Game Day: The Star Frontiers Legacy

The first role-playing game I ever played was Dungeons & Dragons. The second was Star Frontiers. Saying I “played” Star Frontiers is something of a stretch; I game mastered one or two sessions in 8th grade and that was pretty much it. Except … it was much more than that. Star Frontiers grabbed the world-building part of my brain, and wouldn’t let go. I created the Starrior star system, and populated it with the benevolent megacorp known as Astro Mining & Freighting (or simply AMF). I detailed the vast starfleets of the United Planetary Federation and the smaller – yet still formidable – Starrior Milita.

I filled a three-ring binder background information, fleet configurations, and star maps that depicted the growing Starrior Republic which – looking back – was a sort of proto free market republic dedicated to fighting the threats that the UPF was too cowardly to engage (namely the vile Sathar invaders).

It was Star Frontiers that laid the groundwork for my campaign building, because it’s the first time I sat down and built a world from scratch. Yes, I borrowed from parts of the Star Frontiers universe, but from the beginning I wanted to carve out a sector of space and populate it with my own fledgling republic.

Back to the Future

Twenty-odd years down the line, I’ve finally had a chance to return to that work. The first year of my Star Wars campaign was set on the twin worlds of Zebulon Prime and Zebulon Beta, a throwback to one of the frontier star systems in Star Frontiers. Starrior Expeditions is one of the notable companies found there. They’re more personal Easter eggs than anything else, but the entire campaign is the sort of thing I’d love to have run in high school. Fledgling corporation taking on the galaxy? Check. Rampaging bands of pirates threatening civilization? Check. Imminent threat of invasion by a highly-martial civilization? Check. Epic battles between starfleets? Sort of: our heroes did assemble a ragtag fleet of armed freighters and ancient starfighters to take on a pirate flotilla.

As for Star Frontiers itself, the game resonated surprisingly strongly with a number of people in my group. There’s been talk of digging out the rules and running a Star Frontiers one shot this summer, and it’s clear from looking around the net that we’re not the only ones. There’s a full-blown Star Frontiers revival going on, with the full Alpha Dawn and Knight Hawk rule books (as well as all the modules) available for download from StarFrontiers.com while Star Frontiersman Magazine has put out 14 issues as well as its own digitally-remastered versions of the core rules. There’s also a thriving fan community at StarFrontiers.us.

It’s great to see the game thriving 28 years after its release, and I think the reason why is the same reason people are still playing original D&D (or even returning to the little white book folios). Star Frontiers gave you a set of basic rules for science fiction role-playing and starship combat, and then got out of the way. It stands sharp contrast to the equally venerable Traveller, which prided itself on having so much crunch that it was possible to kill your character during character creation, and it fits well with the barebones characterization but big science ideas of Asimov and Clarke. And heck, after reading Cataylst Games’ exceedingly complicated A Time of War RPG for Battletech, its easy to see why people would travel back in time to Star Frontiers‘ simpler era.

As for me, my memories of Star Frontiers are fuzzy at best. I can remember the base mechanic but little else. I’m eager to go back and look at the rules now and look at them with more experienced eyes. Will the game hold up? Or will it be hopelessly outdated for my group (who likes their skills and feats and talents thank you very much?). It’s impossible to say until I pull an Indiana Jones and venture back into my basement in search of my Alpha Dawn boxed set (PDFs be damned, if I’m going to do this, I’ll do it right) … but look for a follow-up post when I do.