I love this picture, painted by the great Larry Elmore. I was fortunate enough to meet him at Gen Con in 2012, and I bought this signed print from him. It was the cover art for the second edition of the Star Frontiers RPG, renamed Star Frontiers: Alpha Dawn. Until then, the only sci-fi RPG of note was Traveller, which many people found somewhat inaccessible. This game was marketed to a younger crowd, and the system was much less complicated than Traveller (which isn’t really saying much).
A separate, compatible game, Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks, was released a year later in its own box, and dealt specifically with spaceships and space combat. Although it also had roleplaying elements, it was a spaceship combat wargame that used cardboard counters on a hex mat. I played a lot of Alpha Dawn but only dabbled in Knight Hawks. (We really just used the rules for ship design.) Both games enjoyed a decent amount of product support in the form of adventure modules and articles and scenarios published in Dragon Magazine.
The real draw of Star Frontiers, at least for me, is the setting. It takes place in a region of space known as The Frontier, where the boundary of known space meets whatever else is “out there”. Players create characters from four playable races: Humans, who are pretty much like us, but live longer; Vrusk, a race of insectoid beings that resemble mantids, only without the big claws; Dralasites, an amoeba-like race that can change their physical form; and Yazirians, a race similar to flying monkeys, only with anger issues.
These races worked together almost immediately, freely exchanging information and technology, sharing scientific advancements and generally getting along. They formed the Pan-Galactic Corporation (PGC), a massive conglomerate that, like it’s name implies, spanned the galaxy. They even developed a language called Pan-Galactic (PanGal) that all four races could speak which allowed them to effectively communicate, given their differing anatomy and communication methods. It was a pretty good time.
Of course, good times don’t last forever, and another alien race, known as the Sathar, suddenly attacked the Frontier with what seemed like the intent to destroy everything the PGC had built. The Sathar are a wormlike race with strange telepathic powers who are aggressively xenophobic. No one knows much more about them, because any Sathar will kill itself rather than be taken captive, and they’re not much for chit-chat. To combat the Sathar threat, the PGC formed a combined military force called the United Planetary Federation, or UPF (not to be confused with the United Federation of Planets, which would have probably got TSR sued by the Star Trek guys over at Paramount). The UPF managed to drive the Sathar back to wherever they came from, but not for long.
Knowing that they can’t take the UPF in a fight, the Sathar have since turned to espionage and treachery to topple it from within. Sathar agents from all the frontier races actively work to undermine the UPF, so the UPF created another organization: Star Law. Star Law Rangers travel the galaxies looking for these agents in order to bring them to justice.
And that’s Star Frontiers in a nutshell. The published adventures assume your players will work for either the PGC or Star Law; but nothing says you have to stick to that. You can be pirates, privateers, salvage crews, planetary explorers or even military agents of the UPF. I’m pretty sure my group was a group of mercenaries, because it was the 80’s and I live in America and that was pretty much every movie of the Reagan era; but the game actively discourages this. The first adventure, Crash on Volturnus, effectively strips your characters of all their weapons and useful equipment right at the beginning, forcing them to survive on a hostile planet using their wits and diplomacy; a big departure for groups used to kicking in doors, killing everything in sight and looting the bodies.
There are a couple of big problems with the game. The system is a percentile-based system: roll under your attribute or skill and you’re successful; over and you fail. Pretty standard for TSR boxed games of the time, and still used by many games today. That being said, the system is sometimes a bit more complicated than it needs to be, especially where skills are concerned. Each character can picks a Primary Skill Area, such as Military or Science. Each one of these PSAs have a group of skills under their umbrella, each with a rating of 1-6. Each of these skills are improved individually and usually offer a 10% bonus per level of the skill. The problem is there are too many skills, so advancement takes a long time.
Combat is another matter. It takes forever because of clunky design, and if there’s one thing I can’t stand in games, both as a player and GM, it’s combat that drags on forever (J’accuse, 5E!). There are a ton of different weapons in Star Frontiers, each of which does a different type of damage (electrical, energy, sonic, projectile, etc.) There are an equal amount of defensive suits and screens, all of which are usually effective against only one type of damage. Having the right defense for the right attack is tedious and pretty much down to luck; but equipped properly, your characters can trade shots all day with little danger of dying. Even if not properly equipped, your characters can take a few shots before they have to worry, because most weapons that aren’t energy weapons do shitty damage.
Energy weapons and defensive screens use power tracked by Standard Energy Units (SEU). Tracking SEU use is a bit of a chore. In the case of weapons, the damage you inflict is directly proportionate to how many SEU you expend. For example, a standard laser pistol has a damage rating of 1d10 per SEU (max 10 SEU), and a standard ammo clip contains 20 SEU. That means you could get twenty 1d10 shots out of a clip, or you could burn the entire clip in two 10d10 shots before you’d need to reload.
Either way, you’re unlikely to kill your target. Most characters have an average of 60 hp (their Stamina score). The average d10 roll is a 5.5, rounded up to 6. I suppose it’s possible that a character could burn 10 SEU (10d10 damage) and get a result over 60, which would kill someone with 60 hp (assuming you hit), but it’s unlikely. It becomes even more unlikely when you factor in defensive screens and suits, which will reduce the damage even further. Why anyone would bother shooting a 1d10 shot is beyond me. Even at maximum damage (10) that’s not enough to be more than an irritation. If the target is wearing any kind of defense whatsoever, forget it. You’re just wasting ammo.
Both these issues are easily fixable with some house rules which I use. First, I cut down the number of skills. The military PSA as written, for example, contains a separate skill for each type of weapon, which is ridiculous. Is it safe to assume that military-trained characters know how to shoot all kinds of guns? Yeah. I’d say so. So let’s just group all those separate skills together and call it “firearms” skill. For combat, no more adjustable shots based on SEU use. Laser pistols, for example, do 5d10 damage and a clip contains 10 shots. That makes them more dangerous and more effective then they are in the rules. I use two types of defensive screens: energy and inertia, not an individual one for every conceivable type of attack. Inertia protects against projectiles and explosives, energy protects against electricity, energy and sonic attacks. Two screens, no more. Same with suits. One for energy, one for inertia. Mix and match as you like, but no more nonsense.
It should be noted that combat in Star Frontiers was probably not intended to be deadly. Like I said, it was marketed to a younger crowd. There are plenty of non-lethal weapons in the game: stunners, needler guns, and the iconic doze and tangler grenades, which render an opponent unconscious or immobile, respectively. The equipment lists are both futuristic and a bit dated…for example characters are often equipped with a chronocom, which is a wristwatch/ video communicator with a range of…wait for it…10 whole kilometers! It’s an amusing reminder of when the game was written, long before cell phones were commonplace or the internet even existed.
I’m not the only one who has a love of Star Frontiers, not by a long shot. There are two fanzines that are regularly published: The Star Frontiersman and Frontier Explorer, both of which have a ton of fan-generated content that’s worth looking at. Both of these zines used to be free, but now they’re available for sale at (sigh) DriveThru RPG. The original Star Frontiers rules are also available there in PDF and Print on Demand format.
Up next: a short coda to the Star Frontiers posts, as I discuss…the miniatures!!!!