By the time I got into role playing games in the late 80s, I already had found my sci-fi space opera game. I only had eyes for WEG’s seminal Star Wars D6 ruleset. Other gamers spoke fondly of the games that had come before like Traveller and TSR’s entry into the market, Star Frontiers. I never really gave it a second glance until I remembered I had acquired a copy a few years ago in a trade. I decided to crack it open and look at it with fresh eyes. Would I have played this game back then? Would I play it now? Let’s play to find out.
Star Frontiers was originally released between 1982 and 1985. The Alpha Dawn boxed set (as the main set would come to be known) came with basic rules, advanced rules, the adventure Crash on Volturnus, a pair of maps and chits for use on the maps. There are four playable species to play out of the box; baseline humans, amoeba-like Dralasites, insectoid Vr usk and the flying (gliding) monkey inspired Yazirians. The system is a very basic percentile one which characters trying to roll under a calculated skill level or attribute number, with critical hits and failures at the top end of each. Already, it’s easy to see why players back then thought this was revolutionary. No levels or strict classes, with XP being simple additions to character abilities. The aesthetic is very timely to the 80s with padded vests and chunky goggles the norm.
The first book features Basic Rules. There’s a small smattering of setting info on the inside cover of the main rules involving space rangers, galactic corporations and such but it’s all just there to get folks in the mind set of pew pew lasers and whoosh rocket ships. Characters are kept simple with percentile abilities and bumps based on their species selection. The basic rules engage primarily with the big spaceport map and an introductory adventure featuring numbered sections for everyone to read. There’s an almost board game-like feel to these rules which focus on a pursuit of bad guys across the space mall/space station map.
The Extended Rules get into a bit more complexity. Here’s where the game really peels away from previous designs. No classes! No levels! It must have felt so freeing to TSR fans that hadn’t found Traveler at their local wargame store. Instead, there are skill clusters that add 10% per level. Players choose a Primary Skill Area which gives an experience point discount but that’s as close as the game gets to levels. The designers make an interesting choice here with nearly every skill starting at a specific base chance except the combat skills that start at half of a character’s dexterity score. These uses also feature XP where you want, so it seems like anyone paying attention would buy a rank of skill and then spend any leftover on Dexterity since it is a skill bump and an ability bump. Were I to run this game, I’d probably find abilities to link all the skills and give everyone the chance to double dip on experience.
This game skews toward Star Wars style fantasy but it's relatively light on pulp powers. There is a Psycho-Social Skill Group that has some powers similar to the stuff you might see Vulcans or early Jedi do, like persuasion and light mind reading, but that’s about it. The aliens get special abilities that reflect elements of their culture, such as the Vrusk being ambidextrous or the Dralasites being able to detect lies because of their empathic, gelatinous make up. There are also details on the Sathar who are set up as the Big Bad Evil Space Snakes of the setting.
The setting info is light on the ground here, mostly contained to a short introduction on the cover and bits inferred from the description of the alien races. The main powers in this universe are corporations that helped colonize worlds, with the United Planetary Federation featuring an alliance between the four species detailed in the book fighting off an invasion of the Sathar. There’s a brief mention of the Star Law Rangers for tables that want to play capital-H heroes but the default assumption is a crew working for the Pan Galactic Corporation or one of its many rivals.
The final book in the set contains Crash on Volturnus which could play out as a mini campaign all its own. The first half features the players thrown together after pirates attack their spacecraft. They have to sneak and battle their way to the escape pods, which land them on the titular planet. That half of the adventure becomes a survival hexcrawl as the players must make it out of the desert into the hands of local aliens that might accept them as their own if they survive some bravery trials. It’s a solidly constructed adventure that leans into the game’s pulp sci-fi roots even if the last section leans a little too into Noble Savage stereotypes for some readers.
I can see why Star Frontiers holds a place in many gamer hearts after all these years. I think it would be fun to run a group through Crash on Volturnus and then see if they wanted to continue to the other parts, Volturnus, Planet of Mystery and Starspawn of Volturnus. Even if you don’t want to try a new system, the PDFs feature some excellent ideas that can be used in other science fiction games.
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