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Premise

I'm a relative new GM who only run a 2 years long heavily railroaded fantasy campaign that went south for various problems and that I decided to drop.

Now I started to run a sci-fi sandbox campaign (system is Mongoose Traveller) and so far we had few sessions and my players are enjoining it.

Until now I followed the main backstory of two of my players' characters: the search of the lost sister of one of them, loved by the other PC.
Their motivation the strongest in the party: another PC has no real motivations and the last has a long term and we could say "easy" motivation (founding outposts of his secret organization in various planets) that allows him just to follow their peregrinations during the search. I have to point out that he played just a session with us so his backstory have not been explored yet.

The Problem

The problem I want to address is that due to our real life we have a really limited timeframe of playing time of 2 hours per week, and I feel this really constraining to the sanbox-style campaign I want to run.

I feel that these 2 hours of time are too little to "explore the sandbox" without diluting their plans and motivations during the campaign, in fact until now even avoiding random encounters and events not bound to their plans (and I agree with this answer) we advanced just a little in the campaign (speaking in campaign time, not real time).
Since it's a sandbox I'd like to add random encounters, side quests and so on, but I feel this will exponentially prolong the campaign at the point that the pacing of the events the PCs are taking part will slow to a crawl in real-life time.

What I'm asking

Have you suggestions on how to run a sandbox campaign with the limited playtime we have, with random encounters and events and side-quests?
Or should I drop my want-to-be sandbox style and go on with a plot-driven campaign (I mean, not railroading, but following and reacting to my players' actions and intentions without random events/encounters, side quests and so on)?

Some clarifications

I know I should talk with my players and in fact I will. I'll ask them if they'd like random events and side-quests or if they prefer a more straightforward campaign without this sort of things. I'll also ask them If they care if this campaign will potentially go on "forever" and be slower in the resolution of things or if they'd like to see their motivations and plans end in a more limited time.

But

What I really care is to have more general approaches to this problems because I feel that I'll always (at least, as far as I can see in this part of my life) have this little timeframe to run my campaigns so I'll often have this problem. It's ok to have answers (or part of them) related to my actual problem with my actual campaign.

Thank you in advance!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ How feasible is electronic communication? Will your players respond to your emails on a regular basis, or would they not reply until the day of the next session? \$\endgroup\$ – Bobson Aug 12 '14 at 19:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ If you are consistently adapting to your players' motivations and goals for their characters, the game is effectively sand-boxed. Just continue to adapt to the actions of the players and it will basically be the same to them. If that means a random NPC they choose to talk to has a side-quest, so be it... keep it interesting. \$\endgroup\$ – Aviose Aug 12 '14 at 20:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Bobson I see electronic communication not very feasible. One of the players never uses email and never checks it, and I have no facebook, and I don't think they'll use it much anyway. Another problem is I have not so much time left to use this method, but it's a good suggestion nevertheless, useful in other or future situations. I'll keep it in mind. \$\endgroup\$ – FraNe91 Aug 13 '14 at 11:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ This accurately describes how I run my sandbox - do you have lots of time outside the game to prepare? If so, I can give the low-down on my techniques/findings. \$\endgroup\$ – Dr Rob Lang Aug 13 '14 at 21:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ Unluckily I have not much time, in fact I'm trying to learn improvisation techniques in order to prepare the least possible. Thank you anyway! \$\endgroup\$ – FraNe91 Aug 14 '14 at 9:10
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The essence of sandbox play is following where the players lead, and it sounds like you're already doing that.

What adding randomness does is make the world feel more alive and larger than the thread that the PCs are pursuing/creating, allowing the players to make informed decisions about where they want to drive the game. You don't need to be constantly interrupting them with random encounters, but using them as a "spice" enhances the game and increases the players' knowledge of their environment, which itself increases the players' agency.

And don't worry about diversions derailing the campaign or slowing its advancement—the point of a sandbox is that there is no right path. If your players choose to diverge from their goals… it's because they have more goals than the one. If they want to advance one goal (not "the campaign"), then they will prioritise that goal even when distractions occur.

As long as your randomly-added distractions aren't mini side-railroads that force the players onto them, you can trust that they won't interfere with the players' freedom to choose their direction and speed. If the players choose to be distracted: that is where the campaign is. If they choose to not be distracted: that is where the campaign is.

Just remember that the campaign is where the players lead, no matter whether it was their idea or yours, and you can cut through this Gordian knot of worry about whether you "should" distract them with random things and whether the campaign is advancing at the "right" speed. There is no right speed or direction in a sandbox, only choices and outcomes.

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First, I will echo the comments left: Electronic Communication during the week if possible, and Keep it Interesting. That said, session length need not have a major effect on the quality of play. Each session can build right where the last left off, with perhaps a minute of recap. Questions and clarifications could ideally be done over email/instant messages during the week, but even these would not take too much time.

The real key here is focus. In a typical session with my friends of 5-6 hours, there's chatting, cross-talk, a lunch break, etc. In a two hour session, it might help to have players arrive focused and ready to play, minimize outside distractions.

I would, however, minimize randomness of the world. Don't put in too many side cases, random encounters, and unnecessary fights. Keep things moving. Of course, PCs may seek these things out, in which case, let them. But don't plan too many of your own.

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It's All About the Timing

I see a lot of doubts about the inclusion of random events, side quests etc., but their inclusion can be made more compatible with short sessions by adjusting the rhythm of their appearance, and other timing-related adjustments.

Ensure the Random Encounter Prep Happens Between Sessions

Don't roll (whether literally or metaphorically) a random encounter mid-session and try implementing it immediately. Your sessions are short, so you want to have your encounter be as streamlined and otherwise well-prepared as possible; any loss of momentum that may happen from unpreparedness is likely to be a bigger problem than usual.

If you're literally making rolls, nudge the session rhythm in a way that would inform you about all the things that may influence the roll while the session is still in play. If you roll in the open, make the roll at the end of the session as a cliffhanger, and then prepare all the finer details between sessions. If behind a GM screen, then you may as well just roll between sessions too.

If random encounters are not truly random, apply the same principle as with rolling to whatever other factors influence your choice of the next encounter.

Nudge Major Decisions Towards the End of the Session

Similarly to the above, you want major decisions, such as about into which region to travel next, or whether to pick up a side quest, or whether to avoid or face an optional encounter, to happen at the end of the session. That way you'll have the time to prepare the results thereof in greater detail.

If you stay in touch between sessions, you have a good alternative: discuss major decisions between sessions asynchronously (e.g. by e-mail). Of course, depending on how long it takes to come up with ideas about how the world reacts to the decisions, you may want to set a weekday by which such decisions should be finalised.

Keep it Bite-Sized

You probably want to keep your side quests, problems, random encounters etc. at most two sessions long unless after the end of those two sessions players want to turn it into one of the primary goals/problems/paths/etc. of the party. This should help with maintaining focus. (Long plots can lead to loss of focus in general, but with short sessions, focus-maintaining effort can be harder than usual.)

Discover-A-Solve-A vs. Solve-A-Discover-B

With the previous point in mind, for non-optional encounters, you will probably want to maintain one of the two plot structures for each session - one may even say episode, by analogy with TV series. Either you surprise the players with most of the important details at the start of the session, with the expectation that by the end of it they'll solve the problem of the week and choose the next direction of exploration, waiting to be surprised next week. Or you nudge the pacing towards wrapping up Problem A in the first half of the session, and have already prepared Problem B, which you then present in the second half of the session, ending on a cliffhanger.

The upside of strict AA scheme is that it is geared towards better maintenance of focus and towards short stories; the downside is that it will result in players nearly always being surprised, and never having much time to decide between solutions. Conversely, the AB scheme is less constant in terms of maintaining focus, but gives players a chance to ponder the problem between sessions; also, it assumes that nothing that is part of Problem A can have hard-to-predict outcomes that would invalidate your preparation to present Problem B in the second half of a session.

Of course, it's possible to mix the two schemes. In fact it may be necessary if you can't predict the time it takes to solve a given issue.

Finding Time When There's No Time

All this talk about preparation may look overwhelming in the face of a Zeitnot. But by preparation I don't mean leisurely plan-drawing. Preparation can take many forms - contemplating some plot hook during the commutes each day, while doing some menial work, while preparing to fall asleep etc. Every little bit helps. Besides, your if your sessions are short, that usually means that the party makes relatively short advancements in terms of plot too, and that even with relatively little prep time, you'll still have a relatively high prep:play ratio.

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