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Alien RPG Cinematic Starter Kit Review

Alright, well, here we are! A new Tabletop RPG based on the Alien franchise by Free League Publishing. And just the Alien franchise mind you. Or at least, the thing I’m looking at here doesn’t mention Predators anywhere. Cause, uhm…unfortunately we don’t have access to the whole RPG yet. Nope, instead, we’re looking at a starter kit based on the second of the two modes this RPG has to offer. There’s Campaign Play, which is a more traditional RPG structure meant to be played with characters you create and over the course of several sessions, and then there’s Cinematic Play. Cinematic Play is meant to replicate the arc of an Alien movie, with pre-generated characters and maps. It’s meant to be played in a single session and to kill most of the PCs.

It’s an… interesting idea to say the least. I’m not certain that I like the idea of this, of a scenario meant to kill off characters, but it makes a certain amount of sense for an RPG based on a horror franchise. It’s not my personal preference, but it’s certainly a valid way to go.

With that established, let’s look at what’s immediately available. There are five main categories for evaluating a tabletop game, so let’s look at them. Keep in mind that I am restricted to the starter kit though.

Worldbuilding

Good world building is essential to any RPG, but particularly so for a tabletop game. The Alien franchise as a whole is…so-so in this category. Any worldbuilding in the movies are subtle background clues, and the canonicity of the spin-off materials is constantly changing. So that means that there was a framework for the creators of the game to work off of, but not much more. And what we have here definitely reflects that. There’s enough to be tantalizing, to make you like the world and want to explore it, but there’s definitely a bigger focus on the fringes of the galactic society they’ve built.

You want to play a Colonial Marine, a Space Trucker, and Android, or a Frontier Colonist? All well and good, they’ve got that ready for you! You want to play a representative of Weyland-Yutani (the main evil company for those unfamiliar with the franchise)? Or a scheming politician on one of the more established colonies? The head of a space station? A crew of explorers? Space pirates?…good luck to you, you’ll have to do some home-brewing!

Now, to be fair, the four roles listed in the first sentence of that last paragraph have always been the focus of the films. They are, after all, the ones most likely to come into contact with Xenomorphs. But it does mean that if you want to tell a story that hasn’t been told in a movie format, and is unlikely to be told, you’re going to need to do extra work.

And for any of you who disliked or hated Prometheus and Alien Covenant…sorry, they’re canon and Neomorphs feature heavily in the game. The flavor text littering the margins quotes those two more heavily than any of the other movies. Just as a heads up.

Overall, the worldbuilding is good, but somewhat restrictive.

Mechanics

But for all that worldbuilding is vital, good mechanics might be more so. The nature of a tabletop RPG means that bad mechanics will ruin a game much more readily than bad worldbuilding. And the mechanics of the Alien RPG, or at least, for Cinematic Play, are good, if simple. One of the stated goals of the game is to keep dice rolls to a minimum. The game wants them to be for special occasions, to be tense moments. That means fewer skill checks and, importantly for those new to tabletop gaming, drawn in by the Alien franchise, no weird dice. You’ll just need two standard D6, which you can either scavenge from your regular board games or get for cheap.

One of the major unusual mechanics is Stress. You start with a Stress level of zero, but it can (and likely will) increase under certain situations. Things like skipping out on food, water, or sleep. Suffering damage. The Scientist failing to analyze something. Being attacked by your friends. And deciding to Push a skill roll.

That’s another unusual mechanic. Basically, if you roll the dice when asked to perform a task based around one of your character’s skills and don’t roll a six, you can Push and re-roll. However, doing so increases your Stress level, and you can only Push once, meaning that you might be stuck with a worse result than the first time. Androids can’t Push (I’m not really clear on why, they’re fatalists I guess) but they don’t suffer from Stress either.

Getting back to Stress, the higher your level the worse the impact. The consequences of high stress start with minor twitching and trembling, but can go all the way up to becoming fully catatonic. However, getting away from danger to a place secured from the enemy, or at least one your character believes is secured, will reduce their stress level by one point each turn.

Those are the main two mechanics that stand out as being unique to this game and yeah, they’re ones that make sense (largely, still unclear on why Androids can’t Push) and fit the themes and tones. Good work creators!

Gameplay

This is a category that feeds off of the mechanics, so there’s a bit less to say here. The gameplay of the Alien RPG is relatively simple, basic stuff centered around fast-paced action and growing dread. The emphasis is on being trapped in a place with one or more monsters, not on questing or the like. The goal is to ramp up and then the just keep on pushing until the end. You have weapons and gear, and there are hazards to watch out for, and there are interpersonal dynamics, but nothing overly complicated, nor unusual for this type of game or this setting.

Overall, once you learn to keep track of and be mindful of your Stress levels things are going to be very simple, especially if you’re a tabletop veteran. And the easier to handle the gameplay, the easier it is to have fun and tell a good story in my opinion, so the game gets a good score again.

Presentation

Of all the categories, this one sort of matters the least. But it is important for a gamebook to look good and be well organized, and the Cinematic Starter Kit, fortunately, manages both. Everything is clearly labeled, the font is legible, the pictures high quality, the flavor text and quotes appropriate, etc. There are also cute little touches, like calling the GM Mother, after the computer AI Weyland-Yutani uses, and referring to you the reader’s PC as ‘she’ in recognition that all the canon movies have had female protagonists. They don’t matter much, but they’re cute and I appreciated them.

Overall, good presentation.

Value

This last one is tricky. Whether or not something is worth the money is really only something you can know. The most basic starter pack available for pre-order is just the rule book. It’s hardcover, full color, and three hundred pages long, costing $49.99. That is relatively standard pricing for a book of that quality. However, I must emphasize that I haven’t read that book. I only have the Cinematic Starter Kit. If the two are of similar quality, then I think the full rule book would be worth the money, but I can’t say for certain. It’s going to have to be up to you and what you’re able to spend, and how much you like the Alien franchise.

I will say, however, that its main selling point is the license. This is a good Alien RPG, not a good ‘general sci-fi’ RPG. The lore and worldbuilding just isn’t there to support it. That’s not as big of an insult as it might sound though. There’s nothing wrong with a specialized game. Just know that you’re getting a game meant to be played in specific ways, without much flexibility.

So, all in all, the Alien RPG is a pretty darn good tabletop RPG. The worldbuilding is good, the mechanics are good, the gameplay is simple, and the presentation excellent. It’s somewhat limited, but not fatally so by any means. I’d definitely play it, and I definitely recommend it!

Image courtesy of Free League Publishing

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Gay, she/her. An unabashed Disney fangirl, who may or may not have an excessive love of shipping, comics, and RPGs. She's not saying. And anything you've heard about attempts to start a cult centered around Sofia Boutella is...probably true.

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