It’s summer intern time here at Black Gate L.A., John having flown in Sue ‘Goth Chick’ Granquist to help break them in. She’s not in love with the beach and the sun, but I must say seeing her in a black one-piece, Jackie-O glasses, and a hat right out of Vampire Hunter D, I had to take a shot with my iPhone because Ryan Harvey [who was struggling with a deadline instead of taking in some sun] would have never believed it otherwise.
That picture, snapped at a moment’s notice, got me thinking about technology and the crazy almost science fiction world we live in. When I was in junior high, way back in the early 80s, my love affair with D&D was in full bloom, and TSR was expanding its brand with new genres like the 1920s prohibition classic Gangbusters, the Bond-like Top Secret, and my personal favorite the space opera Star Frontiers.
When gamers talk about space settings for RPGs they inevitably fall into the defense of GDW’s Traveller as the canon of all things science fiction, but in my case I’ll take the side of Star Frontiers every time.
Frontiers, in my opinion, is a ‘clean’ game, which is to say there aren’t any rough edges, shadowed pasts, massive interstellar threats, plagues, or the like. It’s like a perfect joining of Star Trek and Star Wars, where characters find themselves challenged to explore new worlds while still dealing with a handful of alien races as trusted friends.
Only a single enemy truly appears in its pages, the mysterious Sathar, an almost silly worm-like race that can show up to vex players now and then but are never a real threat to galactic society.
There is kind of glamour to Frontiers you don’t find in other games, the shine that comes from Larry Elmore’s first days at TSR. His cover for the Star Frontiers Alpha Dawn boxed set is rivaled only his Dragons of Autumn Twilight classic which should help you envision its power.
Let’s take a second to deconstruct this cover as it speaks to everything Star Frontiers stands for [click on the above Alpha Dawn cover for a larger version].
First, it’s about a crash. What’s better than crash landing on an alien world, twin moons above, your attack shuttle in flames, and the survivors looking on with guns drawn in case of danger? Well, in my world, nothing, that’s about as good as sci-fi gets and reminds me of my favorite opening to a movie of all time Pitch Black ‘Mr. Johns, blue-eyed devil. Planning on taking me back to slam… …only this time he picked a ghost lane. A long time between stops. A long time for something to go wrong.”
Second, there’s a rocket jockey. This guy looks like you gave a more buff version of Andy Gibb a laser rifle, or better yet Jan Michael Vincent in Damnation Alley. He’s the hero all young boys want to be, and he’s leading the way, point man to adventure as the survivors abandon ship.
Third, there’s an alien. This is our first glimpse of the Yazirian race, a cross between a monkey and a flying fox, but mostly all attitude, toughness, and teeth. He’s our Chewbacca, the sidekick, human enough to make you comfortable but alien enough to impress the locals.
Fourth, there’s a gorgeous woman who has absolutely no business being in space with a rocket jockey and his alien wingman. Yeah, she’s about as out of place as Sue was in that bathing suit on a beach, yet she is still the focus of the painting. Dressed in 70s spandex and sporting a Katie Perry stomach, our heroine looks like she just stepped off the pages of Vogue instead of a high orbit crash. Goggles tucked up into her strawberry-blonde hair, she’s the epitome of an early Elmore vixen, thin nose, sad little lips, and textbook angled chin. Even the color choice of her clothing is fabulous, the white suit perfectly accessorized with matching colored tassel boots, gloves, adventure vest, communications choker, and holster. And above all, the absolute key to the shot, the rip in her left pant leg that has blemished her otherwise pristine persona says, she’s not perfect. Absolute genius! Oh, and there also needs to be props given to Art Director Jim Rolsof because our female lead is actually stepping out of the framed shot, as though she’s more real to us than anything else pictured, an opening salvo in a psychological war against young boys that strikes home with pinpoint accuracy.
And fifth, and certainly no less important, we see a tangle of brown leaves and vines in the lower right, which counters the blasted rock landscape showing the viewer that there is life on this desolate world. We need this to know that the survivors have a chance, that something lives, and that it’s worth the exploration that is to come.
Ok, so like in Jerry Maguire, ‘you had me at hello’, the cover of Alpha Dawn selling the series without me even cracking a page. That’s the power of great art, and yet Star Frontiers circa 1983 had the fantastic luck of being produced in what many consider the golden age of the TSR art department.
In this game’s pages you witness worlds brought into being by Jim Holloway, Elmore, Jeff Easley, Tim Truman, Dave Trampier, Jim Roslof, Keith Parkinson and finally Clyde Caldwell. Seriously, does it get better than that? And this is the time of these artist’s youth, their creative talent in full bloom as they were still learning, perfecting, and doing work in both color and black and white which kept them fresh and alive.
The game is captured frame by frame and Roslof’s art direction keeps the topic tight, the universe held to task and smart, and each world discovered bigger than life.
System mechanics are based on percentiles, an easy enough concept that has better overall ambiguity than D20 where each roll carries a 5% chance of ultimate failure or perfect success. Combat is fun and fast, in typical D&D style, and the adventures are set in the same mold as you’d find in all other fantasy modules from TSR in that day, mostly outpost worlds with surface-born dungeon crawls where a stone labyrinth is replaced with a much more believable treacherous alien landscape.
The Achilles Heel of Star Frontiers, as with any science fiction based game, is still the same, that being a lack of physical reward for PCs. Gamers are ever ready for treasure, be it gold or magic, and that simply can’t be duplicated in science fiction. The game doesn’t overcome this psychological hurdle, high tech gadgets not holding the same appeal as a 10K gold piece gem or a +4 longsword of sharpness, but it does what it can with great settings and ample role-playing possibilities.
This shortfall, however, can’t be blamed on design, and the base Alpha Dawn creates a solid foundation for the larger space opera brought to life in the Knight Hawks expansion box. This newest chapter propelled Frontiers from ground exploration adventures to space combat while adding in a board game wrinkle with cardboard counters.
I will go so far as to say that all the above remains window dressing to what truly makes a gaming system great, an effect which I like to refer to as ‘The Unearthed Arcana Principle’. To me, if you want to be a truly memorable game, you need not only produce a strong core book and good adventure supplementation, but also a rules ‘upgrade’ book that becomes almost as important as the core book itself. D&D produced such a volume for 1st Edition in 1985 with Unearthed Arcana, and coincidentally enough, Star Frontiers did the same thing with Zebulon’s Guide to Frontier Space the same year. Basically, you need an Empire Strikes Back or a Godfather II, otherwise you’ve just wasted everyone’s time and money.
Zebulon’s Guide, well, I guess you’d say actually ‘rewrote the book’. Like Unearthed Arcana, it added new races, new items, new ways of looking at the game, and also changes to the game’s mechanics. Sure, there were supposed to be three volumes of the Zebulon’s Guides, and fans might hold the text as incomplete, but gaming isn’t rocket science, and Zebulon’s is still enough of a home run to lip the outfield wall whether it be complete or no.
And speaking of new tech items brought in by Zebulon’s Guide, I fall back again to the beach and my iPhone. When Star Frontiers debuted in 1983 there was heady talk of all kinds of futuristic technology. I was amazed when I saw my character could purchase a wrist computer, which made my calculator watch looking feeble in comparison. Still, Frontiers holds its own, the tech tree involved believable in most aspects, and application to today’s technology isn’t too much of a stretch which is saying something.
Sadly, after ten adventure modules, two boxed sets, and one guide book, Star Frontiers came to an end in the middle eighties. However, I was keenly happy to see that Wizards of the Coast gave a nod to their old franchise with the release of D20 Future, the trademark races of Frontiers updated in its pages which gave fans a chance to revisit the old United Planetary Federation if they so chose.
So, there you have it, why I think Star Frontiers rules the space lanes of modern RPGs, and also why it’s fun to walk the beaches of L.A. with a Goth Chick even if she’s refused to allow me to post the photo.
Also, I’d like to announce that this will be the final The Critical Hit appearing in Black Gate. The comic has been purchased and will be appearing on another website starting in a few weeks. I’ll keep those informed how might be interested, but right now I can mention no more.