I read a lot of RPGs and there was enough interest expressed on the Discord that I'm going to write this review. If enough people seem interested I'll probably do more (focusing on core rulebooks of different systems and not adventures or supplements within any one system). We'll just start with this and see how it goes.
Alien is an officially licensed RPG that came out in 2019. It is published by Free League, a Swedish game publishing company that also did the Tales of the Loop game (which I haven't read but won a lot of ENNIE awards).
The pdf is 400 pages and split up into 13 chapters. The chapters are:
1) Space is Hell
2) Your Character
5) Combat & Panic
7) A Hard Life Amongst the Stars
8) Your Job as Game Mother
9) Governments & Corporations
10) Systems & Planets
11) Alien Species
12) Campaign Play
13) Hope's Last Day
Yes, the GM is called Game Mother. This means that the players can ask mother what the situation is. The book is full of little things like that which please me and give me the feeling that the game was designed by people who care about the source material.
At 400 pages you'd expect the book to be packed with a heavy rules system and things to read and remember. The 3.5 PHB pdf is 325 pages after all. However, this isn't the case and that is mostly due to layout.
The book is full of art, maps, in-universe language to help you get a feel for the Alien universe (it reminds me of the Shadowrun books where you get quotes from deckers), pages where quotes from the movies are centerpiece of the page (every page of a new chapter just has the chapter name and a movie quote as an example), and a lot of "wasted space" around the rules text.
Here is an example:
If nothing else, the character sheet is a single side of one page. Don't be intimidated by the book length if the character sheet can be summarized by a single page.
I'm mainly harping on the length like this because I mentioned the book length to a friend of mine and they immediately decided that meant the game was too complicated to deal with. It really isn't.
With that overview out of the way, moving on to content.Chapter 1 - Space is Hell
This is mostly what you'd expect from the intro chapter of a roleplaying game, but it sure as hell isn't laid out like almost every other RPG book I've read. I had to get down to page 23 for the "What is a role-playing game?" section as an example and that section is a whole two paragraphs. The people assume that you have a basic idea of what you're getting into which is a good thing in my opinion.
First things first, the chapter is called Space is Hell. The first page of the chapter tells you that "space is vast, dark, and not your friend". This is a horror RPG, and it is very clear that at some point in time one or more players are probably going to die. You shouldn't be surprised by this, most people die in Alien movies, but it is very good that they said this up front. This game definitely is not for everyone.
Second things second, xenomorphs are not the only thing that you might face in Alien, don't expect space marines vs alien queens every game, or even every campaign. Horror can be horror without needing to throw creepy crawlies around everywhere.
After that, there's a basic overview of what the world of Alien looks like. Players will be in the frontiers of space. We get pages about what that is like, about the nation-states that rule territories of the frontier, and that non-government entities are also worth mentioning.
Then we get into some more specific information. The game takes place about three years after Aliens 3 (Alien Resurrection was hundreds of years after that movie so it is being ignored. I don't like that movie so I'm happy ignoring it). There is a convenient timeline which includes the public knowledge from every Alien franchise movie that takes place up to the game's "current" year. A book called "Space Beast" has been written about the events of Aliens 3 from the perspective of one of the prisoners and it has been made public, albeit illegally because the book was banned instantly. Not everyone believes what it says, and those that do have different interpretations.
Then there's some general game information about what careers people have in the frontier (aka a basic class overview before we get to the classes section), how to roleplay the Alien system (or any other system really), "game modes" (one-offs or campaigns, one off's are called Cinematic Play because it's like the movies and most players will probably die), and other basic information.
The main thing that stands out is that Alien is a d6 dice pool system. Sometimes you will roll a d3, and sometimes you will roll a d66 (like d100 but 2d6's instead of 2d10's). There are two "types" of dice. Base dice succeed on a 6 (this just means that a 6 is a success and everything else is a failure). If you ever roll Stress dice, those trigger panic on a 1. You can buy specialty Alien dice with symbols on the faces, or just color code which type of die is which when you roll.Chapter 2 - Your Character
Before anything else, I want to make it clear that you are not allowed to play as a Xenomorph. It isn't ever going to happen. You're a human or an android, and androids aren't all bonuses with no negatives. You should also clear it with the GM before you play one.
Character creation is pretty simple. First, pick a Career (class). Second, spend points on Attributes (they are Strength, Agility, Wits, and Empathy. Wits includes sanity). Third, spend points no Skills. Fourth, pick Talents. Then extra stuff like gear and name and everything else. The everything else is different than many games but I'll get into that later. After every session you gain at least 1 experience point, you then spend experience point on more skills or talents in 5 xp increments.
The classes are: Colonial Marine, Colonial Marshal, Company Agent, Kid, Medic, Officer, Pilot, Roughneck, and Scientist. Kid is just what it sounds like, we have kids in the movies so you can be a kid in the game. I know people that would have an issue with playing a game where kids get killed so just talk with your group. Roughneck is just a generic blue-collar worker, it has nothing to do with military slang. Every class gets a "key attribute".
Okay, you picked a career. Time for Attributes. Player attributes range from 2-4 and your key attribute can be raised to 5. Everything starts at 2, you get points to divvy up as you please with each increase costing 1 point. Your score is how many dice you get to roll.
Next, skills. There are 12 skills, ranks are from 0-5 but you can only spend 3 points on skills listed in your career (like Class Skills) and 1 point on other skills (like cross-class skills). Higher ranks would happen from spending xp on skill points. As you can see from the sheet, skills have associated stats. Your dice pool for skills add your skill level and attribute score together, even at 0 ranks.
Then you get a talent from the ones listed for your career. Talents are kind of like feats.
Now we're at everything else. Starting stress is 0. Health is equal to your Strength score plus any adjustments from talents. For name and appearance each career has some starting suggestions if you're not sure what to choose.
Your Personal Agenda (see the character sheet) is either chosen for you if your character is pre-made or you make it otherwise. Taking actions to further your agenda gives you bonuses. For those reading closely, this is the first hint that Alien is a cooperative storytelling game (but I like it anyway).
Your buddy and rival are selected from among the other players. This is used for the GM to create "interesting situations". AKA if I make your buddy the one that's in trouble then I know you're more likely to go off on your own to help just like people do in the Alien movies. These can change over the course of a game but not mid-session.
PvP is explicitly called out. The GM can decide that PvP has escalated beyond the point of no return (say if you shoot another player). When that happens, whichever one is the one that "turned traitor" becomes an NPC if still alive and the player gets a new PC. Basically, there are rules in place to stop everyone from just killing everyone else without explicitly preventing it because it is possible that you have a damn good reason to do so.
Lastly, gear. Career determines starting gear plus starting cash. In addition, you might have noticed the Signature Item section on the sheet. This is a sentimental item with no actual benefit. A picture of your family can be a signature item, an assault rifle cannot.
Encumbrance is also a thing. Strength determines how many regular sized items you can have. Heavy items count as two regular ones, light items count as 1/2, and tiny items (like your signature item) don't count at all. You want to know what else does count? Food and Water! Nothing says survival horror like the possibility of being trapped on a spaceship and starving to death because you're too afraid to go to the canteen.Chapter 3 - Skills
There are twelve skills, three per attribute:
- Heavy Machinery (Use/repair/jury-rig/break/etc heavy machinery)
- Stamina (Any physical stamina use, such as surviving a disease or the cold vacuum of space)
- Close Combat (Melee attacks)
- Mobility (Dodge/climb/sneak/jump/etc)
- Ranged Combat (Ranged attacks)
- Piloting (Piloting both spacecraft and ground vehicles0
- Observation (Seeing things and noticing details about those things)
- Comtech (Computer/communications technology use)
- Survival (Surviving hostile environments)
- Command (Commanding other people to do things including to stop panicking)
- Manipulation (Lies/threats/etc)
- Medical Aid (Saving lives and restoring health)
When using a skill, first describe what you do to use the skill. Then, add your skill level to your attribute and roll that many dice (plus any possible stress dice). If you roll at least one 6, you succeed. Otherwise you fail. More 6's equal a better success (for each additional 6 you choose a stunt listed from the skill and apply it). These include things from "you show off" to "inflict one more point of damage" depending on the skill and the situation. Players are encouraged to describe their success or failure with the help of the GM.
Opposed rolls still exist, whoever gets the most successes wins the opposed roll.
If you fail your skill check is that the end of it? NO! You can "push" the roll. First, increase your stress level by 1 point. Second, grab all the dice that you roll and an additional number of stress dice equal to your now current stress level (plus any other modifiers like from gear or help from other people). Third, roll them bones and hope you don't roll a 1 on any stress dice! You can only push a roll once unless you have a talent that says otherwise. Yes, stress helps you succeed on checks but the more stressed you are the more likely you are to panic. Panicking can auto-fail your skill check and if you're firing a weapon and you roll a 1 on stress dice you also empty your magazine in a freakout episode in addition to any panicking. More on panicking later (in the appropriate chapter).
Because of this, there's a sidebar about how dice rolling is only for situations where it is needed. No searching the hallway every 5 feet for two hours because your Gygaxian GM loves traps in this game!
Group rolls are done differently than you would normally expect. Only the person best at the task rolls and then everyone succeeds or fails together. Obviously combat rolls aren't rolled as a group.
On a last note, if you have any story points from good agenda roleplaying then you can spend one to automatically get a 6, in addition to any other 6 you actually rolled (including rolling zero 6's). Story points max out at three so you can't save them up forever until you fight an Alien Queen and spend ten of them to one-shot her.Chapter 4 - Talents
Talents are like feats in D&D. Career talents can only be learned by characters with a specific career, general talents can be learned by everyone Starting characters get one career talent. Each career has 3 career talents. They help specialize your character. Is your medic good at relieving stress, good at empathy, or good at performing medical aid when someone is about to die from a critical injury?Chapter 5 - Combat & Panic
This chapters contents are pretty self-explanatory. How do maps work? How to play if you don't have a map. How do lines of sight and zones work (a general term for areas, on a spaceship a room or hallway is generally a zone regardless of size)? Time is rounds (seconds), turns (minutes), and shifts (hours) and again there's some wiggle room because this is a cooperative storytelling game and not Traveller 5 with pages of rules on how listening works.
Stealth gets a section which includes rules on motion trackers. So do ambushes and sneak attacks.
Initiative is done using cards (which reminds me of Savage Worlds). You can use their specialty cards or just A-9 of a single suit. Lowest number goes first. You get two actions on your turn, a slow action and a fast action or two fast actions. Attacking is a slow action, moving is a fast action. Movement is based on how many zones you can move through.
We've got rules on close combat (which includes rules on blocking, grappling, shoving, and retreating without getting hit), and rules on ranged combat including range modifiers, cover, ammo, and shooting full-auto). You don't track bullets, you track full reloads of your weapon (you only run out of bullets due to stress, just like the movies!). You can also take the Overwatch action which is basically readying an action to shoot someone if you see them.
On to damage, the thing players worry about the most. As I mentioned, Health = Strength (plus modifiers from talents). Armor gives you a dice pool to try and reduce damage (as a free action). You heal one point of damage every turn (5-10 minutes) of rest. If you drop to 0 health you roll for a critical injury, and if you are still alive you can crawl and mumble and not do anything that requires a dice roll. Every time you're hit you roll for another critical injury but can't go below 0 hp (dead isn't below 0).
The critical injury roll is a d66 and has an accompanying table. 63-66 are auto-death, and there are a lot of "you'll die soon if someone doesn't help you" rolls such as severed limbs and cut arteries and punctured organs. On 11-12 nothing bad happens at all though, so there's that.
Oh, you can also suffer from permanent mental trauma. Fun times.
Here's a good excerpt from a sidebar to give you an idea of why things are so brutal.
The death of a PC can be traumatic, but try not to see it as a failure. Instead, consider it a dramatic peak in your story - a moment to remember, a fallen comrade to mourn - and then get back into the action as soon as possible. In Cinematic scenarios like the one included in this Starter Kit, the GM will generally have another character or NPC ready for you to play.
Other bad things that might happen to you include Stress & Panic. There are 9 ways to gain stress including pushing skill rolls, taking damage, firing full-auto, and when Scientists on your team don't know what the fuck is going on because they failed to use a talent properly. That last one is one of those little things that just make me happy to see because if fits in so perfectly.
I've talked about rolling 1's on stress dice to make a panic roll. There are 5 other ways to have to roll a panic roll. When making a panic roll, roll a d6, add your stress, and consult a table. A low result is good, a high result is bad. The higher the roll, the worse the result until we get to 15+ and you go completely catatonic. Just as resting can restore health, it can also remove stress. Unless you're starving or freezing to death or something else equally bad. Your signature item can be used to remove a point of stress but only at specific intervals (once per session during a campaign). Very high panic rolls are where permanent mental trauma has a chance to pop up.
Other things to worry about: Starvation, Dehydration, Exhaustion, the vacuum of space, Explosive Decompression, Freezing, Falling, Explosions, Fire, Disease, Radiation, Drowning, Suffocation, Synthetic individuals (aka androids), and Xenomorphs.
Vehicle combat also has some rules but it is only a couple of pages, it works basically the same as regular combat.Chapter 6 - Gear
Weapons can grant a bonus to your attacks when using the weapon and deal a specific amount of damage (damage is not rolled). There are also entries for range, weight (how many normal item slots it take up for encumbrance) , cost, and other comments (like is the ammo armor piercing or does the weapon have a power supply that might run out of energy).
Unarmed attacks are terrible, always have a knife or something as a backup.
As I mentioned, armor gives you a pool of armor dice that you roll to try and negate damage. Some armor also has an air supply or other benefits (such as a built-in comm unit). For $50,000 you can drive a power loader like Ripley used. +3 to Heavy Machinery and Close Combat!
There's also other gear including ship AI, data storage (10 zettabytes of data on a disc for $30 is pretty future proof sounding to me), and other random stuff that you might have. Vehicle stats are also in this chapter, as are their weapons.Chapter 7 - A Hard Life Amongst the Stars
This is the worldbuilding chapter but it has some crunch in it so shouldn't be ignored just because you've watched all of the Alien movies hundreds of time. Travel between the stars and hyper-sleep (including possible repercussions of) are here. Life in space, on planets, on spacestations, etc is here. Information on living expenses. Different currencies. Salaries (assassins and CEOs make big bucks). Communication, including communication difficulties. All kinds of other world building stuff. If you're going to write a campaign, this is the chapter you want to read.
And then, for some reason, hardcore spaceship rules! Not in the gear section with the vehicles, oh no. Spaceships are special babies and go in the section with stars in the title because Space! Spaceships are so ridiculously expensive that you should just assume you don't get one unless the GM says otherwise (or the adventure says otherwise).
Space combat is here too. It is different from Vehicle Combat. Why is all the spaceship stuff shoved in a corner away from the vehicle rules which are in logical places? I don't know, and it is the only serious formatting issue that I have with this book.
Spaceship combat is complicated. It is 4 phases, has its own special map, and is fast and brutal. Spaceships have their own critical injury tables, which include REACTOR DETONATION, as well as their own panic rolls. Space piracy is possible but combat can be over in two full turns with one or both ships exploding so pirate at your own risk.