Despite there being a lot of dungeons out there, very few of them are meant to be played with a sci-fi ruleset like Traveller or Stars Without Number. There are a number of assumptions that go out the window with the tech levels in question. In this post, I will discuss some thoughts that appeared in the #workshop channel on the OSR Discord. If you want in on this discussion, join us over at the #sci-fi-scrapyard and talk shop. Link: https://discord.gg/PRg3RWJ
One of the big differences with fantasy-style dungeons compared to a sci-fi dungeon is the set of depletable resources. In regular dungeons, you need torches and rations. These are “projection” resources, which determine how far you can get into the dungeon. If you are running out of torches, you either need to get back out or possibly depend on spells for lighting. Torches take up inventory space and provide limited light.
In a sci-fi dungeon, the tune is different. Light sources are miniaturized and batteries are small - practically a non-issue. However, there are other issues in a sci-fi context. Dungeons can be spaceships, bunkers on airless planets, or space stations, all of which may be without air. Lugging along tanks with breathable air definitely takes up space. This would probably be the primary “timer” for a sci-fi dungeon. Even if the location has breathable air, there are a lot of things that can suddenly change that, ranging from ruptures in the outer skin to someone intentionally siphoning out air.
A second resource will probably be power and generators, which again depends on the system. For example, in Stars Without Number, most energy weapons require Type A energy cells, which you can bundle 6 units in one encumbrance point.
A third resource is bullets. Since firearms are the mainstream weapons in sci-fi and not the “renewable” sword or ax, you have to carry around enough bullets.
Oh, you probably want to bring rations too.
Sci-fi dungeons can feature a lot of traps, which could broadly be broken into two categories; soft traps and deadly traps.
Soft traps can be:
Security cameras - not inherently dangerous, but they alert nearby enemies.
Jammers - blocking out radio communications and possibly negating hacking devices.
Lock-in protocols - if the PCs are unwelcome, the enemies could disable the doors in the room they are in.
Hidden sensors - similarly to security cameras, these devices could alert nearby enemies.
Deadly traps can be:
Mines - various in lethality. A claymore could do serious damage to the PCs, but also to your precious ship. Consider funny alternatives, like Prey’s Gloo cannon, only in a bomb version.
Turrets - these things should be in hidden compartments, possibly with separate power cells to keep them running if the dungeon’s power source runs out.
Unsecured airlocks - maybe the dungeon denizens have rewired certain airlocks to be traps, having them open and space anyone in the adjacent room.
Guillotine doors - some doors could be maliciously rigged to intentionally close on the enemy, bludgeoning them with its steel frame.
Sci-fi dungeons can also feature ‘dungeon levels’, but I would argue that this should be measured in some way as a distance between the outer skin to the core of a given spaceship or space station. Note, to qualify for being a sci-fi dungeon, I think the location should have a considerable diameter - at least 5 - 7 rooms. Some types of structures would probably be built to be intentionally maze-like to slow down boarding actions in general.
Thinking about dungeon levels can be a useful heuristic. The interesting stuff goes in the delicious core of the spaceship, like the armory, reactor, computer core, CIC, and the cookie vending machine. However, due to the nature of a spaceship or space station’s materials, it isn’t implausible that the players may want to just cut their way to the center using a plasma torch. To me, this is fine. It’s creative and could move the crawl to the exciting parts really fast. Consider it a feature, if you want.
Why ‘dungeons’ anyway?
I think sci-fi dungeons justify themselves in a similar way that fantasy dungeons do - these are perilous locations with something valuable in its depths. They can be derelicts with precious goods, a space station taken captive by a hostile AI, or a mysterious research station with the plans for a planet-killer. In one sense, “dungeon” is just a frame of reference to inform a playing procedure. Exploring these dangerous and abandoned locales, to me, is just really exciting. Like when the marines descended into the depths of the atmosphere processing plant in the movie Aliens.
It’s also a great diversion for when your PCs are fed up with trading.
Immersive sim elements
If you have played games like System Shock, Deus Ex, and Prey, then you probably have an intuitive feeling about what could be a good sci-fi dungeon. You can probably answer questions like “where can I hack that turret from?” or “what is another way into that room?”. All these games feature hacking, networked cameras and turrets, alternate access routes and relatively open-ended locations to explore. My buddy Snusk&Rusk wrote a blogpost about dungeons inspired by immersive sims.
I think there is a lot of dungeon design potential to draw from immersive sims, especially for these systems that aren’t necessarily visible on the map. Consider how computers are networked, what rooms the power generator activates, or where to put clues about access codes.