23 June 2015

Classic TSR: Star Frontiers

Welcome to the Frontier.
Star Frontiers.  This was not the first science fiction RPG, nor was it TSR's first sci-fi RPG - that honor belongs to Metamorphosis Alpha, which I will cover in another post.  Star Frontiers wasn't even *my* first sci-fi RPG, that was Traveller.  SF came second, just before West End Star Wars and Robotech.  So instead of talking about what SF wasn't, let's talk about what it WAS.

Star Frontiers came out in that wonderful era of proliferation that I consider my personal Golden Age of RPGs.  The 70s set the stage, and the 80s took the show to a whole new level.  The first half of the Al Franken Decade saw TSR release so many games that are seminal to my own experience.  During this time, there  were advertisements for TSR games in comic books and even on television.  Included here are Star Frontiers ads from a comic, and from broadcast TV.

This was the time that gave us Gangbusters, Marvel Superheroes, the BECMI revision of D&D, and revisions of Boot Hill, Gamma World and Metamorphosis Alpha.

Star Frontiers is graced with a beautiful cover painting by Larry Elmore.  In this painting one can see the promise of the Star Frontiers game brought to fiery life.  Two human adventurers, one male and one female are joined by a Yazirian adventurer escaping the remains of a crashed craft under a bright sky included large, colorful moons (or is the world they're on the moon?) and a star-filled sky.  One can imagine these survivors clambering down the escarpment they are standing on in an attempt to find shelter.  The Yazirian's open-mouthed expression and leveled weapon indicate he may have spotted something threatening off to the group's left.

  In other words- the painting makes me wanna play.  The game itself came in a box, the original box was blue, the reprint maroon.  Both games had the same rules and contents, with slightly altered trade dress.  The boxes contained the standard saddle-stitched books.  The Basic Rules book was a thin 16 pages, the Expanded Rules 64 pages, plus the Crash on Volturnus module.  Also included were a pair of maps and some cardstock counters for use in adjudicating combat encounters.  Oh, and a pair of 10-sided dice and (depending on printing) a crayon.  Even though the first set of dice I bought for myself were inked (Koplow tube, red crystal with white ink, with a tens ten and 3d6, King's Hobby Shop,1986) I had received some older dice with hand-me-down sets from friends and the crayon, once I figured out what it was for, represents nostalgia to me.  Hell, I still have the twenty-sided d10s from my FASA Star Trek sets, although they're pretty much round now.

  The Basic Rules books shows that Star Frontiers is a d100-based system.  TSR was really all over the place in game systems, as this d100 system was nothing like the d100 system Jeff Grubb created for Marvel Superheroes (although Zebulon's Guide would later make them very similar) and was not similar to D&D as Metamorphosis Alpha had been.  Ability scores were expressed as numbers that could be rolled against on d100.  The races of Star Frontiers are in here- Humans, Yazirians, Dralasites and Vrusk.  A basic system of combat and RP is presented.  I'll be honest, I never used the basic rules, we always used the expanded rules- they weren't that complex.  64-page rulebooks being "expanded" seems pretty quaint these days.  There was one idea here that later inspired me to create campaign ideas - the standard equipment pack.  Much like the Fast Packs from B4: The Lost City, here was a way to eliminate start-of-campaign shopping trips.  Every player got this basic kit, plus 10 credits.  Note, no weapons were included except a single tangler grenade.  So, why did this simple addition inspire me to write?  It's right there in the game title.  The Frontier.  The Frontier of what?  What if the Frontier was so far from the homeworlds of the major races that it was nearly a one-way trip.  Folks down on their luck or just looking to strike it rich head out to the Frontier to seek their fortunes.  Some can barely afford their passage, and upon arrival after a trip of (weeks?  months?) in cold sleep to be given a standard issue pack of gear and released into a massive receiving station where PanGalactic and other Megacorps have hawkers trying to recruit new blood into their organizations.  With 10 credits to their name plus the pack on their back, the PCs must make their own way in a newly established corner of space.  Welcome to the Frontier.

  The Basic Game Rules booklet has a different piece of cover art, the same three adventurers (I think) with a vehicle called an Explorer.  Explorers are really large vans, apparently painted with racing stripes in 70s color schemes designed to rove across unexplored worlds.  These vehicles also give me great imagination sparks - think of living in one with your contacts for weeks at a time, rolling across lands no sentient has seen, searching for adventure in any form.  That's what adventure gaming is about, folks.

  The Expanded Game Rules book is the version of SF I played.  Now, I've said how inspiring the Larry Elmore cover art is - but the interior art by Jim Holloway is every bit as evocative as well.  There is a particular illustration of a man fighting with a sonic sword in one hand and a shock glove in the other.  My mind parsed this as a swordsmanship style in the Renaissance fashion, where some schools might teach the use of the cloak as a weapon, the cloak or parrying dagger is here replaced by the electrifying shock glove.  One illustration, hours of inspiration.  Not only did this end up being the primary fighting style of some space pirates in my SF games, it survived into the 2010s as the swordsmanship style of the House of Dencourt in my MechWarrior campaign.

The expanded rules include "classes" in the form of PSAs, or Primary Skill Areas.  These are Military, Technological and Biosocial.  Each allows a player to choose one skill from within their PSA, and then a second skill from any PSA.  The skills in Star Frontiers are a bit of all-over-the-place.  Weapon skills apply to a single class of weapons, like Beam Weapons.  Other skills, like Computer, have multiple subskills with different mechanics and success chances.  Conspicuously absent from the skill lists are any sort of starship skills.  One of the often-cited criticisms of Star Frontiers was that there were no ship rules in the original set, these came along in the Knight Hawks box later.  There was a short bestiary of monsters, many of which can be found on Volturnus, the planet introduced in the included module and fleshed out in a following module series.  This was perhaps part of why space combat and space ships weren't covered- it seems the concept of Star Frontiers was that the characters would reach new planets by "starliner" and do their exploring groundside.  I did get a bit annoyed with the term "starliner."  Calling a ship a "liner" implies established routes, and the PCs being on their way to Volturnus, mysterious unexplored world.  Why would a shipping line go to an uninhabited planet?  Well, I have really given it some thought and realized that when they say "starliner" they really mean any ship chartered or otherwise since the PCs who, by the design of the game, can't own or operate a ship under these rules.  Now, this might seem a bit counter-intuitive for a sci-fi game, but Metamorphosis Alpha didn't have such rules, either.  In fact, those PCs didn't usually know they were on a ship.  Contemporary games like Traveller and Space Opera had spaceship rules, so... it's your call wether you think TSR was criminally negligent in leaving out spacecraft rules or not.

  I won't give up any plot points on the first module, Crash on Volturnus, other than what the title itself gives away.  The PCs are involved in a crash on the titular unexplored world, and must make their way with only the things they could scavenge.  It's a lot of fun, and includes many old school concepts like random encounters and overworld map hex-crawling.  A good introduction to Star Frontiers, and a great example of how a sci-fi game can function without ship rules.

  The rest of the box, maps and counters, shouldn't be discounted.  A lot of TSR games came with similar things- the map of Lakefront City in Gangbusters, of New York in Marvel Superheroes- all these were props that could help visualize the action.  The maps included in Star Frontiers have a spaceport city and a spaceship interior, perfect for many adventures.  Pirate attack on a "liner"?  Check.  Chasing a thief who just stole your parabattery through the streets of a port city?  Check.

  I see that I've written a lot, and said not nearly enough about the game.  Wow.  The system is definitely a product of the 80s, but it's fast and serviceable.  The alien races are truly alien, and not just humans with bumpy foreheads.  Yes, you kind of need the Knight Hawks boxed set for a "complete" game in the sense that the PCs could own and crew a ship, but there's plenty of adventure just within the Star Frontiers boxed set, or the Alpha Dawn reprint.  The Star Frontiers rules can be gotten from HERE.  Check them out.  You won't be sorry.  Grab some d10s, jump in your 70s-painted Explorer, and boldly go into an Elmore space landscape with your trusty Dralasite sidekick.

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