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Surface Scanned: Starfinder RPG Encounter Ideas Inspired By Lasers

Scene from the planet Castroval. From "Temple of the Twelve," an adventure for the Starfinder RPG.

The term LIDAR is likely met with the response, “Come again?” But LIDAR is an important technology of the 21st century and it is only growing in usefulness.

LIDAR stands for Light Detection and Ranging and is a precise interplay between lasers, scanners, and specialized GPS receivers. How it works: Aircraft affixed with a LIDAR machine flies over, say, a forested valley, coastline, or dense jungle. A laser pulsing at up to 150,000 times per second measures variable distances to the Earth with incredible precision. Combining these light pulses with other data recorded by the LIDAR system–such as surface scans and GPS data–allow the LIDAR unit to generate precise, 3D renderings of the surface characteristics.

LIDAR has a variety of uses. Let’s look at 7:

  1. Pollution Modeling. Different types of LIDAR uses wavelengths within the range of 600nm up to 1550nm, meaning it can operate in the visible, ultraviolet, and even near infrared regions. By imaging matter and comparing/ contrasting it to the various wavelengths, LIDAR can detect pollutant particles such as carbon dioxide and methane, which can be used in city planning.
  2. Water Surveying. Bathymetric LIDAR producing green light can penetrate water, allowing 3D imaging of sea bottoms, which helps underwater target detection for mines or even sunken ships. Understanding the depth, width, and flow of water also helps in monitoring floodplains.
  3. Archaeology. LIDAR can detect the ruins of building striations that have been hidden beneath centuries of vegetation. I’ve written more here.
  4. Sea Ice Thickness. A type of LIDAR named THOR (yes, really) uses green light to determine cloud and ice thickness / density, which has profound usefulness for climate change modeling. More.
  5. Agriculture. LIDAR is being used to 3D model topography slope and sunlight exposure, an incredible boon in the area of agriculture, as water, fertilizer, and labor can be better planned.
  6. Autonomous Vehicles. Although Elon Musk swears by different technology, virtually every other company is utilizing LIDAR to provide real-time 3D mapping of a vehicle’s surroundings for use in their self-driving technology.
  7. Spaceflight. Rangefinding, orbital calculations, and relative velocity is being vastly enhanced with LIDAR.

Why am I sharing this? Well, it’s important technology, so let’s spare a moment to learn. But I’m mainly sharing it because LIDAR has always drawn my thoughts to the science fantasy roleplaying game Starfinder.

So, the below encounter is keyed specifically for Starfinder and inspired LIDAR technology.

Starfinder Encounter Ideas: Surface Scanned

  • Suggested Party: 4 Level 1 characters
  • Monster Composition: NA
  • CR of Encounter: 0 (I’ll explain)

Read aloud text: “This region of the planet is covered in thick vegetation and reports indicate it hasn’t been surveyed. In fact, your crew is thought to be the first sentient visitors to the planet in centuries, the planet’s secrets and history hidden beneath the verdant growth.

You’ve been commissioned by the Starfinder Society to drop in and set up an advance camp. For that first day and night, you’ll be on your own. All alone on a foreign planet, surviving while armed with little more than your ingenuity and grit. And your weapons.

By day four, it’s expected that you will have cleared the way for Starfinder Society scientists to drop in safely and properly execute a survey of the planet, uncovering its secrets.”


I’m a big fan of including a redshirt to add a sense of shock to stories. It’s a trope and a cheap trick, I know, but it works. In this instance, I imagine a security agent, Ventura, who has joined your party as a short-term NPC as part of the general reconnaissance aspect of the mission.

Ventura is a mechanic and is flanked by his flying drone that reconnoiters as it zips around the area surrounding your landing zone. Ventura is a handful, and should be played as such. He’s one of those fellows who thinks himself above the law because he wrote it. Be sure to leave space for his cheeky tongue to ingratiate himself with the party (I pictured him as the Jesse Ventura character from Predator).

You want the party to remember him. After all, as a redshirt, Ventura is earmarked for a quick doom. The encounter begins as he is suddenly and violently pulled into the underbrush. His body is never recovered.

The party is just exchanging some friendly banter when it happens: a scream accompanied by the look of terror on a man who had no fear. And then he’s gone. Poof. Just like that. The sounds of the jungle return, as if nothing happened at all.

Honestly, this encounter is not meant to be a fight. While it is expected that the party would search earnestly for Ventura (and his drone could search as well), the idea is merely to shock the players and remind them that roleplaying games can be dangerous. As is this planet.

As the DM, you can create foreboding, prompting the PCs to have doubts about their mission. You can also assure them that their search turns up empty. Maybe they’ll find signs of the missing operative: scraps of fabric, his trademark hat, or a keepsake revealing a soft side you didn’t know he had. Finally, Ventura’s now-ownerless drone can provide RP opportunities.

In further connecting the encounter to the IRL realities of LIDAR, I leave it up to you to think about how the above uses of LIDAR can be played in game. Their starship could take off above the canopy, scanning below, only to discover ancient ruins. Maybe the scientists arriving later could ask for an escort deep into the forest to set up precise GPS equipment. You could have pollution modeling uncover a mystery “element” in the atmosphere. Who knows?

Some of the best parts of science-fantasy games are incorporating bizarre and awesome technology to the game-world. What’s even better is when your players react with amazement, only to reveal that this technology exists TODAY. That’ll really blow their minds.


It is absolutely worth reading picking up Starfinder and the Alien Archive, if just to let your imagination soar with the new monsters and settings. And consider designing unique encounters around some real life ecology or technology. Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.

We have a whole series of these mash-up encounters called “Fantastic Fights.” Click here to browse through them all.

We also have a whole series of character builds that look at popular media for inspiration, such as the Witcher or Black Widow. Find them here.