Alien RPG Review
The Alien RPG is a new game set in the world of space truckers, colonial marines, nefarious androids, evil corporations and deadly, deadly Xenomorphs. It is a licensed game which is always a crap shoot in my opinion. Some properties just don’t make for good RPGs and sometimes the game producers don’t do a very good job of making the game feel true to the license.
Thankfully neither is true in this case. The Alien setting has a ton of stuff going on, definitely enough for an ongoing space campaign and the folks responsible for the game do a great job of adapting the Year Zero system to really focus in on mechanics that support the sort of stories one could expect in an Alien movie or series.
This is a damn fine looking and feeling book. It’s just shy of 400 pages with a darkly striking cover. I’m also a sucker for the dark page/light text look and the layout though I think some people may not like the amount of unused space on some pages. It’s an aesthetic choice for sure and the book could have been less stylish with a lower page count. For me though, I like my books looking nice and this one certainly does with full color artwork throughout and color and font choices that immediately give you a retro-future feel. The Weyland-Yutani logo on the character sheet is a nice touch.
Character Creation is nice and simple and follows what you’ve expect if you’re familiar with any of the Year Zero games (Forbidden Lands, Mutant Year Zero). Four attributes, limited skills (12), Talents and Gear. A welcome change in my opinion is that Health and Stress are their own tracks. You no longer take damage to your attributes, leading to a death spiral that can be a big problem in other YZ engine games. It doesn’t make the game any less dangerous but alleviates that sinking feeling where the stat you need to defend yourself is also the stat being lowered by damage.
You get a limited number of points for skills and attributes and spend them according to your Career. Your career will also determine your starting Talent choice as well as Gear (and cash). There’s also suggestions for Signature Items (to help recover Stress), Agendas (to help guide RP and earn XP) and appearance.
Character creation is quick and easy though like all YZ games certainly not robust. There’s definitely enough that characters will feel unique and more importantly like they fit into the Alien Setting.
I do like that players also choose a Buddy and a Rival as well as an Agenda; all of which factor into the XP system when you play to those. Xp based on objective things tied to RP is something I really like. No nebulous “did you RP” but “did you stand up to your Rival” or “did you risk things for your Agenda”.
The standard YZ core is present in Alien – gather a pool of d6s for Attribute + Skill + Gear (and Stress) and roll it. Any “6” is a success. Like all YZ games there is an option to push the roll and you reroll anything that’s not a “6” – either because you failed outright or you’re fishing for more successes. You can, as is common in YZ games, choose to push your roll at the cost of increasing Stress.
Stress builds over time in Alien and comes from a variety of factors – pushing rolls, seeing a blood trail, stepping in some goo…the usual. What it does in the game is brilliant. It makes you better. More focused, more determined…until you snap that is. Stress dice are added to your pool and can roll successes just like any other die. However if any of the stress dice come up a 1 then you panic and panic can be very, very bad. So as the stress starts to mount each die roll becomes a push your luck gamble. Each roll becomes less about pass/fail and more about whether or not it’s worth risking panic (which can snowball as other PCs see you losing your shit). I love it.
The mechanics also adapts the YZ system for resource management – in this case Water, Food, Air and Power (for gear). It adds another element to tension if you know that you’ve only got a limited air supply or not sure if you have enough power to turn on the motion detector and mechanically it’s super easy to use.
The combat rules are clear, concise and potentially very deadly. Health points are never high and criticals can be instant death once you’re Broken. Movements and maps are done via Zone based movement which I’ve found takes some getting used to it you’re coming from D&D or other feet/round games.
As befits the setting, Alien has a Stealth Mode that involves hidden enemies and Observation vs. Mobility checks and other such tension builders. Once an enemy is spotted then the normal combat sequence takes over. This sort of thing benefits greatly from VTT play but all that’s needed at the table if a second map for the GM.
Once combat starts, initiative is done via card draw with low being better. Characters can perform either two Fast Actions or one Slow Action and one Fast Action. This is pretty standard for YZ games and there’s nothing really outside the norm. As mentioned previously though the separation of Health from attributes is a big, big thing.
It’s worth noting that Alien does include basic rules for vehicle combat and spaceship combat(!)
The Gear section includes what you’d expect and they make sure to cover the things you’d expect – pulse guns, smart guns, sentry weapons, MU/TH/UR. Most of the gear provided has a concrete mechanical benefit which makes gear selection and carry capacity matter. There are also a small handful of vehicles provided, though mostly of a work related nature as opposed to personal vehicles which fits the setting presented.
The core rulebook provides a broad overview of life in the Alien universe. It’s not in depth by any stretch but it’s enough to get the creative juices flowing. There’s information on life in space and on the frontier, spaceships (including brief guidelines for designing your own and modding ships) and information on eight corporations/governments and close to twenty systems.
The information on life in space and on the frontier conveys the blue collar nature of the Alien franchise. There’s no sleek spaceships, no space magic, FTL travel is dangerous to the psyche. It’s gritty and grimy and lived in. It feels real in a way many other science fiction settings don’t. The setting information plays up to that without bombarding you with information. The information contained is useful without getting bogged down in detail.
Eight corporations and Information (history, location, current activities, relationships) are provided for a handful of corporations and governments. Yes this includes Weyland-Yutani. One could quite easily put together a cyberpunk-esque story involving corporate espionage and intrigue with a bit of work.
The information on the various systems I really like. It covers the important locales from the movies as well as others and as I was reaching each entry I could already see story potential. The entries are brief but engaging and I’ve got half a dozen ideas already just from a few paragraphs and some art work. I can’t wait to run my adventure set on POL-5362.01 (Aires Outpost)
The stars of the show, really, and the game does an excellent job of showcasing the dangers they present. Stats are provided for a variety of lifestages for the Xenomorphs (and Neomorphs) as well as background information. These are all pretty darn nasty and are exactly as bad as you think they should be. The more dangerous ones act multiple times in a turn and some of their attacks can be instantly fatal to a PC. This isn’t a “oh well I’ve got plenty of health” scenarios, some attacks are so deadly that if they inflict any damage at it all it’s an automatic critical!
However, much like monsters in Forgotten Lands, the GM is not in control of the alien’s attacks. Each creature has a random table that the GM rolls on to decide its behavior. This can be a godsend for a PC staring down the dripping jaws of a Xenomorph Soldier if the GM rolls a “1” and the creature pauses momentarily like its thinking. It also works the other way if the GM rolls a “6” and the creature’s inner jaws snap out to try to puncture the skull inflicting an automatic lethal critical if any damage is inflicted.
And yes, you do have to worry about your character getting dragged off to the hive or being sprayed by acid blood.
In addition to the Neomorphs and Xenomorphs there are stats and attack tables for a handful of other creatures. It provides a nice change of pace and perhaps a way to have some alien encounters that aren’t as deadly but still ratchet up the stress levels in a story.
If you’re familiar with Forbidden Lands, its very easy to reskin a monster from there into an alien species if you were so inclined and it doesn’t take a ton of work to create one from whole cloth either.
Campaign or Cinematic Play
The question is going to come up. How do you run an Alien campaign? Well, by keeping the titular Xenomorphs off board. Mostly.
The game does provide information and helpful tables to run games around a few different frameworks that fit within the overall setting. Space Truckers, Colonial Marines and Frontier Colonists. The rules are flexible enough that you can play any of these pretty easily and with the random system, job and encounter generators there’s a ton of ideas. So let your characters be a crew scratching together enough to make ends meet on their derelict ship, or accepting corporate bounties through out the worlds or heading up an expedition on an out frontier world full of wonder and mystery.
And then the Xenomorphs come. Hint at it. Build the tension, reveal just enough to play with imaginations.
Honestly, Alien isn’t going to make for a multi-year campaign saga. If you want to play Space Truckers for years and years, there are better games aimed for that. However, Space Truckers coming up against an unfathomable hunger they can’t really deal with over a year long campaign…that’s 100% in this game’s ballpark
Or there’s Cinematic Play, which is a one shot or short 3-5 act story. For me, this is where Alien really shines because everyone knows going in that they are here for the dramatic story for a limited time. I don’t think it’s coincidence that both adventures released so far (Chariot of the Gods and Destroyer of Worlds) are cinematic. In this style of game, characters are driven by Agendas that may be at odds with the other PCs. Heck they may even turn on them when things get tight. Unlike a campaign game, these agendas are specifically written to push characters towards dramatic (and sometimes fatally so) choices. I absolutely love this idea and while characters don’t evolve over time via XP in a Cinematic game (though if you’re running for 5 acts you could do XP), the players earn Story Points they can use to affect things. The idea of those points belonging to the player and not the character is a great one. It encourages players to make riskier, more dramatic choices without ending up behind the other players.
The Alien game is a great RPG that uses the YZ engine with a few tweaks effectively (and fixes a major problem I have with that system). It’s quick to learn and puts great emphasis on the double edged sword of Stress making players both want it (better dice pools) and fear it (chance of panicking).
One of my primary judges of a game is whether or not I want to run it when I’m done reading it. In this case I wanted to run it (and was coming up with some ideas) as I was reading it. The writing is evocative without drowning you in details and the Cinematic Play idea is brilliant. Definitely a highly recommended game.