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Sandbox Adventures

Campaign Design

Source Galaxy Exploration Manual pg. 136
Often a GM creates their setting with a specific campaign in mind; perhaps the GM has decided the PCs are members of an interstellar organization devoted to science and peacekeeping that travels the galaxy discovering new planets, and so the GM tailors the setting to fit that premise. But the mark of a good setting is the ability to support more than one campaign, and many GMs find it rewarding to set all their campaigns in a single setting that expands as each campaign ends and the next begins.
Many Starfinder adventures can be labeled as space opera: they place the heroes at the center of a grandiose story with galactic stakes. Such campaigns require the GM to plan much of the campaign in advance— there are prophecies for the PCs to fulfill, dark lord antagonists to always escape the PCs until a final conclusion, and heroic sacrifices to make. They are stories for the PCs to participate in, not settings for the PCs to explore.
That said, some campaigns are more suited to the sandbox play style than others. Fortunately, many staple subgenres of science fiction and fantasy make excellent sandbox campaigns. (Many subgenres especially well-suited to sandbox play are detailed starting on page 140.) A starship of soldier scientists who take an expedition to a new planet every week makes a fine sandbox game, and they can make informed choices at each destination. In fact, any campaign that features a group of people traveling together can make excellent use of your sandbox setting. The PCs might be any of the following.
  • Bounty hunters tracking down fugitives on the run.
  • Mercenaries seeking contracts on the edge of known space.
  • Journalists in search of the next big story.
  • Archaeologists exploring the ruins of long-dead cultures.
  • Merchants and traders looking to buy low and sell high.
  • Freedom fighters on the run from a tyrannical star empire.
  • Band members trying to book gigs and make the big time.

Regardless of the type of sandbox, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the numerous possibilities available to players in a science fantasy setting. If the PCs are sent to explore a region with dozens of worlds, you don’t need to prepare all of those worlds before the campaign starts. Instead, you can nest some adventure locales and other parts of the setting into other parts, or gate them behind knowledge the PCs don’t have yet. In a sense, you are creating multiple sandboxes, each of manageable size. As the PCs move through one sandbox, they find clues necessary to open the next. See the example setting, Alqet, throughout this chapter for one illustration of what such a series of nested play areas might look like.
Having players participate in sandbox development can be a tremendous boon. If your players suddenly decide to travel to a planet you have yet to expand upon, enlist their help! You and your players can use the tools presented in this book to quickly generate that unexplored planet, learning some of its residents and threats, its cultural attributes, and more. This is true of everything in your setting, not just worlds: most groups have players who will gladly help you create settlements, NPCs, aliens, and treasure (especially treasure) if you ask.
Finally, don’t hesitate to simply ask the players at the end of a gaming session where they intend to go next; they’re usually more than happy to tell you where they intend to go and what they intend to do so you can prepare accordingly. This gives you opportunity to prepare their next adventure location between gaming sessions.
One of the hallmarks of a sandbox game is travel. Your PCs will often be moving from one world or region to another, and while you can often gloss over travel time, the relative frequency of this travel can nevertheless pose some unique challenges. You can make that travel time feel more meaningful by encouraging the players to use the downtime rules from Starfinder Character Operations Manual to pursue long term projects and track their day-to-day experiences while traveling aboard ship. The Drift Encounters Toolbox on page 146 includes a list of encounters for starships in the Drift, which helps to make journeys more memorable while also potentially reinforcing the idea that traveling though the Drift gets exponentially more hazardous as the journey goes on. You can also look for ways to bring the adventure to the PCs; perhaps the PCs brought something dangerous aboard, they have a stowaway, or a passenger has a secret agenda.

Npcs In Sandbox Campaigns

Source Galaxy Exploration Manual pg. 136
Because the PCs are frequently on the move in sandbox adventures, it can be difficult to build a strong supporting cast. Every planet, region, or adventure locale has its own NPCs whom the PCs might only barely get to know before they’ve once again moved on. You have multiple ways to help build your setting’s supporting cast.
First, remember your home base. PCs in Starfinder regularly need to return to some kind of settlement where they can sell loot, upgrade their weapons and armor, and learn of new adventure sites to explore. You can create NPCs who initially simply offer these services and then gain additional connections to the PCs as the campaign proceeds. The shopkeeper who sells the soldier a new plasma rifle might be a veteran from past wars who needs a favor, or the sapient robot bartender who serves the PCs drinks might be on the run from a megacorporation that considers them to be property. Most home bases have an authority figure who quickly connects with the PCs and becomes one of the most important NPCs in your setting.
Recurring NPC factions and organizations can provide continuity across locations, even as their member NPCs come and go. A rival captain from another planet’s military might appear only once, but they’re just the temporary face of an evil empire represented by different enemies over the course of the campaign. Corporations, religious institutions, and schools all make excellent factions that can be represented by many different individuals on different worlds.
It’s important to remain flexible with your NPCs. Start by giving each NPC a distinguishing trait (see the NPC Toolbox on page 148); roleplay them the best you can on the PCs’ initial interaction with that NPC; pay attention to which NPCs the players engage with most, and then develop those NPCs in more detail.

Deeper Secrets

Source Galaxy Exploration Manual pg. 137
In designing your setting, you’ve thought about the secrets of every important NPC, location, and object (page 134). Secrets are key to making your campaign come to life and feel like more than just a string of unrelated adventure locations. As the PCs travel from one region to the next, build relationships with NPCs at their home base and elsewhere, and investigate the world, they’ll uncover clues to these mysteries. As with NPCs, you really can’t predict ahead of time which clues the PCs will find compelling, but eventually your PCs will smell a mystery and begin a concentrated effort to unravel it—when they do, that’s when you really have a campaign. Each secret leads to more clues which leads to more secrets. Inevitably, the PCs will overlook clues, forget about them or lose interest in them. Other clues will reveal secrets simply too dangerous for the PCs at their current level. But as the PCs gain in power and ability, they will return to those secrets and pursue them again, slowly creating a story for themselves out of the sandbox you made for them.

Example: Alqet Campaigns

Source Galaxy Exploration Manual pg. 137
When Joan made the PCs’ home base an enormous starship with a mission in Alqet, she had initially assumed the PCs would be “assigned” to Alqet by commanding officers. But on reflection, Joan realizes this premise doesn’t necessarily give the PCs much latitude when it comes to deciding where they go and what they do. After all, their superior officers are right there on the starship, and would presumably be giving orders. She retools the campaign, making the PCs an archaeological research team. Now, as their own bosses, they can more easily explore any planet they want. They’re still brought to the system by an enormous starship, and they have quarters there if they want to use them, but Commander O’Brien doesn’t actually have any authority over them.
Of course, archaeological teams will want ruins to explore. Probably every world in the system should have at least one; this is an opportunity to create nested sandboxes that save Joan some initial preparation work. One way to plan out such a series of linked sites is with a simple map or diagram. Such a diagram is shown above, with arrows indicated how one adventure site leads to others.
She begins with a big archaeological site on Alqet V that the PCs can approach in multiple ways, preserving that sandbox feel. Clues in these ruins will reveal additional sites on Alqet IV, Alqet VI, and the moons of Alqet II, while clues there will direct the PCs to some of the other planets in the system that initially appeared uninteresting. When the PCs discover these clues, they can decide which of these sites they want to explore, and then Joan can prepare them.