First Impressions: Alien – The Roleplaying Game

This past weekend, I made my first foray into being a game master (endearingly called a Game Mother in this title) for a short roleplaying session using recently released Alien: The Roleplaying Game published by Free League. There were six of us in total, with five others filling out the roster and we dove right into a scenario that got the terror, suspense and dice rolling immediately.

Going into this I had little roleplaying experience and what little I had was only as a player. The setting was Warhammer 40k, but it was hacked and loosely based on the Blades in the Dark system. I never seriously learned the rules and focused more on playing a fanatical guardsmen roped into some Inquisitorial work. Eventually that game ran its course and years later, I found myself looking into Free League’s new Alien project but with the pandemic raging, trying to get a group of people together didn’t seem feasible or responsible. But as the pandemic ebbed and vaccinations rose, it was time to re-enter the world and embrace one of my favorite pastimes- gaming face to face. My love and familiarity with the universe compelled me to learn the rules, gather some folks and tell a story.

Before I recap our session, I’d like to go over some of the key features of the game system and how it fundamentally reflects the world of Alien.

The gameplay in Alien: The Roleplaying Game is functional divided over two types of play sessions: Campaign and Cinematic. Campaign play reflects the typical character creation and long-term play that explores the universe over dozens of sessions. The world is still dangerous but generally slower paced and emphasizes exploration and other in-world plot lines that aren’t focused on just surviving a xenomorph outbreak. It is here that you can go on missions, earn experience, and cash and generally upgrade your character and ships.

Cinematic Play, while sharing much of the same gameplay mechanisms, is designed to be a more limited, contained playthrough with a pre-generated story, events and even characters. Cinematic Scenarios are played over only a couple of sessions, adhering to a three-act structure with personal agendas for each character. In this mode, encounters are often deadly, and most player characters are not intended to survive to the end. This dramatically raises the stakes and enables players to inhabit their characters more fully. This fits within the narrative framework of the Alien universe, where life is short, nasty, and brutish.

The system is governed by a D6 system in so much that to succeed at a particular skill or action, a 6 needs to be rolled. The more points in a particular attribute the more dice you can roll, thereby increasing your odds of success.

But there is a separate system that is reflective to the Alien universe. In the case you fail a roll, you can push yourself. You gain a Stress die thereby adding it to your pool. However, on any rolls of a 1 trigger a Panic event in which you must roll to see if you character breaks or suffers other deleterious effects. Outside events can also generate more stress- think of seeing a xenomorph for the first time or witnessing a chestburster birth. These all add to the stress and tension your character feels.

This is a double-edged sword. With your adrenaline pumping, you are more apt to pass rolls but with the addition of stress dice, the odds of also breaking increase. It’s a delightful system that mirrors the world of Alien.

Now this isn’t an exhaustive breakdown of gameplay mechanism or rules- I have only one session under my belt but I can confidently say that our session was immersive and a good time. About half the players had experience playing

The core rulebook comes with a short, one act scenario beginning in media res prior to the events of Aliens as Hadley’s Hope is overrun with the alien menace brought back from the Derelict. The player characters were out on a mining run and return with all hell breaking loose. There are immediately facehuggers and drones stalking the group, as they attempt to track down individuals that have access to the only off world shuttle. In addition to their goals to survive, each character has a personal agenda they will attempt to satisfy.

Because the combat is so deadly and my players did not have much in the way of weaponry, the party spent most of their time running and closing bulkheads. The synthetic player was able to absorb the brunt of any direct alien attacks.  Eventually, the group separated and succumbed to the alien threats. The synthetic was marooned, the plotting scientist had his head crushed with a xenomorph headbite, the pilot and the office were implanted by facehuggers and only the lowly janitor was able to get to the shuttle and leave the hellscape behind.

It was a rollicking good time full of tension and terror as my players desperately fought to survive. Even with the relative inexperience of some of the players, they were all game to tackle the Cinematic scenario included with the Starter Kit: Chariot of the Gods.

I never would have thought that I would be a long-term player of table top roleplaying games, let alone running games. But here I am, immersed in the terror and delight of the Alien universe, hungry for more.

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