Espionage isn’t usually a genre that leaps to mind when considering sandbox games. The baseline espionage adventure is built around a complicated plot, multiple NPCs with their own motivations, the obfuscation of truths, and the misdirection of PCs. Even the most adventurously athletic spy stories require a context, and that context is usually something complex and only partly-visible to the players. Compounding this, most PCs in an espionage-based campaign are either government agents or somehow affiliated with a controlling organization. How do government operatives tasked with specific missions fit into a sandbox gaming style? On the face of it, they’ve got no influence over the jobs they’re given to handle and no practical ability to bow out of the organization without defeating the entire point of running an espionage campaign.
The key to understanding lies in a distinction between genre and format at the table. The format of Stars Without Number is that of a sandbox game. PCs exist with their own motivations, their actions are not predestined to any particular story arc, and the world changes based on the choices they do and do not make. The default genre of Stars Without Number is that of space opera. The PCs are expected to be adventurous, bold-hearted freebooters who are willing to take hair-raising risks for the sake of their goals. The game does not really support playing a small-time shipping captain, a tormented family man questioning his work-life balance, or an ornamental planetary noble who has no intention of exposing herself to the slightest discomfort. PCs might begin as such characters, but they’re expected to hit the cosmos running after being shaken out of their old lives. By the same token, if you run Stars Without Number as an espionage game, the players have to expect that certain baseline facts are going to be true about their PCs. All of them are going to have to be somehow affiliated with the Agency and at least overtly willing to cooperate on the missions they are given.
Yet that doesn’t mean that the players need to give up the fundamental freedom of a sandbox game. As an example, the upcoming Darkness Visible espionage campaign supplement includes rules for constructing the Agency that the PCs are going to be working for. Perhaps it’s an ancient Perimeter Agency that’s survived for centuries in hiding from the natives around them. Maybe it’s a hardscrabble frontier world’s scout corps, a handful of men and women charged with stopping threats to their homeworld by any means necessary. A military intelligence bureau, a corporate espionage subdivision, zealous religious inquisitors on a theocratic world… the players can participate in this process and help shape the kind of Agency that they and the GM can both find satisfactory.
Once the Agency is created, the players can then use it to duel their interplanetary rivals. A system for conflicts between Agencies is provided, and while players can simply let the system dice roll out the result of some sabotage or infiltration, they can also decide to make an adventure out of their Agency’s efforts. For example, they might decide to use their agency’s Criminal Ties to attack a maltech cult’s smuggler Transports. If they choose to simply dice it out, they roll their Agency’s Connections attribute versus the cult’s Mobility. If they win the roll, the Transports become Compromised, and become less useful to the cult until they have time to fix the damage. A second successful attack on the Compromised asset permanently reduces it by a level, or destroys it entirely if it’s a level one asset.
Or conversely, they can decide to make an adventure of it. The GM then simply looks at the Criminal Ties and Transport entries in the book, picks appropriate Enemies, Friends, Complications, Things, and Places from the lists for each, fills them into the provided Schemes templates, and spices it up with a few elements from the World Tags of whatever world this escapade is taking place on. The GM then has a complete template for an espionage adventure. If successful, the Transport asset might be destroyed outright depending on how thorough the PCs were. If a failure, then the surviving PCs will have to lick their wounds and try again later.
In this way, the players retain the essential freedom of a sandbox game. They’re the ones deciding what’s important to them, and they’re the ones that pick the actions that the Agency takes against its enemies and rivals. Even within the seemingly rigid confines of a structured genre, there’s always room to give players a little more freedom.