Space Stations As Dungeons - Part 1

February 13, 2021 ☼ Game DesignSpace StationsDungeons

Dungeons have been a core facet of the TTRPG hobby since shortly after its inception. Without doing a deep dive into their history, in context of the hobby Dungeons provide: 1. A destination and focus for adventures, 2. A means of exploration, 3. A source of loot and wealth, and 4. An implied play-style. To expand on that last point a little more, Dungeons inherently have a procedural rule-style that can be easily absorbed with even the most cursory of read-throughs. For Players, when presented with a series of connected rooms and corridors, they will often instinctively begin exploring the rooms, investigating, and interacting with the environment. For Game Masters or Referees this is appealing as a well-written Dungeon can be parsed within a short period of time with minimal prep and lead to hours of gameplay. Dungeons can inspire years-long (and sometimes even decades-long) campaigns allowing players and GM’s alike to weave fantastic stories. For many though, including myself, fantasy Dungeons may not align with the default setting or universe that we enjoy running our games in.

With that I posit the Space Station as the Science Fiction replacement for Dungeons.

I originally was going to post this as a single, longer article but the more I write about it the more I realize there are several different features that I want to focus on1. So each part will key in on one specific parallel and how it can be used at the table (virtual or otherwise). So for this post I’m going to focus on Layout and Design.

Space Stations can take up any form that you can come up with and their size and shape are not confined by the physical limitations of atmosphere and aerodynamics. So if you want your Station to be a giant cube backed by green light or a sphere that is definitely no moon, there’s no reason not to. For inspiration, you can even look to real-world examples such as the International Space Station. Stations can also be located wherever makes sense for your campaign. In orbit above a distant world, embedded in an asteroid, isolated in the far reaches of the cosmos, or even hiding in the heart of a nebula. While most are stationary, some Stations can move over short distances with thrusters or even warp between remote quadrants of the galaxy. This could even be a hook for your game, the players track down the transient Station’s ion trail only to have it warp away as soon as the Crew arrives.

Going back to the ISS, this is a great example of how to layout a Space Station as a Dungeon and one that has inspired some of my designs. Dungeons are more-often than not a series of interconnected rooms and what is a Space Station but a series of modules connected by corridors. Each module typically has a designated purpose which makes keying rooms fairly easy. You typically need at least one Command Module that handles the major computations and functions of the Station. This is a good place to put your plot hooks, MacGuffins, major NPC’s, or Boss Battles. From there you can throw rooms modules as makes sense for your adventure. When designing a Station I usually as myself a couple of questions:

What is the purpose of the station? What kind of rooms would be found on a station of that purpose? What is the room currently used for? Was it used for anything different previously? Do people live here or is it purpose and design utilitarian? That last question is important. When you have people living on the Station, or not, it informs some of the design of the station. It tells your players something about what they may encounter if the Station was designed with function over form, yet they see clear signs of life.

One issue unique to Space Stations is that their entire surface perimeter is usually open and exposed. Depending on the density of your Station this could lead to headaches for whomever is running the game. Dungeons typically have one primary entrance and one or two secret entrances, the other rooms protected by miles of rock and earth. This usually makes it easier to run as there are only so many rooms that a Party or Crew can enter meaning there’s usually only a handful of rooms to prepare in advance. When your entire Dungeon is technically accessible (via EVA or other means) how can you possibly design around that? To a certain extent, there isn’t really anything stopping players from entering any external facing rooms if they have the proper tools or items to do so 2. That said, making obvious several points of entry can help. You can add compromised corridors that are exposed to the vacuum of space or chambers venting atmo (clearly visible from outside) as possible points of entry. I tend to favor docking ports and airlocks as they are clear entrances but also because they imply setting (which I always try to keep in the back of my mind when adding elements). If a player sees an airlock that tells them there should be a pressurized atmosphere behind that door3. Keep in mind the purpose of this is not to railroad the players but to make your station feel real and alive as well as make prep as easy on the GM as possible.

There’s a lot more that I could, and intend to, write on how Space Stations as Dungeons but this is a decent start. If you like this, check my adventure The Orrery Beyond the Edge of Space, which prompted this thought, as well as A Pound of Flesh by Tuesday Knight Games, which is a great example of procedurally generating Space Stations.

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  1. Future posts will likely expand on Traps and Environmental Conditions, NPC’s and Station Denizens, and The Mad Scientist’s Lair; maybe Derelict Spaceships as Dungeons.↩︎

  2. Future posts will likely expand on Traps and Environmental Conditions, NPC’s and Station Denizens, and The Mad Scientist’s Lair; maybe Derelict Spaceships as Dungeons.↩︎

  3. A cool GM will do what they can to work with their players if they try to do this. But the story of how I failed to do that when running my modules is a whole post in its own right.↩︎