31 May 2015

Star Frontiers: From disappointment to resurrection

Love that 80s fashion sense.
Back in 1982, TSR Hobbies released a new sci-fi game to compete in the market dominated by Marc Miller’s Traveller. My group played it when it came out (although in 1982 I would have been in middle school, though I remember playing it in high school. Than again, I am not always sure all my memories are mine). The game was Star Frontiers.

My buddies and I were stoked about it because we grew up on Star Trek and Star Wars... not Next Generation or Prequels, the real stuff. We only had the original Trek and the original trilogy but we loved it. Because Star Trek and Star Wars, a sci-fi game really got us excited, so we put away the AD&D and set our sights on the stars.

The game seemed cool at first. Character generation was easy, and though it was TSR it was not class based. We did not often play skill based games, but we were willing to try (as for TSR, competing against Traveller the designers were right to go skill based because that is where the sci-fi gamer market was). The alien races you could choose were fun, each very different from the other. I chose to play a Dralisite, a sort of big bag of plasma with floating organs, one eye. It could grow a number of pseudopods to use for walking and for use as hands. Its sense of smell was through its entire skin, making it a giant nose. It ate by surrounding its food and absorbing it, though it was too slow to use as an attack ("I jump at him and surround his head. Slurp!). I named him Captain Jack and said he was a pirate captain before joining the UPF (United Planetary Federation, which, of course, was just a cheap knockoff of Trek’s UFP, the United Federation of Planets. The game cribbed a lot from Star Trek and Star Wars which, to us kids at the time, was a good thing).
Captain Jack imitating Richard Nixon in the lower right. 

Our adventure started good. It was a module called SF-0: Crash on Volturnus. Now, as players we expected a real sci fi adventure, something different than the dungeon and wilderness encounters in AD&D. It started well with us on a star ship. Oh boy! Travelling to strange new worlds and weird cantina’s! Maybe flying a space fighter! We were jacked...

...but not for long.The excitement ended fast as space pirates attacked and we were railroaded around the ship, finding out quickly there was no hope and to abandon ship. We got in a lifeboat and safely landed on Volturnus. This is where the sci-fi died for me.

The adventure had left space behind and, although we were cool aliens and had some future weapons and tech, we essentially had to wander from encounter to encounter through the wilderness trying to find a way off world. The encounters were nothing special. The seed for this adventure did not fall far from the D&D tree it came from.

The Quickdeath. Here kitty.
We battled snakes, and weird creatures called rasties and droppers. We had to survive lava flows and poison gas. We found useless crap like a broom, mop and bucket (apparantly an entry on the random encounter table, which is weird). Then came cave ins, cave bears, fiery lakes and magma monsters (a real D&D rip off- fire elementals by a different name). Then came the boss monster, the armor plated Quickdeath, a monstrosity that could run one-hundred miles and hour, shoot poison darts, and maw on you. It sounded like something straight from the AD&D Fiend Folio to me.

Finally the adventure was over, except we were still trapped on Volturnus. It took a minute to sink in: We were still stuck there, we had not seen a real city, or anything that might have a spaceport and cantina with a jazz band. We were boned. That was when our nightmare became worse: next week we would be playing SF-1: Volturnus, Planet of Mystery.

We did play for a few weeks more, but trapped on Volturnus without a hint of adventures in space, we were not having a good time. Turns out we could not have flown a ship if we wanted to. The spaceship rules were scheduled to come out at a later date. Luckily, there were more Voluturnus adventures coming. Oh boy! A game set in a multi-world universe and we got to see only one, and it was the armpit of space.

It was not long before we boxed up the game and returned to AD&D. Star Frontiers continued without us,  eventually getting its space ship box set (Knighthawks), which was actually interesting as it was both ship rules for the RPG and a stand alone space combat game. Shortly after it was released, TSR dropped the Star Frontiers line.

Fast forward to 2014. I am reminiscing about games I played years ago. I search Google for “Star Frontiers” and the most amazing thing is there: all of the books and adventures published way back when were available for free download. There was even a book that was written but never distributed back in the day. I wondered about the copyright issue, but as I now understand it, Wizards of the Coast was kind enough to let the community have it.

I also found a thriving community of Star Frontiers fans that were striving to add to the game and keep it alive. Also, there were people playing this game, and they were not even exploring Volturnus! They were actually in spaceships traveling from planet to planet.

Good magazine, even without a centerfold.
New material has been developed by the fans. The setting was added to and improved. New races, tech and worlds were detailed. Better, there was not one, but two, PDF magazines deveoted to the game: Star Frontiersman and Frontier Explorer. The writing, art and layout are better than most fan projects by far. They publish regularly, which fan mags often have a hard time doing, but they can as both magazines seem to get a lot of submissions. This may change, though, as the editor of Star Frontiersman has handed the reigns of it to the editor of Frontier Explorer due to that old bugger, RL (real life). The hopes are to keep both magazines active for as long as is possible, but eliminating one or combining them may be in the future.

So, how good is the game now? The system is decent, but clunky, lacking the features we have become used to in the here and now. I do like the small skill list which is similar to the paired down lists in many modern games. The source material (fluff!) is mediocre. It has some cool bits added, but overall the milieu is generic, with pieces borrowed from various sci-fi books, films and TV shows, so it is not something I will use in my games. However, as the old school renaissance movement is so big these days, there will be groups playing it. Also, it would be a good start to hack your own game from.

To get the sourcebooks go to Star Frontiers: The Official Site. You can also grab the magazines at these links: Star Frontiersman and Frontier Explorer.

1 comment:

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