The Original Star Frontiers Retro Review

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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.

If you enjoyed this review, please consider purchasing the game through the included affiliate links. I thank you for your support.
 

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Rob Wieland

Rob Wieland


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Back in the day I preferred Traveler, but today I have fonder memories for Star Frontiers and appreciate the lighter more space-opera feel as different compared to the grittier ex-merc rogue traders of Traveler. Still need to track down some Volturnus modules.

Both great game systems in the end
 

Hussar

Legend
Those Volturnus modules is what sold the game on me. They were fantastic modules and just a huge ton of fun. This was very much a Star Trek style game. TOS that is. I've always wanted to take another run at it but have never found a group to run/play.
 

GreyLord

Legend
I played a lot of Star Frontiers. It was great and still is. Favorite was playing Dramune Run.

The most memorable is playing through the entire Sathar War series (ending in the War Machine...kind of a Star Wars rip off that one was).
 

TerraDave

5ever, or until 2024
Yes, the other box set, Knight Hawks completed the game. It also came with almost 300 counters and could be used a stand alone space combat game. Very fun.


pic308941.jpg
 

aramis erak

Legend
Knight Hawks also reveals the setting a good bit.
Zebulon's guide reveals and expands a lot.

SFAD was the 2d RPG I played, after the hybrid D&D BX/AD&D mash up I/we played in Jr. High. Traveller was 3rd. Traveller and D&D have been with me for years.

I only got a few sessions (about 6 hours of play) before finding Traveller. Next I looked at SFAD was fall 1985. Played some SFKH, but not SFAD.

In the early 90's, got it to table for a one shot. Players didn't like it, but I did. They liked AMSH, but neither basic nor SFZG resolution was liked for them. kept it around since, but never back to table.
I have heard more than one person say it was the bees knees for space combat. I never really looked it over, sort of passed on it for Alternity, which I might have even mistaken for being Star Frontiers. Though both were sideshows to Traveller.
Knight Hawks is playable, it's unrealistic in ways very different from Traveller. 9 offensive systems (two of which are lasers), 5 defensive systems. No maximum speed, almost no link between speed and turning limits; when they do apply, the results are borderline WSoD removing.

For example, the default frigate, ADF 3, MR 3... it can change speed by 3 in a given turn. At any speed >=3, it can make 3×60° turns. If it's speed 2, only 2×60° turns, speed 1, 1×60° turn, speed 0, 1×(60°, 120°, or180°) turn. It can turn only 60° per hex moved, to a max of MR per turn. But those can be adjacent hexes, or one at start and the others at the end, or anywhere inbetween.

The ship skills all have high requirements - No starting PC is good for anything more than ship's troops. (Some groups ignore the skill requirements. Others simply change the levels needed to 1.)

I played a lot of different games in the 80s, but Star Frontiers was probably #3 in total time (#1 D&D, #2 WFRPG). It had just the right mix of crunch and playability for the time- and the addition of Knight Hawks made it a great (albeit simplified) space combat game as well.

I also like Zebulon's a great deal, although people have mixed emotions on that expansion. A lot of it was great (especially the lore and races) and a lot of it was ... controversial (the adoption of the action chart system).
I liked the action chart system... far more than my players did. Character gen got overcomplicated by it, tho'. Felt like an edition change.
 


Vincent55

Adventurer
Played this through all the adventures published to the point the DM was like well that's it folks. Now i have surpassed premade adventures and prefer to create my own. This system was pretty easy and still have good memories of the time we played, loved the blob race and the space adventures. When d20 started putting out space and modern stuff this got a revival and there was a website that even put out a magazine for it for 3rd and 5e. I think they had to change the name of the mag from Star Frontiersman to Frontier Explorer.
 


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