Tabletop review: Alien RPG – Cinematic Starter Kit (Fria Ligan)

Adam Lowe

Adam Lowe is an award-winning author, editor and publisher from Leeds, now based in Manchester. He runs Dog Horn Publishing and is Director and Writing Coordinator for Young Enigma, a writer development programme for LGBT young people.
Adam Lowe

Contains spoilers for the adventure ‘Chariot of the Gods’.

I was pleased recently to be sent a PDF review copy of the Alien RPG Cinematic Starter Kit for trial with my usual group of tabletop gaming nerds. We’ve recently been playing Fading Suns, and before that Vampire: The Masquerade and Shadowrun. The Alien RPG made for an exciting change of pace – though one that suited our playstyle rather well.

System

The Cinematic Starter Kit is designed to make play as lethal and fast as an Alien movie. Characters are highly likely to die, so you use pre-generated characters, rather than lovingly crafting your own to have them die on you an hour or two later. These are one-shots, as opposed to Campaign Mode, which will (hopefully) allow for a more traditional RPG experience.

The dice resolution system in the Cinematic Starter Kit is harsh. You roll a dicepool, like in Vampire and Shadowrun, but unlike SR, where you’re looking for 5s or 6s on your six-sided dice, in Alien you’re looking for 6s only. Only one 6 is required to succeed, and additional successes are traded in for stunts (e.g., doing the action in half the time or showing off as you do so).

Meanwhile, you accumulate Stress Dice – a measure of your rising adrenaline and your response in the face of all that is alien – which add to your dicepool. These add successes as normal, but any 1s rolled on Stress Dice trigger a Panic Roll, which can range from slight jitteriness to full on berserker mode.

There are benefits to Stress Dice in that, as they start to rapidly pile on, the PCs also increase their dicepools, meaning they succeed more often. They do have to make Panic Rolls more often too, though, so there’s a nice seesaw effect which captures the looming sense of crisis well.

Adventure

The adventure bundled in with the Cinematic Starter Kit, ‘Chariot of the Gods’, is initially more Covenant than Alien. There’s an apparently deserted space ship infested with Prometheus-style Abominations and maybe one or two Neomorphs. There’s a very real risk of getting infected by the spore pods dotted about the place, and the putative inoculation has a risk of contagion too.

The game starts off slow and ominous, with the crew of the interstellar hauler Montero awakening from cryo-sleep, expecting to have arrived at their destination. When they check the monitors, however, they’re nowhere near where they want to be.

A strange S.O.S. from a nearby ship has caused MU-TH-UR to awaken them to investigate. Eerily, the ship, the Cronus, is one which vanished seven decades earlier.

The PCs have to avoid a head-on collision with the ship, which doesn’t show on their scanners, because it’s only running on backup power. Thereafter they must break aboard the drifting ship and explore the apparently dead craft to retrieve any valuable scientific information and, if possible, any survivors.

Once aboard, however, the intrepid haulers awaken the ship’s own, older version of MU-TH-UR, which in turn rouses its own sleeping crew. This crew is parched, hungry and confused. They’re not immediately forthcoming and suspicion and wariness sets in.

In short time, a bloodburster erupts from the Cronus‘ scientist, and the truth of the PCs’ situation is revealed. The mandatory and optional scenes that follow are strong and provide plenty of material. We played for six hours but could easily have played for longer.

Actual play

Now, this may just be the way my players behave, but their first inkling that this was a scientific vessel made them refuse to get out of their suits in case of contamination. They were confirmed in this suspicion when they discovered the black spores in the ship early on.

Quite rightly, they felt there was a quarantine risk, and so quickly hacked into the Cronus‘ antiquated MU-TH-UR to find out what happened. With a surprisingly good roll on this attempt, MU-TH-UR spilled her guts and convinced the PCs never to take their suits off at all, and to find the best way to save themselves.

Perhaps it’s because roleplayers don’t behave like horror movie cannon fodder, or perhaps my players are just overly cautious. The addition of agendas, however, did give the players an incentive to do risky and sometimes even suicidal things.

It was also at this point that I brought forward one of the plot points (a necessity to avoid half of the PCs fleeing), and had MU-TH-UR remote programme the Montero for self-destruct, destroying their last option for escape…

…Except, the captain of the ship, Miller (also an undercover android, codenamed Lucas, at our table), managed to rescue the Montero‘s own smaller cargo ship first. This was perhaps a scenario the authors hadn’t considered, as there was no discussion of what might happen should they do this, so we winged it.

Miller later leapt from the cargo ship onto the Cronus, although he ended up hanging off the rear engine for a while until his pilot, Davis, reeled him in.

Thus began, at least at our table, a series of improbable events. After ship’s technician Rye died while stumbling upon the Neomorph’s nest, his player took over cargo handler Cham, who therefore started with zero Stress Dice (while everyone around him was losing his shit). This gave him some much-needed focus early on, although he soon started developing Stress like everyone else, and eventually flipped.

The result was that he went into a homicidal rage during an attack on a Neomorph, which allowed him to quite literally pound the monster to death with his fists (but only after marine Reid’s arm had been torn off).

This fit Cham’s agenda quite well and was probably instrumental in ensuring the crew’s survival. It wouldn’t have happened without the Stress Dice because the aliens are all much, much more competent in combat than the PCs are.

At this point, with one PC down, I thought it was only fair to go for the two remaining PCs (it not being fair if only one PC died when I promised that nearly all of them would). No matter how much I tried, though, they kept getting out of trouble.

Cham had been left behind with Reid as the countdown on the Cronus‘ own self-destruct ticked closer to death, with corporate lackey Wilson locking all the PCs out of the cargo ship until the very last moment (the only other Weyland-Yutani exec having been killed earlier on), when they were able to convince him that they’d give him all of Cronus‘ data in exchange for saving them.

The end result was that they betrayed him, slinging him out into the vacuum with the samples of black goo, and took off with seconds to spare. The surprise pirate boarding took place, but the captain of said ship was quickly impaled by the last remaining Abomination, who’d snuck aboard the ship in typical fourth-act Alien style.

When the crew finished the Abomination off, they were able to negotiate a detente with the pirates and both ships escaped together – with the intention of possibly teaming up to strike back at Weyland-Yutani in the near future.

Looking forward

This sets us up for an interesting next session, even though this was only supposed to be a one-shot. There was so much packed into the adventure that there were still threads to pick up.

Maybe Reid could turn into an Abomination. But she’s perhaps gone through enough. Maybe her torn-off arm will mutate into something horrific, so we can have the drama without the death. Maybe the pirates will double-cross the PCs. Maybe Lucas will double-cross them all.

It was a high stakes game, and at first my players weren’t sure they’d actually enjoyed it. But once we’d debriefed and slept on it, all of them reported that they’d loved it, and wanted to do it again.

The positives

The game has a great world to draw upon. This is the major selling point. Who hasn’t wanted to explore the Alien universe in an RPG that works (previous RPG adaptations not being exactly popular)?

The Dark Horse comics of the 1990s and onwards show us that there are a lot of stories that can be told in this universe – from unhinged composers who want to use the alien screams in their music to weird meditations on the nature of the universe, where aliens are a universal force for destruction and renewal.

The setting is 2183, just four years after the Hadley’s Hope and Fiorina 161 incidents. That’s a perfect time point to play with, as it allows for things like the revised Aliens: Earth War storyline to take place another decade or so in the future without contradiction. But it also means the aliens are still somewhat unknown and surprising.

The Cinematic Starter Kit keeps the worldbuilding intentionally brief and specific. Mostly, it’s about colonists, marines and truckers, which is exactly what you need to know to play the adventure. There’s no need to go into anything else here, although I am very curious to see how the main rulebook will diverge (or not) from canon and which extended universe products it may or may not incorporate into its version of the world.

Agendas are also a great idea, and reward players for doing typical horror things, as well as encouraging roleplaying. This is a very neat idea and one of our favourite elements of the system.

The rules feel pretty lightweight, yet robust. You don’t need to manage resources – everything from supplies to ammo is abstracted into a supply roll, which means you don’t have to think about it. Some players will hate that, but it worked okay for our table.

The only issue is that we often forgot to roll for things like air and food (maybe the failure of a space suit could be worked into the effect of a critical failure instead, for instance, so that you’re not rolling twice?).

The harsh mechanic is also somewhat balanced by the ability to push your roll (take another Stress Die and roll one more time), but again, I do wonder whether this could have been achieved with one roll instead of requiring two.

Maybe, as an alternative, you could drop down the threshold for success from 6s to 5s, at the cost of one Stress Dice. You’d know if you were going to succeed before rolling, but it minimises the need to roll everything twice.

The system is easy to learn, though, with a small number of Attributes (four) and a small number of Skills (12). It makes the learning curve pretty quick, and if you’re familiar with Shadowrun or the World of Darkness, you’ll grok it straight away.

The negatives

In this system, success is hard. I understand why going up against an alien should nearly always be lethal, but I’m not sure the same rule applies to using a computer terminal or using a skill that a character should conceivably be good at.

I’d consider allowing rolls of 5 or 6 to succeed for general actions, but then that does add to the complexity. It may be that this is one of the differences between Cinematic and Campaign Modes – one is for short, lethal stories; the other is for ongoing stories with the same set of characters. We have to wait for the full rulebook to see.

And despite combat being dangerous, with all kinds of grisly fates in store for PCs, it also took us a really long time to kill some of the critters in the game. The aliens have their own critical injuries table which makes killing unpredictable – the aliens can spring back to life for one last-ditch attack or even recover lost wounds and so require yet another critical injury to finish it off. This is good the first time, but if you roll badly several times in a row, it gets annoying (a simple fix would be to allow a maximum of two rolls on the critical injuries table before the creature dies forever).

Speaking of tables: without a screen, the number of charts was off-putting. Thankfully, a number of helpful gamers have made their own screens for the time being, which should make your play experience easier than mine. (There is a screen with the full game set due to come out later on.)

In our game, we didn’t use Stealth Mode much. It didn’t really seem to add anything to our experience, but others may find it interesting. I suppose it’s trying to capture the feeling of games like Alien: Isolation, but that’s harder to map to a dice and paper system. It might simply be enough to describe an alien tail passing impossibly close to your heroes as they hold their breath while hiding under a table.

Sometimes it did feel like the Stress Dice got in the way, though. It’s not always suitable to avoid rolling dice – and frankly, rolling dice has never seemed like much of a problem when playing a game – so for us, we may try to find a compromise so the levels of Stress don’t get too silly.

Also, in the Cinematic Starter Kit, the sample scenario lacks xenomorphs proper. That’s not the end of the world, and the main book obviously has to include these stats, but it’s worth noting for managing your players’ expectations.

For those who dislike the Ridley Scott prequels, too, this scenario may be a turn-off. Some fans have made their own xenomorphs by extrapolation, which will probably suffice in the wait for the full book.

The verdict

The Alien RPG – at least in its Cinematic Mode – is lethal, electrifying and fun. Some of the rules are a matter of taste – they veer on the side of being abstract rather than simulationist, and in places feel too simplified – but they rarely get in the way.

Though the rules weren’t always a 100% fit for us (but really, what rules set is?), we nevertheless enjoyed dipping our toes into the Alien world with a fast and furious roleplaying system. I have already pre-ordered the Standard Edition Bundle (the cover is better looking than the Limited Edition anyway) and look forward to playing it in Campaign Mode.

More information

For more information, visit alien-rpg.com.

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