Embracing the Alien…

Before you read too far and realize that you have clicked by accident, this post will neither be a guide to crossovers between Vampire: The Masquerade and SF RPGS nor some sort of relationship guide to dating alien life. If those things interest you, you will find no answers in the post below.

What will this post be about? Well, we are in the process of character creation for our first foray into Alien: the roleplaying game, by Free League publishing. This post is about some of that process from the GM side, and some of the discussions we have had as a group as we get ready to play.

LISTEN to this on the Casting Shadows Podcast instead

In Space, no one can find the page

There are some who have grown sensitive to tropes, definition of genre expectations, and the notion of freely coloring within the lines of a recognized Intellectual Property. That’s fine. There are those, and the members of the group I play with are among them, who are not sensitive to these things. In fact, not only are we not sensitive to them we embrace them. In point of fact, we not only embrace them, we recognize that just as Genre is Rule 0 (ask me about this if you are unsure what it means, or if you think you are sure you know just on reading the title), that those constraints are going to be there anyway, so the choice is not to have or not have them, it is to lean into them by choosing to recognize them, or to be ignorant of them and so risk being tripped up by them.

Getting on the same page is often the phrase used and it has been used enough historically that it has begun to generate resistance – not to the idea of agreement, but to the idea of being constrained. Of course, being on the same page is not about signing a contract or other binding document that controls your actions, it is about understanding what we are doing. How can that be a bad thing, unless your intention is to be optimistically or pessimistically or otherwise disruptive for some agenda other than being a functional part of a functioning group?

How is this relevant to the Alien RPG? Easy! There is a lot of media in this franchise now and there are a lot of elements to the IP and individual comics, films, etc. that strike people hard in their preferences. Like Star Wars, taking a moment to have a clear vision of what our group, in this campaign, this time will call “Alien” is helpful. It reduces wasted time, it reduces the chance for later dissatisfaction, and helps to focus the starting point for play and so allow for meaningful interactions from the beginning, and so on.

One thing that the Alien RPG does incredibly well is making this process easier. For details about some of this, please consider listening to THIS PODCAST INTERVIEW from Third Floor Wars’ Tabletop Talk Podcast where the Setting Writer and Alien Continuity Consultant Andrew E.C. Gaska speaks about it. In addition to the open way that Gaska approaches presenting continuity elements from the seemingly disparate canonical elements of the franchise, the presentation of the game has a brevity and modularity to it that makes it easy to digest, and easy to manage in preparation or conversation about the game prior to play.

To be clear I am talking about things like choosing starting dates, choosing a tone, understanding the desired genre, determining which films or other media in the franchise were strong draws or strong turnoffs. I am not talking about spoiling the campaign before you play it.

In space, no one can hear you consent

This is exactly like the previous section. Before play of a game with what ad-copy writers love to call ‘mature themes’ and after you as the GM know what you want to do with it, in full recognition of things you have done in other horror games that you felt were either going too far or not far enough, it is time to figure out how to describe the sort of horror you are going for, what that might mean in terms of discoveries that characters make and experiences that characters have and compare all of that to the group you are gaming with. Is there anything that you want to do that you already know is a problem for one of your friends?

How do you feel about that?

Which is more important? Getting this creative desire into play, or gaming with your friend?

If you are unsure, then it is time for a talk – maybe at a pre-launch session – or at some other convenient time before the group is building momentum to play. This is gaming with conscience and it is the build-up to the usual and understood gaining of consensus about what we are going to play. This might be an open and explicit process or it might be one that you have no idea takes place – but it does.

It can even be boiled down to one common exchange:
Friend A: Do you want to play a supers game?
Friend B: No, how about….?

One of your buddies might be tired of horror games, or be tired of SF, or frustrated that there isn’t enough SF and doesn’t want to filter it through horror, etc. One of them might be working through a sensitive situation, such as after the death of a loved one, and their usual love of violence and mayhem is not available to them or the group at this time. If we are not sure, isn’t that a strong hint that there may be reason to talk? This isn’t about getting permission (that is another kettle of facehuggers) this is about being a human being and a friend.

If you are the sort that plays with strangers, you cannot possibly know what might count as a problem for people you do not know – especially if you don’t even know who will be playing until the game starts. It is in this situation that the process of playing with conscience and consensus gets complicated and starts causing problems. Is this play with strangers also in public? Do you know the guidelines of the public place or event in which you intend to play with people you do not know? Are there age limits? Are they enforced? Can you tell a person is of the right age on sight or do you just think that you can? Are you willing to err on the side of keeping your big reveal of horror a secret or err on the side of not causing a scene with a stranger in public? These questions are just the tip of the iceberg and if they seem like a big bag of no fun, it might be more appropriate to consider playing something else if you have to or want to play in public with strangers.

In space, no one can hear the rules

In our group, we like to learn as we go and allow for the learning process to be a part of play. That said, we do like to prepare some rules understanding before we play. Much of this is focused on things we know get applied incorrectly or that give other groups trouble, but a large amount is focused on how rules will be applied and/or rulings made. We like to explicitly state how the rules connect to the genre and in cases where we are playing a licensed property like this, how scene X demonstrates the concepts that the rules are trying to help play produce.

As I type, one keen and intelligent member of the group is preparing a cheat sheet for fast fact-checking in play. I am re-reading the rules and putting myself in mental-drill situations where each set of rolls and other rules elements would ostensibly be in use. Everyone has been watching the films that matter to our consensual understanding of ‘our Alien’.

We are in the process of tying down what pushing rolls means to description in the context of the characters we are making, and what that in turn means to the panic that is likely to ensue later. We have already worked out the chain of command and are about to review our thoughts on chains of command in roleplay. Mine can be seen here in regard to Star Trek.

We are also in the process of building alternate characters for the possibility of troupe play and for any deaths which might occur. We want a sense of a larger group of colleagues and acquaintances around the starting characters. We want to be able to view the ongoing situations from a personal perspective informed by a broad base of player knowledge about the setting – including other characters. We also want to minimize times when a player is not involved in play. We don’t have long to play and it is a sacrifice of some sort for each player to make the sessions.

Throughout this preparation cycle we have been building on our ongoing discussions of games, game mechanisms, genre, tone, atmosphere, description, characterization, preferences, biases, and so on. We give and receive feedback.

In space, no plan survives contact with the vacuum

As the GM, I have been working in my usual way, and in acknowledgement of the campaign rules presented in Alien. I want to experience the game as written as best as I can and I want to be prepared for and have a decision for any aspects of it which clash with what I am able to do well as a GM and with what I will enjoy doing as a GM. Usually, I can find a way into a game so that I can play it RAW, and so far I think that will continue with this game. Part of it was in working out how often to call for rolls, what situations are worth rolling for for these characters, and what balance of the action of Aliens and the horror of Alien will be enjoyable infectious for the players, coming from me.

In space, headers might be misleading

I hope that you have enjoyed reading this post. If you have your own experiences with the game, please feel free to share them in the comments below~

Conscience in Gaming

Conscientious Gamers

6 Responses to “Embracing the Alien…”
  1. And see, I thought it would be a Vampire creation effort for Night’s Black Agents

  2. I’ve found I like constraints in my RPG settings. My imagination works better? more productively? when its fenced-in. Twilight 2000 helped me realize that.

    • Runeslinger says:

      I feel that way. It is like I have more focus to use in making my decisions and description as a character or as a GM when there is an underlying setting that we all have equal and easy access to.

  3. Ben E. King says:

    Good article. Thanks for posting.

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