ALIEN RPG – a review

I have loved the ALIEN franchise, since I saw Aliens with my father when I was maybe 10 or 11. It is still my most memorable movie experience. So, the ALIEN RPG, from Swedish Free League, was a must buy when it came out in December 2019.

I’ve played it for a total of around 15 hours (on Roll20), and I now finally have found time to write a review.

The game won a Gold Ennie at 2020’s virtual GENCON, so it is fair to say that it is very well made game! But picking up a role-playing game also comes down to taste, personal preference and just what game you wish to run right now. So, in this blog post, I’ll try to answer: is this a game for me? You will get the short and sweet points first. In the second part, I go into more depth on the mechanics and content of the book. In a future post, I will write my thoughts on the scenario Chariot of the Gods.

In Short: What is the Alien RPG?
The game is a retro-future horror role-playing game built faithfully to the franchise (and officially licensed). It uses the Year-Zero game engine, which is a dice-pool system – like most Free League RPGs.

The game is designed for two modes: cinematic play and campaign play. The cinematic play emulates an ALIEN movie and is a single adventure in three Act. It means, each character has a secret motivation, they can’t trust each other, are likely to do irrational things and aliens are probably going to kill some – if not all – of the them.

In the campaign you are likely to play either colonial marines, space truckers or colonists, and alien life forms aren’t meant to be introduced right away. Instead, the game features more mundane missions and jobs among corporate giants and working class grunts trying to make a living.

The book is around 400 pages and about half is system and the rest is lore, Game Mother information, a short adventure and a location.

The system emulates the stress and horror of the alien universe and it is fairly simple. Combat and action are cinematic, but there are enough character options for a short to medium-long campaign.

Ripley is the greatest female action movie protagonist of all time, and is an almost unique figure in the 80’s movie landscape.

What do I think of the ALIEN RPG?
The game looks amazing, has a great atmosphere and was a lot of fun to play.

The game enables you to immerse yourself in the Alien universe; a scary, uncaring, capitalistic future where no-one will really care that you scream you lungs out or have your skull pierced by a xenomorph tail spike.

The game has a fairly narrow scope, which I think works to its advantage. The system has been tailored to create the Alien-experience, primarily adding stress dice to the player’s dice pool, when they exert themselves or things go wrong (more on that below).

Because of the relative simplicity of the rules, the widely known universe and the cinematic style, I think it is one of the best options out there for introducing new players to the hobby .

Characters will die in ALIEN. A weapon and some armor might save you… but don’t let the xenomorphs get close.

The artwork and art direction is fantastic, and the book is easy to read and make sense of. However, I have read and played other Free League games, which makes the system familiar to me.

There is enough background and lore in the book to really get my creative juices flowing and I wish I had the time to run an extra campaign using Alien.

That said, I’m sure it isn’t a game for everyone. It is science fiction. It is dark. It is easy to lose a character. It is about body horror and being fairly insignificant in a world of grey and questionable morals. The system is also not very granular. So, not everyone’s cup of tea.

Why should I buy the Alien RPG?

  • You want to play a space-horror game
  • You want to run shorter adventures with a cinematic style for your group
  • You would like to introduce D&D players to another genre/system
  • You want to introduce new people to role-playing, but they aren’t into fantasy
  • You love the Alien universe.

Why should I pass on the Alien RPG?

  • You want a crunchy game that tries to simulate life in space and combat between people in the future
  • You want a game with a vast scope that you can use for any kind of science fiction game
  • You want a game that can support a years-long campaign

AN IN DEPTH LOOK AT THE ALIEN RPG

Below I will go into more depth with contents of the rule-book and the rules. My views are mixed in between and I end with a conclusion. If you have questions or want to discuss the game, post in the comments or reach out on Twitter (@RasmusNord01).

The System

Characters
The players can pick from nine different careers. These are mostly well-known types from the ALIEN franchise, such as Colonial Marine, Company Agent, Kid, Medic and Officer. They are broad in scope, so the Officer could be a Colonial Marine Officer, a Navigator or Captain on a ship or a colony leader-type.

You can also play a colonial marshal, which looks to be inspired by the 1981-movie Outland, where Sir Connery plays a “space sheriff” on Jupiter’s moon Io. The look of the film fits very well with the ALIEN universe, and if your players haven’t seen it, you can steal the plot…

The game only has four different characteristics (Strength, Agility, Empathy and Wits), and each is associated with three skills. This means 12 broad skills and keeping it simple.
For example, Mobility covers stealth, dodging, jumping and risky climbs, which in some systems would be three separate skills. Piloting covers all kinds of driving and flying, so you don’t need separate skills for driving a quad bike, flying a drop ship and driving a tank – for power loaders you do however need Heavy Machinery.

Each career has access to three talents unique to them, and all characters have access to about 30 general talents. The career talents are what enables characters to do something none of the other characters can do.

The special talents are interesting, and some are unlike what you see in most games. For example, the officer can get the Pull Rank talent, and with a successful roll can force both PCs and NPCs to do as they are told. The Company Agent “Rat Fuck Sonofabitch” has his personal safety top of mind and can make another character the target of an attack aimed at her (with a successful manipulation roll).

The Pull Rank talent is one example of how the Year Zero system has in-built mechanics for social interaction, which I think works better than fluffy “diplomacy” or “persuasion” in other games, where the actual outcome is often left to the GM.

There are also rules for synthetics … excuse me, artificial persons. They are in most ways better than a human PC, but they also have a few limitations.

Mechanics & Stress
The system is made up of dice pools of D6s. You add your relevant characteristic with the right skill and possibly ‘gear dice’ if you have the right tool and then you try to roll a 6. If you fail, you can try to ‘push’ the roll one time by describing the extra effort (you have the same idea in Call of Cthulhu 7th ed) and re-rolling the dice.
However, when you do, you get a stress level. Each stress level adds a stress dice, and if you roll a 1 (a Facehugger on the custom dice) on one of those, you risk going into a panic.

The stress mechanic is a key part of the way ALIEN simulates the films and the horror in them. My players named them – sardonically – ‘Hero Dice’, because they do enable you to accomplish greater feats, but they can also make things go very wrong.

If you push, and still fail, there will also often be a negative consequence, including damage to your characteristics, broken equipment and so on.

In our cinematic game, the problem was that, as things spiraled out of control, we rapidly tried all the different outcomes of the panic roll.

The intention is that you roll rarely – only when it is dramatic. One of the reasons is that there is only one retry. After that, the characters will have to do something different to reach their goal. The added bonus is that it keeps the game moving forward.

ALIEN also has a feature I’ve not seen in other Mutant Year Zero-games. Each skill comes with a number of Stunts players can pick, if they roll more than one success. For a ranged attack roll that could be an extra point of damage, but you can also pin down your enemy, the target drops a weapon, is pushed back or drops down. Or in Comtech, you gain additional information or are able to hide your tracks in the system. I like that, and it is very player facing as they get to pick the stunt.

Panic is rolled with 1D6 and adding your stress level. If you roll a total of 6 or lower, you keep it together. From 7-15 bad things happen – you can freeze, go berserk or flee, for example, and often increase the stress level of nearby PCs through your erratic behavior.

In our cinematic game, the problem was that, as things spiraled out of control, we very rapidly tried all the different outcomes of the panic roll. Thus, you become familiar with it – as a player – much quicker than a long critical table, and that was a criticism from my players: the results of panic were quickly unsurprising. That is one of our main criticisms of the system.

Combat & gear
Combat in ALIEN is very lethal – especially against Xenomorphs. I’ve killed a character with s couple of dice rolls (xenomorph attack, character was unable to parry, the space suit armor didn’t stop it (second roll) and the attack happened to be an auto-kill crit to the head).

People firing guns at each other using cover and with armor is a little less lethal, but still deadly. Rifles and shotguns do a minimum of two or three damage points, so characters who aren’t particularly strong will be “broken” if they are hit and have no armor. If you are broken, you roll on the critical table, which can be everything from a minor cut to a broken leg or pierced skull. There are no Fate Points to avoid a killing blow, no Death Saves or re-rolls on the critical table. If you get a bad critical, you need to make a new character.

Xenos also have their own critical table, which means they might get blown away when they reach zero health, or they could be playing dead, or lashing out in a final berserk move. That mechanic works well, although I wish it had more than five outcomes.

Unlike some Year Zero Engine games, the characters have Health Levels. In other games, the damage is taken directly from the Strength characteristic. I’m not sure why they’ve made this design decision? Damage to character’s strength can lead to a death spiral, but since melee combat is less prevalent in ALIEN, compared to Forbidden Lands or Mutant Year Zero, it seems less of an issue.

A great design feature is that monsters don’t follow the exact same system as a character. Xenomorphs have their own list of six random attacks they’ll use – usually twice per round, as they have more actions than humans. The system is also used in Forbidden Lands and works very well with the iconic killing blows of the xenomorphs.

This section also covers the many (bad) conditions you can suffer from, such as radiation, drowning, fire and vacuum.

The gear section is robust and has all the gear you recognize from the movies, plus additional items, such as various drugs.

The vehicle section only has six vehicles, all recognizable. That seems a bit light, but can easily be fleshed out in a supplement.

My only real gripe here is a lack of information on how the weapons for example work in zero-g. Can the rifles fire in space, where there is no oxygen, for example? They do include rules for hitting the hull with shots from your pulse rifle and the potential resulting explosive decompression…

Colonies typically have shit weather, shit food, boring backbreaking work and lousy pay, but at least the coffee is good – and free!

Hard Life Among the Stars
Between the sections on gear and spacecraft, there is a section on life in the ALIEN universe, which is very player facing. It includes the basics on how space travel works, but also covers topics such as media, salaries, entertainment, religion and law enforcement. It is fairly short, but important.

I would have liked – and it could be placed in this section – more how zero gravity, low gravity, radiation and other similar aspects of living in space is dealt with.

Spacecraft and space combat
The space ship section has examples of iconic crafts, like the Sulaco, and a modular system to build your own ships or upgrade existing craft.

ALIEN RPG is the first interstellar science fiction game, where the size of cargo ships makes a bit of economic sense. In many games, characters will be doing interstellar travel with just a couple of dozen tons of cargo – around the capacity of a big modern truck. In contrast, modern bulk carriers or crude carriers have 300,000+ tons of ore, grain or oil on board.

Even current coastal cargo ships have much greater cargo capacity than what you see “traders” typically haul in games like Traveller, Fading Suns, Space Master and so on. I really like that, as it fits with the gritty economic system of the game.

Space combat is described as quick and deadly – which would fit with the rest of the game’s approach to design. The system does have a couple of fun features, but not a ton of detail. It resembles the system used in Free League’s occult Arabian nights inspired science-fiction game Coriolis, but has been simplified.

I like that the captain on each side (a player and the GM) secretly picks his orders for each “role” on the ship. On top, there are four different roles for the various crew members: gunner, pilot, engineer and sensor operator, who have a total of 14 different actions, such as Target Lock, Accelerate, Maneuver, Fire Weapon and Launch Countermeasures.

I haven’t tried it, but with 14 actions split between the four roles, it seems like it doesn’t offer a lot of options – and how often do you want to ram another space ship, really?

On the fun side, there are however a lot of different component damage options, split between minor and major, like: coffee maker malfunction (!) and Intercoms disabled to AI offline and critical crew injury. These malfunctions are also used outside of combat, and are cool.

On a side note, the game and the adventure Chariot of the Gods doesn’t really take into account the mass and speed space craft must move with, and what would realistically happen if they collide (megaton explosive events).

All that being said, I doubt that space combat is what you play ALIEN for. I guess, in a Colonial Marine campaign, you could have multiple space battles, but in most games I would suspect it happens once or twice, if at all. The risk of losing your ship – if that is the “base” of your game, will also radically change the trajectory of your game.

The Alien Universe

The final part of the core book consists of advice to the GM, a decent section on the various governments, corporations and organizations. This is followed by a description of some of the key systems, planets and colonies.

The central tension of the world is between The United Americas and The Union of Progressive Peoples – a Cold War analogy – with various skirmishes, proxy wars and covert operations happening out in the rim.

In my view, there are a lot of interesting plot threads woven into all this lore, and plenty to get some solid ideas for campaigns and intrigues.

For example, the Interstellar Commerce Commission representative, Paul van Leuwen, who chaired Ripley’s tribunal, found out that a team of colonial marines along with Ripley were sent to LV-426 to investigate and now also has disappeared. He has launched his own investigation into what is going on, and he might need passage, or some freelance investigators to help him out…

The game takes place in the year 2180 and adheres to the canon of the movies and the excellent video game Alien: Isolation. It means the that the events and technology of Prometheus and Alien Covenant are part of the book, as is everything up to and including Alien 3. Alien Resurrection happens more than 200 years later, and is therefore not a part of the lore.

I think the lore sections gives you precisely enough info to spur your imagination, leaving plenty of room for making your own systems and colonies.

Along with lore, there is a detailed map of known space, which is featured inside the cover of the book. You can also buy a digital copy or on print.

The Weylan-Yutani Corporation is can be both employer and enemy. There are several competitors also featured in the book.

Economics is out of whack
One of my few issues, is with the fictional economics of the game, including the population sizes on the colonies in the core systems.

According to the lore, some planets have been completely strip mined. This fits with the themes of greedy corporations and horror, but seems very implausible.

Earth has been intensively mined for more than 100 years and though we have caused plenty of damage, we are very, very far from having strip mined our home planet. Australia alone is estimated to have deposits of 24 billion tons of iron ore left.

Even if earth has depleted its own resources, and you need to build infrastructure in space, it doesn’t seem like there is enough population outside of earth to generate sufficient demand for strip mining entire planets. Nor the technology or manpower to actually accomplish such a task. But now I’m nit picking!

Alien Species
The section on aliens is 40 pages long and is detailed enough for you to run a campaign.

It begins with details on the Engineers and alien technology, and then moves on to the various xenomorphs including other Extra Solar Species.

Especially the Xenomorph XX121 gets a lot of love, with information on all the different stages of its development, signature attacks for all of the stages and some hints about Empress and Queen Mother stages.

Cinematic Adventures
Alien can be played in cinematic mode and campaign mode.

Free League has, as of now, published two cinematic adventures: Chariot of the Gods and Destroyer of Worlds.

Cinematic mode is meant for “short” games, one-shots and conventions. A cinematic adventure has three acts, like most movies, and a key feature is pre-generated characters, who all have a personal agenda – a goal they need to achieve. The agendas increase the drama and make players take classic horror-movie style sub-optimal actions – like going off alone to the medical bay to steal drugs or go searching for the cat in an abandoned cargo bay, while a xenomorph is on the prowl.

In Chariot of the Gods, the characters even get new agendas in each Act, to push the action forward.

I must note that it took my group five 3-hour online sessions to get through Chariot of the Gods, and I skipped parts. I have though read online that others have done it in four hours and had fun.

Creating Campaigns
There are three potential campaign frameworks laid out: Space Truckers, Colonial Marines and Frontier Colonists.

The chapter on campaign play is, mainly, a lot of charts that lets you generate your own star systems, plants, jobs, missions, colonies and so forth.

I experimented with it, and I have to say that the tables allow you to generate some inspiring combinations that really spurred my imagination.

However, unlike Forbidden Lands and Mutant Year Zero, I don’t think you can simply run a game based on the results of these random jobs and missions. Alien does not have a list of interesting random events like Forbidden Lands, nor several detailed locations. It only has the example of Novgorod Station and a handful of accompanying events at the station, which could be enough to get you started, but my players would expect more.

Especially for colonists and space truckers, the jobs seem too mundane for them to be really exiting. Even with the random complications and plot twists, you need – as a GM – to flesh out things a bit more in advance based on that random input. You have to make sure there is enough details on the intrigue and drama and probably a main protagonist to make it interesting.

A trip to deliver 2000 heads of cattle to a small colony station two parsecs away with the complication that “problems at the destination means they can’t get the cargo off – and perhaps the characters can help speed things along?” is cool, because it is mundane and “feels right”, but the real adventure orbits around the problem that “something is wrong” at the destination, which is hindering their delivery, and that characters must get involved in that. And I’m not saying it is xenomorphs – it could be malfunctioning Seegson droids, a weird AI, UPP infiltrators or something else entirely. My point is: you need to make that adventure, the NPCs, the plot and the location in advance to whatever detail suits you. The tables will only get you so far.

How does a job salvaging parts at the shuttered Fury 161 facility sound? All rumours about a “space dragon” are completely unfounded. Double pay? Done!

The random colonial marines’ missions naturally lend themselves more to being interesting and dramatic on their own: e.g. a Raid on a Sensor Site with a company agent along, who is meddling to secure corporate assets with the twist of sabotage on board with a UPP frigate on an intercept course. That sounds action packed, but you still need to craft the details: the map of the sensor site, the NPCs, the complications and so on – but at least the framework of something interesting is there already.

In my view, you also need to make a campaign arc that propels the characters towards meeting a xenomorph threat – a grand intrigue of some kind – that can connect the plots and adventures into a satisfying whole. The game doesn’t say a whole lot on that front, which is a bit disappointing.

As the game is deadly, it could make sense to have a bit of an ensemble cast. For example, the space trucker crew could be eight people for four players, with each player having two characters. Or the rest could be NPC’s until someone dies. It also leaves NPCs to put in danger – or kill horribly – for dramatic effect. Having 10 characters available for a squad of marines also makes sense, as some characters deaths seems to be inevitable.

The book ends with a short cinematic adventure, that takes place in the same location as the Aliens film: the colony Hadley’s Hope. The characters arrive back from a job at a processing plant (before the colonial marines and Ripley arrive) to find the colony deserted and a warning message sounding over the intercom. The characters must investigate and survive to catch a shuttle off the infested base.

The short adventure can be played in a couple of hours and comes with nice floor plans, PC’s and NPCs. A great place to start, if you want to introduce new people to the game, the genre or, perhaps especially, to role-playing games in general.

Alternately, the floor plans could be reused for your own adventure or campaign.

Conclusion

The ALIEN RPG is a fantastic game. It is tightly designed and sticks to its core themes.

The rules are designed to make the game feel like you are inside a piece of ALIEN fiction. It evokes the atmosphere and style of the franchise perfectly.

Inside the book, you will find everything you need to run a game, although the custom yellow stress dice with Facehuggers on, I think would make it run more smoothly (and you probably need two sets).

The art is great, and the book is easy to read – however during combat with xenomorphs, you do need to reference tables scattered all over the book. The rules are quite simple and very player facing.

That said, the style and themes are probably not for every gaming group, but I would argue that even for die-hard D&D/fantasy fans, an ALIEN cinematic adventure could be a great change of pace or palate cleanser between campaigns.

I would love to run a campaign in ALIEN, and I think it could easily stretch over 7-10 adventures – for me – a short to medium long campaign. But probably not more than that. The amount of character options and room for advancement would simply run out (see my calculation below) – unless you kill characters very frequently, which isn’t fun in a campaign.

The only real critique point in the rules are the amount of variation in the panic rolls and for critical hits on xenomorphs. I think the lack of variation could be a problem, especially in a campaign, and the panic roll mechanic is not easy to change.

My other slightly negative points are ultimately nit-picks, and every supplement for the game will be a ‘must buy’ for me.

Let’s say you play for 25 sessions, with on average 3.5 xp per session, which would leave you with almost 90 xp. At a cost of 5 XP per skill point or talent, that would purchase you:
12 additional skill points (on top of the 10 a starting character has)
2 extra career talents
and 4 additional general talents.
At that point, a group will be extremely competent and covering all bases.