With Dungeons & Dragons, TSR started and fomented the fantasy role-playing game phenomenon and during the early years of the hobby, it was the pre-eminent RPG publisher. It was only natural that TSR would leverage its status to promote a science fiction / space adventure role-playing game. TSR released its effort, Star Frontiers, in the summer of 1982. After 1985, TSR published no more Star Frontiers supplements. Granted, the game still has its fans, but its published lifespan was only 3½ years. This is not a long-term success considering the amount of support TSR could employ (if only in terms of marketing and distribution).
William A. Barton (who would – among other accomplishments – co-author GURPS Space) wrote a review in The Space Gamer #60 wherein we learn the original name of Star Frontiers was to be Alien Worlds. A hint of this is captured in the game's subtitle, “Exciting Adventure on Alien Worlds.”
Lawrence Schick in his Heroic Worlds states, “In 1982 TSR waded into the pool with Star Frontiers, a game that had unfortunately been crippled in development by too much committee design.” Schick was one of the original designers (along with David “Zeb” Cook), so his insight is cogent. Schick continues, “The systems were originally designed for players aged 14 and up, then heavily redesigned (without play-testing) for younger players, resulting in some very muddled rules.” (Star Frontiers was marketed as a game for “ages 10 and up.”) Schick does not list Star Frontiers among Heroic Worlds' Top Five Science Fiction: Space Adventure Systems recommendations.
Dragon #65 includes an article (“Blastoff!”) that offers a first look at Star Frontiers :
The STAR FRONTIERS™ game project was ambitious from the start. The problems that appear when designing three complete and detailed alien cultures, a huge frontier area, futuristic equipment and weapons, and the game rules that make all these elements work together, were impossible to predict and not easy to overcome. But the difficulties were resolved, and the result is a game that lets players enter a truly wide-open space society and explore, wander, fight, trade, or adventure through it in the best science-fiction tradition.Article author Steve Winter was also credited as the editor of Star Frontiers and he provides more detail about the game's development:
Design work on the game started in the summer of 1979. Dave Cook and Lawrence Schick, full-time designers for TSR Hobbies, were assigned to the project. Their goal was to create a wide-open science fiction role-playing game with a solid scientific base. TSR wanted a game that would satisfy fans of hardcore science fiction, and still be easy to play. Dave and Lawrence started by designing a character-generation system and simple rules for movement and combat. Then they started playtesting, adding and revising.Additionally...
The game grew and changed for two years, until it was finally submitted for review in the summer of 1981. During those two years, TSR Hobbies grew tremendously. The company had discovered that its games appealed to a much broader audience than wargamers and fantasy fans alone. D&D® and AD&D™ games, for instance, were selling to people who had never played a wargame or a role-playing game before. In order to tap this huge market, TSR decided to restructure the STAR FRONTIERS game so it would appeal to people who had never seen this type of game.
This decision meant most of the game needed to be rewritten and reorganized so persons with no gaming experience could buy it, take it home and play it without learning a lot of rules. The number and types of dice in the game were changed, the maps and counters were added, and many realistic but complex rules were sacrificed for playability. In general, there was an overall softening of the game’s “hard core.”
In order to meet the game’s scheduled release date, this revision work was split up among different members of TSR’s product development staff. The project was completed in time for its scheduled release at the GEN CON® XV game convention.Making Star Frontiers an introductory game and crafting it for a younger audience was a sensible if not necessary choice; splitting up revision development and foregoing playtesting, less so.
Winter claims, “The rule book includes detailed guidelines for creating adventures, alien planets and the plants, animals, and intelligent creatures that live on them.” However, this is not entirely true; no rules for creating alien planets were included. Zeb Cook would eventually provide planet creation rules in the final issue of Arēs (Spring 1984). Also missing from the initial set are “rules for spaceship design [and] combat.” Winter admits that these things are a “very important aspect of science fiction.” However, according to Winter, “We didn’t want to insert a weak set of starship rules, or raise the price of the first set by increasing the size of the rule book.” This is eminently reasonable. An in-game rationale is that “most starships in the Frontier are owned by large corporations, planetary governments or starship travel companies.” Therefore, player characters will not own starships. (A separate set of starship rules, Knight Hawks, was published in 1983.)
The setting of Star Frontiers is “a region of space called the Frontier Sector.” (Perhaps the game should have been titled Star Frontier.) According to the basic game rules, this sector is...“Near the center of a great spiral galaxy, where suns are much closer together than Earth's sun and its neighbors.” According to Winter, the volume of the frontier is “1,500 cubic light-years [and] contains 38 star systems.” Although Winter says “cubic,” the map of the frontier is 34 light years × 44 light years, which is 1,496 square light years. The distances among the various populated systems (i.e., the “established travel routes”) suggest they are all on the same plane. Therefore, the setting is effectively outer space in two dimensions. Did TSR think that three dimensional space would be too difficult to represent for their target demographic? This 'simplicity' of space is one of the problems I had with the setting.
Players could choose among four races for their characters, including “a Human race...not identical to the Humans of Earth, but they were not very different, either.” Basic D&D allowed for four player character races, so a variety of four races for Star Frontiers is tenable. Fortunately, the non-human races are neither anthropomorphic animals nor humans with merely cosmetic differences. They are alien, but sufficiently compatible with one another. Separate from the player races, the Sathar are “an evil race of worm-like aliens” about which very little is known. We are told they “should be NPCs only.” Yet, on the Racial Reaction Modifiers table, Sathar are listed as a player character race.
Given that the player races have fought a war against the Sathar in the Frontier, it seems unlikely that the United Planetary Federation would have left any systems in the sector unexplored. However, Winter says, “Only 17 of [the 38] systems have been explored and colonized when the game starts.” This is another of the problems I had with the setting.
It is unclear if the home systems of the player races are represented on the Frontier map. I assumed as much because (1) each race exclusively controls at least one system near the edge of the map and (2) no “established travel routes” are indicated that would lead to systems off of the map. Assuming that the home systems are along the edges of the map, why would the races engage in exploration only toward one another and not in an omni-directional fashion? This is yet another of my concerns.
“With the frontier as its background,” Winter tells us, “the action in a STAR FRONTIERS game focuses on exploring new worlds, discovering alien secrets or unearthing ancient cultures.” Contrary to Winter's notion of “a truly wide-open space society,” the setting of Star Frontiers is constrained compared to the vast environments to be found in competing products like Traveller and Space Opera. This is another deficiency of the game.
Instead of having an abbreviated frontier, perhaps interstellar travel could have been accomplished via star-gates linking systems to one another. In this way, the physical position and proximity of star systems would be irrelevant, only relative positions within the star-gate 'network' would matter. No star maps would be required and the extent of 'known space' could be limited or expanded as needed for any given campaign.