The ALIEN Roleplaying Game came out in 2019 from Fria Ligan. It was a bit of a surprise – on one hand, it felt like a likely very expensive, major license, but on the other, there was also the feeling that the more recent, very unfortunate movies had kinda killed interest in it. Certainly, I felt like that Alien’s very specific mode of survival horror in space was perhaps too narrow a frame to support the classical approach of putting out a big rulebook, adventures, sourcebooks, and an introductory boxed set. That’s the stuff you want in a long campaign, but long campaigns imply characters stay alive. This is Alien. People don’t do that here.
However, Fria Ligan makes quality stuff, so when the opportunity came to play, I jumped on it. Also, it’s not as though there’s anything else to do these days than play roleplaying games online.
We played the Starter Set’s introductory adventure Chariot of the Gods. The venue was Foundry VTT, where you can buy modules with all the necessary stuff already set up. I find it helps getting used to a new system when the VTT does half the work for you and tells if your roll was a success or a failure. Voice and video we got through Discord. Playing virtually also had the crucial advantage that we could send secret messages to the Game Mother without the other players seeing us pass notes, which can be a very important part of ALIEN.
ALIEN uses Fria Ligan’s house ruleset, the Year Zero Engine, used in Mutant: Year Zero, Tales from the Loop, and the rest. Basically, you roll a pool of six-siders and sixes are successes. Failure is very common, which fits some games better than others. It fits ALIEN‘s desperate survival horror very well.
The following, of course, will have SPOILERS for Chariot of the Gods. Proceed at your own risk.
ALIEN has two game modes, Cinematic and Campaign Play. Campaign Play is exactly what it sounds like, while the Cinematic mode has pre-written adventures with pregenerated characters, each with their own secret agendas. They’re long enough for a one-shot or a mini-campaign, and at least Chariot of the Gods lived admirably up to the “Cinematic”. The first session, our approach on a derelict ship in the dark between the stars, our exploration of its frozen corridors and disused laboratories, was straight out of the movies. Of course, this was also because that’s what we as players were there to do, so that’s how we played it. The characters were archetypical and easy to fall into – the crew of the Nostromo, basically.
We also observed a shift in style in the later sessions. After we had explored the ship, the fear of the unknown dissipated, and once we had fought some monsters and discovered them to be dangerous but killable, we went from playing Alien to playing Aliens, as it were.
The scenario also had an act structure, which governed the characters’ secret agendas that shifted as the situation escalated. Some of the goals were mutually exclusive and drove player-versus-player conflict. The corporate liaison, for instance, is pretty much Burke from Aliens. Oh, and one of the PCs is a secret android (because of course there is a secret android!) whose Act III agenda was to kill everyone who knows too much and stop any xenomorph crap from reaching Earth. Which I then proceeded to do. I think that was the first time I’ve effected a Total Party Kill from a player position. And it was total, since after shooting the corporate liaison and putting the other two crewmembers in cryostasis, I started the ship’s self-destruct sequence. No survivors, great game.
It was interesting to play a game that not only allowed lethal player-versus-player conflict, but was also designed to spark it. The Cinematic modules are such self-contained stories that they can allow for frequent PC death. There are also plenty of NPCs that can serve as replacement characters, and Story Points carry with the player and aren’t lost when your space trucker gets disembowelled by something that came out of the air duct.
One thing I am not entirely certain about was how the android worked in the narrative from the viewpoint of the other players, because our debrief was very brief indeed. From my point of view, it worked well, because I knew all along that my character was a synthetic, with double sets of agendas. For the other players, it just suddenly turned out in the third act that the roughneck Cham isn’t Cham at all but a synthetic, and then he shot Wilson and told his name was really Lucas, and then the story was suddenly over. I think there was little in the way of foreshadowing, apart from some players having realized that one of us must be a secret android because this is ALIEN and there’s always a secret android.
I think ALIEN also somehow redeems Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. I do not think they are good movies (to be frank, I think they should’ve quit after Aliens). However, Prometheus has a mythological gravity to its setting. While it doesn’t really work in the context of the previous films in the franchise and feels like Ridley Scott pulled it out of his hat, the ALIEN Roleplaying Game uses that mythological aspect to great effect and synthesizes it with the bug-hunting marines and space truckers of the original movies. Your crew may be just working joes hauling stuff from one colony to another for a paycheck, but they are doing it across the awful majesty of deep space. You might be a down-to-earth colonist on the final frontier, just wanting to make a living, but that earth is not yours. There are terrible secrets at the edges of the galaxy older than life on Earth, and they do not want to be discovered. Alien didn’t need to ask the question of why the xenomorphs exist, it just needed to have them there so hijinks could ensue. Prometheus… also really didn’t need to ask that question, but it did, and that’s why we have a setting to explore. I’m not sure we had that before Prometheus. Certainly the previous attempt at making an RPG of the franchise flopped hard. Then, the 1991 Aliens Adventure Game was also based on the ruleset of Phoenix Command, so it was never destined to widespread appeal.
I kinda want to run this myself, now. The idea of a longer campaign appeals to me less and I am already running three of those, but a series of adventures in the Cinematic mode, with conflicting character agendas, chaos, carnage, and few survivors, sounds just great.