Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Retrospective: Star Frontiers

I've probably gotten more requests for a retrospective on TSR's 1982 SF RPG, Star Frontiers, than any other game. Whenever I post a retrospective on another science fiction game, I usually get a couple or three emails from people asking me to do one devoted to David Cook and Lawrence Schick's rules set. That says a lot, I think, about the impression this game made upon a lot of kids in the early 80s.

I've always been more of a Traveller man myself -- I got my start with the Little Black Books, thanks to my friend's older brother, from whom we also learned D&D -- but we did play Star Frontiers. It was pretty much inevitable, as we were unabashed TSR fanboys and picked up just about every game the company cranked out, including this one.

In the gaming circles in which I moved, Star Frontiers was always compared unfavorably to Traveller, an opinion echoed even in the pages of Dragon, where reviewer Tony Watson noted:
The STAR FRONTIERS game certainly has a different feel from that evoked by TRAVELLER. Some of the weaker aspects of the TSR game, such as background and starships, are strengths of the TRAVELLER system. GDW’'s game seems a bit more solid and serious in its approach. Comparing the two is like comparing the movies Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey: both very good, but very different, facets of science fiction
That's pretty much how I viewed the game too: bubblegum space opera rather than "solid and serious." Make no mistake: I loved Star Wars as a kid, but I'd been exposed to enough sci-fi to know that its style and content weren't the only ones for the genre. And given that Traveller was largely conceived and written before Star Wars, the game retained its own distinctive feel, more reminiscent of classic SF writers like Anderson, Asimov, and Piper rather than Lucas.

But, as I said, we still played and enjoyed Star Frontiers for when we were interested in some over-the-top science fictional derring-do. With its simple, fast-moving rules, broad-brush setting, and well-made components, Star Frontiers was almost always fun. Unlike Traveller, about which I agonized a great deal more to get it "right," I could whip up Star Frontiers adventures on the fly -- and usually did. Plus, the modules produced for the game were, with a few exceptions, a blast. The three-part Volturnus series, in which Tom Moldvay played a large role, were a loving homage to pulp science fiction from the 30s and 40s, while UK-produced modules were a nice change of pace, approaching Traveller-esque levels of depth and sophistication.

If the original release of the game had a flaw, it was the lack of starship rules, as noted in the quote above. This was eventually rectified by the release of a second boxed set, called Knight Hawks, which contained an excellent -- and scalable -- set of rules for adjudicating everything from one-on-one dogfights to massive fleet engagements. Like the RPG rules, the starship rules were easy to use and quick; they also integrated characters into the action quite well. Coupled with all the counters and maps the boxed set included, I actually preferred Knight Hawks to Traveller's various starship rules for many years. I still consider that set to be one of the best things TSR produced in that time period.

Star Frontiers eventually suffered an ignominious end, another victim of TSR's schizophrenia about any game that wasn't Dungeons & Dragons. Color-coded chart mania overtook the company's design department and, in 1985, the game was halfheartedly overhauled to an entirely new game system, at the same time expanding its setting in intriguing ways. Not long thereafter, the game was dropped, while Traveller, even in its dotage, continued to chug along as king of the science fiction RPG castle.

Looking back, Star Frontiers definitely had a lot going for it. The game wasn't a good vehicle for detailed explorations among the stars or meditations on what it means to be human, but it nicely scratched a pulp SF itch that, to my mind, has never really been attempted since. Every now and again, I am reminded of the fun I had playing Star Frontiers and considering digging out my old boxed sets and giving it a whirl again. It's no Traveller, but that's hardly a crime and sometimes you just want to strap on your blaster and fight space pirates, something at which Star Frontiers excels.


  1. "Exciting Adventures on Alien Worlds" no false advertising.

    I would say 90% of our adventures took place on the planet of the week and you got there by a transport ship of some sort, not your own. The included Volturnus starter module set the mood. It was what happened on the planet that mattered and it was all railroad getting you there.

    Our characters would get dropped off 10 kilometers from the enemy base and cross the volcano planet, exit the space port on to the hustling streets of the planet of space gangsters, or dock on the abandoned space port to investigate.

    Never having seen or played traveler as a kid it never crossed our minds that there should be star ship rules.

  2. You should definitely ping Steve Winter for his stories about the making of Star Frontiers.

  3. James, I'm not sure if you're aware but Star Frontiers has had a strong fanbase similar to the one for T&T.

    In fact, they have a regular magazine The Star Frontiersman now on issue 13. It's very similar to Fight On! and Knockspell in terms of content, is free as a PDF, and wow does it have high quality art:

  4. The whole story of Star Frontiers can be derived from the sleeves of the man on the cover (and maybe his hair.)

  5. Star Frontiers was the first "hard Sic-fi" game I got into (around the same times as Gamma World). I always considered SF to be a mix of Star Trek, Cyberpunk, and some sort of cold war era pulp. The Cyberpunk comparison may seem odd, but the approach of the Alpha Dawn rule books is vary similar to CP2020 - freelance gunslingers who works (off the books) for mega-corporations, and an element of style being more pronounced. The Sathar on the other hand, always felt like "The Red Menace" of space.

    The major draw SF has to me, are the ship layouts. I like how the ships use momentum to produce gravity, and the ships are arranged as such. I also like how the cyberpunk-style make it feel a little bit different from the usual Traveller setting. My only beef with the setting, is how small the frontier is. I always felt that the core-worlds should be farther from the frontier worlds (at if the Frontier Map spreads out into other sectors, and them spreads into unknown space), so the frontier worlds would be more isolated, and so there would be a lot more opportunity to explore unknown sectors.

    By the way, I have been working on the Star Frontiers wiki. It is open to all editors!

  6. My grandfather enjoyed Star Frontiers more then he did D&D back in the good old days he said he was always a lot more into Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon then he was Prince Valiant and Conan.

  7. Star Frontiers was Sci-Fi gaming for my group when we were kids (aside from a short-lived attempt to play WEG's Star Wars).

    As others said, it was a blast, and we never really missed the starship rules, just starting adventures on the planet we wanted to start on!

    Good pulpy fun.

  8. Star Frontiers is the #2 game that continues to pull gravitationally on my thought processes over time (after D&D, of course). It really made a big impact on me.

    I think one of the interesting things for TSR at the time is to come out with a purely skill-based system (no classes) that works cleanly and well. It was my first experience with that, it worked very well with the setting, and I'm not sure at the time I realized how big a conceptual switch that was. So much better than later attempts at TST/WOTC to mash classes & skills together.

    And Doug Niles strikes again with the excellent Knight Hawks minis rules!

  9. And how could anyone resist that excellent Elmore cover? That's the mental image I see when I think of sci-fi RPG's. (Heck, it's even been the wallpaper on my Blackberry for the last three months...)

  10. "And how could anyone resist that excellent Elmore cover?"

    I was going to post the same thing! Definitely one of my all-time favorite Elmore pieces.

  11. Thanks for writing this one up. Reading about Star Frontiers brought back a lot of great memories. You've hit the point spot on: it aint Traveller, but it was a heckuva game all the same!

  12. We had hours of fun at primary school playing this. The Voltrunus campaign was a monster.

    I eventually bought the Knight Hawks game but I think we had all moved on by then. I'd still love to play it again.

    I recently re-read the Mission to Alcazzar module which I also have never played. Not one of TSR's greatest moments, I must say: more like a rolling battle/skirmish module than anything else.

    And yes that Elmore cover is a classic.

  13. Star Frontiers is one of my three favorite games of all times.

  14. I've never played SF, but it seems I definitely missed out! Thanks to Herb and Mal for the links, I think I'm going to look into this....

  15. As a side note, and since you mention it, one of the few licensed titles for Star Frontiers was 2001: A Space Odyssey and 2010: An Odyssey Two. Quite possibly two of the oddest products from TSR.

  16. Bravo on the post. Star Frontiers is one of my all time favorites games and I will be teaching my kids how to play someday. :)

  17. I remember hearing rumors in the late 80s that Star Frontiers was shelved because TSR had acquired the license for Buck Rogers in the XXVC Century and wanted to put their focus on that gameline. Not sure if there's any truth to that.

    SF is one of my favorite rpgs and the second rpg I played after Moldvay's Basic D&D. The game was just a blast to play - over the top, pulpy - it really had a dramatic impact on me in my early gaming years.

    I'm still very fond of many of SF's modules. The Volturnus series had a great focus on survival in an alien environment. My favorite module, however, was Mutiny on the Eleanor Moraes. I've used this module countless times with different systems (once with MegaTraveller). A very well designed adventure in my opinion.

  18. I've always been a much bigger Sci-Fi than a Fantasy one and not long after playing my first game of FASA's Star Trek I found myself touching D&D less and less.

    My first exposure to Traveller was less then stellar (pun intended) and Star Frontiers served the niche of Sci-Fi/Action-Adventure game quite well.

    While it is easy to peg SF as Star Wars-like, I tended to think of it as more inspired by the things that inspired Lucas. Star Frontiers is more akin to E. E. Smith's Lensman, Keith Laumer's Retief and Harry Harrison's Star Smasher's of the Galaxy Ranger. Its very Tom Corbet with a dash of Space Cruiser Yamato (all of which pre-date Star Wars).

    Definitely a fun game but also definitely not as polished or hard-science based as Traveller.

  19. The one thing missing for me from both systems, Star Frontiers and Traveller, was a solid method for creating your own player character alien species, which is kinda what appeals to me in a space operatic style game. I thought Star Frontiers was pretty darn cool at the time. (Heck I can still remember the day I bought it, at a toy store at Station Square in Pittsburgh) but I always wanted to develop my own universe with my own playable creatures.

    (Savage Worlds has a decent guide for that sort of thing as far as their system goes, so I guess if pressed I'd use that.)

    I might give X-Plorers a look.

  20. Some stuff colliding together on me. Here's an essay at from yesterday -- PHD in physics with a discussion of what space battles would be like:

    "Here's where computer games get space combat all wrong: the mass of a huge space cruiser would not place an upper limit on the speed of a vehicle, but it would reduce the acceleration a given engine could produce compared to the same engine on a less massive vehicle."

    And I'll point out that's exactly how Doug Niles' Star Frontiers Knight Hawks did it (the correct way, written in 1982). I can still remember opening the first page of the tactical book and having that "oh, right!" realization, made a huge impact on me.

  21. @Delta, that reminds me, the History Channel's "The Universe" did an episode on how physics would influence space weaponry design and combat. I believe you can still view it on their website and download it from iTunes.

    /Man I love that show!

  22. I have loved this game for years, even with its flaws ("I have to max out my laser pistol skill before I can even learn to use a laser cannon on a starship? How does that make any sense?"). I always thought the game played best when you treated it as "cowboys and indians" in space. Oh, the dralasites are my favorite alien species of all time, hands down.

  23. The person who puts out the Star Frontiersman magazine has also remastered the Star Frontiers rules and modules and released them all in pdf for free. So Star Frontiers is back, better then ever, and, best of all, FREE, at the below Web site.

  24. I'm sure some here reading this watch Stargate: Universe ... during the recent mid-season "finale," when the crew found the crashed alien ship on the lip of an canyon, my very first thought was -- "whoa, someone on the production staff played Star Frontiers growing up! If that isn't an homage to Elmore cover, I don't know what is."

  25. Star Frontiers was my very first RPG and so I think of it fondly.

    Note that the original SF rules, modules, counters, etc. are available as scans at, the guy somehow got permission from TSR back in the day to post them! (This is in addition to the remastered rules.) and are other good fan sites.

    They've had a thriving "OSR" going on for a long time with Star Frontiers, check it out!

  26. Although, I can already hear the flame guns charging...

    I think that Traveller could have learnt alot of Star Frontiers in its more easy going format. Nodding back to the pulps is not a bad thing and from what I see in Mongoose Traveller there is an attempt to do so. So while Traveller does need its Hard edge, it also have much in the way of pulp or classic space opera.

    So, I hope that Traveller of the future can be more reflective of this fine game whilst remaining true to some of its more basic values. One can indeed have it both ways.

  27. A recent discussion on OSR brought up the question of, "Are games like Traveller or Star Frontiers covered under the blanket of OSR?".

    This struck me as interesting as most of the old school sci fi games were devoid of classes and had a skill-intensive system that seems contrary to the OSR definition.

  28. "You should definitely ping Steve Winter for his stories about the making of Star Frontiers."

    If you're a fan of Star Frontiers, hearing those stories probably would be akin to watching sausage being made. I don't recommend it ...

  29. I used the SF mechanics in several other genre games I cooked up. They were pretty good, but blew up in high skill/high difficulty situations.

    Knight Hawks rocked as a space battle game. I loved the (relatively) good physics.


    And now it's free as in beer.