Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Character-Based Sandbox Campaigns

On the face of it, Top Secret is an odd place to keep digging for experimental bits. Back in the day it was—as most of the historically-themed second-generation games—an awkward cousin of the TSR family. Nowadays with little to no current following, we can safely and sadly say it's in the dustbin of gaming history.

Still Top Secret, in it's pre-TSR publication days as Spy World, had it's roots in the mid-70s creative explosion of experimentation with rpgs and as such you can still mine curious bits from it that may either shine a light on alternative paths not taken or be of use for classical play campaigns here and now. ( I pointed out a few months back on this blog TS had trace elements of early concepts that mostly dropped out of the fabric of rpgs: competition and GM-player role blur.)

Another interesting coulda, shoulda,woulda-been TS concept was the idea of a character-based sandbox campaign (as opposed to the mostly location-based sandboxes that we many of us know and love in classic-play D&D or Traveller). I say coulda-been because while the idea of a game based on the non-linear unraveling and exploration of a character-based espionage network was explicitly laid-out in the campaign section of the original rules, game-play and the published modules became quickly centered around the commando raid-like clearing of Bad Guy facilities.

Which is a shame because an interesting space between the old location sandboxes and the heavily-plotted nightmares that marked each successive edition of D&D was lost. Let me back up and break down that forgotten piece.

TS's campaign rules provided several ways to portray a network of NPCs. (For ease of reference I present the page in its entirety on the right here, click to embiggen). There were several layers of the network from the Administrators at the top (which in Spy World were originally playable characters) .

More interestingly there was the use of six different types of communications links inside the network complete with symbolic notations for each: a line with arrows pointing in both directions for a direct connection or a broken line pointing in one direction to signify a dead drop.

In theory, this would be used to make a symbolic map. Instead of hex or area location maps linked by roads, tracks, and rivers you had nodes based on the various agents linked by how they are interfacing with the rest of the network. Play presumably would revolve around eliminating, duping, tracking, spying seducing, etc. each personage along that network in an attempt to break or infiltrate it.

You saw the attempt to use this model in the introductory module, the infamous Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle. Its implementation was a muddle though; the scenario taking place in a fictional spy-ridden Cold War neutral town nestled between East and West typically ran as a locale-based town and dungeon crawl with an awkward attempt to graft the network rules on top.

It wasn't until the release of the Top Secret Companion with its sample campaign scenario Operation Meltdown did you get the full effect of Merle Rasmussen's, the game's creator, intentions. In that scenario, you had a timeline for a conspiracy by a globe-trotting network of baddies spanning the fence from ninjas to South American Nazis.

But the timeline wasn't a plot railroad as much as it was a timetable of events that would happen if the players didn't intervene through their romping around in a non-linear. The focus of play was the team of players jetting around the world, figuring out which person fit where and how to muck up the plans. They could fly anywhere with the help of their various spy agencies, adventuring was completely independent of both the box cars of an adventure path and the restrictions of locale-based sandboxes. Interesting stuff.

To give you a graphic representation here is the comm links diagram for the adventure:

The style of campaign play has an intriguing amount of potential for a fantasy campaign too. 

Say you set a hook, the players uncover a vast conspiracy of forces in the Archsyndocracy of Outer Kutalika to awaken the cosmic horror of long, dead elder gods. They chose to follow this hook and you draw up a network like above for a network scattered around the locales of your campaign world (you could seed it with agents living or visiting dungeons or other traditional adventuring locales to pad out play).

Or take something smaller and more confined, but filled with NPC intrigue: the Golden Khandive's  royal pleasure barge; a drafty, snowed-in fortress; the gizzards of a sleeping god; or what have you.

Food for thought in the sandbox.


  1. Excellent stuff! I remember TS, but never got to play it. But paragraph 6 just sorta stops in mid-sentence, and I'm very curious what was going on there.

  2. Sweet Jimminy, I'm glad you posted that after all. That is really interesting. So many interesting ideas just left behind.

  3. Damn you MI-6 for jamming the frequency.

    I'm in transit right now,so I can't fix it directly. The line should read "a broken line pointing in one direction to signify a dead drop."

  4. This is really, really interesting.

  5. A legend of the symbols and a bit of explanation for the schedule chart would be great, because I'd like to try to steal this and have more work done for me :)

    This is a lot like, but more developed and systematic, what I meant when I wrote, 'the sandbox DM doesn't have plots, but the villains do have schemes.' Moving parts are what makes the sandbox feel real.

  6. I actually played TS often back in the day but it was usually run on a railroad and involved lots of ripping off Bond flicks and infiltrating arch-villain's bases.

    I think I will try to incorporate some of the character-based ideas into Microdots, my inter-dimensional spy game...if it ever gets off the back burner. Might also be useful for the Humanspace pbps...very interesting!

  7. I know I'm dim, but what's 'sandbox play'? I have a suspicion that it's what I practice in the secret dimness of our basement game room, but if some kind person could explain it to me I'd be most grateful!

    yours, Chirine

  8. Chirine, it is running a game in a life-like organic manner based not upon quests, but upon the whims of the PCs as they wander over the map.

    Time-honoured sandbox play comes from knowing a lot about the world in general, while the new sandboxing comes from exploring each hex around the proposed starting point for the PCs, and not revealing too much information to the Players (namely because the information isn't known by the GM and is simply being 'winged' from the lattice of existing information already provided the Players, and the sparse notes/sketches/whims of the GM).

    On the one hand we have Tekumel, Glorantha, Jorune, The Wilderlands of High Fantasy, and Urutsk as examples of 'top-down' designs, and on the other, a home-brewed, gradually-revealed, 'bottom-up' 'as players discover it' styles within sandboxes.

    So, even when folks are in agreement that sandboxes work, they may be talking about the Top-Down worlds, or the Bottom-Up worlds and still have room to fight amongst themselves. ;D

    Did that help to clear things up? :D

  9. @Red
    If you look at the page I scanned from TS and find the middle section on communication links, you will see the symbolic notations for the six kinds of links.

    They match the same on the second chart from Operation Meltdown. Each of the circles denotes an NPC (the letter and number match a roster) the lines represent who they talk or report to in the network and how.

    I will probably do a longer post on how it was supposed to work and examples of how you could make it work in your own campaign tomorrow when I get back from my work trip.

    I played a good deal of the game too--and exactly in the same style you mention. The standard game format was that the characters spend a little time investigating where the bad guy base is then they proceed to clear the complex. Old D&D habits die hard.

    Look forward to Microdots, truth be told when it comes to genre fiction spy books rivals or trump my fantasy interest.

    Nice definition, a good deal better than what I was going to reply with. It's funny, I am running two very different sandboxes: the radically bottom-up Hill Cantons (that does have a NPC network conspiracy or five along these lines in it) and the top-down world of Nowhere for the Domain Game. Both heavily feature player co-design.

    1. Cool, Chris. I wish we'd been able to game more together. Perhaps in '13?

    2. Yes most definitely. I have a wilderness survival/escape mini-campaign going if you are interested.

  10. I love sandbox play, and the notion of an intricate timeline that progresses if the players don't interfere (or how it changes if they do) is fascinating to me in terms of campaign structure.

  11. That was a very good explanation TS!

  12. Yep, over a year later and I'm reading this again. What's great is now it has someplace to gel as I'm defining the big bad for sandbox built using An Echo Resounding and this is a perfect idea for both the big bad and two middle bads.

  13. Catching up by running down the "You might also like..." links.

    This is most intriguing to use for the conspiracies of the Goddess of the Pale Bone on Tekumel.


    1. In the so-called "great minds" category, Brett, I started working on something very similar for a Goddess conspiracy when I was running my Jakallan underworld campaign. Didn't quite ever get done though.