A Non-Review of Fria Ligan’s Alien RPG

2019-12-12

Rather than review the new Alien RPG from Fria Ligan (Free League), I’d like to highlight new mechanics and other stealable content.

Stress:

The most notable new mechanics in Alien, (and the reason I ponied up $25 for the PDF) are Stress and Panic.

The game uses two distinct sets of six-sided dice, Base Dice

Alien RPG Base Dice

and Stress Dice:

Alien RPG Stress Dice

(Images from the Free League Store.)

I’d just use off the shelf dice in two colors, but I’m cheap.

Under most circumstances, players and GMs roll Base Dice. On a skill check, the number of dice is the sum of an attribute (usually from 2 to 5), a skill (0 … 5), and modifiers for gear and circumstances. As in other Year Zero games, a 6 on any die denotes success.1

The player may choose to “push” a skill roll, or reroll once, if they take a point of Stress. Every point of stress adds a Stress Die to all subsequent rolls, including the pushed roll, so the adrenaline surge of stress makes success more likely. Stress comes from other sources, like physical damage, deprivation, seeing other people Panic, shooting a rifle with full auto fire2, being attacked by a supposed ally, and various scenario-based stressful situations.

However, if any Stress die shows a 1, or in other fear-inducing circumstances, the player must make a Panic Roll. The player rolls a single d6, adds their PC’s current Stress level, and checks a table for effects, which range from a twitch or case of the shakes to involuntary Panic Actions like flight, fight, or freeze. (A total of 6 or less means that the PC keeps their cool, barely.) Note that a Panic Action supersedes the action that triggers it, even if that action would have succeeded.

Some time in a safe, quiet space reduces Stress, as does a “signature item” like a photograph to strengthen the characters resolve, the use of certain skills and talents, and a shot of tranquilizers.

NPCs don’t track Stress; they Panic when dramatically appropriate.

Some people don’t like “fear mechanics”. “But what about player agency?” I imagine these people saying. One notable figure in the hobby suggested GMs should “just scare” their players. But consider:

Cinematic Play:

While many Free League games are geared toward campaign play, Alien has a “Cinematic Play” mode tailored for one-shots.

Considering how deadly Xenomorphs are, Cinematic Play provides a one session experience similar to the movies. Characters die, one by one; rivalries and betrayals pose as much danger as an alien monster.

In contrast, Campaign Play implies a stable cast, session to session. As in other games they earn Experience Points. The authors recommend that in Campaign Play, Xenomorphs remain rumors and off-stage threats5 until the very end.

Space Combat:

In the Alien RPG, space combat is less Star Wars, more Firefly. It assumes that ships are moving too fast to maneuver in “dog fights”, and have only a short window when they’re close enough to fire weapons. (It also presumes only two “sides”, usually just two ships.)

The “map” for ship-to-ship combat tracks only how close the ships are, along nine zones from +4 to -4, which also reflect maximum radar range. Each side start at one end. Unless the ships accelerate or decelerate, they’ll approach at a constant speed – typically two zones per turn – and then zip past each other.

Every turn of space combat progresses in four phases: Sensor Ops, Pilot Actions, Gunner Actions, and Engineer Actions. Sensors have to acquire a Target Lock so the Gunner can fire; the Pilot can Accelerate or Decelerate which changes range, a Gunner can either fire weapons or deploy defenses countermeasures, and then the Engineer does damage control.

In each phase, each ship’s crew pick actions secretly, reveals them simultaneously (!!!)6, and then players and GM resolve the actions in initiative order. Typically each player manages actions during one phase on the PCs ship; the “captain” can give orders, but PCs may not always obey. (The GM controls the NPC ship, naturally.)

I’ve always thought that space combat resembles submarine combat more closely than air or naval combat. In space not only can no one hear you scream, nobody can see a damn thing without instruments or a nearby sun. This system, particularly the simultaneous orders, keeps the tension and second-guessing of sub combat … and fits the larger themes of uncertainty and ever-present danger.

Advice for the “Game Mother”:

The Alien RPG calls its GM the “Game Mother”, after the not entirely trustworthy computer of the original movie. Cute names for the GM aren’t unheard of – Keeper of Forbidden Lore, anyone? – but I wonder if it’s more than just a play on the series’s mythology.

Like Call of Cthulhu‘s Keeper, and the namesake computer, the goal of the “Game Mother” is to dole out just enough information to keep players and their characters moving but not enough that they realize what they’re facing and lose all hope. The “Game Mother” section even offers advice, however brief, to keep players on the knife edge, neither entirely safe nor so Stressed that they can’t function, and still with a faint hope that they can win. Cinematic Play, particularly, almost seems like a game of Fiasco: characters jockey for position, play out their agendas and goals, and bicker about the “Bonus Situation”, even as they move closer to their doom.

Likewise Campaign Play consists of several missions or jobs, possibly randomly generated, where the major dangers are unscrupulous humans and environmental hazards. While cyberpunk antiheroes have the consolation of “sticking it to The Man”, in the world of Alien you’re always working for The Man. You’re a space trucker or a marine or a colonist in deep space or on a harsh and unforgiving planet, and you depend on some version of The Man for the very air you breathe. The “Game Mother”, like the computer, represents the setting’s corporations and colonial governments. Like those entities, the GM must encourage players to think they’re getting ahead by doling out XP and slightly better stuff so players keep playing. As in any dystopia, though, PCs will see little if any advancement from their hard work. Meanwhile – if I’m reading the game right – the PCs become the pawns in some corporation’s next attempt to acquire and tame the dreaded Xenomorphs or some related organism which, as always, will end badly.

Whether this is a feature or a bug is a matter of perspective.

Synthetics:

Synthetics (androids, artificial people, whatever) are mostly like human characters, with a few key differences: they have higher basic attributes and never suffer Stress, but they can’t push their rolls. Also, synthetics use a different (and shorter) Critical Injury table, which makes them paradoxically tougher – only 2 of 6 results incapacitate them – and more fragile – easily broken legs, arms, and necks. Which does fit the movies, particularly the original.

I’m a huge fan of treating synthetic and artificial entities differently from (conventional) living beings. Years ago I put together rules for “Constructs in BRP” (Basic Roleplaying, also usable in Mythras, OpenQuest, RuneQuest, and other variants.) One notable element is a Major Malfunction table, named after the Major Wound table in BRP/OQ/etc. Despite interest from two parties has never seen the light of day. (In all honesty, though, I never playtested it, so it may be hot garbage.)

Simpler Creature Stats:

Xenomorphs (and other extrasolar creatures) don’t have base Attributes, only Skills for the few things they need: Close Combat, Mobility (running or evasion), Observation. Those and a few other numbers – Health, Armor, and Speed7 – pretty much define the mechanics for aliens. The rest is behavior, attack modes, special defenses, special immunities or vulnerabilities, and the effects of acid blood or embryo implantation on humans.

Other Year Zero games reduce “monsters” to Strength and Agility, with no mental abilities or skills. Listing which skills a non-verbal, non-technological creature would use in its actions or reactions speeds up play and demonstrates that designers have thought through what each skill covers. (It helps that there are only 12, or three for each of four Attributes.)

Setting Elements:

The entire setting of the Alien RPG, without the Xenomorphs and maybe with a few tweaks, might make a decent “early interstellar empires” campaign. Colliding corporate and governmental interests, the loneliness of being on the very edge of the frontier, the dangers of being a hull’s thickness away from death … all useful material for conflict and “adventure”. It’s not too far from Firefly, actually, except for Alien‘s handwaved FTL and darker tone.

That said, some of the details, especially the retro-future history, don’t quite make sense. Maybe it’s supposed to be an “alternate future” that diverged in the late 1990s. Two of the political factions are essentially the U.S. and Soviets with some handwaving about political alliances. The third, origin of corporate villains Weyland-Yutani, only makes sense if their Earth territories – Japan and the U.K. – are essentially outposts and the bulk of their political power rests in Mars and Titan.

Certainly if you’re running a gritty science fiction Year Zero game, the stats for tech and NPCs will prove useful. GMs running other systems might be able to use some of the plot hooks in the setting material. The Year Zero System is admirably lightweight, but that means there’s not a lot of crunch to mine. (Assuming one had some sort of mechanical conversion to begin with.)

Final Salvage Report

While I might want to run (or play?) one Cinematic Play adventure, just to see what it’s like, I doubt I’d want to run a campaign. The setting is just too depressingly similar to real life.

As I said at the top, though, there are things I’d like to steal:

If this were a real review, I’d conclude that Free League / Fria Ligan did an admirable job given that they had to remain consistent with five flawed movies8. But it isn’t. I’m just here to break it down for parts.


  1. Marked with the symbol for “Laser” in the movie’s “semiotic standard”. ↩︎

  2. Holding a machine spitting bullets can be stressful, but the main reason, I suspect, is that rolling a 1 on a Stress Die can also indicate you’re out of ammo. ↩︎

  3. No, OK, it doesn’t. I assume they identify too strongly with their characters, and play to feel powerful and in control. Thus any indignity visited on said characters is, to them, insufferable. Better death than dishonor. ↩︎

  4. Except in my hands, apparently. ↩︎

  5. In the setting material, corporate executives know Xenomorphs exist, and are competing to weaponize them, while conspiring to keep governments and employees completely ignorant. ↩︎

  6. No I really like this part. ↩︎

  7. How many actions a Xenomorph gets per combat round compared to a human. Humans are Speed 1; they get either two fast actions (e.g. moving one “zone”, dropping something) or one fast and one slow action (e.g. an attack). Most Xenos are Speed 2; a few are Speed 3. ↩︎

  8. Including Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, but excluding Alien Resurrection. ↩︎