Star Frontiers: Where No Dwarf Has Gone Before

As part of the latest GROGPOD, Daily Dwarf turns his attention to Imagine Magazine and how it covered Star Frontiers

“Oi DD, we’re doing Star Frontiers on the next pod, I need 1500 words from you, stat!”

Dirk the Dice, host of The GROGNARD files RPG Podcast

Hmm, the latest assignment from his messianic megalomaniac-ness was going to be a bit of a problem. You see, Star Frontiers hardly featured in White Dwarf magazine. It was reviewed in Open Box, issue #37, where Andy Slack commented that the combat system was “in the heroic style with people missing each other like crack Imperial Stormtroopers”, but also noted that space travel was “virtually ignored”, before giving it a respectable 7 out of 10. Apart from that though, the only time Star Frontiers appeared was in those back-page adverts where TSR cheekily referred to their science fiction RPG as “the ‘playable’ one”. Naughty.

But anyway, what’s a Daily Dwarf to do? Well, it turns out there were other RPG magazines back in the day, and the dangerous combination of lockdown, red wine and ebay has meant I’ve acquired a fair few of them recently.

So, tonight Matthew, I’m going to be… *emerges from swirling dry ice* … Intermittent Imagine!

Imagine, TSR UK’s RPG magazine from the mid-80s, (unsurprisingly) had a decent amount of coverage of Star Frontiers – plenty for us to dig into. I should note at the outset though that I’ve never played Star Frontiers, and don’t really know that much about it apart from its reputation for having an interesting mix of alien races. So, the following comments are made in something of a state of ignorance. But when have I ever let that stop me before?

The game itself was reviewed in the very first issue, where Jim Bambra was broadly positive about the game, noting its emphasis on pulp adventure, while acknowledging the soon-to-be infamous lack of starship rules in the initial boxed set. There were a smattering of module reviews in subsequent issues, and Star Frontiers also put in an occasional appearance in the Dispel Confusion Q&A column, Imagine’s feature for rules lawyers everywhere. Apart from that though, all the Star Frontiers content in the magazine consisted of adventures – this struck me at first glance as a notable contrast with the coverage of Traveller in White Dwarf; there were no articles on hard SF minutiae, or discussions on different cosmological models here.

But how did the adventures stack up?


First out of the gate was Aramax One by John Tantoblin in issue #4, which opened with a classic SF RPG set-up: a mysterious patron pays the player characters to indulge in a little light industrial sabotage. This gave the PCs the opportunity for some ‘Metal Gear Solid’-style infiltration of a technical facility, having to do the job against the clock. The Tim e constraint injected a nice sense of urgency, enabling the GM to keep the pace of the adventure ticking along, with events likely to end in a good old firefight.

Reading it now, it amused me to notice this was science fiction as seen through the lens of the 1980s – the state-of-the-art computer installation consisting of a number of large beige cabinets being one more obvious example. A solid start for Star Frontiers in the magazine, then; some “traditional” SF tropes, with one or two dashes of humour. This scenario was also picked by Dave Paterson on the Frankenstein’s RPG podcast as an ideal introductory SF adventure – check out series 2 episode 9 to hear his thoughts.

Wonderful work by Bryan Talbot

Next up, a bit of a cheat? The Fire Opal of Set in issue #14 was mainly written as a Traveller scenario, but was listed on the contents page as being for Star Frontiers too, even if that just amounted to a small box on the final page, explaining how to convert the stats with this solid advice: “don’t worry too much about the numbers”. Ah, but how could I not include an adventure from the mind of Bryan Talbot, set in the multi-dimensional worlds of Luther Arkwright, that started with a player introduction in the form of a comic illustrated by Talbot himself?

This scenario was most definitely a cut above the norm. Taking Bryan Talbot’s initial ideas, a team from Imagine – Mike Brunton, Jim Bambra and Paul Cockburn – fashioned an epic dimension-hopping adventure, tasking the PCs to retrieve information on a potent doomsday device, while evading the dark influence across the parallels of the sinister Disruptors. There was a very open structure to the main body of the adventure, with plenty of scope for player ingenuity, although care was required as it struck me the scenario also featured a high level of lethality. With plenty of cool, flavourful tech, and characters and locations drawn from Bryan Talbot’s fertile imagination, this really looked to conjure the authentic feeling of adventuring in the worlds of Luther Arkwright, in an exciting race against time for the PCs. The only problem for me? I wanted more – I couldn’t help feeling there’s a follow-up adventure still waiting to be written. (Bryan listens to the pod, right?)

Maybe Star Frontiers isn’t the obvious choice of system for this scenario, but I could imagine a GM already familiar with the system would be tempted to tackle it – with pre-gen characters supplied, it’s perfect for a one-shot. Dirk of course did just this (albeit with Mythras); check out episode 9 of the pod, and the Grognard Files website, for Dirk and Blythy’s discussion.


In issue #18, Mike Brunton gave us the adventure On the Rocks for Star Frontiers – now with added spaceships! Yes, addressing that egregious deficiency, the scenario was built around the East Indiaman, a new spaceship class for the game. Hired as salvage crew, the PCs had to check out a spaceship that had crashed on an asteroid, while dealing with rival concerns trying their best to stop them. The set-up for the adventure was quite straightforward, almost spare, and I think would require additional work from the GM to add embellishments to bring it “alive”. For me, there wasn’t much, apart from one or two alien NPCs, to mark this out as a distinctively Star Frontiers scenario; the situation – with the PCs caught up in the machinations of commercial rivals – felt much more like a typical Traveller scenario. The emphasis on the tech reinforced this impression; half of the page count was given over to detailed specs and deck plans for the East Indiaman Class Freighter, for those that like that sort of thing. Sadly though, there was no mention of any pot plants in the state rooms.

Finally, just prior to the demise of the magazine itself, we had The Sarafand File in issue #29. This was another ‘Team Imagine’ production, with an original design by Paul Vernon and Sean Masterson then further developed by Mike Brunton and Jim Bambra, taking as their inspiration the works of British science fiction author Bob Shaw. Rather than presenting a single adventure, this feature consisted of a number of scenario outlines – in the style of Traveller’s 76 Patrons – centred around The Cartographical Service, a planetary survey organisation from Shaw’s Ship of Strangers stories, and the Sarafand class explorer spaceship. I have to say, the authors didn’t exactly sell this as a compelling opportunity for gaming when they wrote: “a final problem with the missions undertaken by a Sarafand class explorer is that many of them are boringly routine, which does not aid in making the game exciting.” Hmm.

What of the scenario outlines? What missions were available for our budding PC space cartographers? Did they provide an exciting escape from the tedium of surveying planets? Well, there was an interesting mix:

  • Investigating a lifeless world that may not be all it seems.
  • What happens when an away team lose contact with the mothership.
  • Identifying an unknown saboteur on board the survey ship.

A couple had more than a faint air of familiarity about them:

  • Investigating a wrecked ship, potentially carrying “something” deadly back on board.
  • Dealing with a malfunctioning ship’s computer with megalomaniacal tendencies.

These last two didn’t so much wear their influences on their sleeves, as announce them with a blaring neon-lit klaxon. But hey, if you’re going to steal ideas, steal from the best.


All the adventure seeds, plus the details of the survey ship itself, were dual-statted for Traveller as well as Star Frontiers, but done properly this time, with some thought given as to how The Cartographical Service could be integrated into the Star Frontiers setting. I couldn’t help but feel though that this article was primarily developed with Traveller in mind; it had that blue-collar science fiction aesthetic I always associate with classic Traveller.

In fact, this struck me about all the Star Frontiers adventures in Imagine – saving The Fire Opal of Set, which was very much its own thing – they all felt like Traveller scenarios, the “dirty” science fiction of cynical corporations, of individuals trying to get by in an uncaring environment, and maybe make a few bucks along the way. They didn’t strike me as pulp adventures with noble heroes, strange worlds and bizarre aliens, the shiny, day-glo space opera of Flash Gordon or Star Wars. As I said at the start, these are just my impressions, not having played the game – maybe these scenarios do have more of a pulp feel in play?

I wonder whether, by the mid 1980s, Traveller already had its hooks deeply embedded into the minds of UK gamers, so that when they thought of science fiction, they immediately thought of Traveller? White Dwarf had already helped to sell Traveller to the British gaming masses; Imagine itself, despite being TSR’s house magazine, also featured Traveller-only articles from the likes of Marcus L Rowland and Paul Vernon. Maybe it was already too late for Star Frontiers?

I guess I need to roll some dice and find out.

This essay originally appeared as a segment in The GROGNARD files Episode 61 (Part 1) and was written by @dailydwarf

Extra – Mike Brunton: a tribute

Mike Brunton: a tribute

Download Episode

Mike Brunton, our special guest for Episode 29, suddenly passed away on 18th July 2019. This is the interview in full, released as a celebration of his gaming career. It also features Paul Cockburn adding a tribute to his old friend and colleague.

Episode 24 (Part 2) WARHAMMER Fantasy Role Play (with Graeme Davis)

Screenshot 2018-11-25 at 15.35.10.png

Download Episode

INTRO: We’ve had another iTunes review (we’d love to get more!)

GAMESMASTER’S SCREEN: Graeme Davis takes us on a whistle stop tour around his career so far: check out this book-listing  at Graeme’s site for all the references mentioned.

WHITE DWARF: @dailydwarf has given another insightful perspective of all of the adventures that appeared White Dwarf for the game.

OPEN BOX: Blythy and Dirk talk about Warhammer and how they can fit it in their gaming repertoire.

OUTRO: Only a few days left to register for a hard copy of the GROGZINE 2019.

Episode 14 (Part 2) RPG Fanzines (with Ian Marsh)


Download Episode

INTRO: News about a new PBM ‘zine that we’ve inspired – Bones of the Lost God – if you like Phil’s monsters, he’s put some of his art on Red Bubble.

GAMESMASTER’S SCREEN (with Ian Marsh): Ian Marsh returns to talk about his editorial-ship at White Dwarf and his involvement in Games Workshop. He also talks about Dr Who and his TimeLord game, before bringing us up to date with his latest endeavours. 

DAGON (with @dailydwarf): @dailydwarf gives his usual insightful analysis of literary criticism covered in Dagon ‘zine.

ATTIC ATTACK: Blythy joins me in the attic to talk about ‘zines and comments provided by listeners. I mention Monster Man, a new podcast that is being developed by James Holloway, check out progress at his site.

OUTRO: We’re making a ‘zine – sign up at Patreon – before the end of September 2017 to get a copy.

Thank you to all our Patreons for your continued support; without you, we would not have been going for so long.

If you would like a PDF of the last GROGZINE you can get it at Drive Thru RPG and The Complete Daily Dwarf too. All proceeds will go to YSDC to support the community there.

Episode 9 (Part 1) Imagine Magazine (Paul Cockburn)

Imagine Magazine 1.png

Download Episode

RSS Feed


We have been hard at work producing the GROGNARD files fanzine for Patreon backers. There are still a few hard copies available for new $3.50 backers. They are limited. Once they’re gone they’re gone. PDFs are available for download for $1 backers from 21st November.


Blythy joins me in the attic to look at some of the issues of IMAGINE in our collection.

I will be running the Luther Arkwright adventure THE FIRE OPAL OF SET at Convergence in Stockport on 18th March 2017.


We are pleased to join Paul Cockburn, editor of Imagine, and he talks about his gaming experiences and how Imagine got off the ground.

He’s back in the next part looking at specific features of the magazine.


@dailydwarf reflects on CRITICAL MASS and Dave Langford’s contribution to White Dwarf and the SF literary hinterland.


DM Mike from Save or Die podcast, asks a sensory Pelinore question …


Moorcock, Moorcock, Michael Moorcock you fervently moan

More about IMAGINE No 22 Jan 1985

“Literature holds much for the adventure gamer: a glimpse of worlds to which we are denied access by the complexity of modern life, ideas for character and adventure to supplement our own. Fantasy fiction is never far removed from the ‘real world’, and yet more than any other genre it refuses to be bogged down in ‘life as it is’ with all the defeat and compromise that that entails. As a way of exploring alternative modes of existence and remedies the world’s ills, it is unsurpassed. Enjoy …”

Kim Daniel, Editor

Some of the discussion about Imagine magazine, in the latest the GROGNARD RPG files podcast, ended up on the cutting room floor. I thought it would be worth looking at it in a bit more depth here, as it provides a useful connective bridge between The Stormbringer episode with the AD&D ones that are on the way. Imagine was published monthly by TSR UK between 1983 and 1985 ‘for the players of Dungeons and Dragons game’. I’ve written about how Imagine reached out to active gamers through it’s coverage of fanzines. It also had a policy of covering at wider genre features through it’s reviews of film, television and books. Occasionally it would dedicate the magazine to a particular author and through the magazine I discovered Bryan Talbot’s Luther Arkwright and science fiction author Bob Shaw, amongst others.


FullSizeRender 22

The Moorcock edition had a striking cover by Rodney Matthews, with the organic, angular shapes that makes his art so distinctive. It is a cropped version of a wider canvas titled EARL AUBEC OF MALADOR, depicting the incarnation of the Eternal Champion under pressure from insect-like creatures. Look closely and you’ll spot his cat companion, who detects danger with a preternatural instinct. Aubec is the subject of the scenario authored by Michael Brunton and Moorcock himself, who provided the story-treatment for the scenario.

The adventure is designed for one player who adopts the role of Aubec, with the option of another player taking the role of the ‘Companion to Champions’ Jhary A Conel, who appears in a number of Eternal Campion stories.

In the scenario, the players are seeking the Horn of Fate, which will ultimately be blown at the End of Time by Elric. Aubec is a champion that exists in an earlier period of the Young Kingdoms, when Melniboné is still a powerful force. He is seeking revenge after his lands are seized by his wife’s half-brother.

The Lords of Law wish to seek and find the Iron Galleon to recover the Horn of Plenty so it can be held in safe-keeping until the time is right.

Altogether, it’s a good one shot adventure notable for transforming AD&D alignment to deal with Chaos and Law as defined by Moorcock’s multiverse. Also, it adopts ‘Luck Points’ – a ‘spend’ mechanic that is familiar now, but innovative at the time – allowing players (and NPCs) to influence the results. The Luck Points can create results such as ‘ a death blow’ or ‘Hit Point recovery’.


FullSizeRender 23

There’s also a short story (The Last Enchantment) which features Elric making a portentous encounter in with the Lords of Chaos. It’s slim pickings, but it does serve as a useful introduction to the cosmology:

‘Only the Greatest Power, of which we know little more than humans, can create fresh conceptions. The Greatest Power holds both Law and Chaos in perpetual balance, making us war only that the scale will not be tilted too far to one side.’

The Moorcock interview is interesting in the context of his literary career. This was prior to the publication of Mother London (1988) and it’s possible to see him becoming increasingly weary of his ‘fantasy Romances’. There is a sense where he is seeing the genre as moribund and ‘increasingly debased’ in the face of increasing infantilisation (cf Wizardry and Wild Romance). He wants to be taken seriously.


FullSizeRender 24
A rare acknowledgement of the gaming hobby by Moorcock

Thanks to Patreon backer and active supporter of the Podcast, Sam Vail, I’ve been introduced to Paul Cockburn, who was on the Imagine editorial team. He said of the Moorcock issue:

I met Michael as we planned that issue. It was a big thrill. Unlike the majority of my gaming peers, Tolkien never was my thing. But I love imaginative fiction, and that’s obvious from my stewardship of Imagine magazine, plus what was going on in the background before I left Games Workshop. So, getting to hang out with Michael, talk about fiction and where it might influence games, that was a big thrill. My time on Imagine and at GW gave me license to have some great conversations with the big authors of the 80s, and that was truly amazing for me. So yes, I wanted Imagine to show that you could draw on the inspiration provided by great writers and great writing, and game in those kinds of environments.

There’ll be more from Paul and more about Imagine in a future podcast. He will also feature in the forthcoming 2016 theGROGNARDfiles Annual. Join the Patreon campaign to support the podcast and to ensure you get a copy!