Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day Star Frontiers!

I was flipping through my Star Frontiers books the other day, and decided it was time to give the game a little love. I know that I have denounced it in the past, but damn if there isn't some impressive parts to it.

Today, I spent a good hour or two re-reading both the basic and advanced game rules of Star Frontiers Alpha Dawn. This is easy enough to do when the basic rules are 16 short pages and the the advanced game 64, less charts, tables, and artwork. Ahh...the benefits of the 64-page game.

[just by the way, most of St. Valentine's Day has been spent hanging with the sweetie...I'm not a total punk after all!]

'Course, after reading through the rules I was feeling a lot less charitable. Again.

Basically, the thing fails the Achilles Test:

Squeemish, the runtiest neophyte out of the PGC training corps, has just touched down on the feral world of Myrmidia, little knowing the xenophobic nature of its savage inhabitants. Heck, he knows little of anything at all (Tech PSA:Computers 1, Beam 1) in addition to being scrawny (Str/Sta 30/30...he rolled a "01") and being slow on the uptake (Dex/RS/IM 60/35/4...he rolled a "50" but adjusted his Dexterity upwards as much as possible ).

By contrast, brave Achilles, hero-king of Myrmidia is no such slouch...years of battle experience has hardened him to the max in just about every category (Str/Sta 100/100, Dex/RS/IM 100/100/10, and the equivalent of level 6 in melee and archaic weapons). As Squeemish steps down from the orbital lander, trespassing on the land Achilles has sworn to defend against all foreign "invaders," the warrior charges the PGC operator with his mighty spear.

Rolling initiative, Achilles gets a "10" and Squeemish rolls an average "5;" mighty Achilles will get his attack off long before Squeemish clears laser from holster. His chance to hit is 125% but he will still miss on a 96 or higher...he rolls an "01" (the best possible hit!) and maximum possible damage, plunging his spear deep into the PGC rookie. A full 25 points of damage (including adjustment for his Strength of 100). Squeemish's Stamina is reduced to 5.

Now it's Squeem's turn. He turns the dial of his laser pistol to 10 SEU and fires: plink! His chance to hit is 30 (Dex) + 10 (skill) -10 (wounds) = 30. He rolls a 30 and the "pencil-thin beam" strikes Achilles for average damage: 55 points of damage. He notes his weapon has a rate of fire of 2 so he takes a second shot (at the same chance to hit), rolls a 26 and again hits for average damage. Plink! Mighty Achilles has taken 110 points of damage and is toast. Squeemish, despite taking the most terrible wound possible, is little the worse for wear. If his rookie team medic administers a shot of biocort, his Stamina will increase to 15 and after a single day's rest he'll be able to move and fight with 0 penalty. Squeemish whistles a happy tune as he changes the power clip and prepares to meet more of this world's "savages."

The wikipedia entry for Star Frontiers says "Characters are quite durable in combat" and that's a bit of an understatement. A character with an average Stamina (45 by random generation), an take a full burst from an auto-rifle and, on average, be just fine (27 points of damage). The problem for me, I suppose is that combat in Star Frontiers isn't realistic OR's just silly.

Hit Points in Dungeons & Dragons aren't "unrealistic" because they are abstract...they are a simple measure of character sustainability. In SF, there are no hit points, only Stamina, which is NOT an abstract ability but rather it "measures a character's physical fitness and general health."

Oh, I suppose it's slightly abstract in that "Stamina also measures how badly a character can be wounded before he passes out and dies." This means a SF character with a Stamina of 30 is a pansy that collapses bleeding and shrieking from wounds that mean little to a Stamina 60 he-man. But I don't like the way they've modeled damage in SF...mighty Achilles had rookie Squeemish dead to rights and should have skewered his ass to the side of the drop ship.

But hey, I've said before "realism in combat" is one giant Quixotic quest, pretty much unobtainable, at least in a table-top RPG (sorry TROS). And anyway, this post was supposed to show a little love for Star Frontiers, not beat on it. Obviously the game was not meant to run The Chronicles of Riddick as the last thing anyone wants to do in SF is bring a knife to a gun fight!

Here's the thing: Star Frontiers is NOT an open-setting RPG. It is a very setting specific RPG. One can run it by its canon (including the map of the Frontier provided!) to have adventures in the setting provided...or one can suffer the consequences of going off book (said consequences being the thing doesn't work as well).

For example, SF is NOT appropriate for a Rogue Trader type assumes all humans come from the same world and have evolved to the same level. Spears have been replaced by blasters, and the only reason one would use a sword is because they don't have access to something better, not because "it's all they've ever known."

There are no psionics. There are no mutations. There are no cybernetics or eugenics. Hell, there are no nukes! The technology present imagines a DIFFERENT human race that evolved in a very different manner than ol' Earth humans. Coupled with their alien allies, humans are just one species of the galaxy, neither the most prevalent, nor the most ingenious, nor even the most war-like.

This isn't Dune or Foundation or a planetary romance of any particular stripe (though the Voluntas series is a bit of a disconnect...almost as if SF was trying to "do Traveller"). It's certainly not Star Trek or Star Wars...there are no military starships and no "Force." It is it's own animal.

In many ways, I think it might actually be the ideal game to run a BG Caprica-style setting. One would probably want to remove the alien races (since re-booted Battlestar Galactica doesn't appear to have any...even the Cylons were human-created), and substitute the Soldiers of the One or other terrorist group in place of the Sathar. But otherwise, it's very suitable to this idea of a human race of non-Earth origin with the same old human problems (racism, classism, greed, religious intolerance) popping up under a different set of history and cultural tradition.

Heck, even if one runs a straight Star Frontiers setting (including all the aliens) it should probably feel A LOT like the Caprica series...especially if you play up the differences, rivalries, and possible bigotry between species.

So Star Frontiers has THAT going for it. And if you run it like that, there's little need for the Knight Hawk ship rules or even a different combat system from the one present, two things that I have missed since the day I opened the box.

The other thing I think is great about Star Frontiers (aside from certain pieces of equipment) is the How to Referee chapter starting on page 53. Coupled with an understanding of what the SF setting IS (see the inside cover of the Basic Game Rules), it really does tell the GM most everything you need to know on how to run a game...something I've found missing from a LOT of RPGs these days.

Perhaps this has been my real hang-up from the beginning: I wanted a science fiction RPG that could be used to run MY ideal game...and Star Frontiers is best used to run a Star Frontiers game. Not Dune, not Star Wars, and certainly not Warhammer 40K.

Maybe I WILL pull it out and play it again one day; this time, on its own terms.
; )


  1. Hmmmm, two things about your example bother me.

    1) High tech weapon vs primitive spear. High tech weapon wins. Sorry, I'm not outraged by the "sillyness" of that. Game is saying tech matters more than skill. The ol adage "don't bring a spear to a laser pistol fight" comes to mind.

    2) Squeemy vs Squeezy doing 55-110pts of damage, one of them is gonna die. In fact one shot at full power is gonna kill any "average" char of 45 (I'm assuming death happens when you got no more staminia). Basically at one point you say it's too deadly it kills my savage and next paragraph you're saying it's not deadly enough.

    I might even agree with your combat complaints but your argument leaves me perplexed. The rest of your post rings true. Star Frontiers is silly, like Sat. Morning cartoon silly.

  2. I couldn't agree with you more. Star Frontiers was on a class of its own. It wasn't Traveller or Warhammer 40k but we treated it as a sui generis game and ran with it back in the day. We had fun times too!

  3. Before the big-bad-evil corporations over ran the setting Star Frontiers was a optimistic Sci-fi universe even with a race of aggressive militant worm people attacking mankind and allies.

    Ages ago my grandfather enjoyed playing Star Frontiers more then D&D. It (SF) was a place that wasn't' too far removed from Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and other sci-fi serials of his youth.

  4. "I wanted a science fiction RPG that could be used to run MY ideal game...and Star Frontiers is best used to run a Star Frontiers game."

    I was thinking about your gaming Axioms compared to SF, and I think this is key. It really fits well in what it was designed to do--pulpy sci-fi action, battling space pirates and sathar, and exploring strange planets. Other than that, it's not that great. But it does the above really well, and rewards you for doing those things.

  5. I'm in the middle of trying to decide whether to use Star Frontiers or another RPG to run a sci-fi game. I think there's some excellent insight here for me to consider!

  6. @Gwydion (or anyone, really) you said that SF does pulpy sci-fi action well. Is there a game you'd recommend that does pulp AND has the fun spaceships, etc.? In other words, what's the improvment? X-plorers?

  7. @Jay
    Never played Knight Hawks, so I can't comment on how it complements SF with starship rules. Other than Star Frontiers, my sci-fi gaming has been limited to Star Wars (WEG and d20), Trinity, and Gamma World, so I can't really help.

  8. star frontiers does a fairly good job with spaceships in the knigthawks set except: pcs have to be fairly experienced to become space cadets.

    as a wargame KW does fast and fun battles with a fairly large number of vessels at a time but can still do an okay minor engagement.

  9. Star Frontiers is really about the sci-fi lit of the 50's and 60's and the pulp TV and radio shows like Buck Rogers. If you want to play an H. Beam Piper novel or one of the Heinlein juveniles, SF is great.

    But yeah, it's not a toolkit. There are a few nods towards Traveller and a kinda-sorta halfway glance towards Star Wars, but that's it. If your interest is anything other than a setting in which Piper's Space Viking can do battle with Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy, you probably want to look elsewhere.

    I haven't played it yet, but I just posted a review of Troll Lord Games' Starsiege. The short version is, it's got some organizational issues and badly needed in editor, but it is very much a flexible toolkit with a number of neat little systems that make it worth checking out.

  10. Would your example have been any different if Achilles and Squeemish each had appropriate armor? Sometimes a combat system assumes armor, and things get too deadly without it. I know Shadowrun is totally like that.

  11. @D30: Hey, I can get behind a game that assumes a certain degree of armor, provided it's a setting I can get behind.

    But a game that assumes a certain type/amount of gear or equipage means it may not be the right game for all folks all the ain't no universal sci-fi game, I'm afraid.

  12. Hilarious given that you dig D&D, which is also only good st emulating a very strange and specific variation on sword & sorcery. Your bias is showing. Your review is also self-contradictory as other have noted. You seem confused.

    1. Still not a review. Just some notes of some of the things I like about SF, and some that I don't, and how I think the game is best used (as it's own thing rather than as an emulation of other sci fi properties).