Star System Exploration as Dungeon Crawl

This is something I’m working on for Meteor, my golden age/trek sci fi cairn hack.

I was thinking about how when I run dungeon crawls the party generally acts as a single unit moving through and exploring a space not as a group of individuals moving around. That made me wonder if it’d be possible to get a space ship with the whole crew aboard exploring a solar system to feel similar. With a loop of movement, examination, interaction to explore a star system.

With that in mind, here’s a set of “rules” to govern how moving around a star system might work to provide a similar experience to a dungeon crawl.

(For context Shields are Cairn/ITO style Ship HP, Scan is sensors and looking at stuff, Impulse Drive is non-warp non-FTL engines.)

  1. Only rough information can be seen by scan from a distance.
  2. You need to get close to something to learn about it. Closer == more details.
  3. Nearby locations take an hour to get to on impulse drive, distant locations take a day. This is due to ORBITAL MECHANICS or something.
  4. Active shields significantly reduce the effective range of your scans
  5. Active shields make a ship significantly more visible to scans.
  6. Active engines make a ship moderately more visible to scans.

The intent for these are as follows:

Long range scans get broad details, just like entering a room lets you know roughly what’s going on. If you want more information, you have to get closer. Getting closer to things and interacting with them carries some inherent risk, which is where the shields aspects come in.

If you want to see things well, you have to be somewhat exposed by having your shields down. An enemy can keep their shields down, and engines off to try and ambush you. The same goes the other way, if you can sneak up on an enemy you can catch them “shields down”.

My hope is that this will create an experience where you, as a crew, move through the space of a star system exploring, examining and interacting with whatever might be there.

Anyone have any thoughts? Implications I’ve missed? Other ways to approach this?


Lol, you be going faaaast if it only takes an hour (I kid, its sci fi so you needn’t bow to conventional physics) I do enjoy the idea of exploring a system like a dungeon crawl, and the distant scan/closer details dynamically is perfect for how it matches up. And it seems pretty well set up to me so far. One thought, how does stopping and landing on a planet or what work? Transitioning to regular play? And two, what kind of dangers would there be (that aren’t receptive like enemy ships)?


Yeah, “an hour/ a day” might actually end up being “a day/a week” which even then is absurdly fast from any realism point of view. It’s something I’ll want to test at the table to see how people feel about different time spans.

Landing on a planet would transition to “normal play”, yeah. Ten minute increments, if exploration turns end up being a thing. I imagine the bulk of table time would be spent on the ground doing normal RPG adventure-y things.

Thinking about the sorts of dangers that might be present (beyond enemy ships) is a really good point. Part of the tension of dungeon crawling is the presence of traps, so the question becomes what would play that role in a solar system.

Few ideas off hand:

  • Weird giant wildlife (think big asteroid wurm thing from Star Wars)
  • Ancient alien tech (old area denial systems, automated systems decayed or gone rogue)
  • Warp anomalies (whatever that might mean)

I think this is a useful topic for me to start thinking about more. What hazards, navigational obstacles, or interesting features can show up in a star system to make moving around the space interesting?


Ooh those are very good, you can get a lotta mileage out of the second, all sorts of weird orbital structures, ancient defense systems, Kessler syndrome space debris, probs could be rolled in with warp anomalies and stuff to for more exotic stuff (and even weird alien wildlife could be living there).

Once again it seems that when in doubt throw in weird ruins and relics of bygone eras :stuck_out_tongue:


Let me think about this, I have been trying to think about this with spelljammer.

How I have been doing it is with basically a point crawl with random generation of events for travel between hexes. I don’t use sensors at all unless they have a spell that can do something like that.

I think my hexes take 6 hours to cross at tactical speed.

As for space traps I can share with you some stuff I use and my tables


Weird structures and ancient alien stuff also plays directly into my desire to make this game about SPACE ARCHEOLOGY.

@hopefulweirdwonder Spelljammer should have been an obvious place to look for similar ideas and it totally didn’t occur to me. I’d absolutely be interested in looking at anything you’d be willing to share.


Nice, would love to get a peek. Trying to figure out how to make a random space exploration hexcrawl interesting myself.

1 Like

This post never received much love but I had at one point conceived of some approaches to hex crawling in space, ocean, or in other cases where one might want to account for movement or other kinds of “four-dimensional” hex crawls.

To do this well, I think by hand it would be tricky or maybe a bit convoluted, but with some simple hex mapping software I think it would not be too complicated.

In short, it’s a few different means by which to think of the different layers of space or air or ocean in three dimensions using many layers of two-dimensional hex maps for each “unit” of the third dimension, or alternatively having three hex maps where each is a different cartesian orientation so that you only need those three maps for three-dimensional maneuvering. And then on top of that I introduce this notion of “moment” as basically encoding the movement of keyed objects or due to the movement of the space itself; so like nomadic tribes on land, water currents or schools of fish in the sea, orbital mechanics in space as you referenced in the initial post, etc.


I can pull together a neater version of my tables to share publicly on here it’s just going to take a few days because my current version is just everything dumped into google sheets.

Stay tuned

1 Like

I have ended up keeping it like spaces ships traveling via the ocean because that’s the conceit of Spelljammer and also easier for me to deal with as a GM. This seems cool though!

Some really interesting ideas. The “moment” idea reminds me a bit of a sci fi dogfighting board game (I don’t remember the name off hand) that used “Delta V” as the primary unit of measuring location. It was more important to know the relatively velocity between you and your opponent than the exact physical locations.

I think for Meteor I’m more likely to move in the direction of a point crawl, basically collapse all of the 3or 4 dimensional information into a single 2d sheet. It wouldn’t be intended to actually show “real” relative positions of different objects, but more represent how much hassle it would be to move from here to there.


I’m not familiar with the game you’re referring to but in retrospect, Delta V may have been a better term for what I was describing in that post lol, but anyway, thanks! Ya, there’s actually another board game, or I guess more like a pen and paper game, the name of which I also cannot remember, that was sort of about space travel and orbital mechanics. A friend of mine wanted to use it as a minigame in a campaign and I told him I thought it would be a bit too involved lol but a streamlined version of it would be cool. Wish I could remember the name.

Anyway, what you’re describing in terms of a point crawl approach is much more manageable and probably a better way to go barring some specific intention for how to leverage the more complicated approach in an especially interesting way.

1 Like

Yeah, my immediate plans are to go read a bunch of golden age sci fi and rewatch a bunch of Star Trek, to get a sense for how flying around space should feel. Once I have a better handle on that I think it’ll be easier for me to figure out what mapping approach I want to use.

I don’t remember if this book really focused on the mechanics of space travel per se, but if you’re looking for a good book along the lines of Star Trek about a spaceship encountering weird things and having to deal with non-linear problems, I would strongly recommend A.E. von Vogt’s Voyage of the Space Beagle.


I’ve actually read that!

I usually sorta make fun of the book in the sense that a goofy, extremely not scary story from it was turned into the excellent Alien by way of imagining what actual humans would do in that situation and not MEN OF SCIENCE AND ACTION.

For Meteor I’m actually sorta going in the other direction. I want to be able to take spooky Mothership modules and play them in a more action adventure sort of way. For that exactly reason Voyage of the Space Beagle is on my “reread” list for Meteor idea fuel.


That’s awesome :)! Space Beagle is by no means perfect but I think it’s a really underappreciated classic, and tbh I actually think there are things in that book that the scientific community should be aspiring to but that, at least from my experience, would appear to be the opposite direction of how things have gone, unfortunately.


TBH my opinion on it is that it represents the pinnacle of the blind optimism in science and technology that a lot of that era of science fiction has. Just a belief that if we just science hard enough it’ll solve all our problems.

I do love the book though, even if it’s a partially ironic love.

1 Like

I would argue the problem is more that science as an institution is limiting what science as a method/perspective can be, or really just applied systems theory and breaking down some of the kind of arbitrary distinctions we make between different fields, like even as far as the separation of STEM vs. Arts. But that’s a whole other conversation 0.o…

1 Like

Space is BIG! I am keen on the idea of reducing the space exploration down to a 2d sheet.

Is there such thing as a time die?

While traveling we are most interested in how fast and safe we can reach our destination. Rolling a die is kinda boring without risk. So, I suggest we play towards that. On a roll of the time die we determine the speed and trigger setbacks on max value outcomes. This allows players to decide if they want to risk speed for safety. A GM could also decide to trigger setbacks on a wider range to simulate greater dangers that are unavoidable.

  • travel time = 1dX unit of time
  • step down time die size per use of fuel or star charts
  • step up the time die per hazard tag* or players taking it slow

*Hazards can be simple tags that give narrative flavor that fit the setting and location. (ex. ice rings, dense core, star type, weak magnetic field, etc)

Navigation through sensor scans is great! This moment is great for the wandering monster roll. Essentially, if you have a working scanner then you can sense things in space (eg. holding a torch to the darkness). I like your thoughts on details becoming more clear as the group invests time and resources to get closer. This is also how it works in a standard dungeon delve. The key balance is what does it cost the group to gain more detail? This could add in fun stuff like brokering for information on charted space to reduce resource costs during navigation.

I think Into the Odd offers serviceable vehicle combat rules.

Hopefully, these words give you something more to chew on.


Some very good ideas in here! I really like using tags to describe general hazards and features of a star system, on top of specifically keyed things on the map.

I don’t have a time die yet, although I was planning to have a Supplies/Fuel tracker that ties into a “Ship Mishaps” table. As written it’s mostly just comes into play while warping between systems, but I should consider letting players spend extra Supplies to move around within a system faster/safer.

As for combat, currently it’s essentially just basic ITO combat but the party is collectively controlling a single character (the Ship) with a couple extra bits.