I’ve always loved Stargate SG-1. Recently, I’ve started re-watching it. Only light spoilers in this article. If you know about Stargate at all, you’ll know this stuff.
SG-1 ran for 10 years. It was, the television equivalent of, the long campaign. SG-1 learnt and taught a lot during their adventures. I’m only up to Season 2 in my re-watch but there are already some important lessons I’m going to try to implement into my home games:
- Start in media res
- Use resources and NPCs as rewards
- Build upon past successes and failures
- Lead with the cool, but leave room to grow
Start in media res
Stargate SG-1 often starts with the team already away on some planet, or in the midst of a fire fight. Each episode has a few minutes before the opening credits where important plot details are established.
Okay, so they’re on some other planet, they’re under fire, lots of people on the planet dead already. Sam gives mouth-to-mouth to an injured soldier and her eyes glow. Uh-oh!
They’re on some planet, Daniel touches an artefact, he goes back to Earth but nobody at Stargate Command recognises him. Uh-oh!
Some planet again. Jack touches a crystal. He passes out. Some other Jack made by the crystal emerges and goes back through the Stargate. Uh-oh!
We don’t care how they got to those planets. We often don’t care about the planet at all after the opener. Sometimes we do, but it’s not initially important. What’s important is quickly establishing the conflict, plot seed and drama of the episode (or session). You’ve got the rest of the episode to delve into details if need be, but you don’t want to watch for half an hour before getting to the point of the episode. You want some simple things:
- Dive right into the action and get everyone excited!
- Quickly establish the conflict of the session
- Focus on this session’s spotlight PC, if any
Doing this gets the ball rolling and sets a tone and precedent to keep the action going. It should also result in less tangents, sidetracks and non-game out-of-character talk.
Use resources and NPCs as rewards
One of my favourites. Stargate SG-1 is really good at this.
It’s not actually all that often that the team gets a lot of resources (and never really any financial backing) from their adventures. Sometimes they get knowledge, often they get NPC contacts.
These are then used to fuel future adventures. Knowledge allows them to find other useful planets that might have even greater resources. NPC contacts can be called on in later missions for aid, or be used as deus ex deu to swoop in at the last minute.
Rank, too. Rank and title is one of the most awesome rewards in a campaign like Stargate. Being called Captain by everyone, then completing an epic and dangerous mission and being promoted to Major – and being called Major by everyone in the campaign – can have a real effect on players. It’s a reminder of how awesome they are and of past adventures.
Sometimes they do get resources, though, like a new power source or weapon or shield or healing device. I love SG-1’s treatment of this. Getting a new weapon doesn’t mean +1 damage. It means hours and hours of behind-the-scenes research the work out how that weapon can be useful to them in other capacities. It’s immediate usefulness is there too, but it’s not overpowering and the resources are always limited.
It’s not usually suddenly everyone running around with staff weapons. It’s everyone still with machine guns, Teal’c with his staff weapon and then maybe one extra staff weapon. They are rewards and they make a difference, but they don’t flatten the playing field to the point of removing the challenge or fun.
Better than new weapons, though, are new materials. Being able to build a new device from alien materials, or power a current device in a different way, or build a ship – one ship. Those are the wins I like. That one ship then becomes very precious. It’s not just, “we captured a ship now we can built infinite ships”. It’s, “okay, we managed to barely escape in this battered alien ship, now our techs will spend months working out how to make it work again, then when we do we will have to use it sparingly because it’s our only one”.
In your game you can make rewards seem big and noteworthy by limiting the pace at which you give them out and by linking them directly to the mission at hand. They’re not rewarded with a ship, they escaped by stealing it and now it’s theirs.
And that moves us into…
Build upon past successes and failures
When you blew up that enemy mothership, it was an awesome victory and you got a sweet glider ship out of it too! But, now your enemy is scared of you or vengeful and destroying the worlds you’ve saved. They’re ramping things up. What do you do?
Or, remember that time you went to the alternate reality? Well, that gate address you got there will work in this reality too. Let’s dial it and see where it takes us. And then, awesome! A site we can use as a secondary base, off-world. Future games can involve evacuations there, or the base needs help, or the team is visiting and something adventure-y happens!
All sorts of possibilities.
In a long campaign like this, too, the resources and rewards and NPC contacts gained can come back again and again, worked in different ways to create new adventures. Rather than something brand new all the time, call back to old adventures occasionally.
Players get a kick out of this and it allows you to reuse (and prep less) and show change in the campaign world by casting familiar characters (or places) in changed roles.
Lead with cool, but leave room to grow
There’s always the risk, in a cool and exciting campaign setting, of hoarding all the awesome secrets for later. I was shocked, watching the first season of SG-1 again, just how quickly the team acquires some really powerful resources.
Yet, they’re not maxed out. They’re not suddenly at the height of power. Indeed, they are “primitive” in comparison to some of the alien races.
Don’t hold back cool things. If you do, you may never use them.
Besides, if you give them some cool stuff first – drip feeding it to them through their victories – then there’s more to build on. You’ll give them something they think is pretty cool – and it will be – but then they’ll find something even cooler and then they’ll get that.
You see troops with staff blasters. Oh man, I want one. Okay, after a tough fight you end up with one. Good session! Some sessions later: oh, what, a healing sarcophagus! I want to use it. Okay, here’s a few opportunities to study and use it. Here are the side effects.
You’ve let them have some cool things, but there’s always more cool stuff down the track. If you wait three months of playing for them to get their hands on a staff blaster, how long is it going to be till they get an awesome spaceship? A year? Two? Will you be playing still by then?
Lead with the cool stuff, but at a reasonable rate and make them work for their rewards. Leave yourself room to grow and as they use their cool toys, you’ll see opportunities to make those toys even cooler or give them something that complements or even overshadows and replaces it, and that will spark new sessions to seek those new rewards.