Swedish game publisher Free League continue to go from strength to strength, with Ennie award winning titles like Tales From The Loop, Symbaroum and Forbidden Lands under their belts, their first licensed product, ALIEN, is something very much worth being excited for. ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game coming later this year is a feat of innovation that will alter the way many of us approach roleplaying games and shared horror storytelling.
Horror in particular is a difficult facet to explore in an RPG environment. For one, many modern RPG’s lend themselves to a light-hearted tone, marching onto our tables with their tongues firmly in their cheeks, goading us to roll some dice and engage in shenanigans.
Horror as a genre requires a shared purpose amongst the players to truly be effective. What’s commonly refereed to as a “Horror Contract” works as a guideline to not only maintain the tone and feel of the game, but also to outline the subjects that the game intends to explore, and whether or not the players are comfortable with those subjects.
Thankfully, sitting down to play ALIEN means that most people should have a very strong idea of the Horror Contract they’re signing up for. The game will contain isolation, panic, betrayal, violence, political horror, body horror and, of course, the ever-looming claustrophobia of the void that comes with all science fiction.
Moreso than other RPG’s, games that focus on Horror need to have a strong mechanic, a constant, to ground the players and remind the players what the game is about.
We’ve seen other horror RPG’s with strong mechanics like Call of Cthulhu’s Insanity system, or the Hunger Dice from Vampire: The Masquerade.
With ALIEN, we have Stress and Panic.
For anyone unfamiliar with the ALIEN mythos, it may not surprise you to learn that, like Cthulhu before it, not many of the characters make it to the end of the story. The creatures hunting you in ALIEN outclass you in almost every way. They are the Perfect Organism, and you are merely prey.
As such, the Stress of your situation peppers your every action. Each dice roll will include a number of Stress dice equal to your Stress level- of course, having more dice mean you’re more likely to succeed (functioning under stress does focus you, after all), however there is also a chance you’ll snap.
The more Stress Dice you roll, the more likely it is you’ll also have to take a Panic Test (denoted by a roll of ‘1’), which in turn can increase your Stress Level and that of your fellow characters- not to mention possibly resulting in your character making extremely irrational and potentially disastrous choices.
This mechanic so seamlessly adds the other fundamental aspect to any ALIEN story: Betrayal. At the end of the day, it’s easy for us to step out of the shoes of our characters and talk plainly with our fellow players about what is the best and most tactical decision to make in order to combat the Big Bad Monster. Panic, however, forces us to think as our character would think. It requires us to potentially make more selfish choices based on the fact that we know how Stressed we are.
In short, it forces us to roleplay– something that can be easily forgotten amongst the many roll-play games that populate the market.
While ALIEN does offer a ‘Campaign Mode’ of play, one which will be familiar to those who have played ongoing games like Dungeons & Dragons, the more intriguing way to play ALIEN is using the ‘Cinematic Play’ mode.
Cinematic Play is a one-shot version of the game, designed to more closely emulate the feel and pacing of the ALIEN films.
Players are not only given pregenerated characters, but also “Agendas” for those characters- little pieces of information that give the player a key idea of what their character wants. And if they succeed in their Agenda, then they’re awarded mechanically as well.
Cinematic Play is broken into three Acts, much like a film. At the start of each Act, each player received a new Agenda. Not only does this help keep the players on track to drive the story forward, it also helps the pacing to allow for the session to be contained within a single night.
Horror stories in particular are excellent when they’re brief, and when they end. If you hold onto something too long, then it can become less scary- you can essentially lose the tension.
The Cinematic Play mode for ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game not only understands this integral aspect of horror storytelling, but also allows for some serious, no-holds-barred roleplaying that you might not see in a Campaign game- you know you’re only going to be playing this character once, so you’ll take more risks, you’ll be more dramatic, you’ll betray, you’ll fight, you’ll run- all great things.
Particularly because, like the ALIEN films themselves, it’s very likely that a session of Cinematic Play will end with only one, maybe two survivors.
ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game also compiles the lore from all the most popular ALIEN films, including some of the expanded lore from the prequel films Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, as well as the bone-chilling 2016 video game Alien: Isolation.
Regardless of how you may feel about those particular instalments in the franchise, what’s great is that the xenomorphs (and variants) presented in those flicks prove to be enemies that the players are less likely to be familiar with, and therefore even more likely to find themselves infected and incubating their very own chestburster– a scene which, I’ll admit, is always extremely fun to play out with a group of players.
Like other Free League RPGs, ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game is of supreme production quality- peppered with breathtaking original art, stellar layout and design, and an easy to learn and evocative dice system that cuts down on time spent worrying about mechanics so you can instead focus on the impending dread of being stalked by an unknown beast.
It’s not really a secret that I’m a bit of a horror fanatic, but despite that I can guarantee you that if you love ALIEN, like Sci-fi, like horror, or just want a game that suitable for one-shot sessions between D&D Campaigns (or as an option when someone cancels on your weekly session!), the ALIEN is well worth checking out.