|Art by Ed Emshwiller|
TSR offered three 'accessory' products for Star Frontiers. The first such product was a book of official character record sheets; the second was a referee's screen. Lastly, we have the subject of this post, Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space (hereinafter Zebulon). The conceit of Zebulon is that it is...
...an encyclopedia compiled by the University of Zebulon documenting all the known flora, fauna, cultures, devices, and history of the Frontier in one place. The handy Ceretronix Pocket 1200 version quickly became a necessary piece of equipment in every pioneer's and spacer's kit.Zebulon, of course, is one of the star systems in the Frontier (and doubtless named after Dave “Zeb” Cook). Specifically, the Zebulon system contains Volturnus. The university is based on Anker, another planet in the system. According to the Zebulon timeline, Professor Alorne Zebulon discovered the Zebulon system 61 years prior to the establishment of the United Planetary Federation (and 66 years prior to the creation of Star Law). Four years after discovering the Zebulon system, the professor established the University of Zebulon. However, Crash on Volturnus states that, “The Zebulon star system was first investigated... by an unmanned exploration probe” and this “probe indicated that Volturnus was the only inhabitable planet in the Zebulon system.” Also, Crash on Volturnus takes place within a year of the first manned expedition of that system – an expedition that did not include Professor Zebulon. There is no attempt to reconcile these conflicting facts. It's almost as if the Star Frontiers creative team did not anticipate that – 30-40 years in the future – people with nothing better to do would use a global communications system to nitpick the continuity of the game's milieu.
Despite the claim above, Zebulon documents neither flora nor fauna. Zebulon has “Volume 1” as its subtitle, suggesting further volumes. Perhaps flora and fauna would have been covered in one of these anticipated volumes. However, published in 1985, Zebulon was one of TSR's last Star Frontiers products. More than a mere accessory, Zebulon was hailed as a “major new rules expansion!” in the coming attractions of Dragon #102. In effect, Zebulon was a new edition of the Star Frontiers rules. Unfortunately, it was also Star Frontiers' swan song.
Zebulon offers a universal resolution system based on a table with nineteen columns. Generally, each column represents a skill level; however, there are columns for both positive and negative extremes (above +10 and below -5 respectively). There is also a “/0” column to the right of the “0” column.
In the original rules, skills have a maximum of six levels. With the Zebulon rules, the maximum level is eight. Percentile dice are still rolled, but instead of percentile modifiers, there are “column shifts” on the table. Each column represents a modifier difference of 10. “For example, a + 20 bonus in the Alpha Dawn rules now becomes a + 2 column shift.” Use of the table allows for degrees of success, each degree conforms to one of four colors. In order of decreasing result, the colors are: cobalt, blue, green, and yellow.
In terms of combat, damage is determined by the color result of a successful attack. A cobalt success inflicts maximum damage. Other possibilities include blue (¾ damage), green (½ damage), and yellow (¼ damage). A character without training in a given weapon can attempt to use the weapon on the “0” column; positive modifiers cannot improve a roll to the right of the “/0” column.
The original rules offered a selection of thirteen skills (with associated subskills) among three Primary Skill Areas. Zebulon treats each subskill as a distinct skill and adds many new skills so that over 120 skills are now available for characters. In terms of character creation, a beginning character has twenty experience points “gleaned from years of study, practicing, apprenticeship, or whatever.” These points are used to join a profession and acquire skills.
Professions are a new concept in Zebulon. We learn that, “A character must belong to one of these professions and may not leave it at a later date.” Each profession has a list of skills associated with it. Entering a profession costs ten experience points and a character “must spend his remaining experience points on any of his profession's skills.” Rather than having twenty experience points and necessarily spending ten of those to enter a profession, why not have characters join a profession at no cost and give them ten experience points to spend on profession skills?
The main professions are: Enforcer, Techex (“Technical Expert”), Scispec (“Science Specialist”), and Explorer. A Mentalist profession is discussed separately in Zebulon. The Spacer profession is “for campaigns using the Knight Hawks game rules.” There is no other mention of the Spacer profession. The spaceship skills are not defined in the Zebulon skill section and there is no discussion of how to conform the spaceship skills to the Zebulon paradigm.
Each profession has an automatic skill: Enforcer - Endurance, Techex - Agility, Scipec - Intelligence, and Explorer - Charisma. Each of these automatic 'skills' gives seven points to be allocated between a given ability pair: Endurance (Strength/Stamina), Agility (Dexterity/Reaction Speed), Intelligence (Intuition/Logic), and Charisma (Personality/Leadership).
The cost of learning and improving skills is indicated on the Zebulon Skill Cost Table. There is a column for skills within one's profession and a column for skills outside one's profession. The first level of a profession skill costs one point, the second level costs an additional two points. Each level after the second costs an additional two points. Thereby, the eighth level of a professional skill has a cost of fourteen points. The cost for non-professional skills is double that of professional skills. Some skills do not have levels beyond the first; success is automatic if these skills are purchased. Examples include 'Climbing' and 'Chef'.
Some skills appear on more than one profession list. For instance, 'Body Speak' is both an Enforcer skill and an Explorer skill. (Body Speak “allows a character to use exaggerated body movement as a form of communication with others possessing this skill.”) Some skills aren't on any profession list, meaning that anyone who wants to learn or improve such a skill must use the non-profession cost progression. Examples include 'Disguise' and 'Bluff'. Some skills require continuous training; they must be re-purchased at first level every six months or the benefit they provide is lost. Examples include 'Pumping Federanium' and 'Running'. ('Pumping Federanium' allows a character to “carry [up] to one and one-half times his Strength score” in kilograms. This is due to the character working out with federanium, “the densest element known.” However, the drawback is that the character's physique is so developed he “may have trouble fitting into suits and equipment normally disguised [sic] for his race.”)