Framing the Alien…

In the role of GM of an RPG, we have a few different options about how we prepare for our contribution to play. One of the most basic, and so one of the most difficult to talk about, is the stance from which we will prepare. As I enter the last stages of preparation for a short run of the Alien Roleplaying game by Free League, I have been sharing the steps leading up to and surrounding my preparation for improvisation in that game’s specific horror context. This installment of the series, the fourth, will look at the point of view which supports this type of preparation, and how the genre, our idiomatic play within that genre, the setting, and perhaps most importantly the characters help to shape it.

The Alien RPG Rules and Actual Play video playlist has begun: WATCH it on YouTube

LISTEN to this Alien Preparation for Improvisation series on the Casting Shadows Podcast instead.

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Characters are our portal into another world

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If we conceive of an RPG as an activity in which we focus on playing a character from the perspective of that character, then there is a good chance that regardless of how we speak about it – if we speak about it at all – any notion of story is as a byproduct of play. Depending on the genre and circumstances of play, it might not be all that important a byproduct. If instead we come at the spectrum of play from the other direction, we may have a specific story arc or a particular outcome in mind before we even get to character creation. Character is an aspect of that story, but just one aspect of many. Depending on the circumstances of play it might not be all that important an aspect.

In the first case, the most basic expectation of play is to experience a setting from a personal perspective given context by the creation and use of an appropriate character for that setting as they deal with the situations that surround them. In the second, the expectation is to experience the communal creation of a story featuring the setting and characters native to it.

Somewhere along the spectrum between these points fall large portions of the gaming community and how they approach their roleplaying games. We can go farther in each direction, but that is one of the many topics that that this is not about.

In our case, we have a strong majority who are focused more on characterization than story creation. We have a slight majority interested in this specific type of horror approached this particular way, and we have a good majority interested in imagining physical and often violent action as a significant part or focal point of play – especially in the context of this genre.

In movie terms, the group skews heavily toward Aliens while appreciating many aspects of Alien.

As GM, I see my role in all of this being to realize the setting through my initial framing of the inciting situation and then through my ongoing descriptions of action, reaction, and interaction. It is my hope to find a rhythm and pace that syncs not just with the tone of the campaign but with the responses of the players so that our decisions, flowing outward in intertwining coils of description, can build on and support an intense experience of facing horror as a well-trained member of the Colonial Marines in the gunmetal grey corridors of a USCMC Lunnar-Welsun Bougainville Class Attack Transport and in the howling winds of a near-lifeless world nearly 40 light years from home.

Me being me, the route I desire to that destination lies in trying to reach a comfort with the setting material such that I can casually deal details like a gambler deals cards. If that can happen, then I am free to watch the players closely as I provide the world and they provide the window we peer through to judge it.

I don’t think in terms of shaping story. I think in terms of what we see as people as we live our lives. I think in terms of moments of action, reaction, and interaction. I think in terms of helping each player get as up-close and personal to their characters as they can and want, while I try to give myself a palette of personas to inhabit and shift between different enough to be recognized and familiar enough to be allowed to seem real.

Reaction as I reveal that I want to run Alien as a Colonial Marines campaign….

Dress for dinner

I imagine that anyone following this series is already well-acquainted with the Alien IP and so doesn’t need to sit through my explanation of it. Some factors that stick out to be me might be of relevance, however. When I watch the films, I note that the high technology lighting, even in spaces of sparkling white, creates shadows. I find that these shadows create a sense of depth and distance that warmer and simpler lighting might not and that this is perhaps a metaphor for the distance and lack of warmth between the characters – who, if they find each other at all – only seem to do so in the midst of fear, darkness, or death.

Characters in Alien are like a family that generally like, but mostly tolerate each other, but are held together as much by circumstance as duty, while all the while are veiled in secrets and secrecy, in the shadows of the Nostromo. The marine characters in Aliens are not much better. The darkness there is inside them. They are hard, well-trained, made to interpose themselves between the enemy and home, and certain in the knowledge that the person next to them will not leave them. Though they stand exposed in the brilliant light of the Sulaco, they bring their darkness with them, and when they die, it seems that they die alone – their loss felt as anger by those who remain.

In ten or twelve sessions, what situations and circumstances of USCMC life can help to foster this feeling of camaraderie? In ten or twelve sessions, what will pierce caricature and go on to penetrate character? How will all of us get to know these characters as if they were someone we met once, and how will we get to a place where we will miss them when they are gone?

This is not a genre of pure action. While we as players bring a lot of humor and an ease of shifting rapidly between the layers of play from IC-AC to IC-AP to OoC and back again, there is an ability to reach some depth of play. There is sensitivity to certain actions like the swearing of oaths, punishing betrayal, protecting the innocent, mourning loss, and being a staunch friend. It is this which makes horror somewhat tricky, for these ideas and ideals easily lead to a vision of the heroic on a large-than-life scale, while horror lives among the little people and those who fit life all too well.

As a result, the situations of play must stay grounded in the scale of flesh, blood, and consequence, no matter what high-minded and idealistic phrases are spoken as the USCMC provides a banquet for every meal and a home in space as comfortable as life on the farm.

Use the right fork

In Alien, there are four Attributes and each links to three skills for a total of 12 skill areas deemed potentially roll-worthy. These skills are technical in nature, and given their limited number, quite broad in application with that one core caveat to NOT roll too often. If we consider that a given character might have 5 dice for a particular roll, then even if this is an area in which they are skilled, the base chance for success (rolling a six on at least one of the five dice) is a slightly favorable 60%. This tells us a few things, the first and most important one being – unless the chance to fail is important to this moment, in campaign play it might be better to not ask for one.

What counts as important is partly a factor of taste. One group might not want to bother doing checks for routine maintenance of gear. Instead, they use a situation of such preparation and preparedness to reinforce the image and characterization of the marine characters as competent and well-trained. This lets them highlight the horror of the unexpected and overwhelming effectiveness of the Alien (or whatever other enemy is on the menu). Other groups might do the opposite and relish the delicious complication of an oversight in cleaning a weapon bringing trouble to the marines in a firefight later on.

In Alien, however, it is not entirely a factor of taste. The game includes a mechanism known as pushing which can improve a success by doubling down on a successful approach or mitigate a failure in progress by adapting in situ. This comes at the cost of a factor called stress. Every use of the roll pushing mechanism will introduce more stress and that leads to increased chances for Panic. Panic is as bad as it sounds. This is an important idea to internalize as we begin to prepare for how we will be presenting the experience of the setting. Habit might tell us that die rolls increase tension and so we might just call for a lot of rolls to build up a baseline of that tension before intending to ramp things up with a skittering wave of facehuggers. If we are rolling for everything, as many groups are in the habit of doing, though, then pushing rolls to avoid failures of core skills will happen – even in non-threatening circumstances. The results of that may be less than ideal, but your mileage might vary.

The twelve skills are the route to both character competence and to character panic. That pool of five dice I mentioned earlier gives an 81% chance of success on a pushed roll, but even if that was with a single stress die in the mix that roll is carrying a 17% chance of triggering a panic roll. That triggering event increases the chance of the next roll by a variable amount, but even if it were just one die, the chance of triggering a panic roll the next time rises to 31%. Unless the idea is for the horror to arise in a scenario because no one can complete their basic tasks, it is best to save rolls for tough tasks in challenging circumstances.

Looking over the skills, I find that there are really only two for social situations. Things for me to consider are in what cases I would call for Command, and in what cases I would call for Manipulation. Both of these are connected to Empathy as an Attribute. That means that interactions with those skills, rolled or not, should provide varying amounts of ambiguous detail about the people that they are being used on. As a tool for helping to provide a foundation for the uncertainty and suspicion which will help deliver horror later in the campaign, being somewhat ambiguous about NPC motives and reactions can go a long way without needing to draw in the dice and the mechanical consequences of rolling.

Another factor about the skills connects to another aspect of the game, namely the random location and mission generators. Not using them could lead a GM into setting up situations where the players start to feel like they brought the wrong characters, rather than feeling like the characters are being challenged. That can lead to frustration, not with their characters’ lot in life, but with playing. While a standard understanding of horror is that it depends largely on a feeling of powerlessness, I find it is advantageous to not try to get to that feeling through all avenues open to me. Some will try to force powerlessness upon characters by putting them in situations in which they are not competent or actually are incompetent, try to increase tension by negating or blocking solutions, and then topping it off with attacks of unstoppable force. This is a great route to tedium, I find, not horror.

What can more readily lead to conditions of play conducive to feelings of empathy for the characters and their horrifying experiences, is a desperate struggle to apply their competencies against their foe, whatever that might be, in an asymmetrical struggle of timing, position, and risk through a variable lens of certainty and uncertainty that helps to raise stakes and make efforts seem like a gamble. It isn’t about making them feel powerlessness, and it certainly isn’t about balking their efforts. It’s about making things about what they see and feel.

In Aliens, the marines are well-prepared to shoot and kill the Xenomorphs, but find themselves in a position where they must retreat from doing so in order to regroup and formulate a different plan. Are they disciplined enough, fast enough, and aware enough to make this retreat happen? The dice will determine that in conjunction with the tactics of the players vs the tactics of the GM as the Xenomorphs. The GM doesn’t make the marines helpless and incompetent and expect the players to freak out. The GM presents a novel situation (the colonists are alive and cocooned under a nuclear reactor which limits opportunities to use heavy weapons) and allows the decisions and dice of the players to do the rest.

The site or at least the conditions of the Xenomorphs and their captives are understood by the GM. The GM is prepared to describe the locations and the gradual shift from the abandoned and war-torn areas of the colony to the alien-infested nesting area of the reactor. The rest is improvisation based on these hard facts. The GM is interested in how the PCs will interact with all of this, and has a few NPCs along to get to enjoy playing with and off of them. The mission goals are in place and the marines are free to interpret how best to achieve them with their gear and training. What happens next depends on what the players, including the GM, decide to do in the moment based on the appropriate play of their characters.

For the Xenomorphs….? Well, they mostly come out at night. Mostly.

Until then, the ball is in the marines’ court.

May I invite a friend?

Let’s take a look at an example character before we close out this entry. The indefatigable Eloy “Umbramancer” Cintron has created Corporal Bienvenido Rios as his primary marine for our troupe. When we look at his attributes and skills, we get a sense of what situations this character will feel useful in. His MOS was Hospital Corpsman, but now he serves mainly as Squad Leader. His sharpest skills at the moment are close and ranged combat and he obviously hits the gym a lot to keep up his fitness (stamina). His medical skills aren’t bad, but it is obvious that he is front-line first and medic second.

Who is this person?
What have they done?
When did they know they were a marine?
Where did they first know loss?
Why did they keep going?
How did they keep going?

Looking at this character, and doing so before generating any urges on my part for shaping an overarching mood for the campaign or generating any random details from the campaign generator tools in Chapter 12 of the Alien Corebook and Chapter 6 of the Colonial Marines supplement, I see that the player is signaling a desire that I have heard him express before about the type of character he wants to play. Combative competence is an important part of the fun and that means that combat is an important part of the fun. Corporal Rios will be able to help rescue fallen compatriots, and his cheerful Banter talent will help to keep the squad’s Stress levels manageable, but he will be right there on the firing line with them unless something prevents it.

I could craft some rescue missions and spice them up with medical mystery leading to horrific revelations, but that won’t really answer the signal that Corporal Rios is sending up.

Really, only the promise, then the looming threat, and then finally the delivery of violence will give him what he is seeking.

How will the squad handle combat against an enemy capable of giving them a fight? How will the squad respond to a mission slowly going pear-shaped in waves and stages of stress and confusion? How will Corporal Rios keep them focused, fit, and ready to fight? What will start to get under his skin and make him doubt himself…and them?

These are good starting questions to consider between now and the first session. I can mull them over and think of appropriate personas of NPCs in the right places to provoke these questions and questions like them so that when the dice hit the table I can be ready to roll with them and improvise from a stable base of understanding of the situations.

However, I have three more primary characters in the group, and the campaign is a response and a challenge to all of them. I haven’t given anything away, yet.

Checking your order

So, as preliminary steps in preparation for improvisation, we have discussion of the setting and its genre, and then assessment of the character choices made by the players in accordance with that discussion. What do the players want to do in this setting and how?

This is followed by ensuring that the way the rules interact with and help serve the setting and its genre is understood so that the risk of unintended or counterproductive effects can be minimized at the outset and hopefully avoided as play progresses.

Finally, ideas are generated for how the specific skills and abilities of the characters might appear in play in contrast to the elements that the GM can deploy. As a loose array of concepts and situations these ideas for situations are allowed to play out in the GM’s imagination to determine areas of rules knowledge that need to be reviewed in relation to each character, to highlight if a specific potential inciting situation has enough teeth to bite into the characters, and to help the GM imagine as a concept and then imagine describing how others might perceive things like NPC characters to those who do not know them very well.

With this framework in mind, we are well-poised for hopefully starting from a strong beginning that has a good chance to hook the characters personally and intrigue the players. If those two conditions are met, the good intentions we have been working from should allow us to focus on describing the primroses and their thorns along the way as the decisions of the players carve out their own unique path into hell~

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