At the time of my writing this, FrontierSpace has been out for at least 4 years. I was not following the game during development, and became aware of its existence a couple of years ago. It was only recently that I have been able to get and read the rule books, and I must say I am impressed. I was a huge fan of TSR’s Star Frontiers in my youth. It is apparent that the author of FrontierSpace, Bill Logan, was one as well. So, I opened the book wondering just how “Star Frontiers” his new game would be. I have seen several reviews, but I thought I might be able to contribute a few thoughts of my own about how close some elements of FrontierSpace are to Star Frontiers, some parts which are different, and which parts are like some other great RPGs of that era. I will also make some observations on the design of the game and its production quality. Perhaps this could be of some help to someone having questions similar to my own.
Similarities to Star Frontiers and other games:
- Percentile-based system; all checks use two ten-sided dice. Damage is calculated by sums of ten-sided dice.
- Checks are “roll under” against an attribute + skill bonus. Character power is heavily attribute based.
- Character attribute generation uses a table with a probability density function sort of output, not a straight dice roll.
- Equipment, weapons, and (somewhat) technology level. Protective suits, personal defensive screens that are tuned to a specific weapon type, wide range of weapon types. Energy is expensive, bullets are cheaper. Communication is not instantaneous, but is much faster than travel.
- A world of mostly benign cooperation between races, united in the fight for survival in a harsh frontier.
- Backgrounds of alien races have just the right amount of detail. They really give you a feel for that race, its personality and flavor, but without smothering minutiae. This reminds me of Star Frontiers.
- The races are influenced by Star frontiers, but “shifted” a bit: Humans are average, and get to choose which ability to boost; Yazirians became Yar (except Yar cannot glide; also, elements of Yar culture and personality seem Vrusk-like, such as absolute loyalty to a clan and precise language with no regional dialects); Vrusk became Erakai (but who can glide like Yazirians); Dralasites became…Novim? I miss Dralasites, but I guess they could be too unique of an idea to copy.
- Some fun references to Star Frontiers: Duergar’s Star and Reachy Moraes instead of Morgaine’s World, Truane’s Star, Inner and Outer Reach and the Eleanor Moraes scout ship; the Player’s Guide cover art is a cute homage to the Larry Elmore art used on the box and the cover of the expanded game rule book.
- It is interesting that interstellar travel is done at a speed of one light year per day. This matches the somewhat pasted-on mention of travel between systems that was found at the end of the original Star Frontiers rules.
Star Frontiers (differences):
- Computers and robots are higher tech in FrontierSpace, and repulsor lift tech exists. If I understand correctly, it looks like hover fans still exist as a means of propulsion, but only on lower-tech worlds.
- When the Knight Hawks expansion for Star Frontiers came out, TSR implemented a bit of retroactive continuity for interstellar travel, introducing a system in which you could travel any distance in about one week. Starship faster-than-light drive in FrontierSpace is like that described in the original Alpha Dawn rule book, moving at a speed of one light year per day. Space ships also apparently have artificial gravity in the floors, and do not use the thrust of the ship to simulate gravity as was done in Knight Hawks. The author basically acts like Star Frontiers Knight Hawks never happened.
West End Games Star Wars RPG:
- Multi-action penalty that adds as you take additional actions, not all declared at the beginning like Savage Worlds.
- Attacks can be dodged, with the decision to dodge or not made at the moment of attack.
- Psionics are handled somewhat like the Force in WEG Star Wars RPG. There is no pool of points that is exhausted as powers are used; activating a psionic power is a skill check, like anything else. This is basically how the Force was implemented in the Star Wars RPG, though the powers in FrontierSpace do have a different “flavor” to them.
- Minor NPCs with simplified attributes that die quickly, but major NPCs that have more fleshed-out abilities and last longer.
- Destiny points are like Bennies.
- Breadth of skills reminds me of Savage Worlds; marksman = shooting, warrior = fighting, etc.
- Descriptions of character traits at creation remind me of edges in Savage Worlds (or, I suppose, feats in D&D 5e). Also, enhancements to skills that are gained with character development are much like edges.
- Dice do not “explode” as in Savage Worlds, though.
- Starships can scoop fuel from a star if needed, though refueling at a station is faster and more convenient; this may not be a science fiction idea that is unique to Traveller, but one that I do remember from that game.
Dungeons and Dragons / Starfinder / almost every modern RPG and its dog:
- Advantage and disadvantage, though it is tied to aspects of your character that are established during character creation, not assigned as a modifier during an action. Adjustments during gameplay are always done using difficulty modifiers.
So, as you can see, I noticed strong similarities between Star Frontiers, the original West End Games Star Wars RPG, Savage Worlds and maybe even a bit of Traveller. There are probably others I am not thinking of, as well.
Overall, I found the rules to be solid. The mechanics are quite different from Star Frontiers. They are based on percentile dice, and the game uses nothing but 10-sided dice, like Star Frontiers. I find the overall mechanics to be more similar to West End Games Star Wars RPG, maybe mixed with a bit of Savage Worlds.
I somewhat question the decision to put an abbreviated version of the combat system in the Player’s Guide, and only have the full system explained in the Referee’s Guide. I think a player would like to fully understand how combat works, to be properly prepared both in character design and tactics for an actual combat encounter.
The rules do not give some details that I think should be included. Damage effects for called shots up are left up to the referee. I have not seen any description of opportunity shots, e.g. attacking an enemy as he moves through your line of sight; the initiative rules say that you can “hold” your initiative to take your turn later, “if you give a good reason,” but more detail would have been appreciated. Does a critical failure on an attack cause your gun to jam? The description of the marksman skill says this “might” happen. It is explicitly stated that encumbrance is not tracked, and is left to the common sense of the referee. However, in describing how to attempt a quick-draw with a weapon, it specifies that you will drop your weapon if you fail the roll; that seems like something that should have been suggested as a possible option, not a hard and fast rule. It feels like too much detail where unnecessary, and not enough where it is needed.
One thing that really stands out is the lack of any sort of vehicle or starship design process. The Player’s Handbook gives a lot of example vehicles, and several starships, but there is no method for creating new ones. Granted, the original Star Frontiers rules gave a rather sparse selection of available vehicles and had no rules for designing new vehicles, but the Knight Hawks expansion gave at least a basic and functional starship design method. It would have certainly been nice to see this in FrontierSpace.
Some rules are a bit “buried,” only mentioned once and not called out enough. For instance, after reading through the rules I realized I did not know the effect of a critical success on an attack roll. Upon searching, I found a tiny paragraph in the Referee’s Guide that said a critical success can only be resisted by a critical success resist roll. So, I believe that means that if you get a critical success on a hit, the opponent must roll a critical success in his Agility-based dodge roll in order to successfully dodge (whereas it would normally only take a simple success to dodge). I don’t feel like this was made clear enough.
Issues with the FrontierSpace world:
Most of the world in FrontierSpace is done very well. I described earlier how I like the level of detail describing the playable races. The setting and technology level are excellent, well-suited to the theme and heavily influenced by Star Frontiers. There are, however, a few scientific or technological assertions or explanations that I question. One might call it nitpicking, or say this is unimportant to the game itself, and that could be true. The author himself says that the reason we loved Star Frontiers was due more to the world it established than to the game mechanics themselves. He probably has a point, and in this light I find these questionable fictional science facts in FrontierSpace to be distracting. I give a few examples here.
Energy unit storage belt packs and back packs are much larger than a small power pack that can fit into the handle of a weapon. If you extrapolate what their size should be, compared to the small energy packs and based on the relative energy they store, for some reason the larger packs are many times larger than necessary. Despite holding very little energy for their size, they are still not rechargeable. This begs the question of why anyone would ever use one of these huge units for energy storage, as they give no benefit at all, besides perhaps having to reload slightly less often. The original Star Frontiers made the larger energy storage devices rechargeable, which was the benefit they had over the much smaller and more portable packs. The Star Frontiers approach seems more reasonable to me.
Specified sizes for the parabatteries used to power non-weapon equipment, vehicles and such are confusing. A jetcopter is said to use the same parabattery as a ground car or a human-sized robot. That makes little sense.
There is a strange differentiation between RF and digital transmissions in a couple of places. For instance, in the description for the “Communicator,” it says its “range is 10 km when using radio frequency (RF) signals, or virtually unlimited when connected to a digital satellite network common to civilized regions.” This would suggest that the communicator can communicate with a satellite network, which would take a much longer range than 10 km; after all, communications with satellites are conducted via RF transmission. Yes, maybe it is referring to something similar to a current-day cell phone network; those still operate by moving digital data on RF signals, though.
Laser weapons are described as making a “very distinctive sound” when firing. I suppose it is possible that a laser powerful enough to be used as a weapon may not be completely silent (maybe the transfer of such as huge amount of energy in such a short time causes some sound), but I do tend to think of lasers as pretty quiet. I would definitely not think of one needing a silencer, as described in the Referee’s Handbook.
Portable scanners have a passive mode that uses inconsequential power, and an active mode that uses Energy Units. This active mode uses an amount of energy that corresponds to a lower-end beam weapon output. So, it takes as much power to activate my infrared scanner as it does to fire my laser pistol at 40% of maximum? That seems dubious.
Please do not take this as a poor view of the world of FrontierSpace. I know I have pointed out mainly negative issues, but I think this is because they were so rare as I familiarized myself with the setting, that they stood out.
The overall production quality of FrontierSpace is high. The rules are explained clearly, with examples given in helpful places. The author seems to have a good sense of just which topics could cause confusion and need an example. It has an index - an actual, honest to goodness functioning index - with many entries and overlapping topics. The index looks like it was written by someone who is familiar with actually using one, who has read physical books and not just searchable pdf versions of them.
I have seen recent games by major developers published with fairly serious typographical and grammatical errors. The grammar in FrontierSpace is highly correct, with very few errors; that is unusual by today’s standards. Sometimes the tone is somewhat colloquial, but I think that can be forgiven.
I so much appreciate the use of the male singular pronoun for general use, as it has been used for generations. “They” is a plural pronoun, and every time I hear it try to be used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun it is like nails on a chalkboard to me. The author includes a somewhat apologetic statement about this. I do not think this was necessary; at most he could have just explained that he was doing it correctly and left it at that.
The artwork is good. I would say that the art for vehicles and equipment is excellent, art for alien races is good, and art for humans is not bad (people are the hardest things to draw, after all). The art in FrontierSpace is better than that in other small game developers’ products that I have seen.
I also appreciate that the entire interior of the book is in black and white, with pen and ink drawing art. Some may say that I am simply biased toward the style of my youth, but I believe that many high-end RPG books of today use too much color and busy design. There are often so many call-outs, background images and graphics that it actually detracts from the readability of the text and information itself. The formatting and graphical style used in FrontierSpace is tried and true, being the culmination of decades, if not centuries, of learning by printers and publishers from real-world application. It looks wonderful (I think the character sheet just might be perfect). There are real benefits to black-and-white; it maintains clarity and readability, and it is refreshing to see it used here. Plus, it does make it much cheaper to print.
Realize that I have not yet played FS. I am basing this review on my reading of the rules and my thinking on how they will work in practice based on my experience with other games. It is mostly my observations on its similarities to Star Frontiers and other games. I think FS shows a lot of promise, and plan to buy everything that DWD and others have created for it. I greatly look forward to playing…if I can ever get my son to take a break from his Skittermander obsession.
FrontierSpace was an obvious labor of love, and the reader can see the care put into it. The author Bill Logan is great. If you, like me, missed the boat when this first came out, or have known of its existence but never felt motivated to jump in and see what it is about, let me encourage you to do so.