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.

What I’m Into: Fall 2021

It’s been a long time since I’ve had posts just talking about what I was into at a given moment. Not review, or analysis, just an overview of everything engaging me at the moment. Those posts were sort of aimless, but also sort of fun, because I’d just talk about whatever was absorbing me at the moment. I’ve had so much narrowed focus on big franchise things lately on the blog that I think one of these sorts of scattered, aimless, free-form posts is long overdue.

So, what am I into right now?

What I’m Reading

I’m reading quite a few things, hopping between them. I’m finally around to Michael Crichton’s posthumous Dragon Teeth, which so far has been an enjoyable Western adventure romp with the fairly unique focus on the Bone Wars and early field paleontology. Marsh and Cope are characterized quite colorfully but the rest of the cast, including the protagonist, are fairly bland. I’m simultaneously reading Star Wars: Master & Apprentice by Claudia Gray, which does a great job portraying Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan at an especially fraught moment in their relationship before the events of the prequel trilogy, alongside a lot of cool Jedi Stuff. Then I’m reading Jon Dubin’s Social Security Disability Law and the American Labor Market; it’s been a while since I’ve tackled a truly academic book, and so I’m making slow progress through this dense text despite the rather slender physical packaging, but it’s very worthwhile, and I’m sure it would be a tremendous resource not just for disability law scholars but practitioners like me and perhaps even a general reader seeking to better understand the arbitrary and archaic way that the Social Security Administration attempts to account for an individual’s ability to perform other work and to determine how much of that work actually exists, and in what form, in the national economy.

I’ve also been churning through the published materials for the Alien RPG from Free League. This is just tremendous stuff. I’m not particularly interested in published adventures in general but the cinematic mode gameplay modules that have been published so far offer some really tense, vivid, horrific scenarios. And mechanically, there are a lot of ways to make the players feel insecure, underpowered, under-resourced, and facing threats they can’t possibly comprehend or defeat. (I’ve seen at least one reviewer suggest that agendas and effects like panic take the roleplaying out of the players’ hands, but players would still have to play out how things happen–this if anything just sets up more dramatic opportunities and encourages a feeling of loss of control at key moments that reflects the horror focus of the game.) Just as importantly, the RPG recognizes that the Alien franchise has been about a lot more than the alien from the very beginning, and it builds out enough complicated politics between interstellar governments and mega-corps to provide entertaining storytelling possibilities for their open-sandbox campaign mode. I hope to get some friends to play through at least one or two of the cinematic games in the near future. I think I’ll have more to say about all the materials when I’m through reading them, but of course a proper review of a game is rather incomplete if not based on play experience, so you’ll have to take it with a grain of salt unless I get a group together for this quicker than I think likely. In fact, there are a few different Alien/Aliens posts coming up, but I’m going to keep them to a single day, rather than another series spanning multiple weeks; Halloween seems appropriate.

What I’m Playing

I’ve been in a bit of a tabletop gaming mood lately. Way back in February, I wrote about a routine I had of playing Ring Fit Adventure, a single-player RPG, and then Star Wars: Squadrons with friends over the course of the week. All of that’s changed since then. Ring Fit Adventure play is now quite sporadic. The single-player video game of choice varies a lot as well. And the Squadrons play changed over to (virtual) tabletop roleplaying with those friends; one of them has always been an exceptional gamemaster and has been leading us through an Edge of the Empire campaign, and I haven’t had this much fun with a tabletop RPG in years. I’ve even led a couple of sessions with some side characters set within the same continuity. So between that and reading the Alien materials more recently, I’ve been really energized to try to get to more tabletop roleplaying. As usual, I’ll probably spend a lot more time thinking about settings and stories than actually playing any of these systems, but it’s generative creative energy either way. In addition to the aforementioned materials, I broke down and purchased the Cypher System Rulebook and its Predation supplement because the Terra Nova-meets-Dinotopia-meets-Xenozoic setting looks too damn cool.

I also just pledged on Kickstarter to back a physical printing of Matthew Gravelyn’s survival-adventure journaling game Clever Girl because I can’t get enough of dinosaurs in games and fiction. It’s not the only unlicensed work heavily inspired by Jurassic Park that I’ve recently purchased–about a month ago, I got Dinosaur World from Pandasaurus; it’s a delightful competitive game about building the best dinosaur park you can, producing dinosaurs amid other attractions and amenities and attempting to keep interest in your park maintained through constant expansion and greater risk (it’s also a sequel to their previous Dinosaur Island, which I haven’t played). My wife and I have only played Dinosaur World once so far, and it took a while for us both to get a feel for how the rounds flowed and everything that we should be keeping in mind during the different phases. Once we got that down, it was a lot of fun, and I’ve been itching to play again with a full four players (it’s for 2 to 4).

We technically attended Gen Con this year, but we were only there for part of a day (Sam really struggles with crowds and being in public now). Nonetheless, between Gen Con and online purchases, I’ve picked up quite a number of board games–nothing super-new but certainly games released over the last few years that I’ve been wanting to play. Aside from Nemesis, the ones I picked out this year have been mostly licensed stuff. I’ll write more if/when I get around to these games. I also might write about some of the older games we haven’t played in a while if we pull them out in the coming months–which I hope to be the case more and more as we’re trying to set aside some time for board games, both between the two of us and with a couple friends, on a recurrent basis. Hopefully, there will be no dramatic new developments in the pandemic that would require us to back off from that.

Normally, I would have brought up video games sooner, but I haven’t been playing as much lately. I’ve been intermittently playing Mass Effect: Legendary Edition. I’m trying to do three playthroughs of each game in the trilogy (on top of the playthroughs I had in the original releases of these games). I’m currently on the second playthrough of the second game with my only Renegade character, and even without being a pure Renegade, I don’t enjoy how much of a dick you are with this playstyle. But I’ve been just as likely to play a little bit of Jurassic World: Evolution (yes, I keep coming back to it after all) or The Sims 4. I’ve even given Alien: Isolation another try, finishing…most of it. I’ll have a post about that experience on Halloween, as well. The video game I’m most excited about isn’t even out for about another month: Jurassic World Evolution 2 looks like an improvement on the original in about every way–and at 280 hours recorded, I’ve now put more time into this game than any other in my Steam library.

What I’m watching

I re-watched “The Ninth Jedi” and “The Elder” from Star Wars: Visions this weekend. They’re so good. I’ve also been watching Letterkenny, Marvel’s What If…?, DC’s third season of Titans, and Only Murders in the Building. I’m only current on Only Murders, which is hilarious while simultaneously being surprisingly heartfelt and mysterious. Martin Short, Steve Martin, and Selena Gomez are all delivering fantastic performances every episode. Lastly, for television at least, I’ve started watching The Haunting of Bly Manor, just as most people are now talking about Mike Flanagan’s latest Netflix series, Midnight Mass. Ah, I’m forever behind the times.

I don’t think I’ve watched very many new or new-to-me movies recently, or at least not since The Suicide Squad, which has already been nearly two months ago. Once more, it’s what’s in the near future that my attention is more focused on. I’ll be seeing The Many Saints of Newark, actually in a cinema, sometime this week, and I’ll also be going to Dune in theater later this month or early November. I’m sure I’ll be posting reactions to both when I can.


I’ve written before about trying to balance consumption of big franchises and existing IP with original creative works. Looking at my blog posts this year, and paying attention to what I’m currently engaging with, I am a little disappointed to realize how heavily my consumption has favored the former this year. But since 2020, life has been tumultuous for a lot of people, and that’s certainly been true for my house. Plus, work has remained quite busy for about a year now. So I guess it’s okay if I’m taking in more junk comfort entertainment. I’d also argue that even though these creative works most benefit large corporations and often regurgitate existing ideas, characters, plot structures, and so on, some of the current franchise productions are managing to mine new territory and do really interesting things. Still, it’s something worth being mindful of, and it might gradually lead to a rebalance of what I’m spending my time on.

I think I’d like to sign off by doing something a little differently and talk specifically about what I’m into creating instead of just consuming. Outside of this blog and the briefs I prepare for work, I haven’t written consistently in a long while now. But I do have sporadic bursts of creativity. I try to jot ideas down in a journal. Over the past few months, a few dreams have connected with other, older ideas and led to two full outlines for fantasy stories set in a shared universe. I think they’re each maybe novella length, at least, and I’d really like to devote some time to writing those stories in full. I’ve also been dabbling with fan fiction, though I haven’t completed any of those projects. Some of it’s been related to those Jurassic Park gap stories I mentioned in that series of posts on here. The fantasy stories are closer to my heart and so even if I finish them, I probably won’t post more than some excerpts here, but I think I very well might just post any finished fan fiction to this blog. Maybe writing this here, publicly, will get me to commit to completing some of these projects.

And that’s just about everything I’m into, for now.

An old RPG memory-feeling

I have a pretty goofy first “roleplaying game” experience. I’m a little surprised to realize I was this young at the time, but I was eight when The Lost World came out. (Bear with me, I’ll get to the point soon enough.) I’d already been obsessed with dinosaurs for as long as I could remember, and I had already been terrified of the raptor kitchen scene in Jurassic Park, and I’d read the sequel novel and got my mom to buy me a magazine issue or two showing glossy behind-the-scenes photos of the actors and animatronics from the upcoming film. I was really excited, and then The Lost World was finally out in theaters, and I loved it. It doesn’t hold up well, I suppose, but it was a great adventure movie for eight-year-old me.

I already had a collection of assorted Jurassic Park toys and other memorabilia, and some products related to the sequel followed. I remember two games in particular. The first was a board game, simply titled The Lost World: Jurassic Park, in which you maneuvered cardboard standees representing human survivors as they navigated a board complete with 3D building set pieces representing the InGen compound as they tried to stay ahead of the miniatures representing the Tyrannosaurus and the Velociraptors. I remember the game was fun and exciting, but I was eight. I have no idea what I’d think of it now!

The second game was my first paper “RPG” experience, I suppose. That was The Lost World: Jurassic Park Role-Playing Game Book. It was a trade paperback with a glossy green cover highlighting a mottled brown Tyrannosaurus, and the pages inside contained a narrative that, as I recall it, was somewhere between a traditional RPG structure and a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure title, with cut-out cards highlighting stats for specific dinosaurs that you might encounter. As I recall, the entire point of the adventure was to evade hunters and dinosaurs and find a way to escape the island. I must have been the game’s target demographic in terms of age, interests, and predisposition. But I also believe I never played it with anyone else. Was it a solo game? Or was I just being a sad sack? Hard to say.

I can’t imagine that I’d find much engagement in the simple children’s RPG now. But many, many times over the years, I’ve daydreamed about what an RPG in the Jurassic Park franchise would look like. With the events of Fallen Kingdom, it would seem that Jurassic Park stories can be more than tales of death and survival on a distant island. Perhaps it’s getting robust enough to support a TRPG with a variety of stories to tell.

Of course, there are already TRPG options that incorporate prehistoric animals, including dinosaurs. Even the most iconic game, Dungeons & Dragons, has incorporated dinosaurs. I know that Cadillacs & Dinosaurs had an RPG that was apparently bogged down with overly complicated combat rules. Then there’s the Predation campaign setting for the Cypher System. Pretty sure I’ve said these things before, maybe multiple times. Point is, I suppose there are options. It would still be cool to see something in the Jurassic Park setting, I suppose–or one that took its tropes, bringing prehistoric creatures back into the modern world through wild scientific advancements, resulting in inevitable chaos.

Review: Onward

Onward‘s trailers didn’t seem very funny or interesting to me. But it came out so quickly on Disney+, and enough people seemed to enjoy it, so my wife and I watched it over Saturday afternoon. I haven’t been so surprised by a film in a while; it was a cathartic, emotionally satisfying, delightful movie that I didn’t expect in the least.

In a very broad sense, Onward is to tabletop roleplaying as Wreck-It Ralph is to video games: an animated family film that takes a pop culture subgenre and builds a mythology around it. Both movies also become stories about sibling relationships (one a found family, one by blood), told over a quest narrative full of zany adventure. I feel that Onward is the more heartfelt film, perhaps because it is a more tailored tale that doesn’t fixate too much on winking references to its pop culture subject matter.

In the world of Onward, the fantasy setting of games like Dungeons & Dragons is the actual history of the realm. Magic was a powerful tool, a gift only present in some and difficult to master. Developing technology made things easier for everyone, however, and magic was gradually phased out. The film’s story picks up in something resembling our modern world, if it was built atop such a rich fantasy setting and populated by elves and cyclopes, goblins and trolls, manticores and minotaurs, pixies and centaurs, unicorns and dragons. The big tabletop RPG of this world, Quests of Yore, is if D&D were a historically accurate wargame.

The protagonists of this alternate-universe story are awkward high-schooler Ian (Tom Holland), his uninhibited (and Quests of Yore-obsessed) older brother Barley (Chris Pratt, in a role that can best be described as early aughts Jack Black), and their supportive mother Laurel (Julia Luis-Dreyfus). The family has done its best to adjust since father Wilden passed away even before Ian was born. However, on Ian’s sixteenth birthday, Laurel brings down a gift from Wilden that had been stowed away for the day when both of the boys had come of age. That gift, it turns out, is a wizard’s staff, an elemental enhancement known as a Phoenix Gem, and a spell that should allow Wilden to return for one day.

After Barley fails to get the spell to work, despite his encyclopedic knowledge of magic from Quests of Yore, the family dejectedly moves on. But Ian inadvertently discovers that he has the magic gift; since he’s untrained, the spell only works halfway, bringing back the bottom half of their dad and destroying the Phoenix Gem. Barley and Ian team up on a quest using Barley’s old van to track down a new Phoenix Gem and complete the spell so that they have at least a few hours to see their dad. Laurel soon gets involved when she returns home to find her sons missing, and her urgency increases when she learns that the gem they’re hunting carries a lethal curse. The movie deftly juggles between the boys and the pairing of Laurel with The Manticore (Octavia Spencer), a former warrior turned frazzled restaurant owner. Added to that mix, Laurel’s new centaur boyfriend, a bland, middle-aged cop named Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez) finds himself thrust into the middle of things.

The movie possesses a basic quest frame narrative, and so achieving or failing the quest is of course its central focus. The boys will either succeed or fail; since it’s a family movie, it should be no surprise that they succeed, although how exactly they succeed, and how the movie resolves its various plots, is far more surprising, heartfelt, and interesting than I ever would have expected. The brothers grow a lot and learn more about their own relationship. They both are tested in different ways to prove themselves. Ian becomes a really cool wizard (and learns how to drive!). Barley is a really cool mentor. Laurel is a true warrior at heart.

We had a lot of fun watching the movie, which is genuinely touching and hilarious in equal measures. I laughed a lot. And something about the movie’s emotional heart got me to cry several times throughout. It was a beautiful family movie and just what I needed. I hope you get something special out of it too.

“It is to be commended. What is its number?”

Despite some delays, we’re still holding out hope for a closing at the end of this week on our first home. While a delay of a few days or a week wouldn’t be a big deal, it would be especially nice to close and take possession this week because it’s also the week that my work site has a summer shutdown. Regardless of whether we can actually start moving this week, we’ll at least be getting ready for it, packing and removing some of the stuff we won’t be taking with us.

It’s also a good week for catching up on other things I’ve been putting off. One of those things has just been keeping up with the Clone Wars rewatch, so last night I was binging several episodes, and tonight will get me back on pace with the once-a-week recaps on the official Star Wars website. In the rush of episodes, one small detail stuck with me.

In the episode “R2 Come Home,” R2-D2 must rescue Mace Windu and Anakin Skywalker from a lethal trap by escaping pursuing bounty hunters and contacting the Jedi Order. In the beginning of the episode, R2 is briefly partnered with Mace’s droid, R8-B7, before the latter unit is destroyed. But wait. R8? It looks like an identical model to R2. Why the different designation?

It’s a silly thing to get hung up on, but droid designations have long been really confusing to me. In the films alone, it’s easy enough to decide that the designations might be partial serial numbers or something to that effect. But at least in the old Expanded Universe, droid designations came to represent both the model and unit. For instance, there was a whole R-series of astromech droids that included R2 models, R4 models, R8 models, and so on. (Higher the number, newer the model release.)

Again, there’s nothing in the films, at least that I can think of, that would dictate this interpretation. I think it’s an artifact of the Expanded Universe’s impulse to extrapolate general characteristics from very limited anecdotal film details–like that all Hutts are gangsters, all Rodians are bounty hunters, all Twi’lek women are dancers, and so on. (Thankfully the EU moved more and more away from that, and the new canon doesn’t seem too guilty of that outside of casting the Hutts once more as a Space Mafia race.) And I’m sure that a lot of those generalizations are a result of the need to gamify elements of Star Wars; so much of the broader lore originated with West End Games and was spread in supplements created by WEG and the publishers who filled the tabletop publishing niche in the following years.

The idea that a droid’s name always starts with its model number doesn’t even really make a lot of sense, unless one assumes that there are a lot of droids designated R2-D2, or that owners are picking random elements of a much longer serial number to supplement the droids’ names. It feels more right to imagine a generic droid series, the “R-series,” for instance, with many models and unique designations under that. (Still, I bet there are other so-called R2-D2s rolling around in that galaxy far, far away.)

I got hung up on R8 in particular because that would have been a model released much later in the old EU, but also because the designation seemed to have no practical effect on the droid’s appearance. As usual, I seem to be late to the party. Wookieepedia’s Legends page for R8-B7 has a behind-the-scenes section referencing an old Star Wars Insider issue (58) that apparently explained that droid names are fragments of longer designations. (Without a copy of that issue, I’m just going to have to trust the accuracy of the source. For my purposes, seeing the existence of the proposed theory is sufficient, even if the source is incorrect.) That was before the unified canon reboot, but that seems like a very plausible explanation.

I still want to put too much emphasis on those model numbers, though. I remember as a kid reading about them in Star Wars Gamer issue 3 (“DROIDS”!) and the “Droids” chapter of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game Revised Core Rulebook during the publishing reign of Wizards of the Coast. Something about that was formative enough to lock it in as a thing I “knew” about droids. It’s a hard thing for me to unlearn–even though nothing says that those model numbers aren’t still canon. It’s easy enough to reconcile model number designations with inconsistent droid names under the serial number theory. Searching keywords related to this subject, I stumbled on a Reddit thread that points out that the personal designation of a droid could be pulled from anywhere in its serial number. So even the apparent rule-breaker R8 could really be R2-B17998R8-B7743, or something like that. Still, if that’s true, why even grab random numbers at all? Why not just name your droid “Frank” or “Scruffy” or just call it “Astromech”?

It’s really not something that needs more explanation, because there’s not something truly broken here. It’s just silly, is all.

Alien’s 40th

Alien released in theaters to American audiences on May 25, 1979. The franchise keeps slithering forward in myriad directions, and this year marks its fortieth anniversary. It is clear that 20th Century Fox plans to celebrate that, starting with a series of short films produced in partnership with Tongal and released on IGN. The six titles–“Containment,” “Specimen,” “Night Shift,” “Ore,” “Harvest,” and “Alone”–serve as an excellent representation of the larger constellation of films, novels, comics, and games: rough, uneven, curious, often fascinating and genuinely terrifying, and occasionally just plain disturbing. Additionally, Sam and I are both intrigued by the recently announced Alien tabletop RPG, which sounds quite promising to me. I can’t wait to be an underpaid, disgruntled space mechanic who gets swiftly killed by an alien!

One of the most unusual fandoms that my wife and I share is that of the Alien movies. Neither of us are fans of horror, but we both watch Alien with dread fascination at least every Halloween season, and we delight in the high-octane adventure of Aliens. More than the horror, and even more than the scary and very cool creature, set, and prop design, I really like the characters and burnt-out, working-class setting. I like the idea of a larger, drab, hyper-corporate galactic society. And I like that the xenomorph, for all its terror, represents one very horrible but isolated threat in a small, out-of-the-way part of that galaxy. The feel of the films is like Star Wars without hope (and with even more banged-up, retro-futuristic technology), except that instead of focusing on a great hero, we’re following the space trucker who’d refuel Tosche Station.

Because of that, I’ve lost interest in the franchise’s more recent shift toward increasing gore and body horror (though I’m not kidding anyone: from the very first film, that’s been an important part of the visual storytelling, tone, and even the themes of the film, so I’m not opposed to it on principle). I also could care less about the positioning of the xenomorph in the context of some greater mythos, some half-baked reconstitution of Chariots of the Gods with biological warfare. And sometimes, even when I really like what an Alien title is doing, it’s still just too scary and intense for me to press on with (I’m looking at you, Alien: Isolation).

These short films were, thankfully, very much my cup of tea, even though I didn’t love them all. They’re all small vignettes about working-class people trying to survive one very shitty situation after another. The basic premise is shared from film to film: xenomorph shows up, people die. But each film explores a different little corner of a much larger universe.

That said, I’d like to share my thoughts on those short films, in no particular order.

“Alone” is a fascinating premise–what would happen if a facehugger and an android are left alone together? The execution isn’t perfect, but it goes in some weird and interesting directions.

“Harvest” is a rather blunt story. Alien couldn’t be more obviously about sex, sexual violence, and pregnancy as body horror, and yet “Harvest” makes the implicit subtext explicit with the presence of a pregnant woman, with the title, and with the theme of procreation and preservation (at least through the eyes of the android). The title made the “twist” ending expected, and the flat acting and illogical actions of the party leader make it clear what she actually is all too soon.

“Specimen” is a creepy, intense survival horror set in a locked-off greenhouse. It kept me on edge throughout, the ending was satisfying, and it also introduced the idea of non-human androids. This was a cool episode and, I thought, had one of the better performances from its lead.

“Containment” is forgettable. Alien runs amok in closed quarters. Nothing we haven’t seen before. The title alludes to the crew’s efforts to keep the infestation contained when salvagers recover their escape pod. That’s…more or less the whole story right there. Much of the nuance, such as there is, comes in how the survivors react to their impending doom.

“Night Shift” is kind of fun, and the ending–with our protagonist momentarily victorious and momentarily secure in her locked-down storeroom even while a full-on alien infestation breaks out in the larger colony–is dark and fatalistic.

Finally, “Ore” is fucking amazing. The lead is an awesome, sympathetic, blue-collar hero. Tensions between management and mine workers are escalated not only by the alien but by the fact that management is actually an android company plant. The characters and their working conditions and lives are pretty central to the story being told. And the final scene, with the miners rallying together in the face of the alien threat, is incredible. If you only watch one, I’d pick this.

All told, as a series of fan films, I was impressed by the production and acting quality and the variety of stories told, even though I didn’t love every single one.

The Legends of Zelda: A Case for Broadening the Lore

Having played Breath of the Wild and now Hyrule Warriors in the past year (review on Warriors should be up later this week), I’ve been thinking about how Nintendo has been making serious efforts to reinvent The Legend of Zelda.

Breath of the Wild is a beautiful evolution in the storied franchise, providing a true open world with lots of exploration and experimentation. For what it’s worth, it’s the first main Zelda game that I ever really got into, despite trying to play many previous titles.

On the flip side, Hyrule Warriors is on its face a weird divergence from other Zelda games: a hack-and-slash medieval war game with sprawling, button-mashing battles on closed maps. But it works. (Nintendo seems to be licensing its titles out more and more for bizarre crossover projects we wouldn’t otherwise expect to see; besides this combination of Zelda and Dynasty Warriors from Koei Tecmo, there was Pokemon Conquest, the combination of Pokemon and strategy RPG Nobunaga’s Ambition that was also from Koei Tecmo, and there will soon be Starlink: Battle for Atlas, an open-world, starfighter-simulator, toys-to-life game published by Ubisoft with an apparently robust implementation of the Star Fox team for the upcoming Switch version).

Both BOTW and Warriors emphasize lore over story. BOTW offers a minimalist story, and Warriors offers an overly convoluted yet half-baked story. Both thrive instead on setting and mythos. Both tie into the larger narratives of reincarnation and heroic destiny. Both offer a rich cast of characters old and new–in fact, Warriors thrives on a heavy collection of characters in its roster, with many more to unlock.

Zelda game is increasingly defined by its characters and lore over a very particular type of action-RPG, puzzle-solving experience. Neither BOTW or Warriors exactly represents that traditional model of game, but both feel very much like Zelda games because of their use of easily recognizable visuals, characters, mythology, themes, music, and sounds. At this point, Zelda feels bigger than the story of Link and Zelda. It’s a whole sprawling, multidimensional universe.

We’ve seen that explored a little bit in the lovely Legend of Zelda coffee table books from Dark Horse (the Goddess Collection trilogy of Hyrule HistoriaArt & Artifacts, and the Encyclopedia). I’d like to see more of it.

One thing in particular that would be great is a Legend of Zelda tabletop RPG. Let’s step back from Link, Zelda, and Ganon for a moment. Obviously there’s that massive cycle of reincarnation resulting in grand conflicts between the forces of good and evil every so many generations, but in between there’s still day-to-day conflict. There are various kingdoms and political alliances that shift from game setting to setting, and there are a variety of potential races to pull from–for example, Hylians, Gerudo, Gorons, Zora, Sheikah, Rito, Koroks, Fairies, and so on. Different “eras” in the timeline offer radically different geologies, cultures, and environments. You have the bleak and post-apocalyptic setting of the original game, the swashbuckling and island-hopping setting of Wind Waker, the industrialist world of Spirit Tracks, or the more standard medieval-influenced themes found in most of the games. And there is a vast array of monsters that range from riffs on classic D&D opponents to truly bizarre creatures.

Frankly, even without its own separate rule system (and surely over-priced sourcebooks), I imagine that it would be easy enough to develop a homebrew Zelda setting using any one of dozens of different existing games. It seems like D&DPathfinderBlue Rose, and 7th Sea could all make for happy homes to different legends of Zelda. (Hell, D&D and Pathfinder in particular sport such robust bestiaries that it’d be easy to slap on a slightly different aesthetic and lore to many of the races to have ready-made counterparts for the Zeldaverse, with little to no required creation or alteration of monster stats.)

Even if you felt that the franchise should stay solely focused on the Triforce and its incarnated heroes and villains, I say there’s still a rich vein to mine outside of the video games, in the form of television, film, and literature. There have been manga adaptations of many of the games, and there was of course the ridiculous television series from 1989, but it’s a rich property that could be developed further. Heck, even if you stuck with pure adaptations, it’s not hard to transplant the episodic, arc-based, melodramatic game plots into television format. With the popularity of Game of Thrones, and the ongoing appeal of animated fantasy series like Avatar: The Last AirbenderAdventure Time, and The Dragon Prince, it’s somewhat surprising that there have been no serious attempts to convert the games to a contemporary television show.

Perhaps the concern is that any show creators would be adapting a series with an essentially silent hero. It would be wrong to go in the direction of an over-talkative protagonist like in the existing Zelda series, but that seems more a case of over-correction and a weird product of the late eighties. Link doesn’t need to be purely silent. BOTW, at least, does have plenty of dialogue from Link–even if it’s only text-based. But given that I’ve been most intrigued by Link’s allies over Link himself, I wouldn’t mind a companion-based show where Link speaks very little or not at all. Furthermore, I think General Amaya in The Dragon Prince shows that a deaf hero can work after all.

All of the above comes from my place as a Zelda “fan.” I’m not really one at all. To the extent that I am, I’ve come to the franchise very late. I’d tried to play Zelda games before, but there seems to have been something very formative about playing the SNES or N64 games as children for so many Zelda fans that I just missed out on. I found titles like Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword to be tedious, overly linear, and sort of boring. I’m not tied into the fandom at all. But I’m suddenly finding a wealth of interest in the franchise, and while I’ve happened to luck into two very nonstandard Zelda games that I’ve enjoyed quite a bit, it’s really been learning more about the setting and lore that has given me a place to root myself. It should hardly be a surprise, then, that I’d be happy to see opportunities for the lore to grow–with or without another main title game.

Review: West End Games’ Star Wars RPG, Re-Released

Star Wars: The Roleplaying GameStar Wars: The Roleplaying Game by Greg Costikyan

I first became exposed to Star Wars roleplaying games with Wizards of the Coast’s d20 system. I collected many of those sourcebooks and intermittently played with friends. I dabbled with Fantasy Flight’s newer, narrative-focused system, as well. But the original West End Games version had preceded me; I was born about a year after the publication of the first edition. Yet it held an important place in Star Wars history, keeping interest in the franchise alive at a low point and helping feed the re-ignition of popularity in the early nineties, so I’ve long been aware of it, though never involved with it or truly knowledgeable about its systems.

When Fantasy Flight announced a special anniversary edition over a year ago, I was pretty excited to get the chance to explore this game system. While the release was delayed, that delay was well worth it; this is a worthy addition to the various sourcebooks and systems on my shelf.

There are two books included in this anniversary set: a rulebook and a sourcebook.

The rulebook offers a fairly simple game system oriented around six-sided dice. I imagine that this helped its popularity in the late eighties and early nineties: not only was it more Star Wars to play around in, but it was incredibly easy to throw together the materials to play! Creating player characters (or, for the GM, NPCs and monsters) seems quite simple, with a quick distribution of abilities and a focus more on skills. Plus, any new player could simply grab one of the templates from the back and start with an archetype that allowed for room to role-play while requiring only a few minutes to prepare for the game.

Some of the modifiers and more advanced rules, as usual, got a bit math-heavy and convoluted, but the most complex of those rules were condensed into compact tables across a few pages at the end of the book. And more importantly, the rulebook consistently advised a focus on fun, cinematic, creative, narrative play that prioritized player experience over strict adherence to rules. A GM with a healthy knowledge of the rules and willingness to let things slide as needed, focusing more on working with players to craft a fun collaborative experience, could thrive with this system.

It was funny, then, to see the advertisements in these new editions promoting Fantasy Flight Star Wars game systems. Their narrative RPG is fun, but the need for custom dice plus the necessary learning of the various dice symbols and how they interact seems to actually result in a more exclusionary, rules-heavy environment than that offered by the WEG game, even if less numbers are strictly involved.

The sourcebook was the volume that I enjoyed the most. Even though I knew it influenced a lot of the tone, lore, and language of the EU, I was still surprised and impressed to see how much was still relevant. Even with the new canon, the sourcebook only seldom was directly contradicted. It wisely limited itself to extrapolations from the movies, so even the most specific Clone Wars references can for the most part be easily integrated into the current canon. In contrast, most character descriptions are now outdated and at least somewhat contradicted, and I actually preferred most of the new versions over the old; of all characters, Boba Fett’s remained one of the most accurate still, given the mysteriousness of the character at the time and the lack of hard answers.

Other unique lore elements I actually preferred: droids (or at least the more advanced droids) are definitely treated as sentients who are cruelly held in bondage, and the Force is a mystic religion that allows access to its secrets to just about anyone willing to train diligently under a Jedi Master (downplaying bloodlines and the like, though still keeping Jedi abilities quite limited because it is very clear that the universe intended here has virtually no Jedi left to learn from). Interestingly, the EU and the prequels moved away from some of these ideas, but the newest properties are coming back around to some of these interpretations.

There were very few lore elements in this early version of Star Wars that I actually disliked. The primary element that I found unpleasant: this version of Star Wars is very anthropocentric, and there’s almost as much of a divide between all of humanity in contrast to Aliens as there is between Rebellion and Empire. In a large galaxy, of course there are unaffiliated, unknown, and lost societies out there, and I wouldn’t want that removed from Star Wars. But the newer canon has integrated aliens into a much more diverse version of the galaxy–heck, the prequel trilogy really started that shift. I wouldn’t want to go back to a view where aliens were always so other, where the various non-human races were lumped together simply by being non-human, classified broadly with a capital-A Alien designation. (This version also leans hard into the roleplaying tradition of assigning fairly rigid personality and cultural traits by race.)

In a similar vein, I prefer the newer, more nuanced approach to the Mon Calamari and the Quarren. Their involvement in larger galactic society, rather than being newcomers, makes them less “Exotic.” Still, it’s impossible not to recognize how much has been carried over from the WEG sourcebook. The Mon Cal and the Quarren still shared a homeworld, and the Quarren still felt jealous of the Mon Cal. The Quarren joining with the Separatists, and later realigning with the Mon Calamari, and the Mon Calamari’s oppression under the Empire and early support of the Rebellion, are clearly drawn from elements of their original story. In all things, later Star Wars owes a significant debt to this early attempt at a Star Wars RPG–not to mention that so much of the weird nineties Star Wars short fiction that I love so much emerged out of communities oriented around the game.

Finally, I must point out the charm of the use of movie stills and a wealth of concept artwork to illustrate the various races, equipment, vehicles, and concepts described within.

The original WEG game holds up to the test of time. And this beautiful anniversary edition, with hardcover core rulebook and sourcebook contained in a slim black casing with beautiful cover art, is an excellent version to introduce oneself to it.

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I sure hope that I have the opportunity to play soon. David Schwarz’s recent advice on Eleven-ThirtyEight for leading your own RPG campaign certainly got me thinking about the possibilities just as I was reading through these WEG books. Plus, I’d already accumulated some fun WEG companion books from past convention sellers, providing additional lore and examples of NPC stats to me well before I’d even read the core books…

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I don’t know if I’ll have the time, or even an interested group of friends who would have the same time available, but we’ll see.