When you think of horror and role-playing games, I bet one of the first thoughts that come to mind center around the likes of cosmic horror, made popular by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Titles like Call of Cthulhu have ascended from cult status to nearly the gold standard of horror RPGs despite being a small subset of the horror genre. In truth, horror based games are one of the most difficult TTRPG genres to handle correctly. Those on both sides of the GM screen must adhere to a certain level of discipline to create the right atmosphere for horror to flourish. Personally, I love the idea of a truly tension filled game where the stakes are high. When it was announced that Alien the Roleplaying Game was in production, I could not wait to get my hands on a copy. So grab a pressurized suit and meet me in the airlock for what I am sure will be a routine mission on LV-426…
Alien the Roleplaying Game (2019) is a 383-page book created by Tomas Harenstam and published through Free League Publishing. From cover to cover, this book satisfied both the aesthetic and thematic tone of the Alien franchise. You could open any one page and imagine yourself looking at a gritty terminal on some corporate ship. Each chapter is logically laid out, detailing either a game mechanic or lore related aspect. There is no fluff in this book, and every section is just long enough to avoid being cumbersome.
Characters in Alien are ordinary people working in their respective fields. There are no epic tiers, no lofty combat feats. You are a person just trying to make an honest living in the universe, and your character sheet reflects that. Characters consist of the following components:
Careers – Players choose from one and are granted certain talents, attribute bonuses and the like.
- Colonial Marine – Soldiers
- Colonial Marshall – Local law enforcement
- Company Agent – An executive who represents a larger entity
- Kid – A non-adult, likely severed from family connections (pun intended)
- Medic – The healer
- Officer – A leader often working on ships or managing colonies
- Pilot – They fly things…
- Roughneck – The average laborer on any ship or colony
- Scientist – A brilliant mind working on various projects
- Android – This is not a specific class, but rather an addition onto any one character. If chosen certain bonuses are conferred to distinguish them from their organic counterparts.
Attributes – There are only four, but there is a cap regarding starting scores.
- Strength – A measure of both physical prowess and constitution
- Agility – A combination of dexterity, coordination, and balance
- Wits – A mix of intellect, mental fortitude and perceptive capability
- Empathy – A mix of social prowess along with actual empathy
Skills – Like any true TTRPG, this is a measure of what your character can do. There are only 12 skills in all, but they cover everything from specialty (operating heavy machinery, science, piloting, etc.) to combat, social, and survival skills.
Talents – This consists of small bonuses or abilities directly related to a career along with a much longer list of general talents. Many talents provide passive buffs or situational modifiers.
Stress – A measure of how much mental stress your character has taken. Starts at zero and can build.
Health – A measure of your physical health/damage
Name & Appearance – Easy to figure out, but can also include small items of note and mannerisms
Personal Agenda – This is something that your character is secretly working toward and that should be kept secret form all other players. Not all of them are nefarious but can alter the game and are rewarded should a player complete or at least work towards them.
Buddies & Rivals – This is your character’s connection to other players and the greater setting.
Gear – This accounts for career related equipment, money, signature/personal items, or vehicles and spaceships.
Encumbrance – How much you can carry
Consumable – A measure of the things you need to survive (air, food, water & electric power). This section does not require constant accounting of but may play out in certain scenarios. For instance, air supply will certainly come into play during a spacewalk.
All task resolutions in Alien require two sets of six sided called base and stress dice. There are “specialty” dice that you can purchase to help delineate between both sets; however, it is not required. When a players declares some sort of action they must roll a certain number of both base & stress die simultaneously to determine the outcome. Anytime a player rolls a six there is a success, multiple success rolled allow for stunts. On the other side, if a player rolls too many ones they are accumulating stress and run the risk of panicking. There are special rules for pushing a roll, which essentially grants a re-roll of sorts, but with a little more risk added.
Stunts are specific to the skill you are rolling. For instance, certain combat related students could add damage, or knock your opponent prone, while technical skills could increase degrees of success or create favorable opportunities in the future. Mind you that the bonuses are never game breaking but do add a little flair or give extra effect to an otherwise ordinary success.
Panic and trauma will come into play as the game progresses. The effects are minor at first, but scale with your stress level. If left unchecked it can lead to permanent mental conditions on the character or more likely making the character unplayable. On the other side of the coin, damage is wild and rough. Critical hits are often brutal and can sometimes be instantly fatal. Even the minor damage needs to be treated and can leave characters in an unfavorable state.
Combat & Equipment
Combat in Alien is surprisingly detailed, allowing for a degree of tactical control. This makes sense considering the enemies you may be facing as something that would be better left avoided. Here is a hint for all new players: think about a tactical retreat instead of going in guns blazing. Interestingly, panic can weave into combat, potentially creating a situation where someone uses up all of their ammunition panic firing.
The section for space combat is quite robust and requires attention to detail. Everything from crew and ships systems come into play. It reminds me a bit of games like Rogue Trader, where each system and section of a ships must be carefully balanced for success.
There is also a fantastic guide for armor, weapons and equipment. Nearly everything you can think from the core movies are there. Smart guns, flamethrowers, equipment loaders, etc. Personally, I liked perusing this section like a store catalog, as it was interesting to see the stats for a military APC or even common items from your average settler.
Hazards & Androids & Xenomorphs, oh my!
The system also contains rules for all of the environmental hazards you could think of. Fire, electricity, freezing, the void of space, radiation, etc. Since many will be space traveling, there are also rules for sleeping sickness (since most of travel requires remaining in stasis for extended periods). It seems that even living on space stations cannot allow one to escape from stress.
I am not going to spoil the xenomorphs, but they live up to their brutal reputation. Encountering just one of these things is enough to spell the end for the unprepared party. Heed my advice regarding tactical retreats! There is an entire chapter detailing the life cycle and stages of a xenomorph’s life, providing a bird’s eye view of the hive and how it operates from facehugger to queen.
Additionally, the expanded rules for androids can make them just as scary as any xenomorph. The game does a good job mechanically of making your android seem akin to a ticking time bomb that is going to go off. Their very stress free and emotionless nature makes them even more unsettling.
Lastly, I should point out that The Engineers are mentioned here as well. Said entities were much more part of the prequels as opposed to the original series, so their mention is more an afterthought. The remains of their once vast empire is what some of the human colonies are built upon. With such a cinematic game, less is more when explaining these things.
Themes & Setting
I’m happy to report on a generous section of the book dedicated to establishing the tone and theme of the Alien setting. Even the greenest player could dive into this book and completely understand what the aim of any session should be. Personally, I enjoyed the sections detailing cinematic and campaign play along with suggestions on certain scenarios (like a marine game versus a colony game).
Another portion of this book helps to establish the lore of Alien that is often unasked or never truly mentioned in the movies. Like who are the major players in the universe? What is life like on a colony (when not attacked by xenomorphs)? The book goes out of its way to help the player define some of these entities or locations that could be feasibly used in any game.
Additionally, there are abundant resources for random encounters (depending on location), plot twists, pre-generated NPCs, system/world creation and much more. All of this along with nice ship/space station diagrams will keep you neck deep in the lore and provide ample ideas if you don’t already have any in mind.
Hope’s Last Day
Finally, the last section is a premade introductory scenario called Hope’s Last Day. Without going into spoilers, it is a nice tension filled scenario where the players unknowingly walk into the remains of a once prosperous colony. The scenario provides several pre generated NPCs along with a very detailed map of the colony. It is the type of starter scenario that perfectly encapsulates the essence of the Alien franchise and provides opportunities for all character types to shine.
Everything about this game is good. The setting, the mechanics, the faithfulness in adaptation. Unlike Call of Cthulhu, Alien keeps you invested in the setting and makes you earn every success. Each small success feels like an outstanding victory, and every stressor feels warranted. Alien does not hold your hand, but it will not passively punish you either (Again, I am looking at you, Call of Cthulhu).
Horror is not the genre for everyone. Player’s looking for a “bug hunt” will quickly end up as the next occupant in a xenomorph hive, or a bloodstain on a wall. Alien is the opposite of a power fantasy, which can be a turn off to some.
Regardless if you are fan of the franchise or not, this game is absolutely worth a try!