A Skilled Frontier

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by Bill Logan



Whenever you ask someone what the biggest hole in Star Frontiers rules is, they point at the skills system. When TSR wanted to address this, they came up with Zebulon’s Guide to the Frontier, which added more than one hundred and twenty skills, and modified the whole game system in the process… which alienated many. This article has a newly proposed, play-tested skill system for your gaming enjoyment.

Author’s Note: I analyzed the existing Star Frontiers skill system and came up with a number of problems that I tried to resolve with this article:

Problem 1: Not enough skills This is the obvious one. The Frontier has a plethora of skilled artisans, entertainers, diplomats, secret agents, and rogues. It also has pilots, criminals, archaeologists, and physicists. However, if you create a character in canon Alpha Dawn rules, you can be one of three basic archetypes with only slight permutations. There needs to be more to flesh out a character, even if some of the skills will only be selected for NPCs. Not every diplomat should have to be a psychiatrist to be effective.

Problem 2: Focus on Military A soldier is good with guns and combat and demolitions. That’s expected. A technician is good with computers, robotics, and technology. That’s great. A scientist is good with environmental science, medicine, and parapsychology. All of that makes sense. But why is it that a soldier can excel in all of his skill areas so much more rapidly than a non-military character? For example, it’s not fair to me that, just because my character concept is scientific, your soldier will reach level 6 in his demolitions skill up to ten adventure sittings before I’ll reach level 6 in my environmental skill! Who decided what was easy and what was hard? Some guy sitting at a desk at TSR did. Shouldn’t it vary by character concept rather than by skill? Shouldn’t my scientist character concept have as easy a time advancing in science-related skills as your soldier character concept has advancing in military-related skills? The current system favors the military character, not the creative concepts of the player.

Problem 3: Level six is unrealistic In all the games I ever played, not one single character ever reached level six in a skill. Think about it… if your character is a technician with a level 5 skill, to attain level 6 he has to spend 24 experience points. That’s 3-5 adventures without seeing a single tangible piece of progress… just to get +10% chance of success to a skill that is part of his core concept. Those 24 experience points would probably be better spent on military skills to help keep the character alive, or even better yet – to increase your Dexterity by 24… that’s far more helpful than an extra 10% to fix your ground car. The skills need to be less expensive to increase levels.

Problem 4: Ability Scores don’t help skills A character with a high Dexterity or Logic abilities should have a better chance of disarming a bomb than an equally-skilled character with low core ability scores. That’s just common sense. A character with better Personality and Leadership should be more successful persuading someone than a character with psycho-social skills and low scores. Some would say this is for game balance… but that is simply not the case. TSR realized they needed to base combat off ability scores – they just overlooked the weight that ability scores should have on non-combative skills.

Problem 5: Arbitrary Success Rates It seems completely arbitrary that one sub-skill is rated at 50%+10%xLevel while another is 35%+10%xLevel, etc. Some are 100% - some difficulty. They’re all in obvious. In addition to this, the list of sub-skills associated with each skill seems to box-in a player’s creativity. For instance, what happens if a robotics expert wants to buy a robot at a shop? Wouldn’t his skill with robots alert him if he’s going to buy a lemon? Or should he get a roll? Which sub-skill applies? If none of them do, the Referee makes one up on the spot or else allows him an Intuition or Logic roll, making up modifiers on the spot. That’s inconsistent because why would his INT or LOG help this roll, but wouldn’t help his chance to program that same robot? Such inconsistency results in too much speculation and too much time looking up numbers in tables, and most good Referees I’ve played would simply make stuff up as they go rather than be slaves to charts and tables.

Professional Skill Areas

There are nine professional skill areas (PSAs) describing all potential aspects of a character's knowledge and ability. None of these PSAs are skills unto themselves, but instead a categorical collection of related skills. For example, you won't have a military skill; instead you'll have a melee weapons skill or a demolitions skill.

Character Generation

All players must decide which PSA is primary to their character concept, and which two are secondary to it. List one PSA with a "P:" next to it. List two PSAs with an "S:" next to them. All other PSAs are tertiary to your character concept.

Your character will begin with three level 1 skills. One of which must be from your character's Primary PSA. The second can be from any Primary or Secondary PSA. The third can come from any PSA (even one tertiary to your character concept).

For example, your character's primary PSA is Military, and your secondary PSAs are Tech and Agent. You begin with three level 1 skills. One of which must come from your Military PSA, the other may come from any primary or secondary PSA (Military, Tech, or Agent). The third can come from any PSA you want. You select Beam Weapons level 1 from Military, Robotics level 1 from Tech, and Survival level 1 from Scout.

Skill checks

Where are the sub-skills? Where are my character's chances of success listed? The existing Alpha Dawn skill system requires lists and tables to be present at the gaming table, something that has been an antiquated idea since the early 1990s in role-playing evolution. This skill system takes its mechanics from the way Alpha Dawn expressed chance of success in combat. However, this helps keep your ability scores relevant even when testing one of your character's skills.

To make a skill check, use 1/2 your character's ability score relevant to the situation, then add 10% per skill level. This applies to any roll having anything to do with that skill. There is no list of "sub-skills" defining what you can do with a skill. For example, if you have a Survival skill (from the Scout PSA), you get to make any roll having to do with survival (finding shelter, hunting, gathering, etc.) in the same way. Modifiers apply based on any situational condition the Referee decides what applies. The ability scores in Star Frontiers are sufficiently comprehensive that it should become obvious which ability score applies to which situation.

Example: A robotics expert (someone with skill levels in Robotics, a skill in the Tech PSA) would be using his Intuition coupled with robotics skill when guessing where an access panel might be located on an attacking alien robotic technology, however if he were repairing it, he might be using Logic. There may even exist situations where the robotics skill could be used in conjunction with Dexterity or even Persuasion (haggling over the price of robotics parts with a chop shop owner?). In each of these cases, the player would use half of his relevant ability score added to 10 times his skill level.

Standard Rules

Many skills from the tech skill area involve repairing equipment. These will use the standard repair rule from Alpha Dawn rulebook. Application of medical science can use the standard rules from Alpha Dawn as well, or a simpler mechanic: a successful Medic skill roll will heal a number of d10 equal to the medic's skill level, but require a like number of hours of recovery (thus a 3rd level medic might roll 3d10 and get 15... meaning he heals 15 STA if the patient rests 15 hours afterwards). If the full period of rest isn't taken, the healing will be halved.

Unskilled Skill Checks

If you are asked to make a skill roll for a skill that is from your primary PSA, yet you have no skill level in that skill, you may (if the Referee allows, based on the situation) use 1/2 your attribute but add nothing for skill level. This is called an Unskilled Skill Check. If you are asked to make a skill check for a skill you don't possess and is one that is from another PSA, you can only succeed on a 01-05 (which is an automatic success in Alpha Dawn rules). Unskilled skill checks can be abused by players, and Referees are to be the final arbiter in such situations.

For example: Uwan is a yazirian fleeing for his life from natives on a dangerous world that he has gotten himself stranded on. As he rounds a corner in the canyon, he sees a place he thinks he can quickly climb up to a higher level. He needs to do this before the natives round the canyon, or they'll see him climbing and he'll be in trouble. His player, Fred, is told to make a climbing check using his Reaction Speed. His character's primary PSA is Scout, but he never thought of devoting any experience points to an athletics skill. He is allowed to use 1/2 his Reaction Speed score and use 0 as his skill level. Since his Reaction Speed is only 45, he has a 23% chance. He fails, and is half-way up the canyon wall when natives round the corner, spears in hand. Fred decides that after the adventure, he'll buy a level of athletics if his character survives!

Character Advancement

Instead of keying the costs of individual skills to the skill area itself (as it was done in Alpha Dawn rules), the costs are keyed to your PSA selections, thus rewarding a solid concept. Some people are good at learning sciences, some are good at learning languages, and others might be natural born pilots. Whichever PSA is chosen as your character's primary one will have the easiest experience point progression. Your secondary PSAs will advance slightly slower, and all other skills will advance slowest still.

After earning experience points, players may spend them on new skills or to advance skills they already have. The cost of the new skill level depends on whether the PSA which governs that skill was important to the character concept (i.e. was selected as either Primary or Secondary to your concept). The table below summarizes experience point costs, and examples follow.

Table: Experience Point costs
Skill Area Level 1 Level 2 Level 3 Level 4 Level 5 Level 6
Primary 3xp 6xp 9xp 12xp 15xp 18xp
Secondary 4xp 8xp 12xp 16xp 20xp 24xp
Tertiary 8xp 16xp 24xp 32xp 40xp 48xp

Example: Logan is quite good at technical things. He can't change that about himself. Tech PSA is primary to his concept. He's quite knowledgeable in many obscure areas and therefore Scholar PSA is secondary to his concept. Finally, he's a fair artist and that creativity often gives him insight to troubleshoot where hard facts fail him. Artist PSA is also secondary to his concept. All other skill areas are tertiary to his concept.

He advances best at technical skills. He advances fairly well with artistic and scholarly skills, and all other skills require him to put in extra effort to master. It's just the way he's built.

He begins play with three level-1 skills, and his player selects Computers, Robotics, and Visual Art. After a game session, the player earns 7 experience points. Since Tech skills are primary to his concept, it would cost 6 experience points to advance Computers or Robotics to level 2. Alternatively, he could buy a new level 1 Tech skill for 3 experience points. If he wanted to purchase Level 1 in Pop Culture (a Scholar PSA skill), it would cost 4 experience points because Scholar is secondary to Logan's character concept. He can’t currently afford to increase his Visual Art skill, because Artist is a secondary PSA and would cost 8xp when he only has 7xp. Finally, if he wanted to buy a new level 1 skill with medicine (from the Scientist PSA, which is completely tertiary to his concept), it would cost 8 experience points, which he cannot currently afford.

Optional Rules

The following are optional rules that you can use at your own discretion.

Optional Rule: Linear Skill Development

The existing experience point advancement system is not congruous with the rest of Star Frontiers rules. It costs more per level with higher skill levels, but ability scores can be increased on a linear 1:1 basis. The end result is people will end up with 100’s in important ability scores long before sinking the high costs into their sixth level of skill. I kept this progression the same in the proposed skill system described in this article, but consider this optional rule. Instead of the experience point cost chart, simply use the following:

Table: Linear Experience Point costs
Skill Area Experience Cost
Primary 3xp per level
Secondary 4xp per level
Tertiary 8xp per level

If your character has a skill level of 5 in a Secondary PSA skill, it costs 4xp to raise it to skill level 6, period. You will see skill development become the primary means of character advancement quite quickly, since it only costs 3xp to get a +10% chance of success in a Primary PSA skill. This makes the game mechanics break away from the standard Alpha Dawn rules, but is an interesting option nonetheless.

Optional Rule: Non-Linear Ability Score Development

As an alternative to the optional rule above, you could change the ability score advancement to be non-linear. Doing this, you have to keep track of what the original score was and record your development as additional plusses. For example, if you increase your Dexterity from 50 to 55, you’d record it as 50+5 to remember how much of it is from development and how much of it is natural. Then consider using the following table:

Table: Non-Linear Ability Score Experience Point Costs (per +1 to abilityscore)
Ability Scores Up to +10 Up to +20 Up to +30 Up to +40 Up to +50 Up to +60
Physical Ability Scores (STR, STA, DEX, and RS) 1xp 1xp 2xp 2xp 3xp 3xp
Social Ability Scores (PER, and LDR) 1xp 2xp 2xp 3xp 3xp 4xp
Mental Ability Scores (INT, and LOG) 2xp 2xp 3xp 3xp 4xp 4xp

Experience Point Costs are per +1 to ability score. Therefore, it costs 1xp per +1 to STR up until you have +10, then it costs 2xp per +1, etc. The highest you can ever boost an ability score is +60, which should be quite rare indeed.

The Skill Areas

Rather than provide an exhaustive list of skills, this system provides nine categories of professional skill areas. Individual skills are to be drawn from these PSAs. After each skill name is an example of the types of situations where that skill might come into play. This is meant to be a short example, not a comprehensive list of all situations.

Agent PSA

The Agent professional skill area governs those specialty skills associated with activities often outside the law. They deal with deception, coercion, theft, and espionage. Skilled agents can slip into an area, carry out a mission, sense any traps you've prepared for him, and if caught convince you to let him go. The Agent PSA consists of the following skills:

Artist PSA

The artist professional skill area covers skills designed to create and interpret various forms of expression. Effective professional artists have a creative streak that permeates everything they do in life. Creative individuals have an easier time learning to play musical instruments, write elegant speeches or songs, sculpt things from various materials, and draw/paint their visions to canvas or paper. The Artist PSA consists of the following basic skills:

Linguist PSA

The linguist professional skill area is for those individuals determined to speak, read, and write every language in the Frontier. Although few player characters would select this as their Primary PSA, many may wish to purchase individual skills. Purchasing languages is handled simply: level 1 allows for basic/halted/limited conversation, level 2 allows basic/limited reading and writing, level 3 means your character is fluent with a strong accent but can read/write effectively, level 4 is completely fluent and completely literate, level 5 is able to pick up and simulate local dialects, and finally level 6 is a mastery normally reserved for those raised to speak to the language, indistinguishable from a native. If you want to get around in an area, building a language skill to level 2 is typically sufficient. Starting players are automatically considered level 6 in the languages of their native race and level 5 in Pan-Galactic. The Linguist PSA consists of the following basic skills, but more languages can be found throughout the Frontier:

Military PSA

The military professional skill area represents the specialized form of destruction practiced by soldiers, mercenaries, and even private bodyguards. Military specialists are unfortunately common throughout the Frontier. Effective military specialists can take out their enemies with speed and precision. The Military PSA consists of the following skills:

Pilot PSA

The Pilot professional skill area covers the operation of vehicles, military or otherwise, in stressful situations. A skilled pilot can maneuver his vehicle through tight confines, across dangerous terrain, and recover from losses of control. The following skills comprise the Pilot PSA:

Scholar PSA

The scholar professional skill area involves skills that are all about knowledge. Even if that knowledge isn't quite scholarly, it falls under this skill area. Effective scholars can draw parallels between literary and historical events and apply them to what is going on around them, giving them an insight that unscholarly people might lack. Note that all rolls for scholarly skills can be made twice: first to see if you know the fact, and second to research it if you don't know it. The Scholar PSA includes the following skills:

Scientist PSA

The scientist professional skill area covers those skills that deal with the living, chemical, or physical laws of the universe. Scientists give names to the unknown, bringing them into the realm of the known. A skilled scientist develops ideas or diagnosis, plans experiments, and proves theories. Whether they're in it for the discovery or for the glory, scientists are part of what makes the Frontier an exciting place. The Scientist PSA is comprised of the following skills:

Scout PSA

The scout professional skill area includes those skills the outdoorsman would require. Effective scouts can live off the land and survive adversity off even complex environments if they have the right materials handy. The following skills comprise the Scout PSA:

Tech PSA

The Tech professional skill area includes those skills that deal with the repair, configuration, programming, and engineering of technology. Effective Techs can repair damaged goods in adverse conditions, operate technological devices to their fullest, and reprogram captured enemy or alien technology for their own use. The following skills comprise the Tech PSA:

More Skills

Although a list of skills exist under each PSA shown above, these lists are not exhaustive. Players are encouraged to develop their own ideas for skills to complete their character conceptions. This skill system is designed to focus on the character concept. Referees must approve the skill and the PSA under which it falls. Different players may even have the same skill under different skill areas if the Referee allows, representing different types of skill training.

For example, Sarah wants her character to be good at data encryption. She looks through the skill lists and can't find that particular ability. She suggests it should fall under the Agent PSA. The Referee likes the idea and approves. Robert's character is a Military specialist and also wants skill with data encryption. He asks if he can have a data encryption skill under his Military PSA and the Referee might allow it. In the end, they are both the same skill, but the training was derived from a different source. When decrypting military data, Robert's character is the obvious choice, though really they are both able to perform the skill the same.

Be aware that if you allow the same skill to exist under different PSA’s, some players may abuse that (“My character learned to shoot Beam Weapons in the university, so can it please be covered under my Scientist PSA?”).

Author’s Final Notes

The defining factors about this skill system are the following: