In a somewhat radical change of pace, I actually picked up a full deadtree version of a new roleplaying game. I was in my FLGS and ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game from Free League Publishing (2020) caught my eye and I purchased it.
Science fiction is my favorite genre for RPGs, but space horror isn’t exactly my thing, making this purchase of ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game a bit bewildering to me. Regardless, I am a bit of an RPG-mechanic explorer so I like to play RPGs almost as much for exploring the core mechanic as the setting. ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game uses Free League’s “Year Zero Engine” (YZE). This is my first exposure to the YZE, and actually my first deep-dive into ALIEN lore as I haven’t watched all the movies faithfully.
ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game tries to sell itself as a somewhat low-complexity, moderately narrative game that focuses on the Xenomorphs as much as, if not more than, characters. The reality, as I see it, is that ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game would be better sold as ALIEN: The Roleplaying Skirmish Wargame.
“First assembly’s in fifteen, people. Shag it!” – Apone
ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game is a 394-page tome. The space-black background pages would be very expensive (and draining) to print on your own. The book doesn’t need to be this big; there are some pages where the art takes as much space as the text.
ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game uses customized dice. Well, sorta. There are two die types required, both d6. A Base Die is a d6 with a special symbol in place of the 6. A Stress Die is differently colored from the Base Die and has that same special-use symbol in the 6 position as well as “Stress” on the 1 side. Honestly, you don’t need to buy the special dice (~$15 per set)—just use two different colors of d6 and remember which color is which die type.
“…Well, I can drive that loader. I have a Class-2 rating.” – Ripley
Character creation in ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game is actually simple. You start by choosing one of nine archetypes. Sure, they’re called Careers in the book but they’re treated as archetypes. Using a limited point-buy system, you assign Attributes (Strength/Agility/Wits/Empathy), Skills (there are only 12), and acquire Talents (pick one).
Player Characters in ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game also need a Personal Agenda as well as Buddies and Rivals. Well, that is unless you are playing a Cinematic mode game (more on that later) where the Agenda is “predetermined by the scenario” (p. 31). If you are playing a Campaign mode game, there are “suggested” Personal Agendas listed with your career.
The end result of character generation in ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game is a (barely) two-dimensional character. The real RPG elements of a character, Talents and Personal Agenda, are either so flimsy or pre-defined as to be near-useless to a player. The only real advantage of the character generation system is that it is quick and uncomplicated—for reasons I think will soon become apparent.
“My mommy always said there were no monsters – no real ones – but there are.” – Newt
ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game revolves around three simple Themes: Space Horror, Sci-Fi Action, and a Sense of Wonder (p. 20). Take note of the order in which they are presented—it’s important.
To me, the movie ALIEN defines space horror in cinema. The movie captures the essence of a hopeless, helpless, unknown situation. ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game depends heavily on the lore of the ALIEN stories to create the game universe. You can physically see it in the book; dark pages, lots of Xenomorphs, plenty of death. Even the fiction is pitch-perfect. This is both a blessing and a curse; it is quite possible to have players that come to the table steeped in the lore, making it a challenge to the Game Mother to create a story as character knowledge and player metaknowledge may not be aligned.
ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game can be played in one of two game modes. The primary mode is Cinematic. For this one really needs to think of each adventure like a sci-fi action movie, especially ALIENS. Here, the Year Zero Engine works well as it is light on skill checks but more detailed on combat and panic. The Game Mother guide advises that in this mode the Xenomorphs need to be front and center.
Taken as a whole, the rules for ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game are very much akin to a set of skirmish wargame rules. The “Combat and Panic” chapter—the rules for combat—covers concepts like Stealth Mode (hidden movement), initiative, Slow & Fast Actions (all of which are combat related), ambushes, close combat, ranged combat, and damage. Combat is very deadly—player death is a very, very strong possibility (certainty?). Look no further than the d66 Critical Injuries table which not only has multiple ways to die (“Impaled Heart – FATAL – Your heart beats for the last time”) to healing time measured in days (assuming, of course, you can even get first aid).
A key element of the combat system in ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game is Stress & Panic. There are nine conditions that raise a Player Character’s Stress Level, as defined on p. 103:
- You push a skill roll.
- You fire a burst of full auto fire.
- You suffer one or more points of damage.
- You go without sleep, food, or water.
- You perform a coup de grace.
- A Scientist in your team fails to use the Analysis talent.
- A member of your own crew attacks you.
- A person nearby is revealed to be an android.
- You encounter certain creatures or locations, as determined by the scenario or the GM.
In ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game, Stress can lead to Panic. Many times a Panic Action is mandated by the rules. This lack of player agency and forced narrative goes far towards creating a helpless, ultimately hopeless feeling.
Ship combat in ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game uses a “bridge crew” approach to battles where the PCs are usually part of the action. It is interesting to note that in addition to all the ways a ship can be damaged, combat comes down again to the individual and their Stress Level and Panic. It’s quite possible that your PC could “Run to Safety” abandoning their bridge post.
Sense of Wonder
The third theme in ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game is a “Sense of Wonder.” To be frank, my “sense of wonder” when playing ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game is, “I wonder how anything survives.” One would think that the second mode of play, Campaign Play, would be where the Sense of Wonder comes from. I started reading the rules for ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game expecting that this is where elements of the story in ALIENS: Prometheus would shine. The Game Mother guide advises in this mode to save the Xenos for something special, but the game system as a whole doesn’t really support that. I mean, the game doesn’t really hide this fact as even the fiction in the chapters usually start with a party and ends up with…nobody alive. Instead of Prometheus the rules give us something that is more Firefly meets ALIENS. i.e. instead of finding stories that can explore discovering alien and human origins we get space truckers and death.
The lack rules support for a true campaign of ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game may actually not be as big a loss as it sounds since there is little to be discovered in the game universe thanks to the extensive lore presented. This seems like a conscious decision by the writers, unlike Battlestar Galactica: The Role Playing Game (Maragret Weis Publishing, 2004) or The Expanse Roleplaying Game (Green Ronin, 2019) and many other large franchise-based IP games that pick a starting point in the lore and let the players and GM build their player universe from there. Sure, you can do the same in ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game, but given the extent of lore presented it’s much harder to exclude the metaknowledge.
“…and they’re gonna come in here AND THEY’RE GONNA GET US!” – Hudson
The problems of character survival in ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game can be traced all the way back to character generation with those, frankly, shallow characters. It’s as though the writers knew that character lives are cheap and to invest too much time in creating them is a waste. Then there is the game engine, and the Stress rules which can be used to ensure success…but at the
risk near-certainty of being helpless as a player.
Given the rate of deaths in ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game, I searched the Game Mother guide for advice on what to do when a player character dies in the middle of an adventure. I think it’s telling that when talking about the Epilogue to a scenario part of the advice reads, “EPILOGUE: A suggested sign-off message by one of the PCs, assuming anyone is still alive” [my emphasis]. Indeed, I can’t find anything in the Game Mother section talking about mid-scenario player death beyond in-your-face hints that it WILL happen.
Helpless, hopeless, loss of control. If those are the ALIEN franchise themes you enjoy the most then ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game is certainly for you.
“That’s it, man. Game over, man.” – Hudson
At the end of the day I think ALIEN: THE Roleplaying Game is best suited for those one-shot adventures where player character backgrounds are less important. Oh heck, ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game is really nothing more than a set of skirmish wargame rules with some roleplaying elements. The rate of death in this game is not quite like Paranoia (West End Games, 1982)…but if the Game Mother is not in a nice mood it certainly can be.
ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game is TM & © 2020 20th Century Fox Studios and Free League Publishing. All rights reserved.