It recently came to my attention that this year is the 35th anniversary of Star Frontiers, a fairly forgettable sci-fi roleplaying game by TSR, the then publisher of gaming powerhouse Dungeons & Dragons. After doing some research it seems that there are still people playing the game, or at least I’d infer so from sites like http://starfrontiersman.com/ and http://www.starfrontiers.com/.
Although you can download the entire product line in pdf format from either of those sites, it motivated me to dig out my boxed set and to run the introductory adventure for my group. (These days it’d be called a one-sheet, but I think the fact that it fit on one page was largely coincidental). Most had never played before and a reasonably good time was had by all. So how does it hold up against modern games? Let’s see:
- ⬤⬤⬤⬤⬤ Star Frontiers only uses d10s and virtually every roll is percentile based. You can roll up a new character in minutes and (as is common with most old-school games) most of your character building time is spent shopping for starting gear. My group was able to start playing immediately after building characters.
- ⬤⬤⬤◯◯ All the different “classes” give you a set number of skills at a set percentage value. When you advance, you can increase your existing skills or take a level in a new “class” and acquire new skills. There’s no penalty for multi-classing and it’s actually encouraged since the only way to improve fighting skills is to take a level in one of the martial classes so you can mix and match to any combination of skills. The downside is that starting characters only have 2 levels (one of which is almost always combat-related) — so players tend to start out somewhat monotonous.
- ⬤⬤⬤◯◯ It’s hard to guess how actual laser-weapon combat would play out… but SF does a fair job of what I’d imagine it’d be like. Unskilled combatants have a decent chance of surviving most combats and while skilled fighters have a clear advantage that’s no guarantee of victory. The only downside is that it’s still reliant on (the equivalent of) hit points for tracking damage and there’s no game effect for having 1 hit point or 100 hit points (again, common in older games).
- ⬤⬤◯◯◯ The Star Fronteirs universe is pretty squarely locked into a sci-fi space opera setting. Many skills are linked to specific pieces of equipment so you can’t easily just re-skin the gear and be in a different universe. That said, you can always move to a different planet with all-new environmental dangers and monsters. And you can run exploration, noir-style detective stories, corporate intrigue, piracy, and other types of stories — so it gets a second dot.
- ⬤⬤◯◯◯ The main reason I never actually played Star Frontiers back in the day is that it never gave a strong sense of setting. Sure, the aliens were cool but… it never really seemed to “click” with me. We explored a few planets, foiled some Sathar spies, and then… couldn’t think of anything else to do but explore some more planets. This might just have been a failure of my teenage imagination but… flipping through the books again, everything still seems kind-of flat. A good GM can still make a compelling SF campaign, but I don’t think it ever inspired average game masters.
- ⬤⬤⬤⬤⬤ I’m torn here. Back in the day, the original boxed set cost about as much as the main rulebook of any other game — but had slightly better value since it came with dice, fold-out maps, and cardboard tokens that would blow away at the slightest wind, so would be slightly-above average for cost value. But since everyone lacks a time machine, I’m going to go with five stars since you can’t beat free.