Paizo has a long history of supporting our games with robust adventure content: Adventure Paths, Organized Play scenarios, single volume modules, and more. All of these adventures have one thing in common: they have a clear story, and while every GM changes an adventure to suit their table, my role as a developer has been to give both GM and players a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end that rises to a satisfying finale. But what if that’s not the kind of adventure you like to run or play in? What if you want something more open… where the players can go where they want, making the story up themselves as they explore and interact with newly-discovered NPCs and mysterious creatures? What if you want to leave the “theme park” style adventure for something more like a “sandbox”?
I’m very happy to say: the Starfinder Galaxy Exploration Manual is the book you’ve been waiting for.
When Joe Pasini, lead developer of the Galaxy Exploration Manual, asked me to write the Sandbox Adventures chapter for this book, I was both excited and intimidated. Making a sandbox campaign is a tremendous logistical challenge, but it’s also highly rewarding—as any of you who have played in sandbox games can attest. And because sandbox-style games have a long history in our hobby, there’s a lot of advice on this topic out there already, much of it written by simply brilliant creators. My job was clear: to take the best of that advice and then fine-tune it to the unique qualities and attributes of the Starfinder RPG.
To take one example, Ray Winninger’s Dungeoncraft series of essays (originally published in Dragon magazine from 1997—1999) is packed with great advice on making sandbox settings and adventures. In those articles Winninger created an entire fantasy setting from scratch, just to show us all how it is done (and then, when he was finished, he went back to the beginning and did it again, an effort only interrupted when Paizo began to publish Dragon). You’ll see some of Winninger’s advice—like giving every NPC, location, and object you create for your setting a secret which the PCs can discover—in the Galaxy Exploration Manual. But not all advice is useful for every RPG; when discussing the ideal number of players a GM should recruit, Winninger suggested, “you'll want to limit yourself to eight or ten players as a general rule.” Some RPGs work great with 8-10 players, but Starfinder isn’t really designed for that; all our advice on encounters and challenge rating is based around groups half that size—and many of us have trouble finding even four players, let alone 10!
Ron Lundeen—whom most of you already know as a developer on Pathfinder and author of many adventures for both that game and Starfinder—also lent me his experience and knowledge. Ron has written extensively about the incredible challenge that sandbox games present to GMs; a GM can easily fall into the trap of thinking they have to prepare every possible location the player characters might go, and that level of preparation takes so long that the game itself never happens. And if this is a challenge in a fantasy RPG where characters are limited to wherever their horses or ships can take them, imagine how much worse the problem becomes when the PCs have a Drift engine, and any planet in the galaxy is only a single Drift jump away! How does the GM prepare, when the PCs can go anywhere?
The answer is, of course, “they don’t.” Instead, the GM gates some adventure locations behind other locations, nesting one sandbox inside the next. So, for example, the PCs might be exploring an ancient alien ruin—their first sandbox—when they discover coordinates to other ruins on the other planets in the star system, worlds they had no reason to visit… until now. And the GM can steer the PCs by making some adventure locations obviously more hazardous or more difficult to get to—which will probably prompt the players into putting those locations off for a while, at least until they gain a level or two. The players still have plenty of choices; in fact, by reducing the choices from “an infinite galaxy” to something like three or four—and giving those remaining choices some specific details that the PCs can rely on to make informed choices—the GM can actually help the players avoid decision paralysis. Any Paizo designer will tell you: sometimes too many choices is as bad, or worse, than no choices at all. And then, when the players do decide where to go, you can use the tools in the Galaxy Exploration Manual (perhaps with a little assist from the Deck of Many Worlds) to actually make those settings, often with help from your own players!
Beyond advice for how to create basic sandbox-storytelling structures for your game, there’s so much more in this chapter of the Galaxy Exploration Manual. You’ll find advice on reskinning creatures—so even if you’re creating a brand new setting, you don’t have to create all the alien creatures yourself—and how to get started, by creating a home base with a steady cast of NPCs whom the PCs can go to for healing, crafting, and pawning their loot. Our game is unique in its particular combination of science and fantasy, so there’s advice for combining both in your setting to make it really feel like Starfinder. You’ll even find advice on building random encounter tables; we don’t use random encounters much in Starfinder Adventure Paths or modules, because they’re a bit antithetical to the structure of an Adventure Path. It’s hard to predict what level the PCs will be at any given point in an adventure if the PCs are having random encounters and gaining a variable amount of XP. But random encounters are key to sandbox adventures, where the PCs level up at their own pace and can often find themselves facing creatures far too deadly for the group’s level.
The Galaxy Exploration Manual shows you how all of these tricks work by providing specific examples: a sandbox setting called the Alqet system, built from the ground up for this book. Alqet’s got NPCs, secrets, clues to those secrets, multiple adventure sites, sandboxes nested inside other sandboxes, and even a random encounter table. Sidebars walk you through the creation of Alqet one step at a time, a blueprint for you to use as you create your own sandbox campaign
But that’s not all! We added support for other genres too, from cyberpunk and hard sci-fi to high science fantasy settings like She-Ra or Masters of the Universe. You’ll find advice on building settings, campaigns, and adventures for military sci-fi, post-apocalyptic stories, parallel worlds and time travel, space westerns, and even planetary survival stories like The Martian. Some of these genres are more suited to sandbox adventures than others, but Starfinder can do them all!
And I can’t wait for you to read it.
Wednesday, June 2, 2021