Star Frontiers

Star Frontiers is an early pen-and-paper RPG of the sci-fi variety. I wasn't aware of it at the time, but have been drawing some stuff from it over several years now.

2011 Art

Star Frontier races

A first take on the main playable races. I changed a few things, like varying the length of the legs of the bug-like Vrusk to smoothen the transition into the torso. 4+4 equal sized legs felt crowded and pointless.

The Yazarians are some kinda tall flying squirrel-monkey. I thought they looked a bit too squat in the original artwork, and I changed the anatomy of the gliding wings to better accommodate for worn gear and melee combat.

The Dralasites are perhaps the most fun of the playable races. They're amoebas, but appear to have a preference for a sort of humanoid, tripod shape.

The humans might be more like Star Wars humans than Earthlings. I imagine that they are migrants (like Starflight's Arthlings), but I think Alpha Dawn's intro text indicates that they're indigenous too the frontier sector.

There are actually two kinds of worms, the S'sessu and Sathar. They remind me a bit of the Ur-Quan. Perhaps there's a connection.

I don't like my Mechanon drawing. It's too greebly and unfocused. The Mechanon's faces are sort of similar to the Mechan's of Starflight. The Mechanon were introduced along with a few other races in one of the expansions I think (Zebulon's Guide to the Frontier?). Their heads have exposed crystal brains but I didn't pick up on that.

I also drew a Queequeg, because it reminded me of a Lovecraft creature. I don't like how my version of it turned out but I did a more fluid version later. There's another similar looking creature that's kinda fun, the Edestekai.

I wanted the Osakar to be more alien, so I moved the upper torso down. The Ifshnit were generic Dwarves which didn't seem to fit the setting. I changed them into beard-owls. The Humma were plain kangaroos. I didn't know what to do with them, but I thought they should look less like animals trying to handle human equipment. I added some sideburns and SWAT-gear, and erected the pose. Perhaps with some Raptor claws they could be good at close combat.

Star Frontiers Volturnian creature art

Volturnian creatures

2017 Art

Star Frontiers Mewchanon Vrusk Ifshnit

Various creatures, iterations. A powered exo-armour on a Vrusk might be atonal for SF.

Star Frontiers cover

2014/17 Star Frontiers cover rough (Volturnus).


Yazirians are sort of squat and weird in the original art so I turned them into slender Ork-bats. The Sathar (worms) could use a mobile suit, perhaps, like a Dreadnaughty. A mysterious race has engineered Vrusk hybrids and Shoggoth-like Dalasoths? A TTA ship sneaks by.

2021 Art


More Star Frontier redesigns. I think the main Mass Effect Aliens were made very humanoid so the dating thing works. Star Frontiers kind of stands out from most games with the main aliens all being quite exotic but still equipment compatible and playable by a human.

Would aliens wear clothes? Well, there are several types of clothes:

In the case of Star Frontiers we actually have several main races where clothing makes less sense. The Dralasites are very stretchy blobs and can form limbs at will. The many limbed Vrusk have hard exoskeletons. The Mechanoids are robots. The Yazirians are light, hairy, with wing/glide membranes along torso/limbs. Because they are hairy and regulate body temp by dog-panting, I'm thinking... well, clothed hairy flying dogs are a bit weird. Then we have the evil Sathar, which can contract and expand like earth worms and slither like snakes, so clothing doesn't make sense there either.

Dralasites could perhaps morph into humans, though with low fidelity unless they're very skilled. I'm not sure if the rules cover it, but since Dralasites are very likely boneless, it's probably difficult for them to support their weight for long (in 1G) on thin human foot ankles. Something like a Vrusk shape might be impossible. My Yazarians get baboon/orc teeth in place of muscle barbarity. Still unsure how the wings/membranes should fold. I felt the latecomer aliens (from Zebulon's Guide) Ifshnit (dwarf) and Humma (kangeroo) needed to be more exotic to match the original aliens so I only kept their general idea.

The Explorer (AT vehicle) depictions are inconsistent in the art. It possibly indirectly inspired ME's Mako (via Starflight). I gave my variant a cockpit with a lot of view. Perhaps the windows could be plated over on armoured variants. An ablative plate on the back protects passengers but could be extended to cover more of the side. I wanted the design to be a bit unusual compared to a regular Humvee/Jeep/RV. It just about fits inside my Assault Scout's cargo hold.

The Assault Scout ship is probably about 40-50 meters long. It's apparently SF's Normandy/Millenium Falcon as it's featured a bit more prominently. The SF ships have decks arranged so acceleration is gravity, so maybe they land on their butts.

The Star Frontiers Assault Scout has "reflective hull" (i.e. "mirror-like paint sprayed onto hull") causing laser beams to bounce off. But the ship is frequently/only shown with a white+red paint job. Possibly the coloured paint is reflective.

I wonder if reflective/mirror/silver armour as used in sci-fi could be painted over (by e.g. camo, dazzle,superblack or just decorative paint) and still be effective. I'm thinking... maybe the surface paint would be instantly burned without much effect, revealing the reflec. I'm imagining a layer between, kind of like on a regular glass mirror, though it would be something else in a sci-fi setting (e.g. transparent aluminium). Thin paint, Transparentium, Reflectium, Outer armour, Gap/compartments, Inner armour.

Glitterboys in Rifts are always silver/chrome I think.

Several RPGs have stuff like crystal/ice clouds which are a preemptive measure against lasers. Diffraction works best at longer distances. I don't think it would be as effective close to the hull, though particle densities would be higher. The Traveller RPG has sandcasting. I'm not sure if there's anything like this in Star Frontiers.

Star Frontiers Eorna art

After some Sathar shenanigans with spinal parasites, people started wearing transparent plastic clothing as a counter. I'm thinking it was more because Blade Runner had just come out... but it can also be a reference to Heinlein's slugs in The Puppet Masters. The Eorna are some sort of precursor race that's still around I believe, but they're not that successful at dealing with the Sathar it would appear. The Eorna might be a more peaceful race, and a bit reclusive. I gave them a halo, third eye, and height (~3M) to indicate supremacy. They're also dinoaurs. I don't know how much the Eorna will help out, but perhaps they contribute anti Sathar tech like the transparent material (used in sensitive security situations and by security personnel).

Star Frontiers Osakar art

Osakar and some standard equipment. Unsure if ships can land. I think keeping the vertical deck layout and butt landing concept keeps the setting unique. I like the idea of the players having a ship home and they fly around doing stuff on planets. I believe PnP Rogue Trader worked like that. The ship could be bought by pooling the group's starting cash (or inheritance points). The ship also has NPC crew (perhaps dumb cheap plastic robots) which can be used as redshirts. Helper NPCs are pretty common in OSR. A wingsuit has about the same glide ratio as the rules for Yazirians (1:1). Wingsuits come with a parachute for landing, I'd think. Yazirian character creation could feature body types: lanky (+glide), average, or stout (+str). Larger membranes (+glide, -dex), average, or smaller (-glide). Yazirians are quite light and perhaps evolved on a forest world with a thicker (dim?) atmosphere, using the membranes more for balance during jumps. My wing design here can fold up (practical for run-jumps)... the original design had these big sheets flapping about... seemed impractical. I wonder if it would make sense to have a character creation system where you drew a series cards and picked one modifier on the card (+str or +gold or -str++dex) (-sta or -int) (+d6-3 int or weapon) (++chr) with stats having a reasonable max&min.

Revival Thoughts

I'll have to preface by saying that I don't know much about Star Frontiers. I never played it and I've only skimmed the books. When I discovered it, I think the hook was the alien designs and slight pulp feel. The frontier ("Firefly") aspect wasn't as immidiately obvious. It's important that the world design is communicated on pages 1-10 in an effective manner, and it shuldn't be a monolithic thing, like "space western + evil snakes", but more of a mood collage, a smorgasbord. Oooh, "I want to be this thing going that place." If sold to modern audiences, the product needs to be clear about what it has to offer that's fun and unique. But, I've developed an aversion to modern glossy RPG book layout and digital paintings, and I know how deadlines can impact things so I might not enjoy a SF remake even if superficially slick looking.

Back in 2000-200X I worked for Paizo and other RPG devs doing digital art, which was a frontier then. Most old farts (i.e. the old masters) were stuck painting traditionally and could not adapt to working digitally and quickly (and cheaply) over the web. There weren't that many digital artists around so finding jobs was easy for a few years after the millenium shift. Several internet generations have matured since, learning a lot from the previous and adapting to new channels and tools. It's very crowded now. Still, when I look at modern RPG and tabletop illos, even if nice, something is... off.

Upon browsing older RPG products like White Dwarf I realized something. The unintrusive plain Helvetica on cheap paper, hand drawn borders, coupled with traditional drawings... there's something soulful about it. Flaws here come off as charming and personal, whereas with digital it just looks rushed and cheap. Polished digital still looks sterile. So, I've tried to alter my style to be more organic and personal, focusing on line art, marks and noise. However, RPG fan work like mine tends to be guns and tits, inappropriate and 4th wall breaking. When I draw stuff I want to have fun, which isn't the same as being measured. Balance and cohesion can be found by iteration, but it takes time and I don't have much between all of my projects. It's not my IP either. Anyways, those were my rambling thoughts on art direction.

As I understand it, the mission modules are included in the Zebulon timeline and separated by some time. If so... it gets a bit messy to play them out of order and with different technologies available. If kept, maybe they could adapted to the "present day" with substitute events being put in the timeline, not really changing anything needlessly. Advancing time a few centuries, blurring the past is another approach.

Star Frontiers has some degree of realism to it, but the way it deals with space exploration and just finding nearby planets feels a bit off (afaik, warp space is a bit like a maze and not a shorter, linear a-b path). It could perhaps be more interesting if there were a lot of dead systems to traverse between the notable ones. In fantasy games there's the thrill of finding magical gear, but SF feels more limited in that department. Technology from the Rim (new aliens) and dead precursor aliens could perhaps be used here. I'm also thinking that their space is surrounded by more advanced civilizations which are too alien to allow exchanges and territorial agreements. Hivemind bugs, sentient stones and gas clouds, planetoid sized slime blobs, maybe even transcended humans. Warp space could be slightly weird and risky as it borders upon the unfathomable. To the higher beings of boundry space, frontier space is likely a backwater region of little interest, or a reserve, or a contested area and no one wants to be the first to put a foot in. According to one frontier religion, frontier space is polluted by sin and this prevents the exalted/graceful ones from finally appearing (until all sin has been purged, naturally... (you can rid yourself of sin by wiring 224 credits monthly to Temple of the Unbounded (a subsidiary of Streel Corp, shhhh))).

Stories about the boundry could be anecdotal. The famous explorer and treasure hunter Zehlig Cleenzwortz presumably met his end searching for the ultimate treasure deep in the Cube Grid to the east. The Mad King of Gwedolia-4 took his entire fleet Up into slime space and never returned, thus his undefended kingdom fell to usurpers and pirates and is now a ruined world. The roaming pirate gang Death Riders of Urz were vanquished by the mysterious veil of the west, attempting to escape space patrol. The entire Jax empire, a reclusive but prominent frontier race two centuries ago, disappeared in the Down, where stars no longer can be seen. North and coreward lies the uncountables, a myriad of worlds belonging to some insectoid race, believed to be mindlessly carnivorous. But they're staying put, for now. To the south, a rumoured passage out exists, at least according to the disputed sensor logs of the insane captain Hardoak, the only survivor of expedition fleet 14. 160 ships of various sizes and countless probes have been lost in pursuit of Hardoaks passage. Space here is difficult to navigate and behaves strangely, but the region is seemingly uninhabited, to normal sensors at least. According to one theory it is inhabited by creatures living inside gas giants, whilst other believe it's inhabited by unseen ethereal beings, phase shifted ghouls or somesuch. Or, it could bespace here is somehow uninhabitable due to some space-time disaster.

I think the SF setting is better off not being bloated by a lot of new playable aliens... it would lose distinctiveness. Perhaps even the rim world aliens should be off limit and a bit more mysterious. They keep to themselves. The same goes for the less important civilized aliens which are on the rise (but still very rare).

Rather than having the main aliens originate in the frontier sector... I think they should be migrants, their ancestors perhaps having escaped some calamity in the past (this partly explains why they are so compatible and of the same tech level). Could also be seed ships, or just very muddled. They were unable to return to or even communicate with their homeworlds and having spread thin across many worlds they began to degenerate over perhaps centuries. If humans are still around elsewhere they could be more powerful than the backwater settlers. The Sathar could be expanding so desperately because they're being brushed aside by more powerful races on other fronts. The whole Frontier region could be somewhat stagnant or degenerate (at least away from the main systems). Not all tech is universally available in shops. Powerful and rare treasures are found. This setup lampshades why the frontier races don't just do some desired or obvious thing tech-wise (power armours, tech creep like personal teleporters). I'm thinking about that part in the Foundation Trilogy where the Foundation is the only world keeping old tech alive. If new tech is introduced it's because it was found rather than invented. Reverse engineered versions are less effective than the original (will the player sell or keep for personal use?). Ancient precursor artifacts are excaliburs which can be used but not understood. If a GM/module wants to introduce a world-changing tech, it could be as an artifact / stash, rather than it suddenly having been invented and available in all shops, changing the frontier's balance of power overnight.

Items could be available in different conditions, perhaps using a modifier system. Heirlooms are possibly advanced, but often partly deteriorated ("quirks") so only a few good stats remain intact. Then there can be mass-produced and premium stuff (which could also have been modified over time). Cheap second hand stuff could be more available and a place to start for a character. Part of the journey is finding slightly better things rather than being stuck with the same standard laser rifle for the whole game. I think armours should be a poor choice stat-wise. Perhaps a bit too heavy (not powered), less effective than screens, pricey. Screens could be onion layered at some cost and loss in effectiveness, so the user could get wider protection.

How come the frontier is stagnant or degenerate by the way? I can think of a few reasons. If the main playable races migrated from their homeworlds and settled the frontier, perhaps they left some important aspect behind, be it a powerful ally, political system, or ability. Perhaps it's just difficult to innovate further using conventional thinking. Perhaps they were too spread out in various small settlements. A small town can't manufacture a mobile phone from scratch. The frontier region could also be different from the homeworld region in some significant way.

The Mentalists (magicians, sort of) were added in Zebulon to spice things up. I think they should be pretty rare (most die young?). Maybe they could be used to solve the problem above. Mentalists were more common back in homeworld space and responsible for much of the innovation. In frontier space they are rare, and what's worse, each time they use their power they risk coming into contact with "them" or "the other side". They can go insane or disappear (eaten or ascended, who knows?). Basically, they come into contact with the more aforementioned unfathomable entities which surrounds frontier space, which was not a problem back in the homeworld days. I guess they could also try to leave for a region of space with other mentalists (they've cloaked a whole planet?).

I think I'd prefer if maybe the central system were under "imperial" control (several rival corporations struggle to control the current emperor/senate?), and the periphery was more wild west and rusty rifles in saloons. Traveling might be a bit risky/cumbersome so it's tough for a central government to stay on top of everything. It should be detailed what the governments powers, goals and struggles are.

Frontier space should not be homogeneous. This gives the players more to do. There could be regions more focused on certain aliens, backwater worlds, forgotten worlds, the capitol ("Trantor") and other advanced worlds, Sathar space, wild (and death) worlds, isolationist/extreme worlds, ruined worlds. A smorgasbord. This is what makes Traveller, and fantasy RPGs work better.

Star Frontiers roles

Mercs and investigator.

Characters types could vary: Trader (Cmdr. Jameson), Adventurer/Explorer/Archeologist (Lara), Corporate agent, Lawman (a softer Dredd/Inquisitor/hunter (powerful, artifact gear including id badge)), Scoundrel/opportunist/merc (Solo), Rebel, Punk, Assassin, Soldier, etc. These could be past occupations, as the player party needs to work together to tackle the scenario/quest.

As for rules, I used to enjoy coming up with rule systems but now I feel that... the fun of a game is probably mostly GM skill and group dynamic. I do think character creation should be a fun solo activity as sometimes (often?) that's as far as a game ever goes. I never cared much for background stories though. The character is what evolves during play and me solving problems, reacting, improvising. Having a complex backstory forcing choices can be intrusive and less immersive. Not sure how I feel about classes in Zebulon, but it can be interesting to build a character using a system. My worry is that class constraints can feel artificial if implied being a genetical or a universal force. I think it has to be some sort of educational bias or product of a life path table.

One conundrum, perhaps highlighted by games like Rifts or 40K, is that... when writing the bad guys it can be interesting to eventually add moral nuance and weeeell-from-their-perspective, but drifting further and overdoing it risks attracting a toxic player base who will take these very fictional exuses-for-evil as validation. Sometimes evil is just ugly, dumb and shallow and there's no need to soften it. Making the baddies less cool looking is also a way to reduce appeal.

Star Frontiers aliens art

Space, and various aliens.

I was thinking about how a party might realistically look and how it could be randomly generated. A typical party might be rather homogeneous and not a mixture of rare and exotic aliens like it might be if the players could choose anything. An idea for dealing with this could be to use a random alien table with populations as probability weight. After the first roll, there's a 50% chance the next character is of the same type, 25% of an ally/friendly/liked/regional type, and remaining 25% is a fresh roll on the alien table. The main 4 aliens are an extremely likely result in the table. I was thinking maybe the player could pick, Human or Dralasite, then Vrusk or Yazirian. Having just the possibility of other playable aliens out of reach does make the universe seem richer, without cluttering it up. Also, a party of a Human, Dralasite, Vrusk, Yazirian feels a is a bit "designed", though in the long run (over a campaign) it offers variation I suppose. It might be more interesting (from a party creation perspective at least) to roll like... 4 Dralasites. Or get that rare one with 2 Heliopes and 2 Humans... how would they tackle the universe?

The Saurans (from a magazine article afaik) were too humanoid so I was thinking the Sathar killed them all off, or they're mermaids. An aquatic/amphibious alien seems reasonable to add, but in practice I'm not sure if underwater segment missions would be common, or fun for all players. Dralasites don't breathe, but others might need suits.

The Heliope on the Starmist cover also looked too humanoid. I tried changing it up, following the text description. Gave it a pincer claw and normal hand.

I like the Edestekai design but it might be hard for them to perambulate while carrying. Still they could probably find a workaround and style if going into space... like I assume the Eorna intended.

I saw a fun alien ("Scoc"?) in a video by Down the Rabbit Hole and had to draw it. They're based on the Vulcans and are perhaps pulling strings behind the scenes...

The Ul-Mor might have to invent a speech box. I wonder if them being telepathic could cause them issues in my universe variant.

The Sathar uses thralls and modified creatures, and I think it's needed as just fighting the Sathar alone could get real monotonous. Well, there are also evil corporations I guess.

Star Frontiers kurabanda art


vintage robots art

Robots with elements of familiarity. Robot brains are not well understood, especially high level ones. As for homages... Honestly, I think RPG books need to be careful about breaking 4th wall (e.g. writing in author's voice and referencing cultures which would be unknown in-universe).

Art by Arne Niklas Jansson