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Alien

by on February 19, 2021
 
Alien
By Free League Publishing

I’ve been an Alien fan for a worryingly long time. My dad hit a point of being tired of showing my little brother and me kid’s movies and rented a copy of Alien. He explained that at some point we would want to watch 18-rated movies and if we were going to do it, we’d have him there to contextualise it. He would later unsuccessfully try to do this with beer and I can’t stand the stuff to this day. Alien, however, was a hit. We watched it, talked about it, loved it. We rented Aliens after that and my love for the series grew from there.

I bought the Hasbro toys, the UK reprint of the Dark Horse Comics which later would lead me to comic shops which would be my workplace and to this day a regular haunt of mine. When a friend turned enemy showed up at a friend’s house to start a fight with me, I ended up catching a boot to the face as I was taking too long gathering up my Aliens action figures. Fortunately I didn’t get any blood on the toys.

I stopped thinking about Alien, Aliens and the rest of the series for years, barring the occasional watch of the films. Then I saw Free League’s stall at Dragonmeet 2019, selling the massive Alien RPG core book and several accessories. I had underestimated how it brought everything back to me about how much I’d loved the series. As soon as I had enough money from the Dragonmeet bring & buy, I dashed over to make sure I picked up a copy of the RPG while they still had copies. I was still talking myself out of it; this was a giant trad-looking tome, I’d been burnt by licensed games which don’t mechanically fit the game they’re trying to reflect and so on. The folks at the stand were lovely and helped push me over the edge. I bought the core book, the deck of cards, an adventure and the GM Screen.

The Book

Alien is a gorgeously illustrated massive tome. It could probably fit in a lower page count, but the slightly sparser layout helps present details clearly and gives space for the art.

The game fits into two different modes, Cinematic and Campaign. Cinematic Mode is what takes up the bulk of the book, with the traditional things you expect from an RPG, some of which feel fine and others frankly feel superfluous like space combat systems and character advancement. The Cinematic Mode is what the current adventures use and how I’d expect to run an Alien game. It expects characters to go through one story and probably not survive. It’s horror, and loads people up with personal agendas as they get through the plot. Personally, I didn’t feel like I wanted to run a full season of an Alien game, although my old GM Graham and I ended up hashing out a rough idea about how to do one, so that may feature in my future at some point.

One of the nice things about this book is that it does talk about things like themes and how to enforce and encourage thematic play, which can be fairly hit and miss with some bigger RPGs. As someone more used to indie games about a third the size, I was pleased with this. The GM (standing for Game Mother in this RPG) section even drills down on the themes and presents several GM principles. They mention using a session zero in Campaign Mode to help manage player expectations about what’s going on. If there is one disappointment its that there’s no mention of safety tools that I could find on reading the book, something especially good to do in a horror game.

Character creation is fairly simple and if you’re familiar with Free League’s games like Coriolis, it’s got the same DNA. You pick a career such as ‘marine’ or ‘kid’ which gives you your initial direction. Each character has a set of attributes and skills which branch out of them. There are special abilities, kind of like Feats in other games. Then there’s health and stress, which make up the last of your character. Nice and simple.

Once you’ve got your character, you’re ready to play. Characters roll a handful of six-sided dice for any skill rolls (this includes attacks). You only succeed on a 6 and nothing else, which as a Blades in the Dark GM used to partial successes on a 4-5, felt daunting. There are ways to mitigate this, by playing with Stress.

Stress is one of the fun new mechanics which make Alien work really well. Players know that they’re going to face xenomorphs, they know their characters are probably doomed, but it’s difficult reflecting that. I know we’ve spoken on the podcast before about how horror board games are difficult at conveying horror. RPGs have a bit of an easier time of this, but only with mechanical help. Stress makes players more focused, but also more unreliable, just like characters in a horror movie. If you encounter something like a body with its chest torn open by something, or hear something small scuttling through the vents, you gain Stress. It makes you hyper-vigilant and focused, gaining Stress dice which look different to the normal ones. Nice, huh? Stress gives you more dice and more likelihood of success. That’s only one part of it.

If you roll a 1 on your Stress Dice, whether you succeed or fail at a skill check, you Panic. Panic is a specific state which causes the GM to roll on a table and see what happens. This is based off your Stress level, so a Panic at a low level isn’t too bad. You might add to your Stress and to that of your fellow players. Later on, you might freeze up, you might attack someone… who knows, it could be all manner of fun things. Even better, if you’re fighting and panic, you might empty all your ammunition firing wildly. Okay, that’s even better if you’re the GM and eager to have fun with the players.

The xenomorphs themselves get stats, using concepts from all the Alien films, specifically making use of the mutations in Prometheus and Alien Covenant, two moderately good films in the franchise which both really shat the bed in their last act. Still, this gives license to muck with the monsters and keep players guessing, thanks to the weird evolution of several different types of xenomorph. The GM rolls for the behaviour of the creatures, consulting a table which helps them act inconsistently alien and spook the players. A chestburster might nip at someone and then dive into a vent. A full-grown xenomorph might pin someone and hiss at them as an action, terrifying their prey but buying them a last second chance to escape before their head it bitten off. In my playthrough, it didn’t help.

As I said earlier, there’s a section on spaceship combat, which felt quite pointless to me, as I didn’t expect to ever really want to use it in an Alien game, but I guess for a campaign you might want it just in case that takes your fancy. The campaign play and spaceship rules felt like they were in there simply because that’s what all traditional RPGs need to have and people would be upset if it didn’t have that sort of thing.

There are a few rules areas such as dealing with fire, cold, lack of air and so on, which I kind of lost track of after a little while, but these are the kind of rules which its good to know are there and then refer back to when necessary. For the GM, there are details such as playing with ‘Stealth Mode’ for the xenomorphs. It’s an interesting way of mechanising moving creatures around without the players knowing. When I ran Alien, I had a player map and a little GM map. I used glass beads to represent where the xenomorphs were and using stealth mode I moved them around bit by bit. When the group heard things or used a motion detector, I placed an equivalent bead on their map, although because everything was still moving, they never quite knew where their enemy was. Compared to miniatures or tokens representing definite positions, it was interesting seeing them using tokens as presumed locations or ways to predict where the xenomorphs might have gone. And sometimes, they were even correct.

There’s a surprising amount of setting information which goes beyond the details provided in the core canon of the films. It makes me wonder how many details have been gleaned from background information, from other sources like the books or comics, and how much has been made up. The corporate governments are all large and dystopian, with their own rivalries and wars going on. Religion has changed, although it’ll be interesting showing players wooden prayer rooms on a spaceship or station at some point. It helps give a wider world view which could have campaigns where you spend the first half in this world, experiencing it all and building towards some horrendous encounter with some kind of xenomorph. In the timeline it chalks up LV-426’s tragic events as part of the corporate wars and creates a good amount of plausible deniability. Like the art, all of this helps frame the players as working class ‘space trucker’ types, working for massive companies who may as well be as Lovecraftian gods to them. Even the space marines are as much of a victim of this kind of agenda.

The final thing is the section on alien life. There are the Engineers of Prometheus, which was kind of a surprise but I guess they’re all canon. The book gets as much as it can from the standard xenomorphs, going through stat blocks for their entire lifecycle, as well as the neomorphs from Prometheus & Covenant in case you want to use those. There are some other creatures, but we all know folks are here for the xenomorphs. There are stalkers, scouts and drones from the vanilla xenomorphs from Alien & Aliens. The behaviour for all of them differs a bit, helping to keep players from simply predicting what the monsters are like. Managing player expectations about what’s going to happen is a bit tricky, as we all know what we’re playing this for and you can’t really hide that. Still, you need to make sure players don’t become numb to it and characters don’t necessarily know what’s coming and simply prepare themselves like they’re in some kind of really deadly Home Alone scenario. The book itself suggests mixing things up just to see what happens and David in Alien Covenant definitely helped show that these things can adapt to a lot of new scenarios, giving license to muck with it all. Personally, I will not rest until Free League make a sourcebook with the Hasbro Aliens in it. Give me my bull alien!

This isn’t the only product from Free League I bought, though, so I thought I’d give a quick rundown of what else there is:

The Other Products

The Custom Card Deck is the product I’m the least impressed with. The main item you’ll want this for are the initiative cards which count down from 1 to 10 and are to be handed out in a fight. There are character cards with portraits on one side and stats on the back, inventory cards and vehicle cards. I found these pretty much superfluous apart from the numbered cards and even then, it’s easy enough to find a solution.

The Alien Dice are lovely-looking, with two sets for normal dice and stress dice. They all have a success symbol on the six and the stress dice have a facehugger on the one. I didn’t pick these up, instead I used black dice for normal dice and put red stickers on the ones of white dice for stress.

Chariot of the Gods is a longer adventure than the one in the book. It looks interesting and very much on theme with Alien rather than Aliens. The crew come across a derelict ship with some unpleasant visitors. The scenario covers the locations, the timeline of events as they unfold and pregenerated characters. As this is a cinematic game, each character gets multiple agenda cards to give out in each act of the game as things change, but also one for a fun revelation if certain events go off. There are several NPCs for the players to take control of when you run out of player characters. In my experience, this will be needed. If there’s one criticism, its that this doesn’t use the most iconic xenomorphs, but in a way this works quite well for keeping things uncertain in the group. It’ll probably last a couple of sessions.

The GM Screen is landscape and solid enough to take dice getting chucked at it pretty roughly. I like to put together my own cheat sheets for games as I rarely use a screen, but I found it really useful having tables for things like Panic in one place. While I’m normally an open secrets GM, Alien really shines with the aliens sneaking around where players can’t see them. A screen was essential at shielding my version of the map with the players’

A Starter Box was released with a cut down version of the rulebook which only covers the Cinematic Mode, as well as Chariot of the Gods, both sets of dice, maps, tokens and cards. The cards even include the agendas for the adventure’s pregens, which is really handy. Personally as much as I enjoyed reading the core rulebook, this is a fantastic deal and exactly what I’d have picked up if it came out at the same time. You can even see me unbox it here.

There’s another product of Free League’s I don’t have yet which looks pretty cool. It’s a cinematic scenario called Destroyer of Worlds. It’s contained in a smaller boxed set than the starter, but has maps and cards to work with the contained adventure. I love this idea of having the scenarios in this fashion. Apparently this is the Aliens to Chariot of the Gods’ Alien, with players taking the role of marines in a situation which I’m sure will be perfectly fine and won’t involve any murder at all, especially with a name like that.

The Game

I ran one session of the Alien RPG for a full group, playing the Hope’s Last Day scenario in the Alien RPG core rulebook (which I don’t think is in the starter). It’s supposed to be a game which lasts about an hour which is a bloody lie. Spoilers ahead, although it’s a pretty open scenario and my group didn’t explore massive swathes of the colony.

The group consisted of mainly experienced players who had been in both traditional and story games, as well as one person who had never roleplayed before.

The game is set in the last gasps of Hadley’s Hope, with a group of characters who were elsewhere when everything went down. The map is an ugly mess, but I’m guessing its accurate to the film. I made a three dimensional map for myself to better be aware of which section connected to another and which encounters the group might have as there were time and location-based events which could happen. The group were moderately competent, apart from splitting up pretty quickly. There were a couple of jumps and they made their way past some offices towards the labs. The second group had gone outside to review the situation, to see if anyone was around as they’d entered a ghost town.

The outside group saw a xenomorph trying to break into a pub and kill the person who’d barricaded himself inside. We had our first tests and I was concerned that the players would be able to quickly take down a xenomorph. I shouldn’t have been worried. One of the group froze up and had his head bitten off right away. The creature fled and the surviving characters ran into the pub, where the player of the dead character took over the NPC. The other group had a fatality shortly after, having found a scientist and getting stuck in the basement. The new player’s character snapped, which was great as she had a flamethrower. The other players breathed a sigh of relief as she panicked and used up all of the flamethrower’s fuel on a chest buster which was running into a vent.

When the group realised there wasn’t just one xenomorph, but several, they got the keys to a corporate shuttle and ran to the docking bay just outside of the base. The synthetic had been decapitated by a xenomorph but was still being carried around by one of the group. This was a rare act of charity, as everyone was on edge and paranoid, armed with a few remaining bullets and (worryingly) a few fire axes. The group were already suspicious of the scientist whose ship it was, who’d already been infected and died. They threw the head of the synthetic inside and it reported that yes, there were a bunch of eggs in there. Alone, desperate and armed, they turned on each other while in the distance, the eggs began to hatch.

I have not tried out any of the other Alien or Aliens-based RPGs, but I have run several games in that style using other systems and I can definitely say this is one of the best games to replicate the experience.

The Stress and Panic rules keep characters as powderkegs of unpredictable chaos, the xenomorphs are incredibly threatening and have their own erratic movements.

It’s pretty obvious to say ‘if you like Alien, buy this game’, but its definitely the right system for this kind of game. The presentation is gorgeous, the setting details are surprisingly deep and it makes for an incredible experience to play. You can pick up Alien from Free League’s site and DriveThruRPG.

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