Star Frontiers takes place near the center of a spiral galaxy. A previously undiscovered quirk of the laws of physics allows starships to jump to "The Void", a hyperspatial realm that greatly shortens the travel times between inhabited worlds, once they reach 1% of the speed of light (3,000 km/s).
The basic game setting was an area known as "The Frontier Sector", where four sentient races, the Dralasites, Humans, Vrusk and Yazirians, had met and formed the United Planetary Federation [UPF]. A large number of the star systems shown on the map of the Frontier sector in the basic rulebook were unexplored and undetailed, allowing the Gamemaster (called the "Referee" in the game) to put whatever he wished there.
Players could take on any number of possible roles in the setting but the default was to act as hired agents of the Pan Galactic Corporation in exploring the Frontier and fighting the aggressive incursions of the alien and mysterious worm-like race known as the Sathar. Most published modules for the game followed these themes.
The game used only 10-sided dice. Game mechanics were percentile-based, with attributes rated 1-100 (with starting characters rated from 20-75). Player characters had eight attributes, which were paired together in four groups that started with the same score for each attribute of the pair: Strength/Stamina, Dexterity/Reaction Speed, Intuition/Logic, and Personality/Leadership.
The system is skill rather than class-based. There were only 13 skills in the Alpha Dawn set, rated from level 1-6, but each included a number of sub-skills. Technician, for example, included "Operating Machinery", "Repairing Machinery", "Detecting Alarms/Defenses", "Defeating Alarms/Defenses", and "Opening Locks". Each of the subskills had a base percentage level of success modified by 10% times the character's skill level. Combat skills used half of the character's Dexterity or Strength as their base success level and didn't have much in the way of subskills.
Characters chose a Primary Skill Area (Military, Technological, or Biosocial) which gave them a discount for purchasing skills in that PSA with experience points. A character's attributes had no effect on their non-combat skill success rates, but the Referee could also call for percentile rolls against attributes to succeed at tasks that no skill covered. Experience points could also be spent to improve attributes, on a one-to-one basis.
The Knight Hawks set introduced five new spacecraft skills, each of which required high levels of the skills from Alpha Dawn before they could be taken. The spacecraft Piloting skill, for example, required that the character already have Technician 6 and Computer 2. They were also much more expensive to purchase through experience points.
The basic rules set was called Alpha Dawn. It was released as a boxed set that included a fold-out poster map of a futuristic city on one side and various sections of alien terrain on the other, a bunch of die-cut counters, the introductory module SF0 Crash on Volturnus, and a pair of 10-sided dicenote .
Another boxed set called Knight Hawks presented a starship combat system and starship-related skills and rules for the regular RPG. It also included a fold-out poster map with empty space on one side and a space station and ship deckplan on the other, along with another set of spacecraft counters, SFKH0 Warriors of White Light, and another pair of 10-sided dicenote .
A late addition to the game was Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space, which introduced several new races and an entirely different basic rule system (similar to TSR's Marvel Super Heroes FASERIP system). It was, however, the last book produced for the line by TSR.
This tabletop RPG provides examples of:
- Adventure-Friendly World: Most of the Frontier sector is unexplored, including lots of systems between the inhabited ones.
- A.I. Is a Crapshoot:
- The Mechanons of SF2 and Zebulon's Guide evolved from earlier self-programming robots and believe that mechanical life is superior to biological life and must eventually replace it.
- The "Puppetmaster" of the freighter Marionette in SFKH0 is a cybernetic robot that is convinced it is the master of the universe.
- SFAD5 features a self-aware cybernetic robot who turns homicidal after being infected by the titular bugs in the system.
- The adaptions of 2001: A Space Odyssey and 2010: Odyssey Two both feature the HAL-9000, of course.
- Alien Sky: The Alpha Dawn main ruleset cover features a sky with two moons. Also on the cover of Sundown on Starmist.
- All Planets Are Earth-Like: Nearly all of the published adventures featured visits to planets that have breathable atmospheres.
- One exception is the module SF5 Bugs in the System which featured the Belnafaer system where most of the action occurred in the atmosphere of the gas giant Venturi on the Jetsom extraction platform.
- Another minor exception is SFKH2 "Mutiny on the Eleanor Moreas", which took place on the planet Mahg Maar, a planet with a slightly toxic atmosphere that required the use of filter masks. It was still fairly Earthlike, though.
- Always Chaotic Evil:
- The Sathar, apparently. The other races in the setting could be on either side, but the Sathar were definitely the villains.
- The S'sessu introduced into Dragon 96 were a "friendlier" version of the Sathar, even though they were predatory capitalistic sharks... er... worms.
- Ammunition Backpack: Popular for laser rifles.
- Ancient Artifact: A few of these pop up in the printed modules.
- Artificial Gravity: Averted. Ships have to accelerate constantly in order to provide gravity and have a vertical deck plan (with the back of the ship being "down").
- Asteroid Miners: One of the possible spaceship careers covered in the Knight Hawks set.
- Barbarian Tribe: The natives in all of the published adventures had less developed technology than the player races — often much less.
- BFG: Laser rifles can dial their damage up to 20d10 - equal to the heavy laser and sonic devastator heavy weapons. At that level you only get 1 shot out of a standard clip, but it will kill most anything you hit with it.
- Bears Are Bad News:
- Crash on Volturnis has the Volturnian Cave Bear, which is a large, strong, hairless bear that lives in the caves of Volturnis that "attempts to eat any organic substance it finds, including player characters".
- Mission to Alcazzar has the Gwerrah, a giant (10m long) hairy omnivore with short legs and impressive claws and fangs. It hibernates in the winter but during its active time is "incredibly voracious, eating any form of meat available."
- Big Creepy-Crawlies: The Vrusk are giant bugs but are friendly. The Sathar on the other hand are giant worms, and not friendly at all.
- Binary Suns: Many of the worlds in the Frontier sector have two suns.
- Blob Monster:
- The Dralasites are player-character blob monsters.
- The intro module Crash on Volturnis has the Magma Monster and the Mutating Fungus.
- Brain in a Jar: Module SF1 Volturnus, Planet of Mystery. The slavebots in the Sathar Artifact are controlled by a Sathar's brain which is in a large fluid-filled flask.
- Casual Interstellar Travel: Via a previously undiscovered quirk of physics.
- Computerized Judicial System: In Star Frontiers module SF1 Volturnus, Planet of Mystery, all of the laws of the Eorna civilization were entered into special computers. The computers control the robot police and act as judges in all civil and criminal cases.
- Cool Starship: The Assault Scout, which has deck plans in the Knight Hawks game and is featured on the cover.
- Covers Always Lie: The cover of SF3 Sundown on Starmist shows an alien called a Heliope shooting at a group of adventurers with a pistol held in humanoid hands, but the descriptions of the Heliopes in the module say they have lobster-like pincers, not hands.
- Critical Existence Failure: There are no wound penalties in the system, so a character with 1 Stamina left is just as capable as one with 100.
- Cybernetic Mythical Beast: The Sathar like to create cybernetic attack monsters. Starspawn of Volturnis features the Cybodragon, which is a giant lizard with a flamethrower installed in its mouth and frickin' laser rifles for eyes.
- Deflector Shields: Three different kinds for both starships and personal scale.
- Doppelgänger Spin: Dragon magazine #88 article "The Battle at Ebony Eyes". A pair of black holes create illusionary duplicates of any starships in the area.
- Dying Race: The Eorna of Volturnus are dying out. At least until the end of SF2 Starspawn of Volturnus.
- Dungeon Crawling: This style of gaming was prominent in the printed adventures. The intro adventure in the main rulebook involves exploring a crashed starship with local animal life serving as "monsters". The intro module that came with the basic rules, SF0 Crash on Volturnus, features a long journey through an extensive cave system; again full of alien animals that will try to kill the party.
- Early-Installment Weirdness: Both the small sample adventure in the main rules and Crash on Volturnus, the full-sized adventure module included in the Alpha Dawn set have spaceship deck maps that seem to assume some form of artificial gravity is being used, instead of the skyscraper-stacked ship designs shown in Knight Hawks.
- Elaborate Underground Base: The Sathar like these.
- Escape Pod: Module SF0 Crash on Volturnus. After their ship is captured by the Star Devil's pirates, the Player Characters abandon ship in a lifeboat and use it to land on the planet Volturnus.
- Everything Trying to Kill You: The basic set and each of the printed modules featured lists of hostile native life for the planet featured in the module. Effectively a "Monster Manual" for each world.
- The Federation: The United Planetary Federation, in fact.
- First Contact: Happens all the time. Much of the Frontier is unexplored, and sentient races seem to be all over. The planet Volturnus from the intro module has five sentient races living on it though that is due to one race having genetically modified the others.
- Fixed Forward-Facing Weapon: Laser and Disruptor cannons on the larger ships, and Assault Rockets on the smaller ones.
- Funny Octopus: Crash on Volturnus features a race of land-dwelling, intelligent, telepathic, purple octopuses (technically they have nine tentacles, but still). For extra awesomeness they ride DINOSAURS!
- Ghost Ship: Present in SFKH0 Warriors of White Light.
- A holo screen is a defensive power screen that projects a three dimensional image (hologram) around its user. The holographic image is stored on a holodisc that is inserted into the holo screen.
- Adventure SF1 Volturnus, Planet of Mystery. Several examples can be found inside the Eorna underground complex.
- In the Asylum Common Room the PCs can find a holovision (three dimensional holographic television).
- The Eorna History Museum and Cultural Center has displays explaining Eorna history and culture that include holograms.
- Honest Rolls Character: The only character generation method in the rules is to roll d100 for each of the ability score pairs in order, but the roll is on a table with values from 30 to 70 in an uneven distribution. There is a 10% chance of rolling a 30, the lowest result, and a 5% chance of rolling a 70, the highest result. The rules also allow up to 10 points to be shifted between the two attributes in a pair. After racial modifiers and shifting points around a starting player might have a single score in a pair as low as 10 or one as high as 85.
- Intrepid Merchant: One of the careers described in Knight Hawks. Also what the players become in SFKH1 Drammune Run.
- Jack of All Stats: Humans are this, with no stat modifiers and no special abilities other than a +5 to a single attribute. All the other PC races had balanced stat modifiers (adding up to zero) but also had racial abilities.
- Killer Space Monkey: The Yazirians look like monkeys, they have a warrior culture, and they are from "space". They're often player characters, though.
- Living Gasbag: Adventure SF1 Volturnus: Planet of Mystery. The air whale is an alien creature that produces hydrogen as a byproduct of digestion. The hydrogen is stored in sacs inside its body and provides the lift that allows it to float. It maneuvers by venting compressed hydrogen through tubes.
- A Long Time Ago, in a Galaxy Far, Far Away...: The Frontier and its people are completely unconnected with Earth, despite having recognizable humans.
- Made of Iron: Nearly everyone can take a lot of damage before dropping. Fortunately some weapons (lasers) are capable of dealing out a lot, although you then have to reload...
- MegaCorp: The Pan Galactic Corporation and several others all relatively benevolent, though there have been corporate wars and the module SF4 Mission to Alcazzar puts the characters between the secretive Cassidine Development Corporation and the aggressive Streel Corporation.
- The Metric System Is Here to Stay: Star Frontiers is one of the few TSR games that used metric units.
- Mind-Control Device: The "Implant" from SFAD6 Dark Side of the Moon. Comes complete with a self-destruct device that kills the victim, and for extra Nightmare Fuel it's usually implanted without their knowledge.
- No Campaign for the Wicked: Player Characters are forbidden to be Sathar, the murderous and vicious alien race that is a threat to all civilized races of the Frontier. Sathar can only be Non-Player Characters.
- Our Dwarves Are Different: The short, strong race are ameoba-like blobs with a penchant for puns.
- Our Elves Are Different: The intelligent, graceful, culturally advanced race are giant bugs.
- Precursors: Several vanished older races with advanced technology used to live in the Frontier sector. SF3 Sundown on Starmist centers on a Precursor hovertank.
- Pocket Rocket Launcher: Gyrojet weapons come in pistol and rifle sizes and fire small explosive rockets. When compared to guns that fire regular bullets they do twice as much damage, but they carry half as many shots, can't be used to make fully-automatic burst attacks, and have no point blank range category (as the rockets are still gaining speed at less than 5 meters).
- Proud Warrior Race: The Yazirians, though they are actually less strong than the other races (being from a light gravity world).
- Proud Scholar Race: The Vrusk value scientific inquiry and are also masters of social interaction, with a racial ability to understand social structures within a few moments of having encountered one.
- Psychic Powers: None of the player races have any, but some of the aliens in the modules do. "Zebulon's Guide to the Frontier" introduced some for player races.
- Pungeon Master: The Dralasites love bad puns.
- Recycled In Space Of A Different Sort
- The alien races of Star Frontiers were later recycled for the Spelljammer Dungeons & Dragons setting under different names: The Dralasites became Plasmoids, the Sathar became Syllix, the Vrusk became Rastipedes, and the Yazirians became Hadozee.
- They were also later recycled for Alternity in Dragon Annual 3 and for Modern d20 in the Future d20 sourcebook.
- None of the Zebulon's Guide races appeared elsewhere, however.
- Rule of Three: The third science-fiction RPG by TSR after Metamorphosis Alpha (1976) and Gamma World (1978). Followed by two Buck Rogers RPGs (Buck Rogers XXVC in 1988 and High Adventure Cliffhangers Buck Rogers Adventure Game in 1993) and Alternity in 1998 (the year after TSR was purchased by Wizards of the Coast). At a production lifetime of six years (1980-85) it was the longest-lived of TSR's science-fiction RPGs.
- Secret Test: Imagine magazine #29, Traveller/Star Frontiers adventure "The Sarafand File". One of the adventure possibilities involves the starship Sarafand's main computer malfunctioning (much like the HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey). The crew must figure out how to fix the computer before it kills them. In fact, the whole situation is a set-up by the crew's superiors to test how they respond to the stress of impending death.
- Silicon-Based Life: Adventure SF1 Volturnus, Planet of Mystery. The Eorna created silicon-based life in the form of large crystals. Their attempts to make the crystals intelligent failed as whenever they reached semi-intelligence, they Turned Against Their Masters.
- Space Battle: Half of the Knight Hawks set was the rules for battles between starships, using counters and a large space map. It can be played as a space combat game in its own right using the scenarios provided, including a scenario depicting a Sathar-UPF war.
- Space Fighter: Fighters in Knight Hawks can only carry three "assault rocket" missiles each. This makes them dangerous to larger ships when deployed in large numbers, but they have to return to their carriers to reload often. They also cannot travel to other systems without a carrier.
- Space Navy: Both the UPF and the Sathar have fairly standard space navies, with cruisers, carriers, destroyers, frigates, etc. The Knight Hawks set has a series of scenarios and rules for fighting out wars between the two navies.
- Space Opera: Verging on Dungeons & Dragons - IN SPACE!!!
- Space Pirates: Present in the introductory module, no less, and with their own unique ship design in the Knight Hawks set - the corvette. The corvette counters only come in pirate colors.
- Space Station: Knight Hawks features rules for these. Some act as orbital defense fortresses. They are the classic "hula hoop" style.
- Spiritual Sequel: The 2017 release Frontier Space featured an updated version of the setting (with the Serial Numbers Filed Off) with considerably greater detail and modernized game mechanics.
- Starfish Aliens: Most of the races are Beast Men, but the Dralasites are an awesome example - they're sapient human-scale amoeba. And Sex Shifters. With Bizarre Alien Senses. On top of all that, they're the Proud Scholar Race of the setting - with odd senses of humor, such as a race-wide love for puns. Think Shoggoths Played for Laughs.
- Stat Death: All damage is scored against your Stamina, one of your attributes. Run out of Stamina points and you were dead.
- Stealth Sequel: The 1985 supplement Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space revamped the skill system with a FASERIP-style results table. This amounted to a "soft" second-edition launch, presaging the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons four years later. The reboot was, however, lost when the line was canceled in the wake of the Dille Trust's purchase of TSR later that year, ending the line in favor of the release of the Buck Rogers XXVC RPG.
- Super Spit: Adventure SF1 Volturnus, Planet of Mystery. The PCs will encounter a group of alien monsters called spitters. Spitters can spit acid that does 2-20 points of Stamina damage up to 20 meters away.
- Take That!: A 1981 advertisement called Star Frontiers "the PLAYABLE one," taking a potshot at industry-leading sci-fi RPG Traveller, which had a (somewhat overblown) reputation for more complicated rules. note
- Themed Stock Board Game: TSR released adaptations of both 2001: A Space Odyssey and 2010: The Year We Make Contact as modules using the Star Frontiers system.
- Turned Against Their Masters: Adventure SF1 Volturnus, Planet of Mystery. The Eorna created Silicon-Based Life in the form of large crystals. When they tried to make the crystals intelligent, every time the crystals reached semi-intelligence they turned on their creators. Eventually the Eorna gave up on their experiments but some of the life forms (known as Rogue Crystals) escaped.
- 2-D Space: The map of the Frontier is 2-D and space combat in Knight Hawks is on a 2-D map.
- We Will Wear Armor in the Future: Skin-tight flexible armored suits, in fact. Bulky power armor also appeared in Dragon Magazine 129.