I have wanted to look at the Alien RPG since the game first came out, and I’ve owned the core rulebook in PDF from the time it was available, but time kept getting away from me. Once Free League sent Gnome Stew a review copy of the Colonial Marines Operations Manual, that was the push I needed to do a deeper dive into the game and both products.
It’s probably fitting that the book that pushed me over the edge into doing a more formal review is the Colonial Marines Operations Manual, since the first movie in the franchise I watched was Aliens. Over the course of reading these books, however, I was inspired to watch the whole franchise as referenced in the books’ timeline, which includes Prometheus, Alien Covenant, Alien, Aliens, and Alien 3. It gave me an excuse to watch the special editions of the last three movies.
As you might be able to tell from that last paragraph, this game assumes all the movies in the franchise have taken place, except for Alien Resurrection. This is less a statement of intent or quality, and more about picking a time that is still detailed but is open-ended. Events of the RPG start up not long after the events of Alien 3, with the general population of the galaxy unaware of xenomorphs, and without any confirmation of the theories proposed in Prometheus being confirmed.
What’s the Story, MU/TH/UR?
Alien: The Roleplaying Game is 400 pages in length, with the Colonial Marines Operations Manual coming in at 360 pages in length. The page length is less daunting than it may seem, because of the formatting of these books.
Individual topics on each page are formatted in what would be a sidebar in other books, in two-column format. That means that compared to other forms of formatting, there might only be about two-thirds the amount of text per page as there would be with more standard formatting.
Some longer passages appear as letters on a black field, as do tables and lists that appear in the books. It’s almost the reverse of what you might expect from the standard formatting of other books. These open spaces allow you to see the space field background of the pages, as well as the underlying art on many of the pages. If you extensively use PDF text to speech functions, these boxes can wreak havoc on the order in which they are read.
The artwork is moody and grim, as befits the setting, and gives you a closer look at some of the ships, equipment, and xenomorphs that you may not have seen as clearly without pausing one of the movies.
Alien: The Roleplaying Game
The core rulebook is divided into the following chapters:
- Space is Hell (Background and Timeline)
- Your Character
- Combat & Panic
- A Hard Life Amongst the Stars (Details about distinct types of campaigns)
- Your Job as Game Mother
- Governments & Corporations
- Systems & Planets
- Alien Species
- Campaign Play
- Hope’s Last Day (A cinematic scenario that leads into the events of Aliens)
There is more to the backstory of the Alien universe than you may be aware of from the events of the movies, although none of the added details are at odds with what we see. I encountered many of these elements for the first time when reading the alternate version of Alien 3 based on the script that William Gibson wrote.
Space is divided between the Three World Empire (primarily the UK and Japan), The United Americas (North, Central, and South America), The Union of Progressive Peoples (primarily Russia and Vietnam), and the Independent Core System Colonies (many of which are systems owned and governed by various corporations). If this sounds like space as envisioned by people in a movie franchise from the late 70s and 80s, you aren’t wrong.
Alien uses two modes of play, Cinematic and Campaign. In Cinematic mode, you play through what is effectively a “movie” in the setting. In campaign play, you spend more time in the setting itself, working up to bigger, and potentially more devastating, discoveries. While Cinematic Play is firmly focused on science fiction survival horror, Campaign Play is more of a broader genre, a grittier form of science fiction that you might recognize from media like The Expanse, or even the Netflix reboot of Lost in Space. Campaign play is kind of like taking the early acts of Prometheus or Alien Covenant and stretching them into a longer narrative.
Beyond the expected number of sessions, one big difference between Cinematic Play and Campaign Play is that when characters meet their goals in Cinematic Play, they gain a resource that lets them accomplish tasks at key points in time, while in Campaign Play, goals are a trigger for advancement. Cinematic Play will often involve using pre-generated characters, and their character goals may put them at odds with other players in the scenario, while character goals in Campaign Play aren’t necessarily pointed at other party members to create friction, but are framed from the player’s perspective, modeling what they want to accomplish in life.
Characters have attributes, skills, talents, and health. Attributes + skills determine the dice pool that is rolled to determine success, while talents are minor rules modules that tweak existing rules in some way, not unlike feats/talents/stunts in other RPGs. The dice pool is a d6 pool, and for every 6, the character gains a success. If this system sounds familiar, it’s the same base resolution as other Free League games like Tales from the Loop.
Where Alien pushes into fresh territory is stress. You can push a roll, causing you to gain stress. Whenever you gain stress, you roll your stress total in dice of a distinct color. Dice that come up as a “6” still generate successes, meaning you are more competent when you are stressed out, but dice that come up as a “1” indicate that you need to roll on the panic table, and bad things can happen when you panic.
The core book contains a set of archetypes that provide a base for character creation, and those archetypes include:
- Colonial Marine
- Colonial Marshal
- Company Agent
Each of these character types has a list of talents unique to that archetype.
You don’t die from dropping to zero health, but you do roll on the critical table, and if you roll poorly, your time in the Alien universe has been cut short. In addition to rolling on the table at 0 health, some creatures have attacks that trigger specific criticals when used.
Creatures, especially xenomorphs, tend to break the rules. They have more actions based on the action economy, they roll to see which of their signature abilities they use, and they can inflict specific criticals outside of the normal range.
Campaign play is divided into the following categories:
- Space Truckers (think Alien)
- Colonial Marines (think Aliens)
- Frontier Colonists (think Alien Covenant or Alien 3)
To support campaign play, there are random charts for creating jobs that are centered around each of these concepts. There is also some nuance between these campaign frameworks. For example, as Space Truckers, you may work for a specific corporation, or be independent contractors, and in a Colonial Marines campaign, instead of being actual marines, you may be a private security firm/mercenary company.
Colonial Marines Operations Manual
The core rulebook mentions that the product line will release support material for the three unique styles of campaign play, and this is the first example as of the time of this article. This book is divided into the following chapters:
- Welcome to the Corps
- Making Marines
- The Marine Campaign
- Systems & Bases
- Black Projects
- The Frontier War
The core rulebook has a general timeline explaining when different nations formed and expanded, corporate events, and the general placement of the various movies in the franchise. This timeline gets much more detailed, looking at different conflicts and in what part of the galaxy those conflicts took place.
There is an extensive look not only at the Colonial Marines and their organization, but also other military organizations present in the setting. The gear section extensively details vehicles and weapons used by different factions. Some of these may look familiar from Aliens, but there are a lot more vehicles and weapons on display.
Because the core rulebook is providing broad rules, the archetypes used to start creating characters are similarly broad. This book provides Military Occupational Specialties, which allow for a more specific baseline for distinct types of Colonial Marines. These include:
- AFV Marine
- Automatic Rifleman
- Assault Marine
- Comtech Marine
- CBRN Marine
- Dropship Crew Chief
- Dedicated Marksman
- Hospital Corpsman
- Forward Observer
I know in some ways this setting exists as an extrapolation of a setting with an 80s baseline but given the number of women we see serving in military positions, it might have been nice to get updated terminology.
In addition to presenting military conflict in the galaxy with other factions, this provides a set of black-ops projects being developed by the military in conjunction with corporate interests. You can find all kinds of things like cyborgs, chemically and genetically produced super-soldiers, horrible biological weapons created from the Engineer’s goo, and even specially bred xenomorph experiments, like xenomorphs whose genes are modified to have a short lifespan. Most of it works, some of the time. When it doesn’t, that’s just a new mission for Colonial Marines to deal with.
Various worlds have dangerous flora and fauna that aren’t just xenomorphs, which can be just as traumatizing, if not as well suited for experimental biological weapons. There are stats for blood-drinking vines and subterranean apes that hunt by echolocation, in addition to other native lifeforms.
I like how this product fleshes out what could have been a throwaway line from Aliens. The Arcturians are gender fluid Aliens that are almost indistinguishable from human beings, and the history of their world hints that they were also modified by the Engineers, providing a reason for why they are so like homo sapiens. Their world also houses some lost Engineer artifacts.
There are more sample missions to add depth to the jobs presented in the core rulebook. These are also important reference points for the campaign section of the book.
The campaign section of the book presents the overall narrative in an interesting manner. It assumes that you will have your Colonial Marines do standard jobs, intermixed with the specific missions that are part of the advancing narrative. The background information stringing all these events together is known as the Metapuzzle, and after performing missions related to the campaign narrative, characters can gain epiphanies. The epiphanies can be gained in any order that makes sense, based on how the characters resolve the mission.
Some missions are a list of tasks and some statistics for opponents, while others involve more intricate maps with multiple multi-stage objectives. As the adventure progresses, the player characters will stumble across a conspiracy to use the current border wars as an excuse to test various black ops weapons, and may end up opposing rogue elements that are operating outside the chain of command.
I have to admit, when I first heard of an Alien RPG, I thought it was going to be a much more limited experience. Explore the area, get ambushed by the Alien, end the scenario. I enjoy the extra detail that Free League has mined to flesh out the setting. I also think bringing in the wider wonders and mysteries represented by the Engineers in Prometheus and Alien Covenant opens a lot of possibilities for campaigns.
I love how the stress mechanic works. I like the idea that it is a double edged sword that can help but can also go wrong. I like that most of the gear is straightforward, providing bonus dice or a specific boon in a limited situation.
I think both the core rulebook and the Colonial Marines Operations Manual do a good job of presenting this, but I think the IP itself almost works against explaining campaign mode. It’s important to communicate that the broad genre being emulated is gritty science fiction, which sometimes turns into survival, military, or survival horror. Speaking to the books themselves, I like that the core book presents principles and themes to follow when running the game.
I appreciate that the books spend time illustrating what jobs look like in the setting to facilitate the concept of campaign play. I also appreciate that one of the big differences between campaign play and cinematic play is whether you gain resources to advance your character over time or gain a resource to help you make a thing happen in the moment.
While it’s a little outside of the scope of what I wanted to do here, I also looked at the material in the starter set, as a further example of a cinematic scenario, and I like the idea of game elements captured on cards. It makes it easier to hand out found gear, as well as to assign the agenda cards to different characters.
Speaking of agendas, I’m going to put this at the end, because it transitions into my next section. I like the idea of characters in a cinematic scenario having secret agendas that might conflict with the party. It makes perfect sense from the standpoint of the movies. That said, I think a little more information about safety, both in content warnings and in active use at the table, would be welcome.
Future Wishes I enjoy the extra detail that Free League has mined to flesh out the setting.
I’m going to start with safety. The core book explains the importance of session zero, and I like that, but it focuses more on getting everyone on the same page and agreeing on a campaign type than it is about establishing lines and veils. The Alien franchise has a lot of elements that could be a problem at the table, from character betrayals to body horror, and at least some discussion of that is important. I also think any game benefits from active safety tools at the table, and games that delve into horror themes even more so. With all the other widgets that the starter set contains, adding in some safety tools would be nice as well.
I am interested to see what the Space Truckers and Colonists books look like, and what kind of ongoing campaign they present. I also think you could make an argument that a purely exploratory mode of play also makes sense, once you start including Prometheus as a source for the campaign.
I like what I see here, and I’m very interested to see what the future holds. If we’re lucky, nobody gets killed off-screen. These products have demonstrated that you can make a campaign out of the source material, and they provide a solid amount of support for those campaigns.
What do you think about licensed games? Would you rather have a game that you can use for a particular licensed property, without the stamp of official approval? What do you want a licensed game to give you that a game without a license cannot? We want to hear from you in the comments below!