One of the best uses of a licensed setting in RPG history.
Ridley Scott’s classic Alien has a very specific look, feel, and atmosphere – but so does James Cameron’s Aliens. Then there are four other canonical films and a video game in the Alien setting that succeed or fail to varying degrees to expand on or explain elements in those two primary sources. There’s been comics and other media as well, but to my mind the best follow-up from those two original instances is Free League's outstanding Alien RPG. I believe it is to the Alien “universe” what the West End Games Star Wars RPG was for that universe, a gaming setting rich with well-considered detail and thoughtful elaboration.
The core book is a stunner that will delight fans even if they never play the game- the illustrations and graphic design capture the specificity of the Alien setting and the numerous timelines, technical data specs, and off-screen details bring it all to life in new ways. But a lot of the material is really focused on supporting the game’s Campaign Mode, which is sort of the more traditional way to play the game with bespoke characters and an extended narrative of interconnected scenarios, persistent characters, and internal continuity. But it is really the Cinematic Mode where Alien shines blackest – a format for play wherein entirely expendable pre-generated characters are taken through a three-act storyline presented in a lovely format that makes running the game accessible and easy even for the most novice Game Mothers.
I dearly love the core book, but the new Starter Set is my recommended point of contact with the Alien RPG. This is a $50 box set that contains a stripped-down rulebook that omits all of the Campaign Mode-focused materials yet wholly supports the Cinematic game and presents the excellent rule set in its entirety. You don’t get the detailed company history of Weyland Yutani or the lovely Xeno bestiary, but in exchange you get a book that is easier to use and reference at the table.
As far as the rules go, it’s a system of medium complexity – we are clearly not in Pathfinder territory, but this is also not a rules-light design. It is based on Tomas Harenstam’s Mutant Year Zero system, as are many of Fria Ligan’s books. Detail is higher, and given the setting it’s crucial to track things like how much air is left in the PC’s compression suits, what the relative temperature is on the derelict ship, what everyone’s stress level and proximity to panic is, and how personal relationships are running throughout the game. As a Game Mother, you are tasked as much with generating that very specific Alien atmosphere – all of the tension, fear, and sudden horror – as you are with calling for die rolls and adjudicating player choices. It is survival horror, and this system amply enables that tone.
The dice system is excellent. It’s dice pool based, using only d6s. You add up your skill, its applicable attribute, and any bonuses or penalties from tools, weapons, situations, or other factors and arrive at a total number of Base Dice. Then you also add as many Stress Dice as your current stress level. You roll all of the above looking for sixes and if you miss, you can take a stress point and reroll. However, if you rolled a Facehugger (a one) on your stress dice in the initial roll, you can’t make that push and if you do push, you risk adding additional stress and if you roll the Facehugger you make a panic check of a d6+stress on a table of suggested results.
So stress, although it makes it more likely that you will panic, can also represent focus under pressure or the adrenaline rush of a deadly situation. There are several classes specific to the setting, of course, and all have specific talents that might come into play as well to mitigate, alter, or provide advantage to certain types of tests or situations. The dice system also factors into things like tracking ammo (if you roll the Facehugger, you lose a reload) and other consumables. It all fits together well, and it is quite easy both to explain to players and to run as the Game Mother.
I’ve been a fan of this kind of dice pool-based system for ages and in some ways I prefer it to the more common d20/difficulty class mechanic. I feel that it gives the players a stronger sense of success in degrees as well as a greater feeling of dramatic failure when a can’t-miss roll of 10 dice doesn’t turn up a single 6. It gives the GM something to play off of, and the Alien rules include some special talent-related benefits for multiple successes, which is a lot of fun from a narrative perspective. Watching someone blast a Xenomorph with an M41A, rolling four out of five sixes, calls for the GM and the player to create an above-and-beyond outcome.
The included Cinematic adventure is the excellent Chariot of the Gods, which was offered last year as a standalone product. It is an outstanding introduction to the Alien RPG, hitting all the right notes and offering a great mix of familiar scenes and surprises across a cohesive narrative that you can expect to run anywhere from four to six hours, generally speaking. The storyline is totally Alien, with space truckers at odds with scheming corporate types who are butting heads with scientists. Of course there plenty of opportunities for shocking biological horror including one tremendous story beat that might one-up the classic Chestburster if you play it right. The pregenerated characters are compelling and give new players plenty to work with. Each has a buddy and a rival and is given an Agenda in each act, which functions like a goal with the reward being a Story Point awarded by the GM if they are judged to have played to this agenda. The Story Point is an auto success, and it can carry over with the player from game to game.
What I love most about Chariot of the Gods is that it encourages players to keep secrets, work at cross purposes, form alliances of convenience, and take real risks. This is not a game about an invulnerable group of superheroes. It is as much about flawed, greedy, scared, selfish, and squishy people as it is about heroism, teaming up to kill Xenomorphs, and making sure everybody makes it out alive. It is absolutely critical that the GM go for blood and it is clearly stated that PCs should die and there are always opportunities for players that have lost their character (either to death or by becoming directly adversarial to the party) to take on a new one. I do not like bulletproof, invincible characters and I love that this mode encourages killing PCs for dramatic effect.
In fact, I had a character in one of my games get killed in an umbilical airlock accident before they even got into the derelict ship. I wanted to shock them, and I wanted to know that I didn’t give a shit if their characters live or die. It worked. From that point on, the tension was higher both around the digital table (Roll20, for the record) and mechanically as well as it put stress on the characters and the dead PC’s buddy was pushed to the limit before a Xeno ever popped out of a vent. When player death is a very real and actionable possibility, those motion tracker blips moving around them actually mean something other than another simple combat encounter.
Supporting Chariot of the Gods are great maps of the ships involved in the story, character cards for all of the PCs and NPCs, a variety of weapon and item cards, and a full set of Base and Stress dice. I love that this all-inclusive box set reminds me of the RPG kits that used to be more common in the 80s and 90s – it really is all you need to play, and I appreciate how approachable it all is for players at any skill level.
I’m of the opinion that the Alien RPG Starter Set is a better product than the core book, despite the omission of so much creative and exciting material. I’ve found myself wondering why this box wasn’t the initial release a year ago, rather than the core book sold alongside an earlier release of Chariot of the Gods, a sold-separately dice set, and without the cards and maps included. This package is priced right, offers tremendous value, and represents a perfect entry point not just into this particular game but also RPGs in general.