Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Traveller Sandbox Starts to Self-Organize

One of the players in the Mongoose Traveller game has finally designed his own ship. I was waiting for this to happen: usually in any given group there's at least someone who likes to do a little building and tweaking. And the ship design rules in Traveller pretty much beg to be used by just such an enterprising player, because while there's a pretty extensive set of pre-made ships (enough to get up and start the campaign without stopping to design your own) players tend to have their own ideas about what's "optimal."

I encourage players to do stuff like this. Every game of serious length that I've run they've ended up making something. I've had players design personal hideouts, come up with new races, research new spells, stat up loyal follwers, and create new character classes. It helps put a personal stamp on a campaign, and encourages the players to invest in the game and the world.

In this case, it seems to be a sign that the campaign is maturing -- and not just in the usual way, where the players get used to each other and their character settle into a comfortable dynamic. The players have started to take control of the campaign themselves; I'm no longer having the trouble I did a couple sessions back where every session was a struggle to constantly generate new happenings. They're doing things now: making plans, coming up with theories, and having adventures.

It's gratifying, because it's a sign that my experiment in a more sandbox-y style of campaign is paying off. I've never been much of a campaign writing kind of a referee, but I do usually start a game with some idea of an overarching storyline; a villain or two at the very least. This time, though, I didn't have anything immediately obvious going into it, and I knew that Mongoose Traveller was built for a more world-oriented style of play, so I decided to go with it. Things were rough for a while, but now I'm starting to see the real appeal of sandbox style play: it's fascinating to see all those separate plot threads start to knit together into something coherent.

Thus, the ship. The player in question has always had a vague idea of what kinds of goals his character, Duke Marlow Burrin, had in mind. (To challenge KordCorp's control over the subsector.) But now that the campaign is coalescing into a more recognizable form, he has a much better idea of how specifically he's going to achieve those goals, and the ship ties into that. And maybe more importantly, he and the rest of the gang seem to be getting much more attached to their characters, and thus more willing to invest in the world. It's a very encouraging sign.


  1. I like your idea of a more sandboxy style. I may try something similar with my Necessary Evil campaign.

  2. I'm seeing this in my Call of Cthulhu game too. I started with a fairly rigid structure of giving the players investigative missions, but as they've got used to the setting, and have begun to gather information, they've been starting their own investigations, including into the organisation for which they've been working. As such, they've started to take control of the game, which is exactly what I wanted.

    Of course, it being Cthulhu some of the plot threads are to do with blasphemous books of ancient knowledge, and they've been left unexplored because no one wants to risk sanity loss by reading them! But that's the game.

  3. vulcanstev: Thouhg it's not as different as I thought it might be, it's still taken me some time to get used to, because there's a different set of considerations than when I'm handling a more arc-based game, but I'm happy with the results so far. I'll warn you that it's likely to start kind of slow, once the initial enthusiasm wears off but before things really start to gel. I don't think I'd use this style for something that was definitely going to be a short, month or two long game. But beyond that caveat, go for it. It's worth trying.

    kelvingreen: I wish I'd given the players a little more guidance at first; putting more work into specific missions would have made things go a lot smoother.

    And very nice on the blasphemous books of ancient knowledge. Are you slowly ratcheting up the potential reasons why they might really want whatever comes with using those books? It's always fun when a player decides to take "just one look," just so they can defeat whatever slobbering horde is after them.

  4. I think a good way of kicking something like this off is to have three or four specific scenarios and make sure that they all have a number of loose ends that may grab the players' interest. They're not going to pick up on all of them, but they will settle on some of them. They may even pick up on something that wasn't intended to be a plot thread, but can be turned into one; I've had this happen already in my game, and it's changed the direction of the campaign.

    Communication is vital. I've been checking with the players between sessions, asking them to tell me what they want to do next, where they want to go, which subjects they want to investigate, and so on. This helps me prepare for sessions and gives the players a stake in how the campaign progresses. That's not to say that they get everything their own way, or that there aren't surprises, of course. ;)

    As for the books, they've been very wary of them so far, but at least one of the characters is in a situation where the player is now strongly considering reading one of the books he's found to see if it can help...

  5. I had a couple specific ideas in mind going into it, (several of which are now paying off nicely) but just one that led to direct and obvious action. A few more specific patron-type encounters would have done the game a world of good.

    Traveller helps a lot in letting you know where the players are going: they want to decide ahead of time, because it factors into what to buy/sell. I should probably start doing some more e-mail type stuff, though. Might be a good way to keep the game in everyone's minds this summer, come to think of it. A bit of the ol' "What's your character's long term plans/dearest wish/worst fear?"

  6. I'm thinking part of your problem might be the fact you're sand boxing. Essentially, until there is enough detail that the players can look around the "universe" and decide on a plan, the party won't self organize.

    When I started Traveller, I developed a full sector before I started, though I still hadn't decided the type of campaign I wanted. Then the "Spinward Marches" supplement came out and the TAS Journal followed. Suddenly I had a fairly organized society to plug my sector alongside.

    Before long my players were involve in espionage missions into the Sword Worlds, gun running to the Ing Gevar rebels (yep, they played both sides)as well as the mundane trading. They took part in the Fifth Frontier War and even earned decorations for their participation.

    The key is information. The more they have, and the more you give them, the more likely they'll be taking off on their own, and the easier time you'll have with adventures.

  7. Yes, this is why I found it useful to start with a mission-based structure; the foundations of what the campaign is about are set in those early sessions, and then it gets handed over to the players to develop and explore.

    Of course, one advantage of Call of Cthulhu is that it's set in a recognisable world, so there are dungeons to map or subsectors to plot!

  8. It might have been easier to get going if I'd used a pre-made world, but I'm more than willing to give up convenience for the control (and fun!) of homebrewing. I'm enjoying starting with a few ideas and a couple of characters and building the larger setting from there.