REVIEW: ALIEN RPG Core Rulebook (physical game)

REVIEW: ALIEN RPG Core Rulebook (physical game)

The best thing Alien release since Aliens.

Released: DriveThruRPG
Free League
Genre: Tabletop RPG
Developer: Free League Publishing
Publisher: Free League Publishing
Release date: 10 December, 2019

The Alien franchise has been shaping the sci-fi, horror and gaming landscape ever since the first movie was released back in 1979. Ridley Scott’s masterpiece was both terrifying and fascinating, and with the help of H.R. Giger’s disturbing designs the movie became an icon. The second movie, directed by James Cameron, was vastly different from the original, but equally great. What came after has been a mixed bag though, and the Alien franchise never quite managed to capture the magic of the first two films.

This is the second officially licensed Alien tabletop RPG, the first being the ALIENS Adventure Game from 1991, which is known for being a rather clunky game, though it’s not entirely without its share of fans. This version was released by Free League in late 2019, and is based on their Year Zero engine, which was first seen in Mutant: Year Zero, and which has been used in most games they’ve released since then. A few of you might remember that I reviewed the ALIEN RPG Starter Set a little while back and for those there might be a sense of Deja Vu when reading parts of this review, as the rules are the same. The core rulebook just covers more things, like space combat, vehicles, campaign play, character creation and so on. There’s also considerably more information about the setting in this rulebook, as well as a short adventure.

The Setting

Speaking of the setting, let’s start there. The year is 2183, four years after the terrible incidents at Hadley’s Hope, which wiped out the colony in a thermonuclear detonation, and the closure of the prison world of Fiorina 161, after some unknown event resulted in the death of most of the inmates.

It’s now 144 years since Humanity established its first colonies on different planets. With faster than light travel and terraforming technology having recently been developed it did not take long before humans inhabited several worlds beyond their solar system. Some of these colonies would prosper, but many more would barely scrape by. Things have not changed much since then and life in the colonies is still hard. For most people living out there simple things like fresh food and beer that does not taste like watered down chemicals is a luxury that they can rarely afford. For many signing up as colonists might at first seem like the only way to get somewhere, to earn a degree of freedom and moving up in the world but, unless they’re lucky enough to be assigned to a colony that’s about to prosper, for most their new homes are little more than prisons, ruled over by faceless corporations who care only for the bottom line.

Most of the populated parts of the galaxy is controlled by just a few actors. The Three World Empire is made up of people from Great Britain, Japan, India and a few smaller nations, and is also home to the renowned Weyland-Yutani, the most powerful of the megacorporations. The Three World Empire is, at least on paper, a democracy with a royal family acting as figureheads, similar to the current day UK or Sweden. The United Americas is made up of nations from both North, South and Central America and is currently the most powerful nation, controlling many colonies and also the famous Colonial Marines. Currently the United Americas is heading on a collision course with the third major nation, the UPP, or Union of Progressive People. The UPP was formed by China and Russia, and is the only one of the three nations that makes no pretenses of being a democracy. While the UPP might be behind the Three World Empire and the United Americas when it comes to technology, they are also the only ones that are not in turn heavily influenced by the megacorporations, and can act more or less as they please. Apart from the big three there’s also a loose alliance of colonies calling themselves “The Independent core systems”, who might not be able to go toe to toe with the major nations, but have attracted interest from the megacorporations.

Speaking of megacorporations, there are several. Most famous of which is of course Weyland-Yutani, a British-Japanese corporation that’s been an important part of humanity’s efforts to colonize the galaxy. Their spaceships, synthetics, computers and weapons can be found almost everywhere, and their consumer goods are the staple on almost every colony found within the United Americas, Three World Empire and The Independent core systems. Lasalle Bionational is another one, and is currently in an arms race with Weyland-Yutani when it comes to biological weapons, as both corporations are looking to win over lucrative contracts with the Colonial Marines, though when their brand is found on a product out in the colonies it’s usually on medicine and hardy crops that are able to survive harsh climates. Then there’s Seegson, who specialize in synthetics, vehicles, both space and ground based, as well as advanced computer systems and medicine. Their products are generally considered inferior, but more affordable, than those of Weyland-Yutani.

As of late there’s been rumors about some “space beasts” floating around the colonies, and a survivor from Fiorina 161 has published a book on the subject, that’s been outlawed in many parts of the galaxy. There’s even a religious sect called The Church of Immaculate Incubation who seem to worship it. Only a madman would believe such things to be true though, and attempts have been made to crack down on those spreading such harmful misinformation.

There’s a lot of information about the setting in the core rulebook. Not only about the major nations and super powers, but also about major or interesting colonies, as well as more common vehicles and spaceships which helps give a pretty good idea of what life in the Alien universe is like, even when there are no xenomorphs around. There’s more than enough information that you could easily run campaigns that never have to involve any xenomorphs or other hostile alien creatures. There are also a few nods to things that Alien fans are likely to appreciate, like talks about a wooden space station, run by a religious organization, which anyone who knows about the earlier drafts of the Alien 3 script might recognize. In the Alien RPG Prometheus, Covenant, Alien, Aliens and Alien³ are all considered canonical, as is Alien Isolation. Alien Resurrection takes place in the future, and so is not a part of the Alien RPG’s timeline. The AvP movies are not considered to be part of the Alien timeline (and they’re not considered to be part of the Predator timeline either, they’re their own thing). Andrew E. C. Gaska, author of the current reference bible for Alien, and who’s responsible for keeping track of what’s canonical and what’s not worked on the Alien RPG, so what’s in here is about as true to the current Alien franchise as it can reasonably get, at least until the next Ridley Scott movie, which might end up changing important parts of the lore.

The Rules

Alien uses a version of the Year Zero engine, the same rules that’s used in most of the games by Free League, like Mutant: Year Zero, Vaesen and Tales from the Loop (Symbaroum is a notable exception, but that was written by Järnringen, which would later become a part of Free League). Out of all the Year Zero engine games Alien is probably the most rules heavy.

The Year Zero engine is a dice pool system where you roll a number of 6-sided dice equal to the skill and attribute that’s being tested, and any die that comes up a 6 is a success. If you roll more than one 6 you can improve the result in some way, exactly how depending on the skill in question. If you’re shooting a Xenomorph it might simply mean more damage and if you’re rolling for Survival you might be able to find enough food for two (or more). In case of an opposed roll, say two characters are trying to wrestle each other to the floor whoever scores the most successes is the winner of the roll. If you fail a roll, or are unhappy with the number of successes you can chose to “push” it. When pushing a roll you re-roll all the dice that did not come up as a six and any sixes, both from before and after the re-roll counts as successes. Pushing a roll comes at a cost though, it adds a point of stress to your character.

Stress is one of the defining mechanics of the Alien roleplaying game and you add a point to it whenever you push a roll or when the game master thinks it’s appropriate. Finding the body of a friend who’s been attacked by a xenomorph for an example would be a terrifying thing, and this adds a point (or more) of stress, as does seeing other people panic. Getting stress is a double edged sword, it can increase the chance of success, representing the fact that a bit of stress or fear can help you push yourself beyond your normal limits. Whenever you do a skill roll you add your current stress value to it, using dice that are different from your normal non-stress dice. Any six on these dice still counts as a success, just like normal, but if you roll a one something bad has happened and your character might be starting to panic. When this happens you roll one six-sided die and add your current stress value, and compare it to a table in the book. The higher the result the worse it’s likely to be, with a low roll usually not being too bad, your character might develop a nervous twitch or drop whatever they’re holding, but a higher roll can be really dangerous. Your character might start to scream (possibly attracting the attention of others nearby), flee or even become catatonic. Stress is something that can go up really fast if you’re not careful . A stress roll does not necessarily mean that the task you were trying to accomplish automatically fails, but you can’t push a roll if any stress die comes up as a one. Luckily stress is also pretty easy to get rid of, as long as there’s a safe place to rest and catch your breath. But in a xenomorph infested space station there might not be any safe places.

As in most RPGs combat is likely to happen sooner or later. Maybe you’re playing as a group of colonial marines and the UPP are invading your colony, maybe a xenomorph scutters past you in a dimly lit corridor and you’re trying to hit it with a nailgun or maybe you end up in a bar fight with a drunk miner. No matter the reason, a fight is about to happen. The first thing you do is randomize initiative and then combat is done in initiative order. Especially fast creatures might even be allowed to act twice during a combat round and thus rolls for initiative twice. When it’s your turn to act you’re allowed to do one fast and one slow action, or two fast actions. A slow action includes things like shooting at an enemy, crawling or trying to calm down a panicking teammate, while a fast actions include aiming, moving and drawing your weapon. Attacking an enemy is a skill roll like any other, you add together your ranged combat skill and your agility (for shooting) or strength (for melee) and roll that number of dice, and any six is a success. Some weapons might make this roll easier, like the iconic Smart Gun which tracks the target for you. If you are able to hit the enemy with an attack they then get to try and prevent the damage using their armour, with an armour roll working just like another skill roll, only instead of using your skills you use your armour value. Any six reduces damage by one.

A character has health equal to their strength value, which for a regular human is between two and five. Each weapon has a damage value and any hit will deal the listed amount of damage, plus one for any additional successes, and then minus one for any successful armour roll. To put the health value into perspective, a pulse rifle, the weapon that most of the marines use in Aliens, deals 2 points of damage. This means that a regular human can usually survive one hit from a pulse rifle, with the second one being a problem. As a result the combat system is a bit less lethal than you might first expect, as most people are able to survive a rifle shot. Xenomorpsh though can quite easily bring down a human with a single well placed hit, making them extremely dangerous. Reaching 0 health does not mean that you instantly die though but instead you roll on a critical hit table. Some of the results on the critical hit table are pretty mild, while other are instant death.

Before all hell breaks loose and the bullets starts flying there might be, depending on the situation a “stealth phase”. This does not necessarily mean that either side is trying to hide from or stalk the other, but it’s when the player characters are moving through an area where there are hostiles. The rules for the stealth phase are not very strict, but are still a way of keeping track of where everyone is and when and what might cause combat. Enemies might either be passive, meaning that they’re either unaware of the players or don’t care about them (yet), or they can be active, at which point they’re trying to deal with the player characters.

While combat is likely to claim the most player character lives, it’s not the only dangerous thing out there. The vacuum of space, a leaking reactor or running out of food while you wait for rescue can be just as dangerous as a xenomorph or a person with a gun. Alien has rules for these things, which can be used both for playing a more survival focused campaign as well as just dealing with unfortunate situations. Food, water, air and power are all resources that can be tracked, and once they run out the players might end up in a really bad situation. The way this works is not very intuitive or logical, but it does make for really tense situations. When it looks like you might need to track these resources, say a character is stuck on the wrong side of an airlock and is trying to get in while air in their suit is slowly draining, you roll a number of dice equal to the resource value you have, up to a maximum of six dice. If you have 8 units of air, you still roll six dice, but if you have three units, you just roll three dice. Any die that comes up a one subtracts one point from that resource value. This makes little logical sense, why is your air draining faster when you have more of it? But it does create tense situations, as the time it takes for a resource to run dry is not predictable, and you’re likely to reach low levels in a resource pretty fast, at which point every roll of the dice ends up feeling very tense. Different resources are rolled for at different intervals, air for an example is rolled for every “turn”, while food is rolled for on a daily basis. And once a resource runs out bad things happens. Running out of food is both stressful and will prevent any form of healing, and going without air results in a pretty swift death. Not all hazards have resources attached to them, radiation for an example will accumulate in the body and will sooner or later start causing damage, while fire deals direct damage.

There was a term used above that might trip people up, and that’s “turn”. Time is measured in different units, rounds, turns and shifts, being 5-10 seconds, 5-10 minutes or 5-10 hours respectively. The problem is that the terms ” turn” and “round” are sometimes used interchangeably in other games to denote one round of combat. It would have been better to use a different term than “turn” here to avoid confusion. These units of time do get referenced in the rules, and are used as a slightly abstracted way of telling you how long something takes. Repairing a starship’s engine is measured in shifts, recovering sanity is measured in turns and combat in rounds.

Xenomorphs (and other animals) are nasty creatures and have rules of their own. Xenomorpsh are fast and thus often allowed to take more actions in combat than humans are. They also have their own critical hit table, representing the fact that xenomorphs are really hard to actually kill, and a downed xenomorph might get up again without warning. They also have their own set of attacks. When a xenomorph, or some of the non-xenomorph animals, attack you roll on a table to determine what it does. This keeps xenomorphs unpredictable, but most of the results on the attack table are bad news for anyone on the receiving end. The best they can really hope for is that the xenomorph decides that you’re worth more alive than dead, and wants to capture you. Although actually being captured by a xenomorph is a fate worse than death. To make matters worse the exoskeleton that xenomorphs have is tough enough to deflect bullets. GMs should be really careful with sending multiple xenomorphs towards the players at once.

Not all fighting is done on the ground, some is done in space. Spaceship combat in Alien has the players take different roles on the ship, be it sensor operator, pilot, gunner or engineer. Different roles have different things to do in combat, befitting the position. Combat itself is rather abstract, but one thing is for certain, it’s fast and it’s lethal. It’s important to note that space is huge and spaceships are fast, and the combat system is trying to represent this in a way that’s reasonable to do in a game setting. Ranges are abstracted and at the speed spaceships move it’s quite easy for the ships to pass by each other, and not be able to turn around fast enough to find each other again. Hits on a spaceship can easily cripple it though, or destroy it completely, killing all the crew members.

The Characters

If you’ve played any other Year Zero Engine games then character creation in Alien should seem instantly familiar. The game has 9 different careers and each character get to pick one. Careers include colonial marines, scientists, medics and a few more. Careers are comes with a key attribute, key skills and career talents. When you’re creating your character you’re then allowed to spend a number of attribute points and a number of skillpoints.

Attributes are strength, agility, wits and empathy, and a starting character has a number of points to spend on these. Each attribute needs to have a starting value of between two and four, with the key attribute being allowed to go as high as five. Skills points are given a number between 0 and 3 at the start, depending on how many points you spend, though any skills that are not listed on your career can’t go higher than one at character creation.

Each career has three different talents and at character creation you get to pick one. Talents represent special things that your character can do. A roughneck for an example can be so hardened and jaded that they’re allowed to ignore panic once per act, while a daredevil pilot might be allowed to push their agility rolls multiple times.

Over the course of a campaign characters can grow in power. After each session, or when the GM think it’s appropriate players earn experience points and these can then be used to improve skills or buy new talents. Five points of experience earns you either a skillpoint or a new talent, and when gaining talents during play you have more options than during character creation, as there’s a list of 31 generic talents that you can choose from.

All of the above assumes that players will be playing as regular humans, but players can also be Synthetics, or androids, like Bishop from Aliens and David from Prometheus. Androids largely work like humans, and as long as they’re not injured can quite easily pass for one (androids “bleed” a kind of white fluid rather than blood). Being an Android comes with a few upsides, you get higher attribute values and you’ll never need to worry about stress or panic rolls. They’re on top of that considerably harder to kill or incapacitate than a human. Xenomorphs are also less likely to take note of you, as long as they don’t view you as a threat. The downsides are that androids can’t push rolls and they don’t heal damage naturally, instead they need to be repaired. Androids are also generally programmed to not harm other humans, and requires modifications in order to do so.

Campaign Play vs. Individual Adventures

Horror games have a reputation for being best suited for one-shots or shorter adventures, owing to their generally high lethality and the fact that it’s easier to run a highly lethal game if you’re playing a standalone adventure and because even if a player character survives, it might not do so in the best of shapes. Characters in horror games tend to become worse over time, not better.

Alien tries, and succeeds, at allowing for both campaign play and individual adventures, and makes clear distinctions between the two playstyles. Individual adventures, called cinematic play, are meant to be roughly structured like a movie, with separate acts and inter-group conflicts. The two pre-made adventures that exists at the time of writing, Chariot of the Gods and Destroyer of Worlds give examples of how this can be done. Every player character tends to have an agenda for each act, something that they want to do that might put them at odds with the group. Doing these will earn the player (rather than the character) a story point which they can use in the future as a free success. Cinematic play gives that classic horror-game experience that people tend to think of when they say that horror games are best for one-shots, with a high level of lethality and characters who are likely to be in a worse state after the adventure than before it.

Campaign play is structured differently and assumes that characters won’t die every session. Campaign play can of course still be as lethal as the GM and players want it to be, but a campaign that’s too lethal tends to be a pretty short one. The book suggests three types of campaigns, Space Truckers (carrying cargo from one place to the other), Colonial Marines (more military oriented campaigns) and Frontier Colonists (try to establish and maintain a colony on the harsh and unforgiving frontier). You’re not limited to these three, nothing says that you can’t play a corporate espionage focused campaign where you’re playing as a group on Seegson’s payroll trying to steal corporate secrets from Weyland-Yutani, but if you do there’s less guidance from the book. There are mission generators and also solar system generators in the book that can be used both to create entirely random missions, planets and systems, or be used as inspiration for what can be done.

In campaign play the players are also likely to have their own spaceship. The three campaign styles mentioned above all have a recommended spaceship that the players can use as a home base, and which can be built on and upgraded over time. Free League often has guidelines for how to handle a kind of “home base” in their games, and the spaceship is this games home base counterpart.

The Included Adventure

At the end of the rulebook is a short adventure called Hope’s Last Day. The name of the adventure is a pretty good indicator of what it’s about. It’s set on Hadley’s Hope, the colony in Aliens and has the players experience the events from the perspective of the colonists.

This is a really short adventure, one that you can realistically complete in an evening with some time to spare. The adventure comes with a few pre-generated characters and is just a couple of pages long, so the preparation time is pretty low. Weirdly enough it comes with two sets of the same maps, one of which are considerably easier to read than the other. Overall though, this is a pretty good introductory adventure and has many of the elements that makes Alien such a distinct franchise.

Layout, Art and Quality

Alien has art by Martin Grip, the same guy who’s responsible for the excellent art in Symbaroum, and if you’ve ever played that game you know you’re in for a treat with the art. There’s a lot of art in the book, all of it really high quality and capturing the feel of the setting. A surprisingly small amount of the art portrays xenomorphs, instead most of the art shows people in different but more mundane situations. That’s probably a good choice, as if you’ve seen the movies you know what a xenomorph is and what a fight with one entails, but there’s less of everyday life in the Alien universe, and the art helps fill in those gaps. That’s not to say that there’s no art portraying xenmorphs, there is, but that’s not the focus on most of the art.

The layout of the book is overall alright, but there’s some information that can require a bit of digging to find. For an example finding out how much damage a grenade launcher does requires you to look into the “other hazards” section, because that’s where the rules for explosions are, and the keyword for blast damage “blast” is not in the index, but “explosions” is. If you know where to look this is not a big issue, but if you hand the book to a player who wants to look things up they might struggle to find the right page. There are a few more things like that that can slow down play when you’re looking for the right rules. Some important tables like the Panic table would also have been nice to have in the back of the book, as flipping through the book to find tables can be annoying. .

The book itself feels quite sturdy and none of the pages feel like they’ll come loose anytime soon. Print quality is excellent, with no signs of misaligned printheads or smudges. Overall this is a very well put together book.

Closing Thoughts

I’m a big fan of Alien, and I have been for the better part of my life. Well, I should say that I’m a big fan of the first two Alien movies, and I think the third one is alright, and the fourth one is watchable. And as an Alien fan I have to say that the Alien RPG is about as good as you could possibly hope for.

The game rules work really well, and are pretty easy to both learn and teach. The stress mechanic is probably the best take on a sanity-style mechanic I’ve seen to date, and it works better than its counterparts in games like Call of Cthulhu (a game that I quite like) at actually creating tense situations, so as a horror game Alien nails it. But what really makes Alien so remarkable is that it supports non-horror play as well. Longer campaigns without any xenomorphs in the extensive Alien universe is well supported both by the rules and by the amount of information about the universe that can be found in the book. You can quite easily make an interesting campaign about space trucking with what’s in the core rulebook and never once run into a hostile alien creature.

Any fans of tabletop RPGs who have the slightest interest in the Alien franchise, sci-fi or horror owes it to themselves to try out this game. The Alien RPG won the “best game” award at the Ennies in 2020, and after having played it I think that’s well deserved, it really is that good.

Written by
Fnord
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2 comments
  • ALIEN RPG by Free League is an absolutely brilliant game system. The art alone makes the books worth buying and really drives home the dark horror of the ALIEN universe. The rules are top notch and reflect the desperate survival aspect of the genre.

    • Yeah, Martin Grip is one of the best artists working in the RPG space at the moment, he really managed to capture the feel of the Alien setting. And his work on Symbaroum is if anything even better.
      And I agree, the rules are excellent. They stress mechanic in particular does a great job at ratchetting up the tension in the game and puts the players on edge like no other “sanity system” I’ve seen.

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