Saturday, 18 January 2020

Review: Alien The Roleplaying Game by Fria Ligan


‘Space is vast, dark, and not your friend. Gamma rays and neutrino bursts erupt from dying stars to cook you alive, black holes tear you apart, and the void itself boils your blood and seizes your brain. Try to scream and no one can hear you—hold your breath and you rupture your lungs. Space isn’t as empty as you’d think, either—its frontiers are ever expanding. Rival governments wage a cold war of aggression while greedy corporations vie for valuable resources. Colonists reach for the stars and gamble with their lives—each new world tamed is either feast or famine. And there are things lurking in the shadows of every asteroid—things strange and different and deadly.

Things alien.

This is the official ALIEN tabletop roleplaying game—a universe of body horror and corporate brinkmanship, where synthetic people play god while space truckers and marines serve host to newborn ghoulish creatures. It’s a harsh and unforgiving universe and you are nothing if not expendable.

Stay alive if you can.’

Before I get into this review, I feel I should explain my background with the Alien franchise.

I first experienced Alien on a black-and-white TV set in 1982. It scared the living crap out of me, but it also completely changed my view on all things science fiction, and what a film could do to manipulate feelings, instil terror and create a world so mysterious and yet so familiar that you could hardly comprehend it. Alien is, without a doubt, my favourite movie of all time.

The sequels I’m mixed about; Aliens is my favourite action movie of the 80s – I saw it on opening night at 15 years old – and it coloured and influenced my view on sci-fi action for years to come. However, I love it as a movie but dislike it as a sequel. The full reasons for that are for another time, but I felt it reduced the alien to simple overgrown insect that could be shot, and that kind of ruined the mystery for me. The majority of the following expanded material, from comics to novels, followed this theme and I never got heavily involved in it because of that.

Alien 3 was a good film but slightly ruined by it’s treatment of two major Aliens characters, which made them and the finale of that film redundant when you go back and watch it after. However, the Assembly Cut was excellent, it fleshed things out and made for a better movie and visually – apart from some of the creature visuals – it was stunningly shot.

I don’t talk much about Alien Resurrection. To be honest, the only reason I own it is because it was part of the Quadrilogy/Anthology box sets.

It’s the same with the Alien Vs Predator films; they’re another pair of movies I could quite gladly forget, and the fact that they pretty much tied the two franchises together so that a lot of fans can’t separate them is a massive shame. They’re fan fiction, I think.

The two new movies, Prometheus and Alien Covenant, are a mixed bag for me. Visually stunning with some great characters, they fall a little flat on story content and a lack of sensible connection to the original films. Did they ruin the franchise? Certainly not; any problems the franchise had were already well established from Resurrection onwards, maybe even before, so it’s a bit disingenuous to say that Ridley Scott ‘ruined the franchise’…

Oh, no. I did it again. I went off on a tangent. Okay, so my opinions on the Alien franchise are out there, but it illustrates my feelings on the franchise and what it means to me, and I promise it will make sense when I talk about the game.

The game.


I’m not going to mess about here – this is a stunning book. I mean, it’s beautiful to look at, you crack it open with what is akin to reverence and the fresh print smell and the sheer atmosphere it exudes is somewhat overwhelming. Am I exaggerating? Not as a huge Alien, tabletop roleplaying and Fria Ligan fan, no. These are my three favourite things coming together so my expectations were not just high, they were probably unrealistic.

The presentation is probably the best Fria Ligan has ever produced. I loved the visuals of Coriolis, I adored the nostalgia of Forbidden Lands, but Alien is stunning, a great mix of visuals and setting. It’s dark, moody and really drives home this sense of bleakness and strange Lovecraftian adventure, and the artwork by Martin Grip, John R. Mullaney and Axel Torvenius is pretty spot on. It suits the excellent writing of Tomas Härenstam and Andrew E.C. Gaska perfectly, and it makes for a fantastic read that really helps to suck you in to the world.

It’s a thick hefty tome, but the print is quite large and there is a lot of dead space, with large black areas with barely anything on them. The text is either white-on-black – which isn’t easy on my eyes – or presented in data readout-style boxes. It all adds to the atmosphere, but I imagine the guy at the printers in charge of the black ink was a busy guy when this was on the presses.

The book is divided into sections that covers everything you’ll need to play a general sci-fi game, not just an Alien game, so there’s plenty of use for these rules even if you somehow get bored of the whole alien wrapping. There’s Space Is Hell (an introduction to the world), Your Character, Skills, Talents, Combat & Panic, Gear, A Hard Life Amongst The Stars, Your Job As Game Mother, Governments & Corporations, Systems & Planets, Alien Species, Campaign Play and the obligatory adventure Hope’s Last Day. There’s everything you need to run a sci-fi game, it’s even got starships and starship combat for those of you who want to go that extra lightyear, so the options you have are quite varied and useful.

The rules system is a D6 dicepool. Players divide points between Attributes and these have relevant Skills. Rolls are dice pools of D6s, adding Attributes and Skills together to create a number of dice, and any that score a six garners a single success. They’re the same mechanics found in ‘Coriolis’, ‘Mutant: Year Zero’ and ‘Tales From The Loop’ and they work just as well here. As I’ve said before in previous reviews, low dice pools can be extremely frustrating with continued failed rolls, but that adds to the tension and atmosphere of the setting and just makes the single six that sometimes appears all the more exhilarating.

There’s a new mechanic in here called the Stress Dice. This addition allows players to put extra dice into their dice as they try to get through rolls or experience gruesome… things. This helps them succeed in stressful situations where they may otherwise have failed, but it can work against them in the long run and the more risks or pushes through rolls a character takes, the more dangers they face later. It’s an interesting mechanic and it really helps to add another layer of tension and pressure on to the already stress-laden characters, making games unpredictable and heightening the already tense atmosphere.

There are two kinds of play, best explained by Fria Ligan:

‘Cinematic play is based on pre-made scenarios that emulate the dramatic arc of an ALIEN film. Designed to be played in a single session, this game mode emphasizes high stakes and fast and brutal play. You are not all expected to survive. The core rulebook contains one introductory Cinematic scenario, Hope’s Last Day.

Campaign play is designed for longer continuous play with the same cast of player characters over many game sessions, letting you explore the ALIEN universe freely, sandbox style. The core rulebook contains random tables and other powerful tools to quickly create star systems, colonies, missions, encounters, and NPCs for your campaign.’

This is a great idea as the Cinematic play caters to the horror fans who don’t expect to survive a single session, and Campaign suits the players wanting to explore the larger world of the Alien universe and have ongoing adventures. I fall into the Campaign area of play, but Cinematic is perfect for one-shots, or even two-three session games. It gives the GM and group choice and caters to different play styles.

So, what kind of Alien game can you play?

Any kind you want.

Do you want to play a game inspired by the claustrophobic tension and horror of Alien, Alien Isolation and Alien 3? No problem.

Do you want to load up and get yourself to fry-up city? Want some Aliens action? Got you covered.

Do you want the wonder and terror of exploration, delving into the mysteries that Prometheus and Covenant gave you? Done.

Do you want to explore the political/business side of things, deal with the human element and face those willing to cast innocents into the fire into the name of profit? You’re sorted.

The Alien RPG lists all the equipment, ships, and foes you’ll need. From shady businessmen to soldiers, from nasty facehuggers to different xenomorphs appearing in the different movies, games and comics, the game lists everything that could be a potential threat to you and your team. You could go entire sessions without having to face off with an alien because there is so much a GM could throw at you. In fact, that’s another great use of the Cinematic and Campaign styles; if your players just want to dive in to alien shenanigans then Cinematic it is. If the group want to go the long way and build up to the reveal, then Campaign is the way to go. There is so much more that a group can do with this game that isn’t simply ‘oooh it’s dark-alien!- dead’.

The fact is, the game has taken most aspects of the Alien franchise and incorporated them into this game so that the majority of the franchise can be emulated. The timeline runs from 2023 (Peter Wayland’s Ted Talk) to 2180 (three years after the events of Aliens).  To be honest, there’s enough material to go beyond that and reach the outer years of Alien Resurrection if you really wanted to, as well as create your own version of events and situations.

In my game, I opted for the timeline surrounding Alien Isolation and the events leading up to the Sevastopol’s destruction. I ran a game of agents going after the Nostromo’s black box the USCSS Anesidora picked up and arriving at Sevastopol as things went wrong. The period between Alien and Aliens is my preferred time as it still holds that mystery and horror before the franchise classified and detailed the alien and it’s life cycle, which took away the unknown for me.

But that’s what’s great about the Alien RPG, you can use it however – and whenever – you want. It’s designed so that you can take what you like, discard what you don’t like, and play it as you see fit. There’s no hard and fast rules as to how or when to run your game, and the system is really malleable and flexible so if you wanted to add something ‘out there’ - such as a Predator – you can easily do so.

The D6 pool system may not be to everyone’s liking and the starship combat system seems a little superfluous, but overall the game gives you everything you need to run a dark, mysterious science fiction game. As I said earlier, even if you got tired of using the franchise elements you can use this system for any kind of science fiction RPG you can imagine, using the rules for any other kind of campaign. You can even drop the Stress rules, if you want to just go pure gung-ho action movie, and it works fine. There’s a lot you can do with the system and the options the rulebook gives you.

So – my favourite franchise, my favourite hobby and my favourite publisher coming together, creating a game in a universe I love using a system I got a lot of use out of in Coriolis? It’s a foregone conclusion that I was going to love this game. I put it on a pedestal and I had my expectations and, for the most part, Fria Ligan met them. They’ve taken the horror, mystery, action and overall terror of the Alien franchise and somehow managed to put it into the pages of this rulebook. It’s an incredible job.

Yes, I have my issues with elements of the franchise but they’re not in the rulebook to be enforced, just to be utilised. If you played in my game of the Alien RPG I’d ask you to watch Alien and play Alien Isolation beforehand, because that’s the kind of atmosphere I’d go for; however, before any of that happened I’d explore the corporations, do some games in the seedy backstreets of the settlements, go for that cyberpunk vibe. Then I’d throw in the overall story, start to hint at the alien and then introduce it in to the mix. Not the Bloodburster, not the Neomorph, but the original 1979 movie creature you couldn’t see in the shadows.

Because the Alien RPG allows you to do that.

And that’s why I love it.

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