Tuesday 24 February 2009

Old fashioned space opera, digitally remastered. Star Frontiers.

Join forces with friendly aliens against more angsty, less friendly aliens in an old-school space opera. Star Frontiers is an out-of-print TSR RPG that has been lovingly remastered by Bill Logan. It has the texture of old Sci Fi but the production values of a modern game. Characters will be laser toting, space ship driving, criminal chasing heroes. It's free now, so has stumbled into my domain!

Character Creation

Characters have four pairs of abilities: Strength/Stamina, Dexterity/Reaction Speed, Intuition/Logic, Personality/Leadership and are based in a percentile and are all named appropriately. Some other secondary attributes are derived from these, which gives skill bonuses. You pick a race, which modifies these scores. You then pick two skills, one as a specialisation and then another as something else you can do. After that, you buy equipment and finish with the details (name, weight etc).


When you perform and action that might have a chance of failure, you roll a percentile under one of the attributes. Modifiers are applied and opposed rolls are done with largest difference winning. As you might expect, every eventuality is catered for: running, jumping, swimming, floating in space, skipping, eating shellfish, wrangling mothers-in-law and peeling potatoes. Ok, not eating shellfish.

Echoes of roleplaying's wargame roots come out in the combat system. Lines of sight, fields of fire and so on. Combat turns are simply explained, initiative, loser decides what to do first. Break out the battlemaps! You can get as complex as you like with the firearms rules, careful aim, cover, bursts, target size, gun colour, shape and size of target's hat and so on are all included. If you like crunch, Star Frontiers has enough crunch to cause astronomical dental bills. Stamina is used to work out how much damage you can take where shields and armour makes the system a lot less lethal. Vehicle combat slides unashamedly into the realm of board games and another set of rules for air vehicles. Nothing for space vehicles, which was a welcome surprise! Experience is handed out if you exceed the expectations of your employer, which is a fitting touch.

The setting

Star Frontiers is set in a dense cluster of stars towards the galaxy's core. There are four friendly races (including a race very much like humans) and a race of unfriendly worm-like warriors who spoil every one else's fun. Boo! Hiss! Organising groups into good guys (United Planetary Federation) and bad guys from the start allows you to concentrate on the other space opera facets, such as faster than light travel and so on. The bad guys, faced with the combined might of the four races became hit-and-run guerillas in space.

The setting has a limited number of settled systems (17 with 23 planets in total) - enough for the choice you would come to expect from a space opera but not too many to be overwhelmed. It also includes 21 unexplored systems for the opportunity of throwing in gallivanting Kirkery into the mix. The colonies are well explained and there is a white-on-black map (printers beware!). There isn't too much detail, allowing the GM to add in their own little touches. The races are different enough to be make a fair number of interesting combinations.

Other sections

As with all truly old-school RPGs, nothing is left to chance: everything about roleplaying games is explained. You could dump this book on a base culture and it could use it as a basis for civilisation. There is an extensive weapon, equipment section and robot section; with pictures - some more Sci Fi than others (an M16?). The GM section is well put together (a third of the book) with some solid advice. It's a little bit authoritarian in places. If you are a fan of more story-based games, you might find the suggestions somewhat draconian. If you're saddled with disturbed, flesh-eating maniac players who exist in a moral vacuum like me, you'll welcome the Machiavellian tilt to the explanations. It has a very good example of actual play but this might be better put in the general section. There's also a bestiary of extraordinary animals. I liked the Cybodragon - a dragon with a laser on its head and a description of the bad guys. The last 40 pages is an example adventure. It's very good but I won't spoil it.

The book and community

Fat, chunky borders. Bold images. Angular fonts. It's got the right look. I never owned the original but I am willing to bet that this is as close as you will get. It feels like an old school RPG. It has a picture-assisted story to describe how the game runs. Bill is obviously thrilled at being given guardianship of Star Frontiers and he's making every use of it. There is a huge amount of supporting material. And I mean HUGE. I think most of it is remastered but that doesn't matter.

Is this your cup of tea?

My main reservation is inline with my reservations of old-school RPGs. They are wonderful time-capsules of a by-gone era but some of the more modern developments do make RPGs easier to play. The rules do stray into a board game, something I try to avoid in Icar and some of the images would delight a pubescent boy devoid of any right-hand literature. There is little space in the opera, most of the action occurs at ground level, so could be set on one planet with continents separating. Perhaps it is not surprising that there is little fault to find as this was a published game, once.


Space opera born in a more innocent time, when RPGs had just walked upright and stepped away from their war game cousins. Star Frontiers will be very popular to the Old School crowd but I feel that there is plenty here for more liberal gamers, too. It is AD&D in space but it does it very well. It would be unfair to view the principles in Star Frontiers as a cliché, they are simply a bedrock upon which to build fantastic adventures. A huge thank you must be directed to Bill for putting so much time and effort into reviving and propelling Star Frontiers into its modern PDF form. He continues to do a superb job.

Many thanks and well done!


Anonymous said...

Star Frontiers was my first RPG. It's a blast even today. I like how the PC alien races aren't all just flavors of humanoid and are very flavorful - the Yazirians are tall, thin monkeys with glider wings, the Vrusk are insect-centaurs, and the Dralasites are just blobs. And the bad guy aliens aren't bugs. I'm continually depressed how so many of the SF RPGs since 1990 have what appear to be basically the same PC races (the huge muscled one, the Grey psychic one...) and some kind of bug variant as the bad guys.

By the way, if you want space combat, you'd use the (also free now) Knight Hawks supplement. The initial game, "Alpha Dawn", is indeed spacecraft-free.

Rob Lang said...

Thanks for the comment mxyzplk! A good insight, there. Aliens are superb and quite different from each other. No star strek biped with stuff stuck to their heads.

There are loads of supplements. I will try to review a few in the future.

Pierre Savoie said...

Star Frontiers was *outstanding* and still holds up. I think the effort the particular TSR staff made to craft detailed combat on a square grid really paid off, with integrated melee combat, ranged combat, vehicle combat and aerial combat running at the same time in fast 6-second turns. The organized tables of combat modifiers allowed you to zip through and get (hopefully) sensible odds for any situation and combat ran really FAST. There were only 13 skills in 3 Primary Skill Areas, but these were broken down into many subskills with different base-chances, then add 10% per skill-level. It was easy and adequately covered science-fiction things to do. (For a more extensive skill-list you can get the ZEBULON'S GUIDE TO FRONTIER SPACE which came out a few years later and re-did the rules with one of those colour-coded Action Tables regulating degree of success, which was in fashion in the mid-80's).

Plus their stated goal was to mass-market the original "Alpha Dawn" $10 box, get it in bookstores with no further need of word-of-mouth spread, so little suburban Billy had a half-decent chance of being an accomplished game-master (called in this game a referee). They did it! They delivered, with extensive explanations of how to design an adventure and how to run a game.

The new "Digitally Remastered" edition is re-typeset (errata were covered in STAR FRONTIERSMAN issue #12). Under the terms of the fan agreement, every scrap of Star Frontiers stuff (except the 2001 and 2010 modules licensed from the movies of the same names) is available for free on DWD Studios' download page.

Rob Lang said...

Thank you for the update, Pierre! :-)

I'm thrilled that Star Frontiers has done right by the fans. I still look back on SF with a warm fuzz inside.

Draconian said...

There's been a web-page change! To download the "Digitally Remastered" edition of Star Frontiers stuff, go to


Modules and other items are available if you press other buttons. You can also get hardcopies of most things, at print cost (Star Frontiers stuff can't be sold at a profit) by looking up author Bill Logan on lulu.com.