Star Frontiers

  • Star Frontiers on DriveThruRPG: PDFs of core rule boxes, charsheets, and the rest of the Volturnus modules so far, and Alpha Dawn in print-on-demand!

The third RPG I ever played; D&D (Holmes), Gamma World, then Star Frontiers: TSR dominated the shelves at small-town bookstores and hobby shops.

Star Frontiers: Alpha Dawn went off in such a different direction from D&D and GW, being skill-based, Primary Skill Areas (classes) only doubling the cost of non-PSA skills. Stats were used directly for task resolution, and in the Basic Game there were just stats, no skills, a mechanism I’ve come back to over and over. Combat (on foot and vehicular!) was extremely tactical, and while they said “no gameboard needed!”, in practice it needed the tactical map and counters, with all the ranged weapons and AOE attacks. Programming and robotics were significantly useful, which as a newbie programmer by then I found exciting. Just a great game all around. ★★★★★

This is the game that convinced me 10-sided dice suck, though; the original soapy TSR dice flaked away to garbage very fast, replacement Dragon Dice did the same, so I went back to using two d20s from GameScience. I presume DriveThruRPG doesn’t ship dice with a POD book.

Knight Hawks has one of my favorite starship construction & combat systems (far more so than any Traveller version), though I ended up making movement phased like Star Fleet Battles, because too often you’d whip past the enemy without a chance to shoot rockets and lasers at optimal distances. The FTL system is nonsense even by the normal standards of FTL being nonsense (our Universe does not have FTL), but it’s not hard to retcon or rewrite to use something less stupid. The slightly weird part there is that there’s usually only one enemy, the Sathar, rarely some pirates. It’s a system looking for a galaxy at war, but the Frontier is largely at peace/corporate espionage. ★★★★½

The Volturnus saga is very much like an Ensign Flandry adventure, stranded adventurers doing some survival, shooting, and uniting aliens to save civilization from afar. I’ve never liked it as a starting adventure, though, since you’re told about this high-tech society and then don’t get to see it for… 12-24 sessions? It’s a long-ass adventure. ★★★★☆

There’s been openly-pirated versions of these books out forever, WotC had semi-officially abandoned it and Star Frontiersman and have been supporting it. Earlier this year “Evil Hat” (an appropriate appellation) filed to take the trademark and use it for whatever they wanted, presumably prompting this release. That’ll do, Wizards of the Coast, that’ll do.

Now I’m thinking all my Space Game adventure & setting notes can be converted back to Star Frontiers, since there’s a legit source for the rules.

On Naming a New Game

So the “Magic School” idea is kind of a pain to develop, and there are a few usable games in the genre; I want to look at this further someday, but not now. But it did lead me back to one of my ideas for a “Magic Returns” game. While Bright certainly isn’t inspirational, it’s not the worst big-budget B-movie I’ve seen, and made me miss some parts of Shadowrun.

I’ve got a good ways into it.

Obviously, there’s D20, Microlite, The Black Hack, etc., and on the other side almost-freeform systems like Venger Satanis’ Crimson Dragon Slayer, but I feel the tone should be lite-retro-crunch; D20 and even TBH are too heavy, Microlite has no crunch, CDS isn’t all that retro (the setting is, but the system’s pure ’90s storygame like Over the Edge). Tunnels & Trolls has been mangled into modern settings a few times, and it doesn’t make sense, but “only six-siders” is a good design rule, and those saving rolls are the best mechanic ever.

I look back at some of my old games like Phobos (my first attempt at the “Magic Returns” genre), and go “shit that’s a lot of rules & words for stuff I don’t do anymore”. The spell design rules in that were hard, and nobody liked making spells.

Design Notes

  • Premise lets you throw magic, tech, anything you want into one blender, like the old multigenre invasion settings.
  • System is inspired by fantasy gamebooks and early post-apocalyptic games, quick systems with a fistful of six-sided dice.
  • Stats are more specific than many minimal games, because the system is largely about making stat rolls.
  • There are no classes or skills; characters can try to do anything.
  • Experience encourages a variety of actions from the players, not just grinding.
  • Equipment has been purified down to what you need for an adventure, not a catalog of every item ever made.
  • Wilderness and Tactical Exploration are the bare minimum to do a hex-crawl/dungeon-crawl. Try to avoid complex resource management but still keep the two that matter: food and torches.
  • Combat is a pair of opposed rolls, and then a damage roll. No tables.
  • Armor mechanics are meant to make heavy armor a big initial advantage that wears down over time, as a constant gold sink, but can’t require a lot of bookkeeping.
  • Magic is freeform, but constrained by known spells, which lets the Referee have some idea what characters can do.
  • Monsters use the same simple mechanics as other characters, and are freeform to keep players on edge, unable to memorize stats and weaknesses.
  • Treasures are given as a set of cascading die rolls, but with a limited value in mind so runaway wealth isn’t so likely.


Here’s the hard part. My codename for the system was “DiceChucker”. There’s already a DiceChucker game, but that’s not a shipping name anyway, just a place to put a file. Everything involving “Arcadia”, my placeholder name for faerieland, is taken, often for alternate-world erotica.

I dunno what to do here. Die-roll up some random names? The magical world of Ffnnfgrppa awaits you! A cursory view of DriveThruRPG suggests that’s how many people work.

Basically a portal, central hub of RPG blogs, feeds, and other communities, to try to tie everyone back together.

Back in the day, we had web-rings, DMOZ, sites like my RPG links page, and just subscribed to each other in newsreaders. I still do, I have a couple dozen feeds in FeedBin. But that’s difficult to discover.

If you’re here from OSGR, or if you’re new here from some other source, look in the sidebars for the games I’ve written, poke through the categories list for subjects you’re interested in. I typically post every couple weeks, and a new game or two a year. If there’s something you’d like to hear about, write a comment or send me email. Thanks!

Dungeons & Satan

Seems interesting, BADD didn’t directly hassle me back in the ’80s (small town, but at the time you minded your own business about religion; now the Christ-cultists have moved in), but of course they got TSR to make D&D lame in a futile attempt to pacify them. I’ve got it on in the background, will make notes as they come up.

Reading the Dragon: Strategic Review V1N5

These are getting long enough, and deep enough into the origins of the game, that I’ll do just one per post for the rest.

  • The Strategic Review V1N5 (Dec 1975): 16-page newsletter/almost magazine.
    • Cover: Trippy piece by Greg Bell. I see a series of three magic-users, each summoning the next, rising from smoke.
    • News/”In the Cauldron” by Tim Kask:

      “We know that it’s late, but you wouldn’t believe me if I listed all the problems we had with it. Suffice it to say that I have been blooded, as an editor, by BLACKMOOR.”

      Many more woes of a small publisher, start of the DUNGEON Hobby Shop, catalog, and products which are mostly obscure now: EPT boardgame, Fight in the Skies (Dawn Patrol), Little Big Horn, Lankhmar (as I recall, a good but not great boardgame, despite my love for Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser), Classic Warfare minis rules. And then biographies of Gary Gygax, Brian Blume, Rob Kuntz, Theron Kuntz, and Tim Kask. Gary’s background as an insurance salesman always seems especially relevant to his style of gaming.
    • Sturmgeshutz And Sorcery Or How Effective Is A Panzerfaust Against A Troll, Heinz?: The infamous Tractics/D&D fight of Nazis vs EHP (Evil High Priest, a classic acronym now mostly forgotten). Stats for the modern weapons are quite weak until you get to the armored car, 2 half-tracks, and squad weapons.
      • A Panzerfaust does 8-80 dmg (avg. 44), and an OD&D Troll is HD 6+3 (avg. 24 HP, 30 HP in Holmes), so one hit will bring it to -20, but it will be back in the fight in 9 turns with 7 HP. But the Nazis only have 3 single-shot Pzfsts, and there’s 4 Trolls.
      • There’s an incomprehensible “Adjustment of Hits due to Armor” table.
      • The Unarmed Combat Special table is quite interesting. How did they make something this generally useful and then never reprint it again?!
      Score Effect*
      1-5 None
      6-10 Stun opponent, attack first next round
      11-15 Disarm opponent and attack first next turn — if no weapon in opponent’s grasp do 1-6 points damage
      16-19 As above plus 1-6 points damage inflicted
      20 Opponent knocked senseless if not AC 2 or less and above 7th level (adjust upwards for higher AC’s, i.e., AC 3 and above 8th level, AC 4 and above 9th, etc.) — takes 1-8 points damage in any event

      *Roll for each soldier, regulars have 1 in 6 who can engage in this form of combat, veterans have 3 in 6, elite adds 1 in 6.

    • Dave Sutherland art of “Attack of the Stirges”. Good sketch of horrible critters.

    • Mapping the Dungeons: Hoilday specials! For $2, get D&D Books 1-2, for $4, get D&D Books 1-2 + pullouts, in a box! An interesting “promo”, since the DM would still need a full $10 box with Book 3 to run anything. Announcing DM seminar at GenCon IX.

      “This issue seems to be heavily laden with items requiring your response. But, what other company goes to such pains to find out what YOU want? Anyway, we are looking for direction concerning D&D. We have received a number of suggestions concerning supplements (not all of them Good/Lawful), so we decided to ‘poll the players’. What do you want to see in the upcoming supplements? We have been kicking around the idea of a readers/players supplement, composed of material submitted to us.”

      That’s a generous attitude TSR rapidly lost and even aggressively attacked throughout the ’80s and ’90s, though lately Wizards of the Hasbro has been trying to open up with the 5E playtests and various surveys, they’re just not institutionally capable of doing much about it.
    • Mighty Magic Miscellany: Robe of Scintillating Color, Prayer Beads: Uncredited, but ended up in the AD&D DMG, both changed significantly for the worse. The robe’s description explicitly endorses the Holmes interpretation of a 10-second combat round, and 100-second combat turn, and it’s a mind-killer against high-Int Magic-Users:

      “When it is used in a non-combat situation, where turns are longer (remember, one turn contains 10 melee rounds), there is a 20% base chance of becoming hypnotized, with an additional 5% per turn increase. Any magic user that becomes hypnotized by the robe who has an intelligence of 17 or 18 has a 10% or 20% chance, respectively, of going permanently insane.”

      Prayer Beads is a set of reasonably valuable gems that randomly helps or hinders summoning a god, not necessarily yours or a friendly one! The AD&D Necklace of Prayer Beads is all positive effects, and the necklace gets taken away if you summon your god. Lame, Gary! Let the players summon Cthulhu if they want or roll badly, it’s fun!
    • Battle of the Nile Refought, by Dave Arneson: Don’t Give Up the Ship scenario, wherein righteous French republicans give the English monarchist dogs a good thrashing, contra historical version. Sadly lacks a detailed map or initial layout, so it’d be hard to run directly. Again, Napoleonics are so very forgotten these days, when it was one of the best wargaming periods.
    • First ad of the issue: Diplomacy World magazine.
    • The Armory: Modern Weapons Data for TRACTICS, by Mike Reese: Tank stats for Sheridan, Leopard (5 variations). “SHERIDAN does not carry nuclear weapons.” — WTF joke. Does not address the infamously shitty main gun of the Sheridan which would misfire, and then the unspent ammo would explode inside, killing a number of our troops in Vietnam. OOPS. Leopard’s quality German engineering, and just gets better over time.
    • Gallery of Gunfighters: Ben Thompson. Murderous sonofabitch murderhobo of the Old West. Oddly, there’s never been a movie of him, and only a few TV show appearances.

      “He was, in this author’s opinion, one of four most dangerous gunfighters who ever lived. He had killed at least eight men and probably as many as sixteen (although some report up to thirty-two killings), only to die in an ambush.”
    • What Is The National Wargame Convention?: In which Gary beefs with AH (The Avalon Hill Game Company®) about Origins convention vs. GenCon. Just get pistols and resolve this shit man-to-man, don’t bitch at the readers.
    • Creature Features:
      • Rakshasha (f. Rakshasi):

        “Known first in India, these evil spirits encased in flesh are spreading. They are fond of a diet of human meat, and as masters of illusion they can easily gain this end.”

        Ridiculously OP magic & physical defenses, but they’re only 7 HD so they won’t face real high-level PCs, and there’s a one-shot kill trick, rewarding any player who memorizes the monsters.

        I love the mythical Rakshasa, and the one from Kolchak the Night Stalker which inspired this monster listing, and the very powerful but not one-trick demons in Supplment IV, but these one-trick monsters are bullshit.
      • Slithering Tracker: How to assassinate your players if they sleep in a dungeon, for dick DMs.
      • Trapper: Also how to assassinate your players if they stay in a group, for dick DMs.
    • Second ad of the issue: Taurus Ltd has an unclear image of ocean and a wall of text in a tiny box apparently selling Raiders of the North, a WWII naval wargame.
    • Comic: Hideously ugly. “What do you mean, my fireball only did six points of damage?!”. This guy shoulda packed a Panzerfaust.
    • TSR Hobbies catalog. Notably:
      • Multi-sided Dice Sets — Each Set contains one 20-, 12-, 8-, 6-, and 4-sided die: $3 ($13.33 today)
      • Percentile Dice Sets — Two 20-sided dice: $2 ($8.89 today) — 10-sided dice weren’t available yet.
      • Professional FOOTBALL $11
      • Major League BASEBALL $12
      • Auto RACING GAME (Indy 500 Cars & Drivers) $9
      • THOROUGHBREAD[sic] Racing (With Stats on Actual Horses) $7
      • Sports games? Is that still a thing anywhere, other than like Fantasy Football? I played some of the sports handheld electronic games back in the day, but not boardgames. Obviously now all the slack-jawed jocks would play Xbox sports games.


The playstyles thing for me is just the social contract. I put mine in Stone Halls & Serpent Men, but I’ve been using/refining this forever:

  • Every group should negotiate a “social contract”; the author’s is:
    • Bring your own dice, paper, writing utensils, etc., and don’t touch anyone else’s.
    • Beer or other drinks are OK in moderation, but don’t get drunk at the table.
    • If you say it, your character does it or says it. If you have to discuss rules, say “out of character” first.
    • I don’t mind jokes or quotes at the table (Monty Python is relevant to every gaming situation), but keep it on-topic. “I don’t want to get on the cart!” is fine when the players are dragging your mostly-dead body around, singing the Philosopher Song is probably not, talking about TV is right out.
    • No party infighting. Unless I have replaced your character’s brain with a parasite, you don’t fight other PCs. Making new PCs, getting them back to the adventure, soothing hurt feelings, it’s a total waste of time.
    • No bards or other nuisance characters. If you think what you’re doing would annoy other players, don’t do it.
    • Every problem I present can be solved with at least two options of violence, sneakiness, puzzle-solving, and politics. Try not to use violence first all the time.
    • Don’t dare me to kill you, because I will.

Other than that, I pretty much expect PCs in the “heroes for hire” to murderhoboes range, occasionally well-intentioned supervillains; I’ve never seen a group of actual goody-two-shoes heroes, and I’d probably run in terror from such freaks.

I run a sandbox full of weird stuff, but will drop things in the PCs’ way which may be rather obviously “tonight’s adventure”. They can walk away, but I’m under no obligation to think up something better than random encounters if they do.

Once in a long while (every score of sessions?) I do a videogame-like cutscene session with some railroaded dialogue in between a few player choices, if I can’t find a better way to dump exposition; I’d like to avoid these but sometimes it happens.

When I’m doing solos, that’s a different matter, usually completely isolated sessions with the same chars, or a sandbox map with semi-randomized encounters (which I may eventually publish).