I remember the buzz there was when Wyvern Gaming announced they’d landed the rights to do an official Stargate tabletop RPG.
The excitement was justified. The SG-1 format, in particular, suits tabletop adventures. You have a group of heroes, each with their own roles, send out on missions that may be related or might not. It’s a format that does away with random encounters in taverns and quest boards.
Wyvern also announced that the Stargate RPG would be a 5e game. Some people loved it. Some people took the chance to say that not every RPG needs to be 5e. Not every RPG is 5e.
Alien 5e is what we get. It’s the same system that powers D&D. Yet, it’s incredibly different. At times it is like there are two parallel systems in one book.
The SG-1 RPG changes to 5e
Thoughtfully, wisely, confidently, Wyvern Gaming calls out what’s different in their system on page 9. I don’t even need to unpick it for the review. So, let me re-order them slightly, stick them into headings and walk through though why I’ve sub-headed this review “Alien 5e” even at the risk of being mistaken for a certain other sci-fi franchise.
My hope is that you’ll see why. Why this feels like an alien 5e, but still 5e.
5 Level Classes
Once a member of the Stargate team (That’s Stargate Phoenix, by the way) hits level 5, they stop gaining skills.
The justification here is that by this point, “basic training” is essentially over. Characters have now fully fledged whatever character class they picked.
After level 5, characters can develop whatever specialities they want, and that’s managed through feats.
As we’ll see later, the character classes are appropriately different.
As you’d expect from a prime time TV show, the default assumption for getting into a firefight is not a total party kill. The game skews in favour of the brave members of Team Phoenix.
However, this can change and change overtly.
The Tension Die
Some roles in Stargate have a tension die added to them. For example, some damage rolls include a tension die bonus, and player characters take that much extra damage.
The GM (Gatemaster) sets the Tension Die in advance, and players know what it is.
A 1d4 Tension represents all those lighthearted SG-1 episodes. That also means you can run games set at 1d12 Tension. I tried it; oh boy, it makes a difference! Not only are fights deadly, players know scenes will quickly turn deadly, and everyone joking around stops!
Characters also have some Determination Points to use as resources. It took me a while to get used to this, not because I’m unfamiliar with games that take this approach, I’m very familiar with them, but because it’s not a very D&D thing.
And yet… Determination Points don’t feel out of place in Stargate. I found they’re used most often in what I’ll call Social Combat.
Determination Points are essentially wagered. You need to have enough of them to stay in the round, like having enough cash left to keep playing poker, and if you win, it’ll be alright.
I’ve just mentioned Social Combat; that’s my term. Stargate has two categories; Action Mechanics (combat) and Plot Mechanics (social et al.).
If you don’t want to roleplay social, you can rollplay it and with a tactical bent. You can try and figure out what might motivate an NPC and then apply the best stat. Is the alien religious or a scientist? Will they be moved by logical or emotional pleas?
You can’t keep guessing; you need to invest Determination Points to keep trying to persuade or influence someone.
Not all “Plot Mechanics” are social, though. Stargate has streamlined rules for Infiltration, Interrogation, R&D and even Traversal.
I think that’s kinda cool.
Initiative & Moxie
As there are many more firearms fights and technological-based fighting, the Initiative can be determined by Dex or Wisdom. Fast thinking matters.
Furthermore, there’s also Moxie which is determined from either Intelligence or Charisma. You might use Moxie in a social exchange, thinking quicker than a rival diplomat, for example. There’s a learning curve here, I’d either call for initiative when moxie would have been better or forgot about it.
Theatre of the Mind
Stargate abandons the imperial system. Huzzah! It’s not 1970, and measuring things in inches feels a bit retro. Yeah, I know it’s still common in civilian life in the States. But not here. Nor in space.
Additionally, given the game has a greater likelihood of ranged fighting, Wyvern excepts that grid-battle maps might not work as well, or larger grids are needed, they find time to discuss this.
Progress comes not from shooting Replicators but from completing missions. You get around about 4 mission points for each.
Races and classes
I wondered how the Stargate RPG would tackle biological essentialism.
Yes, I know. Someone just spat out their tea, rolled their eyes and stormed off in a huff.
Biological essentialism is what fantasy RPGs are butting their heads against as people look for more mature and nuanced games, but sci-fi stories (not just RPGs) are a bit behind. It’s the idea that all Klingons are war-like, not because of culture, but because all Klingons are born that way.
Biological essentialism is the idea that whole alien races are just carbon copies of a template. You might care about that as a reflection of today’s social adjustments. You might care about that because it makes for boring stories.
You might not care and, here’s the thing, I don’t think Wyvern Gaming did. I sense they cared about staying true to the show and turning it into a good RPG.
I think they get a pass with rights and wrongs. Your tolerance will vary, but nothing here alarms me.
In particular, most races get at least two types of personality. The new race, the Aturen, come in “Aturen” and “Noxian Pacifist”, thus proving not all Aturen are Noxian Pacifists. However, all Aturen get either Wisdom +2 or Charisma +2. That’s against the direction in which Wizards are pushing D&D. Are Aturens born wise? Or is their culture that makes them so?
Humans, though, Earth-like humans, get either Intelligence +2 or Charisma +2. In contrast, Tollan-Humans get +2 Intelligence or +2 Wisdom, or so forth.
The races in the game are;
I thought I’d seen all of Stargate, not religiously so, but I’ve no memory of the Unas at all! One of the things I like about the game, which I hope Wyvern will appreciate, is that it can become a Stargate SG-1 reference.
On a similar theme as “are all aliens the same?” Stargate the RPG has three sets of possible origins for characters. You pick two.
There’s the Biome Origin so that your character could come from a desert (not a desert planet, but a desert part of a planet), or starship, or lunar surface, etc.
There’s a Background Origin because your character was a Former Host, Enslaved or a Freedom Fighter.
There’s also the Racial Origins which feels very much like Cultural Origins because your character could be a Tok’ra Spy or Tau’ri Military. They’re not in this book, but I infer other Tok’ra options are not a spy. Surely these could also be a Background Origin?
There are a half-dozen Classes that represent what your character does at Stargate Phoenix;
It’s been an age since I played an RPG with Tech Levels, but I have one here in Stargate!
In essence, since you get those episodes that might have been set at a Ren Faire and the occasional high-tech one, there’s a range of weapons, armour, and so on that could quickly fill a 600-page book. Tech levels help add some structure.
There are some optional rules. For example, armour that’s two Tech Levels higher than the weapon attacking it might have extra resistance. My flint knife might not be very effective against your stab vest, but my mono-fibre blade will be.
There’s not 600-pages worth of tech here. The Stargate RPG is just shy of 400-pages, at about 369 (about ten of those are Kickstarter shoutouts – you can see me there).
The Stargate Universe
Since we’re talking about page counts, your character generation and equipment is done by about page 110.
The next chapter talks about encounters from a mechanics point of view; Plot Mechanics, and Action Mechanics, which we’ve touched on already.
Then, halfway through the book, on page 168, we get into the Stargate Program Brief.
It’s here we learn all about Stargate (up to season 6). We start with the Rise of the System Lords, those pesky Goa’uld from P3X-888.
I have version 1.0.2 of the game. If a latter version were to add more bookmarks for the “Stargate Program Brief”, I’d be happy. There’s a lot in here!
There’s a lot in here, and I’ve skimmed most of it because it’s nice to know, but even if I only give myself a C+ grade in Stargate lore, I’m still confident enough to run a game without reading all this. I did, I have, and it was fine.
The Life Forms section comes later, with a Gatemaster section in between, but both are still very much “this is Stargate”.
The Gatemaster talks about themes found in the show – like technology, politics and morality.
The life forms have stats for The Gou’uld (or how to build them), Replicators, Jaffa Troops, etc. I found this last section a bit underwhelming. I would have expected a lot more art. I would have hoped for more creatures.
Look and Feel
There are two very different looks to the Stargate TTRPG. The Stargate Program Brief is presented as paper files, a jaunty angle to the page, clippings, images and all secret mission in tone.
The rest of the book is a more traditional RPG with two columns, blocks, and tables.
Both these approaches work, and like the blend of traditional D&D 5e with the different rules, you might not think they go well together, but after a game or two, you’ll stop noticing.
Also… I can’t quite articulate this, but something doesn’t quite work with the visuals. It’s like the PDF I have (produced by Wyvern’s own system, impressively, or an off-the-shelf one white-labelled, and not OBS) is trying to be crisp, but there’s some fuzziness on the letters. Perhaps it’s just the font.
Notably, despite the unsettling “what’s up with this?” I get from scanning through the download; it is easy to read! The colour contrast seems good, there are not too many curvy founds (just with the occasional thematic note pinned to the files in the Program section), and its clear layout knew what they were doing.
The art is similar. It’s good. But it’s not my favourite. It’s like that same sort of fuzz filter that seems to haunt my copy of the game has been applied to the art. Oh, I’m not saying it’s out of focus or even fuzzy… but it’s soft and muted at times. Is it painted originally?
My reading of Stargate SG-1, the 5e powered sci-fi from Wyvern, gave it a “Good enough” rating. I went higher than just the PDF copy. In fact, gulp, I was more flush with money back then and got the leather-bound edition!
I look forward to that tome arriving!
But I wasn’t thrilled.
It wasn’t until I played a game, then another, and really got into the mechanics that I increased my overall rating to, “Hey, this is different, and we have Stargate-flavoured games here!”
I tried it with some Stargate fans who had done very little roleplaying before, and they very much liked the Plot rules with trying to work out how to best persuade alien guards and then roll against them. They didn’t try and roleplay it too much, they told me what their TV star heroes wanted to do, and for that game, we let the dice talk, and it worked.
Stargate SG-1 Roleplaying reinforces my opinion that what matters most in a rules engine is whether or not it encourages the type of game you want to play. Warhammer has a brutal system for a cruel world, for example.
Here, Wyvern took 5e and made it their own. I think they make it work for Stargate and in my experience, the Tension Die absolutely helps set the tone.
Wyvern kept 5e, but made Alien 5e. Not xenomorph 5e, but different 5e. Space 5e. Stargate 5e. 5e but not 5e.
Overall? I liked it. I predict others will love it, others will moan, and ultimately we’ll have to put one faction through a Stargate so they can set up a new colony with only people who agree with them. In the meantime, if you’ll excuse me, I’m looking forward to running the second sequel to the done-in-one game we tried but kept on going back to for more.
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I’m interested though I’d much prefer a skill based system like Chaosium d100 than anything based on D&D. The previous Stargate RPG based on 4ed was a dumpster fire.