Alien RPG (Game & Adventure Review)


In the wake of 1977’s box office smash Star Wars, movie studios attempted to cash in on the popularity of science fiction by releasing movies like The Black Hole (1979), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), and even B-Movie king Roger Corman got in on the action with 1980s Battle Beyond the Stars. Alien was released in 1979 to mixed reviews.

“A haunted house film” set in outer space is how film critic Gene Siskel described Alien. The plot of the film is kicked off when the crew of the Nostromo, a tug hauling ore back to Earth, receives what appears to be a distress signal of unknown alien origin and are obligated by company policy to investigate or forfeit their pay. When the crew unwittingly brings aboard an alien, they are picked off one-by-one as they try desperately to figure out how to kill it.

Despite receiving mixed reviews at the time, today Alien is often cited as one of the best science fiction movies of all times. Swiss artist H.R. Giger designed the titular alien, an eyeless bio-mechanical phallic thing, most of the crew were played by actors in their 40s which lends a certain gravitas to the cast, and it was well acted with characters behaving like average working men and women who just want to finish the job and get their paycheck. The combination of a strange unique alien and good characterization made Alien the classic it is today.

Seven years later, the sequel Aliens was released in 1986 and in many ways is very different from the original movie. In Aliens, all communication with the colony on LV-426, the moon the Nostromo landed on in the first movie, has been lost. The Colonial Marines are sent to investigate and instead of running into a solitary alien picking off colonist one-by-one they discover a whole swarm of aliens. Aliens is less of a horror movie and more of an 80s action movie but it works rather well and many fans consider it superior to the original.

When designing a game based on the Alien franchise, how do you create something that emulates Alien with it’s haunted house horror vibe but also works for the 1980s action movie aesthetics of Aliens? (To say nothing of emulating the various sequels and prequels.) Free League Publishing does a great job of this with 2019’s Alien: The Role Playing Game.

This review will be broken down in two parts. The first part will consist of a standard review of the Alien RPG. The second part will consist of a review of the Alien RPG Starter Set which includes the adventure Chariot of the Gods. In the second review, I will include examples of how I applied the game rules to various situations, how well they worked, and what mistakes I may have made. More to come. Please feel free to add anything you have to say about the Alien RPG here.

Please don’t post any spoilers without providing ample warning for those who wish to avoid it.

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Review Part One​

Let’s not spend a lot of time on how the book looks. It looks great. The art by Martin Grip, Axel Torvenius, and John R. Mullaney evokes the look of the various movies. The cover art (see above) is absolutely gorgeous and I’d love a framed copy to hang in my office at home. My aging eyes appreciate that the font is easy to read and the book is well organized so I rarely have a hard time hunting down some obscure rule. There’s even an index!

Setting information is drawn from all the movies in the franchise, including Prometheus (2012) and Covenant (2017). They even went a bit deeper pulling material from proposed scripts for Alien 3 that were never used such, as the Union of Progressive Peoples and the Arceon space station populated by technophobic monks, and fans of the computer game Alien: Isolation will remember Sevastopol space station which is mentioned. I don’t believe they pulled any setting information from the various Alien comic books published by Dark Horse Comics in the 80s and 90s.

The setting information in Alien is rather sparse. There’s a section providing details about what it’s like living in space, including tidbits on religion, entertainment, and law enforcement, and some broad outlines of large corporations like Weyland-Yutania, Seegson, and Lasalle Biotechnical in addition to political entitles like the aforementioned UPP, the Three Worlds Empire, and the United Americas. Ultimately, the setting information is rather sparse but it a way I think this works in the game’s favor. There’s enough setting information to give the GM ideas but not so much that they or their players will feel overwhelmed. If you’ve seen any of the Alien movies you know everything you need to know about the setting to enjoy the game.

Character Generation​

Let’s start with character creation. Alien uses a point buy system where players select their careers, select their starting attribute levels, their starting skill levels, their career talent, and their gear. There are only four attributes and a total of twelve skills in Alien making character generation very simple. It only takes about ten minutes to create a character.

The attributes are fairly straight forward and should be familiar to anyone who has any experience playing an RPG.

Strength: Muscle power and brawn.

Agility: Speed and motor control.

Wits: Sensory perception, intelligence, and sanity.

Empathy: Charisma, empathy, and the ability to manipulate others.

There are twelve careers each of which has some skills associated with them.

Colonial Marine: Key Skills - Close Combat, Stamina, Ranged Combat (Hicks & Hudson from AliensI)

Colonial Marshal: Key Skills - Observation, Ranged Combat, Manipulation (Marshal Waits from Alien: Isolation)

Company Agent: Key Skills – Comtech, Observation, Manipulation (Carter Burke from Aliens.)

Kid: Key Skills – Mobility, Survival, Observation (Newt from Aliens)

Medic: Key Skills – Mobility, Observation, Medical Aid (Upworth from Alien: Covenant)

Officer: Key Skills – Ranged Combat, Command, Manipulation (Ripley & Dallas from Alien)

Pilot: Key Skills – Mobility, Ranged Combat, Comtech (Ferro from Aliens)

Roughneck: Key Skills – Heavy Machinery, Stamina, Close Combat (Brett & Parker from Alien)

Scientist: Key Skills – Observation, Survival, Comtech (Ash from Alien)

There are two types of talents, career talents which are only available to a PC if they are in the right career and general talents which are available for any PC. Talents might affect how a skill is used, it might affect damage, or it might allow a PC to do something that would otherwise be impossible to do. The Officer career has access to a talent called Pull Rank which allows the PC to make Command roll and if successful order another non-officer PC or NPC to follow that order even if it places them in harm’s way. The Pilot has a talent called Reckless allowing him to Push any failed skill roll based on Agility twice (more on Pushing later).

And finally, the player may select equipment for their character. The equipment list is rather sparse limited to weapons, tools, and medical gear.

While I like all the careers, I feel as though the Pilot doesn’t really fit into the game very well. There are examples of pilots throughout the various movies, but piloting was rarely something the characters spent a lot of time on. Depending on the scenario being run, the character playing the Pilot might not actually have much cause to make a lot of piloting rolls. And nobody likes investing points in a skill that just isn’t used very often.

Next Up: Basic Rules



Rolling the Dice​

The basic rules are simple. When performing a task, players create a pool of six-sided dice equal to their skill level and the attribute the skill is linked to. For example: If Sarah has a Heavy Machinery skill of 4 and a Strength of 3, when rolling to repair a broken door she would roll a total of 7 six-sided dice and if any of them come up with 6 she has succeeded. If Sarah had no Heavy Machinery skill, she would just roll 3 dice and hope to roll at least a single 6.

Multiple successes on the skill roll can result in benefits that vary depending on what skill was used. Multiple successes on a Heavy Machinery roll might cut the time it takes to perform the task in half, to act quietly, to permanently break something, or to give the character a +1 modification (allowing them to roll an additional die) to a later skill roll relating to this one.

Pushing a Skill Roll​

When a character fails a skill roll, they have the option of Pushing it. When Pushing it, one level of Stress is added to the character and they are allowed to reroll the skill and hope for better results this time.

Example: Hiram is in a bad situation. His partner’s insides are on her outside and whatever did this to her is still somewhere outside. They need help in the worst way possible but the radio was damaged in the attack. To repair the radio, using his Comtech skill. Hiram’s Wits are 4 and his Comtech skill is also four so he rolls 8 six-side dice hoping for a six. Failure. But it’s really important for Hiram to call for help, so he Pushes his roll adding one Stress level to his character and re-rolling the dice. This time he gets two successes! Not only does he repair the radio but he uses the extra success to repair it in half the time.

Next up, let's talk about the most important mechanic in the game: Stress.


Stress is perhaps the most important rule that helps the Alien RPG emulate both the Alien and Aliens motion pictures. Each player character starts with zero stress and can have a maximum of 10 Stress. For each level of Stress a character has, they add it to the number of dice they roll when performing tasks.

Example: Hiram has managed to escape whatever that thing was in the galley but up ahead spots another one of those things in the corner of the engine room. Hiram can’t go back the way he came so he’s going to have to sneak past the creature. Hiram’s Agility is 2 and his Mobility is 4 so he would normally roll 6 dice. But his Stress level is 2 so he rolls a total of 8 dice and, lucky him, gets three successes and manages to creep by the creature undetected.

Stress can make one hyper focused on achieving their goal and makes it more likely the player will roll a success. But on the flip side, rolling a one on the Stress die forces a player to make a Panic Roll for their character and check it against the Panic Roll table to see what effect it has. When a player makes a Panic Roll, they roll 2d6 and add their current Stress level to the result and consult the Panic Roll table. If the results are 1-9, they might suffer from some minor affect such as penalties to Agility based rolls, they might drop something, or gain additional Stress. If the roll is 10 or higher, their skill roll automatically fails and they’re subject to more serious consequences including losing actions on their turn, being forced to retreat, or attacking the nearest creature (friend or foe).

There are many ways to gain Stress.

  • Push a skill roll (that is, re-roll a skill roll after failing the first one)
  • Suffer damage
  • Go without sleep, food, or water
  • Perform a coup de grace
  • Fire on full auto
  • Encountering certain creatures, locations, or situations
  • Being attacked by a member of your own crew
  • A person nearby is revealed to be an android
Example: Having managed to sneak by the creature in the engine room, Hiram makes his way to med-bay only to find that fink company man Ballard staring intently at the computer. Unnoticed by Ballard, Hiram attempts to sneak up behind him grabbing a nearby scalpel off the surgical tray. Hiram’s Agility is 2, his Mobility is 4, and his Stress is 2 so he rolls a total of 6 regular dice and two Stress dice and not a single 6 pops up. Worse than that, he rolled a 1 on one of his Stress die. He rolls 2d6 getting a 7 and adding his Stress level, 2, for a result of 9. Consulting the Panic Roll table the GM says that Hiram drops the scalpel on the ground alerting Ballard to his presence.

Most effects on the Panic Table only last for a short period of time. If a player is suffering from the effects of a Panic roll that lasts more than one round, another player with the Command skill can make a roll to end the Panic. Stress can be relieved by one point for every 5-10 minutes spent resting. A character must spend this time resting and can’t make any skill rolls or be interrupted otherwise the Stress isn’t reduced. Some conditions can make it impossible to reduce Stress. If your character is starving, freezing, or under the effect of some drugs they won’t be able to relieve Stress until those conditions end.

The Stress rule works very well for creating tense situations but my players found two drawbacks. When their Stress levels became high enough, around 4 or 5, they didn’t want to roll the dice risking going into Panic so they avoided taking action when possible. This isn’t fun for the game. And while the game encourages the GM to only require the PCs to roll when it really matters, sometimes you can get weird results with the Panic Table. If a character’s Stress level is high and they’re trying to make a Manipulation to convince another PC to do something they might Panic while doing so which doesn’t make a whole lot of narrative sense in those situations.

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