Note: This is a “first look” at the Alien: The Roleplaying Game system by Free League, as presented in the Cinematic Starter Kit that is included with pre-orders of the game. The full game in all its forms releases, as we’ve previously reported, December 10th.
The loud CLUNK of the airlock sounds more like the closing of a tomb than the sealing of this derelict space freighter’s entrance hatch. The lateral headlight on your IRC MK.50 Compression Suit lights up the dust motes floating through the stale, filtered air as your team checks their gear and settles their nerves. This was supposed to be a search and rescue, but initial scans of the ship show no movement, no life. Now it’s time to figure out what happened here and report back as quickly as possible. But the ship’s computer is being stubborn, the Weyland-Yutani representative on your crew is hiding something, and you could have sworn you heard something moving in the grates above your head. Welcome to the world of Alien: The Roleplaying Game, your nightmare’s only just begun.
Taking place just three years after the events of Alien 3, the Alien RPG puts players and GM’s (here called the Game Mother) into the role of colonial marines, space truckers, conniving corporate agents, androids, and more, all trying to survive in the hostile expanse of outer space. When the full game releases, it’ll include two modes of play, Cinematic and Campaign. Campaign play seems (the rules haven’t been released yet) like a straightforward tabletop RPG, where you build characters, level up, and gain credits and experience as you explore the galaxy. Cinematic play, whose rules are present in the Starter Kit, is where things get really interesting. It attempts to capture the thrill and blockbuster action of an Alien film through one-off campaigns where players take on pre-existing characters, and it’s fully expected that some will die, some will fight, some will have secret agendas, and victory is very far from guaranteed.
The core gameplay mechanic revolves around four base stats: Strength (pure muscle power), Agility (your speed and reflexes), Wits (your intelligence and your sense of perception), and Empathy (your charisma and how well you manipulate others). From there, there are twelve skills including entries like: Heavy Machinery, Survival, Medical Aid, and Comtech. Players roll a set number of six-sided dice corresponding to their core stats (and add more if they’re trained in a relevant skill). The goal is simple, roll at least one 6 (or a success symbol on custom dice coming soon) and you succeed, fail to roll a 6 and you fail. This system really shines in its simplicity. The more dice you chuck, the better your chances… but things can always go wonderfully wrong. Our gaming group loved the lack of an abundance of obtuse modifiers, and the clean, quick, and sometimes brutal effect of just rolling a handful of dice and praying.
The second key feature of dice-rolling and conflict resolution is stress, panic, and pushing dice. If a player fails to roll any success, they can push the role once. They reroll all the dice and try again, but this stresses them out. When a character is stressed, they add stress dice to their dice pool. If they roll a critical failure on a stress die, they panic, lose control of their character, and things can quickly go out of control. This push-your-luck aspect of the dice rolling in Alien is a beautiful addition to the game, and led to several “standing up at the table” moments in our games.
So… how’s the game? We played a few sessions of the included scenario, “Chariot of the Gods,” which uses the aforementioned Cinematic play style, and our small game group was completely delighted on first impression. From the first moment their Roughnecks and Pilots got their mission to explore a derelict spaceship, they knew there was trouble on the horizon. Gameplay moves in a natural flow from moment to moment. One scene could see players stepping slowly through a depressurized part of the ship, floating and soundless save the hiss of breath in their space suits, searching through the dark for the controls to reestablish atmospheric life support. But it won’t be long before they’re running for their lives from something climbing through the vents above them, attempting to dodge the ship’s detritus and make it to a safe room.
This adventure, specifically, involved a lot of corporate malfeasance and plenty of other surprises I won’t spoil, but it did such a good job of establishing a mood and an ambiance of dread that my players were fully freaked out, even though their characters didn’t realize just how much trouble they were in.
And that, right there, is what makes Alien: The Roleplaying Game such a rewarding experience. That cognitive dissonance only adds fuel to the terror and claustrophobia of the game. My player Joe may be able to quote Cpl. Dwayne Hicks’ best lines from Aliens from memory, but his character doesn’t know to stay frosty. And in the timeline of the game, almost no character’s seen a Xenomorph, and most don’t even know they exist. As the GM, I teased out that gulf between player and character knowledge, watching my players squirm in their seats when they found fresh acid burns on the ship as, simultaneously, their characters wondered at its origin. They were terrified, and played at times with hands over faces, and… in the end… isn’t that what a proper horror RPG is all about?
Head over to the official Alien: The Roleplaying Game page for more information and preorder a copy of the game before its December 10th release.
What do you think of the Alien RPG? Will this be hitting your table when it's released this winter? Let us know in the comments below.