Feeding the Alien…

Character creation in a game like Free League’s Alien RPG brings up a number of questions which I find interesting. This post will look at three of them:

-How will we feed the alien?
-Who will we feed to the alien?
-When will we feed the alien?

The order is important and are first among the questions that must be answered when setting up a game of Alien. Although on the surface (and with the “funny” phrasing I am using to make writing this post fun for myself) the questions might seem somewhat trivial, they are essential.

Single Meal or Lunch Plan?

The way the game is set up is to offer the players two modes: Cinematic Play and Campaign Play. Cinematic is an adjective that gets a lot of abuse in RPG circles, but here it is used with refreshing accuracy. Cinematic Play is for the one-shot (if time allows) play of a set of characters with an expectation of recreating the feel and events that might occur in a movie in the Alien franchise. It is built around the basic premise of a group of people in mainly civilian occupations finding themselves in disorienting and deadly circumstances where the pressure slowly increases to intolerable levels. Death and unpleasant ways to arrive at death are a feature (not a bug) of this mode of play. Campaign is an adjective with a history of vague usage which has blurred the lines of meaning perhaps beyond recovery. Campaign Play in the Alien RPG seems to be geared toward a run of sessions of perhaps 10 in number where the players, through one or more characters, operate in the Alien universe. The specific mechanisms which help to create the pending explosions of the Cinematic Mode are removed or reduced in order to provide a slower boil and to enable the characters to develop with more influence from their environment and the events of play.

A dinner was served for three

At Dracula’s house by the sea

The hors d’oeurves were fine

But I choked on my wine

When I learned that the main course was me!

-Dinner with Drac, John Zacherle

In both modes, looking at the title of the game and the main dice rolling mechanism, we are reminded that the framework for play is one of fear. It might be framed as a horror game, where the fear is strong and has ties to the physical in obvious ways such as fear of death or dismemberment or fear of encountering the remains of those who have died and/or been dismembered. It might be framed a little off that center with a tone where there is time to contemplate the import of the existence of the threat, such as the implications of the Alien making its way to a fully-populated world. This adds a certain burden to the characters to face the horror rather than just escape it. It might be framed as a military action game with strong overtones of fear and uncertainty with orders and duty pushing at characters to overcome the threat, and common sense and the instinct for self-protection pushing in the other. The soldiers are in over their heads.

Alien is not a game of space truckers hauling cargo in space. It is not a game of Colonial Marines patrolling the colonies. It is not a game of Colonists taming new worlds. Although these are the choices given to players in character creation, this is not the goal of either cinematic or campaign play.

It is a game where horror strikes in those areas and among those types of people.

The question we must answer is, how much of the branded horror of Alien, or of a spoiler-free variant of it of our own design do we want? A one-shot, or a series of linked sessions? It matters because it is informed by how much scary fun we can stand, and it informs how our character creation will work.

What’s on the menu?

In cinematic play, the GM is expected to take on the role of character design in order to produce a specific set of influences on their starting situation.

In campaign play, the group is expected to collaborate on the occupation of their characters from a list and this in turn will influence the basic situations of play.

From the three basic occupational set-ups, ours will be the Colonial Marines and we are going for campaign play. According to the rules of the game, we can create characters using the core book, or we can alter the process a little bit by using the character creation rules found in the Colonial Marines Operations Manual. This still gives us characters which on paper are largely the same, but the quick point-buy choices provided have been filtered through 12 MOSs [Military Operational Specialties] and light guidance on rank and playing rank has been provided.

The players are advised to work openly as they individually create their characters. In cases of random tables being consulted, players are also advised to re-roll in case of duplicate results among the PCs. I find this to be good advice in order to produce a flavorful variety of experience and background for the squad. Although there are not many items to be generated in these random rolls they are of a nature that will allow them to be seen again in future campaigns without feeling the same.

At the end of the process, following these rules, character creation will produce marines that feel like veterans of harsh service rather than fresh recruits. They will also have differing experiences not just in terms of their particular specialties, but also because of a strong implication that though they are a squad now, they have been put together from the remains of other squads. This sets us out with a specific taste of what duty in the USMC might be like in terms of active duty types, length of service, and life-expectancy.

Unlike cinematic play where these characters and their rivalries and intentionally conflicting agendas will complete a stage set for a fast burn into nightmare, panic, and probable death, the campaign preparation can now begin. We know who will eventually meet the alien at the table. We have no idea who is going to eat.

When is dinner?

The core rules give a suggestion that a campaign is “perhaps even dozens of sessions” as though that were a lot. For those of us who grew up with the widespread but perhaps very broad and inaccurate definition of campaign as being unending unless ended, that can seem like a very short run of sessions. In some games, a dozen sessions is barely enough to have tried most of the mechanics even one time, and in others even several dozen might be nowhere near enough to have learned the nuances of how and when to roll.

Looking at the mechanisms of play, however, there is not much to them in terms of challenge for understanding. The larger hurdle by far is the nuance of when and how often to roll – and when rolling, what is an appropriate circumstance for pushing that roll. This matters because this is the doorway through which stress and all of its mechanical implications for the characters actions and possibility for panic can enter play. It must enter play, or the promised horror of the setting will not be reinforced by the system, but more than that – it must enter play or the characters will simply fail most of the important things that they attempt. None of us wants to play an incompetent marine, and all of us are ready for a horror scenario as competent marines in dire situations. That means at some point, things must get difficult, then get worse. This understanding helps shape decision-making about locations, environments within those locations, and the nature of duty within the setting.

In addition to the relative ease of the system there is not much room for development other than character personality and relationship development. Career changes, skill improvement, and so on are possible and simple, but as written there will be a minor change after every Mission or perhaps two – if circumstances in play allow. Given the thematic goals of the game, and that horror is at the core, not exploring an exciting life in an off-world colony, this is another sign that the duration of any campaign is likely to be short enough – or should be made short enough – that this simple and limited improvement system will add to the experience rather than detract from it. This understanding helps shape decision-making about the balance of downtime and life on base or on leave with the action of active duty.

So, with all of this in mind, it seems that dinner will be a relatively short affair of around 10 sessions, served up in a few stepped stages, with some early variety of dangers that raise the stakes until the sizzling main course of inflammable screaming death arrives to put paid to hunger forever!

LISTEN to “On Genre Being Rule Zero”

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