Free League's Alien RPG - My Experience

Celebrim

Legend
Something I saw around the net a while ago, probably not word for word: "'Soft science fiction' means 'there were things in my Analog story that made me uncomfortable, like women and feelings."

I just read LeGuin's "The Dispossessed" not that long ago, and not surprisingly because LeGuin is a Grand Master and rarely disappoints, one of the best sci fi books I've read in a long time and it's definitely on the Hard end of the science fiction spectrum even though it's mostly about relationships and social sciences. And I don't think there is anyone much that is going to disagree with that. Basically, none of the technology actually employed in the story is implausible even with modern knowledge. LeGuin is interested in speculative situations that are a bit removed from the modern world, but she doesn't need any wish fulfillment technology to achieve her story goals.

One of my favorite authors on the soft end of the spectrum is Robert Silverberg and he's really deeply interested in questions of identity and personhood and what it means to have a self, which are not questions that are easily answered through plausible and known science, so a lot (but not all) of his stories involve implausible mental powers or transcendental experiences or psychic connections that aren't easily explained by science and probably are contrary to known scientific truths. It's not soft because of the topic that Silverberg is approaching but because of the methodology he is using to approach it. And there is a huge obvious difference between the telepathy in something like "Dying Inside" and the psychic witches and wizards that populate Dune and Star Wars and other space opera works that embrace something very much like traditional ego based magical systems and heroic narratives of chosen ones and epic quests. And that's intentional by the author in both cases. Star Wars very consciously is fantasy fairy tale and not science fiction, because among other things it opens up with "Once upon a time, a long time ago..." And again, it's obvious that something like "Tower of Glass" or "Shadrach in the Furnace" are harder than works like "Dying Inside" or "Time of Changes", and if that isn't obvious to you I can explain it.

There is a part of me that just wants to go off on you for even quoting that sort of dismissive hateful opinion that lurks in some quarters. When people characterize something as soft science fiction or as space opera, that's not usually or typically motivated by sexism. Implying that's a common opinion or that it is an underlying ulterior motive for critiques of science fiction is no less sexism and hateful, than everything that I think you are trying to stand against. It's a hateful well poisoning argument that doesn't do anyone any good or increase anyone's understanding.
 

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Celebrim

Legend
I read articles from the 1920s and 30s that women made for poor "scientification" writers because they didn't focus on the technology instead focusing on things like "feelings." (Not that you're coming at it from a sexist point of view.)

I'm not sure that comment helps the understanding any. While I disagree obviously with this hypothetical person from the 1920's about his gender stereotypes, the general point being made that if you are not focused on the science but have your focus on something else, that it might not be science fiction is a relevant critique. George Lucas writes space opera that doesn't focus on technology and isn't in my opinion even in the science fiction genre. LeGuin writes masterpieces of hard science fiction like The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness. One of my all time favorite authors, Bujold is somewhere in the middle, with some stories having science fiction as an incidental setting and others earnestly interested in the effects that technology might have on human life.

And I could pick out a modern writer to hit with a hard critique of what is going on in the genre right now, but I never set out to derail this thread because I didn't realize hateful people had tried to make discussion of hard and soft science fiction some sort of dog whistle for sexism and thereby revealed themselves to be part of the problem. There might be an interesting discussion of why space opera like Dune and Star Wars has kind of ruined people's appetite for and appreciation of good science fiction or even their ability to define it, but I don't think we can have it hear (and this thread wouldn't be the right place for it anyway).

Let's just say that it's all speculative fiction and drop it.

While I think the Alien RPG is great, my interest in playing it is limited to one-shot adventures or possibly very, very short campaigns

I wanted to like it more than I did, but ultimately in being true to the movies IMO it really limited its ability to be a good game for anything other than one-shots. Ultimately I think the setting feels really thin to me compared to alternatives like Transhuman Space or even something like Battlestar Galactica. BSG using a variant Alien rules? Sign me up. There would be your need for ship to ship combat. It's sort of like how I wouldn't mind playing Dogs in the Vineyard, but I think I'd rather play it as Star Trek Away Team.
 
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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
There might be an interesting discussion of why space opera like Dune and Star Wars has kind of ruined people's appetite for and appreciation of good science fiction or even their ability to define it, but I don't think we can have it hear (and this thread wouldn't be the right place for it anyway).

I think, for purposes of a decent conversation, you may want to reconsider how judgey you want to present here.
 


MGibster

Legend
I'm not sure that comment helps the understanding any. While I disagree obviously with this hypothetical person from the 1920's about his gender stereotypes, the general point being made that if you are not focused on the science but have your focus on something else, that it might not be science fiction is a relevant critique.
What constitutes "real" scientifiction, er, science fiction, is a debate that's been around just about as long as its been a recognizable genre. And, no, I'm afraid I don't find it to be a relevant critique because it's not even a critique. A critique is an analysis of the story that might include an interpretation of themes, prose, philosophical underpinnings, and, if my English teachers are to be believed, finding metaphors for the Holy Trinity in everything. Just saying "it's not science fiction" is hardly an analysis as it says nothing meaningful about the story.
There might be an interesting discussion of why space opera like Dune and Star Wars has kind of ruined people's appetite for and appreciation of good science fiction or even their ability to define it, but I don't think we can have it hear (and this thread wouldn't be the right place for it anyway).

Dune is frequently listed as one of the best and most influential science fiction novels of the 20th century. To say that it "ruined" people for good science fiction sounds incredibly snobbish to my ears.
 

aramis erak

Legend
What constitutes "real" scientifiction, er, science fiction, is a debate that's been around just about as long as its been a recognizable genre.
It's been recognizable since Rome was a Republic...
That said, it's had a term for about a century, and half a century ago, had a fairly clear ideal promulgated by the members of the SFWA: 3 breaks, no more, from known science
Dune is frequently listed as one of the best and most influential science fiction novels of the 20th century. To say that it "ruined" people for good science fiction sounds incredibly snobbish to my ears.
Dune lead me to Niven and OS Card, and away from Heinlein...
Niven + Anne McCaffrey lead me to Bujold. And to Doc Smith's Lensman and Fuzzy series.
Dune and Niven reinforced my like of Cole & Bunch's Sten series... I only consider some of Niven and some of Heinlein to be Sci Fi... the rest are all Space Opera.

But SO, despite being less grounded in science, is still a valuable tool for exploring "The Human Condition." I dare say that Robotech¹ has done as much exploration of what humanity is as has the Ringworld series or Vorkosiverse series. And Star Trek, with its fantasy tech, examines a lot more about people than about tech...

... in the end, what matters is not the label, but the experiences and the reflections, and that the stories are memorable and moving in some aspect.

Alien's game design is good for that, in both modes.
The movies, like other Ridley Scott works, esp. Blade Runner, operate on many different levels... action, shock, the knowing of impending doom and what that drives one to... and even to "Who is more human, Burke, or Ash?" (and "Is Decard human or replicant?")

At the end of the Chariot of the Gods module, the questions about the humanness of the replicant are easy to overlook, unless the player thereof embraces the dichotomies to explore them. Similarly in the module Destroyer of Worlds...
It is also worth noting that one can swap the cards between characters if one cares to rerun it, and it can result in very satisfying replay...
 

Haiku Elvis

Adventurer
the lack of weapons in Chariots isn't absolute; there are quite a number of weapons listed as on the Montero. Including "incinerators" (flamethrowers)... plus another half dozed weapons and tools suitable for weapon use on the Coronus.
Have you not seen Aliens!? Incinerators always make it worse 😁

(Unless it's Ripley using them)
 

I honestly don't want to contribute to my already pessimistic outlook on life with entertainment asking me to invest emotionally with terrible people doing awful things.
The Alien RPG is definitely not for you, then. Nothing good comes of any stories in that setting, except maybe them rescuing Newt in Aliens. But only if you make sure to skip Alien 3 and work up some head canon!

There are heroes in the Alien films: Ripley, Dallas, Hicks, Hudson, Vasquez, Bishop, Newt. The Alien RPG (at least the cinematic adventure in the Starter Set I played) assumes everyone wants to play Paul Reiser's Burke, like that's the highlight of the fiction.
This is an interesting point, but it butts up against one of the big differences between movies and RPGs. What's interesting in a one-shot or short campaign, the PCs all being thrust into the role of "heroes" (or at least inclined to selflessness), while only NPCs are unsavory? Or having players being part of the more interesting plot dynamics, including having competing agendas?

I think it's totally fair to not want to play an unseemly character. But if you're going to be in a game where at least some PCs are doing underhanded things to each other, then how do you determine who's the good guy, meaning, essentially, the protagonist (in a standard sort of story)? Should there be an Agenda card that says "You think you're the hero?" And if you get that, is the whole session or mini-campaign now about your survival above all others? Because what does it mean if someone's designated the good guy, and they get iced by a bad guy, particularly if it happens way before the final scene?

But also, I think it's worth interrogating that knee-jerk aversion to any sort of PvP in RPGs, which isn't just a you thing. Trad games have trained a lot of us to avoid PvP like the plague, in part because the goal is so often so-called immersion. So PvP becomes literally player-vs.-player, with people encouraged to not draw a line between how they feel and how their characters do. PvP in that approach means lots of annoying little asides between one PC and the GM, hiding information from the group, generally fracturing gameplay into lesser facets, all because people are still trying to "win" the game, and also because they've been told that RPGs are like some sort of VR-with-bad-graphics experience, where the players should only know things that their characters do.

Some RPGs have moved past that. I mentioned Trophy Dark, but there are a slew of games where PCs are supposed to be at odds, to varying degrees, and a common thread running through a lot of them is that we're adults, we can tell a collaborative story that isn't about winning, and also one where even if you know something that your character doesn't, that's ok. If you watch a movie where you see something happen from the villain's perspective, but not the protagonist's, do you storm out because immersion is broken?

RPGs can tell stories that aren't just yet another version of embodying some heroic avatar. If some RPG stories are about bad people doing bad things, but then meeting a bad end, sometimes that's more memorable than defeating the villains and winning. You don't have to play those types of games, but realize the difference between dismissing them as less-than, and just not being your preference (in part because you may see RPGs in an older, narrower context than some current game designers do).
 

I think the opportunity for decent conversation got lost a bit of ahead of that point but consider me warned.
Well, you did come into this thread specifically trashing the Alien setting as not SF, and then getting into all manner of no-true-Scotsman discussion of how various other settings are or aren't some version of hard, soft SF, etc., none of which is relevant to the Alien RPG. So maybe don't be too appalled at how a tangent you introduced—with real vitriol from the start—panned out.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Well, you did come into this thread specifically trashing the Alien setting as not SF...

I think that's where you are really confused on this. It's not trashing Alien or Aliens to say it's not really SF. In fact, I also said that I really enjoyed 'Aliens' as a movie. I don't only love and admire SF. I'm a huge Star Wars fan, yet Star Wars is obviously not SF. It's not trashing or degrading Star Wars in any way to say it isn't Sci Fi. "Star Wars: A New Hope" is a cinematic masterpiece and I'm in the second year of running a Star Wars D6 campaign. It's not like I don't love fantasy, space opera, science fantasy, and all sorts of genre of speculative fiction.

For that matter, I'm a massive Robert Silverburg fan. I doubt there is anyone on these boards more familiar with his body of work than I am. I'm not trashing his fiction to say that he often writes soft science fiction - stuff that blurs the boundaries enough that if someone wanted to say it was 'fantasy' I'd have a hard time objecting. There is no stigma to writing soft science fiction or fantasy.

What I learned from this thread is that out there somewhere in the world there is some proxy argument where "not really science fiction" means in the context of that argument something entirely different. I'm glad I don't hang out in those circles.

But equally, I don't even think most of this is even that complex. I think underneath all of this, people are just upset I don't like Aliens as a setting and they do.
 
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Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
I don't think that a definition of Sci-Fi that doesn't include Star Wars (or Dune) would make a lot of sense to me. I'm just not sure there's a lot of value in a project to exclude things based on a close reading of the word science. Just my two cents of course.
 
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Bill Zebub

“It’s probably Matt Mercer’s fault.”
There is only one story ever that qualifies as true science fiction. All other candidates belong to other genres.

However, to avoid starting an argument I won’t say which one it is.










(I am kidding. Just trying to inject some much-needed levity. You can call me Hudson.)
 

dragoner

solisrpg.com
Well, if I know I don't like it. I didn't even use the backgrounds in Rime of the Frostmaiden because they could cause interparty conflict and PvP - which I think is to a much less effect than Alien.
As a rule, I don't like stories that focus on protagonists who are repugnant characters doing despicable things. I don't watch gangster or crime movies (from the Godfather to Tarantino to Breaking Bad). I didn't follow Game of Thrones after the first season.
I honestly don't want to contribute to my already pessimistic outlook on life with entertainment asking me to invest emotionally with terrible people doing awful things.
There are heroes in the Alien films: Ripley, Dallas, Hicks, Hudson, Vasquez, Bishop, Newt. The Alien RPG (at least the cinematic adventure in the Starter Set I played) assumes everyone wants to play Paul Reiser's Burke, like that's the highlight of the fiction.
I have tried to veer away from the characters as bad guys as well, in my setting, even though there are two groups, the Solis and Sidereals, part of their dispute with each other is over definitions. Such as freedom to some is good, to others it is anarchy. I agree I like the Alien series of movies, though I don't really want to play a game in that universe, far too crapsack, same as I love Blade Runner, but it would be terrible for a game.
 

But equally, I don't even think most of this is even that complex. I think underneath all of this, people are just upset I don't like Aliens as a setting and they do.

Handwringing over what is and isn't this or that aside, rappelling into a thread just to say you reject the entire premise of a game because you don't care for its setting is a special kind of threadcrapping. Anyway, congrats, you've derailed things nicely.
 

hawkeyefan

Legend
I don't think that a definition of Sci-Fi that doesn't include Star Wars (or Dune) would make a lot of sense to me. I just not sure there's a lot of value in a project to exclude things based on a close reading of the word science. Just my two cents of course.

I can understand classifying Star Wars as a fantasy rather than sci-fi (it’s sword fights and magic, when you boil it down), but it’s not a hill I’d die on. Nor do I think it needs to be the focus of a thread that’s meant to be about the Alien RPG.

All else I’d say on the topic is we should all stop feeding the troll.

Back on topic, this thread got me thinking about the campaign I had wanted to run for Alien. I was going to take the surviving PCs and have them be recruited by Amanda Ripley to help find her mother, who went missing when the Nostromo vanished.

It’s a straight lift of the plot from the (very good) Alien: Isolation video game. I figured that would be a pretty cool idea for a campaign. My concern is that agendas would be a bit tricky, at least for the surviving PCs from the earlier game. They’d be getting hired by Amanda based on their experience with xenomorphs… so it’s a job for them. That may make it hard to have any kind of other agenda for those characters.

I was also hoping to get a map of Sevastapol Station, the setting from the video game, but I wasn’t able to find one that would work. I thought I had seen that it was going to be in one of the game products, but now can’t find it. All I cna find online are screen caps from the video game, but I wanted more schematic type maps.

I think it’d make for a pretty cool short campaign, kind of retracing the steps of the Nostromo, and arriving at Sevastapol. From there, not sure what exactly would happen, but if the game was engaging, we’d keep going.
 

Celebrim

Legend
I don't think that a definition of Sci-Fi that doesn't include Star Wars (or Dune) would make a lot of sense to me.

Equally, a definition of Sci-Fi that includes Star Wars wouldn't make a lot of sense to me. If Star Wars is science fiction, then I can turn any fantasy story into science fiction just by adding a space ship to it, even if the space ship flies at the same speed of a WWII prop plane and moves like it is in an atmosphere and shoots tracer bullets and is carrying around a space wizard and his farm boy apprentice on a mission to rescue a princess from a dark knight.

There is a long history of arguing over the definition of science fiction, and unlike what some people have proposed on this thread, it really doesn't have anything to do with trying to exclude women from the community. The term is admittedly slippery but I think there is value in trying to define it because in doing so it helps clarify to you what is really going on in different stories.

It's not about excluding anything. If that was the case, wouldn't the label "science fiction" itself be excluding those works from the body of human literature? I mean, you will in fact find authors, editors and critics doing that. We live in a time "science fiction" as a term has become very respectable, but people these days often forget that like "nerd" the term "science fiction" was a hard insult. I find it amusing that people are now fighting to have their work viewed as "science fiction" when for the longest time the term meant in many circles "trash", "pulp" and to quote one editor of encyclopedia of literary terms I used as a source in high school "novels characterized most by their commitment to novelty as opposed to other literary arts". You'll be able to find quote by writers of science fiction who tried to distance themselves from the uncool term because they wanted acceptance and respect in wider literary circles. Now all the sudden "science fiction" is cool, and people want to be on the inside like the term is membership in a club, and apparently that's your definition of the word because you write:

I'm just not sure there's a lot of value in a project to exclude things based on a close reading of the word science. Just my two cents of course.

It's not a club. It's not about being shut out of a party.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Handwringing over what is and isn't this or that aside, rappelling into a thread just to say you reject the entire premise of a game because you don't care for its setting is a special kind of threadcrapping. Anyway, congrats, you've derailed things nicely.

I agreed almost entirely with the OP's post. I wrote a short piece I thought was echoing and amplifying what he wrote.

For example, the OP wrote this:

"Just for my playstyle and preferences, maybe a single 4-hour game would be okay. I wouldn't want to get invested in a longer story, however.The agenda cards were wholly negative, creating a constant PvP environment. Agendas included: you want to kill the rest of the party, you must do anything you can to preserve the xenomorph, etc. Every character death was because another character killed them. In this way it feels more like a board game than a typical RPG."

Was he crapping in his own thread to reject the way Alien introductory modules are written (it's not just the one he played, I played a different one with similar results)? It's not like the OP wrote a wholly positive review.
 

MGibster

Legend
think it's totally fair to not want to play an unseemly character. But if you're going to be in a game where at least some PCs are doing underhanded things to each other, then how do you determine who's the good guy, meaning, essentially, the protagonist (in a standard sort of story)? Should there be an Agenda card that says "You think you're the hero?" And if you get that, is the whole session or mini-campaign now about your survival above all others? Because what does it mean if someone's designated the good guy, and they get iced by a bad guy, particularly if it happens way before the final scene?
There are Agenda cards for characters that are some variation of "Do everything you can to protect your crew." Agenda cards are designed to encourage actions that help move the plot forward and they don't necessarily put you in direct conflict with other player characters. An Agenda card that reads, "It's been a while since you've unwound, go find some drugs." or "Find something you can sell for cash." encourages the PCs to explore their surroundings in search of their goals. The Agendas in Acts I and II of the game don't really encourage PCs to get violent with one another. At least not in any of the published adventures I've read through.
 

hawkeyefan

Legend
There are Agenda cards for characters that are some variation of "Do everything you can to protect your crew." Agenda cards are designed to encourage actions that help move the plot forward and they don't necessarily put you in direct conflict with other player characters. An Agenda card that reads, "It's been a while since you've unwound, go find some drugs." or "Find something you can sell for cash." encourages the PCs to explore their surroundings in search of their goals. The Agendas in Acts I and II of the game don't really encourage PCs to get violent with one another. At least not in any of the published adventures I've read through.

Yeah, it's more about giving the PCs short- or long-term goals that get them out and interacting with the setting. They do also serve to provide some conflict among the PCs, but it doesn't need to be severe conflict. In our game, the pilot was trying to find drugs, so he wanted to investigate the medical office, while one of the roughnecks wanted to search another area. They wound up splitting up.... which is great for play.

Some agendas may be more at odds with others, but it doesn't have to be rampant, full-on player versus player.

I think 3 of 6 of the PCs survived the adventure.
 

Celebrim

Legend
My concern is that agendas would be a bit tricky, at least for the surviving PCs from the earlier game. They’d be getting hired by Amanda based on their experience with xenomorphs… so it’s a job for them. That may make it hard to have any kind of other agenda for those characters.

I would consider that wholly a positive and not a negative. Most of the time you don't want to have PC's with sharply conflicting agendas in a story you want to go on for a long time. You very much ideally want to have the party working together in a gameable story because in a gameable story you don't have the power of plot to make it all work out. Whenever you have conflicting agendas in a party regardless of the RPG, you often need OOC agreements and negotiation between players to work those agendas in a way that doesn't derail everyone's fun. Keeping agendas secret and running PvP rarely is going to work out for a longer game.

Aside from that, the conflicting agendas common to Alien stories are part of the power of plot protection given to the aliens, as a way to derail the protagonists when they otherwise should succeed. Pulling back, they are ways for the author of the story to screw over his protagonists and make sure they never have a way out, and shocking his audience. That's fine in the medium of a horror movie. But in an RPG, the protagonists are the audience, and that's just bad GMing.

The other use in story of the conflicting agendas is a way to explain why the characters in an Alien story are frequently jumping through the stupid hoops to advance the plot. Disbelief is less suspended if it turns out that they really weren't just that dumb, they were evil and malicious.
 

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