What’s the Story Mother? Alien RPG Review

Alien RPG

Author: Tomas Härenstam, Andrew E.C. Gaska
Publisher: Free League
Distributor: Modiphius
Page Count: 400
Available Formats: PDF & Print
PDF (DTRPG) – $24.99
Print (Modiphius) – $53.00
Print (Free League) – 448 kr

Ripley: Wait a minute. If we let it in, the ship could be infected. You know the quarantine procedure. Twenty-four hours for decontamination.

Dallas: He could die in twenty-four hours. Open the hatch.

Ripley: Listen to me, if we break quarantine, we could all die.

Alien, 1979. They weren’t talking about Covid-19, but listen to Ripley folks…

I remember when the film Alien came out in the summer of 1979. I was already a science fiction junky from Star Wars two years previous. Alas, being just shy of eight years, no relatives would take me to see it. Not even my uncle who had made the questionable decision to take me to see Invasion of the Body Snatchers the year previous (I expect my mother might have had a few words with him after that upon further reflection). Doubly alas, I didn’t manage to see its sequel Aliens in 1986. However, the next summer, I did manage to see it as a VHS rental and thought it was one of the greatest films I’d ever seen. I was introduced to Dark Horse Comics through their Aliens comics. And of course, I managed to, at long last, see the original film. I was a huge fan of the Leading Edge Games’ Aliens boardgame, especially the “Let’s Eat Burke” scenario. Leading Edge later came out with an Aliens RPG. I preordered it – and it was eternally delayed. I eventually did receive the game in hardcover form. I wanted to love it but found the rules way too crunchy for my playstyle. I’ve fallen away from my high school and college obsession with the franchise, but I still greatly enjoy it.

Recently Free League Publishing of Sweden published their Alien RPG. I’d begun gaining familiarity with them and their rules engine from their Tales From the Loop RPG. I received a copy of the Alien RPG from our esteemed host, Modoc, as a Christmas gift in 2019. I did a bit of reading of it initially but starting a new job in the new year, I found myself pressed for time as I adapted to my new commute. However, as that job went poof with Covid-19, I had a bit more time to read. I wound up going through Alien with a bit more detail. And I found it really clicked for me. It and other books (along with countless games of Scrabble online) helped keep me sane while I was interviewing.

The Alien RPG is available both as a hardcover book and as a PDF. If you buy the hardcover from Free League Publishing, or their publishing partner, Modiphius Entertainment, you get a free copy of the PDF. (Note if you’re in North America, you’ll pay for overseas shipping, so unless you’re buying other products it might wind up being quite a bit less than free.)

It’s a large book, at 400 pages, though it’s not particularly dense, with fairly large fonts, a lot of illustrations, and a lot of whitespace (well, blackspace, as the pages are black colored). It probably could have been condensed into a shorter book, though my middle-aged eyes do appreciate the design. The inside cover has a two-page map of known space, showing the various regions controlled by four governments from Earth as well as the Frontier. The book is divided into two sections, the Player Section and Game Mother Section – in Alien, the GM is referred to as the Game Mother, as in “what’s the story Mother?” from Alien.

The source material includes the classic four Alien films – Alien, Aliens, Alien3, and Alien Resurrection, as well as the modern prequels of Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. I believe I saw some references to the original Alien3 story developed by William Gibson as well as material from the various Dark Horse Comics stories).

The game is designed for both Cinematic and Campaign play. Cinematic play is for standalone adventures with pre-generated characters. Most of the material produced thus far has been for Cinematic play (though I don’t believe it would be impossible to adapt these products for Campaign play). In Cinematic play, characters might have very divergent purposes and have secret agendas that could make one character betray another (after such betrayals, whatever the outcome, you pick a new regenerated character).

Campaign play is more of your traditional long-term campaign, with characters who evolve over time. There are three campaign models outlined for such a game:

  • Space Truckers – Like the crew of the Nostromo in Alien or, to a lesser extent, that of the Betty in Alien: Resurrection.
  • Colonial Marines – Well-armed soldiers on military missions, as seen in the film Aliens.
  • Frontier Colonists – Those who explore unknown regions and settle on new worlds. This could cover the main casts of both Prometheus and Covenant. One can also see elements of this in the director’s cut of Aliens, as we see the colonists exploring the Space Jockey’s ship.

Player’s Section

The game mechanics use the same engine that other Free League Publishing games like Tales From the Loop and Mutant Zero use, adapted for the specific setting. I need to give the caveat that my experience with this system is limited, but I’ll try to give a high-level overview.

Characters have four attributes, each of which has three skills. The attribute rating determines the number of Base Dice (six-sided dice) you roll when attempting an action using that skill. Your skill rating adds to your task dice. The attributes and skills are:

  • Strength – Close Combat, Heavy Machinery, Stamina
  • Wits – Comtech, Observation, Survival
  • Empathy – Command, Manipulation, Medical Aid
  • Agility – Mobility, Piloting, Ranged Combat

Characters in Alien belong to one of a number of possible careers. These are not quite character classes but do influence your attributes and skills as well as determine what Talents you might start with. Talents are like D&D’s feats or Fate’s stunts – allowing you to tweak the rules under certain circumstances. For example, a kid might have the talent “Nimble,” which allows multiple pushes of Agility skills.

What are pushes? That requires an understanding of task resolution. To attempt any action, you roll a number of six-sided dice – Base Dice – equal to your skill plus your attribute. A six on the Base Dice is a success. If you fail, you can push an action. Pushing allows you to grab all the dice that didn’t earn successes and reroll them. Why wouldn’t you do that all the time? Every time you push, you add one to your stress level. For every level of stress, you add a Stress Die to your pool – which must be of a different color. If those are rolled as sixes, you succeed. But if you roll a one on one or more of the Stress Dice, you need to make a panic roll, seeing how your character freaks out – freezes, drops an item, flees, maybe even holds it together for now. You can’t push a failed skill roll if any Stress Dice show up as ones (though if I’m reading the rules right, I believe you can still succeed in such circumstances). When firing a weapon, a one on a stress die means you run out of ammo and must reload, in addition to needing to make a panic roll. Beyond gaining Stress from pushing rolls, you can also gain Stress from various scares, discovering a person is an android, being betrayed, firing automatic weapons, getting injured, etc.

I like the idea of this – it seems a good way of providing rules that reinforce the genre. Over time stress can decrease – for example, by rest in a safe place or using your character’s signature item (decided at character creation).

Alien typically is played in the environment of a spaceship or similar structure. The maps in the core book and supplements are retro 70s style graphics and are divided into zones – a room, or corridor, or some open space up to 25 meters across. Cluttered areas tend to pack more zones – reminding me a bit of TSR’s old Marvel Superheroes RPG if anyone remembers that… Unsurprisingly, line of sight, motion trackers, stealth, and enemy movement play large roles in the game mechanics. (“That can’t be; that’s inside the room.”) Initiative is handled via cards numbered 1 through 10, handed out to each PC and NPC. Every character gets one slow action and one fast action (or two fast actions) per round. Slow actions include crawling, reloading, shooting, etc. Fast actions tend to be more simple movement actions (run, moving through a hatch), as well as drawing weapons, blocking, aiming, etc.

Your character has diminishing health. Once it reaches zero, you suffer a critical injury (and every successful attack after which triggers another critical injury). Some of these injuries get quite nasty – broken bones, pierced lungs, ruptured intestines, severed limbs, disemboweled…

In addition to injury, stress, and panic, Alien characters need to deal with dwindling resources of food, water, and air, the threat of radiation and exhaustion, disease, and other fun things that can kill you.

There are a lot of details for vehicles, weapons, armor, and other equipment. Space travel and life among the stars gets a lengthy discussion. It is a grimy, “used” universe, with the fancy spaceships and holographic interfaces of early space travel replaced by more utilitarian equivalents (if you were wondering why the technology in Prometheus is so much fancier than that of Alien. The details of FTL travel are glossed over (as they are in the films), though its consequences are not. It can take weeks or years to reach destinations, depending on the FTL drive being used and the load being moved. Because of this and the risk of Neurological Distortion Disorder, crews tend to spend FTL time in hypersleep. In addition to a ton of atmosphere, there are numerous rules for space travel and space combat.

Game Mother’s Section

The GM section is full of advice. Much of it revolves around bringing about the feel of the source material – meeting the themes of space horror, sci-fi action, and a sense of wonder.

There is a discussion about the differences between cinematic and campaign play. The authors suggest starting with cinematic play to get a taste of the setting and game system. The core book contains a brief cinematic scenario, featuring the colonists from Aliens, though the text suggests the separate Chariot of the Gods. There are also guidelines for making your own cinematic scenarios. A large part of these includes the fact that each character will have their own agenda, which progress throughout the three acts of the scenario:

  1. setup – get all the pieces in place
  2. tilt – shake things up
  3. showdown – the climax of the scenario

Campaign play tends to need a session zero where you can discuss with your group what sort of game is desired, the characters’ home base/ship, the types of jobs they will take, etc. The authors also suggest using the Xenomorphs of the setting sparingly in campaign play.

Greater detail about the setting is provided for the companies and governments. The main governments are the Three World Empire (centered around the UK, Japan, and India), the United Americas, and the Union of Progressive Peoples (centered around China and Russia). There is also a fourth power, the Independent Core System Colonies, a loose confederation of worlds. Corporations like Weyland-Yutani have influence beyond single governments. Unlike most science fiction settings, there is no United Earth – indeed, all of the major powers have their origins on Earth.

There is an atlas detailing known worlds of the various settled regions of space and the wilder frontier.

Obviously, in a game called Alien, there is a chapter on Alien Species. This includes the Engineers of Prometheus, the Neomorph of Covenant, and the classic Xenomorph. The Xenomorph gets the greatest detail, with different types of Xenomorphs detailed, their different stages of life, and random tables to adjudicate Xenomorph behavior. I like the tables as a mechanism to prevent Alien combats from falling into patterns. Xenomorphs and the like are nasty creatures to battle, especially if you’re not a fully armed group of Colonial Marines, who are very tough hombres, packing state-of-the-art firepower, there’s nothing they can’t handle. In addition to Xenomorphs and their kin are a number of other alien species (I’m uncertain as to if these were made by Free League or are from other sources).

Assisting GMs are a number of tables to generate jobs, star systems, and encounters. There are also stats for typical NPCs, and details are provided for Novgorod Station, a way station for freighters and survey ships and supporting in-system mining operations – making it handy in many campaign frames. The station is a bit like a smaller version of Sevastopol Station from the Alien Isolation video game.

The book ends with “Hope’s Last Day,” a mini-cinematic scenario that lets players experience the fall of the Hadley’s Hope colony from the film Aliens. It basically dispatches with the setup and tilt to plunge the characters into the action. I think the setting was well chosen but feel it suffered a bit from being condensed.

Closing Thoughts

I need to give the caveat that my experience with the Year Zero Engine that Free League Publishing uses in its games is limited. If you’ve strong feelings about it one way or the other, I’m the last person to try to nudge you.

With that caution, I really liked the Alien RPG a lot. It’s a book I scanned through once, thought I’d forget, but kept coming back to. Like all the Free League products I’ve encountered, it is incredibly well done – atmospheric art and layout and tweaks to the game engine to properly support the genre. I especially enjoyed the mechanic of adding more stress dice as play goes on – it seems to perfectly capture the tension of the films – and provide an answer to “why don’t they just xyz?”

One thing I personally found challenging is how I would handle campaign play. I’d have loved some ideas on what long-term campaigns without a Xenomorph popping up in every scenario would be like.

I’ve got a hunch that when my group takes this for a spin, we’ll make use of one of the cinematic adventures already out there – and from there, we’ll make the call as to what sort of campaign we’d care for.

~ Daniel Stack

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Excellent review! With all the T2000 KS talk, I’d been wondering how a Free League game played and presented.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Daniel Stack says:

      Thanks. I’ve become rather fond of Free League’s games over the past several months.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Luke Aleo says:

    Thanks for the review! I’m curious if you’ve gotten to play the campaign setting. I was thinking the same – thing how would I keep players hooked for months at a time without losing the tension that comes with a new threat or unknown monster.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Daniel Stack says:

      Thanks for the comments… Alas, not as yet. So many games, so little time.

      Liked by 1 person

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