Exciting Adventure on Alien Worlds
TSR Hobbies, 1982, 1983 by TSR Staff
Additional items in the museum's collection
Star Frontiers was TSR's entry into conventional science fiction role playing, as opposed to the post-apocalyptic science fantasies of Metamorphosis: Alpha and Gamma World. Like Boot Hill and Marvel Superheroes, Star Frontiers in its basic form was played like a wargame, and needed the mapsheets and counters it was packaged with. However, it served as a good introduction to role playing, with an extremely simple basic game that got players up and running and even creating their own basic adventures in sixteen pages. The Expanded rules fleshed the game out considerably.
The basic rules were an introduction to roleplaying, and a very simplified version of the game. As the Expanded rules overwrote virtually everything in the basic rulebook, there was little reason to consult it again once players read the Expanded rulebook.
Star Frontiers was set in a section of an unspecified galaxy, where stars are closer together than those in Earth's neighborhood. Four races have a cooperative relationship: humans (humans, but not from Earth), Vrusk (insectoids), Dralasites (amoeboids), and Yazirians (glider-monkey humanoids). The area of space between them all is called the Frontier, and there are joint settlements on twenty-two worlds there; the various race homeworlds lie outside of the Frontier. Space travel is common enough to link the worlds of the Frontier by routine merchant and even passenger traffic, but expensive enough to essentially rule out private interstellar spacecraft.
A fifth race, the Sathar, is implacably hostile to the four allied races. Very little is known of the Sathar, as none have been captured alive. A Sathar military incursion was beaten back by the forces of the United Planetary Federation. In response, the Sathar now use agents to undermine trade and government in the Frontier. The UPF created an interstellar police force called The Star Law Rangers to combat this threat.
While the Sathar are the obvious Big Baddies for the setting, the PCs are not expected to be Rangers. In fact, there's no information in the rules about being a Ranger. Player characters are portrayed as adventurers, mercenaries and trouble-shooters for hire to various interests. While the game background is scanty, it's clear that the large corporations that own the starships will hire rootless individuals for risky missions, as will individual planetary governments.
Character creation was simple. There were four pairs of characteristics (Strength/Stamina; Dexterity/Reaction Speed; Intuition/Logic, and Personality/Leadership). Players rolled percentile dice and looked up the results on a table to determine how high their paired ability score would be. Ability scores ranged from a low of 30 (a roll of 1 - 10) to a high of 70 (a roll of 96 - 00), with most scores at 45 or 50 (rolls of 36 - 55/56 - 70). Players then chose their race. The four races were well-described, with a full page apiece, including an anatomical diagram.
Dralasites were amoeboid creatures with a tough rubbery skin. They could not see color, but had an excellent sense of smell. Thoughtful and philosophical, the dralasites had a small chance to detect when they are lied to (five percent), and they added five points to their strength/stamina score and subtracted five from their dexterity/reaction speed score.
Vrusk were insectoids, with their civilization organized around complete identification with one of their corporations, either a massive conglomeration of many divisions or a trade house that specialized in a single function. Vrusk had an ability to comprehend observed social interactions: if the player couldn't figure out what an NPC was doing, they could have the referee tell them if they succeeded at a die roll. Vrusk characters received a bonus of five to their dexterity/reaction speed, and a penalty of five to their strength/stamina score. Vrusk were automatically ambidextrous.
Yazirians were tall, slender monkeys with gliding membranes. They wore goggles because their eyes were sensitive to daylight. Yazirians organized into clans, and were expected to name a life-enemy and devote their existence to destroying this named foe. They had a five percent chance of going berserk in combat, which granted a twenty percent bonus to hit. They received a ten point penalty to their strength/stamina, and a five point bonus to both dexterity/response speed and intuition/logic. Yazirians could also glide and possessed night vision.
Humans received no set bonuses or penalties, but did receive a bonus five points to apply as they liked to any ability pair.
Once bonuses were applied, players could adjust their ability pairs by shifting up to ten points from one side of a paired ability to the other; for example, a player might drop their strength by ten to apply those extra ten points to their stamina. Players then calculated their Initiative Modifier by dividing their final Reaction Speed score by ten, rounding any fractions up. Characters were then fleshed out a bit: the player chose their character's dominant hand (unless a Vrusk or Dralasite), set their gender (unless a Dralasite), picked a name, and rolled for starting money, in credits. Finally, players chose two skills from the thirteen available. Skills started at first level and could be raised to a maximum of sixth level by spending experience points. Skills were broad, covering a number of different abilities, such as the Technician skill, which included operating machinery, repairing, detecting alarms, deactivating alarms, and opening locks.
Experience was rewarded for accomplishing the goals of the session. The more the character contributed to reaching the goal, the more points the referee was supposed to award, averaging about three to seven points a session, and never more than ten. These points could be spent to improve abilities or skills. An increase in skill from first to second level might cost three to ten points depending on the skill, but this grew more expensive as the skills became higher: an increase from fifth to sixth level cost eighteen to sixty points.
Besides experience points, skills took time to improve. The fastest (and cheapest) was to simply practice the skill, which may have been as simple as "if you used this skill on this adventure, you could spend experience points to improve it." A PC could also learn a brand new skill or boost a skill they hadn't used, but this took time: five days if the character bought expensive hypno-training, or a month if trained by another living being, such as a fellow PC. On the other hand, abilities could easily be increased by spending experience on a point for point basis.
With a fixed rate of earning experience points, but an increasing cost of improving abilities, it is unlikely that characters advanced skills up to the highest level too often.
The Game System
Star Frontiers used a percentile dice system, where players tried to roll under or equal to the target number. The target number was usually detemined by a base value plus ten for each level of skill the character possessed. This simple mechanic was slightly messy because each skill used a different base value. A technician trying to operate machinery had a base value of fifty, but weapons used a base rate of half of the relevant attribute (usually Dexterity). Luckily, the game provided summary tables, and all of the skill base rates were listed in one place.
Combat, as noted above, used the basic game system. The combat round was carefully structured to give ranged weapons an advantage. Players rolled a d10 for initiative, adding their calculated Initiative Modifier. The low initiative group declared their actions first and moved first, allowing the high initiative side a chance to respond and to use opportunity fire should an opponent cross their field of fire. Then the high initiative side moved, possibly drawing opportunity fire themselves. The high initiative side then resolved the rest of their attacks (melee, grenades, ranged weapons that didn't use opportunity fire), followed by the rest of the attacks from the low initiative side.
While the target value for attacks was noted above, there were a host of situational modifiers, most of them negative, such as distance to target, whether the target was moving, target size, soft or hard cover, attacker using their off-hand, and so on. Characters could get a bonus to hit by taking careful aim (plus fifteen) or firing a burst, if the weapon were capable of it (plus twenty). A roll of 96 - 00 was an automatic miss, while a roll of 1 - 5 might be an automatic hit; referees had to judge whether a hit was possible at all under the circumstances to prevent players from impossible feats such as shooting a gnat's wings off at one hundred meters. A roll of 1 - 2 meant the target was knocked unconscious, regardless of the attack type, so long as the referee ruled that any sort of hit was possible at all. (Notice that if you hit at all on a nearly impossible shot, you had a forty percent chance of a knockout shot!) Since the average beginning character had a dexterity of fifty and a weapon skill level of one, most attacks had only a thirty-five percent chance to hit at close range.
Melee attacks used either half of Strength or half of Dexterity as the base target value, whichever was greater. There were more opportunities for bonuses to hit (attacking from behind, if the target were stunned, etc.) and melee weapons themselves adjusted the target value, sometimes a bonus, sometimes a penalty (using a pistol butt or a polearm, for example). Hand to hand combat was classified as "Wrestling," which used a normal melee attack, and a success meant the target was pinned. The next round, the attacker could do automatic punching damage, or the defender could try to break free by succeeding at a melee attack roll himself.
Damage depended on the type of weapon used, generally a number of d10s. Gyrojet pistols did 2d10 damage. An automatic pistol (using conventional bullets) did 1d10 if you fired a single bullet. Other weapons could do a lot more: sonic disruptors did a minimum of 6d10, while a machine gun did 10d10. The common Laser pistol did 1d10 damage per charge expended in the shot, with users able to shoot up to ten charges at a time. Laser rifles could be dialed up to twenty!
Weapons on full auto (automatic pistols and rifles firing bullets; not lasers!) rolled one attack, and did 5d10 damage, plus an additional 1d10 for every additional target being fired at. The damage was totaled and distributed evenly among the number of targets. Fractional damage was dropped. A three shot burst, on the other hand, was treated as three separate shots.
Damage was subtracted from the character's stamina score. If a character lost more than half of their Stamina, they were wounded, which meant a minus ten modifier for attacking. Armor was available, but it only protected against specific types of attacks. Armor was generally available in both suit form and as a force-screen. Skeins absorbed half of the damage from each kinetic attack; albedo armor absorbed laser damage, gauss screens protected against electrical damage. Each type of armor could absorb a certain amount of damage; after that, it was destroyed.
Health and Recovery
Characters died if their Stamina was knocked down to zero or lower, but drugs or medical attention had a chance to revive the character so long as it was received in time (within a couple of minutes, or ten to twenty combat rounds) and the character's Stamina wasn't brought below negative thirty. Without medical attention, figures recovered a Stamina point for every twenty hours of rest, or a character might go to the hospital for treatment, which permitted recovery of twenty points every twenty hours. Medical attention in the field could repair damage, too: Star Frontiers offered miracle drugs like Biocort, which could heal ten points immediately so long as it was administered by a character with the Medic skill. Medics could also provide field surgery which could heal a lot of damage quickly. Characters who were dying could be rescued with Staydose, which preserved a person for twenty hours until medical attention could be provided, and if all else failed, a medic could apply a Freeze Field to a truly dead character, provided it was done within two minutes (twenty combat rounds) after death, and the Freeze Field generator didn't run out of power.
Equipment lists provide the chrome and feel necessary to bring a science fiction game to life. Star Frontiers did not disappoint. Weapons were varied, starting with the futuristic lasers, sonic disruptors and stunners, needlers, shock gloves, and vibroknives. Less technological weapons included firearms (automatic weapons, machine guns) and archaic weapons one might stumble across (black powder musket, sword, polearm). Characters could purchase computers and robots, their functions strictly limited by the programs purchased with them. Exotic equipment included strength-boosting exoskeletons, universal translators, and anti-shock implants, which were surgically inserted and prevented a character from being knocked unconscious by stun devices. Of course, there were also futuristic equivalents of modern technology: parabatteries for power, magnigoggles for binoculars, chronocoms (wrist video communicators), Tornadium D-19 (explosive).
Planets and Alien Life
Star Frontiers took into account that each world had its own ecosystem, and it was futile to develop generic creatures to place on various worlds. The were rules to create creatures, and ten sample beasts were included from the planet Volturnus, the setting for the included module, Crash on Volturnus. This module included a large scale map for an admittedly small slice of the surface ("an area about the size of the state of Colorado"), a briefing sheet about the world, and a small collection of potentially dangerous or intriguing creatures for that world. Ideally, each world could be developed separately as one or more adventure modules, providing for true diversity in environments, settings, and lifeforms. (We note that Crash on Volturnus mentions that housecats are found on most worlds in the galaxy.)
Knight Hawks took Star Frontiers to a different kind of game. Where the basic game was about troubleshooters investigating various issues, Knight Hawks's main order of business was ship to ship combat. This being said, it did include some valuable background information for the setting.
Most space opera games are forced to confront the laws of physics for space travel. Star Frontiers's workaround was that once a ship hit about 1% of the speed of light, it was able to slip into Voidspace, making jumps to star systems far more feasible. The smaller concern was getting up to that speed, and the larger concern was the lengthy navigational calculations to make the jump correctly.
Other useful information included the history of the United Planetary Force and a sketch of how the Frontier was politically organized, and a summary of the seven major interplanetary corporations that PCs might have to deal with.
Ship to ship combat
Ship to ship combat was done with a board game, with a hex map and counters. Like many space opera tactical space combat games, Knight Hawks was a mixture of conventional air to air and naval combat. Ships were classified by naval nomenclature: assault carriers (carrying small fighter craft), battleships, cruisers (light and heavy), frigates, destroyers, and space stations. Ships moved at a constant speed, adjusting their velocity by their acceleration factor (generally one to three hexes change per turn) and their maneuverability factor (again, one to three) which was the number of hexsides a vessel could rotate in a single turn.
Weapons were turret mounted or fixed to fire forward, with the more powerful weapons generally being fixed. There was a decent variety of types: lasers, proton and electron beams, disruptor cannons (pulsed protons plus electrons), and missiles. Ship defenses were attuned to different attack forms: reflective surfaces and masking screens for lasers (this latter a cloud of ice crystals formed by throwing off water), proton and electron screens, and the otherwise undescribed stasis screen. Some of these made the ship more vulnerable to some attack types while defending against others, making combat a guessing game between attacker and defender, each trying to outwit the other's tactical choice.
Like the basic Star Frontiers game, players looked up their target value on a table which cross-indexed attack type vs. defense, and rolled under the value on percentile dice. A hit meant a number of d10s were rolled for damage, based on the weapon type. The advanced game had a target table where specific ship systems might be damaged by a hit. Ships had some damage control capabilities for repair, but it was far less than the amount of damage they might take in a turn.
As a finishing touch, the main Knight Hawks rulebook had information for playing the Second Sathar War against the UPF as a large wargame.
Adding Ships to the RPG
Knight Hawks's rules for ship construction were little different from other games'. Pick a hull size (1 - 20), add a drive, life support, astrogation and communication equipment, weapons, defenses, emergency escape pods, and computers, noting carefully the capacity of the computer against all of the listed program sizes needed to run the various sub-systems. Players were strongly encouraged to lay out deck plans, noting that ship decks are perpendicular to the axis of travel, for the setting had no artificial gravity.
Still true to the original rules, ships were so expensive as to remain well outside the reach of most individuals. For groups that wanted to command their own vessel, there were a variety of options laid out: leasing them from a corporation, starting a business (probably getting a bank loan and selling stock shares), salvaging a derelict, buying a corporate charter. There were rules for PC groups who wanted to run a business with their ship, including passenger transportation, hauling freight, or prospecting for minerals.
These might lead to surprisingly interesting games, as ships had operating expenses: not just fuel, but regular maintenance as well. Further, there were tables to determine if the voyage was successful, including equipment breakdowns, mutinies and hijackings, Sathar attacks, and pirates.
In addition to gaining a ship, PCs needed skills to run her. The five new skills were Piloting, Astrogation, Engineering, Rocket Weapons, and Energy Weapons. All of these called for pre-requisite skills, some at the maximum level of six. PCs might learn these on their own, or try to join the Space Academy. Given the slow pace of character advancement, PCs who didn't start at the Space Academy would have a hard time becoming effective at running a ship.
The Warriors of the White Light
The module included with Knight Hawks was actually a series of five brief scenarios designed to boost PC spaceship skills, and have a taste of life as a member of the military. The adventures look well-designed and tough for PCs to get through.
Star Frontiers was a good package. The basic setting, while thin, was a good one for a "troubleshooter for hire" storyline. It covered most of the classic science fiction bases: ray guns, friendly and unfriendly aliens, world-hopping. The addition of Knight Hawks gave players the option to shift to a ship-based game, or to simply add more background and detail to the ground-based one.
Speaking of aliens, these were similar enough to humans to make them easy to play, but had a few interesting cultural notes and physical abilities to make them slightly different. Given the examples of mixed-race parties throughout the book, and the extremely minor differences in characters, we believe they were mainly a mechanic to allow players to differentiate their characters, especially given the small number of skills provided for characters to otherwise distinguish themselves.
For a game of the eighties, Star Frontiers had a refreshingly simply system, yet one that was still interesting to adults. While we feel the game would have been far better served with a single mechanic to calculate target values instead of using different base values for each skill, this was rendered less annoying by the limited number of skills and a single look-up table—except for the new skills from Knight Hawks.
A major problem for the game was the combat system. Characters had an abysmally low chance of hitting in gun combat. A beginning character had an average chance to hit of less than fifteen percent at medium range, assuming the target took no defensive precautions, and even the most experienced shooter had a thirty-five percent chance to miss under the same conditions. Combat must have been endlessly frustrating. We suspect the weapon of choice for experienced Star Frontiers players were grenades, which were cheap and could be non-lethal, such as the stunning doze grenade or the immobilizing tangler grenade. On the plus side, we found Star Frontier's use of medical devices to heal damage to be a real plus: characters did not have to be incapacitated after every combat.
Star Frontiers was probably already too late for success from the day it was released. By 1982, Traveller was already dominating the science fiction scene, and had produced enough supplements to flesh out its campaign background into a massive setting. People who wanted space adventures had already picked their game. We believe Star Frontiers' real competition was Gamma World, TSR's on-again, off-again nod to science fiction. Star Frontiers had more product released than any one version of Gamma World, but in the end the plug was pulled and the game was orphaned without a second edition.
There is still an active web-presence for this game, which provide updated rules and a decent on-line magazine, as of this writing. Start with http://www.starfrontiers.org/ and http://www.starfrontiers.org/ as your portals to this old game. The game is old and could use some tuning, but it might make an interesting couple of weeks' entertainment.
A personal note from the curator
I've always been curious about this game. As an old TSR fan, I've always wondered what they did with the space opera genre. By the time Star Frontiers appeared, however, my group had settled overwhelmingly for AD&D and wasn't much interested in new genres or systems. I stumbled on this in a used game bin at a convention and it was just too good an opportunity to pass up. I can see this game had some potential and wonder how it will inform my own science fiction gaming today.
August 9, 2011; Knight Hawks added May 23, 2012.