Save the Universe with the Stargate SG-1 RPG

I love Stargate. I love Jack O’Neill’s sarcastic one-liners, the amusing banter passed back and forth between the Colonel, Teal’c, Daniel Jackson, and Samantha Carter, and the combination of story arcs and one-shot episodes. The series has created loads of memorable villains and settings, and has succeeded in creating an imaginative new universe that’s quickly succeeding the venerable — and faltering — Star Trek franchise. And I love the fact that my wife — miracle of miracles — actually likes watching it.

So when I heard that Alderac was releasing a Stargate SG-1 role-playing game based on its Spycraft engine, I started drooling. And when others were balking at its announced $50 price, I was wiping away torrent of saliva. This was going to be good. Damn good. And I was right.

Welcome to Your Universe

When you’re creating an RPG for a franchise, there are pretty much two ways you can go: focused or overview. With the focused option, you pick some starting point in the franchise’s history, and use that as the basis for your game. This is what Mongoose Publishing did with their new Babylon 5 d20 RPG — they focused entirely on the first season, providing a huge amount of detail about the space station, its crew, its races, and its technology at that point in time. It also included an episode-by-episode breakdown of the first season.

This technique certainly has its advantages — it provides a uniform starting point for the series, it allows the core rule book to provide lots of detailed information about one portion of the time line, and it eliminates a lot of the baggage that folks new to the setting would otherwise have to deal with.

But it assumes that you’re interested in the first season. If you’re not, well, then you need to wait for the expansion … and dish out more cash for it.

The other way to go is the overview approach, where you attempt to encapsulate the entirety of the franchise in one book. The great advantage to this approach is that GMs and players can start at any point along the game’s timeline while at the same time providing both with a sweeping look at the series’ overall arch. It also means that GMs can get their games up and running without waiting for subsequent source books to be released. The downside is that you’ll never get the same degree of detail in the core book as you would with the focused approach … and it also means that information that’s important to some portion of your audience is going to be left out. This was the case with the Wheel of Time d20 game released by WotC — it provided a good overview of the setting … but completely ignored its villains, the Forsaken.

I personally prefer the overview approach — I don’t need designers telling me when to run my game, thank you very much — and thankfully that’s the approach that Alderac took with the Stargate SG-1 RPG.

The first quarter of the book is dedicated to background. I’ll quibble with the placement — I’d rather the character creation and rules have come first — but the content is solid.

Chapter One (History and the Stargate) provides a summary of humanity’s experiences with the Stargate, and highlights the major storylines and significant episodes of Season 1 through Season 6. Chapter Two gives and overview of the Stargate program, including Stargate Command, its Cheneye Mountain home, and SGC procedures. Chapter Three takes readers to the major worlds (and a few of the secondary ones) visited by SG1 and the alien and near-human races they’ve encountered. Chapter Four is dedicated entirely to the Goa’uld, the parasitical villains of the series.

This is all good stuff, and there’s enough here to easily run a campaign set pretty much whenever (or even where ever) the GM likes. Granted, the System Lords could use stat blocks in addition to their bios, but that would have undoubtedly added 20-something pages to a book that’s already huge. As is, the bios provide GMs with a good cast of villains. Similarly, the SGC overview is basic, but it gives GMs what they need to run the game.

The Heroes of the SGC

The guts of the game system’s character creation rules are found in Chapters Five through Eight. The first of these, Chapter Five, explains how characters are created. It starts be introducing “macro specialties”, which are the Stargate equivalent of normal D&D’s races. Since most Stargate characters will be humans, these “macro specialties” allow them to escape the dreaded “generic” human trap, in which every human character has the exact same strengths in weaknesses. Instead, attributes bonuses/penalties and bonus feats are assigned based on one of several different specialties, including Air Force, Army, Marines, Navy and Civilian Specialist. These backgrounds provide a nice break from the typical race-based stats so familiar in d20 games, although they do take some getting used to.

Those who do want to play aliens can still do so through “species specialties”, which provide similar attribute modifiers and feats for races such as Jaffa, Asgard, and Near Humans. These “species specialties” are the equivalent of the macro ones and you can choose to have one but not the other.

I appreciated the inclusion of the “Near Human” option, which allows players to choose an off-world character (like Jonas Quinn) make his strengths and weaknesses just different enough to stand out from the SGC crowd. That said, I take issue with including the Asagard as a player race. The authors apparently feel that the appearance of Asgard as major characters later in the series justifies having them as a player race, you don’t see Asgard running around as standard operatives on an SG team. It should have been included as an NPC option in the GM section — including it as a player option only serves to setup conflict between players and GMs (“But the book says I can play an Asgard!”) that could easily have been avoided.

The Jaffa race looks good, but I don’t like their inherent -4 penalty to Charisma. I’d rather this have been handled as a situational modifier rather than an across-the-board hit. If it was a situational modifier, you could still have a leader — like Bratac — with an 18 Charisma but still penalize him when interacting with non-Jaffa. As is, it’s impossible to have a Jaffa with a starting Charisma of 14, and wouldn’t reach an 18 Charisma until level 16.

The base character classes do a good job of recreating the mix of skills and professions we see in the series, and — more importantly — are adequately balanced. No one class dominates the others (at least, not that I’ve seen with the half-dozen odd characters I’ve created) and they’re constructed in such a way as to insure that individual players actually need their fellow team members in order to complete a mission (just as we see on the show).

Where we run into problems is the prestige classes, particularly the Prime prestige class for Jaffa. First, given that Jaffa suffer a -4 Charisma penalty from the get go, having a Charisma requirement of 13 just isn’t fair. Yes, that’s the same as what human officers have, but humans don’t get the -4 penalty — for Jaffa, a 13 is the equivalent of a 17, and it makes acquiring the prestige class pretty difficult, especially if you want to have a good Strength and Dex score.

Now it can be argued that Primes and Officers aren’t the same — that Primes are far fewer in number than Officers — but personally, I don’t quite buy it. And I don’t think it’s necessarily a flaw in the prestige class — after all, 13 isn’t very high in normal game terms, and making it a 10 — average for d20 — seems ridiculous. Instead, it just goes to show that the -4 penalty for Jaffa was ill-advised.

My only major compliant with this section is that it’s located in the middle of the book, which makes it a pain in the ass when you’re trying to look up some rule — I’d much rather they followed the format in the Spycraft or original Players Handbook and put the character creation info upfront.

Getting in on the Action

Action dice are the signature game mechanic for Spycraft, and unsurprisingly, they appear in Stargate as well. Action dice are used by both the GM and players turn the course of the game to their advantage. At this most basic, action dice are used to augment rolls in the game. Just about any roll can be augmented — damage, attacks, saves — you name it, dice can be spent to improve it.

The exact kind and number of dice players get varies based on level. At first level, players get three d4s, but the quantity and type of die goes up — to d8s and d10s — at higher levels. The game master always gets d12s, but the number varies based on the size of the player dice pools and the number of players at the table. Players gain action dice through out the game for outstanding role-playing or particularly well-done combat maneuvers (GMs get a die whenever they give a player one, much to the chagrin of players).

Action dice serve other rolls as well. Players can use them to heal damage outside of combat, and certain class abilities require players to spend action dice (for example, Scientists can spend action dice to share their skills with other players).

The dice also play a crucial roll in critical successes and failures. In normal d20 games, critical successes — normally defined as rolling a 20 on a d20 — need to be confirmed by rolling a second roll — if that one succeeds, the critical is “confirmed” and damage is doubled against the target. Stargate ditches that mechanic. Instead, if a critical is threatened, players (and GMs) can confirm it by spending an action die. Then damage is doubled normally. In addition, critical successes also apply to skills (you still must make the DC check normally though — you can critical succeed at a skill, but still fail the skill check if its beyond your ability)

Critical misses work differently as well. Normally, rolling a 1 on an attack is a critical failure but rolling 1 on a skill check is not In Stargate, rolling a 1 is always a failure … but like critical hits, they must be activated using an action die. In addition, weapon failures can cause all sorts of nasty side effects, including jammed ammo and clip explosions.

Action dice are a cool game mechanic and a nice break from the standard d20 offerings. As a player — and as a GM — its nice to have an in-game way of pulling off those absolutely essential clutch moves, like the shot that must take down a First Prime or the Computers check that must bypass a starship’s security. The only negative I saw was the use of a d12 for GM dice — it seems like something a little less … potent would be better. Being able to roll a d12 to bump up a damage roll seems like a heck of a lot, but then again, villains have their moments too.

Guns & Gear

Skills and Feasts are the twin staples of any d20 game, and Stargate has plenty of both. Fans of Spycraft will recognize some old favorites transported over to the Stargate Universe, but there’s plenty new here as well. Skills see additions like Xeno-Culture and Xeno-Species are essential for making contact with alien species while Cultures and Languages help establish contact with the near-human ones.

As in Spycraft, Stargate has loads of feats including basic combat, melee combat, ranged combat, unarmed combat, covert, gear, basic and advanced skill, species, style and terrain. Of these, species and terrain feats are entirely unique to SG-1. The former are feats that alien species can take, such as Clear Mind, Symbiote, Rapid Healing, and Favor of the Gods. Feats don’t have quite the same front-and-center role that they do in Spycraft, where feats are the key to that game’s over-the-top action. Here they are more subdued, but they’re still an important part of the game.

Chapter Eight provides “Finishing Touches” for characters. In introduces the Spycraft concept of “backgrounds”, which allow characters to develop personal back stories for their characters. These back stories are acquired by spending skill points, and the more points that are spent, the more involved the back story becomes. GMs are expected to build hooks for the back stories into the ongoing campaign, and players gain experience when they complete some task connected to their history. Normally I resent this sort of enforced workload on a GM — don’t we have enough to do without worrying about every character having a back story to work into a story arc? — but it can be a good tool for GMs looking for story ideas, and it is keeping with Stargate‘s back stories (Daniel’s kidnapped wife, the accidental death of Jack’s son, Carter’s sick father, and Teal’c’s various family issues). I just wish it had been presented as optional rule rather than an intrinsic part of the game.

Gear is covered in Chapter Nine and it represents a break from the Dungeons & Dragons “kill the monster, get the gold, buy cool stuff” approach to equipment. To begin with players are assigned two or more equipment bundles for each mission. Everyone gets a “Stargate Bundle”, which includes such staples as fatigues, radios, and equipment harnesses. They also get one mission bundle, which includes equipment of particular use on a given assignment. Characters may also get additional equipment bundles based on their rank and/or class.

Bundles represent the default equipment that team members get, but players can also secure particular items they need using gear and resource “picks”. Gear picks are used to “buy” weapons, armor, or computers or enhance those which players received as part of an assigned bundle. Resources represent tools available to Stargate Command, such as probes used to explore worlds through the gate or alien technology captures by SG teams. Players return their gear at the end of each mission, and can pick new gear at the start of every new one.

I love the addition of gear to the d20 mechanic. While I don’t think it would work for a typical fantasy quest setting, its perfect for a game like Stargate which revolves around a military command structure. While we don’t see much of this in the series, equipment deployments would be a standard part of any military operation.

My only problem with the way gear is presented is that the bundles don’t have their weights pre-calculated. With the constant switching out of gear for different missions, this would have been a real time saver.

Combat gets a radical overhaul in Stargate SG-1. Combat is ported directly from Spycraft and covers every aspect of personal combat, from unarmed attacks to firing automatic weapons. It also introduces a bunch of new actions to the d20 rule set, including cover fire, suppressive fire, trick, threaten and taunt.

Fortunately, all of these actions fall into one of two broad categories — full actions or half-actions — with players getting two half-actions a round. This is a welcome change — Dungeons & Dragons 3.0 had way too many types of actions and my campaign always spent too much time arguing about what’s possible in a round. That’s simply not an issue in Stargate, and the game runs much more smoothly as a result.

The game benefits from Spycraft‘s experience with firearms. The various firearm actions actions — autofire, strafing, etc. — are well-explained and while they do require some record keeping on the part of the player (so they know exactly when they’ll run out of bullets) in general gunfights run very smoothly.

Initiative in Stargate represents a serious break from the normal d20 ruleset. Instead of using the typical “static” initiative, which remains the same from round to round, Stargate uses an ever-changing fluid initiative. Certain actions, like moving to higher ground, allow players to move up in initiative. Other actions — like firing a tactical weapon or having one’s speed reduced by terrain — reduces initiative.

At first I wasn’t sure if I’d like fluid initiative. One of the aspects of d20 I like most is the static initiative, which eliminates all of the annoying round-to-round initiative recalculations that used to bog down 2nd Edition D&D. But after more thought, I kind of like it — it does lend a more strategic air to Stargate, and is in keeping with the pacing of the series. I didn’t use it in my playtest however, and I’m not sure if I’ll implement it in my game. Fortunately, the game does provide an optional rule for static initiative.

Masters of the Universe

The last section of the book revolves around gamemastering Stargate. It’s a particularly meaty section, far more so than many of the other d20 games I’ve seen. A fair portion of the section’s dedicated to routine GM duties such as setting DCs, rules for special situations, and mission design.

That’s good, but the rest of the section’s event better. The game doesn’t skimp on NPC creation, something that most d20 games (including Spycraft) fall flat on. The book includes seven NPC classes — including “native off-worlder”, “professional”, and “goa’uld guard” — with stat bumps and abilities detailed to level 10. Given that most of the NPCs that GMs will be creating are throwaway ones like guards and two-bit diplomats, having these sorts of NPC classes around is a real godsend.

Stargate GMs will constantly find themselves having to create new world for players to explore — that is, of course, the entire premise of the series. In a stroke of genius that seems obvious in hindsight (but not so obvious that other game systems leave it out) the designers includes a seven step process for creating new worlds, each with its own chart so that GMs can rely on dice to spur on their imaginations. It’s a great touch, and it’s the sort of seemingly minor detail that makes this game such a success.

The Downsides

The Stargate SG-1 RPG is not without its negatives. The game has no rules for vehicle or space combat, which means no flyby attacks by death gliders and no space duels in orbit. These aren’t big concerns, and I’m sure they’ll be addressed in a future release, but they’re there.

There are editing, continuity and content errors scattered throughout the book. For example, there are several places in the book where the letter “H” appears instead of the fraction 1/2. There are a few cutting and pasting errors as well (see Daniel Jackson’s stats in the appendix, in which the mid-level stats are replicated in the high level section)

There’s one place (unfortunately I didn’t note the page) where a paragraph just ends halfway through a sentence. On the continuity side, there are at least two areas where I found problems. In the write-up on the Norse-inspired world of Cimmeria (home of Thor’s Hammer), we’re told that the planet is protected from the Goa’uld by the Asgard, but in the next column, it says that the civilization’s development has been stunted by frequent Goa’uld attacks.

The write-up on Kelowna has its own contradiction. In the section on the Kelownna Hierarchy, the book says that it has developed naquadria warheads and rockets capable of hitting any spot on the planet. But later on, in the section on minor races, it says that the Kelownans are decades away from developing rockets or missiles. It also says that they’ve only achieved basic air flight, but the earlier entry says that the Tirania Confederacy has long-range aircraft capable of bombing targets in the Hierarchy. That hardly sounds like a basic level of air technology.

Although they’re seldom seen without it, there is no mention of Jaffa armor in the book. This is a mistake the designers acknowledge on the Alderac discussion board, and it’ll be remedied in the upcoming System Lords supplement.

The energy shields the Goa’uld wield (which were inspired by similar shields seen in the Dune novels) offer damage reduction against propelled projectiles (i.e. bullets) but not against staff weapons. This is another oversight the designers are working to remedy.

I mentioned the problems with the Jaffa race earlier, but they really come to the surface when you look at the game stat versions of Teal’c in the game’s appendix. Although he was First Prime of Aphophis when SG-1 first met him, none of his three versions give him any levels in Prime!

Some say that the Prime class represents the perfect First Prime, which Teal’c and Bratac, who both rebelled against their “god”, can hardly be said to typify. That explanation would work for me except for one detail: the 10th level power of this prestige class is called “First Prime”, and the description for that power says that First Primes are charged with command of a System Lord’s vast armies. If this power wasn’t meant to double as a title, then it should have been given the name of a title. Call it something else (“Godtouched” maybe?), but don’t call it “Prime”.

I think the right solution to this problem (in addition reducing or modifying the Jaffa Charisma penalty, is to make Prime a “short” prestige class, one with only 5 levels. That would allow Teal’c to max out his levels in Prime, and still keep his overall character level balanced. Then you could have a second “Advanced Prime” class to represent that mythical “perfect Prime”, and perhaps a third to depict those like Teal’c, who rebelled against their gods. Or maybe just make it a traditional 10-level prestige class, but force the PCs to choose one of the two paths (loyalty or rebellion) at Level 6.

And then there’s the book’s $50 price tag, which can’t be ignored. I personally don’t see that as a huge amount of money for a game — I’ve easily spent several times that on my Dungeons & Dragons game, and you’re looking at spending close to $90 if you want to get the three D&D core books. But I know that price can be an issue for some people, especially players. While I can understand that Alderac doesn’t want to cut into sales of its books, it would have been nice if they’d come out with a fast-play version of this game (perhaps adopting the earlier Spycraft Lite rules?) and a set of skill and feat handouts to help would-be players get acclimated to the setting.

These problems are not catastrophic but they do detract from the overall quality and presentation of the game. They’re enough to knock my rating from a 10 to a 9 … and if I didn’t like the game so much, it’d probably be an 8.

Thousands of Possibilities

So why do I like this game so much? Part of it is that I’m a fan of the Stargate SG-1 series. It’s got a sense of adventure and a sense of humor, two things notably lacking from recent Star Trek offerings (oh hell, let’s be honest — nothing good has been produced for Trek since First Contact).

But that’s not the main reason. This is: Stargate was practically designed to be a role-playing game. The set-up that works so well on TV — an alien Stargate that can dial up thousands of worlds — works just as well on pen and paper. You’ve got a game that is — on the surface — a near-future science fiction game. But in execution, you can switch genres with every session. One week you might send the players to a mutant-filled world recovering from nuclear winter, while the next you could send them to one in which giant wyrms are threatening medieval villagers. And after that, it’s off to a far-future setting to help the Asgard fight off another Replicator invasion.

As a GM, especially one who’s been running a D&D campaign for seven years, the ability to switch genres like this is fantastic. All the more so because the ruleset actually fosters this kind of genre-bending adventuring. Because Stargate‘s based on the d20 game mechanic, its fairly easy to pull in classes, feats, skills, monsters and hell, even entire settings from other games. A few hours work, and you can switch from fantasy to scifi to horror and back again!

That said, even longtime D&D 3E DM should know that Stargate isn’t a game you can just pick up and GM off-the-cuff. The game introduces a hell of a lot of new rules, and you really need to thoroughly read the book before sitting down behind the GM Screen. Fortunately, its fairly easy to pace your adoption of these new rules — in my case I specifically avoided the game’s more complicated aspects (like Fluid Initiative) in favor of mastering other concepts, like automatic weapons.

The Stargate setting actually makes it easy to introduce new players, even ones who’ve never seen the series before. The TV series is built around the idea that the SGC is a top secret military organization, one that people know nothing about before they join. That secretive nature, coupled with the fact that players rarely know what awaits them on the other side of the gate, limits the amount of knowledge that gamers must bring to the table. And that makes games easier to run.

Finally, there’s this: I loved the Spycraft rules, but wasn’t thrilled with the Shadowforce Archer campaign setting (mostly because of the psionic rules it introduced in what should have been a GM-only supplement). Now I have the chance to use that same rule set in a setting that really enjoy.

When all’s said and done, the Stargate SG-1 RPG is a good solid game with a few notable, but ultimately minor flaws.

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