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Publisher: Bluejack

February, 2010 : Interview:

Continuing Adventure in the Frontier

The Starfrontiersman Interview

This article does not express the opinions of IROSF or its publisher whose misspent youth involved an extraordinary number of hours playing Traveller, and who would have a few words of wisdom for anyone brandishing a scotch and disparaging that fine independent role playing game.

At an SF/F convention not long ago I was mocking discussing the science-fiction roleplaying game Traveller with someone. My point, made with much waving of my single-malt scotch (thanks Tor party!), was that nobody every actually plays Traveller, so much as they collect it. In my misspent youth there was only one roleplaying game to go to when you wanted science-fiction action—TSR's 1981 Star Frontiers.

The conversation stuck with me and I used the eerie powers of the internet to check on the status of the game. And the internet did not dissappoint! While no official movement has happened to the game in decades, thriving fan-communities were easy to find. And the greatest of those fan-sites has been producing, digitally remastered rulebooks, and bringing the classic adventure modules to the people! More than that, they have been moving the game forward with the publication of their PDF magazine Starfrontiersman. Adventures, equipment, artwork, fiction—it's all there.

Like a salmon returning to the river where it was hatched, I had come home!

In spite of the electronic bounty spread before me, I wanted more. I tracked down Bill Logan, the mastermind of the enterprise, and scored an interview.

Dotar Sojat: The Starfrontiersman Magazine just released its thirteenth issue and you've been releasing issues for almost three years. When you first started the venture did you think it would go on that long?

Bill Logan: Actually, I did. But it has grown out of control. I intended it to be a lite publication, maybe 16 pages each. I had so much content to add and not enough time to work on it alongside my other projects. That's why the last three issues I had very little to do with. In fact, the Star Frontiers community active through has picked up the slack and are now delivering the webzine without little input from me. L. Moore, in particular, has been truly helpful in this regard.

DS: So, back in the early days, how did you know that a fan-supplied internet magazine have such longevity?

Bill Logan: Mostly because I would be interested. I'm a pretty typical gamer, I think. Also, who doesn't love Dungeon magazine? Dragon Magazine? If they were giving those babies out for free, I would love it! Wouldn't you? I know the work we've done on the webzine doesn't compare with the talent of those two magazines over the years, but some day, who knows?

DS: So why Star Frontiers, anyway? I'm sure you've played other games, what is it that sets this one apart for you, and for so many other fans?

Bill Logan: Mostly it's because it was one of the first role-playing games I ever played as a young, eager teen. I truly enjoyed the fact that for ten bucks I got everything I needed to play the game, even a couple little plastic dice to color and wipe with a provided crayon. The game was simple, and I picked it up right away. Today's RPGs seem targeted at an older, more affluent group than those from the '80s. My children started asking me questions about all the fun gaming stuff I have, so I dusted off the box and played with them. We played for a year or so before I noticed some basic level of active support for the game on the net... but it was scattered everywhere here-and-there. I decided it would be a fun project to build a webzine—and shared the first issue on Everything else evolved from there.

DS: Heh, I remember that was one of the things I liked about it—it wasn't my older brother's RPG. It seems that the business model for tabletop role-playing games has undergone a dramatic shift from the early 80s. Shelves groan under core rules, supplements, and then expansions nowadays. Like you said, SFr came in a box and gave you all needed. But at the same time, with almost no supplements officially produced and before the easy days of information transfer via the internet, referees were free (or forced—the homeworlds of the different races aren't even specified—) to make up their own material. Do you think that the early game could have used more structure, or was it that open-ended aspect of the rules that made it such a hit with its small, but dedicated, fanbase?

Bill Logan: Star Frontiers is easily the best underdeveloped sci fi game around. It had enough to get you started, but not so much that you felt restricted. All you knew about a planet or star system was a few stats and sometimes a sentence... the rest was up to you. Adventure modules came out and opened new vistas, but for the most part Referees were on their own. It made it more personal since so much had to be self-developed.

I remember one time spending two hours online and in books for another game system looking for just the right "feat" that would explain an ability one of my players wanted to make her character complete. It didn't exist—but because of all the rule structure, I was reluctant to try to make up the feat and "break" the system—especially if some next supplement might have the feat in it and might be more or less powerful than the one I might make for the player. It was maddening.

With Star Frontiers—or other games from the same era—the less restrictive rules mixed with the absolute necessity to expand and create made individual game masters enjoy a special feeling of ownership over the rules and the setting, allowing us to feel comfortable making stuff up.

DS: Speaking of skills, I do recall that the skills you could pick from in SFr were a little basic. Sure it got the job done, but a little variation would have been nice. Have you got a lot of new skills (and/or the systems that would support those skills)?

Bill Logan: Yep. Issue 9, an article called "A Skilled Frontier" opened up the skill system into a more comprehensive system, while maintaining a nod to the old look and feel. It allowed ability scores to have a role in the determination of skill checks, and allows characters to pick up any type of skill—not just the handful of basic ones presented in the Alpha Dawn book. The new sci fi game we're working on (FrontierSpace) uses a variant of that article.

DS: And why Starfrontiersman Magazine? Not just a fansite, or a wiki or some e-commune, but a magazine?

Bill Logan: Everyone else had a fan site, and most of them didn't have any updates since the late '80's. Those that have been active (well—only one was truly active) had a very small and closed society, and I tried to discuss ideas there and didn't feel very welcome. So I decided a fan site wasn't enough... I had to make something that reached new people to make it worth doing. I like the fact that a webzine is an enjoyable read, even if you don't play the game it's designed to support.

DS: And have you reached new people? New as in new to the magazine, or new as in new to the game itself?

Bill Logan: It's hard to know for sure. I get emails and guestbook entries occasionally thanking me for all that free stuff—and telling me that they will play the game with their group... but sadly, I seldom hear any more. Based on the sheer number of downloads the issues get (along with the Digitally Remastered products), I know people like it. I've also been told in emails that people who don't even play the game like to read the magazine and apply principles to their own sci fi games—Star Wars d6, Star Trek (the Decipher version was quite good), Alternity, etc.

DS: Did you expect to get as many contributors as you've gotten? Do you find that you have to scramble for material, or is it the opposite—do you agonize over what to cut?

Bill Logan: I'd like to mention that this project would be nowhere without the efforts of the contributors and the site members... I don't do anything special except glue it all together and try to make it pretty.

We have to fish for content and submissions. Art, to be specific, has been the most difficult thing to come by. Fortunately there are people like C.J. Williams and Shell S. who have been pretty accommodating, and a few folks who do excellent 3d art have stepped up, such as AZ_Gamer and G. Dady. If not for the art, the webzine would be lacking.

Star Frontiers had this amazing pull for early gamers, and a HUGE part of that was the visualizations created by Larry Elmore and others from the TSR era. I have spent days upon days trolling artist gallery sites begging for free stuff (especially cover art). As for content, it's not too hard to come up with 32 pages or so of submissions. But we don't have a backlog of submissions from which to select... we publish everything we have at that time that is publishable. Sometimes we have to generate our own content though—but that's part of the fun, right? Specifically, an interview with Larry Elmore is coming up in an issue quite soon...

DS: I do concur that Star Frontiers did have a very specific look, mostly due to Elmore. What would you say to the unitiated, to these young modern-day World-of-Warcrafters with one foot in the grave and a filthy, cheeto-stained hand on the mouse, to get them to tray a 29 year-old tabletop SF roleplaying game?

Bill Logan: It is my opinion these are different types of games and therefore sometimes are different types of gamers. It's difficult to take someone who knows only one of these and show them the other and expect they'll fall in love with it. The two industries shouldn't be in competition for the same gamers.

Having said that, I will posit that there are many who have stepped into one of those games in search of something that they haven't yet found and should consider the other. Keep an open mind, give the old paper-and-pencil role-playing game a try... you can still eat your cheetos! See how much fun it is the old-school way.

I'm a technology dork (I'm a Controls Engineer in my real life occupation) and have a great respect for technology... but I have yet to see a single case where an electronic game could compare with sitting around a table with friends, storming castles, outmaneuvering space pirates, ordering pizza, delving into dungeons, fighting costumed supervillains, drinking soda, surviving a crash on a foreign desert planet, and role-playing my way to heroism. Um... not necessarily in that order.

DS: For that matter, do you think tabletop roleplaying games are going the way of the dinosaur?

Bill Logan: I stayed on top of role-playing games since they first started. I've watched them evolve, and have been very open to the changes I see in them. Change is good, it's complacency I dislike. So I go back to an old-school game like Star Frontiers and I help it evolve, with the line of Digitally Remastered books and the continuous growth in the webzine. I don't think tabletop games are going to go away, but I do expect them to continue along their current trend.

I played a game of D&D 4th Edition a few weeks ago with a friend and my son. I was less than impressed with the mechanical evolution of that game (I followed and enjoyed all the way up to 3.5 edition). I couldn't tell the difference between a couple of races, and couldn't see the point in a couple of classes. But whatever—at its heart it was still a role-playing game, and you get out of it what you put into it. I don't think tabletop games are going away anytime soon, but those of us who put that much into it are. It's going to continue to evolve as an industry, but if it doesn't reach the eager teens with their 10 dollar allowances, it's going to have to compete with online games. It shouldn't. As I said above, online gaming and tabletop gaming are really two different things and should not compete for the same audience.

DS: But, isn't the increasing person-to-person aspect of computer gaming (with the messaging and the headsets and the scype-ing and whatnot) really a competing force to the face-to-face vibe of tabletop gaming?

Bill Logan: I enjoy that too (I played Left4Dead last night—our whole group got our butts kicked by a single 9 year old kid playing with bots... it was humiliating and simultaneously humorous), but it just doesn't compare to the experience of in-person gaming. I don't know that one is better than the other—but I personally believe the experience is sufficiently different that there will always be both options. Some day, when we make a holodeck, we can all go there and ditch all this inferior make-believe anyway, right?

DS: I shudder to think of the day when we actually create a working holodeck...

I think that by any measure, Star Frontiersmen is a success. What is you dream goal with the website? What is the big prize? Is there a big prize?

Bill Logan: The entire time I've been working on the 'zine, I've been asked by people why we don't make a Star Frontier 2.0, something new to call our own. Of course, that's not possible because of copyright restrictions and trademark questions.

However, the big prize I'm working on is a new game called FrontierSpace (working title, may stay, may not). It's a game inspired by all the great games of the '80s such as Star Frontiers, Traveller, Top Secret/S.I., Dungeons & Dragons, even Gamma World and Marvel Super Heroes. It draws ideas and inspiration from all of these, and leans on support from those who have contributed articles and ideas to the webzine.

It's not a clone of Star Frontiers. It's not a clone of any of them. It's a new game inspired by an era of gaming, hopefully packaged in a way that new gamers will like. I'm working on this very hard—it is consuming nearly all of my spare time for nearly a year now (wow... has it been that long?) I could pump something out fast and share it—but that's not my intent. This is the big prize, and is being done right. I'm getting help from others, but most notable is L. Moore, who has become my co-designer, responsible for a great deal of content so far. I could go on about this project—but perhaps we'll wait until I have some deliverables and we can repeat this interview with a new focus :-)

DS: Has anybody from TSR/Wizards of the Coast/whoever owns it now, ever contacted you about what you are doing?

Bill Logan: No, but I have contacted them. Early on I sent them copies of what I was doing. I got back a letter (email actually, which I kept) that advised me to continue what I was doing until they say otherwise, don't make any profit from anything, and continue to honor copyrights and trademarks (incidentally, the trademark recently expired and is currently unowned). When I asked them if I could work on a new edition of the game itself, they said I could not unless it is a d20/OGL product. I have no disdain for OGL or d20, but thought that would be a migration path for the old game I wasn't interested in pursuing.

DS: Feh! D20? An insult! If it isn't percentile dice, it isn't Star Frontiers, brother.

Bill Logan: Haha... amen. I know you didn't ask, but I'm pretty opinionated on this so I'll state it: I'm one who believes the mechanics should mimic the genre of the game, or at least give you a flavor... a feeling. Otherwise we'd just make everything GURPS'd or d20'd and stop making new ideas up.

Many people pursue the "perfect game system"—but I posit that such a thing cannot exist. For instance, I absolutely LOVE the way the HERO system allows you to build just about any character concept you want, any power you want, any magic spell you want, any item you want... heck, you can even build buildings and vehicles. The game system is so great. However, I've played games that used that system (Fantasy Hero, Champions, Star Hero) and I just can't stand how long fights take. Each session breaks down into a minis battle counting inches and such. "Perfect game system"? Maybe. I'm just not sure what genre it's perfect for.

DS: I know what you mean. There is a big difference between a "perfect" system, and a "playable" system.

Have you ever talked with any of the original writers of the game or the original modules? Any great stories there?

Bill Logan: We had an interview with Steve Winter in issue 7. In issue 13 we have an interview with Jen Page, and soon we'll have an interview with Larry Elmore for an upcoming issue. They all speak fondly of the old TSR days and some of them have some fun stories to tell. You'll have to read 'em to see. Steve Winter even found for us an old mocked-up cover page illustration they used for Zebulon's Guide. It had spiderman on the cover haha!

DS: Do you still play Star Frontiers, and if so, what are some of your favorite house-rules?

Bill Logan: When I have time, yes I still play. Lately I've been enjoying a campaign in SF with the family, and we also are playing a fun campaign in Labyrinth Lord (a retro-clone of the old Basic/Expert D&D game) as well. As far as my favorite houserules... I pretty much stick to core except I simplify success rate adjustments. I just add +10 to your chance of success per thing in your favor and -10 to your chance of success for each thing in your disfavor. Other than that I use a skill system modeled after the one in Alpha Dawn but expanded dramatically (I shared the skill system I use in issue 9 of the StarFrontiersman). I have also used a damage system pilfered from Top Secret/S.I. modified for use in Star Frontiers, and shared this in an article in issue 8. Oh—and I allow use of all gear submitted to date in the webzine :-)

DS: Back in the early days of playing the game, did you play mostly the pre-made modules, or make up your own stuff?

Bill Logan: Surprisingly, I never played a premade module. I winged everything. Sometimes I worked out details prior to the session, but honestly most of our best sessions were off-the-cuff. Even today when I can afford to buy pre-made modules, I seldom "read the following boxed section aloud"—it just doesn't feel interactive to me. I pre-read the whole module, highlight sections, add sticky tabs, write notes in the margins, and then just wing it while using the module for reference. I love professional art and maps :-)

DS: So you never played the Volturnus Series? I must have played that thing through like three times (back in '84 that's all we had, and we LIKED it that way). That steamroller-elephant thing? Deadly! To this day my friends and I will still catch ourselves saying: "The octopus... the octopus is... In. My. MIND! " If I had it all to do again, I'd have an entire cycle of adventures based on the aftermath of the Volturnus Series.

Bill Logan: I played the first one—Crash on Volturnus—because it came with my Alpha Dawn boxed set. Other than the first one, I only know about the rest through the Digitally Remastered versions I had to read to convert/adapt. Many people love the series, and it's totally understandable. A new super-module packing the whole Volturnus series into one and expanding it further would be a great project!

DS: Don't tempt me! Besides, I've got twelve issues of your magazine to get through to get me up to speed on it all.

Copyright © 2010, Dotar Sojat. All Rights Reserved.

About Dotar Sojat

Now it can be told! Dotar Sojat shot the deputy, and he let Bob Marley take the rap for it.


Feb 11, 05:22 by IROSF

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