In the early eighties my friends and I used to frequent our local hobby shop to coo over various Grenadier, Ral Partha and Citadel miniatures we could not afford.
We had been introduced to RPGs by one of our Maths teachers at school, who had caught one of my older brother’s friends sneaking looks at The Warlock of Firetop Mountain during one of her classes. She asked if he and others would be interested in playing D&D.
There and then, our teenage obsession began. An after-school club in one of the classrooms was formed. I think it was basic D&D but I can’t be sure as none of us owned the rule-books.
I first saw Star Frontiers in 1983, in the hobby shop, resplendent in its purple boxed set with that striking, imagination-inspiring Larry Elmore painting.
Where had the ship gone down and why?
What was that cool ape-looking thing with the strange wing-like appendages? How did that woman’s hair look so perfect after a crash landing?
What did “Alpha Dawn” mean?
Some of these questions were to be answered.
I dimly remember seeing adverts for the game in various Marvel comics I used to buy at the time, including the one with the sarcastic reference to Traveller. I loved science fiction and it was rare to see an actual RPG anywhere near where I lived so I snapped it up pretty much immediately.
A DAWN …
The boxed set was incredibly exciting to me at the time. Maps! Counters! My own dice to colour in with a crayon! Basic and Expanded rules! Reading through it with my cousin at the time we quickly took stock of the basic rules and played the initial on-rails starter mini-scenarios, which were almost the same as the Fighting Fantasy books that we loved. Some people mock this introduction to the game, but I think as inexperienced players it rather helped us. The expanded rules helped us to ground it further. To my 13-year-old self it seemed like the designers had included rules for most situations you might encounter: ability checks, combat, movement (including vehicles, the implementation of which were rather clunky), robotics, computers (the approach to which hasn’t dated well), creature development (some of which are clearly more influenced by fantasy than sci-fi tropes) and skills development.
Star Frontiers as a setting is an odd mix of space opera, Westerns, and often weird pulp sci-fi elements. Some of the early Volturnus and Sundown on Starmist adventure modules lean into this aspect, with aliens such as the sentient octopus-like Ulnor and insectoid bipedal Heliopes, and of course the main antagonists, the evil, warlike giant-worms the Sathar.
To me these are homages to the Golden Age of sci-fi.
LOVIN’ THE ALIEN
The Player Character aliens seemed especially alien: the tall, clannish ape-like warrior. Yazirians, the rubbery, blobby good-humoured philosopher Dralasites and the order seeking, business-like insectile Vrusks.
All had their own specific abilities. The “Humans”are essentially vanilla and less fun to play. It’s far more interesting to play a Yazirian that can work themselves up into a Battle Rage and glide between short distances or a plasticine-like Dralasite that can grow extra arms and legs.
My friends and I all loved Star Wars, Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek, but Star Frontiers didn’t feel like it was trying to be any of those. It felt like its own thing. Something that you could build yourself without contradicting an established universe like licensed properties.
The Frontier setting, whilst not expansive, gave you just enough information about the spiral galaxy and different words within it that you could develop them with a little invention. Adventure modules set in specific systems later helped to further flesh out the universe.
RULES OF THE UNIVERSE
Star Frontiers isn’t a complex ruleset. Character generation is based on rolling paired abilities against a table giving you a range between 30 and 70 (some are modified by species). Actions are resolved with a percentile system with modifiers determined either by the Referee, your abilities, skills or predefined tables.
Some of these can be opposed rolls against another’s abilities, and whilst it has skills areas you can develop those outside of your Primary Skill Area.
I have read that the original game was called “Alien Worlds” (which stayed in the tag line) and was “crunchier”, but was not considered accessible enough for a game that was primarily aimed at a teen audience. So there, Traveller.
Zebulon’s Guide to Frontier Space (only one volume out of a proposed three was published) essentially overhauled the rules so that outcome of any actions was resolved by consulting a colour coded table a la Marvel Superheroes (and others) much to the chagrin of many.
It also introduced a different approach to ‘player classes’ but many chose not to adopt these newer rules and simply used the new playable alien species, additional skills, weapons and equipment. There were also arguments that it messed with the Frontier timeline as previously established, but we adopted it.
And what about spaceships?
Knighthawks (1983) was a box-set (no, I don’t know why they called it that either) designed by Douglas Niles (Dragonlance and Cult of The Reptile God) . It seemed to many, including reviewers, that a space RPG without spaceships was a glaring omission. The starship rules seemed slightly more complex as it was played out on a hex map much like a board/wargame. Not really a problem for us because, we’d previously honed our skills with games like Car Wars. The rules also included ship design and spacefaring skills. With the first Knighthawks module players actually got to inherit their own starship. With a stupid name. Gullwind? Really, Doug?
Later Knighthawks modules expanded the storyline of the Frontier and the infiltrations and assaults of the Sathar with three connected modules. We played them all.
Were some of the scenarios on rails? Did they have box text for you to read to the players? Yes, and yes.
I became more confident andI found I didn’t need them. I wasn’t afraid to go off the rails once I knew the core adventure.
And if this all sounds like I was more of the “referee” than a player it’s because I was. We didn’t have a Prime Directive but if you bought the game, you ran it for our group. I ran Star Frontiers and my brother bought and ran Call of Cthulhu, because he’d read more Lovecraft than the rest of us.
Does Star Frontiers stand up beside other older games? Possibly not. It hasn’t had the longevity of Traveller certainly, but it does still have a dedicated player base who still produce fanzines. Star Frontiersman and Frontier Explorer, the first of which is still being produced.
I am really happy to be able to own and read the rules and modules again in print without trawling eBay. Nostalgia aside, I still think it’s a really fun game with an interesting setting, some of the modules are well written aand structured and stand up well even by modern RPG standards. I don’t have a local gaming group, so I haven’t played the game since back in the day, but it was definitely one of my teenage group’s gateways to exploring the wider world of RPGs in the 80s.
I still love the game today. One of these days I’ll summon up the courage to referee it online.