This article originally appeared in Issue #010 of the downloadable PDF magazine.
We’ve all seen them. They’re essentially step-through doorways to distant worlds. Fantasy and Science-Fiction authors have used them as plot devices to remove the protagonists from the resources and comforts of their homes andazaz place then in hazardous situations, often with little or no hope of ever returning home any time soon.
Sometimes, stargates are huge structures that you could pilot a battleship through. Other times, they’re just large enough for humans to march through in single file. Some are artifacts of ancient alien technology, while a few are developed through secret government programs or ‘mad science’.
Regardless of their origins or what they look like, stargates may have a place in Traveller if used with discretion and with concern for maintaining game balance.
What Stargates Are Not
A stargate is not a transporter, which allows people and objects to be moved between any two points within range of the transporter equipment without the existence of another transporter device at the far end. Thus, a character could not set up a stargate near a bank vault and hope to ‘beam out’ large quantities of cash without first setting up another stargate within the bank vault as well. The psionic ability Teleport already accomplishes this discretely.
Traveller already has a reliable means means for interstellar transit - the Jump Drive. Given the right equipment, any location within six parsecs (3.26 ly × 6 = 19.6 ly) can be arrived at within a week (168 hours ± 10%), baring incident or accident. The Jump Drive is ‘good enough’ for getting characters around the Traveller universe. There is a wide body of literary work surrounding the Jump concept, and most players and referees are already used to the game mechanics. Why change?
When one considers that the rules of Traveller do not allow for FTL communications—messages can travel only as fast as the Jump-capable ships that carry them—this renders irrelevant the point that the character are isolated from their home resources, unless they carry those resources with them.
Stargates are not canonical, except in the ultra-tech (TL-16+) environment of Grandfather’s pocket universe (CT A12; Secret of the Ancients). Even then, Grandfather’s ‘Portals’ are limited in range and function, with each portal constructed and programmed for only one destination.
Admittedly, the best argument for the inclusion of stargate technology within the Traveller universe is that it is a Really Cool Idea—one that has untold possibilities for opening up new storylines and adventures: “Who made them?” “How did they get here?” “Why were they made?” And most important, “How do we exploit them and use them to our advantage?”
Another feature of stargates are their relative convenience of use versus Jump drive technology. No more low passage tickets. No more skimming gas giants for fuel. No more fighting of corsairs and crooked customs agents. Just key in your destination, wait for the green light, and then walk through. When you’re finished, reverse the process and be home in time for supper.
Stargates should be extremely rare—no more than two or three per sector! Certainly, no more than one world out of 200 or so should even be a candidate. They should be located on worlds that either have no exploitable resources, little or no population, or some kind of environmental hazard that makes the world inhospitable to life. Worlds that are ‘off the beaten path’ could also qualify.
A barren world with no resources could be explainable if the resources were all taken away by the stargate builders, or if the former population used the stargate to escape a war or natural disaster that nearly obliterated their world.
If the worlds are inhabited, then the population should either be ignorant of the existence of the stargate, ignorant of its true purpose, or in a state of religious or superstitious fear concerning the stargate and its location to such an extent that even discussing it is a major taboo. Strict governmental or religious controls (GOV: 6 or 10+) or low technology (TL: 3 or less) would support these ideas.
Worlds that may have once been habitable have undergone major upheavals—natural or cultural—that poisoned the environment. Perhaps a biological or nuclear war occurred, or the star the world orbits around is unstable.
The world should be somewhat isolated from the others around it. A minimum three-parsec jump to the nearest neighbor should help keep the stargate secret, and still provide a need for Jump-capable ships to get to and from the stargate world.
The world should have enough dry land and sufficient breathable atmosphere for characters to survive, regardless of other hazards (ATM: 4 through 9; HYD: 0 through 9). This way, if there is no way for the characters to determine what’s on the other side, then the trip won’t be immediately fatal.
Otherwise, here is a simple procedure for determining which worlds IYTU would have a stargate:
Roll 12+ on 3D for each system. This provides a one-half of one percent chance of any given world having a stargate somewhere on it.
For characters to find the stargate (if looking for it), roll 12+ on 2D per week of searching. Dice modifiers would include skills for sensor operations, if using technology to help with the search.
Once found, determining how to operate the stargate should be automatic, but only if the characters have either prior experience in doing so, or if they have some kind of ‘User Manual’ to guide them.
For an Imperium-based campaign, worlds accessible through the stargate might be designated as XYZ-NNN, where the first character indicates whether the world is a planet orbiting a star (“P”) or a moon orbiting a planet (“M”). The next character represents the sector that contains the stargate, while the third character represents the subsector (A through P).
This assumes, of course, that the Imperial sector map is the primary reference. The Zhodani, for example, might use a completely different method.
The last three characters match the UWP physical characteristics of the world that the stargate is on. Thus, if there were a stargate on Gagamshir in the Regina system, the stargate designation would be MLC-534 (UWP is F534328). The address used to activate the stargate to this address is up to the referee. I use a random, linear-weighted sequence of hexadecimal characters, seven digits long, for each 'gate address.
IMTU, the stargate address for MLC-534 is A705BC9. Yeah, lots of numbers and details to remember, and lots of opportunities for a group of characters running from a life-threatening situation to key in the wrong address...
It might be important to keep the appearance of all stargates generally the same. IMTU, they all have these features in common:
The stargate itself appears as a ring of an unknown substance, 10 meters in diameter, standing vertically on its edge. It has no visible moving parts, but does emit a low-level EM signature on certain bands that could interfere with ship-to-ship communications. These emissions are indecipherable, but seem to have a repeating pattern.
There is a nearby control console, of the same unknown substance, with 16 palm-sized pads, marked in an unknown language. Pressing these pads in specific sequences activates the stargate as soon as the final pad is pressed.
The symbols on each key could represent numerical values, arcane glyphs, or images depicting possibly mythological creatures and objects.
It takes 7 or 8 symbols to activate the stargate, and not all combinations will work. The referee could assign these ‘addresses’ at random or use an orthogonal grid pattern as coordinates. Either way, the addresses should remain constant, and not change from one adventure to the next.
There is a ‘cool-down’ period between activation attempts while the stargate resets itself. This could be long—a day to as much as two weeks—in order to keep the characters from spending an entire game session mapping out the stargate network. I recommend that the referee roll 2D secretly each time the gate is activated; the result is the cool-down time in days before the next activation may occur—from either end.
During activation, the interior of the stargate appears to become misty and translucent. While no actual mist is generated, objects viewed through the stargate become blurry and indistinct. Once activated, the misty area seems to solidify into a slightly shimmering, mirror-like surface.
Activation produces a sharp, seismic jolt that is hard enough to be felt, but that does not cause any damage. This jolt is the primary reason why most stargates were either located outside populated areas, or mounted on extra heavy-duty shock absorbers.
People stepping through the stargate will experience a brief sensation of falling, then a minute of disorientation after they arrive (DM-1 on all attack and skill rolls). No other sensory information will be perceived, and even high-speed recording devices will only record a brief moment of darkness (Note: Some players have suggested that this is because they were directly exposed to Jumpspace … as the referee, I have never put forth the effort to confirm or deny this speculation …).
The stargate is one-way, from the departure side to the arrival side. A person or object that is less than half-way through may pull or be pulled back, but passing through half-way or more makes returning impossible. So far, no one has been caught at the half-way point when the stargate shuts itself down … so far ...
Radio, meson and telepathic communications will not work through a stargate, but shots can be fired blindly from the departure side to the arrival side. Lobbing a tactical nuclear device through an active stargate is not only a violation of Imperial law, but could make for an unpleasant reception from the survivors on the other side.
Introducing Stargates Into YTU
The first time IMTU involved a government-controlled archeological dig, and group of characters that had run afoul of the military. They were offered a reprieve if they would ‘volunteer’ for a dangerous mission, the details of which they would learn only after arriving at the dig site.
After volunteering ‘willingly and with full understanding of the circumstances’ (e.g., do it or spend the next ten years at a hard-labor prison), the characters were given survival packs, projectile weapons, daggers, jack armor, et cetera … and a crash course in what little was known about the theory and operation of a stargate.
Once through, the characters found themselves in a cave on a high plateau overlooking a jungle environment. In the distance could be seen something that looked like a ruined city, but they could not be sure. There was no way off the plateau, so the characters tried to activate the stargate and go home again. Unfortunately, the stargate would not function for a full day, even when they tried several alternate addresses they had been given. Then, when the stargate finally did activate and they stepped through, they arrived someplace other than their original location—the address they had been given for the trip home was incorrect.
Eventually, they made it back to civilization, but only after finding themselves on the following worlds:
A desert world, inhabited by insectoid aliens that considered the stargate a holy relic of the gods that created them.
A frozen world similar to Terra during its most recent ice age, complete with cave-people, giant wooly animals, sabre-toothed predators, and all the amenities that a TL-0 world could offer.
An octagonal chamber, deep underground, that seemed to be a major nexus for the stargate network. Each wall supported a single stargate, and there was a raised platform in the middle where the stargate controls were operated. There was no way in or out other than by stargate, and only one stargate still functioned.
A laboratory-like setting. Less than a minute after their arrival, alarms sounded. Within a few minutes after that, a tall gentleman entered the room and demanded to know their business. This man was wearing a turban...
Other means of introducing stargates to YTU could involve:
The characters come into the possession of an Ancient artifact inscribed with images that lead the characters to a certain location.
A government agency contacts the characters to discretely investigate a series of strange events and/or rumors.
A scientist needs a few volunteers to go on an excursion.
While stumbling around the wilderness of a low-population world, the characters find what seems to be a temple. One of them triggers a trap, which drops them into an underground stargate room.
The events from CT A12, Secret of the Ancients could be played out up to the point where the characters explore the Ancient site at Boughene, and instead of boarding the ship, they find a stargate room. This keeps the concept of the stargates’ origins in line with the Ancients-Did-Everything theory.
Other possible scenarios could be played out.
“G’vrk, sensors are picking up an odd EM signature from the planet below. Long-range imaging shows a bunch of ruined buildings clustered around a large open area, in the middle of which is a ring-like structure approximately 10 meters in diameter standing on its edge. The EM signals in the G-band seem to come from this general vicinity…”
“Men, you have been selected to investigate the disappearance of the crew of one of our survey vessels. The ship was found … let’s see … derelict and orbiting a so far un-named world of a type M8 dwarf star … UWP is X761000-0 … no known resources … the star is an irregular flare star … radiation hazard … unpredictable …”
«Noble Sir, a matter for your attention.»
«Intelligence reports unusual Imperial activity focusing on system 227-1113, just inside their border. It is a barren world of no known significance.»
Summary / Conclusion
Stargates can fit into the Traveller multiverse without endangering game balance, provided that their use has limitations that prevent or inhibit commercial exploitation. Their presence can even enhance an already-existing game milieux and provide a multitude of adventuring opportunities.