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

Sunday, 14 November 2021

Frontier of Fear

If Alien: The Roleplaying Game is missing anything, it is two things. First, further details of the United States Colonial Marine Corps, what it is, what it does, what equipment it fields across space, and more, since after all, the marines feature so prominently in Aliens, the second of the two films to fundamentally inform and inspire the Alien: The Roleplaying Game. Second, it does not have an example of its Campaign mode of play. Alien: The Roleplaying Game is designed to be played in two different modes, Cinematic and Campaign. 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, more traditional play, still brutal, if not deadly, but more survivable. To date, the only scenarios available for Alien: The Roleplaying GameChariot of the Gods (also found in the Alien Starter Set) and Destroyer of Worlds, are written for the Cinematic mode. All that changes with Alien: The Roleplaying Game – Colonial Marines Operations Manual.

The Colonial Marines Operations Manual is in effect, two books in one. The first book details the history and organisation of the USCMC, its equipment, the various forces which serve alongside it and against it, and the opposing forces’ equipment, and lastly, expanded USCMC marine creation. The history runs form the Weyland era through the foundation of the USCMC as part of the United States’ response to increased rivalries for resources and territory on the frontier, through police actions to free the near human Acturans from Chinese/Asian Nations Cooperative and later Dog War against the Chinese/Asian Nations Cooperative when it is revealed that it is stockpiling and testing biological weapons, the Oil Wars which stem from the hunt for more petroleum resources, and the more recent Frontier War between the United Americas and the Union of Progressive People spurred on by colonial unrest and rebellion on both sides of the border. There is much more going on than this, much of which will be revealed in the full campaign and all over the new biological weaponry—what it is, how it can be used, and what it really means. Both timeline and history greatly expand upon that given in Alien: The Roleplaying Game, almost too much so given the wealth of detail and in places, the wealth of acronyms!

The organisation of the USCMC runs from top to bottom, from its three Marine Space Forces which together protect the Core Systems and the frontier worlds, but much like the campaign to follow, it focuses upon the organisation at the platoon, section, squad, and fireteam levels. This is at the very personal level, the level at which the players will be roleplaying, that is they will be roleplaying members of a fireteam, a squad, a section, and thus a platoon. Other allied organisations, such as United States Aerospace Force and the Latin American Colonial Navy are covered, but not described in detail, as are those of other governments and organisations, such as the Royal Marine Commandos of the Three World Empire, the Space Operating Forces of the Union of Progressive People, and the Weyland-Yutani Commandos. Combined with the extensive list of the equipment, ranging from the VP-70MA6 pistol, Norcomm RPG122 Rocket Propelled Grenade Launcher, and Weyland-Yutani NSG23 Assault Rifle to the Alphatech XT-37 Stinger 4×4Fast Assault Vehicle, MI-220 Krokodil Series Armoured Dropship, and the VP-153D Kremlin Class Hunter-Destroyer, the Game Mother has a wealth of material with which to arm and equip not only the Player Character marines, much of it mundane—like jungle boots or BiMex personal shades, but also the forces opposing them too. With a little effort, an inventive Game Mother could even use this material and switch things around so that a scenario or even a campaign could be run with the Player Characters as soldiers serving the Three World Empire or the Union of Progressive People, for example.

In terms of USCMC characters, Colonial Marines Operations Manual expands the number of Military Occupational Speciality options. These include AFV (Armoured Fighting Vehicle) Marine, Assault Marine (Breacher), Automatic Rifleman (Smartgunner), Comtech Marine, CBRN (Chemical Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear) Marine, Dedicated Marksman, Dropship Crew, Hospital Corpsman, Forward Observer, and Rifleman. They all have their own Talent options, and there are five new Talents included, such as Bypass for jury-rigging your past locked doors or Hug the Dirt for making the maximum use of cover during a firefight. Marine Player Character creation follows the rules as per the core rules for the Alien: The Roleplaying Game, but with the addition of the Military Occupational Speciality options and Field Events tables for Enlisted, NCO, and Pilot and Crew Chief Marines.

Name: Lance Corporal Mandip ‘Drone’ Nogueira
Career: USCMC Marine
Military Occupational Speciality: Comtech
Appearance: Short, tidy hair
Personal Agenda: The death of your buddy has spooked you—now you secretly fear combat and confrontation. You need to overcome your fear.
Event: In a protracted bug hunt, you ran out of ammo and had to go hand-to-hand with an entrenching tool.
Gear: M41A Pulse Rifle, Seegson System Diagnostic Device, Entrenching Tool

Stress Level: 0
Health: 3

Strength 3 Agility 3 Wits 5 Empathy 3

Talent: Remote

Close Combat 1, Comtech 3, Mobility 1, Observation 2, Ranged Combat 2, Stamina 1, Survival 1

Throughout both background to the USCMC and the campaign, the central idea is that the life of the average marine is tough and often dangerously exciting. Sure, a recruit gets taken off his rockball of a colony home world with its badly smelling atmosphere, trained to serve, given a big gun with lots of bullets, fed and watered whilst sending a paycheque home to mum and dad, but… That marine and his platoon is going to get sent to one hellhole after another, shot at (and worse) by insurrectionists, fanatics, and soldiers from other governments, run into environments which will kill him, go on bug hunts against creatures which will kill him (and no, that really does not mean Xenomorphs), and more. And when that is not happening, spend years in hypersleep as his family gets old and he effectively does not. All this is the ‘horror’ which the marine has to deal with on a mostly daily basis, but there is worse… Not just the Xenomorphs and their numerous variants, which are terrifying enough, but there is the horror of just what those in power (and sometimes not) will do to obtain, understand, and ultimately weaponise the Xenomorphs and their numerous variants according to their own agenda. That is the basis for ‘The Frontier War’ campaign in Alien: The Roleplaying Game – Colonial Marines Operations Manual.

The Alien: The Roleplaying Game has already seen a scenario which combines its Cinematic mode with its Colonial Marines model—Destroyer of Worlds, and that scenario serves two purposes as far the ‘The Frontier War’ campaign. Most obviously, the two contrast each other, Destroyer of Worlds throwing danger after threat in an unrelenting torrent that drives a desperate race for survival, whereas ‘The Frontier War’ plays outs its threats and dangers enabling the Game Mother to ratchet up the tension over months of play rather than a few sessions. It also enables the Game Mother to eke out the paranoia and the fear of the unknown, and gives room for the players and their characters to try and work just what is going on, whereas in Cinematic mode, there is an obvious immediacy. Destroyer of Worlds can also serve as a prequel to ‘The Frontier War’, foreshadowing many of the events to come during the course of the campaign. This is not necessarily as a direct prequel, that is, the Player Character survivors of Destroyer of Worlds should not be played in ‘The Frontier War’. Rather, the terrible knowledge and experiences gained by the survivors from Kruger 60 AEM can serve as a source of rumours and horrifying tales for the Player Characters of the new campaign, and so give them a sense of foreboding. That said, Destroyer of Worlds could not be played after ‘The Frontier War’ since the pair share a lot of background and secrets.

The campaign assumes that the Player Characters are assigned to Kilo Company of the 33rd Marine Assault Unit and stationed aboard the USS Tamb’ltam, a Conestoga-class troop transport/light assault starship. The ship is fully detailed, but only a few members of Kilo Company are, providing a number of NPCs that can also be used as ready-to-play pre-generated replacement Player Characters, whilst still providing scope for the players to create their replacements as necessary and the story allows. Further, the Player Characters are all assigned to the same squad, so the campaign is ideally suited for four Player Characters, perhaps five at most. Just as the film Aliens, the Player Characters are grunts—marine privates and NCOs—and whilst not technically in command, ‘The Frontier War’ is written to ensure that they have a high degree of autonomy. This is at odds with the typical chain of command you would expect of the genre, but in terms of play, it provides several benefits. It places the Player Characters at the centre of the action, even if accompanied by fellow military forces, and rather than have their overly beholden to that chain of command, the players can influence the direction in which the campaign goes and thus enjoy it more.

In addition to the advice for Game Mother on how to run the campaign, ‘The Frontier War’ includes a wealth of background on the frontier and border regions where it takes place and on the numerous factions involved in the events of the campaign and both their secrets and their motivations. At times it feels like too much, but the Game Mother will need to read and understand it as part of her preparation to run the campaign. The campaign itself consists of seven parts; six missions followed by a seventh part which provides a finale to the campaign. The six parts can be played in any order, as directed by the events and the players. In turn, they will see the Player Characters sent to rescue survivors of a crashed hospital ship, respond to a terrorist hostage situation on the only world where humanity has encountered an extra-terrestrial intelligent species, investigate a testing facility in Union of Progressive People space which might be linked to the Border Bombings first seen during the events of Destroyer of Worlds, mount a rescue mission on a world about to be invaded by Union of Progressive People forces, investigate an isolated station which could be the source of strange signals, evacuate survivors from a world following a mining accident, and… All seven of the missions are highly detailed, with detailed maps, floorplans, and deck plans, suggestions as to possible random events, and alternative uses, that is, how to use the content in the mission elsewhere (potentially meaning that the Game Mother could simply run each of the missions separately, but that would mean ignoring the scope of ‘The Frontier War’ campaign). Lastly, they all have ‘Metapuzzle Pieces’ which represent Epiphanies—or major clues to the campaign’s overarching plot—that the Player Characters can discover during the course of mission, and as they collect more and more, begin to work out what is going on…

In addition to the main campaign itself, sixteen mission types, such as combat patrol, peacekeeping, and snatch and grab, are also detailed. These are intended to be developed and run by the Game Mother herself in between the parts of the main campaign, not only to extend its play, but also to highlight how the will not necessarily be the main focus of the Player Characters and their commanding officers all the time. There is advice on how to bring elements of the actual campaign into those missions as necessary and there is a guide too for handling downtime for the Player Characters between missions.

Physically, Alien: The Roleplaying Game – Colonial Marines Operations Manual is as good as you would expect it to be for the line. The writing is excellent, often in tone that you imagine a fellow member of the USCMC might use, and as much as it develops the Alien Universe as somewhere to roleplay, there are one or two nods beyond its franchise too, such as Blade Runner and Outland, if the reader knows what to look for. The book looks fantastic with great artwork—though not as much and a lot of it different in tone to that of the core rulebook, perhaps more heroic, but definitely more militaristic—than the other books for Alien: The Roleplaying Game. As with other books, the layout is fairly open, so that it does not feel as dense a book as this normally might. It also means that it is much easier to read. However, the lack of an index is major omission, especially given that this is a campaign and the Game Mother will need to study the book carefully to fully grasp what is going on in the campaign. A lesser issue is the lack of a list of acronyms, which really would have helped with reading both through the general history and the background to the campaign.

One main issue in coming to understand both the scope of ‘The Frontier War’ and the scope of the history presented at the start of the supplement, is that it is difficult to grasp the astrography of the campaign’s setting and how the various stars and their planets relate to each other. The star charts feel just too small to be effective, so perhaps the Game Mother might want to develop some star charts that she can have out on the table ready to show where the Player Characters are going and where the frontier and political borders are.

As two books in one, the good news is that Alien: The Roleplaying Game – Colonial Marines Operations Manual does both of them very well. What is effectively the first book, widens the scope of what is possible in running a campaign or scenario based around the USCMC, not just in terms of types of marines the players can roleplay and missions they can undertake, but also the enemies they might face in doing so. And that is in addition to the material which also develops the Alien Universe, both this first part of the book and the campaign that follows it. Then with the second book, Alien: The Roleplaying Game – Colonial Marines Operations Manual delivers the three themes of Alien: The Roleplaying Game—Space Horror, Sci-Fi Action, and a Sense of Wonder, in a horrifically good, desperately deadly (but not too deadly), and epically grand military-conspiracy horror campaign. If you still think that the Alien: The Roleplaying Game is just good for one-shots in its Cinematic mode, think again; Alien: The Roleplaying Game – Colonial Marines Operations Manual is proof that the Campaign mode for Alien: The Roleplaying Game is not just workable, but will provide months’ worth of military horror gaming.

No comments:

Post a Comment