Tiny Frontiers: A Minimalist Science Fiction Tabletop Roleplaying Game

Guest Writer: Jason “Flynn” Kemp

“Tiny Frontiers: A Minimalist Science Fiction Tabletop Roleplaying Game” is a science-fiction game based on the Tiny Dungeon Ruleset. Written by Alan Bahr and published by Gallant Knight Games, Tiny Frontiers is 136 pages long, and it packs a lot into those pages. The rules themselves are explained in 28 pages (twenty for all players and eight for Game Masters alone,) with two appendices to cover Star Ships (5 pages) and Mecha (4 pages). After that, the book presents us with sixteen different micro-settings for consideration for Tiny Frontier campaigns, ranging from five pages to eleven pages in length. Before we dive into those, let’s look at the core rules.

Tiny Frontiers cover © Gallant Knight Games

Tiny Frontiers cover © Gallant Knight Games

At its core, task resolution in Tiny Frontiers uses a system requiring 3d6 to play, and that’s it, in terms of dice. Standard actions grant you a Dice Pool of 2d6 for any significant check, and any die with a 5 or 6 on it counts as a success. Some situations, as well as certain Traits you select during character creation, give you Advantage. Advantage means you roll 3d6 instead of 2d6 on that particular check (which is called a Test in the rules). If there’s an Advantage, there’s also a Disadvantage, which lowers your Dice Pool by 1d6.

Tests in Tiny Frontiers come in different forms. Obstacle Tests allows you the chance to overcome a challenge or obstacle. Save Tests prevent bad things from happening to you. There’s also a note about Save or Die Tests, which are Save Tests in a life or death scenario. If you fail one of these, your character is dead. Initiative Tests in combat work differently than other checks. For Initiative, you roll 2d6 at the beginning of combat and add the numbers together, the higher the better. (This determines the order in which you act in combat, with ties going to the character. If more than one character rolls the same number, they roll off until one has a higher total than the other.)

Throughout the rules, characters are called Explorers. Creating Explorers is pretty straight-forward: select a Race, choose 3 Traits, select weapon proficiency and mastery, assign gear and Credits, and choose a profession and drive. An Explorer’s Race determines their starting Hit Points and a Racial Trait (or additional Trait for Humans.) Traits grant the Explorer bonuses in specific circumstances. Explorers choose their weapon proficiency as one of three broad categories (Melee, Light Ranged or Heavy Ranged,) and then select Mastery in a specific weapon within that category. Gear is divided by its commonality and priced accordingly. Finally, you create the backstory for your character, determining at a minimum their Profession and a one-sentence Drive that serves as your Explorer’s guiding force. All in all, the system is fluid and lightweight, aimed at story over substance.

The Game Master chapter offers a two-page essay on running adventures and campaigns. Following that, there’s a two-page exploration of Xenotech, Tiny Frontier’s version of magic items. A few examples are given, but for the most part, it’s up to the Game Master to create items for their adventures. A section that is almost three pages long describes Enemies, mostly in the form of a chart that correlates Threat Level with Hit Points, and provides some examples. Add Traits to taste, and the Game Master can design foes for any encounter. I particularly enjoyed the Enemy Type table, and the descriptions of some of the options, which seem inspired by numerous Sci-Fi movies and TV series. I do appreciate that this section includes a discussion on giving an Enemy a specific weakness to exploit, and a paragraph on building up dramatic tension before encountering big enemies. Two tables on Random Planet Generation and Random Settlement Generation wrap up the Game Master chapter.

The two appendices provide a nice overview of Star Ships and Mecha. In Star Ships, the vehicle is treated as a character, using Systems instead of Traits. Each player chooses one special System trait to add to their character sheet, to represent a system on the ship they specialize in, such as Plasma Cannons or Gravity Engines. For Mecha, each player designs their own much like building a character, with two basic System traits and three special System traits, like Advanced Target Tracking or Retractable Sword. Both subsystems are simple, yet I can see how easy they would be to use in-game.

After the appendices comes sixteen micro-settings. In a small handful of pages, each setting provides a core concept, basic notes on the setting, possible rule additions, and several reasonably fleshed out adventure hooks (as in several short paragraphs each.) These micro-settings include:

    • “Ash” – A new power source is found on a desert planet best described as a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Oh, and there might be a hidden maximum-security prison hidden out in those dunes…
    • “Augmented Destiny” – Digital minds downloaded into synthetic gladiators fight for the entertainment of the masses, but rumors of rebellion against the overlords is in the air. This setting offers rules for Cyber Augmentations and Anime-esque special attacks.
    • “Carapace” – Human refugees from Earth now dwell in giant seashells found adrift in space, where civil unrest among various classes is close to the tilting point into civil war.
    • “Deconstructed” – A galactic empire collapses, leaving individual worlds to stand on their own against the chaotic aftermath.
    • “Divided” – Centuries after a Great Galactic War, one savior race benevolently rules over and protects the five races they saved from destruction during the war, but some are beginning to question if these beings are truly the saviors they claim to be.
    • “The Graystar” – Nanobots that once helped to reach the stars are now devouring everything in their path, and it seems like it won’t be long before nothing remains of the solar system except the gray goo of the self-replicating nanobots.
    • “Guardians of Forever” – A science fantasy romp on a tidally-locked world where an ancient order of knights is almost destroyed by a traitor in their midst, who then turns his attention to the lost lore of the Nine Kingdoms for technological power to aid in his conquest.
    • “The Light” – A god appears simultaneously in many star systems, issues enigmatic commands for some unknown purpose. What is it? And what does it want?
    • “Marlowe Station” – A seedy space station, off the main trade routes and slowly dying, combines the best features of The Expanse and The Maltese Falcon to create a science fiction noir backdrop with interesting possibilities.
    • “Our Beautiful Planet” – A world terraformed by a Precursor race maintains its habitable nature for human settlers through the sacrifice every generation of a telepathic Princess believed to be the reincarnation of the original tribute.
    • “The Pillar of Rig” – An ancient structure house an interstellar obstacle course of trap rooms, levels, and complexes that challenges those trapped within, all for the amusement and nourishment of its curator and warden.
    • “Pirates of the Rim” – Pirates in Space!
    • “Post-Scarcity Blues” – An A.I. created an idyllic society where no one works nor wants for anything. However, a band of rebellious heretics think mankind needs work and war to truly experience life, so they seek to destroy the A.I. and return society to how things were before.
    • “Prospectus” – Winners of an interstellar video game become troubleshooters with their own star ship, and resolve missions for which they have little actual training or competence (aside from that shown in the recruiting video game.)
    • “Welcome to the Junk Yard” – A debris field orbiting a fringe planet contains examples of military technology from a great battle between two Precursor races. Salvagers and scavengers attempt to steal advanced tech from the field, while avoiding the attention of the vigilant Junk Marshals.
    • “Western Star” – A backwater planet with a failed economy struggles to survive as the native race emerges from cryogenic suspension and attempt to reclaim their homeworld from the invading human settlers.

After reading through the entire book, I believe that Tiny Frontiers would be a great system for one shots and pick-up play. Characters are quick and easy to build, the system can be explained in under a minute, and there’s enough versatility to allow pretty much any kind of space-based science fiction story. (Post-apocalyptic stories might be a little harder, but I hear there’s a Tiny Wastelands in the works.) I have concerns about using Tiny Frontiers for a long campaign, as it has no character advancement system to reflect character growth and evolution over time. Still, I think this system has a lot of potential, and I’d recommend it for anyone looking for a nice beer-and-pretzel system for those nights when not everyone can make it to the gaming table. Check it out!

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