Star Frontiers (1982)
Copyright: (c) 1982 TSR, Inc.
Advancement: Skill-based, ranks purchased with XP; attributes improved by XP expenditure
Features: Straightforward resolution system, sci-fi setting not rooted in existing movie/book license
Star Frontiers was an early sci-fi RPG that did fairly well for a time in the early 80s. A large portion of the credit probably goes to it’s relative success in terms of generating and describing an interesting sci-fi universe to explore, without falling back on an existing license, and a free-wheeling, open-ended one to boot. Anyone who played it probably has some fond memories of the Star Frontiers setting, particularly the alien races PCs were allowed to play (Dralasites, Vrusk, and Yazirians, oh my!)
These scans of the official character sheets for Star Frontiers (pdfs of the originals available via the good folks at starfrontiers.com) give a good overview of exactly how straightforward the system could be. The original “Alpha Dawn” game (the Knight Hawks expansion added rules for starship travel and combat) had a grand total of 13 defined skills. After Knight Hawks and Zebulon’s Guide, it got a bit more complex, with about a hundred or so options, but it all still ran under the same basic resolution system, and really just fleshed out the types of options you’d expect in a free-wheeling sci-fi campaign… tech skills, medical skills, piloting skills, and so on.
Additional rules could be found or extrapolated for psionic abilities, cyborg/robot characters, and so on. In the end, however, the game was really about exploring alien planets and navigating the heights and depths of a high-tech, far future society… just what the doctor ordered.
The attributes of Star Frontiers were the height of simplicity. There were 8 basic attributes, arranged into 4 related pairs: Strength/Stamina, Dexterity/Reaction Speed, Intuition/Logic, and Personality/Leadership.
A d100 roll on the Ability Score table would translate to a starting score ranging from 30-70 (another early instance of this alternate stat range, see Chill) which would be set for both scores in the pair. The player could then move up to 10 points from 1 score in a pair to the other. These scores were also modified by race (Vrusk had -5 to STR/STA and +5 to DEX/RS, for example).
Progress in Skills in Star Frontiers were measured in ranks: in general, rank 1 was basic knowledge, on up to rank 6, which was the height of expertise. Each rank added +10 to the character chance of success, the base of which was predicated on one of the attribute scores. For example, Beam Weapons skill was defined as “1/2 DEX+skill level”, so the base chance to hit for any character was 1/2 DEX score (a base of 15-35 for a starting character)+10 per skill level achieved.
Characters would start play with 2 skills at rank 1, and then could spend any XP earned to advance an existing skill, open new ones, and/or increase attributes.
Star Frontiers combat was straightforward and quite similar to D+D: roll to hit based on skill modified for circumstances; if successful, roll damage based on weapon; apply any defenses from armors or force fields; reduce targets Stamina by result. As you might expect, basic rules were also defined for grenades, automatic weapons fire, and so on… all quite easily understood and applied.
As I mentioned in the introduction, I think that the core strength of the Star Frontiers game was it’s setting. It was open-ended enough that a GM could run with it in nearly any direction his players wanted, yet provided enough detail and options to make it interesting. By creating a new yet internally consistent setting, unencumbered by an existing fictional setting, or even a connection to Earth itself, I think it endeared itself to a fan base that wanted to explore a future somewhat of it’s own design, as opposed to that already largely described, even choreographed, by someone else.
Star Frontiers was one of those pen-and-paper RP games that was just plain fun. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have many of the twists or insights that might transfer well to the production of a “next-gen” on-line MMO game… it is a solid small group, pen-and-paper title, and makes no pretense to be anything more. However, it might be well worth the time to examine in detail how the setting was designed and presented… one of the difficulties most sci-fi titles encounter is helping players establish a solid connection to the underlying setting, especially if there is no licensed fiction to use as a foundation. Star Frontiers managed to accomplish this very feat with significant success… there may well be lessons to be learned by digging into the material.
Star Frontiers is, at present, utterly out of print, and has been for quite some time. Presumably, Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast still hold the basic copyright. I’m also not certain whether there was any attempt to resurrect the Star Frontiers setting under the Alternity ruleset of the mid-90s, as they did with Gamma World: I haven’t found anything definitive yet one way or the other on that.
There are still some nice fan sites available for Star Frontiers and it’s various expansions. One I would recommend in particular is starfrontiers.com, which not only has some online pdfs of the original rule sets and expansions, but also has a significant number of links to other sites and resources related to the game. If you want to gain a better understanding of the game, I’d suggest checking them out.