The Alien RPG

As I anticipated when I first brought this up, I didn’t have a chance to run any Alien RPG sessions before Halloween. Still, I’ve looked over a considerable amount of the currently available materials, including the full core rulebook, the starter set with its Chariot of the Gods cinematic mode adventure, the separate Destroyer of Worlds cinematic mode adventure pack, and the Alien: Colonial Marines campaign book. The materials are consistently good, providing wonderful storytelling frameworks for whichever play mode you want to try.

I’m really impressed with the quality of the stories. I’d be tempted to read comic miniseries adapting either of the full cinematic mode adventures, and the Colonial Marines story hooks would make for a great horror novel or television series. Every description, character, and plot point is dripping with the dark, gritty atmospherics of the Alien films. Some suggested passages in the Colonial Marines campaign’s proposed adventures actually startled me with the vividness of the grotesque imagery. Of course, the thing with an RPG is that it’s about a communal storytelling experience, an only partially composed and largely impromptu shared narrative that is adaptive to the input of multiple players working together–or against each other. So a particularly exciting bit of prose doesn’t necessarily translate to a fun adventure in practice. That said, these story details allow for a lot of flavor and texture, but even if you followed the campaign suggestions or story structure of a cinematic module quite rigorously, you’d find that they’re more suggestions for what can happen, elements to pop in among everything else going on, rather than a set of instructions on what should happen.

The rules are fairly simple and straightforward, as well, which continues to put the emphasis on narrative: both the foundation placed by the GM (here, Game Mother, a cute nod to the common shipboard AI of the setting) and the development constructed by the players are geared around horror storytelling. Crafting a character is quite simple in campaign mode, even simpler in cinematic mode, and pre-generated in the published cinematic adventures. Most mechanical actions are resolved by d6 die rolls, and while there are custom dice in the starter set to fit the atmosphere, nothing’s going to stop anyone from using normal d6 dice as needed. The published cinematic adventures use maps, glossy character sheets, and agenda/plot effect/item cards to make things even simpler and more visual. Furthermore, the game explicitly encourages the avoidance of dice rolls except for in high-stress, dramatically important moments, rather than for every mundane situation where a skill check might occur.

I keep using “cinematic mode” and “campaign mode” without defining terms, and the distinction is important. Developer Free League has created two separate ways to play their RPG. In cinematic play, the goal is to represent the horror and impossible odds of the films. Narrative is prioritized over mechanics. Characters and their relationships are predetermined. You’re typically dealing with a xenomorph or adjacent threat, and player death is expected. Very few, if any, characters are likely to make it to the end. A few cinematic adventures already exist, and more should be on the way, but you could also craft your own, keeping in mind the structure provided for cinematic adventures. Meanwhile, campaign play is the sandbox style of a traditional RPG: players develop a group of characters (and the game puts a particular emphasis on backgrounds, relationships, and motivations, in line with the popular shift to narrative-first roleplaying), the GM provides an open-ended framework for a series of adventures, and there’s typically an overarching campaign that ties everything together. Campaign play is also supposed to be a mode where you don’t see the xenomorphs and their kin much if at all; those buggers are lethal threats, pure murder machines, and it would be implausible for a group to keep coming up against them and walking away intact–not to mention that they’d lose their frightful edge with that increased frequency of appearance. As a result, this mode is more focused on the other terrors of space: corporate greed, military overexpansion, pointless war, the exploitation of the working class, the grinding industrial dangerousness of mining and trucking amidst the stars, strange alien species and exotic diseases of different varieties, the alien nature of the synthetic mind, and the simple cold vacuum of the void.

Interestingly, the cinematic adventures and campaign setting in existence so far build atop each other. While the fates of specific characters and the actual outcomes of individual events are left to player-guided outcomes, the larger story is coalescing toward something bigger, developing from one story to the next. In general, it would appear that corporate and military interests have developed a series of amoral research programs focused on weaponizing or defending against the xenomorph and its ilk, and as these living weapons are proliferated, more outbreaks are occurring with whole colonies going dark, even as a mysterious enemy that may just be returned Engineers begins bio-bombing frontier territories. All of this is interspersed within a larger sociopolitical narrative that recreates the Cold War among the stars, with a sizable third option in the form of a collective emerging out of an Anglo-Japanese alliance that seems increasingly frustrated with the Americans and the communists even as it gets danced along on puppet strings guided by Weyland-Yutani (and there are dozens of corporate interests existing in a free zone of space that represent yet another option). I found the explorations of some of the bioweapons projects some of the most enthralling parts, like for instance the body horror take on a mech suit that is the black-ops Project Berserker in the Colonial Marines supplement. The backstories powering this surprisingly dense lore comb deeply through the franchise’s history of films (including rejected/unpublished drafts of sequels), books, comics, and games. Despite this, a familiarity with the original Alien and/or Aliens is all that is required to enjoy this game setting, since all the core conventions of the setting are more or less established in those sources. There does feel to be a core canon that one would benefit from, though, of Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, Prometheus, and Alien: Covenant. On the other end of the spectrum, there appears to be a hard line drawn to separate the Alien franchise from the Alien v. Predator multimedia crossover.

As I mentioned in the past, some seem concerned with the mechanical implementation of features like panic or cinematic agendas, in that they can deprive player agency at key junctures. I can understand that perspective, and I’m limited by not having played the game with a group yet, but I suspect that this could force a lot of interesting dramatic tension and good complicating elements, so long as players are fully aware of this system. To quote myself, the game has mechanics baked into it “to make the players feel insecure, underpowered, under-resourced, and facing threats they can’t possibly comprehend or defeat.” The risk of losing control at important moments furthers that thematic objective.

I think the only point that I’m wary on is the portrayal of mental illness. Horror is meant to terrify, to revolt, to press against taboos and push down boundaries. I get that. And this game is set in a franchise with themes tightly wrapped around fear/disgust with metaphorical rape by an unknowable monster that would be Lovecraftian if not for its blind focus on killing over any higher-function thought. Still, that said, just because something is meant to push uncomfortable boundaries, to scare us and disgust us, it doesn’t mean that we can’t ask questions of it, to push back on it. I actually think the use of “panic” as a system is rather appropriate, as a fear response in a fight-or-flight situation could be unexpected and uncharacteristic especially when facing such horrid monstrosities. The use of panic as an unpredictable reaction to extreme stress, rather than the cruder “sanity” meter employed in too many horror games (a mechanic I’ve recently encountered playing the now roughly year-old Early Access game Phasmophobia), seems like a positive improvement. The game also talks about trauma and PTSD, perhaps a bit too lightly, as an after-effect of exposure to these creatures and the other threats of space. The game has some permanent reactions to mental trauma that can develop and are mechanically described/implemented. Some will cringe at this, but I honestly don’t see anything in the descriptions or effects that seems cruel or inappropriate (potential permanent reactions to trauma include phobia, alcoholism, recurrent nightmares, depression, drug use, and amnesia). So far, the only place where I think Free League clearly slipped up is in one tiny detail: describing an android character in Destroyer of Worlds as having a “bipolar” personality when really they mean to indicate that he alternates between his own personality and an assumed personality of another synthetic who has hacked into his mind (which, by the way, is a very specific example of how character agendas can sometimes override personal player choice in how to roleplay a character). Of course, bipolar disorder is a severe mental illness, and “bipolar” often gets used incorrectly/fliply to refer to someone prone to quick mood changes–or, as in this case, to someone who fluctuates between personality types. They’re really trying to describe the synthetic version of dissociative identity disorder, or if you wanted to go for a more religious/spiritual spin, you could argue that–given that the character really is being taken over by an outside personality–he’s actually “possessed.” And neither of these descriptions, whether the religious flair or the psychiatric diagnosis, reflect an actual personality. But we’re talking about one word on one character sheet in one cinematic adventure module, and as Free League is a Swedish publisher, I wonder if this is really a linguistic or cultural translation error more than anything else.

That ultimately quite minor concern aside, I’m really fascinated by what Free League has designed. As they plan to continue to release more cinematic adventures and campaign books based around the other core careers of space trucker and colonist, I have to imagine I’ll continue to stay engaged at least in reading these new publications. Even without playing it, the on-the-page storytelling has so far been enough to keep me invested.

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