Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Third Time's the Charm (?) - Star Frontiers

All this SciFi on the brain lately. It's like...well, I don't think people are getting TIRED of "D&Dish" fantasy, but there certainly seems to have been a ramp-up in the amount of SF gaming (and SF-inspired gaming) hitting the 'net these days, I'm reminded of the similarities in games published during the mid-80s, a decade after the introduction of D&D. Now we're nearly a decade removed from the start of the OSR and there's this interesting deja vu thing happening.

It's like the universe moves in cycles or something.
; )

Anyway, with talk about White Star and Strange Stars and Rogue Space and Far Trek and Alpha Dawn Redux and FFG's Star Wars trilogy and X-Plorers and...well, you get the gist. With all these games swirling around my brainpan, I thought I'd take a look back at Star Frontiers (yet again), to try (one more time) to appreciate this damn relic of Old School SciFi.

[for folks unaware of my feelings on Star Frontiers, I'd direct you to two earlier posts:

Here's where I wrote that the game sucks.
Here's where I wrote that it's "okay" for its specific, limited setting.

These are from 5-6 years ago and I've refined my thoughts a bit since then but, well, you can see my meandering musings of the time]

Reading through Star Frontiers yet again, I find myself happening on something I don't recall noticing in the past: the suggested reading list on the inside back cover of the Expanded Game Rules book. Here is a list of books that are to be used for inspiration and ideas in developing a Star Frontiers campaign; here are books that (most likely) served as some form of inspiration for the game itself. An Appendix N for SF, if you will.

Reading through the list of works, two thinks jump out at me:

  1. I've read almost none of these books, and (with the exception of Dune) of the few I have read, most were read long after the last time I played a game of Star Frontiers.
  2. Of the books listed here with which I'm familiar, very little can be modeled in the Star Frontiers game, without some pretty stiff "dramatic license."

But in all honesty, it's hard to say if #2 is accurate for the majority of the list because, well, see #1.

I've read Dick's ...Electric Sheep because, you know, Blade Runner. I've read the first couple chapters of Hammer's Slammers (within the last five years or so). I've read Starship Troopers half-a-dozen times (at least) and Dune almost as many, but these are hardly close to the setting and premise of Star Frontiers, especially with their focus on humanity.

I've read the first Foundation book and a bit of Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat stuff and those are both close, but E.E. Smith's Lensmen books? Not even. Heck, any SciFi fiction that includes the development of "psychic abilities" gets left at the door when it comes to Star Frontiers...for being an imagined setting, it's got surprisingly little imagination at times.

But the thing is...the real thing is...this: I'm not big into reading "science fiction." I've probably read more Nancy Drew novels than science fiction novels, and I probably haven't read one of those since age 12 or so (though to be fair, I read an awful lot of Nancy Drew as a kid).

[sorry...I've had ND on the brain lately since catching the Veronica Mars movie on late night HBO a few nights back. Remind me to talk about that sometime...]

My main exposure to the science fiction genre is through television and films, of which I've seen many, many, many different shows. The problem is that all these shows are logistically limited by the constraints of their medium. It's extremely difficult to convey a sense of galactic (or intergalactic) scale when you can only budget so many sets. Each Star Wars movie is limited to (approximately) three separate environments (not counting "shipboard") per film. Star Trek episodes show a single planet or space station per episode. David Lynch's Dune shows scenes on three planets (well, and in the Emperor's Palace planet, though we only ever see the interior). Firefly was about as limited as Star Trek. Each installment of the Alien film franchise (including the recent Prometheus) takes place in a single locale.

And the limits of the film and TV medium isn't only restricted logistically: to succeed in the medium, a "show" has to be about its characters...about their interactions and the dramatic action occurring in their lives. This is the expectation of the bulk of the film audience, the expectation of most folks who go to see a film or flip on their television. The futuristic trappings of science fiction are simply window dressing. The reimagined Battle Star Galactica is a war serial set in space. Star Trek was Wagon Train with phasers. It's unusual for a SciFi show of the TV/film medium to be about the majesty of the Galaxy or the adaptation of humans to a space-faring life or the difficulties of interspecies relations or, I don't know...whatever it is that "good" SciFi is supposed to be.

Real exploration. Traveller stuff. 2001 weirdness. Transhuman-ness and future shock plus ancient aliens and interstellar empires all rolled into one big mess, with the protagonists being just tiny, tiny particles in the universe. A mote in God's eye, ya' know?

Star Frontiers strives to be on the scale of "literary SciFi," but comes up a little short. And that's's a really tough thing to model. WH40K only manages to do so by focusing on a single tragic aspect of human existence...war...and everything that doesn't serve that kind of falls by the wayside. I suppose Traveller succeeds a bit better, but it's so damn impersonal, right down to rendering PCs nothing more than UPI codes and allowing the easy, casual death of characters during chargen. WEG Star Wars sacrifices the majesty of interstellar space for the cinematic.

I think...I think what I want to say is this:

  • I'm tired of, and thus dislike, many of the "settings" created for SciFi RPGs. This includes Bulldogs, Ashen Stars, post-Classic Traveller, WH40K, and several of the created and/or implied settings coming out of the OSR these days (yes, that includes my own Kloane War Knights). I'm not knocking their systems (at the moment), but I can't help but feel their settings are a bit contrived to create "conflict and adventure." I'm not sure this is as necessary to jumpstart campaigns as we (designers/gamers) have been assuming...and assuming for years now. Really.
  • I LIKE nonhumans in my space opera SciFi. There was a time when I found the streamlined, human-only setting of Firefly to be simple and elegant. I now find the thought of a "nothing but human" universe to be kind of depressing, and I don't really hold much hope for humanity to get its shit together enough to someday create an interstellar empire. Not on its own. Nonhuman life injects some needed "extra-human perspective" into the mix and, yes, it helps bind humans together based on their own shared humanity...which is cool and hopeful. So I like that. Plus, the existence of other sentient species helps ease the need of a "contrived conflict" for the setting: conflicts will arise based on differences of species.
  • For me, the non-humans found in Star Frontiers (dralasite, vrusk, yazirian, and sathar) hit pretty much all the archetypal species one might expect in space opera, barring (perhaps) a reptilian/saurian creature (though isn't it weird to find a cold-blooded life form in space?). Well...and mechanical lifeforms, but I don't really dig that particular SciFi trope (see The Borg, Cylons, Mechanoids, pre-Dune "thinking machines" for examples). Too often that gets into the realm of "horror" SciFi. I want everyone to be friends with their machines and technology.
  • I definitely dislike the idea of humans as "the most important species in the universe," whatever that phrase means for a given setting. Allow human PCs to earn their importance in the world; don't set 'em up as privileged from the get-go.

So, if we're just looking at setting and not system (haven't I been seeing some kind of debate about system vs. setting lately?), I think Star Frontiers has a leg-up on most of the RPGs to have come out in the last three decades. I don't need "space elves" and "space orks" and purple-skinned "space Nazis." I don't need a galaxy on the brink of war, or in the midst of war, or suffering the aftermath of war. I want humans to be part of the universe (and probably the player character part...easier to relate, yeah?) but not the brightest star in the firmament.

Star Frontiers is definitely worth another look for its setting material, though (IMO) it needs to be both refined and expanded. It's really only the damn system that's deplorable.

"Only" the system. Sheesh.

My kindest words on Star Frontiers ever? Maybe.


  1. One of the problems in Star Frontiers is that it tries to straddle the genre, being both golden age sci-fi and post Star Wars. The result is far more confusion than satisfaction.

    For instance, the Assault Scout sure makes you think of Star Wars, especially the mission where you're threading through an asteroid field. But the difficulty in getting the skills for your party to fly one? That never made sense to me until I read the book "Space Viking". Then I understood what they were originally going for.

    I love Star Frontiers, warts and all, and I've shamelessly mined it when running other sci-fi games. Dralasites and Yazarians regularly appear on my species lists and I'm quite fond of the equipment lists.

  2. My thoughts are similar. I love the setting and the races, especially the enigmatic Sathar; but the system...~sigh~

    and it's not so much the system as it the character generation and skill sets.

  3. I think the skill sets are what really define what the game is supposed to be about. There are really two things the game does well - exploring unknown planets (like the Volturnus modules), and running counter-terrorist ops vs. the Sathar within the colonized planets (like in the sample adventures provided in the books). Anything else, and the limited range of skills feel lacking.

  4. Gut the System and User GURPS. See TBones Games Diner for tips.

  5. The alien species in Star Frontiers are really good. They really strike a nice balance between "realistic" and "pulpy".

  6. @ Anthony, Dennis, and "Unknown:"

    It's funny that half the "ability scores" one rolls has no mechanical benefit in the game. Intuition, Logic, Personality, and Leadership have SUGGESTED uses, but the text is explicit that you should try to get by without random rolls (that such checks should be a "last resort"). They might as well be dumped if not linked to a mechanical benefit (like with regard to skills).

    The system is a jumbled mess, but it COULD be streamlined fairly easily. And, I don't think GURPS is really a great answer. X-Plorers is a good example.

    Maybe a micro-game.
    ; )

  7. Yes, that very well could be. Our solution back in the 80s was to have every PC as graduates of the Naval Academy. (Knight Hawks). That way, a lot of the (Alpha Dawn) skills had a decent success rate.

    Or maybe we were just munchkins.

    1. We did the exact same thing when we wanted to run a Knight Hawks game.

  8. So...kinda like how you can't use D&D to emulate anything in Appendix N without making some major changes to pretty much everything.

    1. I haven't looked over Appendix N in a while, so I can't say specifically, but aspects of the various books show up in various sections of D&D's "kitchen sink" universe. Getting to a single particular literary source is more about editing D&D than anything else.

      Star Frontiers has the opposite problem (if you consider it a problem at all).

  9. If you wanted to like scifi you should've been reading Tom Swift Junior as a kid. Nancy Drew's for mystery buffs. :)