Alien RPG: A Near Perfect Organism
ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game burned its way onto and through shop shelves this week. The quality of the two original Alien movies, the fundamental questions about human nature at their core, and the thrill ride they provide launched the films into the sci-fi firmament. Does ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game allow us to explore that Alien universe in a novel and satisfying way? **Full disclosure: I was provided a review copy at no cost from Free League publications with which to do this review.
Unlike other hot sci-fi RPG games like Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and The Expanse, Alien has a relatively limited palette with which to paint its universe. It’s never had, for example, a long running TV series to colour in around the edges of the movies, although there are some fine graphic novel adaptations that explore more Alien space. The stories are necessarily finite in nature and scope due to the fragility of humans and the aggression of the Aliens. Even with Ripley, and later David, bridging movies, the core premise remains an attractive monotone:
She’ll breed, you’ll die. – Ripley
This is not to say that the Alien franchise or this RPG lacks moral subtlety. All the films pit humankind’s warring natures against each other – corporate greed versus individual self-sacrifice. The more recent Prometheus and Covenant further explore through the android David the questions raised by Bishop about what it means to be human. ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game holds its own in the Alien universe by delivering the essential action, horror, and philosophical themes to your tabletop in a way that distills the essence of the films.
Chapter One: Space is Hell delivers three core components of the game that let us know right away, “we’re in the pipe, five by five.” First, the GM (Game Mother that is) can choose between Cinematic Play which emulates the dramatic arc of an Alien film, meant to be played in a single session, and Campaign Play which assumes characters survive and want to play another day. If you want to play linked games, more power to you, but for me this is all about the Cinematic one-shot. Second, in Cinematic mode you can choose between four careers. Seem familiar?
- Frontier Colonists: The lure of striking it rich used to drive people to the frozen north. Now deep space and the mineral rich belts are a siren song to scouts, homesteaders, farmers, scientists, miners, and doctors. And to those – human and otherwise – seeking to simply disappear and start again. Aliens does, afterall, take place in the same universe as Bladerunner.
- Space Truckers: Hauling refineries and cargo between Earth and colonies doesn’t pay as well as it used to but for those born to wander it provides a freedom no longer available in Earth’s over-crowded mega-cities and now populated wilderness. On or off the books there are always people and corporations willing to pay top dollar to get their gear from one side of explored space to the other.
- Colonial Marines: On the frontier there is always something that needs defending and some planet that needs pacifying. Mutiny, murder, and secret military R&D programs keep the Marine pilots, medics, engineers, officers, and grunts well occupied.
- Company Reps: Weyland-Yutani is one of many country-sized corporations that have a vested interest in exploring and exploiting the ever-expanding sphere of human influence in space. Rumours of alien technology, lost civilizations, and the next big promotion keep company reps – covert or openly – embedded with those on the bleeding edge of exploration.
The third component that keeps the ALIEN flavour coming are the three key themes the RPG facilitates: Space Horror, Sci-Fi Action, and Sense of Wonder. Whichever your favorite Alien movie, there’s plenty of support for delivering the theme and mood of your choice. Monsters that mostly come at night, Power Loader fights in the loading dock, discovering long-extinct advanced civilizations, or an android’s personal quest to find meaning beyond the sphere of human influence. All the Alien treasures and tropes are here for the role-playing.
The mechanics on the ALIEN RPG voyage keep things streamlined and running as lean as the outbound Nostromo. Two colours of D6 are all you need: Base Dice, the amount of which reflects your attributes, skills, and gear; and Stress Dice which accumulate over time to hamper your efforts, cause panic, and drive you to shout, “That’s it man, game over man!” and “They’re comin’ outta the goddamn walls! Let’s book it!”
The book in question encourages dice rolling for dramatic moments and tough challenges only. There’s plenty of scope for role-playing most situations, you need only roll dice in anger. Base dice rolls are modified by a difficulty level ranging from +3 to -3. A modified 6 is a success. Once Murphy hits the fan (A3, look it up) stress can add up for all sorts of reasons: firing at full auto; pushing rolls; suffering damage; going without sleep, food, or water; party members are revealed as androids; the appearance of certain aliens; and campaign and scenario specific events.
The simplicity of the D6 dice resolution system – leave your D&D polyhedrals at home – and modifiers helps steer the narrative without becoming the focus of play. In my experience, this has really helped keep the focus on monitoring airshafts, constantly checking over my shoulder, and wondering which party member is going to stab me in the back to reveal I’m actually an android tasked with bringing back a live impregnated host. Did I say that out loud?
There’s plenty to explore and almost endless material in the core rulebook. A minimum of effort by the GM can generate a long-running linked campaign, complete with specialized characters PCs can create from scratch using skills and talents. Gear, weapons, and vehicles; Government and corporations; systems and planets; and alien species all get their own complete chapters to help the Game Mother write a convincing epic.
If you’re not convinced already, rest assured that the book is full of eye candy and a loving homage to everything Alien. The cover of the tightly-bound, glossy-paged book feels disturbingly like slightly rubberized skin. At almost 400 pages it’s festooned with original art that gives more than a passing nod to H.R. Giger, and a retro-futuristic palette, font choice, and layout that channels the Mother communication systems of The Nostromo. Incisive quotes dot appropriate sections and pages. For both the die-hard and new Alien franchise fan this book is a complete, artistic, and practical guide for exploring the Alien universe in a novel and satisfying way. Highly recommended.
Are you looking forward to playing ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game by Free League publishing?