Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Ads of Dragon: Star Frontiers

I've mentioned before that one of the many lessons one learns being a parent is that even comparatively young children wish nothing to do with activities they believe to be "for little kids." This behavior is particularly acute after the age of 10. Consequently, the ad below, appearing in issue #74 (June 1983), was one that was all but guaranteed to leave a negative impression on my friends and myself.
Star Frontiers already had a reputation for being "un-serious" in the gaming circles in which I moved. There was also a widespread perception that, compared to games like Traveller or Space Opera, it was a "kiddie" game. I think that perception was unfair, but I can hardly fault anyone who had it, as TSR seemed determined to portray the game in this light. Ads like this did Star Frontiers no favors in my experience.

28 comments:

  1. Since you're nearing the end of your Gamma World coverage I wouldn't mind seeing a series of articles on Traveller. Maybe a cover to cover, maybe not.

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  2. Those kids look way more alien and bizarre than the thing at the window. WTF, Easley?!

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  3. I found the ad a bit creepy and I think maybe that's what the artist was going for.

    Seems to be a family happily enjoying RPG night oblivious to the alien lurking at the window. And they rarely have good intentions.

    Although I'm not sure which is more unlikely, alien contact or family RPG night in 1983...

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  4. The weirdest thing for me is the use of "Star Frontiers game" without a definite article. Perhaps it's a UK/US thing; I was similarly bothered when I went to the Mall of America and the sign said "Welcome to Mall of America".

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  5. Never saw this particular ad for SF, only the ones in the pages of Marvel comics...and THOSE were good enough that Star Frontiers was the 2nd RPG I acquired (after D&D).

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  6. The ads in the back of the Endless Quest books were good, too. They just used the Elmore covers of the books, plus text. If I'd seen that ad in Dragon, I might not have made Star Frontiers the second game I purchased (or rather, asked my parents to get it for me for my birthday, IIRC).

    Glad I didn't see that ad back then.

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  7. Looks downright silly to me, though the family is somewhat scary in an Innsmouth way.

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  8. That add is certainly a coolness killer for Star Frontiers. I myself bought it ad unseen and we played the heck out of it.

    @coldstream, we had family RPG games in 1983, my grandfather preferred Star Frontiers over D&D.

    Currently my regular core group contains 3 grand fathers, 1 adult son with a kid (me) and 2 children.

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  9. There's something vaguely disturbing about the looks on the kids' faces. If I were the alien, I'd flee.

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  10. The alien is thinking, "My synthetic humanoids are nearly ready to release into the Earth population. Perhaps the female is too developed for her age... ah well. Neither that nor the misshapen skulls can be helped at this point. Their telekinetic powers are already adequate for lifting dice from a table, and that alone will make our invasion unstoppable."

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  11. Is that Owen Wilson in the middle there?

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  12. I'd like to write a caption for the Vrusk: "Jeez! Did I walk into a Mormon RPG session? Hey you! The fat kid hogging all the pizza! Yeah, I'm picking up a trans-temporal message from your 1950s. Some earth-child named Theodore Cleaver wants his hat back!"

    Joking, Star Frontiers is the game that started me down the dark path of role-playing, so it has a special place in my cold, black, heart.

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  14. It might be useful to point out that (a) in June of 1982, Steven Spielberg introduced the world to a shrieking Drew Barrymore with his film E.T., and (b) the film featured, early on, a bunch of "real live kids" playing "real live D&D", and (c) eating "real live pizza" while doing so.

    Not to mention that by summer of '83, we'd had a rush of these flims released all within the space of three years: Empire Strikes Back, E.T., Tron, Return of the Jedi.

    It's hard to remember how sci-fi crazy Hollywood really was in the decade after the release of Star Wars in '76. The answer is really, really sci-fi crazy.

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  15. I never saw that ad though we played a lot of Star Frontiers, about 1989-1991. I think I never even opened a Dragon Magazine until 1992 and I don't remember such ads anymore at that point.

    I think we got Star Frontiers because the box art seemed fun. I got the basic box and a friend got the starship box, and we played it quite a lot.

    It was my first pure space science fiction game. We played mostly (A)D&D, RQ, Shadowrun, MERP and Gamma World at the time.

    Actually, I had an idea of running the Mutiny on Eleanor Moraes with Thousand Suns - the project just has been buried under all kinds of other stuff...

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  16. As a huge Science Fiction fan even back then, I remember seeing the ad, focusing on the alien (almost to the point of ignoring the kids) and going..."COOOL!". Remember it's me...I don't think like normal people. :)

    My problem was that I then checked out that game and...um...where was the neat, bizarre alien. You showed me that thing and give me a bug, a monkey, play-doh and a worm? Yeeeah. Not selling it guys.

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  17. Yeah, TSR mis-marketed the hell out of Star Frontiers. It seemed like a horrible cheap rip off of Star Wars. Like Viktor stated before, sci-fi was just at the tail end of a massive craze. Many of us had already been bitten too many times by horrible sci-fi schlock. This was also the same time that TSR was focusing more and more on a young audience (D&D cartoon anyone?). All of us "serious" gamers viciously mocked the game and all who played it. It was the first TSR of many TSR rpgs I had absolutely no interest in.

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  18. I bought Star Frontiers before seeing this ad, mostly because the cover art was so cool. I do vaguely remember this ad though, and I thought then, as I do now, it had a creepy, "50's alien invasion" feel, which didn't reflect the game at all.

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  19. So what's the deal, vrusk can't breathe terran-prime atmospheres? Oh, I get it... those aren't humans. Now the picture makes sense. It's a sathar clone world/pink tank.

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  20. I had bought Star Frontiers before I saw this ad. I thought the game was OK (perfectly workable sci-fi kind of game. I saw this ad and stopped playing it. I really, really, really hated this ad. It was like have acid poured into my eyeballs. Ick.

    What really made me hate the ad is that I just assumed that the alien outside looking in wanted to join the group and play the game. This is too bad, because I think it would be cooler if the alien laid eggs in the kids skulls or something.

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  21. Can I still get the free color poster?

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  22. wow, that is amazing and a true gem!

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  23. @cinchntouch - I think he already laid the eggs and was just checking in on them.

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  24. Those are the hatchlings. They just haven't begun the transformation, yet.

    Security word: "servulku," an obscure Livayni deity.

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  25. I think Star Frontiers catches a lot of flack. True, it was mishandled by TSR, who started out trying to do a serious SF game and part way through ended up doing a kiddie SF game, then introducing the gawd awful Zebulon's guide to mess it all up.

    In truth, Star Frontiers was a fun game, easy to run on short notice. It lacked coherence, but considering its germination in TSR's vats, it had potential. It's going through a bit of a renaissance now at Star Frontiers Remastered. Don't have the link handy, but Google it.

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  26. In truth, Star Frontiers was a fun game, easy to run on short notice. It lacked coherence, but considering its germination in TSR's vats, it had potential.

    I completely agree! Star Frontiers is one of a handful of RPGs that, if luck somehow enabled it, I'd love to own the rights to and relaunch. I think the core concepts are sound and its starship expansion, Knights Hawks, is a thing of beauty. I've long been disappointed that WotC made only scattered and halfhearted attempts at reviving it.

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  27. I still remember getting Star Frontiers - had really been looking forward to it. I opened up the box and started reading through the rules...I liked the aliens, it had some interesting sci-fi gadgets and weapons..where were the rules on starships and space travel? Oh, that was in the Star Frontiers expansion Knight Hawks, which wasn't even out yet...

    I was not happy and felt I had been ripped. You have to remember, in 1983 there were the two sci-fi games that were out there, Traveller and Space Opera. Both had all the rules you needed to play include starship combat and travel. I wound up running Space Opera for the next several years. Even with all of its warts, I loved Space Opera and still think about a 9heavily) modified version of that game.

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  28. Not sure that I understand the reaction to the Alpha Dawn boxed set not having starship rules. I myself had a twinge of the same reaction. Yet this was the day and age of the little black books from traveller so you had to purchase multiples of those. Yet with star frontiers it was just 2 box sets which I either got my parents to buy or mowed lawns to do it myself. I guess maybe the box set gave the impression that it was self contained so perhaps we expected more. Looking back though, I think both boxed sets gave you quite alot. A basic game to fast start you, a module to kick start play, a core rule book, a two side poster map, and die cut counters since nobody had sci first miniatures yet.

    BTW look for an interview from a TSR designer in issue 18 of the Star Frontiersman at starfrontiersman.com which is due out on the 30th anniversary of the game: Jan. 2012. The interview gives an insight to what was happening at TSR and reveals a secret about the sathar that as far as I know has never been revealed in 30 years.

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