Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Star Frontiers: Alpha Dawn Review - 40 Year Update

Title: Star Frontiers: Alpha Dawn
Author: TSR Staff
Year: 1982
Pages: Basic book, 20 pages. Expanded book, 64 pages. SF0, 32 pages.
Number of players: 4-8
Rating: ★★★

Star Frontiers could be called "TSR's game not based on D&D." Chances are this was one game you played when not playing D&D. If were a glutton for punishment, it could also be the game you played when not playing Traveller. 

The main problem with Star Frontiers is, it isn't D&D or Traveller. The secondary problem is, it isn't a tactical game or a board game either. Shockingly, it has elements of all 4 genres. 

Mind blow? 

Yeah. Me, too. 

This tiny box packs in all of the complexity of a multi-book game engine like Traveller or any edition of D&D squished into 116 pages. However, it isn't like either of those. Its system is 1d100 based. It has levels but only 1-6 and no classes. Plus aliens. Real aliens. 

Where Star Frontiers deviates from D&D the most and hugs Traveller the most is your characters are complex and fully formed from the get-go. You are never a knock-kneed dude in robes hoping someone won't blast you into next year because you don't know anything. Like Traveller, you're marketable from day one. That's important later. 

With this first set, you have 4 playable races, Dralasites, Humans, Vrusk, and Yazirians, and one NPC race called the Sathar. Each character has pairs of attributes: Strength and Stamina, Dexterity and Reaction Speed, Intuition and Logic, Personality, and Leadership. These skills are "rockable" meaning you can steal a bit of Strength for Stamina, Dexterity for Reaction Speed and so on. You cannot swap Leadership for Strength. 

This game has no classes per se. It has 3 PSA skill groups Military, Biosocial, and Technological. Each character selects one skill from one group and a secondary skill from a second group. Due to this combining of two wildly different skill sets, no two characters are really the same. Another twist on the rules is they assume every character will use a weapon, even if unskilled in weapon use. Firepower is a great equalizer. 

"Level" is equally odd, there are 6 levels of skill for every skill, and your character doesn't really have a level at all. "Level" is answering "What is the highest level skill you have?" A new character and an old one can basically stand shoulder to shoulder. 

This game is in a boxed set with 3 booklets, a two-part map, counters, and a cover/map for the module SF0. 

The first booklet is the 20-page basic game. It's a module in its own right and teaches players how to play on the map with the counters. While it may seem like an underwhelming first-game session, it is specifically designed to march the players through every rule in the Expanded book. At least in short form. You can expect at least one person from the party to be able to shoot, throw a grenade, hack devices, drive an array of vehicles, do medicine, heal, etc. 

The expanded book does just that, expands on gameplay. The rules #1 oddity is the game is meant to be the theater of the mind, which makes the map and counters rather secondary unless you want to make your own maps. Within the expanded rules is a monsters section, where a couple of typical alien creatures are given and rules to modify or create whole new monsters/aliens are nicely integrated with the character skills. This system is very cool and powerful. 

Rules for vehicles and robots are equally nicely spelled out and are designed to go hand and hand with your character's abilities as are tactics and movement. Even though you are limited to a handful of skills, the system is really robust because there is usually more than one way to progress. 

For completeness, the module SF0 Crash on Volturnus continues the complexity and expands (then contracts) the world around the players. Once your players have gone through this module, they will clearly understand the concept of "Talk First/Shoot Second", a detail only hinted at in the Basic and Expanded rules. 

For 116 pages, the rules are tight and feel well planned. The presentation is wonderful, on par with anything at the time, and perhaps taking a jump forward with the nice maps and counters. Oddly, space combat and ship construction were left out, probably due to space constraints.  

The game system is very inventive, but without continuing support from TSR there the game feels lacking in many regards. The specialty of this set of rules is the home brew campaign which is very doable, which is a good thing because that's all we got after the second boxed set. Back in the day, the two modules based on the films 2001 and 2010 felt odd and out of place in a space opera setting, but that should have been a clue as to how robust the system was when playing out homebrew stuff. 

Many systems when viewed in hindsight have a dated feel where it is a product of its own age. This set suffers this in spades. It's not like D&D or Traveller, where it was reimagined over and over again to keep up with the times. We are forever holding out for Han, Duke, and 3rd Imperium that never came. There are no psionics, no Force, no magic, no sentient killer robots, no cybernetics or the internet. Computers tend to zig-zag from the mighty talking machines capable of full thought, but can't be removed from the 15 rooms they reside in which makes them ignoreable.   

Many times, I have totally ditched the background and acted out scenarios from the Stainless Steel Rat series, Star Wars, and Aliens in this system. It actually gives a good accounting of itself. While I rated it three stars, remember this is three modern stars. As flawed as the support was, the rule still shines. 

Star Frontiers: Alpha Dawn
At DriveThruRPG
Star Frontiers: Alpha Dawn at DrivethruRPG

I recently picked up the print copy from DriveThruRPG. The printing is excellent and the binding looks sharp and clean.  

The Basic Rules, Expanded Rules, SF-0, plus the maps and counters are all printed within the same book. These are unmodified copies of the originals. The whole thing runs about 200 pages.

The contents/index is in that classic OSR blue while the maps nicely have a border that can allow you to scan. Theoretically, you could cut them out, but I wouldn't want to damage the book like that. Of course, DriveThruRPG saves you the trouble by offering a PDF/Print combo. 

I'm working on a review of the Knight Hawks set from DriveThruRPG and then hope to return to classic ORS D&D themed posts for a while. Sometimes, I get stuck in a rut with Sci-Fi and can't stop myself. 

I can't believe that 2022 marks 40 years of Star Frontiers. 


  1. Great review. I never used the counters in the short campaign we played back in the day. I wonder how many SF players used 'em.

  2. Outside of my first playthru, I don't recall ever using the counters. They do prominently feature in my planning, though. I still have them for mapping stuff out for basically every game system. The designs were nice.

  3. A fair cop. I was very displeased with it when I first purchased it, but then grew to love the setting as I understood it ; that being the humans of the Planetary Federation are those who had fled earth prior to the Apocalypse War which would make it Gamma World. The Warden was one such ship, but ran into its own problems. So, these scattered human colonies, each thinking it was the only human world until thy started linking-up, are none-the-wiser about the fate of either Gamma Terra or the Warden.

    When the fan remakes connected SF and GW, I was pretty happy.

  4. Coming from CoSims to RPGs we did use the counters extensively. I especially like the vehicle rules which work very well using counters.
    For me, after all this time, Star Frontiers is still one of the few games that did a very good job to introduce new players and GMs to the method of roleplaying, to progress from simple to more detaile rules, and which included a lot of gaming material in the core box. At that time, that was remarkable. Today many RPGs offer very good entry-level boxes to start new groups, especially GMs, into the hobby, but at that time it was rather uncommon.

  5. Star Frontiers packed a lot of progressive, programmed learning, at about the time TSR was involving teachers and not just grognards into game design. I had played some AD&D by then but this game explained itself the best! The combat system was very good, where you could freely mix melee, ranged, vehicle and aerial combat in the six-second turns. Learn the tables of Combat Modifiers and learn how to zip through them, arrive at precise odds expressed in easy-to-understand %. How is this "dated"? The game had its full expression with gridded maps, not theater of the mind.

  6. The rules are solid, but the changes in science and technology in the past 40 years leave something to be desired. It feels dated in the scenarios presented. A lot of science fiction has this problem.

    40 years ago, we had 9 not 8 planets. No one had see a planet in another solar system. computers have shrunk to palm top size netbooks then grew up again. Tablets exist. Mobile phones have replaced pagers. So many things feel dated in this ruleset.

    If only it had a few more years of background material, modules and such to make the world more immersive. For decades, it languished.

    It sounds like you have been playing for a while, maybe the whole time. I am curious as to what your adventures and universe look like? It probably didn't stagnate like a 40 year old book. If you are still running games, I suspect your game is very much alive.