Monday 21 March 2016

RPG Review - The End of the World: Alien Invasion

Orginally designed by Álvaro Loman and José M. Rey

Published by Fantasy Flight Games

"Massive, gleaming saucers appear over Earth’s major cities. The secret Illuminati that has ruled the world since time immemorial emerges to make its ultimate powerplay. Your own friends and loved ones suddenly seem… not quite right. No matter what weird or terrifying events are occuring, it’s plain to see that we are not as alone as we once thought. Earth has become the center of an Alien Invasion!

Alien Invasion is the third book in The End of the World roleplaying game line created by Álvaro Loman and José M. Rey. Like Zombie Apocalypse and Wrath of the Gods, Alien Invasion invites you to play as yourself, in your own hometown, as an extraterrestrial attack erupts around you. An elegant, narrative rules system keeps the game’s focus on the story as you experience one of five unique scenarios, each of which features dozens of possible adversaries and encounters. Watch out for UFOs, and prepare for close encounters with an Alien Invasion at the end of the world!"


Look, I've tried all kinds of roleplaying in all kinds of ways; low-level crawling, high-level epicness, freeform, open world, linear, all kinds of genres, and I've even had a stab at playing in the real world, in my local neighbourhood, and even as myself.

It's not a new concept, and it's no doubt something that many seasoned gamers have tried at least once in their tabletop history, but in my experience they've always been games using an existing ruleset that wasn't designed for that kind of thing.

But this game is very different to all those other times you've tried to play yourselves in a roleplaying games, tried to act out those 'what if' scenarios you've had in your head. This game gives you the tools and the guidelines to actually have a proper go at a 'what would I do' situation, and it works exceptionally well... most of the time.

What we have here is a 144-page hardback rulebook that contains rules, guidelines and scenarios to give you and your group a great evening of survival horror. It may look a little on the slim side but at an RRP of £26.99 it has everything you need, and includes some excellent atmospheric artwork. The quality is up to the usual Fantasy Flight Games standard and it's a hardy rulebook that'll last you a while.

The book wastes no time in getting you into the action, and after the obligatory intro it dives straight into 'Playing The game', and explains the rules system and tests before you even get onto character creation. There is an assumption that you are familiar with tabletop roleplaying games and it doesn't hang around, so is it any good for new-to-the-hobby players? I'd say not really; there's enough in here to give you an idea of what gaming is about but no real firm guidelines.

Character creation is easy, and fun in may respects. Although the game is designed around the players creating versions of themselves to play in the game there is plenty of flexibility to create different personalities so that you can game as other characters in other places.

Characters have six characteristics across three different categories: Dexterity and Vitality are the Physical aspects, Logic and Willpower are Mental, and Charisma and Empathy are the Social aspects. These characteristics are graded by a number between one and five but start at one, and players then spend ten points across the characteristics to create a character that suits them.

The fun bit, especially if you're playing versions of yourselves, is that the group then votes on each of the different characteristics and scores, secretly putting dice into a bag to try and change the outcome of the character. The dice are positive and negative, which is the core mechanic of the game, and positive dice increase scores and negative ones decrease them. It's a great way of keeping egos in check - and a great way of finding out what your friends really think of you!

Features are then assigned, and these are the talents and problems the player may have. What are you good at? Don't think about what you'd like to be good at - what are you actually good at? Do you have any illnesses or physical problems? Don't make stuff up - think about how you are right now! Have you injured yourself in real life recently? Sprained an ankle, broken a bone, got a bad cold? Then put that on your character sheet - the alien invasion is about to happen so your current condition is vital!

Now for equipment... and this was a great part of character creation for all of us. Choose items that are in your house right now. That's your equipment list. It was fun for us because in my attic I have a replica Roman gladius, which came in handy, and another player had an air rifle and some knitting needles that actually fitted in the barrel (we weren't stupid enough to actually try to shoot one, of course). We actually went around my house looking for things that we could use, and even went as far as making an inventory of tinned food and water. It was a hell of an experience, and we really got into it.

The game system is very simple. Tests are decided by D6s, and once the GM has decided what characteristic to use for the test the player creates a dice pool from the characteristic and any features, equipment and bonuses that might come in handy. The pool is dice of two different colours, one colour being positive dice and the other negative dice, and then they roll. Any negative die score that matches a positive die score removes both dice from the table, and any positive die that remain which have scored lower than the characteristic equals success - the action succeeds. Anything else is a fail.

I may not have done the game system justice with that brief explanation, but once you get two or three rolls out of the way and the pieces fall into place then it's actually a great setup, with plenty of dramatic moments as the dice are paired off and scores are counted, and even though the term 'dice pool' might put some people off it's actually pretty quick and there's no situations where you end up throwing buckets of cubes around.

Once the system is explained and the way the game is run is over, the book then gets straight into ten multi-part adventure scenarios with different kinds of alien invasions, including straight-forward alien invaders, surreptitious alien infiltration, war machine issues, creatures emerging from the deep and - my personal favourite - giant ants. These games detail the actual apocalyptic incident and then also deal with the post-apocalyptic situation, so you get to live through the disaster and then try to survive in the aftermath. Each scenario can be played as-is or as an introduction to a longer adventure that the GM can create and continue on. The adventures aren't limited to the scenarios in the book, and with a little work the game can be stretched out into a long, involved campaign.

All in all it's a great game; the system is neat and quick, and the setting is evocative and gives you plenty of ideas to flesh out and play with. My issue is that the system, setting and adventures are dealt with very quickly, and my impression is that the gaming group, especially the GM, had better be old hands at roleplaying and the genre that the book is replicating because there isn't much here to guide you through the process.

While I appreciate the simple rules don't need much explanation and the quick, effective task resolution makes the game much easier to handle, the adventures themselves are a little thin. As they make up the bulk of the book I expected something a bit more thorough and detailed, but as with the rest of the book there's an assumption that the players know the genre and that the GM already has experience with creating adventures or at least playing them on the fly, as the scenarios are more a list of situations and adventure hooks than a proper play-by-the-numbers adventure. There is a timeline for the scenarios but the very brief day-by-day incidents give no detail. The games are very much the bare bone of a campaign, and the GM is expected to fill in the blanks. That's not much of a problem for seasoned gamers - in fact, they'd no doubt see it as a challenge - but that doesn't give players new to the hobby much of a chance, and that's why I see this game targeted at groups with plenty of gaming experience.

Also, in my experience the gimmick of playing ourselves got quite old quite quickly, and we had much more fun playing characters totally different from ourselves. While the character creation and equipment gathering parts of the game were great fun when trying to create a character based on ourselves, and to start with the team dynamic was really good, in actual play - about three sessions into the game - it became a little stale and the novelty wore off. When we're talking about getting vaporised and breaking into local stores for supplies and equipment it was kind of fun, but when questions are asked about other friends and relatives it got a little awkward. Not only that, but there were two or three incidents where perceived abilities and game abilities created a slightly heated debate. It didn't ruin the game - in fact, there were moments when it strengthened it - but I guess it's down to the individual groups as to where they want to take this kind of setup. Tongue-in-cheek, serious or fantastical, it's up to you, but we found we had the most fun when it wasn't about us, and we created characters far removed from our own lives and abilities.

The End of the World: Alien Invasion is a good game and a lot of fun, but be prepared to do quite a bit of filling in the blanks as the GM, and make sure you have a thick skin if you're playing yourself. This game isn't for everyone and there may not be much longevity with the adventures included, but the system is pretty solid and you'll get some good games out of it, as long as the group is on the same page.


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