Last Updated: April 30, 2022
REVIEW IN SUMMARY
Free League and Genuine Entertainment’s ALIEN roleplaying game is absolutely the best adaptation of an existing IP into a rule system that I’ve come across. The mechanics are tight and fit well together, both with each other and the lore. Said lore is rich and deep, drawing on not just the movies but on anything that has been licensed so far including comics, novels, and even video games.
The core rulebook itself has just the right mix of fluff in with its crunch including some iconic quotes from the movies and fantastic art. Everything feels gritty, dark, and generally like retrofuturism has broken down and things are trying to kill you. If you enjoy the universe, or even if you just wanted to pick up one rule system that can support everything from Firefly but grimdark to roleplaying the Starcraft Terran campaign, this is very much the system for you.
Table of Contents
- REVIEW IN SUMMARY
- The Galaxy of Alien
- Conflict Resolution (Dice)
- Character Creation and Advancement
- Cinematic Play
- Pain Points
The Galaxy of Alien
If you’ve seen Alien, you’ll have a general sense of the setting. If you haven’t seen Alien, stop what you are doing and click this affiliate link to watch Alien. It is quite literally one of the best movies ever made and completely revolutionized (and a case could be made for invented) modern sci-fi horror as a movie genre. If you want more context, Aliens (affiliate link) is another couple hours of brilliant filmmaking, especially if you’re going to be running a colonial marines style campaign. It’s also the one that most of the meme quotes are from.
What those movies describe is a world where capitalism went so hard that we had to expand into the stars to be able to find more natural resources to consume to sustain it. Fortunately, very-near-future not-Elon Musk figured out FTL travel to make that possible and cryosleep so you weren’t crazy when you got there. Now, 200 years later, with hundreds of planets colonized and all the infrastructure necessary to make that work, someone needs to be cogs in the system to keep everything turning, and that’s you and your band of player characters.
The book leans into the fact that the original movie came out in the 70’s and had the aesthetic to match. Ships have intercoms and terminals scattered throughout and computers can’t be accessed otherwise. The AI mainframe is in a whole separate room. Ship drive cores are radioactive. Everything is CRTs and heavy wires and very analog. It is truly, as they say, a vibe.
Conflict Resolution (Dice)
ALIEN uses a dice pool system based on the Attributes (think Ability Scores if you’re coming from DnD or Pathfinder) of the character rolling, along with any Skill Points gained from character customization, environmental factors, and bonuses from equipment.
When asked to make a roll, pick up a number of d6’s equal to the relevant attribute, any skill ranks you may have, and any modifiers from equipment. Add one additional die for each person helping you, to a maximum of +3. Add or subtract any at the GM’s discretion based on difficulty. Roll that pile. If you get a 6 on any die, you succeed. If you get additional successes, you can spend them to succeed harder based on the type of skill you were rolling.
One interesting thing this does mean is that every action in the game must be classified into one of the 12 skills, unless the GM really wants to break things and determine that no skill is relevant and have you roll on straight attribute or try and pull in D&D’s ability to mix and match ability and proficiency like we’ve talked about in some of the podcast episodes.
The game uses two types of dice: “regular dice” and “stress dice”.
Every d6 I mentioned in the above scenario would be a regular die. The ALIEN RPG dice you can buy have a symbol on the 6 to indicate success and look like this:
Stress dice are identical except that they are a different color and have the 1 replaced with a “Facehugger,” indicating something terrible happens.
The rulebook encourages you to use your own dice if you like, but you need to make very certain you understand which dice are stress dice before rolling and can easily identify them after the roll because 1’s there will trigger mechanics.
Stress dice are added to the pile you roll when making any test. Characters will have stress levels based on events, and for each level of stress you have you add a stress die into your roll. Stress dice can succeed as normal (adrenaline helps you focus and Get Things Done), but they also introduce the potential for the catastrophic: Panic.
The primary way you gain stress is actually also due to these dice rolls: if, after the roll, you didn’t like the outcome, you can “Push” the roll. To do so, you increase your stress level by 1, pick up the pile of dice, immediately add another stress die to it due to the increase you just did, and roll it again. No roll can be pushed more than once. There’s a handy chart in the book right next to the section on this describing the percentage likelihood of success for rolls from 1d6-10d6, with and without pushing, to give you a baseline for your risk/reward analysis.
Character Creation and Advancement
Major decision points: Career, Talent
Career is your class and determines your key attribute, which is the only one you can increase past 4. It also determines what pool of Talents you have access to. A primary feature of talents is to allow your character to Push some type of roll a second time, which can be critical to your (and/or everyone’s) survival.
A notable alternative is that your character can be an Android. Androids work differently in that they start substantially stronger than humans (+3 to two attributes after creation) and are immune to stress. This means, however, that they can’t push rolls and never get the bonus dice from being stressed. Additionally, they don’t heal the way humans do (which is very generous in this game) and instead must be repaired.
Character advancement is only relevant to campaign play but even more so than I mean that for other systems. See below for more of an explanation of what Cinematic Play is.
ALIEN uses an XP system. XP is earned by, at the end of each session, looking at a list of 8 questions and asking “Did I do this thing?” You get 1 xp for each yes. XP can be spent 5 at a time to increase the rank of a skill or to purchase a new talent.
12 skills split evenly across the 4 Attributes
No skill can ever be trained to a rank higher than 3, meaning that for most people their natural aptitude is going to be more influential on their success than any amount of training. Opposed checks are common, especially Observation versus Mobility (which is the stand in for both Stealth and Dexterity saves). Close Combat is especially good as it allows you to both attack effectively and block in melee combat effectively.
One cool thing to call out is that roles as a group for those two skills are specifically called out with mechanics. Groups may select anyone to roll their combined observation check but must select the player with the lowest Mobility to roll for their combined stealth attempt.
Another fun note is that both “face skills” and medicine are all tied to the same attribute, so your captain is also probably the best doctor on the ship. This makes it extra rough if they die.
Every career starts with a certain amount of gear but nearly anything is freely available for purchase and has a listed price. Most things will have some kind of supply limitations. Guns don’t force you to count bullets, but if you roll a 1 on a stress die while shooting, you run out and have to reload which both prevents you from shooting for a turn and requires you to be carrying “a reload” for that gun (a clever reader will notice that this means that Androids never run out of ammo for guns. This is explicitly called out as being part of the rules). Other things you have to track are Power supplies (for things like the famous motion tracker), air, food, and water. Each piece of equipment has an inventory slot size and your Strength determines how many things you can carry.
One of the most important things you’ll carry is your “signature item,” a small trinket that can, once per session, be interacted with to reduce your stress level by 1. It can be things like a photo of a loved one, a patch on a piece of clothing, or a beloved cigarette lighter.
Every combat starts with initiative. ALIEN uses a unique mechanic where each player draws a card from a stack of 10, each labeled 1, 2, 3 and so on up to 10. After they’ve drawn, the GM draws from the remaining to assign initiatives to anything hostile in the encounter. If there aren’t enough cards and there are groups of enemies with the same block, they all act on one card.
Before the fight starts, and at the beginning of each round, players may exchange cards with each other as long as they can speak to each other. Once that’s done, everything takes a turn in initiative order starting from 1 and going down. Each turn allows you one slow action and one fast action. Slow actions are very much Actions from D&D 5e while fast actions include both movement and things you might classify as Bonus Actions.
One critical thing that can be done with your fast action is to not use it on your turn but instead wait until you’re attacked in close combat and then you can respond with the Block action. This still uses Close Combat as a skill and will reduce incoming damage which means you get better at both offense and defense by investing heavily in it.
Like I talked about earlier, extra successes on dice rolls can do neat things. In combat, the most obvious thing you can do is to just do extra damage with them on top of whatever the damage rating is for your weapon. However, you can also do things like force your target to trade initiatives with you, potentially giving them a worse value for future rounds and allowing more of your party to go before it does and try to finish it off.
Speaking of rounds, time is measured in an odd way in this game. Combat is always measured in rounds which are intended to be 5-10 seconds. Many things in the game care about a Turn which is intended to be 5-10 minutes. Shifts, the longest, are 5-10 hours. Given that much of the game takes place in space with no cycle to stick the passage of time to, it makes a lot of sense, but then you still need to do things like sleep for one shift every “day” to avoid exhaustion.
Rules for ship combat are surprisingly robust and even more quick and brutal than regular combat. A full 10 pages is devoted to this covering everything from trying to hide your ship, pushing engines to outrun, and even ramming and boarding. Initiative works sort of similarly in that the captains of the ships draw cards and lower number goes first, but the play is very different.
I’m just going to paste this here from the book because it’s so cool: “Also, unlike personal combat, guessing your enemy’s moves is difficult in space combat. Therefore, each ship selects its action in each [of the four] phases secretly. Actions are declared simultaneously, and then performed in initiative order.” The four phases called out above roughly map to crew positions so that each player can participate in a unique way assuming a standard 4 person party.
All of the above describes how you play in a campaign setting (which, by the way, if you want help making your own campaign the back of the book has tables to randomly create jobs for each flavor of campaign including quest giver, task, reward, and complication).
The other way to use the rules is for cinematic play, akin to living out the experience of an Alien movie in a TTRPG. The rules for players all work the same way except that, instead of getting XP, you get a metacurrency called Story Points that you can spend to automatically succeed on checks even after you’ve seen your roll.
This is relevant because each Cinematic Play scenario is broken up into three Acts, just like a movie. You will be given a pre-generated character and, for each act, a hidden agenda that you are supposed to base your roleplay around. If you do, when each act ends, you get a story point. These belong to the player, not the character (important since characters frequently die and players take over an NPC, if one is available), allowing you to use it to help whoever you might be piloting at the moment.
My only real issue with the game is the sheer amount of things the GM has to keep track of. While running the Cinematic Play scenario in the starter kit, I completely forgot to track my players on air consumption and power consumption of the motion tracker that all of us forgot they were using. I needed to be constantly looking at the map, at the descriptions of the rooms, at the stat blocks of NPCs, at the list of events, and at the core rules.
The list of events is at the end of the book, separated out by Act but is given in no other particular order. Some of them are required for you to experience before the Act can advance, but the required ones are mixed in with the optional ones. Then there are the room descriptions which don’t contain any context for things that might happen in them. The map is 4 separate pages and the key for the symbols on it is only present on one of those pages. If I’d been able to print/photocopy like 12 pages and levitate them all around me for easy access, I would have felt much better running it.
Apart from that, this is going to be a game that heavily relies on a GM’s ability to build ambiance and the player’s willingness to participate. Like we talked about in the Horror episode of the podcast, if people aren’t buying into having their characters act like they’re facing down monstrous horrors, the game is going to feel pretty flat.
ALIEN is one of the best systems I’ve come across for combining great mechanics and great atmosphere in a package that delivers on really everything you want it to. When I picked up the book, having seen all the (non-AVP) movies and played a few games, I had a very distinct impression of what this rulebook would give me and it delivered on everything and more.
There are already several popular horror-themed TTRPGs out there, but, in my opinion, ALIEN deservedly holds a special place in the top tier.