Review: Alien Roleplaying Game

At the gaming table, no one can hear you scream. 

Okay… one to five other players can hear you scream, as well as the GM. But the GM doesn’t care: your screams sustain them.

I’m referring of course to the Alien Roleplaying Game by Free League Publishing, based on the movie franchise of the same name by 20th Century Fox (and now owned by Disney), while also incorporating and acknowledging prequeles by Ridley Scott (the director of the original film): Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. By default, the game is set three years after Alien 3, which means it’s also 200 years prior to Alien: Resurrection.

Free League (also known as Fria Ligan in their native Swedish) is a relative newcomer to the tabletop scene, but they came in with gusto. In the last five years they’ve published: Mutant: Zero, Coriolis , Tales from the Loop, and Forbidden Lands. And in the process they’ve collected a number of awards. They’ve often partnered with Modiphius Entertainment for publishing & distribution.

What It Is

A hefty 392-page book, Alien: The Roleplaying Game is a full colour hardcover with moody black pages, atmospheric art, and the majority of the text in small sidebar-like boxes. The book is basically presented as a lengthy series of largely self-contained sidebars. 

In addition to the book, the game makes use of custom six-sided dice and a deck of cards, but regular d6s and playing cards can be used in a pinch. 

The first dozen pages are a super brief introduction to the world, the tone, and the setting, which pretty much assume you know what the titular “aliens” are. Which is probably safe bet. From there we get 140-pages on characters and the rules of playing the game, including character creation, combat, gear, and the like. 

The book then delves into the setting, dealing with the technology (like FTL travel and cryogenics) as well as colonies and general lifestyle information. The world of 2183. There’s sections here on money, religion, law enforcement, and more. As this section deals with spaceships, there’s also space combat here. 

Then we move onto the 15-page section on “Your Job as a Game Mother”, as the system uses GM but tweaks the meaning. Then the book returns to the setting for 60-pages, with a lore dump on the government, hypercorps, and systems. There are something close to 16 planets briefly described in this section, most with a small adventure hook or a reason to visit. Some are horrible and some are pleasant and one is certain death. This is followed by 40-pages on alien species, including both the Engineers (of Prometheus) and a few new aliens, most of which are insect-based. (Possibly to explain the phrase “another bug hunt” in the early minutes of Aliens.) 

The book ends with a chapter on Campaign Play, with three types of campaign (space trucker, colonial marines, and colonists) followed by table after table for generating occupations, planets, solar systems, and more. Plus a few NPCs for good measure. This chapter includes a few locations and a mico-adventure set in Hadley’s Hope, the colony in Aliens.

The Good

The book features lots of moody art and super high production values. The book is very dark and atmospheric. There’s only a couple images set on brightly lit locations. Most images of the titular xenomorph are heavily shadowed, making it this dark, imposing figure. 

The rules are somewhat similar to the publisher’s earlier success, Tales from the Loop. The action resolution system for both games is seemingly simple: you roll a pool of dice equal to an Attribute + a relevant Skill. As few as 1 die and as many as 10 d6s. If you roll a “6” you succeed. Unlike Tales from the Loop, you only need a single success by default. This means you can just roll and say you succeed, rather than rolling and waiting to see if you hit the unknown target known by the GM.

A side effect of this, is it also allows the degree of success to be described narratively: such as succeeding with flying colours if you roll many 6s, or barely succeeding if you roll 8 dice with only a single 6. There’s also some nice added complexity with stunts, where you can trade additional successes for bonus effects. This might require a cheat sheet for new players (as there’s a lot of different options) but it’s something you can slowly introduce.

Characters are fairly simple. Like Tales from the Loop, characters possess four Attributes and twelve related Skills (three for each Attribute). In this game, PCs also have a few small talents, plus a few roleplaying elements. This is a rules-light narrative-heavy game, but with enough complexity to customize your character. You can specialize, without that choice being strictly flavour. 

The game uses custom dice, with special symbols on the “6” (a success symbol) and Stress dice with a symbol on the “1” and “6”. But easy enough to use regular d6s. I like having fun, customized dice as an option, but hate being forced to buy sets of expensive custom dice for the entire table. Thankfully this isn’t the case.

The game’s Stress mechanic is awesome. This is what really jumped out at me and made me pay attention to the game: as a horror game, you want to put fear and tension at the forefront, but this is tricky when you’re safe at a table with friends. In this game, you can add Stress by pushing a reroll .This lets you roll your entire dice pool again (increasing your chances of the vital success, or trying for more success to use for stunts) AND also adds additional dice to your pool that further increases your odds. However, this added die can cause you to panic when it come up as “1”. This leads to the neat effect that your odds of success get better when you’re stressed, but with the constant risk of total failure. As a system I’m reminded of Hunger dice in the new edition Vampire, but using them is a choice creating a risk/reward element. You’re rewarded for choosing for your character to become stressed, which also adds stress to the player every time they roll. 

Also employing dice is the game’s system of tracking resources, which is also pretty nifty. You track your air, food, power, and water at set times, rolling a number of dice equal to the current rating, which decreases when you fail a roll. Statistically, your resources decline quickly at first, and then slowly near the end, creating some immediate tension. The game doesn’t use the same system for ammunition, but this would be a very simple hack. 

The initiative system is card based, and players draw from a small deck of 10 cards to determine when they act in a combat round. It’s a system I don’t believe I’ve seen before. Cynically, it feels like an excuse to sell another accessory to make more money to pay off the expensive licence, but it has some neat effects. Like how you can swap cards with other players, allowing the limited opportunity to rearrange your initiative. And you can spend successes in combat to swap initiative with an enemy, which opens up some interesting strategic moves. And it’s relatively fast, so you don’t roll and consult or sheet, you just need to draw and display a card. 

It’s hard enough finding time to roll the pretty math rocks with friends, and there are so many amazing RPGs out there, it’s hard to play them all without committing to a long-term campaign. And so many games really excel as campaigns or expect to be your primary game system. The Alien RPG lets you choose if you’re doing a one-shot adventure (Cinematic play) or running a multi-session campaign, with variant rules for both styles of play. This is excellent. While I’m impressed enough by this game to want to try it and do a short game, I also know there’s a lot of game competition and multiple people jonesing to run campaigns, so doing more than a couple sessions of Alien might be hard. The book mostly confines itself to the four “canonical” movies, ignoring the crossovers with the Predators as well as the most comics and novels. It mentions that a few of these exist and gives a short suggesting reading list, and gives nods to a few stories, such as Aliens: Fire and Stone, while also mentioning Sevastopol Station, the setting of the video game Alien: Isolation. And I’m sure there are many more Easter Eggs that went over my head.

The Bad

You only succeed when you roll a six. This means 83.3% of the d6s you roll for a check are irrelevant. You need a dice pool of at least six dice to really feel comfortable with a check, which implies a high degree of competence and skill. According to the chart of probability on page 59, if you have a dice pool of 4 dice, you have a 50/50 chance of success. That said, this does encourage you to push the roll, which encourages the Stress mechanic. 

At 400-pages, the book is large for a one-shot. Large and thus expensive. But it’s not really as dense as you’d expect a 400-page tome to be. It’s really not space efficient. Because the book makes use of text in boxes (which are akin to sidebars) there’s lots of negative space. Each box has its decorative framing, and there’s space between the boxes and within the frame. The words per page is low. 

This sidebar formatting does make the entire book a relatively quick read, and keeps every subject relatively terse and focused, because sidebars rarely continue across pages. As an example, the standard (read: obligatory) “What is an rpg?” section is maybe a quarter-page. 

However, I felt I could have used some more information in a few places. Some clarification or extended examples. There are quite a few rules and mechanical elements listed once and then never really described elsewhere, and I’m uncertain if these are just understated aspects, or remains of vestigial design that never got edited out. As an example, page 103 describes the ways you can gain Stress, and most are fairly obvious and described elsewhere. Except one. You apparently also gain Stress if “You suffer one or more points of damage”. I dislike this, as it partially negates the choice aspect of gaining Stress, but it’s also not really mentioned elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the matte black pages are vulnerable to fingerprints. If you touch a page and haven’t just wiped your fingers on a sterile cloth, you will leave a mark. If you’re highly concerned about the quality of your books and keeping them pristine, you might want to wash often and watch how long you touch a page. Or invest in archivist gloves. 

I’m uncertain how I feel about ship combat being in the chapter on employment and lifestyle. It makes sense it’s by the starships, and it’s useful having it off to the side as an optional side-system. As you don’t expect dogfights or space naval battles in an Alien campaign. But it was a weird transition reaching that. And had I not noted where it was, finding those rules might require a lot of flipping. 

The Ugly

The character sheet in the back of the book looks like the rest of the book: light-grey shaded boxes overtop a black background. It’s the type of character sheet you print when your printer has offended you and you want to punish it.

Edit: There IS a printer-friendly version. It’s just on the Fria Ligan site and not the Alien RPG site. It’s here.

Because the book confines itself to the relatively canonical, it doesn’t delve too much into the fate of the USCSS Covenant nor is its destination planet of Origae-6 detailed, leaving that for a theoretical movie that might never occur. So how the Xenomorph XX121 species gets from that colony to the rest of the galaxy (including Sevastopol Station or even LV-426) is unknown. A side effect of this decision is that there are few good hooks for where xenomorphs or eggs could come from or be encountered, apart from tying them to the one known ship on LV-426. 

The Awesome

The gamemaster is identified as the “Game Mother”. It keeps the same initials, but means the pronouns “she/her” can be used. I like anything that subtly implies women have a role at the game table. Especially in a franchise as largely gender neutral as Alien. Plus, “Mother” is a neat reference to the ship’s computer in the first movie. (Aka MU/TH/UR 6000; which I will admit to having forgotten until I rewatched the film a few weeks back.)

Characters have a lot of little roleplaying hooks. Each character has a “signature item”, which is just this little useful or emotionally significant item. One example is actually a tattoo, so it doesn’t have to have a firm mechanical use. Likewise, each character has an Agenda. This is your goal, but favoured in a nice, ominous way. You’re also expected to have a “buddy” and a “rival” in the party. This does push some PvP aspects, but creates appropriate drama and tension that maps to the movies. Such as Ripley being initially antagonist to Bishop, only to grow to appreciate him.

There are four Attributes, each with three associated Skills. I appreciate the symmetry. It’s the little things that make a neat RPG system…

The need for a printer friendly version aside, I rather like the whole look of the character sheet, especially the landscape format. It’s non-traditional. The paired attributes/ skills also makes for an interesting character sheet with those aspects front and center, right in the middle of the page rather than off in a corner. 

Final Thoughts

A month ago I had little interest in the Aliens Roleplaying Game. It looked okay and sure did get a lot of hype, but I generally thumb my nose at licensed RPGs (despite owning many);  the hit : miss ratio is unfavourable and there have been some pretty bad licensed RPGs over the years. Plus, I always felt the Aliens universe was better off being limited to a couple movies—so the story can have a beginning and an end—rather than being a big, sprawling franchise. 

But then a friend got the book and let me flip through their copy and read the rules.

And I realized I had been so completely wrong. After just a few minutes I was damned if I didn’t just want to get my own copy, but also run a game session or two in the Alien universe. And I knew I had to write a review, sharing my wrong-ness with the entire Internet. 

While the concept of the game is just what you’d expect, the execution blew me away. While I’m an ardent proponent that “system doesn’t matter” and that you can have fun playing any RPG with the right people, this game was a firm reminder that a good system makes you WANT to play that game. You choose to play it over other systems. And this system makes me want to run a story using its rules. 

The feedback system for the Stress mechanic is great, and I want to steal it for my own design so badly. I adore that it primarily relies on player choices and risk/reward to build tension. The growing unease as your character’s stress increases, like a game of Dread with dice instead of the Jenga tower: a mechanic I’ve toyed with a few times but never managed to work satisfactorily. And this game nails it. (This ruleset would work really nicely for many other genres, and I’d like to port the rules into a zombie apocalypse game or other horror genre.) And the rest of the game seems quick and easy to learn with just a dash of customization.

Meanwhile, the book really works hard to capture the diverse types of Alien story, from space horror the action, from blue collar truckers in space to heavily armed colonial marines, while referencing several past sources both film, novel, and comic. The titular aliens are only the beginning.

Shameless Plugs

If you liked this review, you can support me and encourage future reviews.

I have a number of PDF products on the DMs Guild website, including a bundle of my Ravenloft books including the newly released Cards of Fate and my FIRST adventure on the Guild, Smoke, Snow & Shadows. Others include my first level 1 to 20 class, the TacticianRod of Seven Parts, TrapsDiseasesLegendary Monsters, a book of Variant Rules.

Additionally, the revision of my book, Jester David’s How-To Guide to Fantasy Worldbuilding is on DriveThurRPG, available for purchase as a PDF or Print on Demand! (Now in colour!) The book is a compilation of my worldbuilding blog series, but all the entries have been updated, edited, and expanded to almost two-hundred pages of advice on making your own fantasy world.

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