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"Teal'c, look scary and take point."
- Jack O'Neill, Stargate SG-1

The d20 Norm

The Stargate roleplaying game varies from D&D and other d20 games in one major way: it does not use the traditional d20 concept of races. We do need to discuss the "normal" d20 concept of races before we can see and appreciate how Stargate differs.

In most d20 games, an entire race is given a specific set of modifications. So, for example, because the halfling race is physically smaller and lighter by design, standing below four feet tall, every normal halfling gets a +2 to their Dexterity score (which measures grace in movement). It doesn't matter if your halfling is a peasant or a rogue - they're going to get that +2 to Dexterity because their race wins out over everything else. A character can only have the benefits of one race, and once that race is chosen, it's generally difficult to change. Everyone must choose a race of some sort to start out with since we all come from some sort of stock, and the Player's Handbook generally encourages players to choose from one of the seven "core" races. These races are fairly balanced against one another, so they're not likely to make one character too much stronger than any of the others.

Players don't always want to play characters from the seven basic races, however, and DMs don't always want to run characters of the most basic types. There are lots of other races out there with special inborn abilities and advantages, and a system has been devised so that players can choose to play them, even though their advantages make them more powerful starting out the gate. A level adjustment rating is given to these races, depending on how many special abilities they have. This is designated by a number, usually 1 through 4. The higher the level adjustment is, the harder it is to gain experience. Thus, characters who start off stronger in the beginning are held in check by advancing more slowly.

In Stargate, the issue of race is far more complicated. As mentioned elsewhere on this site, tons of human slaves were taken from Earth and transplated onto other planets several thousand years ago. These castaways have been exposed to a multitude of different factors that Earth humans haven't: different weather, environments, elements, and more. Along the way, some groups have evolved distinct differences; on the television show, these differences are shown in small ways. In the roleplaying game, these human offshoots are called "near-humans" and they have different traits than Earth humans.

To make matters worse, the Stargate leads to possibly millions of other worlds, and there is plenty of life out there that didn't originate on Earth. This means that humans are going to encounter alien life forms of all sorts: flora, fauna, and everything in between. So how do you develop a system to account for such variety, especially in the races that players can reasonably play?

The standard d20 system of race wasn't quite broad enough to encompass everything the designers had in mind, so found ways to expand it. The default setting of Stargate is Earth (and the SGC), and the default race for characters is human. Under standard d20 rules, every human would start out with the same racial traits and it wouldn't matter what they'd spent their lives doing.

The SG-1 Way

The Stargate system divides humans up according to their macro specialty, which is usually based on a branch of the military. Therefore, humans with the air force specialty share a few things in common, like a +2 to Intelligence and the ability to choose 2 cross-class skills as class skills. But there are different types of air force personnel, such as officers and technicians. These discrete types within a macro specialty are called sub-specialties. Sub-specialties usually give skill bonuses and bonus feats. A character gains the benefit of one macro specialty and one sub-specialty, allowing for a nice amount of variation amongst humans.

Alien races are also taken into account. An alien race is given a macro species, which outlines its basic abilities and usually gives the character the option of choosing race-specific feats. A character also gains the benefits of a sub-species type. Therefore an Asgard fleet officer varies from an Asgard geneticist.

Alien races seem to be balanced against humans in certain key ways. First of all, in an Earth-based Stargate game they will probably be rare; even SG-1 has only had one alien member for much of the original series. More importantly, alien characters aren't granted every super alien ability all at once. They usually have some natural strengths and weaknesses, but their greater powers must be taken as feats. Since a character only gains so many feats during their career and their attainment of feats is spaced out, this helps to level the playing field.

There's no such thing as a level adjustment in Stargate. Alien characters do not earn less experience for being alien, they simply start out as "weaker" versions of their race and have to work their way up. They still gain access to abilities that are barred to humans and can often use technology that humans cannot operate.

Some players might complain about this arrangement, especially since the resident alien on the show, Teal'c, is so badass. What most folks don't realize is that, if you use the book's rules, Teal'c is a pretty high-level character when he first meets SG-1. In order to take the Prime prestige class, you have to be a 5th level character, minimum. To gain the rank of First Prime in the Prime prestige class, you have to be a 10th level Prime. This means that according to the rules, Teal'c is a 15th level character at the start of the show. Without going into painstaking detail, I can say that due to his classes and levels, he also has a load of feats at his command. The show makes it look like he has a great deal of Jaffa species abilities, but we have to keep in mind that Teal'c is an advanced Jaffa. He is at the top of his kind.

I think that most people will adjust to the Stargate system quickly and easily. DMs might find it especially useful for making all of those races that are close to being normal humans, but have a few neat twists. What everyone has to keep in mind is that even though the system isn't typical d20, it is still aiming at balance. While it might require a little more work from the DM, the specialty/species system can offer oustanding variety while providing a framework for balancing - perhaps even better than the level adjustment system.