27 April 2020
The Terror of the Deep (Space)
There are plenty of horror games on the market, but few manage to tap into the unsettling, bone-gnawing terror that Alien: The Roleplaying Game can conjure up with just a few well-chosen descriptions and careless dice rolls.
From an initial movie about a bunch of space-truckers and their run-in with a single monster through to the expanded timeline of Prometheus, the Alien universe has always revolved around fear of the unknown; the fear, appropriately enough, of the alien. This isn’t the easiest thing to capture at the tabletop, but with a few clever decisions and a stark focus on cranking up the tension the Alien RPG does everything it can to summon up feelings of dread, whether you’re in a darkened kitchen or a crowded convention hall.
This is achieved with a core ruleset based on the same, simple system used by several other games developed by Free League, including Tales from the Loop and Forbidden Lands. Skills and stats add dice to a pool, and when you want to try something risky you throw them all and try to get sixes. If you get at least one you succeed, whether that means sneaking past a handful of egg-sacs without rupturing them or clobbering a merc over the head with a wrench.
The biggest twist that Alien adds to the system is one that ties the rules neatly into the idea of rising, creeping horror. As characters press themselves or watch their friends be torn apart by monsters, hey accumulate an extra pool of stress dice. These dice can generate successes just like their skills and stats – adrenaline pushing them to new heights – but if they roll poorly the terror can overwhelm their character, causing them to freeze, empty their entire magazine or run into the open.
It’s a neat little addition to the rules that does a wonderful job of raising the tension, and not just in-game either. Passing checks with just your basic dice pool can be tough, so you’re encouraged to push for re-rolls and stress dice right from the start of the adventure, but in the back of everyone’s mind lingers the knowledge of what that stress can cause when the real dangers appear.
is isn’t the only twist to Alien, however. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the game is that it’s actually two games in a single book. Kind of.
One of these is a fairly conventional sci-fi RPG designed for campaigns that might run for weeks or months at a time. The other – known as ‘cinematic mode’ – is specially built for one-off scenarios. You aren’t really expected to ever run a second game using the same characters, because most of them are probably going to be dead.
The rules don’t really change between the two, but while campaign mode is where the meat of the details and character options lie, cinematic mode is where strengths of Alien shine their brightest. It’s here that the terror is at its most accessible, the rules at the slickest and the tone at its darkest.
Some of this can be attributed to the punishing, lethal nature of the pre-written cinematic scenarios, but a lot of the sleek efficiency comes from the careful decision of which rules and ideas to cut out. There’s no character creation, no umm-ing and ahh-ing over weapon loadouts and no need to fiddle about with any systems that don’t relate directly to the situation at hand. You just turn up, roll your dice and pray that you survive the night.
Of course, this ease of play is balanced out by the sky-high stakes when a campaign game eventually stumbles into a truly deadly threat, but the crew probably won’t be facing these every week. For every tense showdown with monstrous aliens, you can probably expect a couple run-ins with pushy Colonial Marines or some corporate drones, and while these can still be fun they aren’t exactly the reason why most of us pick up an Alien game.
When you’re in one-shot cinematic mode, Alien is an incredible game. If you have just one night to play and are after some seriously scary roleplaying, it’s one of the best choices out there. Campaign mode has the potential to eclipse even this, but if you go down this road you’ll need to accept that between the peaks of an excellent horror game lie a few sessions of merely okay sci-fi adventure.
RICHARD JANSEN- PARKES
PLAY IT? YES
An incredible horror experience that absolutely excels at one-shot scenarios.
This review originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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