Stargate RPG Review
The last time there was a Stargate RPG was back in 2003 (!) when AEG released a game based on Spycraft. It was…okay…ish. Now, nearly two decades later there’s a new Stargate RPG and it’s time to see if this one is up to the task.
When I saw the kickstarter announcement it came out of nowhere. As far as I can tell Wyvern Gaming is a small company that wasn’t even on my radar but when I saw this I definitely jumped at it. It certainly didn’t hurt that they had an actual play featuring actors from the series which lent an air of legitimacy to things. Ultimately the question is – does this game do the Stargate name proud or is it Stargate: Infinity?
Licensed Game Pitfalls
When it comes to a licensed game there’s really two things I care about (beyond the basic “is this playable”). Does the game respect and build on the lore and does it feel right? Those two things, for me, are absolutely essential in a licensed game. Feeling right is especially tricky when you’re using an already established game system, in this case the 5E system. All the lore in the world isn’t going to help if the game just feels like D&D.
I’m basing this off the pdf as the physical books are still a ways off what with printing, shipping etc. etc. It’s a pretty decent size book at about 369 pages. I feel that’s the right size for a core rulebook that has a lot of ground to cover. It’s full color and illustrated as opposed to just taking stills from the series. That’s a big plus from me as photos always just seem rehashed to me. New, exciting and evocative artwork is definitely welcome. Page layout does feature a fair amount of white space but it doesn’t seem “wasted” and for me at least makes it easier to read.
5E in Space?
Or more accurately in the forests of British Columbia I guess. The elephant in the room is whether or not this game just feels like a D&D game with a different coat of paint. That is an issue I had with Carbon 2185, an otherwise fine game that just suck a little too close to it’s 5E roots to really soar. There is a fair bit of 5E in Stargate – attributes, hit points, proficiency etc. There are big changes though as well and help to move it further away from a D&D clone. The biggest one being leveling and lack of XP (!). The writers were kind enough to include a list of changes to the core up front – including initiative (and social challenge initiative), leveling, lethality, tension dice, types of encounters etc.
Aside from the normal attributes you’d expect to find, characters are a combination of species, origin and class. The choices made here lead to a surprising amount of diversity. Even two characters of the same species and the same class can be very, very different.
The basic premise allows for player characters from five different races as part of an interplanetary allegiance against the Goa’uld. There are the races you’d expect – Human, Jaffa, Tok’ra – but also the Unas and a new race (the Aturen) who are tied to the Nox. Each of them also has a variant, including humans to allow for a human character from another world.
Species provides some attribute bonuses, proficiencies and special abilities. They all feel right. Tollans are skilled with advanced technology, Unas can be ridiculously difficult to put down.
Origins replace D&D Backgrounds and rather than one list they have three aspects – Biome, Background and Racial. Characters can choose two options and each must be from a different category. So one character could be from a desert biome (bump to Charisma and Resistance to fire) and a Healer background (proficiency in Medicine and bonus healing during a short rest) and the other could be an Aviator background (Pilot Proficiency and resistance to all damage from crashing/destroyed vehicles) with the Tau’ri military racial origin (bonus proficiencies).
I really like this mix and match approach rather than just a static background. Anything that allows for more character customization is a big plus for me.
There are six classes and while they have some correlation to D&D that has far more to do with archetypes than specifics. A medic is the healer but not a reskinned cleric. A diplomat is the face and has some inspiring abilities but is not a reskinned bard. Some abilities are direct ports, like the Scout’s Evasion ability, but others are new, like the Engineer’s Hold Together ability.
A huge change is that the classes only go to level 5! This represents the character core training. After that Mission Points are spent on acquiring Feats which is the primary method of improvement.
Feats are a big, big part of the game. No more are they an optional 2nd thought after the ASI. Feats are how the game handles multi-classing as well. A Scout character can take a Feat to learn the Medic’s First Aid ability, which then opens up the Procedure Feats to them. There is a wide variety of feats divided into 9 different categories, including a category that is all about buffing the team morale or gear during downtime. There’s a way to have your character who’s an avid gamer (the Gamer feat) be a little better at some saving throws because they keep their mind sharp 🙂
Beyond Level 5
Character track how many Mission Points they spend (not earn) after level 5 and that determines their overall level for hit point and proficiency purposes. So a character who is saving up for a more expensive Feat will level slightly slower than someone buying cheaper Feats.
Stargate is not a shopping game. It is designed for a military mission style of game and the gear reflects that. There’s no prices. Characters can’t just go and buy C4. Instead characters are issued a kit depending on the mission and then may requisition gear to fill out their loadout for their armor. Heavy armor provides more protection but has a decreased loadout. It’s nice and simple and covers shopping and encumbrance in one move.
Variety of Gear
It’s decent and covers the basics of what you’d expect from human weapons and items to Mat’tok staff and Tollan Phase Shift Devices. There’s room for expansion for sure but the things I expect to see from the series are present. The focus is on personal gear that would be needed for a mission. You’re not going to find teleportation rings of spaceships here but that’s fine for a core book.
There are very basic rules and feats to allow Engineer characters to tinker with the team’s gear in small ways as well as some general rules for running a R&D encounter for more long term/permanent effects. Nothing super complicated or in depth but functional.
The Stargate lore gets pretty dense and there is a lot to absorb with some specific terms and abbreviations. For me the ideal is to provide enough information without getting bogged down in the minutiae. The core book dedicates around 100 pages to this which sounds like a lot. However the bulk of that focuses on the specific game setting of Phoenix Site as opposed to the overall Stargate program. There’s a brief, perhaps too brief, overview of Stargate Command and what a Stargate is along with basic information on the Goa’uld. I’m not sure how useful it would be to a non-fan. I think it’s perhaps too basic but one can easily look up information online or check out the series.
There is detailed information on several alien species and threats, including writeups on the personalities of eight of the established Goa’uld and another ten created for the game. All of the material created for the game – new base site, new species, new Goa’uld are presented in the same fashion as material from the series and it fits seamlessly. I can easily see a season with the team trying to negotiate with Hachiman to gain a potent ally against Anubis.
The “bestiary” is fairly short but takes a toolbox approach to most NPCs and potential threats. Only significant foes receive the full writeup – primarily the Goa’uld. The fully statted out Goa’uld with their tech are truly dangerous opponents. The book presents two “types”- the Adult Goa’uld who is suitable as a season long villain and the System Lord who is best as a campaign villain. I hope in the future we see more detailed rules for making Goa’uld antagonists but for the time being this will work just fine. Ultimately the difference will come down to what tech they use and their personalities rather than their stat block.
Other aliens, strange beasts, Jaffa Troops and NPCs use a build it yourself style approach – choose a baseline CR, get some basic stats and then apply some options to modify them. It requires a bit of work on the GM but also allows for a greater variety without unnecessary page bloat. This is something I’ve gotten used to in Stars Without Numbers and it works just fine here. After all how many creatures in the Monster Manual are little more than a different weapon or a different number of hit points? Give me the tools to make my own beasties and call it a day.
GM Tools/Running the Game
There are a lot of great tools in this for the GM and even if you’re not a fan of Stargate but play 5E there are some truly exceptional ideas here.
The information on encounters is simply brilliant and I’d highly recommend folks who run 5E games to pick it up just for that. It 100% pushes on the “three pillars” that D&D claims to but doesn’t actually cover. Dividing things into Plot Encounters and Action Encounters and then having rules for each is freaking brilliant. From a system that bases convincing an NPC on their disposition and the character’s approach to a full on system for playing out a diplomatic function to a card based system for traversing dangerous terrain (Stargates are rarely in convenient locations).
I cannot stress enough that this game is worth picking up just for the details on non-combat encounters for 5E based systems.
The Tension Die
The Tension Die is a way of judging how dangerous or game changing or important a scene or an episode is. It can be a d4 for those lighthearted, comedic episodes or episodes that may involve NPCs from the past etc. Basically a lower Tension die means the stakes aren’t as high and death isn’t on the table. The game then has several systems that use the Tension die for various things. The DC of a check or extra damage from autofire or how much air a punctured space suit loses or the strength of a poison. All based off the tension die. There are also several character feats that use the Tension Die, so characters become more potent when the stress is on. Most importantly though, the lethality of combat is tied to the Tension Level. In a d4 tension level, characters aren’t going to die and any physical challenges are minimal. In a d10 or 12 though that’s when beloved characters make their exits and the world changes forever.
One of the best things though is that there are guidelines for changing the Tension Die during the session. So you can have a lighthearted start (d4 tension die) where things are going well, opposition is a breeze and then a System Lord’s troops show up and the die goes up to a d8 and everything gets more dangerous.
Seasons and Series
Something near and dear to my heart, the concept of the finite series game. Stargate makes no bones about the fact that it is a game emulating a science fiction TV show as opposed to a science fiction game. There is a good deal of information on how many episodes to have in a season, how many are optional, how many should move plot along, how many seasons a series should be (ironically not as long as SG-1 was on) and so forth. As I get older I appreciate this sort of storytelling in a game as opposed to a meandering game where things eventually just putter out.
The Less Good
There are some things that just don’t quite land right or may be stumbling blocks for folks.
Mission Based Games
A lot of the game is based on the presumption that the characters will be given missions from Command to complete. It’s fine and 100% replicates the source material. If your group is more inclined towards sandbox style games though, you’re going to have to do some ground work not just in terms of the game structure but also character advancement.
Still Using CR
Despite years indicating that Challenge Rating (CR) really is meaningless in encounter building it’s still a thing here. They have clarified what CR means here – a team of 3-5 PCs can handle a single enemy whose CR equals their level as a moderate challenge. They define a moderate challenge to mean the party may take some damage, may expend some resources but aren’t in real danger. It’s a much clearer writeup of what CR means than is in D&D and there have been some changes to creatures and damage but I don’t know if it’s any more useful for building an encounter.
Along with the expanded/detailed types of encounters comes a variety of new subsystems. While many of these are quite good it does add to the complexity of the game. I’d strongly suggest that GMs take their time introducing these things. I wouldn’t run a mission that involved traversals, diplomatic events and chases/dogfights all at once. The systems work but they are all new systems with new mechanics and they aren’t always “standard” 5E systems. Take your time integrating them.
Licensed games are tricky. You want it to feel “right” but also be open enough so that the players aren’t just following the steps of the main characters of the property. 5E based games are tricky because it’s so easy to just feel like D&D with a different coat of paint. Stargate has to face both of these hurdles and succeeds admirably. Some elements are so good it’s worth picking up to incorporate them into your D&D game or other 5E based game. It also feels right. It feels like the Stargate TV series with it’s mission based structure and more free form Feat based character advancement (past 5th level). For a gaming company that, for me at least, was quite obscure Wyvern Gaming really did a great job on this and I’d definitely recommend picking it up if you’re a Stargate SG-1 fan.