The name’s Davenport. I review games.
So I’m straightenin’ up my desk — the maid was off that day, onna counta she don’t exist — when in barges a Colonial Marine.
“Stop your grinnin’ and drop your linen!” the grunt says. “The ultimate badass is here with a review copy of the Alien RPG! That’s ‘RPG’ as in ‘roleplaying game,’ not ‘rocket-propelled grenade,’ although both of those things are $%&#in’ awesome!”
“Alien, huh?” I says. “Good series of movies, but how many times are players gonna wanna go on another bug hunt?”
“That’s the beauty of it, man!” he says. “The guy behind this baby knows all the secrets about the movie settings and puts together one badass $%&#in universe! You can go up against countries, corporations, pirates, low-lifes, androids, low-life pirate androids, and different sorts of aliens. But you want Xenomorphs? This one’s got the scoop on’em like no other!”
“Huh,” I says. “Now that you mention it, there is a thing or two that I’ve always wondered about those movies. Sounds like this might be just the book to tell me about’em.”
“$%&#in’ A, man!”
“Alrighty then, I’m on board.” I take the book from’im. “Is there anythin’ else?”
“That’s it, man. Game over, man. Game over!”
The Alien movies are big on atmosphere but fairly short on setting details. It’s quite fortunate, then, that the game’s author also happens to have been the franchise consultant to the Alien movie series since 2015. As such, he’s privy to all sorts of official setting details, and based upon the contents this book, he is more than happy to spill the biomechanical tea.
Going into all of those details would grow tiresome, so I’ll do my best to give you a good overview. Basically, Alien presents a decidedly unglamorous galaxy in which life is cheap and function comes way before fashion. Remember the dark, heavily industrial look of the Nostromo’s interior? Yeah, expect more of that. A lot more.
The book goes into great detail about daily life in space, discussing such matters as living quarters, entertainment (such as it is), religion, and even popular brands of beer. It then takes a look at the various regions of space, from an Earth that’s surprisingly rebounded from environmental catastrophe via terraforming out to the darkest fringes of the frontier and everything in between, and describes the various governmental and corporate factions out to screw you over.
I’ve always wondered about the various aspects of technology in the Alien universe, and this game doesn’t disappoint in that regard. In particular, the book takes a close look at space travel and spacecraft. (Yup, there’s faster-than-light travel.) Want to know what that gun turret on the Sulaco was? I did, and this book told me.
It’s not just the big stuff, though — the minor details really bring the setting to life. For example, it turns out that not only do people dream while in hypersleep — dreams which can last months — but the technology exists to to record dreams and play them back for entertainment. Tech also exists to enter the dreams of others in hypersleep and communicate with them. That’s material for a whole slew of interesting adventures right there.
Of course, what would an Alien RPG be without, well, aliens? Never fear — the game does a great job of detailing the Xenomorph XX121 we all know and love, from Ovomorphs, Facehuggers, and Chestbursters all the way up through the stages to the Queen herself. Along the way, the text describes some Xenomorph variants that I’ve never heard of — the Charger, for example, is a huge, quadrupedal creature akin to Xenomorph triceratops.
These creatures are scarily fast, the typical Xenomorph moving twice as fast as a human and getting twice as many attacks per round. Surprisingly, given how they get mowed down in Aliens, they are also somewhat-to-very bullet-resistant — even the eggs.
Now, to me, here’s the curious part: The Xenomorphs don’t have the same stats as humans. They do have scores for the aforementioned speed and armor, along with their health levels and the damage from their acidic blood splashes, but their actions come in the form of possibilities rolled on a 1d6, a successful attack resulting in anything from fear to instant death. That’s not horrible by any means… but one of the reasons I fell in love with TTRPGs in the first place was the ability to make apples-to-apples comparisons between creatures. I want to know exactly how strong a particular Xenomorph is. And that’s not just for the sake of my own curiosity. Suppose fearful humans build a barricade against a Xenomorph horde, as they do in Aliens. Can the Xenomorphs break down the barricade, and if so, how swiftly? Given the way they’re written up in this game, I’d have no idea.
The Xenomorphs aren’t the only extraterrestrial species covered by the game. The book also presents stats for the Neomorphs as seen in Alien: Covenant and four fearsome species completely unrelated to the Xenomorphs: the Swarm, Harvesters, Lion Worms, and Tanakan Scorpionids. All of these are written up like the Xenomorphs, with a small set of attributes and a random table of attacks.
Finally, the book discusses the mysterious Engineers. While no stats for them are provided for these beings, presumably because they are supposed to be extinct, the book does discuss what has been discovered regarding their society and biomechanical, musically-activated technology.
I would have preferred a larger bestiary of non-Xenomorph aliens, but then, I am notoriously greedy in that regard. I will say that there is one major omission: As described by the author in our Alien Q&A, while there are no other living spacefaring species in the setting, there are other fully sapient humanoid extraterrestrials. Think that throwaway line in Aliens about the Arcturians and their sexual prowess referred to human colonists? Nope. That’s a pretty significant factoid.
Alien uses a variant of the Year Zero Engine, as first seen in Mutant: Year Zero.
The game offers two modes of play: Brutal single-session Cinematic play and long-term Campaign play. These are stylistic choices, however, and aren’t reflected in any particular mechanic.
The game utilizes a point-buy system in a semi-class-based or archetype-based format.
The first step in character creation is selecting a career from one of the following:
- Colonial Marine
- Colonial Marshall
- Company Agent
This choice has several important implications.
First, the player distributes 14 points between four attributes — Strength, Agility, Wits, and Empathy — with 2-4 points assigned to each one; however, careers all have a key attribute to which the player can assign a score of 5.
Second, the player distributes 10 points between 12 very broad skills; however, career determines which skills can get up to 3 points assigned. All non-career skills can’t start higher than 1.
And third, career choice determines the Talents (perks) to which the character has access.
It’s a nice, streamlined system. The only drawback I see is the need for groups to avoid doubling up on careers in order to make the most of the available skills. That may not matter so much with a typical group, but it would be pretty problematic for a group of Colonial Marines. (Of course, the Colonial Marines Operations Manual presumably addresses that issue.)
I should mention that androids can be PCs in this game, and they’re quite formidable, gaining +3 in two attributes and maxing out at 8 in those two attributes. There’s a catch, however, which I’ll get to in just a moment.
Alien utilizes a relatively simple d6 dice pool success-counting system. Players add together the relevant skill, its associated attribute, and, occasionally, a bonus from equipment, and roll that number of d6, trying to get at least one six for a success. If degree of success matters, the more sixes, the better.
But it doesn’t stop there. Players can “push” a roll. If a roll fails or doesn’t get a satisfactory number of successes, the player can pick up every die from the first roll that isn’t already a six and roll again. Doing so increases the PC’s numerical stress level by one, however. When a PC has stress, the player adds a number of dice (preferably a different color) equal to the stress level to every task attempt. While this sounds like a good thing, and is, to a degree, if one of these stress die comes up 1, the PC risks going what psychologists refer to as “Batsh*t Crazy.” This is, quite simply, a brilliant way of simulating PCs getting sharpened up by stress while simultaneously growing more unstable.
Equally clever is the way this mechanic relates to android characters. Basically, androids can’t push rolls, don’t gain stress, and don’t risk going nuts. Remember how Bishop stayed cool as a cucumber in Aliens? There you go.
When it’s time to throw down, all combatants receive a playing card numbered 1-10 and act on that turn for the remainder of combat. It’s quick, easy, and simple to track, but it also means that unless a combatant receives multiple cards — which humans do not — there’s nothing there simulating who’s actually quicker on the draw.
On their turn, combatants get two actions: One slow (which normally requires a dice roll) and one fast (which usually doesn’t require a roll) or two fast. Attacks use a standard roll. Weapons have fixed damage scores, but extra sixes on the attack roll can be applied to extra damage, among other stunts. Armor has an armor rating that is the number of dice rolled to test for its effectiveness, with each success reducing the incoming damage by a point. Characters have Health scores equal to their Strength. When that score reaches zero, the character is “Broken” — helpless and forced to roll on a critical injury table. Since humans are going to have Health scores of no more than 5, combat is nasty, brutal, and short — which is, of course, perfectly suited to the setting.
There are a few interesting touches here. For one thing, firing full auto increases the shooter’s stress level. For another, shooters only run out of ammo when they roll a 1 on a stress die. Strangely, because androids don’t get stressed, they also never run out of ammunition. The text claims that’s intentional in order to simulate the controlled nature of androids, but it still strikes me as odd. Finally, in order to cold-bloodedly finish off an opponent who is Broken, the attacker must fail an Empathy roll. That’s rather slick design right there.
The game also includes rules for vehicle and spacecraft combat. The latter is designed to give everyone something to do, but because a battle can end with one shot — often the first one fired — they may not be doing whatever it is for long. It’s definitely a long way from Star Wars dogfights. I’d describe it as closer to space combat in The Expanse, but grittier.
There are, of course, rules for nuking the site from orbit. (It’s the only way to be sure.)
It’s a testament to the quality of this book that if you’ve seen any of the Alien movies, you’ll immediately recognize the look of this full-color rulebook. While thoroughly legible, it looks and feels as dark, ominous, and even vaguely claustrophobic as the source material. Art is uniformly excellent and abundant without being at all intrusive. The only possible flaw I can think of is the fact that only one of the non-Xenomorph alien creatures get an illustration.
The writing proves to be every bit as atmospheric as the art. The book skillfully blends in-character and out-of-character text, and even the rules-based commentary features a darkly cynical flavor that perfectly suits the setting. The book presents the rules themselves clearly and with good examples. No typos or other errors stood out to me, save perhaps for what appears to be an editing issue regarding Abominations — the text mentions them without giving the slightest clue as to what they are.
Like all good reference works, the book features a comprehensive table of contents and a useful index.
This isn’t a flawless game, but its flaws, such as they are, are mostly matters of taste, and no game is going to overcome all of those. Everything about this book screams “Alien,” even if no one can hear it in space. I give this one nine out of ten fedoras.