Review by C.J. Bunce
You have two days left to get in on Free League’s Kickstarter for the new Blade Runner roleplaying game (check that out here). It’s already achieved unprecedented success (nearly $1.5 million pledged!), and if you sign up by May 26 you can get in on a stunning supply of unlocked stretch goal extras. If you haven’t tried a FL RPG yet, you might want to start with the FL’s officially licensed rule book to Alien: The Roleplaying Game (available here at Amazon). For anyone who loves the Alien franchise movies and novels (reviewed here) and its Colonial Marines, anyone who wants to see Weyland-Yutani get their just desserts, or anyone just willing to jump into the realm of horror roleplay–where you don’t always make it out alive–let’s dig into this recent RPG release.
Publisher Free League’s gives you three ways to jump into play: the Rule Book, the Alien RPG Starter Set, the Alien RPG Destroyer of Worlds Cinematic Adventure, and the Alien RPG Colonial Operations Manual. I’m going to take you through the massive 392-page hardcover rulebook for Alien: The Roleplaying Game.
As you can imagine, the design and layout will feel entirely different than D&D. The first half of the book is for players and the second for the GM–the cleverly named Game Mother–who leads the game, its nonplayer characters, and of course its Xenomorph threats. The design is 100% franchise faithful–think of books like the USCM Augmented Reality Survival Manual, and The Weyland-Yutani Report–it has all the best elements of one of the many Alien in-universe spin-off books. New RPG players may find it easier to adapt to than longtime D&D players–the nice and neat reference sections aren’t here to rely on, so the claustrophobic theme begins straightaway.
Gameplay has two paths to choose from: “Cinematic” follows characters and scenarios from the movies. It’s intended for a single session, and it’s less likely players make it to the end without getting taken out by a Xenomorph. That also means less character building and player world building. This version is for franchise fans wanting to take their turn with familiar missions and situations. Alternately players can take the longer play, fleshed out in the “Campaign” path, which allows for more character building, agenda setting, and creativity, as players proceed in one of three frameworks: Space Truckers, Colonial Marines, and Frontier Colonists. The rule book includes one Campaign scenario, “Hope’s Last Day.”
You’ll learn step by step how to create your characters, select starting gear, juggle encumbrances to your ability to move, prep your food and water supplies, and determine your character’s experience on the job. A dozen useful skills are detailed as options, plus more than 50 possible “talents” that may help you right when you need them. The biggest theme? Stress and panic under dire conditions and how you address it as the action builds.
Downloadable character sheets to develop or prepared sheets for Cinematic character play are easily accessible, and licensed custom dice and cards (for drawing initiative and acquired items) are also available from the publisher, but not required for play (dice rules can be adapted to standard dice and card use to a standard card deck).
Alien: The Roleplaying Game mixes the franchise’s sci-fi action, ghoulish horrors, and exploration of the unknown in the best way. There’s plenty of cool tech to survive the journey–weapons, arms, gear, diagnostic machinery, tools, medicine, and vehicles. Think Gears of War with Xenomorphs around the corner.
As with some of the best horror settings (think Jaws) the bulk of drama, action, and story is in the anticipation of confronting the antagonist, and the same is true here. The gist of the action is stealth movement, tracking rooms for signs of life, searching behind doors and hatches, until an ambush, sneak attack, and close or ranged combat. Broken bodies, first aid, recovery, critical injuries (72 specifically delineated)–all play a factor in surviving to the end of the game. As with D&D’s Icewind Dale (a personal favorite), expect surprising perils at every turn. And let’s not forget one of our favorite varieties of borgs–players work with or against Synthetics as in the movies. The aliens themselves are developed by the GM for each campaign, drawing back to the “Engineers” of Alien: Covenant to all the eerie stages of the Xenomorphs. Thinking outside the box, an imaginative GM should be able to pull in a Predator or two, also. Sixty-six scenario hooks are provided to get started, with literally hundreds of story path suggestions.
For those that have read any or all (as we have) of the many novels from the franchise, you’ll notice many Easter eggs and references back to some of those story elements, so this isn’t a franchise movie tie-in. The book suggests GMs read for ideas and atmosphere Alien: The Cold Forge, Alien: Bug Hunt, Alien: Out of the Shadows, The Weyland-Yutani Report, and Aliens: Colonial Marines Technical Manual (yep, I’ve reviewed them all here at borg). One chapter of the rule book, “A Hard Life Among the Stars,” is prime fodder for fleshing out Campaign play, with ideas for really getting into the shoes of outer space life. I’d like to see more space maps, but GMs can develop their own from all the location data subsets provided. Both the “Novgorod Station” and the “Hope’s Last Day” scenario contain some excellent tech noir maps.
The GM tools provide much fuel for fun, worldbuilding that ties back to the movies and sucks players into the action. What makes for a successful horror movie or story are the same building blocks for horror RPG development.
One great component of this game system: with little effort a GM could adapt this RPG to a Firefly RPG. In fact the right GM might try setting up an ad hoc Firefly campaign (for the right group of players, of course) that twists itself into a Xenomorph attack using this RPG as its backbone. Following along with the campaigns, you can also see the similarities of the feuding factions of the United Americas, the Three World Empire, and the Independent Core System Colonies, with the conflicts in the Firefly ‘verse. Why bring up Firefly? I just kept seeing comparisons in the worldbuilding I’d never noticed before, and I love an unexpected crossover.
I particularly like the “Rumor Control” story progression notes used in both the player and GM sections for setting up the narrative and dialing up the angst. This would be an interesting RPG ideally suited for a campaign of players in multiple locations meeting via Zoom.
Great in-universe fun and immersion for fans of the Alien franchise or something new for regular D&D campaign players, the officially licensed rule book to Alien: The Roleplaying Game is available here at Amazon, along with the Alien RPG Starter Set, the Alien RPG Destroyer of Worlds Cinematic Adventure, and the Alien RPG Colonial Operations Manual.