Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Sunday 1 November 2020

An Alien Starter

It has been almost thirty years since there has been a roleplaying game set in the universe of the films Alien and Aliens, but that roleplaying game—the Aliens Adventure Game from Leading Edge Games—is primarily remembered for its complexity and emphasis upon combat over horror. That said, the publisher did produce Aliens, a highly effective treatment of the film which was also one of the earliest co-operative games. However, Free League Publishing, best known as the publisher of Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days and Tales from the Loop – Roleplaying in the ’80s That Never Was, obtained the licence and published Alien: The Roleplaying Game in 2019. Drawing from the films Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, and Prometheus, this explores the future of mankind in the late twenty-second century, where out on the frontiers of space, colonists scratch a living on barely terraformed worlds, starships towing mammoth refineries processing resources leave for the inner worlds with their crew in hibernation, corporations own and run worlds, rivalries between corporations escalate in cold wars and hot wars, and the United States Colonial Marine Corps attempts to keep the peace. Out on the frontier, in the coldness of space there are secrets too, some corporate, others unimaginably ancient, many of which will get you killed or kill you. There are rumours of old ruins, of impossible aliens, of lost colonies, and coverups—and maybe they will get a person killed too. This is the set-up for Alien: The Roleplaying Game, its future one of body horror, survival horror, corporate malfeasance, and worse…

The Alien Starter Set is designed as an introduction to the setting and the game. It comes richly appointed. Open up the deep box and you will find two sets of dice, a deck of cards, a large, double-sided poster map, two books—one a rulebook, the other a scenario, five pregenerated Player Characters, and a sheet of counters. Everything is done in a trade dress which evokes the Alien and Aliens milieu, muted blues and greens against a black star field, with superb fully painted artwork done by the same artist who illustrated Symbaroum. Essentially, the Alien Starter Set comes with everything that the Game Mother—as the Game Master is known in Alien: The Roleplaying Game—and five players need to enjoy their first experience of the horror setting and the roleplaying game’s mechanics.

The first of the books in the Alien Starter Set is the Rule Book. Now this is not the full rulebook, but the pared down version you would expect of a Starter Box. It introduces the setting and its history up until after the events of Alien 3, its themes—Space Horror and Sci-Fi Action, combined with a Sense of Wonder, and it explains the rules—skills, combat, panic and stress, and of course, xenomorphs. It also covers the types of characters that can be played and their associated campaign frameworks—Space Truckers, Colonial Marines, and Frontier Colonists. It also mentions Company Reps and Androids, both of which are playable using the full rules. Notably, it also explains the Alien: The Roleplaying Game can be played in one of two modes—Cinematic and Campaign mode. Cinematic mode is designed to emulate the drama of a film set within the Alien universe, and so emphasises high stakes, faster, more brutal play, and will be deadlier, whilst the Campaign mode is for longer play, still brutal, if not deadly, but more survivable. Of the two, the Cinematic mode is suited to one-shots, to convention play, and as introductions to the mechanics and setting of Alien: The Roleplaying Game. ‘Chariot of the Gods’, the scenario which comes in the Alien Starter Set, is written for the Cinematic mode.

Although the Rule Book in the Alien Starter Set does not include rules for creating characters, it explains what they are made of and how they work. A Player Character is defined by four attributes—Strength, Agility, Wits, and Empathy, each of which has three associated skills, for a total of twelve skills. For example, Heavy Machinery, Stamina, and Close Combat are associated with Strength, whilst Observation, Comtech, and Survival are associated with Wits. All skills also have stunts which come into play when a player rolls two or more successes in an action. A Player Character also has one or more Talents, essentially advantages that give him a benefit in addition to his skills. None are listed in the Rule Book in the Alien Starter Set, each of the pregenerated Player Characters in the Alien Starter Set has one.

In addition, a Player Character has a buddy and rival from amongst his fellow Player Characters—intended to create tensions and roleplaying opportunities; Personal Agendas—again to create tensions and roleplaying opportunities, but also to earn a player Story Points—which can be spent to gain automatic successes) for his Player Character; and both equipment and consumables. The latter consist primarily of air, food, and water, for whilst there are monsters—inhuman and human, out there on the frontier which will kill you, so will a lack of the right consumables.

Mechanically, Alien: The Roleplaying Game and the Alien Starter Set use the Year Zero engine first seen in Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days. The rules are light and fair quick, with dice rolls primarily intended for dramatic or difficult situations such as combat, hiding from a strange creature bent on doing unspeakable things to you, making repairs in a hurry, and so on. To have a Player Character undertake an action, a player rolls a number of Base dice equal to a combination of attribute and skill (or just attribute if the Player Character lacks the skill), aiming to roll one or more sixes. One result is enough to succeed, whilst extra successes can be used to purchase Stunts, like halving a task’s time or doing extra damage in combat. Although one Player Character can help another, the Alien: The Roleplaying Game—just like the films it is based upon—will involve conflicts between Player Characters as well as NPCs, especially when Personal Agendas clash, and where opposed rolls come into play from such situations, successes rolled by either side cancel each other out. If a Player Character fails, or wants to generate more successes, then his player can push the roll. Although this can only be done just the once for each roll, it can generate successes, but it also leads to the core mechanic in Alien: The Roleplaying Game—Stress (and panic)!

Stress in the Alien: The Roleplaying Game is designed to build and build over the course of a scenario, particularly in Cinematic mode. It is not gained just for pushing a roll, but also for firing a firearm in fully automatic mode, suffering damage, being attacked by a fellow crewman, when someone is revealed as an android, and so forth. For each level of Stress suffered by a Player Character, whenever that Player Character takes another action that requires dice to be rolled, his player not only rolls the Base dice as usual, he also rolls a Stress die. So, the more levels of Stress suffered by a Player Character, the more dice—Base dice and Stress dice—his player has to roll. This has both advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, it increases the chances of rolling successes, but on the downside, any ones rolled have negative effects. First, they prevent the roll from being pushed; second, they trigger a Panic Roll. This requires the roll of a six-sided die plus the Player Character’s current Stress level. Results of six and below have no effect, but results of seven and above include a nervous twitch which increases everyone’s Stress level, dropping an item, immediately seeking cover, screaming, fleeing, going berserk, and more. Although rest and recuperation can reduce Stress, for the most part, over the course of a scenario, a Player Character’s Stress is going to grow and grow...

Combat in the Alien: The Roleplaying Game is designed to be straightforward, but with one or two tweaks to fit the setting. One of these is Stealth Mode, the initial state for any combat situation. This is designed to cover hidden movement by NPCs and other unknown threats, attempts to detect hidden movement and threats, and the like before actual combat occurs. The rules also cover Initiative—handled by draw of a card, rated between one and ten; actions—a Player Character receives a Fast Action and a Slow Action or two Fast Actions per turn; ranged and close combat; damage and critical injuries—the latter suffered when a Player Character’s Health is reduced to zero, some of them deadly; and Overwatch, the ability for trained soldiers to monitor a particular area and be ready to shoot when something happens within it. Other hazards covered in the Rule Book in the Alien Starter Set include starvation and dehydration, the cold vacuum of space, fire, explosions, disease, and more. The Rule Book ends with a surprisingly extensive list of guns and other equipment, the firearms in particular being illustrated.

In all of this, the Xenomorphs do get their own section. It amounts to half a page. This might seem to be somewhat sparse, but to be fair it is enough to run ‘Chariot of the Gods’, the scenario which comes in the Alien Starter Set. Plus the scenario has more detail about the threat it thrusts in the Player Characters’ way… Written by Science Fiction author, Andrew E.C. Gaska, ‘Chariot of the Gods’ is designed for use with Alien: The Roleplaying Game’s Cinematic mode. It falls into the ‘Space Truckers’ framework and is very much a Blue Collar Sci-Fi horror scenario, covering all of the themes of the setting and the roleplaying game—space horror and Sci-Fi action with both survival and body horror along with corporate malfeasance. Its fairly heavily plotted storyline  is supported with a combination of Personal Agendas and events that get increasingly horrifying as it progresses. Unlike the Rule Book in Alien Starter Set, it includes all of the details of the Xenomorph that the Game Mother will need, but this is by design and will obvious why once the Game Mother begins preparing the scenario. It should be noted that given the importance of Personal Agendas in Alien: The Roleplaying Game, ‘Chariot of the Gods’ really only works when all five pregenerated Player Characters are in play and it can benefit from the tensions and conflicts that their Personal Agendas will promote. Overall, this is a nasty one-shot which should provide one or two sessions of play and deliver a film-like plot.

Supporting both ‘Chariot of the Gods’ and Alien Starter Set, the box also includes a number of extras. These start with the two sets of dice—the Base dice and the Stress dice. Both are six-sided dice and there are ten of each. The six face of both the black Base dice and the yellow Stress dice is marked with a ‘blip’ or ‘ping’ a la the Motion Tracker of Alien and Aliens fame. When one of these is rolled during the game, it is counted as a success. However, the one face of each Stress die is also marked with a Facehugger symbol. When one of these is rolled, it prevents a roll from being pushed as well as triggering a Panic Roll.

The five pregenerated Player Characters make up the crew of the USCSS Montero, the small cargo ship which appears in ‘Chariot of the Gods’. They are double-sided and include an illustration and background on the one side, and a filled in character sheet on the other. They are clear and easy to read.

The deck of cards consists of fifty-six cards. They include the ten Initiative cards and twelve Weapon cards, which can be used when playing any scenario or campaign of the Alien: The Roleplaying Game, whilst the remainder are tied into the ‘Chariot of the Gods’ scenario. These include ten NPC cards for the scenario and twenty-four Personal Agenda cards to be handed out as the plot progresses in the scenario. Lastly, the large foldout map, done on heavy paper stock, is also double-sided. On the one side it depicts the limits of explored space and on the other a full set of starship deck plans. This is designed for play, making use of the sheet of cardboard counters that includes USCMC marines, ship’s crew, Xenomorphs, ship counters, and status counters. One notable feature of the starship deck plans is that they include the ship’s vents—perfect for hidden movement and hunting monsters in the dark!

Physically, Alien Starter Set is superbly presented. The look and trade dress of the box and its contents screams Alien and Aliens to anyone who looks at it. Both books could have been shorter, yet the more spacious layout makes them much easier to read and digest. The cards and the pregenerated character sheets feel a little thin, and perhaps it would have been nice if the counters had been in more then the one colour. The poster map though, is pleasingly sturdy. The writing does a slight edit in places, but it is direct and to the point, getting across the dangerous and dystopic nature of the future of the twenty-second century and presenting the rules in a simple, easy-to-read, and easy-to-grasp fashion. The standard feature of the Alien Starter Set is the artwork, which is just stunning.

The Alien Starter Set does exactly what it should. It introduces the setting and explains the rules, before providing a playing experience within that setting. It does this very well and it does a good job of supporting all three of these objectives. However, the Alien Starter Set is for a licensed property and it has high production values—and both factors are reflected in the price. The Alien Starter Set does cost more than the average starter set. Yet once the Game Mother has run ‘Chariot of the Gods’, the Rule Book can easily serve as a ready reference guide for the rules at the table where it is likely to be more accessible than the Alien: The Roleplaying Game core rulebook. Both counters and the poster map can be used again, and there is no denying the utility of having more dice at the table. Further, future adventures could be run using the rules in the Alien Starter Set alone, especially if they come with pregenerated Player Characters and written for the Cinematic mode. 

The Alien Starter Set is an impressive introduction to the Alien: The Roleplaying Game. It not only looks fantastic, it also comes with everything necessary to deliver and roleplay a frighteningly nasty experience in the cold darkness of space where the horrors faced include the feared Xenomorphs and your fellow man.

No comments:

Post a Comment