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

Connorsrpg

Adventurer
I am already all over the #YearZeroEngine, but I love the idea of the added Stress mechanic here. :)

#Coriolis has become my favoured way to run sci-fi and Star Wars games. I have converted Star Wars to the Coriolis rules.

Fria Ligan are smashing it out of the park!
 
I haven't gotten my copy yet -- like a lot of people, money has become suddenly tight for me in the last week and a half -- but I keep thinking about how the stress mechanic can be applied in other, non-alien scenarios, and how it either furthers or changes those scenarios.

I've so far thought of two xenomorph-free scenarios, one inspired by Psycho, but with android(s), and one with the plot of the original Doom, and how the stress mechanic would replicate the fraying of nerves I first had playing that, when I insisted on playing it in a dark house all alone.
 

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