I loved the Alien films growing up. As a kid, my brother and I would play as Colonial Marines—pretending we were driving around in a troop transport like in the film, or getting dropped onto planets to wipe out Alien nests. It was some of my fondest childhood memories, and now something we can relive as adults—albeit with cohesive rules to make everything more exciting.
While not strictly a horror game, Alien: The Roleplaying Game obviously leans towards the horror side—but the setting is much more than slimy aliens in dark corridors (though there is plenty of that.) Fringe worlds, near future, barely scraping by—and then the company sends you a priority message: you have to check out this derelict ship. And then, before you know it, aliens are bursting out of your crewmate’s chest and you have to keep an eye on the air ducts, lest you get pulled into one by a Xenomorph.
The mechanics employed in Alien may be familiar to those who played games like Mutant: Year Zero. If you’ve played games like Mutant: Year Zero, you may already be familiar with this system. Dice rolls are meant to be seldom, with each roll potentially carrying notable consequences. All of this is done by rolling d6s, in a number of different combinations. There are no special dice needed, so though you can get the Alien RPG dice, any normal six-sided die will work. You will also need a deck of cards, or the special cards that are made specifically for the set.
And of course, the whole game is made possible by a moderator who tells the story—you might know them as Dungeon Master, or Gamemaster in other games, but the Alien RPG appropriately calls it the “Game Mother”—one of many fun references throughout Alien: The Roleplaying Game that show the appreciation for the source material that went into the creation of this game.
Alien: The Roleplaying Game manages really capture the feel of an Alien film. From the wonder of finding alien artifacts, to the tension of being hunted by an alien—and there’s plenty of body horror, too. There are two play modes: cinematic or campaign. Cinematic mode is the closest you can get to an Alien film in a tabletop role-playing game. It is exactly would you would expect from an Alien film: tension, followed by fast action and brutal character deaths.
A lot of the feeling of the movies was captured in the rules themselves, something I think is the sign of a great tabletop role-playing game based on a specific franchise. Characters have talents and skills as you would expect, but that’s not the only thing that defines them. Each character will have a signature item, specific gear, and their own personal agenda—something they are striving to accomplish. The character archetypes are great, and again, reflective of Alien: company man, Colonial Marine, Officer, Pilot, Roughneck (blue collared workers), and even “kid” –think Newt from Aliens.
Personal agendas are an integral part of Alien: The Roleplaying Game. Each of these hidden objectives further fleshes out who a character is, and more importantly: what they’re trying to accomplish. In campaign mode, these personal agendas are usually more vague. But the specific, even sometimes party-contradictory agendas that can be used in cinematic mode make for some tense games.
While Alien: The Roleplaying Game is extremely compelling for short sessions in its cinematic mode, the rules allow for longer campaign, too. If you want to get an experience beyond a one-shot, film-type session, you can strike out in campaign mode. The possibilities are endless. You can put together a band of mercenaries, or try to brave the void (and horrors) of space as a group of space truckers. Of course, in campaign mode you may not be running into Xenomorphs at every session, but there are plenty of other enemies to contend with: rebels and corporate dissidents, or even corporate armies making hostile takeovers.
Speaking of Xenomorphs, Alien: The Roleplaying Game has them, and many other creatures that inhabit the world of Alien. While there are plenty of evil humans to contend with in the Alien universe, the whole point is to have the players encounter alien technologies—both wondrous and terrifying—and to run into some of the scariest, deadliest creatures in the galaxy. There is also helpful advice for GMs on how to play as these creatures that lurk in the shadows.
While fighting is undoubtedly an option, stealth is emphasized in Alien: The Roleplaying Game. After all, there may be monsters lurking in the shadows, so you should do all you can to avoid getting their attention. The GM will track enemy movements on a secret map, so inside any air duct or behind any closed door there is potential for a nasty creature to be waiting to eat you—or worse. This makes for tense, fun games of cat and mouse for the players.
If you do find yourself face-to-face with an alien, they are brutal, fast, and deadly. Each monster has a table of signature moves, some of which are instantly deadly to players. That doesn’t mean that every encounter with an alien will end in your death, but you want to make sure you have the equipment and arms necessary. Of course, in a game like Alien something always goes wrong—whether your evac ship crashes or you’re betrayed by a company man trying to make an extra buck—so don’t expect your plan to always work. That’s often where combat comes in.
Combat is swift and lethal, even when not fighting monsters. Even if you’re a hardened marine, you’re still susceptible to panic. Like tabletop role-playing games based on the Lovecraft Mythos, in Alien you don’t just have your physical health to worry about, but your mental health as well. Stress gauges how well your character is coping with events developing around them—and the more actions you take, the more your stress level can increase. Too much stress, and your character might panic, which could potentially mean doing something stupid and mostly likely even dangerous.
If your character dies in Alien: The Roleplaying Game–and it’s very possible they will—then you will be replaced with an NPC to continue on the story. That way, there is shock when characters die, and risky actions have consequences, but players don’t have to sit out the rest of a module as a result.
If you saw the Sulaco in Aliens and dreamt of space battles taking place in the Alien universe, Alien: The Roleplaying Game has you covered. Not only is there space combat, but it is just as fast and brutal as on-foot combat. In fact, if there was an Expanse tabletop role-playing game, I feel like it would have similar space combat rules: those who are seen first are often at a disadvantage. Railguns tear through hulls, and you have to control your EM signatures and emissions to come out on top.
Alien: The Roleplaying Game can be pretty roleplay heavy, but in a way that is easy for those who aren’t super keen on heavy roleplay. If your character’s agenda dictates a certain move, or if there is a status affecting your character, there is usually a rule that dictates how your character should react. That isn’t to say you don’t have control over your character, but if your character panics, you will have to panic in the specific way the table specifies.
I just want to take a moment and talk about how much I love the tables that are included in the rulebook. Everything from ship damage, pay charts, to my favorite: panic and critical damage tables. Oh boy, there is some fun stuff there with great moments for roleplaying.
There is player versus player combat (PvP) in Alien: The Roleplaying Game, but for those who don’t enjoy such activities, even that is dictated by specific rules. If your character must initiate (or choses to initiate) PvP combat, the player character who initiated it, if he/she survives, becomes an NPC controlled by the GM, and the player is given an NPC replacement.
The rulebook itself is gorgeously illustrated. The flavor art really puts you into the world of Alien, and gets the creative juices flowing for anyone wanting to start a game for themselves. The rules are succinct, and well written. There is very little fluff, and very little repetition. Everything is laid out in a supremely logical, and extremely intelligent way. I wish more TTRPGs would follow suit. My only complaint is the lack of creature pictures for flavor and inspiration. There are a lot of pictures of the OG Xenomorph, but few of neomorphs and creatures introduced in more recent films.
Chariot of the Gods
We played through the Chariot of the Gods scenario (sold separately.) And while it’s a GREAT way to start out in Alien: The Roleplaying Game, it’s also a bit disappointing for various reasons. If you’re a player interested in this scenario, you may want to look away, but I really only have one spoiler-filled gripe: the lack of Xenomorphs.
Chariot of the Gods is fast-paced, and has the exact feel of an Alien film. Its pacing is slow at first, but the tension builds suitably, and it isn’t long before characters start to suffer grisly fates.
We loved our playthrough of Chariot of the Gods, and may use it as a launching pad for a bigger Alien campaign—for the survivors, that is.
In space, no one can hear you scream, but your friends sitting around you at the table can. I love Alien: The Roleplaying Game. It manages to deftly capture the feel of Alien with a system that is robust enough to have the many, varied adventures that are possible in this setting. Alien will probably be our go-to for one-shots in-between our main campaign (that uses another system.) It definitely will stay in our rotation.
If you like the video game, tabletop, or other technology content that Third Coast Review has to offer, consider donating to our Patreon. We are the only publication in Chicago that regularly reviews video games, and we cover lots of local Chicago-based events and more. If you want to contribute to our coverage of Chicago’s video game scene (and more) please consider becoming a patron. Your support enables us to continue to provide this type of content and more. Patreon.com/3CR