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[40k Rogue Trader] As a GM who can't run sandboxes, where do you even start?

God-Emperor

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So with the demise of our current game, I'm looking at perhaps taking up the GM mantle again and running Rogue Trader, mainly because people don't want to agree on any other setting. On a whole, we know the 40k universe pretty well, but most of us have little experience with Rogue Trader specifically (mostly having played Dark Heresy and Only War for long-running campaigns).

However, as a GM I'm left wondering exactly how I'm supposed to prep this as a game. Only War is easy - command sends the PCs on a mission to do something and then have them screwed with by enemy forces - that writes itself, and lack of inspiration can be replaced with watching a war film or two. Dark Heresy is a lot more work-intensive but still entirely doable - I make a huge list of NPCs, give most of them secret love affairs, feuds, blackmail, or leverage to use against each other and heaps of greed, spite, and hubris, then set up who the villains are likely to be squeezing the hardest, and then let the Inquisition find out about it when something gets squeezed too hard. Both of these games have different levels of openness, but are still fairly linear, and I can write adventures for them with no problem. Rogue Trader, however, is a whole different animal, and I'm at a loss.

Now, I don't have a good history of running sandbox games, and RT seems to be a game that can only be run as the sandboxiest of sandboxes. After a dozen or so attempts with different groups and different systems/settings, my typical experience with running a sandbox seems to be:
- Get a group together
- Wander around a bit
- Poke a few things to see what happens
- Screw around a bit
- Escalate to full trolling/griefing/pvp
- Game collapse
Most sandbox games that I've been in as either a player or a GM seem to always end with either the PCs being shot to death by law enforcement, or dropping out from boredom, lack of direction, or just bitterness over being trolled. And before you say "Just get better players," this has applied to groups of otherwise good roleplayers, groups of bad roleplayers, groups from comic book stores, groups from conventions, groups that normally LARP, etc. I haven't just had this experience with one group of poor players, I've had it with every sandbox I've ever played/run, even groups with a history of solid games.

I've put a lot of time into thinking, going around and around - if I were playing a new Rogue Trader who had just taken over command of the last ship left to the dynasty with a dwindling fortune and a Warrant of Trade that has no real prestige left to it (basically a generation-level PC), what would I do? I honestly can't think of how I would go about building my fortune, I don't even know where to start. Without really understanding what a Rogue Trader can/should do to build their fortune, it's difficult to plan for what someone else would do in that position. I guess I don't really even have a blueprint of what PCs are expected to be doing in a typical session. In Shadowrun (for example), there's an assumption that typical gameplay will be 'meeting the Johnson, planning and legwork, executing the job, dealing with the consequences, then returning to the Johnson for payment' - there's a sort of expected progression for gameplay to work from. I don't have that for Rogue Trader at all, and it's not like there's a ready source of employment/adventures for Rogue Traders contact like in any other game setting.

I've personally played in a handful of Rogue Trader games, but never as the Rogue Trader of the group (strangely most RT groups that I've played in don't seem to have anyone taking the RT character class, often with an Explorator or something leading instead). They've all met similar fates of having far too many special snowflakes (which is a separate problem) and falling into the Screwing Around Cycle [tm] within a session or two. On occasion, I've been asked by the GM to provide some sort of long-term goal for my character, and I've actually been at a complete loss and wasn't the only one either - most of the group struggled to come up with anything that seemed fitting, often settling on some vague placeholder like 'gather forbidden lore' or 'get rich'.

I've tried to approach this with my players, but they don't seem to really understand where I'm coming from, or are more interested in what they're allowed to play rather than what they'll actually be doing during play. I just re-read the endeavours section in the core RT book, and it occurs to me that I've never seen a RT game actually even use that section of the book. It seems severely abstracted, to the point where I already want to skip it and not bother, but it does suggest some themes at least. Maybe I don't have the right mentality for running/playing Rogue Trader, but none of the sample endeavours sound like something that would ever enter my mind as a viable course of action during play. In fact, the entries on pages 280 and 281 in the core book don't sound profitable at all, they sound suicidal. I somehow don't see a new dynasty with only one ship and a meagre profit factor being able to "force a better outcome" with established dynasties like Winterscale or Chorda, especially after taking a chunk of the holdings on Lucin's Breath by military force (page 281).

So I guess my question is two-fold. First, what do PCs in RT actually do to grow their fortunes (or actually do during play for that matter)? Second, what should I prep to facilitate those things, particularly to make a sandbox game really work? And please, don't just say "They do whatever they want to" or something equally vague, I've already gotten my fill of that from skimming other forums. Likewise, don't get into an argument over whether to use published modules or not, I've already seen that devolve into flame wars in multiple forum threads that have asked similar questions. I have all of the published content - Warp Storm Trilogy, Lure of the Expanse, all the sourcebooks, etc - but most of the material doesn't seem to facilitate the suggested playstyle.
 

Kakita Kojiro

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However, as a GM I'm left wondering exactly how I'm supposed to prep this as a game. Only War is easy - command sends the PCs on a mission to do something and then have them screwed with by enemy forces - that writes itself, and lack of inspiration can be replaced with watching a war film or two. Dark Heresy is a lot more work-intensive but still entirely doable - I make a huge list of NPCs, give most of them secret love affairs, feuds, blackmail, or leverage to use against each other and heaps of greed, spite, and hubris, then set up who the villains are likely to be squeezing the hardest, and then let the Inquisition find out about it when something gets squeezed too hard. Both of these games have different levels of openness, but are still fairly linear, and I can write adventures for them with no problem. Rogue Trader, however, is a whole different animal, and I'm at a loss.
I run my RT game as, essentially, a hybrid sandbox. I defined a small (subsector-sized) area of space as the area they'd be operating in, handed basic information over to the players, and left it up to them to find something in there to make a Profit on. At the same time, I'd made a list of NPCs/ongoing events, planned what was going to happen to those if the players didn't intervene, and roll those events out periodically as the players go about their business.

The hardest part was getting the players started on their first Endeavor - lacking resources or contacts, unfamiliar with the region, they floundered a bit until they hit upon "we're going to establish a pilgrimage route for the ultra-wealthy." Once that got going, they started picking up contacts, rivals, resources, and ultimately goals of their own. Their Rogue Trader got tangled up in a 'relationship' with someone who turned out to be an Ordo Hereticus assassin, the Navigator got intrigued by cryptic notes on his star map, and the Exploratrix decided she really liked making servo-skulls.

Alternatively, if you really want to avoid a sandbox campaign, the Koronus Expanse is structured really well for Planet Of The Week games. Footfall serves as the frontier outpost that can be a base of operations, from where they jump off to explore random undiscovered planets. The GM plans for the planet being discovered, which is basically Adventure + planetary setting. The players show up, deal with whatever action the GM has planned, and figure out how to Profit from it.

Think of the Endeavor system as a framework to provide structure to the hoops you're going to make the players go through to make a Profit. Beyond the examples in the corebook (or Into the Storm), and Endeavor is basically what results from players asking "how can we make gobs of money?" Once they decide, for example, that they're going to sell their thousands of pirate captives to the Dark Eldar, you (and they) start planning the steps needed to make that happen. E.g., #1 find some Dark Eldar looking to buy humans, #2 transport the captives [somewhere] without any incidents, #3 survive the inevitable betrayal by your Dark Eldar customers, #4 hide evidence of what you did from discovery by the Ordo Xenos. These tasks then become sub-Adventures; some you can gloss over with Acquisition Rolls or roleplay, while others may lead to further side Adventures. As GM you'll also want to throw in the occasional complication - such as, rival Rogue Trader(s) showing up.

Once the RT dynasty has a few Endeavors under its belt, it gets much easier - the players will have places they're used to dealing with, allies and enemies you've already defined, and most importantly a bunch of resources that they'll want to build on, spurring further Endeavors.
 

Bira

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It's completely OK to give your players some initial direction in sandbox games! You can start with 1-3 solid hooks, make your players pick one, and let them go about pursuing it however they want. Once they gather some steam, they'll soon come up with stuff to do on their own.

I'm not very experienced with Rogue Trader specifically, but getting back to basics here might be a good thing. How do Rogue Traders make money? They trade! The basic process is to find a planet that badly wants some type of good, and another planet that sells it for cheap. Load up on the latter, brave the perils of the Warp, sell the stuff at the former after tacking on a horrid markup. You could start the campaign with their ship already loaded up with some sort of cargo, and a small list of planets willing to pay a lot for it. Each planet would have its own complication to solve in order for the players to sell the stuff. This one is being invaded by orks. That other one is currently crawling with the sort of Inquisitor that would frown upon the cargo. And the third one is a xenos planet that wants to pay in juicy but heretical technology.

After they finally manage to sell their cargo and make a killing, just repeat the process! Keep your PCs supplied with solid hooks and be open-minded about how they choose to pursue them, and you have yourself a sandbox.
 

mornwraith

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The players don't have to be the ones who own the Warrant of Trade', they can work for the one who does. They may be a very successful Rogue Trader who now owns 3 ships, 2 large cargo ships & a smaller explorer-trader. He's busy buying a planet somewhere & making himself Lord Governor, but doesn't want to pass up on a potentially lucrative deal he's come across, so sub-contracts the players to work for him.

There's a recently opened up sub-sector, the ancient maps are contradictory & a survey needs to be done. Also, the records seem to show at least one large colony world & several smaller outposts, so the players need to find out if there are any surviving colonists, and if possible reclaim them for the Rogue Trader...errr...I mean the Emperor.

They can take the explorer ship, then do a large circuit of the sub-sector. Stop at every interesting star system & spend a few days doing a survey. If they come across a human world, then help them out if required & negotiate trading rights for later ships. Also pick up some cargos to cover the costs of the trip.

This is a mission based game, with several sub-missions incorporated. It has a clear start & a clear end (when they return), and the bit in the middle is limited to a dozen or so star systems.

You could have a sub-game where you actually design the next star system they will encounter. One or more of the players can design their own sub-mission & GM that mission with you as a player. You run the big set pieces & the meta-plot, but let a couple of players run a few one star system encounters.

Play it like an episode of 'Enterprise' (the Star trek precursor spin off). Then move on to the next system. Have a few ship based plots running for those long warp jumps.

example sub-mission:

Enter star system kxy-1010-ub13A. Records indicate ancient mining outpost was last heard of 2000 standard years ago:
- Conduct survey & discover the gas giant has lost a large moon.
- Land on the rocky planets & let the Ars Biologus tek-priest take samples. Find strange life forms.
- Discovered abandoned mining outpost in the asteroid belt, but there are signs it was attacked.
- Salvage equipment from outpost as cargo to resell. Note that it looks like someone else salvaged stuff here less then a century ago.

Give the players some hard to solve but mundane problems to solve:
- One of the shuttles engines shut down & is de-orbiting, they need to mount a rescue mission. The fuel feed pump was improperly blessed & needs to be reconsecrated.
- There's a cave in & crew are trapped. A rescue will never dig their way inside in time, an alternative entrance needs to be found. There are small but dangerous animals along the way - turns out they really really tasty if roasted.
- Gunnery clan alpha have fallen out with damage control clan delta, they refuse to speak or work together until honor is restored. It's likely that they will come to blows soon. The command crew must negotiate a peace treaty. Both teams dispute an episode of ships history from 350 years ago, they have fallen out over who was responsible for saving the old captains life (the sainted captain from 350 years ago & who has been dead 200 years).

Play non-religiously insane characters, who might decide to negotiate with aliens rather then immediately nuke their planet from orbit. Have a priest on board who is willing to allow some species of aliens to live so long as humans are in charge. Play humans who have drifted to the outskirts of Empire to escape the factionalism & religious persecution.

Have warp incidents be comparatively rare. In cannon, demons are meant to be so rare that the average person has never heard of them, yet they are ten-a-penny in the setting. Most ships are meant to survive repeated warp travel, but in the setting almost every jump has something really bad happen.

Play it as an actual Science Fiction game, in a space feudalism setting. The medieval period was full of competent non-lunatics. Set the 40k gonzo dial at 9 rather then turn it to 11.

If they know that they are following a loop & have a specific end goal, it will feel less like vague sandbox & more a focused mission based game.
 
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the_vomacht

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So with the demise of our current game, I'm looking at perhaps taking up the GM mantle again and running Rogue Trader, mainly because people don't want to agree on any other setting. On a whole, we know the 40k universe pretty well, but most of us have little experience with Rogue Trader specifically (mostly having played Dark Heresy and Only War for long-running campaigns).

However, as a GM I'm left wondering exactly how I'm supposed to prep this as a game. Only War is easy - command sends the PCs on a mission to do something and then have them screwed with by enemy forces - that writes itself, and lack of inspiration can be replaced with watching a war film or two. Dark Heresy is a lot more work-intensive but still entirely doable - I make a huge list of NPCs, give most of them secret love affairs, feuds, blackmail, or leverage to use against each other and heaps of greed, spite, and hubris, then set up who the villains are likely to be squeezing the hardest, and then let the Inquisition find out about it when something gets squeezed too hard. Both of these games have different levels of openness, but are still fairly linear, and I can write adventures for them with no problem. Rogue Trader, however, is a whole different animal, and I'm at a loss.
-snip-
Your description of how to run Dark Heresy actually tells me that you're perfectly equipped to run a good, fun, sandbox-ish Rogue Trader game.
Simply put, the same concepts you applied to Dark Heresy (a big list of npcs with their own opinions and goals) will work perfectly well with Rogue Trader. Only the scale changes, not the number of npcs or even their nature. For example, while "Gang leader" and "influential dilettante" might be on your Dark Heresy NPC list, in RT it will be something like "Pirate Queen" and "Master of a Xenos-research collective". Remember that when dealing with the planetary scale, you don't have to detail every little servant and scribe! It's enough to have one or two big-wigs fleshed out, with maybe a minor detail about their favorite lieutenants if you want.
Take heart! I think you will do fine! There's already some great advice in this thread, let me add my own two thrones in addition.
A good Rogue Trader game has definitive focus, but allows the pcs a decent amount of leeway and breadth in their explorations. If you simply plonk the players down in the Expanse and say "go nuts" you're likely to have an un-focused game, but likewise if you tightly control the pcs actions (say by having a Naval ship show up and boss them around), you lose a lot of the fun of the concept. The key here is balance. Here are roughly the elements I think make for a good RT game:

1. A McGuffin: You want to run a tight campaign, you need a McGuffin to focus it around. It could be a lost data-vault, a starship from the Dark Age of Technology, an Eldar Maiden World, a weapon or artifact of indescribable power, or even an individual who holds the key to something of incredible import in the Imperium. It doesn't really matter what it is, what matters is that it's hard to get to, it's mysterious, and everyone wants it. This is what your players want, and what will ultimately drive them across the Expanse. It's okay to talk to them beforehand about this, and try to work into their backstories why they want the McGuffin so much.

2. Setting: Easy enough, you need places for your pcs to explore. Come up with say, half a dozen star systems somehow related to the McGuffin. Most of the systems should have one inhabited planet, a few have more than one, a few have none at all. Every system has a quirk of some kind, at least two local important factions, a vital local resource to exploit/way to make money, and some piece of information or clue leading to the McGuffin. This way, your players can go to whatever system they want, make money/pursue endeavors on the side, while still being drawn into the over-arching concept of the campaign.

3. Factions/Adversaries: In my opinion, you need about three factions + the pcs, who are all seeking the same goal. They need not necessarily be antagonists, but they are certainly in competition to get to the thing first. Unlike the local factions each system will have, these Adversaries can pursue the pcs across space, follow different leads, make temporary alliances with the protagonists and generally participate with them on a grander scale. Personally, I would have one rival Rogue Trader dynasty, one Xenos faction (Eldar Corsairs, Ork freebooters, or a mercenary group led by minor species like the Stryxis) and one wild card, which could be Chaos worshippers, Inquisition personnel, Navy, or, if you really hate your players, an exiled Space Marine Captain and his battle company.

4. A GMPC: Hear me out here! I'm not talking about the stereotypical horrible Mary Sue type that steals the show from the pcs. Rather, give them a reliable, friendly, servile and impeccably prepared associate who can act as your mouth piece and drop hints about where they might go next and bail them out in the most dire of situations. A Rogue Trader is a nobleman in space, and what is a rich noble without his stalwart butler? Give them a Jeeves-type, who has a keen knowledge of the expanse and is an endless bag of tricks and obscure skills, but who always defers to the pcs and never outshines them, living to serve and help them be the very best explorers they can be. He always has their uniforms pressed, their tea spiked, and their plasma weapons fully charged, yet he would never dream of charging into combat and suggesting that they were unable to do the job themselves. In short, he's there to help keep the plot moving but is never there to direct it or to show up the players.

That's my advice for a sandbox-y game.
I think it's personally reasonable to talk to your players and simply say "We're going to do Star Trek 40,000", and have each session start with a quick blurb on why they're at the planet of the week and what they're looking for there. Being much more horrible people than Kirk and crew, they'll quickly figure out they can simply run away or nuke big problems, but remind them that succeeding at their mission will increase their profit factor, giving them access to fancy new gear and nicer hats, while failing means they'll lose reputation and possibly be branded cowards and left off the invitation list to all the fun parties.
 
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Scutarii

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Start In Medias Res. They're erupting from the warp, hounded by hostile alien ships, boarding parties ravaging the ship. But they've got the motherlode. They've found an artifact that belonged to Vulkan, Primarch of the Salamanders (or whoever you prefer) that gives clues as to their whereabouts. If the Traders play their cards right they could get a chapter of Space Marines to purge a world of hostiles that the Trader can then lay claim to after the chapter dashes off after the next clue.

What's a bit of risk when the reward is a planet...

---

Basically don't run a sandbox if you don't think it'll pan out. Have a good, strong central plotline, add in little side quests and additional bits and pieces in response to your players activities and approaches to avoid a straight railroad but generally keep the game focused on achieving the main long term goal. Not every session has to work towards it, but it should be kept in mind.

Also consider that your game may well have a shelflife. If achieving the end game is going to take about 8 sessions then...play those 8 sessions to a satisfying conclusion and do something else after that. Not every game has to be a decade spanning monster epic. Or even last more than a session. What matters is that the moment ot moment, week to week game is fun for however long it lasts.
 

Pikarov

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The thread is already full of good advice but I want to suggest another possibility that you might consider as you mention Only War.

You can also play a non-sandboxy Rogue Trader campaign with the benefits (and drawbacks) of a military command structure by simply having the ship and PCs be part of the Imperial Navy (for different flavors, other organisations are also possible, like the Adeptus Mechanicus). If you do that, almost all archetypes work without any change.

You can then prepare well defined missions in the Expanse: investigate strange distress signals, scout orks movements, destroy a raider base, get involved in a feud between Rogue Traders after strings were pulled by one of them, etc...

And your PCs might even get a warrant of trade after doing something extraordinary during the campaign and switch later to a true Rogue Trader crew.
 

Paranoid Android

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Off the wall idea - look at the Pirates of Drinax campaign for Mongoose Traveller:

http://www.mongoosepublishing.com/ebooks/traveller/adventures-and-campaigns/campaign-2-the-pirates-of-drinax.html NB still free but prob not for much longer as it is being reissued as a proper book at some point.

While in many ways not at all my idea of a classic Traveller campaign it strikes me as an almost perfect inspiration for a Rogue Trader one.

You have to start with in effect a warrant and a rather decrepit starship (although to fit 40K canon it and every other starship needs to be 1000 times bigger and have a crew the size of a small or not-so-small town...) and a series of adventures on various frontier worlds that you use to gradually increase your influence and wealth (which are abstracted to something a lot nearer to Rogue Trader model than Traveller's counting of every credit).

And at the end you are either dead, fleeing as far from the frontier as you can get or have become fabulously wealthy and powerful.

Start by making your patron the elderly head of your Rogue Trader dynasty which has decayed to just the one starship and a space station orbiting above a devastated world.

Look at the Trojan Reaches sourcebook and turn the subsectors that feature in the campaign into a 40K sector - scrapping the Traveller world profiles other than as a rough guide to help you decide which worlds are feral, feudal, hive, forge, shrine etc (in many cases a simple mapping to trade codes hi-pop = hive, industrial = forge, agricultural = agri, garden = garden etc).

Adapt the aliens (the most significant aliens in the setting are aslan who could become eldar or perhaps tau - with their even being a rogue aslan state devoted to slaving a couple of subsectors away to be dark eldar...), replace most of the settings pirates who will be your main adversaries with roving orks, kroot, dark eldar, genestealers, rival rogue traders etc and you have both a sandbox setting and a clear path through it to fame and glory.

In fact I am seriously thinking of doing this myself now...
 
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HoratioAtTheBridge

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theAlexandrian has a few good articles on how to run sandbox type games:

Game Structures: http://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/15126/roleplaying-games/game-structures

Hexcrawls: http://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/17308/roleplaying-games/hexcrawl

I think the best thing is to narrow down the options with your players before hand until you've got something more manageable. Do you want to run a hexcrawl focused on Exploration? Let them pick a portion of the Expanse to explore and flesh it out with some random encounter tables and planted dungeons. Give them a home base and a rumor table to launch them in various directions. Want to focus on trade, rival traders, and dealing with the bureaucracy? Do something with the trade-route Game Structure, define the most common routes, the main personalities on those planets, the trade goods that are most valuable, etc.

The "In Medias Res" suggestion is fantastic, and I'd expand on that by having the first adventure be a situation where the options are really constrained. The group has already taken a job, or is stranded on a planet, or had something mess up in the Warp, and they have to deal with it. Start where things are interesting rather than uncertain. Of those, I'd actually say pick a starting adventure that is most representative of What Rogue Trader Is About (taking a job, solving a problem, profit) so that the players can go through the motions of a typical adventure and get the hang of things. Then they have a better idea of what to do next when you end the session at the Space Bar and they're browsing the news to find their next opportunity.
 

MarshalLV

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Rogue Trader sure ain't the easiest game, at least when compared to the likes of Dark Heresy or Only War, but there are a couple of helpful suggestions in the book that might be of use. Warrants of Trade sometimes contain specific requirements and tasks that a Rogue Trader will have to deal with either over long periods of time or as a sort of "payment" for the ship and the crew. That's one way of providing some direction for a campaign. Maybe the dynasty is tasked to explore and map a particular area of space, or maybe they are tasked with establishing colonies on backwater planets with massive untapped resources and terrible reputations. It can work for both entirely new dynasties and for older ones as well.
 
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