, and three terrestrial worlds with differing biomes. She decides that Alqet IV has a toxic atmosphere. Alqet V is wet with aquatic, arboreal, and marsh biomes. Alqet VI is dry with desert, mountain, and plains biomes. She also determines that each has a secret. Alqet IV was once home to a civilization that severely polluted the planet, resulting in the toxic atmosphere and the species’ own extinction. Alqet V has naturally occurring magical seaweed that can extend life, regenerate wounds, and boost magical power. Alqet VI is a holy site for the Dominion of the Black, who believe one of their ancient and terrible gods is buried here. The rest of the planets appear to be uninteresting balls of rock, ice, or gas; Joan can fill in details for these planets when the PCs have explored for a while and need fresh places to adventure.
Joan is off to a good start, but there’s much more to do!

Science And Fantasy In Your Setting

Source Galaxy Exploration Manual pg. 135
Starfinder is a science fantasy game, and that genre immediately points you in two different genres to draw inspiration from. Science programs, websites, books, and podcasts will not only inspire ideas for creating your own setting but provide examples of worldbuilding useful to helping you understand what you want your setting to be. Real-world science is a great resource that you can dip into in when you want, but you don’t have to completely understand the science you wish to use as inspiration for your setting. A little real-world science introduced into your game goes a long way toward making your setting feel believable and creating a sense of wonder in your players.
Most Starfinder games have fantastic elements, including magic; the setting blends both technology and magic, though most routine goods and services might be provided by technology. Magic isn’t always as prominent as technology in Starfinder—you and the other players can decide together whether the PCs sail between worlds on a magic space galleon, and whether they use personal comm units to communicate, or spells, crystal balls, or well-trained ravens. See High Science Fantasy on page 141 for tips about running that kind of setting. Feel free to vary the amount of fantasy in your setting as you see fit. However, be wary of cutting it completely—many classes and items—such as weapon fusions—are magical, and if you eliminate all magic from your setting, you’ll need to either remove those options or find new explanations for them. As you flesh out your campaign, you can incorporate fantasy elements into your setting to give locations strange, mysterious, and unusual features to entice players.
The most extreme example of using science or fantasy is the inclusion of big, obvious, and perhaps inexplicable phenomena that entice your PCs to investigate them. In Starfinder’s setting, the Gap is a example of such a phenomenon—players are frequently curious about the Gap and pursue any hint of an adventure that illuminates either what caused it or what might have transpired during it. Consider adding similar big mysteries to your setting. These mysteries can be based in science or fantasy— whatever you and your players find interesting. For example, the galaxy might be peppered with gates that allow instantaneous teleportation from one world to another, no matter how far apart; no one knows who built these gates, but the interstellar economy is now totally reliant on them. There might be a region of space from which starships never return, and no one knows why this is. Stars across the galaxy might slowly be going out for reasons unknown; now, every settlement is storing resources and exploring desperate schemes to survive in the event that their own star burns out. You might know the secret to the mystery already, but it’s perfectly all right if you don’t yet—a good idea will come to you eventually, and much of the fun of exploring mysteries in campaigns is that you and your players can explore it together.

Example: Back to Alqet

Source Galaxy Exploration Manual pg. 135
It’s time to add adventure locations to the worlds in the Alqet system. When Joan used the Building Worlds section of this book (page 46) to generate the worlds in the Alqet system, she got Aeon Guards and bone troopers as antagonists. She expands on this, deciding that two evil interstellar powers are warring over the Alqet system. The Necrotocracy of Brin is an evil society of high-tech necromancers (known as “techromancers”) who rely on undead foot soldiers, while the Interstellarium is a fascist state that combines magic and high technology. Joan can use Corpse Fleet NPCs and starships for the Necrotocracy and Azlanti Star Empire soldiers and starships for the Interstellarium, changing any details necessary to fit her setting as it evolves and to keep the players guessing. Each of these groups have multiple bases in Alqet, some as small as a listening post with only a couple of personnel, while other bases are large, easily detectable, and well-entrenched. She adds additional adventure locales, such as a ruined starship floating in the gas giant’s icy rings and a high-magic zone on Alqet II smothered in abnormally high radiation—something the PCs will easily be able to detect from space but unable to investigate until they reach higher level.
The space station around Alqet II is a likely candidate for an additional safe spot where the PCs might go to rest, shop, and conduct downtime activities. Prompted by setting material she read, Joan makes Morpheus Station a research facility where the floating jellyfish-like barathus study Dreamers who dwell in the swirling atmosphere of the gas giant below; the biotech available at the station won’t be available anywhere else. She adds some clues that point the PCs to the secrets she’s created: an abandoned campsite on Alqet V where Evan’s father briefly lived, and a barathu scientist trying a radical, experimental treatment for the commander’s symbiote.
Joan then decides to add another magical and fantastical element to the Alqet setting, perhaps some resource that has lured the Necrotocracy and Interstellarium to Alqet in the first place. Most star systems in the real world are surrounded by Oort clouds, vast swarms of icy particles where comets originate. Joan uses Oort clouds as an inspiration for Alqet. The icy proto-comets in its cloud are composed of an unusual element that, when exposed to the magical heat of Alqet’s unique sun, turn into materials usable in hybrid batteries that an advanced civilization can use to fuel anything from artifacts to starships. Interstellar powers war over Alqet as they try to catch the comets spiraling around the sun.