First Thoughts: Alien RPG

This is not a review, merely my thoughts based on two thorough readthroughs of the Alien RPG. Before I put out an actual review I want to have run at least one session of the game in its cinematic mode to get a proper feel for the mechanics.

I picked up the Alien RPG at Dragonmeet 2019 after originally avoiding the wildly successful pre-order earlier that year. I hadn’t ordered the game at that point for a simple reason – I’ve never watched Alien. Or any of the movies in the franchise. It’s impossible not to know the overall plot and tone of the movies though so when the first reviews of the game came in it piqued my interest. Everything seemed to suggest that Free League had succeeded in releasing a system that helped to build tension and explosive terror. That was enough to make me check the book out at Dragonmeet, where I was pulled in by the extensive, evocative art and sales pitch of the Effekt crew who were running the stall.

Dragonmeet was the end of November and unfortunately I’ve yet to get around to playing the game. What I have done is a couple of thorough read throughs and I’ve got to admit that I’ve come away feeling conflicted about the product and wanted to see if I could pull those thoughts together into a cohesive whole.

Remember: This isn’t a review, it will focus primarily on the issues I have rather than considering the game as a whole.

So what’s my issue? The big one is that I don’t understand the focus of the game. It feels off balance. The buzz I’ve seen surrounding Alien has been centred on the cinematic style of play – one off, high attrition scenarios designed to mimic the tone and pacing of the movies. Reading the book though they feel more like an afterthought. The GM chapter has a mere 2 pages dedicated to this style of play (though 2/3 of one page is taken up by artwork) in addition to the cinematic scenario Hope’s Last Day. Well, I say scenario but its not even the full thing, as it states in the text that it is only the third and final act of a larger adventure. This 18 page (that count includes the characters and maps) teaser isn’t even meant to occupy a typical session as, according to the text, it can be played in under 2 hours. A full cinematic scenario, Chariot of the Gods, is available as a separate purchase but I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to showcase this mode of gameplay in the core book, especially when the recommendation is that you should start with a cinematic game before considering a campaign.

I’ve heard that page count was a constraint and I’ll admit that the book is a fair size but that’s also deceiving. There is a significant amount of artwork, more so than most books and I’d estimate you could cut the page count by a quarter (or more) and still have a beautiful book if there was less art and a more condensed layout.

The artwork is atmospheric and extensive, almost to the point of outshining the actual game

Which brings me to my second issue – campaigns. Despite having an entire chapter dedicated to them it feels lacklustre and incomplete. There are quick summaries of the three campaign types (space trucker, colonial marine and frontier colonist) and a series of tables to aid in the random generation of jobs/missions, star systems and complications but it just feels like it lacks any depth. Personally I’d have preferred a sandbox of a small region with some colonised planets and a border between two major powers to help get a campaign started.

One of the aspects that particularly stood out was money. The book makes it clear that the setting is one of hyper-capitalism, where you should expect to be living job to job, paying off debts and just struggling to stay afloat. The problem though is that it then fails to follow through in any real sense. Each framework lists a typical weekly salary, anywhere from $400-$960 while the minimum reward listed in the jobs table is $21,000.

So what can you spend all that wealth on?

Well there’s living costs, which is given a single tiny table that takes up less than a quarter of a page otherwise dedicated to yet more art. Or you could splash out on food and drink, including individual cups of coffee (Free – $1.50 per cup) which are given a page and a half of space. Yes, the book dedicates space to describing coffee.

Really though you’re going to be after gear and upgrades. Most of the personal equipment has costs in the hundreds to low thousands but ships and their upgrades may range into the millions. Oh, and you’ll also need a supply of spare parts for repairs. They cost $100,000 or more unless you can salvage them and will be consumed by even minor repairs. Which you could be doing regularly if you fail the weekly maintenance rolls.

Living expenses. Yup, that’s the extent of the mechanic.

All in all it just doesn’t add up into a coherent system. Somebody has clearly gone to the trouble of thinking about the fact the setting is one where ships should be breaking down regularly and needing expensive repairs. There’s a list of modules a ship might have but do I then need to list all the handheld equipment on the ship? If we start with a ship do we have to also purchase space suits, tools, food etc as well or does it come with a reasonable amount of equipment? Who knows, the rulebook certainly doesn’t say.

Now you may think I’m being unfairly critical here, or putting too much of an emphasis on it but I do so for a few reasons. The first reason I’m doing so is because of how many pages are taken up by gear and equipment, all of which are dotted with prices. Earning enough to get by on is clearly meant to play a significant role in campaigns but I honestly don’t think there’s a coherent and complete system here. Incidentally this isn’t a problem unique to Alien but is shared with many other systems.

The second reason I’m bringing it up is because I’ve recently read Scum & Villainy. While the tone of that is very different the gameplay also includes the completion of missions and constant need to earn credits. The difference there is that it’s baked squarely into the system. Every mission includes a structured way of having to deal with maintenance, upgrades and personal spending in a way that enhances the game and reinforces the need to do the next job. It transforms it from dull bookkeeping to an integral, and enjoyable, part of the game. I just wish Free League had managed the same here.

So with all these apparent issues you may be wondering what I’d have done differently. Primarily I’d streamline the book by removing campaign play elements entirely and focus it on cinematic play. So out with most of the gear and equipment, in with a complete three act scenario and proper guidelines on creating/running cinematic scenarios. It may be that this is the approach Free League have taken with their upcoming starter set but honestly I just don’t understand why they didn’t go in that direction from the outset.

I’m just going to close with a repeat that this isn’t a review, just things that got under my skin while reading the book. I think the core system is good, like the look of the stress mechanic and am looking forward to running a game, hopefully sooner rather than later. At that point I’ll revisit it and do a proper review but honestly, I suspect it’ll just reinforce my desire to focus on cinematic gameplay.

If my ramblings haven’t put you off the game then it is available for purchase on drivethruRPG (includes affiliate link).

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