Star Frontiers: Alpha Dawn
In the 1980s, TSR came out with several science fiction games including, multiple revisions to Gamma World and Buck Rogers XXVc. My favorite of the 1980s TSR games was Star Frontiers. I recall many hours spent playing Star Frontiers as an adolescent.
Star Frontiers started as a single boxed set, later relabeled the “Alpha Dawn” rules to distinguish it from the later boxed set entitled “Knight Hawks.” The version I purchased was before the Alpha Dawn relabeling. As I recall, Star Frontiers was very heavily advertised in the magazines and comics I read at the time. This review focuses on the original Alpha Dawn boxed set with cover art and much of the interior art by Larry Elmore. It consists of:
- a basic rulebook that introduces the game
- an expanded rulebook that provides the “full” game
- an introductory adventure, the “Crash on Vonturnas“
- a double-sided fold-out map
- a set of punch-out counters
The basic rules introduced the setting and plunged readers into an introductory set of rules. Star Frontiers took place “[n]ear the center of a great spiral galaxy, where stars are much closer together than Earth’s sun and its neighbors.” A Human (capitalized as in the game) race developed there and developed faster than light radio communications. They soon contacted two other races, the shapechanging Dralasites and the insectoid Vrusk. Humans soon developed interstellar travel, and the three races soon met the warrior Yazirians. The four races peacefully came together in a region of space known as the Frontier. The Pan-Galactic Corporation was formed to supply the needs of the Frontier, even going so far as to develop a common language.
This peace was broken by the invasion of the wormlike Sathar. Unable to triumph militarily, the Sathar soon took to espionage and sabotage. They hired agents in the Frontier to sabotage trade and disrupt local governments. The four races established the United Planetary Federation (UPF) for mutual protection. The UPF formed the Star Law Rangers, a police force to protect the Frontier from the Sathar and their villainous agents.
Basic Game Rules
The basic rules book is a brief 16-page introduction to Star Frontiers. The basic game is assumed to occur in Port Loren, an important UPF city whose “downtown” is depicted on one side of the fold-out map. As a kid, I loved how the map suggested a Golden Age science fiction city—monorails, skimmers, walkways over the streets, etc. It starts with a few introductory paragraphs on the inside front cover to introduce the universe, followed by a comic portraying a play session. Reviewing it, it’s impressive how much of a setting they managed to pack into it, much of it by implication.
The introductory comic has many implications, depicting a glorious early 1980s vision of “the future” with tape-reel computers. It introduces the various races of the Frontier and the threat of Sathar agents. It shows characters taking on contracting jobs from the Pan-Galactic Corporation and even making arrests as part of that job. The closing scene of the comic even suggests the Frontier might have some casual racism under the surface, with a bar having a taped sign stating “NO PETS OR DRALASITES ALLOWED.”
The basic game is a much-simplified version of the one presented in the main book. It is designed to be gamemaster-less, with no advancement or skills and an elementary character generation system. It includes a pair of sample scenarios; one is a sort of “choose-your-own-adventure,” and the other is a sort of “bug hunt” where the monster takes actions based on dice rolls.
Star Frontiers is a percentile-based game, with random rolls used to generate stats ranging between 30 and 70. There are 8 ability scores arranged in pairs that usually have the same value—STRength/STAmina, INTuition/LOGic, Dexterity/Reaction Speed (RS)m, and PERsonality/Leadership (LDR).
Though the rules were simplified, they included vehicular and ranged combat. You used your DEX score as your base chance to hit, and damage was applied to your character’s STA statistic. It’s not much more than an action simulator, but I always felt it did an excellent job at that. As I’ve become more used to games like Call of Cthulhu, I’ve come to find games where most characters mathematically cannot be taken out by a single gunshot a little odd, but it is probably in keeping with the style of play the game encourages.
In addition to these rules, the basic games included an equipment list that featured items like laser pistols/rifles. needlers, gyrojet pistols, various healing drugs, and gadgets characters might have
To my recollection, this was one of two games where TSR had a basic, self-contained set of rules to introduce the game—the other being Marvel Superheroes. I’m pleasantly surprised how much fun one could have with these basic rules—I remember we’d sometimes get permission to play in middle school study hall, stopping a monster from wreaking havoc on Port Loren.
The Expanded Rules are, essentially, the rulebook for the Star Frontiers game. They are a superset of the Basic Rules—you could learn everything you needed from just the Expanded Rules. This book is 64 pages in length and introduces the concepts of a Referee, skills, character improvement, and lots more detail to the setting.
As in the Basic Game, expanded game characters use the same statistics, generated with the same lookup table. Most races have various ability modifiers. Characters can also shift up to a total of ten points within paired stats—for example, a character with a DEX/RS of 50/50 can change that to 60/40.
Each race has its own unique ability that is treated as an improvable skill—except for humans, who may add five to any one ability.
Dralasites are amoeba-like beings able to (slowly) create or absorb limbs. They are hermaphroditic, changing sexes throughout their lifetimes, and reproduce by budding. Culturally they tend to be philosophical. They are known for a love of horrible jokes and puns, providing a market for Human stand-up comedians. It occurs to me that they, as a group, love dad-jokes. Dralasites possess the ability to sense when someone is lying (with a starting chance of 5%).
Humans are, to the best of my knowledge, all of us. Like most games, they represent the “typical” character. They receive a bit of distinguishment culturally, being described as extremely curious and loving gadgets.
Vrusk (singular and plural) are insectoids with eight legs and an upright torso at the front of their abdomen. Think of a spider centaur, and you’d not be far off. They speak by clicking their mandibles. The Vrusk culture is built around corporations. Vrusk adventurers are typically not part of a company, having been fired, or are independent operators. They are ambidextrous and have the special ability of Comprehension, allowing them to divine other characters’ motives (starting at 15%).
Yazirians are tall, thin humanoids with primate-like features. Two large flaps of skin are attached to their bodies, along the torso, arms, and legs, allowing them to glide in gravities 1G and lower. They evolved from nocturnal hunters and have difficulty seeing in bright light, needing dark goggles to function. Their society is divided into large, loosely organized clans that once competed but have learned to cooperate as they moved into space. They are considered the Frontier’s warriors and have kept their custom of choosing life enemies—though often those enemies are more abstract like scientists fighting a disease or a trader competing with a company. In addition to gliding, Yazirians can trigger a battle rage to give them a bonus in melee combat, starting at a 5% chance to activate.
The Sathar are an NPC species, wormlike beings with two pairs of tentacle-like limbs, allowing them to stand erect and use tools. No Sather has ever been captured alive, and nearly nothing is known about their society.
Characters have 13 skills they can learn, organized into three Primary Skill Areas (PSA): Military, Technological, and Biosocial. Skills are broken into 6 “levels,” with starting characters beginning with two skills at level 1. They must choose a PSA at the start, and at least one of their skills must come from that PSA. A character’s ability to do specific tasks is given as a percentage which improves based on skill level. Improving or learning a skill outside one’s PSA costs double the experience points. Characters can only use their experience points to improve skills (including special racial abilities).
The Military PSA has the most skills at seven. There is one for every weapon type (beam, gyrojet, melee, projectile, and thrown), with each skill level improving a character’s base chance of hitting in combat by 10% (with base chance based on Dexterity or Strength). Additionally, characters can learn demolitions and martial arts skills. Skills within the military PSA are the least expensive.
The Technological PSA is broken into three skills, computer, robotics, and technician. The computer skill allows characters to write programs, break computer security, modify programs (to say, have a life support program injecting deadly substances), and display information. Robots are very prevalent in the Frontier and beyond, making a character who can repair and maintain them—and deactivate an attacking warbot, very handy (of course, the robot might be trying to blast you while you’re removing its security panel). Technicians operate and repair machinery and defeat alarms, locks, and automatic defensive systems. Skills within the technician PSA are in the middle of experience costs.
Finally, the Biosocial PSA is broken into three skills—environmental, medical, and psycho-social. Environmental skill allows a character to function in unexplored areas—analyzing samples, finding directions, finding food and shelter, making tools, moving stealthily, etc. The medical skill allows a character to treat injuries, toxins, and diseases. They can also activate “freeze fields” to place mortally wounded characters into stasis until they can be treated in more optimal conditions. Finally, the psycho-social skill provides a character with a suite of abilities useful for interaction—empathy, communication without language, hypnosis, and treatment of psychological trauma.
For the Technical and Biosocial PSAs, the individual skills are rather broad in their application, making them more skill “suites” with a set of subskills.
Movement is covered in more detail than the Basic Game, dealing with issues such as encumbrance, wounds, and distance movement. Additionally, rules for falling, leaping, opening doors, vehicular movement, and different gravities are provided.
Combat is broken down into phases, as seen in most RPGs of the era. A round is broken into various phases. Groups are broken into sides, with the side winning initiative being Side A and losing Side B.
- Side B moves first. As they move, characters on Side A can open fire on them.
- Side A moves, with characters on Side B opening fire if they did not move.
- Side A makes any remaining attacks/actions
- Side B makes any remaining attacks/actions.
Being Side A seems better.
Attacks are resolved via a percentile roll, with the base chance of success being half Dexterity or Strength (depending on weapon) with modifiers for skill, range, position, injuries, movement, etc.
Most hand weapons can’t take a character down in a single shot, but the heavier weapons can be deadly. Laser weapons have energy clips of 20 SEU (standard energy units), with pistols being settable for 1 to 10 SEU per shot and rifles up to 20 SEU—allowing characters to do more damage by using more energy.
The Expanded Game introduces a series of defensive measures. Characters can have defensive suits and energy screens, each protecting against a specific kind of damage. Defensive suits get worn out, while energy screens require an energy supply that gets diminished as they absorb damage.
Stats are given for “typical” herbivores, carnivores, and omnivores of various sizes. Some are relatively mundane—variants of horses—and some are rather wild, like genetically engineered Sathar monsters. Additionally, a series of creatures native to Volturnus (the setting of the included adventure) are provided).
Much of the equipment is alluded to in the combat and other sections. Technology in the Frontier makes use of weaponry such as standard projectile weapons, sonic weapons, lasers, gyrojet (self-propelled bullets), stunners, needlers, and grenades. The Frontier has access to holographic technology that is realistic enough to sometimes use for deception. Most of the devices are of a single purpose—there’s not much in the way of smartphones or phasers with stun and kill settings. Robots abound—some relatively simple, some capable of adjusting their own programming, with purposes ranging from industry to service to battle.
Computers are a bit on the primitive side by our standards, with a series of programs designed to perform narrow tasks—though these programs are helpful from a gaming perspective.
The chapter on the Frontier sector provides an elementary introduction to the setting. It comprises 17 inhabited systems (with 23 colonized planets) and 21 unexplored systems. Some of the inhabited systems are inhabited by one of the Frontier races; others are cosmopolitan. There are no details as to where the races’ homeworlds can be found—I recall lots of discussion in Star Frontiers email groups of the 1990s as to where they might be. The inhabited systems are given capsule summaries.
Space travel is handled abstractly—no details of spaceships are given, with space travel being described as taking one day per light-year traveled—with routes on the game being from 4 to 14 light-years in length. Subspace radios allow FTL messages to be sent, taking one hour to traverse a light year.
Pan-Galactic Corporation’s language can be spoken by almost any intelligent, speaking creature, with a combination of sounds and gestures. It is spoken on every world that has contact with the Pan-Galactic corporation or the four races. Though it would sound different for people of other species, they can all understand one another.
The Referee advice sections are typical, with guidance on running game sessions and making adventures, with a simple one-page “find a crashed spaceship and rescue any survivors” adventure. Rules and guidelines on creating NPCs are provided, along with reaction tables and rules for hiring NPCs.
The inside back cover provides a list of inspirational reading. It is a fairly traditional list of science fiction novels and authors considered popular when the game was written.
Crash on Volturnus
An introductory adventure, Crash on Volturnus, is provided. In it, the characters have been hired by a planetary government to explore the planet Volturnus and find the fate of the previous expedition. The characters are transported to Volturnus on a liner, the Serena Dawnˆ, which will drop off the characters and return in three months.
Pirates attack the ship, and the characters are forced to evacuate the liner before it is destroyed. The characters aboard the liner lack most of their equipment and crash on Volturnus, equipped primarily with the survival equipment aboard the lifeboat.
Volturnus is a hot, hostile world, with the characters crashing in a desert. They must brave the desert and pirates searching for them. They will eventually encounter the telepathic land-octopi known as the Ul-Mor, who offer the characters the chance to join their tribe—a bit of necessity to survive. They must first pass a ritual of adulthood to do so. On the journey to this ritual, the characters must make it through dangerous caverns—a bit of a dungeon crawl, with a finale being the “Ritual of Quckdeath”—battling a Quickdeath, a Sathar attack monster. After which, there is an optional ending where the characters find expedition survivors or the adventure can continue as part of a trilogy of published adventures.
I thought this was a fun adventure, though high on the “railroady” elements. Years later, I wondered why a spaceliner was being used to transport the characters to an unexplored planet…
Star Frontiers was probably one of my favorite games of the 1980s. TSR supported it for several years, with several adventures for the initial Alpha Dawn game, lots of articles in Dragon Magazine, and a sequel boxed set, Knight Hawks, which dealt with space travel, interstellar trade, and more details about the Frontier. There were also licensed adaptations of the films 2001 and 2010 made for the game.
Though support for the game officially ended after 1985’s Zebulon’s Guide to Frontier Space Volume 1 (which, annoyingly, included half of an overhaul of the rules), the game has had an active fandom. In the 1990s, I was part of an email list run out an Iowa State server by “Roymeo.” The group even organized a few in-person conventions. I recall in those early days of the internet, TSR accidentally gave permission to distribute 20 copies of disks with digitized copies of the rules…
Elements of the game have made occasional appearances, with the primary races appearing in AD&D’s Spelljammer setting and being featured in the d20 Modern supplement d20 Future.
How does the game hold up now? Star Frontiers was never intended to be a “serious” game like Traveller or the “wild and wahoo” of Gamma World. It occupied a middle ground, a bit of a Traveller-lite. It was a place for adventure, for taking odd jobs, striking it rich. The Frontier was tiny compared with Traveller’s Imperium. However, I felt this coziness made it approachable and very gameable.
How do the rules hold up? I’d have to say their most significant advantage was their simplicity. Unlike AD&D, I was able to whip up something for Star Frontiers with a minimal amount of preparation.
As far as the setting goes, how has it aged? It gives me a bit of a feeling of an earlier United States, an alliance not entirely united into one government. What about the dreaded “it was a product of its times?”. Truth to tell… it was a product of its times. The artwork in the book is not remotely representative of the diversity of humanity—with the human characters with identifiable ethnicities being all white. Middle school me, growing up in a primarily white suburban social circle, didn’t even notice at the time. Grownup me does. And the ladies in the artwork have a tendency towards rather tight clothing. The artwork is evocative of a science fiction adventure setting to its credit. As I mentioned early in the review, there are many details implied about the setting, and the Referee has a lot of latitude in interpreting these. Is the Pan-Galactic Corporation mainly benevolent? As a kid, that’s how I read it. As a cynical middle-aged adult, I can see some other translations.
Middle school me loved this game. I was worried that older me would find it aged horribly. Overall it still strikes me as something that would be a fun setting to play in. I’d probably use a more modern rules set unless my players expressed a strong interest in the original rules. I’m picturing Green Ronin’s Expanse RPG as a possible useful system.
I’d love to hear some stories of games of Star Frontiers—either back in the day or something more recent. Feel free to share your tale.
~ Daniel Stack
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