Game Design Masterclass: Alien

In looking at examples of great game mechanics I don’t often pick a modern system. But I’ve not seen a system as well designed as Alien since Pendragon – and I don’t say that lightly. Free League’s (Fria Ligan) Alien game is a masterclass in not only how to reflect a license but how to make a game system work. I’ll admit I came to the game for the amazing art, but I stayed for the game design. I’ve run a fair bit of it since and it’s been one of the most fun games to run I’ve seen in a long time.

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As this isn’t a review but a design workshop, there are three main aspects I want to look at as great games design. Although I have to add that each time I look at the system it shows the same simple elegance of Pendragon. You wonder how it will cope with something complex and when you look it up the answer is so clear and simple you wonder why you ever thought it might be an issue. If I had to pick a flaw the game needs a couple more skill options, but it still works for everything you’ll really need.

If you’ve not already read a review of this game or played it, I should offer some context. The game takes place in the universe of the Alien/Aliens franchise. It’s a dark and cold sci-fi setting where corporate run humanity is spreading out into a very inhospitable universe. There are a variety of character types, from corporate agents, to colonial marines to blue collar workers, there is even a nod to the film Outland that fits seamlessly into the setting and offers a few ideas for adventures that don’t feature the famous (and lethal) aliens.

So, back to game design. The first of the things I want to look at is the stress mechanic, vital for a game like Alien. To make a skill test you roll a dice pool of D6s and if at least one comes up a 6 you succeed. While it’s pretty simple, without at least 6 dice in your pool the odds are against you. This is where Stress comes in. As your character gets upset or scared they gain Stress points. Whenever you make a test you roll a number of extra D6s equal to your current Stress. If they roll a 6, it’s still a success. But if a Stress dice rolls a 1, you panic, and that’s where the fun begins. A panicking character rolls 1D6 to determine the severity of the panic, adding their total Stress points to the roll. These effects will have you trembling, screaming, running away or even opening fire on your comrades.

So what you get is a simple system that encourages players to build up Stress as it helps their rolls to be hyped up on adrenaline. But too much reduces them to catatonic impotence, and worse yet, some Stress results freak out other nearby characters, possibly provoking more panic tests. The system forces players to constantly try to manage their Stress, and panic can turn a dangerous situation into a complete disaster very quickly.

Thankfully it is possible to get rid of Stress with some rest and recuperation. But characters also have a signature item (a photo of a lover or their favorite weapon etc) that they can take a look at or hug and remove Stress that way. The system is a great way to recreate the sort of scenes of fear and panic from the film without taking away too much player agency. After all, it was they who decided not to take a rest and calm down. This escalating Stress system isn’t only good for Alien. It would work very well in any horror game, and perhaps even a heist movie game.

While Stress is the stand out part of the system, there was another that caught my eye as it solves one of the worst problems in the setting. Aliens are dangerous, deadly and ruthless. While the marines were able to kill a lot of them, few made it out alive. So the aliens need to be lethal, but if they are too lethal and the game is over quickly. So Fria Ligan have come up with a very nice ‘AI’ system to resolve alien attacks. [EDITOR'S NOTE: We discussed how the AI system is used in the Alien: Isolation video game last week.] Each type of creature has a small table of actions that the GM rolls on to determine what they do. While this might not be new, the key is that not all of these actions are attacks. Sometimes the creature might just leer and hiss (racking up your Stress). This gives players an opportunity to take the creature down before it decides to use one of its more deadly actions, and deadly they are. Each moment of breathing space allows another desperate action, creating all the more tension. For my group it’s turned every encounter into a role play scene rather than just a dice rolling hack fest.

Finally, I wanted to offer a little more kudos to Fria Ligan for possibly the most insidious piece of game design ever crafted. I barely noticed it on a first read, and given the death rate of characters it was a while before I used it – the experience system. The system itself is simple and effective, giving a list of questions that you get an experience point for answering yes to. These range from ‘did you take part in the adventure’ to ‘did you sacrifice something for your buddy character’ etc. On its own this is good, but it isn’t very special, until you get to the last question – “did you make any money?”

I love this last question for so many reasons. Sure, it’s rewarding the evil corporate agent who is looking for a percentage, but remember, anyone can get greedy. However, what it also rewards is actually good role play. In any life and death situation it is easy to focus on survival and decide anything else isn’t important. But people who survive still need to eat and pay the rent, and often don’t quite believe things are as bad as they are. The Alien game offers you an extra experience point if you remember you have people relying on you, or even that your stim habit isn’t going to feed itself. The character’s paycheck isn’t very important to most players, but once you put an experience point on the line, it changes everything.

I could go on for a very long time about this game but I’ll leave you with those three aspects and thoroughly recommend you check it out. It’s the most fun I’ve had running a game for a while and even the same adventure has played out wildly differently with different players. But then, that’s what panic tends to do.
 
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Andrew Peregrine

Comments

TwoSix

The hero you deserve
Good review, I'm definitely looking at picking this game up.

So, back to game design. The first of the things I want to look at is the stress mechanic, vital for a game like Alien. To make a skill test you roll a dice pool of D6s and if at least one comes up a 6 you succeed. While it’s pretty simple, without at least 6 dice in your pool the odds are against you.
Minor math quibble, you actually only need 4 dice to have a > 50% chance of rolling a 6.
 
Loved the design overview, and it has motivated me to check out the game.

I did come here for the same thing TwoSix already brought up. If you're rolling a single d6, there is ~ 16.7% chance of rolling a 6. Because any of the dice can be a 6 regardless of what any of the other dice roll, you add the 16.7% chance for each die rolled. So two dice is ~33.3% chance of getting a 6, three dice is 50%, four dice is ~66.7% chance, etc. These are, of course, averages, so they represent percent chance over time.
 
This sounds pretty cool. I'll pick it up just to get gritty with those mechanics. If I actually play it it'll be a bonus.
 

TwoSix

The hero you deserve
Loved the design overview, and it has motivated me to check out the game.

I did come here for the same thing TwoSix already brought up. If you're rolling a single d6, there is ~ 16.7% chance of rolling a 6. Because any of the dice can be a 6 regardless of what any of the other dice roll, you add the 16.7% chance for each die rolled. So two dice is ~33.3% chance of getting a 6, three dice is 50%, four dice is ~66.7% chance, etc. These are, of course, averages, so they represent percent chance over time.
Well, that isn't quite true either...that would make the chance of getting a 6 on 6d6 100%, which is also wrong.

The chance of getting at least 1 6 on Xd6 is equal to 100% minus the chance of NOT rolling a 6 on all of the dice. So the formula is :

100% (or 1) - (5/6)^X, where X is the number of dice. So 17% for 1d6, 31% for 2d6, 42% for 3d6, 52% for 4d6, 60% for 5d6, and 67% for 6d6.
 

Bolongo

Herr Doktor
Never played Alien specifically, but with the YZ system in general I've found it's disingenous to focus on the percentage of getting 1 success. Because most times you want more than 1. I find it's more helpful to look at the averages, and since 6 dice give an average of 1 success, that is the minimum I'd ever want to roll. Would prefer an even bigger pool if it was an important action.
 

Laurefindel

Adventurer
I'm a big fan of the Alien franchise. Actually, I'm mostly a fan of Alien (8th passenger) and Aliens, but that's exactly what the RPG aims to recreate.

The mechanics strikes a good balance between simplicity of core mechanics and side abilities that allow you to bend the rules in specific ways. It resembles The One Ring that way, and I like it. Like stated in the OP, it is also a prime example of good of atmospheric and mechanical representation of source material, again, like The One Ring was to Tolkien's work.

As soon as I finished reading the game, I immediately made a new character sheet mocked as a Weyland-Yutani personnel record file; something that only games that truly inspire me prompt me to do.
 

DMMike

Game Masticator
Aliens are dangerous, deadly and ruthless. While the marines were able to kill a lot of them, few made it out alive. So the aliens need to be lethal, but if they are too lethal and the game is over quickly. So Fria Ligan have come up with a very nice ‘AI’ system to resolve alien attacks. [EDITOR'S NOTE: We discussed how the AI system is used in the Alien: Isolation video game last week.] Each type of creature has a small table of actions that the GM rolls on to determine what they do. While this might not be new, the key is that not all of these actions are attacks. Sometimes the creature might just leer and hiss (racking up your Stress). This gives players an opportunity to take the creature down before it decides to use one of its more deadly actions, and deadly they are. Each moment of breathing space allows another desperate action, creating all the more tension. For my group it’s turned every encounter into a role play scene rather than just a dice rolling hack fest.
Oops: my head went in the wrong direction when you mentioned the AI. I thought you were going to say, "with such a high mortality rate, players have a system for adopting the AI (NPCs) as new characters to replace their old ones." Guess not.

Then I thought you were going to say, "not all of these actions are attacks, which gives PCs a moment to flee for their lives." I'm hoping the aliens are so dangerous that this is one of the intended outcomes.

Pretty awesome that the game converts hack fests into role-playing scenes. Even cooler if the game came with a small jar of goop for dangling over player heads, or secretly leaving a puddle somewhere on the game table.
 

Malikai2000

Explorer
I have run the included scenario twice. And definitely went very differently each time. One thing I really liked was the when a PC dies they take over one of the NPCs. Had two PCs die at once, so they took over two NPCs. They immediately were not trusting the original PC group, which made perfect sense in the scenario. This added even more tension. Needless to say as things ratcheted up things went to hell real fast.
 
As soon as I finished reading the game, I immediately made a new character sheet mocked as a Weyland-Yutani personnel record file; something that only games that truly inspire me prompt me to do.
I suspect a lot of people would be interested in the final product, if you're inclined to share.
 
I agree, Andy; a superb bit of work. The book is gorgeous, the system simple and elegant (although, like you I thought the skills sets were too small -- we've augmented these, much like Free League did with Coriolis). I've been running the game for the last two or three months. We started with their Chariots of the Gods scenario, then I worked the campaign style play into that, having the player's new characters discover the McGuffin from the adventure. This led us away from xenomorph stuff toward corporate intrigue, which has taken on a particularly cyberpunkish flair, with synthetics and bioengineering central to the game.

One of the tricks with a campaign for a game like this is to not do too much of the monster. Like a good monster movie, the real evil should always be just offstage, but its presence felt from time to time.

Stress is handled well, but in non-life threatening situations, I've ignored the panic table in favor of a more social "panic" table where you just act douchy, rant, or otherwise make a @SS of yourself.

Have a look at Coriolis, as it's quite good, as well.
 

imagineGod

Adventurer
Does this masterclass in game design include other Free League d6 dice pool games like Coriolis, since that one does not get much love, especially at conventions?
 

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