"Stargate SG-1 Roleplaying Game," Alderac Entertainment Group

Pros: Versatility, depth of information, thoroughness, playability, style
Cons: Editing job (what editing job?), not-so-amazing index, confusing charts
Rating: 4 out of 5

First posted 11/19/2004

I’ve long been a collector of roleplaying games, probably because I’ve worked in the industry and it’s always good to know what other people in your profession are doing. Not to mention new games are just plain fun. Although I tended to play one game or another for a while, and there were certain games I enjoyed more than others, there wasn’t one that would make me pack up the others in boxes and set them aside for long-term storage–until now.

A couple of years ago I sat down to watch an episode of the “Stargate SG-1” television series, which until then I hadn’t been that interested in (something about the ads had made it seem unappealing). But as soon as I started watching I was hooked, and have been ever since. For those not familiar, the series is based on the movie “Stargate” in which an ancient device was discovered in Egypt and found to be a gateway to another planet. The TV series centers around a secret military command charged with exploring the planets that are linked by the gate network; battling the nastier aliens out there who like to have people worship them as gods; making friends with some of the other aliens (as well as offshoots of humanity who were transplanted to other worlds by aliens as slaves); and recovering technology that would aid earth in its battles with the evil aliens (the Goa’uld). In particular the series centers around the foremost of the teams formed by this command, referred to as SG-1. The series is at times dramatic, humorous, campy, tragic, uplifting, depressing, and just plain nifty.

In many ways “Stargate SG-1” (SG1) is the perfect universe for a roleplaying game. The playing area is open-ended–because so many worlds are connected by the gate system, the player characters (PCs) can end up almost anywhere participating in almost any kind of circumstance or plot, and the game master (GM) can create nearly any type of environment for a plot to take place in. The characters have a mandate to stick their noses into pretty much anything, and can be given orders sending them into almost any sort of mission, making it very easy to draw them into plots. Also, even though it would seem that character choice is very limited (only so many different sorts of characters can be on an SG team even if it is a joint service operation and includes civilian specialists, right?) there’s actually more versatility than you’d think, allowing for characters who come from other planets and species to get “adopted” by the SGC (as has happened once or twice on the show). There’s also room to create campaigns from totally different angles, where the characters don’t work for the SGC at all! Most games don’t provide this kind of versatility up front (relegating it to later supplemental books if they include it at all), so I loved this.

System

The “Stargate SG-1 Roleplaying Game,” produced by the Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG), is based on two pre-existing game systems (in terms of mechanics): the “d20 System” and “Spycraft” (produced by Wizards of the Coast and AEG, respectively). In order to play SG1 you’ll need to have access to a copy of the “Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, Third Edition,” although only for a very few details here and there. You do not need to have access to “Spycraft” in order to use SG1, although AEG is working to make “Spycraft” supplements compatible with SG1.

Almost any roleplayer should already know what the d20 System is, but I’ll give you the very short form just in case. It’s a licensed game system (allowing other companies to use the pre-existing system and modify it within certain restrictions). It’s class-based (a character belongs to a character class, such as “scientist” or “soldier,” that encompasses their career and abilities) and level-based (characters improve in ability and talent in fits and starts, as they gain levels over time via “experience points”).

The “Stargate SG-1 Roleplaying Game,” produced by the Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG), is based on two pre-existing game systems (in terms of mechanics): the “d20 System” and “Spycraft” (produced by Wizards of the Coast and AEG, respectively). In order to play SG1 you’ll need to have access to a copy of the “Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, Third Edition,” although only for a very few details here and there. You do not need to have access to “Spycraft” in order to use SG1, although AEG is working to make “Spycraft” supplements compatible with SG1.

Almost any roleplayer should already know what the d20 System is, but I’ll give you the very short form just in case. It’s a licensed game system (allowing other companies to use the pre-existing system and modify it within certain restrictions). It’s class-based (a character belongs to a character class, such as “scientist” or “soldier,” that encompasses their career and abilities) and level-based (characters improve in ability and talent in fits and starts, as they gain levels over time via “experience points”).

Combat

Another thing I love is the combat system. One of the grand things about shows like SG-1 that’s very difficult to duplicate in RPGs is the truly dynamic and dramatic combat scene. With the SG1 RPG, it’s comparatively easy. A huge collection of interesting combat-related feats allows characters to use nifty special moves during combat. A fantastic and well-thought-out list of standard actions allows a character to try almost anything–disarm, strike an object, trip someone, standard attack (or burst, autofire, cover fire, suppressive fire, strafe attack…), aim, coup de grace, grapple, charge, run, withdraw, drop prone, feint, reload, stabilize a dying character, taunt, threaten, trick, and more. I don’t think we’ve yet run a combat in which we couldn’t find out how to resolve something we wanted to try. There are also stats for an incredible number of weapons of all types, from flash/bang grenades to baseball bats and sniper rifles; and “action dice” can allow characters to achieve dramatic and heroic effects.

In fact, one minor difficulty for us has been the same thing that makes the system so good–the thoroughness of the rules. There are directions for so many things that it’s easy to forget that something’s covered in the book, or where it’s covered (and the index, while fair, isn’t great). When you’re talking about a nearly 500-page full-sized hardback, it can get tough to find things! I recommend making yourself a reference list of charts and handy information sections that you tend to use a lot. (You can also find a couple of these on fan-run websites.)

Run several combats before you play the game. Start with very simple ones (one-on-one), and then introduce complications (more combatants, cover, new weapons, feats, etc.); the practice will definitely help. In addition, try to create a table of combat-relevant information before each adventure for all the PCs and NPCs so that combat can go more smoothly. Once you’ve played for a little while you’ll have a better idea of what information it’s handy to have on hand to keep things moving quickly.

The Book

Aesthetics & Editing

By and large the book is gorgeous. The paper is of good quality. The cover is sturdy. There are plenty of full-color photos from the show, and entertaining quotes are peppered throughout (but not with the insane abundance of some books). The writing style is good, clear, and interesting.

However–and here comes my one major gripe with the book–the editing is atrocious. Clearly a great deal of effort went into making this book pretty, but apparently the company couldn’t get a decent editing job done. In fact, it kind of looks like more typos were edited into the book than were edited out.

This bothers me so much for two reasons. One, this is such an amazingly fun RPG that it’s painful to see it marred by something that could have been so easily dealt with. Two, the sections that are particularly typo-ridden are system sections. The typos include things like sentences and paragraphs that trail out in the middle, or fractions that have been replaced by letters and so on–and these are things that actively interfere with someone’s ability to use the game. For instance, when you look up the “diversion bundle” of gear and find that it includes “G lb. of C4”–well, just how much stuff can a character blow up with ‘G’ pounds of C4, anyway?

The other issue is that charts are often found nowhere near the pages that actually explain their contents, and/or there’s a lack of explanation for how to interpret the charts. Sometimes they’re easy to puzzle out, but at other times I’ve been frustrated trying to figure out how I’m supposed to use the information from a given chart. Of course since the relevant information sections aren’t always right there, you often have to page around or check the index to find them. Which doesn’t always help, because while the index is quite long and thorough, it has issues of its own: things aren’t necessarily listed under the terms you might expect; at least a good handful of the page listings are simply incorrect; and it feels like a bunch of things got left out (to be fair, in a 500-page book it’s easy for even a long index to be incomplete).

Information

Episode Guide: Often I find episode guides in RPGs based on TV shows to be a waste of space–guides are available on the web, and usually guides in rulebooks are written such that they just recount dry plot details; they don’t add anything. In this case, however, the episode summaries are relatively brief, they aren’t as dry, and they’re written with an eye toward suggesting plot hooks and possible later repercussions. They provide a basic idea of what’s happened so you’ll know, for example, when the Tok’ra were introduced into the series, or when SG-1 killed off various System Lords (useful if you want your campaign to reflect some of the show’s timeline). The episode guide goes through Season 6, since Season 7 ended too recently to be included. This book does not assume that you’ll be starting your campaign at a certain point in the show’s timeline–you can start it pretty much whenever you want.

The Stargate Program: There’s an incredible amount of really nifty information in here about the Stargate program, from the makeup of the SG teams to the layout of the Cheyenne Mountain Complex. I find this stuff fascinating just as someone who watches the show; as someone who plays and GMs the RPG I find it invaluable.

Worlds and Species: The book includes information on a handful of well-known worlds from the show (Abydos, Chulak, Cimmeria, Tollan/Tollana, Kelowna, Alpha Site) and lesser-known worlds, as well as alien species (Asgard, Jaffa, Tok’ra, Near-Humans, Reol). It may not be a huge amount, but it’s certainly enough to get you going and give you ideas.

The Goa’uld: The evil, nasty Goa’uld get their own chapter, including information on their biology, homeworld, history and culture, nature, organization and goals, as well as individual System Lords.

Character Creation: The character creation chapter is quite detailed. In addition to choosing a character class (Scout, Explorer, Soldier, Scientist, Pointman, etc.), you also choose a macro- and micro-specialty (or -species). For example, if you choose “Air Force” as a macro-specialty, you might choose “Officer” or “Technician” as micro-specialty. Several prestige classes (advanced, specialized classes that can be explored once a character becomes more experienced) are included as well.

Skills, Feats, and Backgrounds: A large number of skills and feats are included–certainly enough to keep you happy for quite a while. Versatility is included in the form of skills that can be bought more than once, but that require additional detail and specificity. For instance, “Knowledge” requires you to pick a field in which your character is knowledgeable. Your character might possess skill ranks in Knowledge (military history), Knowledge (neurochemistry), Knowledge (aircraft) and so on.

Backgrounds are various bits of a character’s history; they’re essentially player-created sub-plots. The player has to spend skill points to take them, but the GM then has to work them into the game for a time, and as the plot proceeds the PC gets extra experience points based on how many points he put into the background. This allows players to directly participate in the creation of the story-line. While many gaming groups do things like this already and don’t need mechanics to enforce it, I think this’ll be handy for groups that aren’t sure how to make this kind of stuff work. It also gives the player a little more control over how and when his sub-plots come into play.

Gear: The amount of gear in this game is incredible. There’s information on how much gear characters of various ranks can take with them through the Stargate. Characters also get “gear picks” and “resource points” (based primarily on class level) that they can spend on equipment and resources, which makes it easy to figure out what and how much stuff they should have access to. There are “bundles” that package up related items for specific circumstances. Gear-up can take some time, so if players find their characters tend to pick the same items over and over, it might be smart to keep a short list of those items and their costs handy.

Combat: There’s plenty of information on combat actions, combat sequence, healing and injury, and so on.

Gamemastering Stargate: This section starts off with basic information, but it gets into a heck of a lot more. There are sections and tables to help with mission design and world creation. If you aren’t feeling inspired to start from scratch you can roll dice to determine everything from your planet’s temperature to its atmosphere, seasonal patterns, terrain, current weather patterns, and so on. Additional tables aid in the creation of near-human and alien races, helping you to determine everything from tech level to type of government. Instructions are included for creating NPCs, coming up with appropriate encounters for the PCs (I found the latter a little confusing in organization and wording), creating Goa’uld, and more.

I wasn’t thrilled with some of the results from the tables. For instance, while I think the table that determines the temperature of a world is perhaps semi-realistic in that many worlds have temperatures far from livable for humans (or anything else in some cases), that isn’t necessarily practical for a roleplaying game. The TV show has already provided the convenient explanation that the Ancients who built the Stargates terraformed the planets they put them on to be close to earth-normal, so it would make sense to include charts that reflect this in their probabilities. As it is I found that a ridiculous number of the planets I made turned out to be pretty much uninhabitable until I modified the table myself (the atmosphere table could use similar adjustments). After all, while I enjoy the occasional game that takes place on a truly bizarre or alien world, where you need special equipment just to go outside, I don’t want that to be the norm–and it isn’t the norm on the show.

Another item of contention among some fans of the game is the experience system. It’s recommended by the book that characters, on average, gain one level per mission accomplished. However, if you go by that rate, then the characters on the TV show would have been so accomplished by the end of season one that they would have been ready to retire.

In addition, the system for determining a character’s starting rank has officer characters starting at a rank of Major. This would result in a far higher average rank than the information on the SGC toward the front of the book suggests (and again, it isn’t consistent with the show). Take a look on the web at some of the fan-run sites–one person came up with a good alternate rank system that a lot of people have been taking advantage of. Also, the “Spycraft” supplement “US Militaries” has a newer system for determining rank that’s compatible with SG1 and much more reasonable.

Of course, write-ups are included for all of the major characters from the TV show, at various levels of experience.

I don’t think there’s any information in this book that I’d dismiss as useless or a waste of space. And given the size of this book, that’s a lot of useful information! The book may be expensive, but if you want to play the game it’s worth every penny.

Gameplay

I’ve had a lot of fun playing this game, and I’ve experienced it both as a player and as a GM. The only difficult part is learning the extensive amount of information, and you can start with the basics and work more of it in bit by bit over time as you become comfortable with the game. The game is incredibly versatile and enjoyable, and clearly a lot of thought went into making sure that players could replicate the feel and fun of the TV show as well and easily as possible. As evidenced above there are a few points of contention, and the usual few places where you think, “hmm, I would have done this differently,” or “why didn’t they think of this?” But these spots are generally few and far between, they’re minor, and they’re fairly easy to compensate for.

You can certainly run fulfilling games of SG1 with only the core rulebook; you don’t need any of the support books. The company opted to make a super-huge rulebook rather than leave out necessary chunks of the game for later books, and I respect that.

Support

The game has so far been very well-supported, by both publisher and fans. The official AEG website ncludes NPCs, technical information, equipment, links, product info (and new release announcements), forums and so on. When additional or corrected information is slated to appear in a future book, it sometimes gets posted on the site first (like the revised instructions for Jaffa staff weapons). Posted in the forums you’ll find errata listings for the game that correct various errors (the “sticky” threads at the top of the “Stargate SG-1 Players” forum). If you play the game, go print these out. You’ll need them to make up for that aforementioned editing job.

Originally you could only find the core rulebook at RPG shops; now it’s available through standard outlets such as Amazon. Follow-on books, which have been more widely available, have been superb; they have never failed to be interesting and chock-full of useful information. Normally I don’t have much use for “season books,” books that go into depth regarding a particular season of a TV show (and similar sorts of supplements). In this case, however, they’re done particularly well. [NOTE: Sadly AEG has lost the license to produce further supplements for the SG-1 game.]

There has been a quick proliferation of fan-created material, and some of the sites out there have fantastic resources. Interactive PDF character sheets, alternative rank systems, mission design templates, floor plans of military complexes… You name it, you’ll probably find it.

The core rulebook has so much information that even roleplayers unfamiliar with the show shouldn’t find themselves particularly at a disadvantage if they give it a good read-through. (And I’ve heard that from actual players who’d never seen the show before they played the game, so I have good reason to think it.)

In short, despite that editing job (I just can’t stop harping on that, can I?), this is the most fun I’ve ever had with a roleplaying game. This is a great game with a lot of room to maneuver in customizing your own campaign. Want to concentrate on military missions? Cultural exploration? Diplomatic negotiations? Warring aliens? Spying and intrigue? All of the above are possible, and more.

I really want to give this game 5 stars. I desperately want to give it 5 stars, because that’s how much I love playing it. But in all good conscience I don’t think I can give 5 stars to an RPG rulebook that has incomplete and mis-typed rules that interfere with game-play; charts that aren’t near their relevant sections and sometimes aren’t sufficiently explained; and a misleading index. If the errors were ones that didn’t interfere with game-play I wouldn’t mind them nearly so much, but as it is they do add up to be a problem.

Posted in Gaming, Reviews
4 comments on “"Stargate SG-1 Roleplaying Game," Alderac Entertainment Group
  1. stargate is outstanding. i just started watching SGU. im not a fan of it though.

  2. Matt says:

    Thank you for this review. I was really helpful. The publisher is quite open about the length of the book, but not very clear about the contents. Thanks again,

  3. Tycho says:

    What I dont get is how your ability scores are made. Nowhere in the book is explained if you have to roll dice or you get a pool from which you take points.

    • Heather says:

      As noted in the review,

      In order to play SG1 you’ll need to have access to a copy of the “Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, Third Edition,” although only for a very few details here and there.

      That’s one of those details.

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