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Over the Christmas break we had a few of the regulars in the gaming crew out for family travel, etc., but were joined by one of my gamer buddies that floats in fr a session or two every year or so. He was interested in the new Alien RPG by Free League, andsince I had gotten the bundle in a few weeks earlier, we got together with the rest of the group that was left in Albuquerque to play through the Chariot of the Gods adventure Andrew Gaska wrote for the game.

Yes, there will be spoilers. If you’re playing through this adventure, feel free to come back afterward.

Running the adventure made the cards in the bundle useful. Outside of that…not so much. Every character in the module is presented, so if you have someone come in late, they can play some of the characters that eventually wake up at the end of the first/ beginning of the second act. There’s gear cards, which were somewhat useful so I didn’t have to flip through the book for data on the weapons. Spacesuit cards would have been nice, however. I would suggest to Free League a second set of cards that’s just gear and initiative cards; they’d be more useful.

The dice — you don’t need ’em, but the yellow stress die with the facehugger for 1s really works to enhance the flavor of the game. On that note, stress builds fast in the game. When the characters have a stress die or two, they usually aided the player — the die mechanic, like most of the FL games needs you to roll a 6 to succeed on a die, with multiples giving you more damage to deal out, to aid people that failed a test, or to take some kind of benefit. On a facehugger, you have the chance of panic. We rolled a lot of panic tests in the playthrough, but it wasn’t until you started to hit five or six stress die that you were humped. We had a player drop his shotgun in the first encounter with an “abomination”, and later fled his companions. Others had the shakes or froze up. No one completely lost it. The stress mechanic works well, though I found myself ignoring the extra stress die characters got when panicking, as you already accrue another when you roll a facehugger. However, panic often spreads, so I did use the extra stress die to those around him when panic ensues.

The basics: the crew of a freighter on a milk run discovers a Prometheus-style ship adrift for the last 76 years. It’s Cronus, a missing science vessel that went out to 26 Draconis and was never heard from again. The company wants the ship boarded, repaired, and retrieved with all the scientific data and samples. The corporate weenie character, Wilson, however, see Special Order 966 — which orders the return no matter what and, of course, all other priorities are rescinded.

We ran the boarding and the initial investigation of the ship, but I had the ship in deep cold, in addition to the foul air specified in the adventure. The characters took excellent precautions and didn’t get out of their suits until toward the end of the adventure. Which leads me to the consumables rules — the game stipulates a facehugger on a stress die results in losing a consumable. In the case of the spacesuits, that would have meant 4 fails to the suit not working. I ignored that and went with a suit has a standard 2 shifts (5-10 hours) of air if the wearer is taking it easy; 1 shift if working hard. Past that, the consumables kicks in. This gave the crew the time to avoid some of the nastiness until the second act, but also made some of their tasks more difficult — they missed some of the clues they might have been able to exploit, like science team notes that they couldn’t flip through because of the bulky suit fingers, etc. Consumables worked best for weapons and the panicked spray and pray of Aliens. In the first encounter with the abomination belowdecks, the Rye character let loose with an EVA gun and on a facehugger, dumped the magazine. Now they were screwed.

I made some changes to the flow of the adventure to crank the tension. The ship is dark and in deep cold until they get the reactor online. They had missed the abomination in the scene, but I had it hold off until the ship warmed up in the second act. The loss of Montero happened at the end of the first act, which made people suspicious of the single NPC that had been aboard, Davis. I had played with the idea of making her the android, but in the end made that Cham the roughneck because the player wasn’t around for the second session. With Montero gone early, they were stuck on Cronus and had time to start repairs. They fixed the air scrubbers first, releasing the 26 Draconis pathogen into the ship.

Second act started after some intra-party conflict over Davies, then I had the Cronus crew come out of cyrosleep. They started to get the basics of what happened and took the crew down to medbay. At the same time, the roughnecs started their repairs on the ship — Rye in the reactor area, and Cham getting ready to EVA. He discovers Ava 6 in the cargo bay, where she had been trying to effect repairs on herself but wound up shutting down.

The first abomination gets the crew scrambling. They finished it off easy, but Captain Miller’s helmet on her suit got broken. At the same time, chaos ensued in the medbay with Cooper’s bloodburster. Davies wound up injuring it, but it escaped to return for act three, as a juvenile bloodburster. Clayton, the corporate rat from Cronus took this opportunity to abandon everyone and hide in her suite, where she recovered her pistol and the data on the alien goo.

Act three saw the characters get a moments rest in the bridge with the Cronus crew. While trying to come up with a plan, Johns turns abomination and the fight was on. A panic roll failed by Miller, she wound up blowing the mag on the pulse rifle they had found in the armory, and since she had two facehuggers, I had the burst hit the medic from Cronus. They find Clayton, who is turning, and right at that moment, the bloodburster was back. Miller, who was starting to turn, was killed fighting to get the creature off of Davies. Davies was killed when Clayton attacked her and cut her jugular while trying to rip pff her helmet. Wilson panicked and ran, and with the help of the roughnecks, they vented most of the ship, killing Clayton. With the aid of Ava 6, they got the ship’s engines working but were now running low on air. Not trusting the cryotubes, they used the EEV in Clayton’s cabin to go into cryosleep, leaving Ava to get them home. At this point, Cham took action and fought Ava for control of the ship. This all happened in the final moments of the game. As we are thinking of a campaign game in the universe, I am thinking of building out from the ending I had in mind and making Cronus the McGuffin to get started.

So how did it play? It took about 5 hours total to play the adventure, which was nicely written and pretty tight for plot. I made some changed — moved Montero‘s demise forward, backed up the waking the Cronus crew, cut the number of survivors on Cronus to the basics to cut the number of NPCs and heighten tension. I left out the mercenary vessel for act three as things were going badly enough. In the end, we had a three of the PCs make it to the end of the adventure, although the chances Wilson and Rye survived after Cham’s “Lucas” personality kicked in are low. The players had a blast, and it was fun to run horror — even though I think it’s very difficult. The stress die mechanic helped a lot with that.

I’ve not been a fan of horror games, mostly because it’s very hard to set up the right atmosphere, and because of an absolutely disastrous first encounter with Call of Chthulu in the ’90s. I’m not a fan of the “go insane or die” game; most of the Alien movies have the chance of promise of someone making it out alive (save the execrable Alien 3, and honestly, none of those characters — Ripley included — were likeable enough to care about).

So having played it, I’ll admit, I’m intrigued to try a game in the universe that focuses on corporate espionage, some exploration, and the synthetics angle, leaving the xenomorphs and Engineers for later in the campaign.

When I saw the pre-order call for Free League’s Alien Role Playing Game back in August I jumped on it. The wife encouraged me to go for broke and get the full set of stuff for the game, and after a long way (but really, not that long for most RPG publishers…) the game came in last week. The order came with a PDF of their “cinematic” adventure Chariot of the Gods plus a stripped down version of the rules, minus character creation and other parts of the rulebook, but after receiving the set, the PDF held about 2/3rds of the core rules.

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So here it is: For the bundle I got the rulebook (without the fancy cover option), the adventure booklet, a GM screen (with most of the needed charts in it), a set of specialty Alien dice and a set of yellow “stress” dice, as well as a deck of cards that for initiative, gear, and pre-gen characters for the Chariots adventure. Lastly, there’s a map of local space with the settled worlds, and a set of carboard counters for handling more tactical movement/fighting.

Production quality is high, as it was with their Tales from the Loop, and Things from the Flood games. The hardcover is well constructed, the binding superb, and the interior is well laid-out for ease of reading and finding rules. The print density on this thing is high with lots of black. A lot of the pre-order folks were complaining of intense chemical smells from the book and when I got mine in, you could smell the ink — this is due, most likely, to wanting to punch the product out before Christmas. The artwork, as with the other books I mentioned, is gorgeous and highly-atmospheric. The dice are well-done and seem to be rolling pretty randomly. I’m not one of those gamers that has to test the balance of my dice, nor do I obsess on their randomness, but after a few throws, they seemed to be pitching without any tendency to a particular number. The cards are pretty and used for drawing initiative, but otherwise they are pretty useless. The map is gorgeous; the counters are so-so.

The rules are a variation of Free League’s d6 dice pool where you need a 6 to succeed on a test (and sometimes more 6s to succeed at harder tasks, gain more damage in a fight, or get some kind of benefit from the extra successes.) If you’ve played Tales from the Loop or Forbidden Lands, the core mechanic will be familiar. Character creation is simple and quick, as with those other products — you have four stats: Strength, Agility, Wits, and Empathy, and each has three skills tied to them. You get to split 14 points between the attributes, and ten for skills. Your health is tied to strength. There’s a career specific trait you can take from some choices (or make your own up) to aid the character in a certain way, and there is the signature item — a thing that the character can use to relieve stress, as well as relationships — a buddy and an adversary — between the character and the other PCs/NPCs. There are also rules for playing a synthetic — whether a sleeper like Ash, or a more robotic version like Bishop. Synthetics have higher stats and don’t take stress, but they cannot push rolls, do not have signature items to assist them, and damage can affect them more more harshly.

Stress is the big mechanic for the game. When a character “pushes” a roll on a skill test, rerolling for a better result, they gain a stress die that is applied to the roll. On a 6, they’ve got a success; on a 1, they panic. When panicked, they have certain actions imposed on them. Some gamers might not like the mechanic forcing their characters to act in a certain way for a few turns, but getting players to respond realistically to fear is difficult, I find, and this is a way for the game to address that. This also means that a little stress actually is beneficial and can help the character, but too much and you might lose control of yourself. It emulates the reactions of horror movies pretty well.

There’s a lot of material on the world of Alien — some of the corporations, the politics, the governments are covered extensively and provide a lot of options for adventuring without even encountering the eponymous monster. There is a lot of data on the alien, but not so much on the Engineers. The other aliens that were thrown in are a bit bland, but there’s plenty of room to throw in your own stuff, and there’s a lot of folks already hacking the game for use with other horror franchises. Surprisingly, there are rules for space combat — something we haven’t seen in the Alien movies, but its a nice touch.

So is it worth it? The set cost me $100 (the core book was about $50 when last I checked) and yes it is. The production values are top-notch, the game system is light and ease to use and modify, and the background material is dense enough to allow even the most casual fan to jump right in. The pre-orders have been filled and they game should start turning up on store shelves by December 10.