REVIEW: Alien RPG by Free League

Last year Free League, a Swedish gaming company, released the official Alien RPG tabletop game based on the hit cinematic universe published by 21st Century Fox. I bought the Player’s Manual and Starter’s Set on the month of release accordingly as the Alien movies encompass some of my favorite films of all time. There was a lot to go over–the full manual being over 500 pages, but I finally got a firm grasp on the game, how it’s supposed to be played, and how it can be fun. 

I was able to get a few of my friends to play while I played as the Game Mother or GM. The game is quite literally and figuratively a sci-fi adaptation of D&D-like gameplay that can be neurotic at times, focusing on creating tension between players by means of dramatics and forcing players to make difficult decisions. While flummoxing the players with horrors of the great unknown and otherworldly mysticism–we found this game to be exceptionally loyal to the series and lore, while also encouraging us to expand on the universe and riff from the movies. At times, what we got was something akin to another glorious day in the ‘corps. After all, these shake-n’-bake colonies have a substantial dollar value to motivate the characters whether they’re a Colonial Marshal for the Colonial Marine Corps, a roughneck working as a space trucker, or a Company Agent for a major conglomerate (ex: Weyland-Yutani) that has a peculiar interest in what goes on at the edges of the galaxy.

How it works:

    Much like its contemporaries (D&D, Pathfinder, Starfinder, Warhammer…), players assume the role of a character they’ve built from the ground up or premade characters can be assigned or chosen. The game can be played in two modes: Cinematic play and Campaign play. Cinematic gameplay will mainly use premade characters to play out scenarios filled with several tropes from the Alien universe to make the crew feel right at home. These scenarios can be finished in 1-3 two-hour sessions and typically have a crew of 3-5 players with one person acting as the GM. Campaign play is more relatable to the long Dungeons & Dragons stories that encourage players to explore a world and even accomplish major goals. A lot of creative liberties are taken in campaign play, but thankfully Free League has provided tons of resources and details about the universe (in the Player’s Manual) to establish what we know is out there, and what may lie in the darkness. This also establishes rules and guidelines to play out any type of scenario you can dream up.
    When comparing Alien RPG to other tabletops, you’ll notice the characters have no levels. Characters are able to get experience points (XP), but the XP is used to buy/strengthen stats rather than accumulating for a “level up” that strengthens several stats. Also, there is no mana obviously. In its place is a different element to mitigate: stress. Players are required to manage their stress, so as to not panic in terrifying situations. Too much stress leads to an unstable character that will be a liability to the rest of the crew. Lastly, another major difference is the usage of only six-sided dice–two sets of ten six-sided dice, or 2*10d6 to those that are hip. The Starter’s Set comes with the unique base dice and stress dice needed to play, so I recommend starting there.

The Good:

    One of my favorite aspects of this game is that it is extremely neurotic and focuses heavily on characters’ personal agendas and the psychological warfare that ensues until conflict boils over, burning through several layers of the ship’s hull. Because of this, the players are forced to actually role play and make real decisions that will affect themselves and others. Too often we are presented with RPG’s that present players with characters and worlds that require no interaction to play the game and achieve an end-goal. 

This begs the question:  Why play an RPG if there’s no need in playing the role of your character? With so much freedom of creativity in games today, why wouldn’t you want to?

    Alien is one of the most neglected franchises because of the many directors the series has gone through; there is very little direction in the official canon. So instead of Ridley Scott bogarting the rights to all of the Alien lore, getting very little done–the Alien canon is now (generally) established and decentralized thanks to this game. Now we have an encyclopedia and atlas to navigate and expand on the lore. Alien is getting its long overdue attention.
    In the age of the COVID pandemic, mask mandates, and long lines for vaccines, we all need something to do in our downtime. I’ve learned over the past year or so that tabletop games are a great catalyst for interacting with friends. Apps like Zoom and Discord are all that’s really needed, along with some character sheets and maps to share. One of our players eventually emulated the sessions to Roll20, a website made specifically for playing tabletop games virtually. Essentially, we found solace in role-playing a sci-fi super-pandemic in the midst of a real-life pandemic.

 The Bad:

    The issue of having a wildly niche audience is all too familiar when it comes to finding tabletop gamers–this game is made ultimately for people who are tabletop gamers and also are Alien fans. There’s not a lot of overlap so finding players can be difficult. Luckily the comradary found playing with fellow fans of the series makes it all worthwhile.
    After a survey with our players, one issue in all of the feedback was the difficulty adapting to a game wherein the gameplay and actions are too open-ended. The players were all familiar with RPG tabletop gameplay but they noted that this game was hard to adjust to. Most said they would have approached many situations differently if they knew they were able to avoid or reveal and deterrence. For instance, doing mobility checks to traverse different routes or move silently would have helped when Jordan’s character got face-hugged because Andrew let his character rifle, very loudly, through a bunch of desks in a dark room. There is a silver lining in this feedback though. Every player we played with really liked the aspect of a game that is so narrative driven, and I agree. It’s a fun yet nerve-wracking trip through the Alien universe.

Final Thoughts:

    The Alien RPG is fun because it offers players seemingly infinite options to overcome any problem. Narrative driven stories are made to cause conflict and stress for both the characters in-game and the players in the real world. The game does have a steep learning curve in the beginning but after a play session or two we were all confident in our roles. Ben was even so confident he made his android character do an impressive jump kick to knock a Neomorph out of the airlock. It was awesome.
    If you’re looking for a perfect rendition of the Alien universe into a tabletop game, this is it. It can be just as fun as D&D in the right setting–perhaps even more fun. I can’t lie to you about your chances of survival but. . . you have my sympathies.