Monday, August 13, 2012

Star Frontiers and Space Elitism

Nice custom paint job on that outer space van.
Star Frontiers was the first sci-fi roleplaying game I ever owned.  As a kid I didn't get it.  Back then I thought all things sci-fi flowed from two benevolent gods: Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas.  Neither Star Wars nor Star Trek were a particularly good match for what was going on in Star Frontiers and I lacked the Golden Age of Sci-Fi chops to recognize what was happening here.

But as I get older some parts of the game have started to make more sense to me.  Here's one piece that seemed lame back then but I kinda get now: the spaceship skills.

The original Alpha Dawn boxed set contained no rules for spaceships.  This frustrated the bejeesus out of every purchaser of this game that I have ever met.  We all wanted to hop into a spaceship and go all Han Solo on the galaxy. The Knight Hawks follow-up finally gave us all sorts of cool rules for spaceships.  The basic game booklet is a meaty little tactical ship-to-ship game that holds up on its own very nicely.  However, the ultimate goal of zooming around the universe as easily as Buck Rogers or Starbuck was hampered by this chart:

This image grabbed from starfrontiers.com,
where registered members can legally download the old stuff.
This chart had to be a bit of a heartbreaker for folks who already had PCs they wanted to move into space careers.  My mind boggles at the sheer number of XP needed to be a Han Solo type, who could pilot a ship, plot a course, conduct repairs and man the laser cannons.  Such a character would need almost superhuman levels of skill mastery.

So let's go with that for a moment.  In Traveller Pilot is a cool skill but not that much harder to acquire than learning how to brain someone with a club.  But in the Star Frontiers universe you need a pretty good grasp of computers and a total mastery of technology (skills are rated level one to six) just to get in to piloting school.  Navigation through hyperspace is such a complicated task that only the most elite of computer operators can even attempt to plot a jump course.

The best analog here, I think, is the heyday of the American space program.  Space ain't for amateurs.  Only the best of the best of the best in various terrestrial professions have the chops to learn space skills.  Test pilots and aces are allowed near the controls of spacecraft.  No one else can cut it behind the wheel of these multi-zillion credit wonders of technology.  If you want to be trusted with the cannon on a spacecraft you need to prove that you've mastered smaller weapons.

Basically, anyone with even a single level of Piloting, Astrogation, Engineering, Rocket Weapons or Energy Weapons is officially As Cool As An Astronaut.  Younger readers may not remember this, but there was actually a time when pretty much everyone agreed that astronaut was the coolest job in the world.  They were like real life Captain Kirks living among us mere mortals, but working among the stars.

So if I ever ran Star Frontiers again, that's how I would do it.  Space travel on the Frontier is still a new and exciting thing, like the glamour of the 60's Jet Set/Space Age but writ large.  Starting PCs dream of joining the elite, those who are trusted to operate the small fleet of starships operated by the United Planetary Federation spacefleet, the richest planetary governments and the handful of interstellar corporations.  Every spacer has a cool nickname like Buzz or Deke and walks around with the unmistakeable swagger that comes from knowing they have the Right Stuff.