Sunday, April 21, 2024

The Alien RPG Core Book Dives Deep Into The Setting Where No One Can Hear You Scream

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Welcome everyone! Thanks for dropping in! So, a while back I did a review of the first part of the Alien RPG by Free League. Specifically, they released the Cinematic Starter Kit, which contained some rules and basics for their RPG, but focused solely on one of the two types of campaign supported by this system, Cinematic Play. Now the full book is out, so let’s give it a look!

Alien RPG Core Rulebook

Cinematic Vs. Campaign Play

Let’s begin with addressing what the difference is between the two modes of play. Simply put, Cinematic Play is meant to recreate the experience of an Alien movie. It’s designed to be played in a single session, with prebuilt characters, plot, and scenarios. And you’re going to die. Part of the point of it is that, much like the horror movies that drove this franchise, a lot of characters are going to die. It’s an intentional player killer, which isn’t my cup of tea but fits the source rather well, I can’t deny that.

Campaign Play, in contrast, is more about exploring the setting. You can create characters, the GM gets to make the plot and decide what you face, it can go as many sessions as desired, and players are more likely to survive. This is more for people wanting to explore the setting of the Alien movies, or to tell their own stories within that setting.

There are also different rules for each type of play, with symbols for each to denote when a rule is exclusive to one or the other. But the main difference is just the tone and themes of the two. Cinematic Play for a darker, quicker story, Campaign for something more character driven.

The World of Alien

So, let’s talk about the World Building of this thing, one of the more important parts of an RPG in my opinion. Not the most important, necessarily, as a good GM can spin an interesting tale out of almost any setting, but still.

Now, the Alien franchise has never been the best at world building. Not the worst, but mostly it’s been in the background. That hasn’t really hurt the movies or video games, but a Tabletop RPG needs a bit more than that, and fortunately Free League provides. From weapon and vehicle names and specs, to details on what life is like for people in different walks of life, to the nations that control the stars. There’s rules and descriptions of different types of aliens too. Not just Xenomorphs. Though no Predators.

Admittedly, some of its rather…well, silly seeming. Like the excellent Alien: Isolation, this RPG has no interest in updating itself to reflect a modern view of what’d by high-tech and what’d be the future. This is firmly rooted in 70s and 80s sci-fi. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it gives the setting a distinct and unique flair to it that immediately sets it apart from other sci-fi RPGs. But it still gets a chuckle out of me to read about how one of the nations is the Union of Progressive Peoples, a resource poor but large group of space socialists dominated by Russia and Vietnam, who’re locked in a cold war with the capitalist United Americas.

It’s not at all bad. In fact, there’s enough details here about the workings of the governments and mega corporations that, in theory, you could honestly do a whole campaign just dealing with scheming humans, and never run into a Xenomorph. I don’t know why you’d do that, it feels a bit like a waste of an Alien campaign, but it is viable, and that’s an impressive amount of work on Free League’s part. This just isn’t going to be for you if you’re wanting a more modern interpretation of the future. Also, it should be noted that this game draws from Prometheus and Alien: Covenant as much as it does from the original films, so if that’s a deal breaker you’ve been warned.

How To Hunt Bugs

Like most of Free League’s RPG’s, the Alien RPG mainly focuses on six sided dice. You’ll need two sets, Base Dice and Stress Dice. Free League sells pre-made versions of these, with special symbols on each, but you can use regular as well, though ideally you’ll want them in different colors to keep them separate.

Base Dice are, by themselves, used for skill checks. There are four attributes in the game-Strength, Agility, Wits, and Empathy. Each of these Attributes are tied to three Skills each, ranging from Stamina to Piloting to Medical Aid. When something comes up that requires you to use a Skill, you add your Skill level to your score in the Attribute connected to said Skill, then roll that many Base Dice. However, if you don’t roll at least one six (or a symbol on the Free League provided Base Dice) then you fail. It might not be a critical failure, but you must get at least one six.

However, this ties into one of the other mechanics of the Alien RPG, ‘pushing’ a roll. This allows you to re-roll the base dice in an attempt to get one or more sixes. You can do this if you failed, but if you want to increase the effectiveness of something (the more sixes you roll, the better you do). However, ‘pushing’ comes at the cost of stress, which means that on subsequent rolls you have to also roll some Stress Dice.

Essentially, every time you push a roll you add a point of Stress to your character. Each point of Stress equates to another Stress Die. If the Stress Die comes up with a one (a facehugger symbol on the Free League provided Stress Dice) then you cannot push the roll and must instead take a Panic Roll, to see if your character panics. If you roll a ten or higher on your Panic Roll, you’ll be forced to take a specific, detrimental, action by the game, though if you have the Overkill Talent you can instead fuel this into a sort of beserker rage against any enemies in sight. If you roll a thirteen or higher you must make another roll based on your Empathy Attribute, with the risk of your character acquiring permanent mental trauma.

You can, fortunately, decrease your Stress levels by resting in a safe space secured from enemies for a full turn. Equally fortunately, it just has to be a place your character thinks is secure, allowing the GM to keep surprises and the Players to have more spaces to rest available to them.

As for character creation, there are a total of nine roles for you to pick from. There’s the obvious ones of course- Colonial Marine, Roughneck (space trucker), Company Agent. And then there’s some less obvious ones. Kid, for example, in case you wanted to play as Newt. Colonial Marshal, if you want to be a space cop/detective. And then some ones that are more generic- Medic, Pilot, Officer, and Scientist. A good range of options, all things considered, though more geared towards recreating the broad strokes of movie plots than towards creating something not in any Alien movie. Which of course makes sense, since it’s a licensed RPG, but is still worth noting.

Capturing The Look of Retro-Future Horror

The presentation of this book is honestly pretty good. Everything is clearly laid out and legible, with sections making good use of space. I never have any trouble finding what I’m looking for. The flavor text is good and well written, with a fair amount taken from across the series, though admittedly Prometheus and Alien: Covenant take the most.

The art is likewise quite good, though curiously they went for an impressionist aesthetic. It’s not bad, everything’s clear and good to look at, just an interesting choice for a sci-fi, horror RPG. Overall the book is pretty to look at and easy to read, so I rate it highly here.

Getting Into Things

I’d say that overall this is a fairly accessible RPG, fortunately. It has some hurdles, like the sheer quantity of six sided dice you’re going to need, but those are fairly cheap and easy to come by. If you didn’t like the movies, or don’t like horror, this isn’t the RPG for you obviously, but if you haven’t seen the movies you’ll be able to play this quite readily.

Final Thoughts

Overall I thought this was a rather good RPG! It fits its source material perfectly, it has plenty of details and information so that you’ll never be in doubt of what to do or what’s going on, and all in all it’s quite a good game. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it, and I can safely say this is one I’ll be returning to, if mostly in the form of Campaign Play rather than Cinematic Play.

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You can grab a copy of the Alien The Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook, as well as its various expansions and accessories, at the Free League store or at DriveThruRPG!

Images courtesy of Free League Publishing

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