It’s a great time for fans of science-fiction roleplaying games. Kevin Crawford has just successfully kickstarted a revised edition of Stars Without Number, Green Ronin recently accounced a roleplaying game based on the “The Expanse” franchise, and DwD Studios finally released the long-awaited Player’s Handbook to FrontierSpace .
Before I start my review I have to make a confession. I know that the people behind FrontierSpace are huge fans of TSR’s Star Frontiers, and I was told that some of the mechanics are at least inspired by this classic RPG, but I can neither deny nor confirm this. I have actually never played Star Frontiers. Having said that, let’s get this review started…
This review is based on the digitally version of the FrontierSpace PHB which has graciously been provided by DwD Studios’ Bill Logan. The 248-paged PDF is currently available on RPGNow/DriveThruRPG and a POD version should be available soon as well. DwD Studios will also release a Referee’s Handbook in the next couple of weeks. While FrontierSpace is fully playable with just the PHB, the RHB will contain a lot of material to make the GM’s life easier and which also expands the game. There will be rules for Psionic abilities, Referee advice, Alien creatures and species generation, star system generation and more.
FrontierSpace is powered by DwD Studios’ d00-Lite System which they already used in both Barebones Fantasy and Covert Ops. It’s at its core a d%-roll-under system. But instead of most games where a result of 00 means 100, it’s zero in d00-Lite. Something I especially like about the d00-Lite System is that the Skills are basically archetypal roles like Academic, Commander, Medic, and the like. So if you are trying to perform an action a marksman might be good at, you use the Marksman skill, while everything medicine-related is covered by the Medic skill. Sounds easy, right? This also solves a common problem with SF roleplaying games: skill creep.
Action checks are always handled with ability check. The GM decides which of the six abilities (Strength, Agility, Coordination, Perception, Intelligence, Willpower) fits the situation best. The relevant skill then provides an additional modifier depending on the skill’s rank. One quirk of the system is that some of your skills start with a negative modifier. Ability scores for characters are between 35 and 75, so even the worst modifier on –20 for untrained skill use shouldn’t be too bad. I’ve played characters in games like Call of Cthulhu or Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay with worse odds…
Character creation in FrontierSpace is quick and easy. You determine your ability scores by either rolling the dice or using the following scores: 65, 60, 55, 50, 45. You then pick one skill which gets a score of +0 and two skills with scores of –10. The remaining skills are untrained. With some skills like Academic or Technician you have tp pick a Specialization, with other skills this is optional. A specialization grants a +10 when the check involves the particular field you’re specialized in, but there’s a –10 penalty in all other cases. The next step is choosing a species for your character. Each species usually provides special abilities and modifiers to the abilities. After picking a species each player has decide on their character’s personality. A character’s moral code is measured in several axis (Kind or Cruel, Brave and Cowardly, etc.) and should help the player to roleplay the character. You also have to specify two descriptors which are freeform traits much like FATE’s aspects. Last but not least you pick your starting equipment from a handy list and calculate Body Points, Movement, etc. If you already know what kind of character you want to play, character creation should be done in a couple of minutes at most. This is pretty uncommon especially for science fiction games, but something which I definitely applaud.
Overall the d00-Lite rules are easy to learn, the game plays almost intuitively, and it has a certain depth without being too detailed. A lot of science fiction games for example have dozens of skills and often its unclear where one skill ends and the other begins. FrontierSpace solves this issue by having broad skills which are basically self-explanatory. The game also has a pretty clever action economy in combat. Each player can basically do as many actions as they like, BUT each additional action has a –10 penalty. The game also uses an advantage/disadvantage feature reminiscent of D&D 5th Edition. When rolling d00 you normally interpret the dice in a way that – let’s say – the darker die is always the tens digit, while the lighter die is always the ones digit. When having advantage you may read the dice in a way favorable to you, while when having disadvantage, you read the dice in an unfavorable way. In my opinion it’s a clever mechanic which removes the need to apply too many modifiers on each roll. Especially d%-based systems can usually get a bit fiddly when it comes to that.
Another feature I like a lot are Skill Benefits. When a skill score becomes positive and is divisible by 10, you can pick from a list of benefits which grant a character special … eh … benefits. The Commander Skill Benefit of “Interstellar Base Registration” for example allows the character to legally own and operate a base of their own, while the Lie Detector Benefit of the Diplomat skill allows the character to be at an advantage when trying to discern if someone is lying to them. This allows to add more depth and more options to characters without making things too complicated, which is always great in my book. But enough about the rules, let’s have a look at other aspects of FrontierSpace.
FrontierSpace comes with its own setting, but can also be used to run games in other settings as well. But if you’re planning to do the latter, I recommend you wait for the release of the Referee’s Handbook which will provide you with the tools needed to create new species, or design your own star systems.
FrontierSpace’s setting is a nice addition to an already great product, but in my humble opinion not its main selling point. The so-called “FrontierSpace” is a region of space at the frontier of the Galactic Federation and home to millions of people of the various species. Among those species are the insectoid Erakai, plain old humans, or the genetically-engineered Novim. The book contains a couple pages on the description and history of each species. Even though the species are all original (aside from humans of course) they still feel somewhat familiar. There are six major nations in the FrontierSpace region like the religious Asimaar Prelacy (I guess you see what they did here), or the democratic republic of Reginaggar’s Hold which was initially founded by pirates who broke away from the Galactic Federation. Personally I will probably use the FrontierSpace rules more often than the FrontierSpace setting, but your mileage may vary.
One of the strongest points of the book are the equipment sections. FrontierSpace contains a lot of weapons, armor, vehicles, space ships and other useful gadgets your character may want to buy, steal, or otherwise acquire. I especially enjoyed the artwork accompanying each vehicle and starship listing. Great stuff! I included examples above and below this paragraph.
The game makes – especially because it’s tied to a setting and not first and foremost a generic SF RPG – a couple of assumptions regaring the technologies available, but you can easily find equipment fitting for most settings. Because the rules are not that complex coming up with statistics for more or less advanced technology might be a pretty simple affair. There are definitely enough examples on which you can base your ideas on. There’s even a whole chapter dedicated to robots, which are one of the playable species after all.
Did I mention that FrontierSpace has also been released under the Creative Commons Attribution – Non-Commercial – Share-Alike license? That means you can not only share the rules with your players, but also create derivative materials like adventures, house rules, etc. under this license. This is always a nice touch and makes it easier for fans to create stuff for the system and share it, without fearing to be in violation of copyright law. One thing I also need to mention is that Bill Logan of DwD Studios opted not to use Kickstarter to fund the production of the book, but instead sold off parts of his RPG collection to make this book possible. If that’s not dedication, I don’t know what is!
FrontierSpace is definitely one of the most exciting releases in 2017 so far. It’s a rules-light science fiction RPG which is extremely easy to learn and to run, and also with enough depth to keep even mechanically-minded players interested. It also comes with a setting which you can use out-of-the-box, or you can use it as a basis to create your own worlds – whichever you prefer. Even though it’s not designed as a generic SF RPG, it should be highly adaptable, like DwD Studios’ other titles. One thing I forgot to mention is the price. You can get the FrontierSpace PHB for mere $9.99, which is a steal for a solid 248-paged PDF. If you are a fan of science fiction roleplaying games, you should add FrontierSpace to your collection – you will not be disappointed!