ALIEN RPG: Cinematic Scenario Cycle Review

Review in Summary

After my review of the ALIEN RPG where I spoke glowingly about the system, I wanted to dive back into some of the rest of the content that exists and cover the 3-part cycle of cinematic scenarios detailing the fate of the 26 Draconis strain and the people who’ve interacted with it. Each of the 3 scenarios is a standalone adventure that doesn’t require playing or even knowing anything about the other two, but going through all 3 of them will give you the overarching story which, admittedly, can still end on a horrifying cliffhanger because it is still Alien.

Chariot of the Gods and Destroyer of Worlds have been out for some time now and the final installment, Heart of Darkness, releases to the public today (PDF copies only, currently, with physical copies to follow in the fall). In rereading my initial review, it occurred to me that I claimed that Chariot of the Gods was included in the rulebook (It is not). That is Hadley’s Hope, a retelling of act 3 of Alien 3. Chariot of the Gods is what I playtested and what I based some of that initial review on.

I can’t stress enough how good all of this content is. To quote Yahtzee’s review of Portal, “Absolutely sublime from start to finish and I will jam forks into my eyes if I ever use those words to describe anything else ever again.” I’ll talk about each of the scenarios individually below and then give more meta thoughts on the publication style and quality.

All three Alien cinematic scenarios are available now in both physical and digital formats.

Chariot of the Gods

An excellent introduction to the universe if you’re new to it, this cinematic scenario very neatly plays out much like the original movie: through circumstances which were technically in their control but functionally impossible to ignore, the crew of a space transport gets trapped in a ship with an alien or three. As described in the description of Chariot of the Gods in my review of the core rules, all characters are pre-generated and come with hidden agendas which help drive the character decisions in each of the acts. 

The quantity of content is good if you’re trying to either run this as one marathon all-day event or expecting it to be more like a three-shot than a one-shot. The map is small enough that it can be contained on 4 pages while still having enough detail to make exploring it feel like a rewarding part of the narrative rather than a chore for the GM. 

Much like Lost Mine of Phandelver though, the lack of direction on a relatively detailed sandbox means that players can end up either wandering around aimlessly for a long time before running into a bunch of story all at once, or they can skip straight to something that immediately spikes the horror factor up to 11 instead of having a nice suspenseful build to it. The latter happened to my group when they encountered an alien that was just waiting in a room for someone to come in, but that was the second room they went to so there was barely any time for this to feel like a reveal instead of just a jumpscare.

The overall plot line though, if you can get your players to follow it, is good, which isn’t a surprise given how closely it mirrors a deservedly classic movie. The changes feel like an excellent homage to all the tropes which the original ALIEN started while also bringing fresh ideas to the table, and the overall package is something that I loved running my players through. 

“Final Report of the Commercial Starship Montero… only … have survived… It’s up the Colonial Marines to take it from here and clean up this mess. This is … signing off”

Destroyer of Worlds

And so they tried to do, 70+ years later. A completely different set of player characters now start on a completely different story, but very much on the theme of Aliens to the first scenario’s Alien. This scenario builds upon both the lore found in the core rulebook and the ideas of the creators after having had a chance to listen to feedback and see their creation be used in a more broad context. The map here is much bigger (and we’ll touch more on the map in a moment) as the players take on the role of a squad of colonial marines ordered to find a different squad of marines that’s gone AWOL from the space-elevator-turned-fortress on the terraformed moon where the scenario takes place. That part of the story takes up the entire first two acts, during which it’s completely possible to never once see an alien. The primary antagonist of act 2 is actually space Russians, but then we get an excellent return to form in the third act.

I will caution you that, if the first one felt as overwhelming to run to you as it did to me, this scenario turns it up even a notch further. You only get one version of the map which is, once again, spread across several pages, but the descriptions of areas will change based on the act because of the events going on. This, combined with all the things you need to keep track of that I talked about in the original review (air, power, motion tracker, whether things are passive or active, what the parts of the map mean, where all the events happen) means that you need to be very, very on top of keeping your players on rails.

Fortunately, this scenario makes that much easier as the plot is pretty linear and much of it comes as literal orders from a commanding officer. Just as in any RPG, there’s nothing to stop them from wandering off into the wastes, but at least this time there’s also incentive for them to do things within bounds and in the order the module expects.

As I mentioned before, the game also builds upon the ideas from the first scenario. In addition to each character having a hidden agenda, this box set introduces story cards: a physical handout to give to a player when they need to receive important private information. This can be something like new secret orders that only apply to them, or it can be that they’ve been infected with a xenomorph and gives them instructions about how that’s going to play out. Remember that each scenario has a cast of more characters than expected players so that a death or two isn’t going to mean someone sitting out while everyone else plays on. 

“Kruger 60 system. Final report from the USCMC base Fort Nebraska… Colony attacked by unknown forces with advanced… Project Life Force compromised. …and Colonial Marine forces wiped out. …destroyed. Thousands are dead. Only… of us have survived. I can only pray the damn Network picks this up before… does. This is… signing off.”

Heart of Darkness

"Go Crazy?" "Don't mind if I do!"

Rounding out the collection of scenarios, Heart of Darkness is easily the best, in my opinion. With lead writer Andrew E.C. Gaska having two good stories in this universe to lay the ground, he could put out this masterpiece: a collection of mysteries that are all terrible, being investigated by people with agendas that are all actively detrimental to each other.

The setting is also fantastic: a space station orbiting a black hole. Its mere presence drives people mad, and you better believe that this has mechanical effects. Players end up in the awful situation of having to battle not just aliens and each other, but also their own deteriorating sanity. The story card concept introduced in Destroyer of Worlds makes a return here to both describe things like dealing with parasites and how players should react to the various strains on their psyche.

I want to expand on the cast of this story a bit more. There are 4 factions at play (the player’s starting group, the prisoners, the jailers, and another group revealed later), with each having at least a couple NPCs. As players (expectedly) die, they take over remaining NPCs which will have to be from one of the factions other than the starting group of players. Deals with the devil need to be made to see each person’s agenda advanced, but eventually there will come a point where bluffs need to be called.

I completely love that this scenario leans on the page of the core rulebook talking about what happens when players come to an impasse. As a reminder, the rules themselves tell you to fight/talk it out in a standard combat, then turn one of the characters that instigated it (back) into an NPC and have the player pick another character. I mentioned that there are 4 factions, but there’s actually a playable character that doesn’t belong to any. In fine Alien fashion, the station has a mascot cat, and, if you die, you can play him. His agenda will likely get other players killed. This is a buff.

The plot of the scenario itself is also wonderful and something we haven’t seen before in the Alien universe. I’ve been working even harder to be spoilerless than I have for the other two for that reason because I highly recommend you just go play it. I will say that, written into the book, is one of the things I talked about for generating anxiety in the horror episode of the RPGBOT.Podcast.

“Final report from the Weyland-Yutani science team. …reporting. Unleashed by the Cronus crew nearly 75 years ago, the lifeform discovered here is the ultimate expression of the 26 Draconis Strain. Lifeform is …and deadly to humankind. …Only… of us have survived. We’ve limited options left. We can only hope that interference from the black hole doesn’t prevent the Network from picking up this message before… does. This is … signing off.””

Meta Analysis

The stories are all excellently written and make good use of the rules presented in the base game. Each of the first two gives you a good flavor of what one of the campaign types might be if you ended up on a job where the thing that went wrong was “Aliens.” The thread woven through all three incorporates the previous media superbly while also expanding on what’s possible within the universe. 

While some players, especially ones with more experience with TTRPGS, may balk at the idea that all characters are pre-generated, the quality of story-telling that allows with the hidden agendas and story cards more than makes up for it. Having built-in character drama from the buddy/rival system and, as I mentioned in the Heart of Darkness section, even built-in hard conflict, means that players who are likely unfamiliar with the system have a set of rails they can follow to participate in making the experience as rich and thematic as possible. The characters all feel decently optimized and unique so no one I talked to was disappointed at having to pick anyone. Even if you start a scenario not loving your first choice, the odds you die and end up as someone else are pretty good, especially if you choose to be a little reckless. Remember that story points gained for good roleplay follow the player, not the character, so dying gloriously in pursuit of your dreams can help a character you like better survive a little longer.

The pacing issues present in the first scenario are very nicely handled in the second and third. In the first act of Chariot of the Gods, there are 15 possible events, then the second act has 10, and the third act 8. A few in each are mandatory and progress the plot, but all that information exacerbated the problems tracking everything I mentioned above. In Destroyer of Worlds, by contrast, the acts have 8, 9, and 14 events respectively, with the last act having so many because there are several ways you could try to end the story and it wants to provide events no matter where you are. Finally, Heart of Darkness has just a few, truly brilliant events per act (6, 8, and 9) and it makes them each feel punchy and additive to the player-driven drama. 

All 3 truly felt like I was in the universe of Alien and I wanted to both play and run them and see how different people would interpret the agendas and take the story. Especially for Heart of Darkness, I find it as something incredibly rare in the TTRPG space: a module with replay value. Even knowing the story, it is so immensely shaped by player choices that I would be thrilled to run it again and again with a different person or two (or at least swapping characters) just to see if people would make different decisions and how that would affect the ending.

Chest Pain Points

While I’ve already talked about the information overload placed on the GM, I’m going to harp on it a bit here. Because there are so many fiddly bits to track, if the players are unfamiliar with the system, it falls on the GM to remember a ton of things. Consider things like spell slots in D&D as vaguely analogous to air and power supplies, but you have to remind your players every time they use one because they’re doing it passively and you’re the one keeping track of time.

I also have one nitpicky thing about the maps I haven’t already discussed. Because they’re graphically presented as basically CRT readouts, they’re all one color and it’s DOS green on a starry background. This makes them difficult to read and is one of the reasons several people on reddit have done fan-made maps like these by user KatakiY.

A bigger thing about maps that I wish this and other games did (that is especially wanting in the first two scenarios) is to have both the player map and the GM map, but on the GM map have a list of what events take place in the room with a page number for reference so that I don’t have to keep flipping back and forth between the map and the events section as my players explore to understand what I should be telling them. It’s fine if you don’t want the events mixed in with the room description like many D&D/Pathfinder modules do, but at least put a clue for me that I should be going and looking at something so that it’s not all dependant on either GM memory or immersion-breaking time spent.

Summary in Summary

Unsurprisingly, I still love this game having read and gotten to test a little the next two installments of cinematic play. I would really recommend picking these adventures up as something to do between campaigns of a different system, for example, or as a few sessions over a busy summer while your main game is on hiatus or when people are in town for winter holidays and you can get the group back together. The quality of these scenarios are easily on par with anything I’ve read from larger publishers and were thrilling even to just read, let alone play out. If you weren’t sure what to look at next for your table and you’re looking for something different, take the strongest recommendation I have.