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Interview with Tomas Härenstam (Free League’s ALIEN RPG)

Tomas Härenstam, CEO of Free League and the creator behind the ALIEN RPG, discussed ALIEN, their game engine, their awards, the new Year Zero Engine OGL, the aftermath of the UK Expo incident, their upcoming Cthuhlu projects, and if they’re pursuing the Predator license, among other topics.


EGG EMBRY (EGG): Thank you for speaking with me about Free League’s ALIEN RPG. How did this license come about?
TOMAS HÄRENSTAM (TH): Hello and thank you! Actually, it started out in brainstorming session we had at Free League back in early 2018. We were discussing movie licenses we would like to turn into RPGs, and we ended up with a very short list of dream licenses. ALIEN was on that list – we’re all huge fans of the films, and we feel that the sense of wonder combined with the harsh and brutal world is a perfect fit for the style of games we design. Shortly after that brainstorm, I happened to hear of Joe LeFavi, who runs Genuine Entertainment and works with brand management in Hollywood. I contacted Joe, and it turned out he was a big fan of our Tales from the Loop RPG. We immediately hit it off, and Joe quickly went to work on approaching 20th Century Fox on our behalf. We spent some weeks on a pitch for the ALIEN tabletop RPG, and after a short negotiation, the agreement was signed.

EGG: Before we get into the RPG itself, can you tell us about the many hats you wear on this game and at Free League?
TH: My hats are many, although I do try to delegate more work these days to not get totally swamped. On ALIEN, I’m the game director, project manager, and rules designer. For Free League in general, I’m the CEO, meaning I’m on overall charge on production planning and day-to-day priorities – strategic decisions are made by all the partners together. I also handle contacts with our distributors and sales partners. In addition, I’m in charge of a few game lines beside ALIEN, such as Forbidden Lands, Mutant: Year Zero, the Crusader Kings board game, and an upcoming undisclosed RPG.

EGG: This RPG uses your Mutant: Year Zero (M:YZ) system, can you summarize the system?
TH: The core of the system is really simple – you roll a number of six-sided dice, and you need to roll at least one six to succeed. The more sixes you roll, the greater the effect. Your dice come from your attributes, skills, and gear, and you typically roll 5-10 dice. The key aspect of the system is the push mechanism – you can re-roll the dice to get a better result, but it will cost you something. What that is depends on the specific game – in ALIEN, you get stress, in Mutant: Year Zero you risk hurting yourself or your gear, in Coriolis the GM’s pool of Darkness Points grows, etc.

EGG: For those who are interested in ALIEN but have not played any Free League RPGs, can you talk about the awards the RPGs based on the M:YZ engine won over the years?
TH: Certainly! Mutant: Year Zero won a Silver ENnie for Best Rules back in 2015. In 2017, we had a bit of a grand slam at the ENnies with Tales from the Loop, which won no less than five Gold ENnies, including Best Game and Product of the Year. Tales from the Loop also won the UK Games Expo award that year, and a few other awards. Coriolis won a Judges Spotlight award at the ENnies 2017. This year, Forbidden Lands won the UK Games Expo award for best game and has been nominated for an Origins Award.

EGG: That is an impressive list! With ALIEN, how much are you modifying the M:YZ system to fit that universe?
TH: We always modify the Year Zero Engine, as we call it, to fit the theme of the game and the setting. We feel it’s very important that rules and setting work together. For ALIEN, the key new mechanism is the Stress Dice. When you push a dice roll, or experience a stressful situation, you will accumulate Stress Dice. These will actually help you at the start, making you sharper and more alert. But if you collect too many Stress Dice, you risk panic. It’s a little like a game of Blackjack – you’ll push your character to the limit, but if you push too hard, panic ensues.


EGG: The combination of Martin Grip’s art with the graphic design of Christian Granath in the Cinematic Starter Kit is striking. Their work looks like pre-production art for a new ALIEN film. From your end, what’s the process to achieve this level of art?
TH: Glad you like it! Martin and Christian really are masters of their craft, I think. Art and graphic design are really a key ingredient in how we design roleplaying games, along with the setting texts and rules design. It’s not style over substance, we’re really aiming for style and substance. We feel it’s really important to have both ingredients, to create an evocative roleplaying experience.

EGG: This is cart-before-the-horse considering that the ALIEN RPG is still in pre-order, but this is on everyone’s mind whether voiced or not: Are you pursuing the Predator license?
TH: Ha! Not at the moment, no.

EGG: Before getting the ALIEN license, had you played Leading Edge Games’ tabletop ALIENS Adventure Game?
TH: I owned it and read it back when it came out, but to be honest I actually never got around to playing it. It’s a pretty cool game I think, but its focus is quite different from what we’re doing with our ALIEN RPG.

EGG: At the UK Games Expo 2019, a player ( @GeekGirlBookWrm ) reported a disturbing session of Things from the Flood RPG from Free League in which the GM, without the approval or knowledge of Free League or the convention, led a session that involved sexual violence. Free League quickly and publicly apologized for the incident, the UK Game Expo issued a public apology and their plans to prevent this going forward. After the incident, @GeekGirlBookWrm played more Free League games and had kind words about the company. I want to thank Free League for taking ownership of this issue and working with the players to make gaming safer and more inclusive. With the ALIEN franchise, there have been numerous discussions about sexual violence as a theme in the series. I know it’s too early for a policy rollout, but what are your initial thoughts on keeping the right feel for the ALIEN RPG yet maintaining a safe and fun gaming experience?
TH: This is a big and important question. We’re not focusing on such themes in the ALIEN roleplaying game. We cannot control how people play our games in private, but in all official material, events, and communication for ALIEN and all our other games, we promote safe, respectful, responsible, and inclusive gaming. After the incident at UKGE, we have written a Fair Play Policy that you can find on our website.

EGG: I reached out to @GeekGirlBookWrm to get her thoughts on what occurred at UKGE and how that impacts the ALIEN RPG.
@GeekGirlBookWrm: I think that the Free League team have hit on an important point. Publishers can’t control what a group decides to do with their product in the comfort of their own home, but playing a game at home with a group of friends is a completely different experience to playing at a convention. In a home environment, the group can decide together how far they are all happy to take certain scenarios to make sure everyone at the table is comfortable with the story being told. In a public space, the group are normally unfamiliar with each other and do not know each other’s past personal history. Throwing in violence, especially of a sexual nature, when you do not know the people at your table is not good storytelling and it is not good GMing. GMs at public events should know and understand how to use the X-card and make players aware of its availability at their tables. I have been one of the playtesters for the new ALIEN RPG and the stories that I have seen follow the horror and suspense aspects of the franchise, rather than the violence and shock factor parts of the films. I have played two very different cinematic scenarios and enjoy each tremendously, even when I died, twice...

EGG: Thank you for sharing that direction. Through the Forbidden Lands Kickstarter, an Open Gaming License stretch goal was unlocked and it’s connected to another expansion for Free League. What can you share about the OGL and what you hope to see come from it?
TH: The OGL is already out in a Beta version and has been shared with Forbidden Lands backers. Anyone who wants to make a game based on the Year Zero Engine is welcome to use the OGL! Many roleplayers are also creators, and we hope the OGL will lead to an even more thriving community. In parallel with the OGL, we will soon also launch a Community Content Program at DrivethruRPG, called Free League Workshop – there, we will offer design templates for anyone who wants to create unofficial supplements for our games, and sell them.

EGG: Will the OGL allow content for the ALIEN RPG?
TH: The OGL itself only covers the Year Zero Engine ruleset. At this point, ALIEN is not included in the Community Content Program, but we’ll see what we can do down the line.

EGG: In February, Free League “stealth” kickstarted a new RPG with the working title, The Great Old Ones, that’s “a Lovecraft-inspired tabletop roleplaying game full of Baranger's art.” I use “stealth” because it was a stretch goal for an artbook, not an explicitly RPG Kickstarter. First, congratulations on unlocking that stretch goal. Second, what can you tell us about TGOO and how it’s progressing?
TH: Thanks! We have been wanting to make a Cthulhu RPG ever since we came into contact with Francois Baranger and his amazing artbook based on Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” short story, which we published in Swedish about a year ago and will soon publish in English as well. The RPG design is in its early stages, but we do have a clear vision of what we want to do – a game that goes back to the style and feel of Lovecraft’s original stories, where the protagonists truly go mad and die. It will be less pulpy and be well suited for one-shot and convention games, not unlike Cinematic Mode for the ALIEN RPG. More news will follow!

EGG: Again, thank you for talking with me. Where can fans find out more about Free League and the ALIEN RPG?
TH: Thank you! The best place to go for ALIEN is the official website, ALIEN-RPG.COM. For Free League in general, please do visit our website, FREELEAGUEPUBLISHING.COM. See you there!

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Egg Embry

Comments

SMHWorlds

Explorer
The artwork is beautiful. More importantly, the quickstart with the Cinematic play style rules is really good. I think they nail the cinematic mode right on. I went in as a skeptic and now I am stoked to play and see how Campaign goes. Maybe Tomas could pop on or follow up and talk about that?
 

Egg Embry

Explorer
The artwork is beautiful. More importantly, the quickstart with the Cinematic play style rules is really good. I think they nail the cinematic mode right on. I went in as a skeptic and now I am stoked to play and see how Campaign goes. Maybe Tomas could pop on or follow up and talk about that?
I agree. I think this will be one of the products that someone will do an ALIEN RPG Twitch Channel and, with the right players, it'll do well. The system is perfect to tell your ALIEN stories with.
 

aramis erak

Explorer
I'm running the cinematic for one of my groups... and it really does work very nicely... but I can't imagine how Chariots is supposed to be done as a one session...
 

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