Cautionary story of how not to introduce factions in an open world campaign.
In Salvage over Saturn, there is an optional encounter that introduces an infamous ship called Night Terror captained by Tang Fei of the Golgotha Pirate fleet.
I spring this encounter on my players using a group GMI while they were in the orbit of Enceladus somewhere in the E ring. An epic space fight ensued, and long story short, Night Terror crashed into the Enceladus. I say to the group that they are now entitled to a significant bounty.
I go home happy, and in the morning, I realize that I screwed up my worldbuilding.
So what happened? First, I knew that this adventure would lead to a campaign, which I wanted to run in a more open world, sandbox style. For that purpose, I prepared a standing table which I nicked straight from the Traveller :
Patrons are non-player characters in positions of power, authority, influence, or dire need who employ the Travellers and give them missions.
These people are willing to go out of their way to help Travellers. An Ally is willing to risk his reputation, status, and even his life for his friends, but will expect equal consideration from the Travellers.
These people are willing to help the Traveller when they can, but only in a limited fashion. An Ally would give the Travellers a weapon, but a Contact would only tell the Travellers where they could purchase it.
Rivals & Enemies
These are both adversaries of the Travellers – Enemies are just willing to go further. While adventures can revolve around the efforts of a Rival to discredit or kill the Travellers, the referee should also drop Rivals and Enemies into other plots. For example, if the Travellers are trying to find a starport willing to repair their damaged ship, a Rival might show up in the system and poach passengers.
Enemies and especially Rivals should be mobile. If the Travellers are going to spend their time jumping from system to system, then their Rivals should have starships of their own, so the Travellers encounter them again and again. Enemies can be stationary but should have a long enough reach to affect the Travellers. Totalitarian governments, evil conspiracies, or interstellar corporations all make great Enemies.
GM Intrusion to the Rescue
Captain Tang Fei is a major NPC of the Golgotha Fleet, itself a major faction in the game. With this encounter, I pushed the whole faction to the Enemy status! I felt that I took a bit too much player agency for 1XP each, so for the next session, I prepared a new group intrusion to amend things.
Luckily, the encounter was at the end of the session, so the next session starts right at the end of the battle. I introduce a new group GMI and narrate how the party intercepts a wide-beam transmission that is emitting all their ship information and scans, and that a small shuttle appeared through the geysers of Enceladus. Survivors!
The scene sets up a few things:
- Tang Fei is alive and a portion of his crew unconscious in their personal hibernation pods.
- He sent a wide-beam so that Golgotha Fleet can hunt the party down before they reach the inner planets
- He is aware that the group is eligible to an enormous bounty on his head, so presumed dead, he offers a business deal: spend your sweet bounty money on a blackmarket ship and equipment he has for sale, and he will call off the pirate fleet. Win-win scenario.
With this little trick, I put back agency into the players’ hands as now they can decide to either trade with the pirates and move the standing up to Rivals, or they can stand their ground as do-gooders and try to outsmart the Golghotha Fleet and make enemies for life.
It played out really well as several things happened in that session. I was clever enough to present the wide-beam message first because I was not sure if the group would just shoot the shuttle down. This was the right choice as they actually captured the shuttle. I didn’t want boarding fights so having the crew in hibernation was a great touch, and I also moved Tang Fei to unconscious in a critical state (once I realized they will board the shuttle). Party now needs to keep him alive and rendezvous with agents of Golgotha at given coordinates which turned out to be a Sabrina space station close by.
One more fortunate event was that two casual gaming friends joined our session that night, and I had a selection of characters in hibernation that they could pick from :)
I guess the moral of the story is to be careful about how one introduces new factions into the game. My first encounter closed off a whole faction by turning them into enemies without players even realizing the consequences. The fix was to open it up and leave it up to the group to meaningfully decide whether they’ll scheme, double deal, fight or simply ignore.