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  • This Time, it’s an RPG: Free League’s Alien Role-Playing Game Starter Set- Review

This Time, it’s an RPG: Free League’s Alien Role-Playing Game Starter Set- Review

MB Updated October 29, 2020
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This Time, it’s an RPG: Free League’s Alien Role-Playing Game Starter Set- Review
There Will Be Games

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.

Editor reviews

1 reviews

Alien Role-Playing Game Starter Ser
A wonderful package that is perfect for new TTRPG players or those interested in exploring the Alien setting.
Top 10 Reviewer 137 reviews
Michael Barnes (He/Him)
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Sometime in the early 1980s, MichaelBarnes’ parents thought it would be a good idea to buy him a board game to keep him busy with some friends during one of those high-pressure, “free” timeshare vacations. It turned out to be a terrible idea, because the game was TSR’s Dungeon! - and the rest, as they say, is history. Michael has been involved with writing professionally about games since 2002, when he busked for store credit writing for Boulder Games’ newsletter. He has written for a number of international hobby gaming periodicals and popular Web sites. From 2004-2008, he was the co-owner of Atlanta Game Factory, a brick-and-mortar retail store. He is currently the co-founder of and as well as the Editor-in-Chief of Miniature Market’s Review Corner feature. He is married with two childen and when he’s not playing some kind of game he enjoys stockpiling trivial information about music, comics and film.

Articles by Michael

Michael Barnes
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Articles by Michael

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hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #315707 29 Oct 2020 14:58
Great review, thanks! I'll probably grab this starter set at some point.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #315708 29 Oct 2020 15:02
How far away from Alien/Aliens does this go? I feel like so many games set in this IP just seem to rehash the LV-426 fight over and over. But without xenomorphs (and I suppose Predators?) I'm not really sure what else this universe has to offer. Be nice to see it expanded out.

Plus I have the old Leading Edge Aliens rpg and that is a high bar! Who else has gun stats that take up an entire page per weapon??? :P
ChristopherMD's Avatar
ChristopherMD replied the topic: #315710 29 Oct 2020 15:33
I bought the Core Book specifically because I wanted to read the extra fluff. ;)
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #315711 29 Oct 2020 15:41
Oh, it definitely expands it outward- there’s a cohesive historical timeline that opens up a lot of possibilities for corporate and political intrigue and storylines even without Xenos. It sets up a very cool “frontier”-ish period and colors in lots of details. It really brings in and embellishes something from all the movies (but really very little from Resurrection, LOL).

The only LV-426 replay is in the core book- the shortened cinematic scenario is Hope’s Last Day and it is about the hours immediately after the Jordans and the outbreak.

I think Chariot of the Gods is a great model for what this game can do. It is so very Alien, but a different story and with some additional color (pirates!). It also has some new Xeno concepts so it’s not just a facehugger/chestburster deal.

I’ll be reviewing the second cinematic box, Destroyer of Worlds, soon. It is an all-Marines scenario but it’s still quite different than LV-426. There are human insurgents, an ice planet, and different aliens to deal with.
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #315713 29 Oct 2020 15:48

jason10mm wrote: How far away from Alien/Aliens does this go? I feel like so many games set in this IP just seem to rehash the LV-426 fight over and over. But without xenomorphs (and I suppose Predators?) I'm not really sure what else this universe has to offer. Be nice to see it expanded out.

No Predators yet; hopefully they'll be able to get that IP eventually. There are probably fan-made stats out there already.

Re: How far away? There's three scenarios released so far. All of them are Cinematic mode (one-shots). The only one that strictly rehashes the LV-426 fight is "Hope's Last Day," the one in the core book, which is specifically about some colonists trying to escape LV-426 as everything goes haywire. It is also the only one that has the classic Xenomorph.

"Chariots of the Gods," included in the starter set and also available as a standalone, involves the PCs as a freighter crew, who answer a distress call for what turns out to be a long-lost ship. Surely everything is fine on this ship, right? Just let the crew out of cryosleep and hope that MUTH/UR doesn't have any secret orders involving long-lost derelicts.

"Destroyer of Worlds" has the PCs as a colonial marine squad, stationed on a moon colony that is about to turn into the site of a hot war between Weyland-Yutani and the UPP (communists in space). Another group of marines defects to the UPP; the PCs must pursue them and their dark secret as the shooting starts.

I think all of them are good and all present good takes on the kinds of stuff possible in the setting. Granted, they all involve elements of alien body horror. You could probably cut it out if you really felt like it, but then why play ALIENS as opposed to any other hard sci-fi RPG?

The Campaign mode, in the core book, has three different frameworks you can use: Space Truckers, Colonial Marines, or Frontier Colonists. Space Truckers is probably the best developed, as there's prices for all the various ship upgrades you can get, plus a job generator table with payouts. Keep it flying -- like a dark/bleak non-Western FIREFLY. Space Marines is likely the easiest to GM, as you can just make a situation and then give the PCs orders to go check it out. There's a mission generator table for that too. Frontier Colonists (also with a mission generator) has the PCs as pseudo-indentured servants doing jobs for the company.

For non-Alien scenarios, there's always elements of greed, betrayal, and general corporate fuckery. The setting chapters do a good job of laying out the different powers in play, and how they are opposed to each other. The star systems are a cluster in more ways than one, and the whole thing is pretty much a tinderbox.

I think it's a fair question how much mileage you'd get out of the game if every scenario involves a body horror alien. Might get old. But, on the other hand, there's also non-supernatural scenarios for CALL OF CTHULHU. They never sell that well compared to the Mythos scenarios, and the game is still powering on after almost 40 years and seven editions, so I suspect it's more in the execution than the core concept.

The core book has a smattering of more traditional alien life too. Still weird and dangerous, but not so much on the body horror angle.
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #315714 29 Oct 2020 16:13
Fan-made Predator stats linked to on this page:
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #315715 29 Oct 2020 16:14
Barnes, did you purchase the official Roll20 module? I've been thinking about it, but I already have it in print and PDF already, and don't want to pay again unless there's a significant bunch of extras.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #315718 29 Oct 2020 18:26
LOL that was released literally the day after I manually created everything to play in Roll20.
blatz's Avatar
blatz replied the topic: #315769 30 Oct 2020 15:10
Great review. How does this compare to Mothership? Do I "need" both?
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #315775 30 Oct 2020 15:59

blatz wrote: Great review. How does this compare to Mothership? Do I "need" both?

MOTHERSHIP is a lot shorter and lighter. It's a lot more efficient in terms of rules, which also means the GM will have to come up with more on their own, and make more judgement calls. The system only uses d10s. Skills checks are a d%; if you roll doubles then it's a critical success if the number if under your skill (e.g. rolling 22 when your skill is 45) but a failure if it's over your skill. This is one of my favorite mechanics for crits, as the odds scale smoothly as your skill increases. It has a wonky advantage/disadvantage system, where you roll percentile dice twice and take the best if you have advantage, worst if disadvantage. It also has a weird nomenclature where "2d10" means rolls two ten-sided dice and add them together, but "2d10" (with underlining) means multiply the dice together.

Most of the broad strokes are present in both games. Hazardous environments on both land and in space. Sanity, damage, paranoia, decompression, etc. ALIEN is a more complete game. The core book for MOTHERSHIP doesn't have very much in the way of designing scenarios, enemy stats, running horror games (mood, pacing, etc.). You'll have to get the supplements for that.

I prefer ALIEN. I like the system better, I think the design is smoother and more consistent, and the bits are really fun. You can get maps with cardboard counters, some of which are "blips" that your motion tracker can read, and it has a whole subsystem of sneaking and stalking.

That said, you can certainly do everything in MOTHERSHIP. You'll just have to do more of the work yourself.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #315776 30 Oct 2020 16:00
Mothership is a rawer, punkier, looser, grittier game that lends itself to a variety of SF horror scenarios- it does cyberpunk, trans humanism, ghosts, cannibals, space mummies, extra-dimensional foolishness, and so forth. It is also supported by some of the best modules in the business (Dead Planet and A Pound of Flesh in particular). It is leaner on rules, but it’s also not as clean as Alien. Event Horizon, Dead Space, Pandorum, etc. fit in with this game really well.

Alien is a branded setting so it is somewhat more restrictive- this makes it better for Alien games, and in particular shorter 1-3 session storylines with some scripting. It is pretty bound to the setting, so for example my game with space mummies, a virus that turns people into biological coprocessors for an insane AI, and the Church of E-Mo-Tion that worships Carly Rae Jepsen as the ascended empress of the universe doesn’t fit in. But for doing Alien stuff? It’s near perfect.

So yes to both.
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #316236 17 Nov 2020 17:10
Having pre-ordered this I've had it since launch and I'm glad I held off on the hardback in favour of this pandoran plunder. Just waiting on a gap in the three concurrent campaigns I'm doing to even let this get a look-in. I feel like with all the shinies included that utilising roll20 would be doing it a disservice of sorts. Thankfully lockdown has eased considerably in these parts so we may get gather to silently scream before the year is out.