Lock and Load: Alien The RPG and Colonial Marines Operations Manual reviewed

I really like RPGs from a lore and storytelling perspective, but I don’t get to play them very often anymore on account of the family commitments myself and most adults around my age have, and the others just aren’t interested in RPGs for various reasons.

To that end, I haven’t had a chance to actually playtest the subject of this write-up in real-world conditions, so am coming at it more from a mechanical and lore perspective – basically, “Is there enough detail in here for me to be GM on an adventure if I had anyone to play with?” and “Could I, as a GM, work with the mechanics the game uses?”

Published by Free League, ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game (Which I’m not spelling in all caps for the rest of this article, because that’s now how English works) is a table-top RPG set in the Alien universe – you know, the  one with the Xenomorph and the facehuggers and the Space Marines and Sigourney Weaver in it. That Alien universe.

The Alien RPG game is set in 2183 – a few years after the events of Aliens and Alien 3 – and treats the events of the movies as canon (so, disappointingly, Hicks and Newt didn’t survive the crash landing on Fiorina 161) – and yes, that includes Prometheus, too.

Alien: The Roleplaying Game takes place across an entire galaxy full of danger, horror and mystery (Artwork courtesy Free League Publishing)

The mechanics are based on Free League’s Year Zero architecture, which I’m not intimately familiar with (I spend most of my time with Call of Cthulhu or Dungeons & Dragons), but it is D6 based and seems to work quite well without getting bogged down in itself; the general consensus I could see online was players think it’s a perfectly decent system.

The Game Master in Alien RPG is referred to as the “Game Mother” – a reference to the onboard computer system of the Nostromo in the film Alien.

The “Cassettepunk” retro-80s style of the Alien movies is preserved in the RPG, with some creative retconning to try and explain why there are spaceships and hypersleep and faster-than-light travel, but people still use actual cassette tapes for data storage and colour displays for computer screens are a novelty (The short version appears to be “Tech is expensive and the good stuff doesn’t make it to the Outer Frontier where most of the game is set”)

It’s not all industrial interstellar mining facilities – there’s plenty of information on spaceships, space stations and outposts to be found too. (Artwork courtesy Free League Publishing)

The core rulebook rightly assumes you’ve seen the original Alien trilogy and so builds upon that basic understanding with more details, timelines, and a surprisingly detailed explanation of the rest of the galaxy which is more hinted at than explicitly discussed in the movies.

Interestingly, Australia gets a specific mention as having its own space colonies and having been the centre of a decade-long conflict known as “The Australia Wars” involving a rebel uprising which overthrows the government; the conflict is eventually put down by nuking Canberra.

There’s a lot of galaxy to explore in Alien: The Roleplaying Game, and the core rulebook includes mechanics for creating your own planets and space stations too. (Artwork courtesy Free League Publishing)

What’s impressed me about the Alien RPG is how it is well set up to handle both horror and general space adventure.

Tonally, there’s a sort of retro Cyberpunk-meets-Call of Cthulhu thing going on, with plenty of scope for GMs and players to go one way, the other, or mix them both – the game explicitly has options for either a “Cinematic” Space Marines vs Aliens style encounter, or a longer campaign that gets more into the whole “gritty adventures on the space frontier in a retro-1980s setting, featuring corporate bastardry and a neo-Cold War” thing.

The iconic Xenomorph aliens are very much present in Alien: The Roleplaying Game, and exactly as terrifying as you’d expect. (Artwork courtesy Free League Publishing)

One interesting element of the game is the stress mechanic, as it helps simulate the difficulty of making decisions/acting under stressful situations such as a Xenomoprh suddenly appearing out of the vents, or part of a ship’s hull blasting out, or that the plants on the planet are alive and trying to eat you.

Each time the character gains a stress point, an additional but specially marked (either colour or symbol) D6 is added to their rolls; rolling a 1 on any of these stress dies causes panic, and the consequences of panic (as detailed in the rulebook) can easily cause more in-game stress point acquisition and create a snowballing effect with dramatic consequences.

It’s a great way to counteract the tendency of people to imagine their space adventurers are perfect and will always act rationally and optimally even after seeing a Chestburster explode from a crewmember’s torso or getting sprayed with acid after mag-dumping an M41A Pulse Rifle  into a Xenomorph.

There are even optional special dice available from Free League that replace some of the numbers with symbols indicating failure during stress event rolls; fortunately conventional D6s will work just as well if you don’t feel like spending the approximately AUD$48 a set of 10 dice (with shipping from Sweden) will cost.

Ammunition is also handled in an unusual way – basically the number of bullets you have doesn’t matter, until it does. The core rulebook says “Most firearms in the world of Alien have large enough magazines that you don’t need to worry about counting individual bullets. However, when the tension rises, you risk wasting ammo and emptying your clip at the worst possible time”(judged by a stress roll) and instead your character just keeps track of how many full reloads they are carrying for their firearm.

Initially I was sceptical of this mechanic, given that it’s not particularly realistic, but solo-testing it out, I came to appreciate it helps streamline gameplay by meaning players aren’t keeping track of individual rounds left in guns – and it also keeps with the cinematic feel of things (after all, guns in movies don’t need reloading until it suits the plot), and works in the context of the game as a result.

A special mention needs to be made of the excellent artwork, overseen by lead artist Martin Grip. It perfectly captures the Alien aesthetic and atmosphere, and really helps bring the text to life and establish the tone the game is aiming for.

While the Core Rulebook covers most of the bases from a mechanics and broad lore perspective, the real reason most people would want to play an Alien RPG is so they can be a Colonial Space Marine and fight Xenomorphs. Which is where the Colonial Marines Operations Manual comes in.

Effectively a class handbook and campaign in one, the manual covers a huge amount of detail on the Colonial Marines of the Alien universe, including how to generate characters, tables for randomly creating missions and plot twists, and even covers how to roleplay (via dice) the downtime between missions.

Where the core rulebook is functional but felt like it was lightly going past a few things, the Colonial Marines Operations Manual is full of data and information on everything from the astropolitical situation at the time the game is set to planet and space station descriptions, accounts of previous operations, black project details, various personalities in the region, different varieties of Xenomorph, and even some insight into the multi-way Cold War in effect between the various spacefaring powers of the game universe.

Pretty much everyone wants to be a Colonial Space Marine and the Colonial Marines Operations Manual is geared around letting players do exactly that. (Artwork courtesy Free League Publishing)

The writers and game designers were almost certainly aware most people will be wanting to play the Alien RPG so they can be a Space Marine, and the Operations Manual delivers everything that GMs and players alike will need to do that – both from a “Who wants to do a one-shot bug hunt?” perspective and a “Let’s run a full-length, multi-session campaign that could easily the basis for a streaming TV series” approach.

Both books not only pass the “Could I GM an adventure using them if I had anyone to play with?” test, they make me wish I had a group of people to run a campaign with (and some sort of time bubble where I could ensure we’d all be available at the same time regularly to do it).

While the game is an official Alien one, it’s obvious there’s an enormous amount of home-brew potential here for people wanting to run stories closer to something out of Firefly or Cowboy Bebop, too – although the gritty Alien universe is extremely compelling in its own right.

Alien: The Roleplaying Game and the Colonial Marines Operations Manual contain a huge amount of information, regardless of what sort of adventure you are looking to experience. (Artwork courtesy Free League Publishing)

Between the lore, writing, information and excellent artwork, I can absolutely understand why Alien: The Roleplaying Game won the 2020 Ennie Gold Award for best new RPG

Even setting aside the solid RPG material, Alien: The Roleplaying Game and Colonial Marines Operations Manual are so packed full of detail on the Alien universe I think they’d be worth buying purely for that factor alone, even if you’re not into TTRPGs.

If you’re a fan of the Alien franchise or looking for a gritty, space-based TTRP to get involved in, Alien: The Roleplaying Game and The Colonial Marines Operation Manual are highly recommended and worthy additions to the bookshelf.

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