Playing the Alien…

On Saturday, September 11, somewhere between 6AM for some players and 7PM for others, we took our first steps into our vision of the Alien universe as our vision of Colonial Marines. Based mainly on the visual and dialogue elements of the films Alien and Aliens, as filtered through our personal lenses of horror and military action fiction, our Alien universe is one of greedy, unchecked expansion, the misrule of law, the unequal enforcement of order, the glorification and vilification of science, the practiced deceit of the ambitious and the powerful, but also the honest integrity that can be found among those who fight to protect others. It’s a world of contrast, but it is heavy on the shadows.

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.

Alien Colonial Marines Campaign Mode: What Comes Home to Roost, Session 1a

Session 1a of the What Comes Home to Roost Campaign can be seen HERE.

A new place with fusion cuisine…?

As has usually happened over the past few years, things came up at the last minute to reduce or remove the pre-session preparation time that I like to have. This pre-game preparation time is very useful, but as much as I prefer to have it, I recognize that I do not require it to the degree that I should consider cancelling a session because I won’t be able to have any.

When I do have time to focus on play before a session there are a few particular things that I like to do, but they shift somewhat with the nature of the game being run.

The things which are generally the same are a scan of the character sheets, taking a moment to confirm or deny the starting situation I hope comes out of my mouth when play starts, and arrangement of any physical media or on-screen assets I might want to reference during play. Are the books handy, if I need them? Is there a list of people, places, or things that I need? Do I have Umbramancer’s cheat sheets printed?

I check the character sheets because they are my major focus in terms of choosing senses and inferences about information for description. I also review any notes I have made about important details or mechanisms that apply to the characters. These might be about a relationship of the sort that will demand attention in play right away, or a flaw that will impact on what sorts of initiating situations should be considered or rejected. It might be something like a skill or ability which I do not yet feel comfortable being a part of describing or adjudicating, and so will want to check that the player has a good sense of how it works.

For the starting situation or inciting event, as the days count down to the date of play I run through all sorts of approaches to the core of what that situation or event might be. Is this a moment of calm or urgency? If so, how much calm or urgency might it require, how much familiarity the characters should be assumed to have with the NPC, and what that relationship might seem like to outsiders looking in? As I filter through the possibilities, I tend to find the appearance and mannerisms of the NPC begin to coalesce in my mind and it is time to evaluate them while they are still cooling from the fires of creation. It is easy to fall into a pattern with NPCs and if that doesn’t serve the purpose, then building a habit of examining these spontaneous ideations can be useful in having more control over how NPCs manifest in play.

In the case of this first session, I had envisioned an IC-AC interaction in the form of a briefing about the marines’ deployment which would plant conflicting impulses to hoorah bravura and to ingrained suspicion about what the brass is not sharing. I ran over this situation more than a few times to try to find the right tone and tempo for the briefing officer, Major Ibrahim O’Bannon, and eventually found one that had the right mix of “Every formation a parade!” and “How do I get out of this chickenshit outfit?“.

Look into my eye, Hudson

If I had had time to prepare in the moments prior to play, I would have revisited that tone aloud once or twice and completed a list of names of missing marines that I had begun earlier in the week to make a focal point of motivation during the briefing. This is the sort of preparation for improvisation that I like to have. A sense of motivations, a sense of speaking patterns or word choices, and some scaffolding for memory – like a list of names – so that something that is very important to the character can look and sound important in my presentation of it.

The final regular item that I would have liked to have checked is the mechanical layer of play. The way that specifically manifested for this first run of Alien was gear. I typically leave the deep specifics of any item of gear and all of the ways it might interact with the mechanics of a new game up to the players to learn and manage because it is that sort of understanding which informs good choices of gear to take and also enhances the pleasure of preference in taking it. In play, when a question arises around specific gear or skills, I wait for the player to find the answer so that they have two extra memory hooks for the information – finding it, and telling us. If it is an item that I think I will be using a lot for NPCs, I look it up with them. A pause to check notes or the book slows play – but usually just once. Not checking can add stress, dissatisfaction, or regret to a session, and will lead to more pauses in the future. If I tell them or if I look it up for them, I set two precedents – that I am the source of all OoC information look-ups, and that it is a part of my role to remember what your character can do. Those are inefficient and unempowering precedents that I do not support.

That said, I do like to be clear on and comfortable with how the presence or absence of particular pieces of gear might impact on common situations in the context of the game. Some examples for Alien are the weapon scopes, motion trackers, and ship sensors. What information should they just provide? What do they not do? With a large number of SF games in my memory, it is also helpful to do a last-minute verification of these details – when I get the chance.

I did not get the chance, however, but in terms of what the characters can do and what gear they carried, I found the trust my group has earned to be well-founded once again as any questions were quickly answered without me needing to do anything but confirm – sometimes not even that. This group is always fun and almost always prepared. Anyway, for these two criteria, things went smoothly despite the lack of pre-game focus time for me.

What I found did matter, however, was something that happens to me fairly often. As some sessions launch, I abandon plans and practice for an opening and go with instinct. Sometimes this works out for me as it is inspiration I am running on rather than instinct. Sometimes it is a real struggle as it is not instinct I am running on but rather experience. Most of the time it is fine and I can enjoy it even though I will critique it later. I miss the feeling of inspiration in these moments of it being okay, and I see the worn spots where I am forced to rely on experience alone to give shape and senses to a scene, but often on reflection I also see two things. One, preparation for improvisation not only helps a GM to stay within the context of the setting and hoped-for genre, it empowers them to do so. Two, that there was a trigger of some sort which made me want to revise the initiating event or starting situation on the fly and practice has made this as much a feeling of instinct to respond to as an understanding of method.

In this case, my instincts suddenly told me that if we started out with roleplay in a briefing with the brass that there would be banter inspired by our fondness for each other, the second film, and the normal social cues that such scenes deliver. The players would play their characters exactly as they should, but as I know the gravity of what they are being sent to do, that our unity of experience of the moment would separate. An initial upbeat scene with these characters being rowdy rather than professional would come to dominate the tone of the entire session. That would have the spill-off effects of having to or at least feeling like I had to improvise a stronger or grislier description of the elements of mystery, flat-out conspiracy, and horror that the group was likely to encounter, and to shift my portrayals of NPCs away from that tone to help balance it out.

In the video, you can see the moment this occurs as all of this realization takes place in the blink of an eye and the new approach is adopted in the time it takes for me to say, “And where is this squad…?

I shifted to an approach that took us gradually from OoC, into IC-AP and then into IC-AC*. Looking back over the video, this was clumsier than I would have liked as it turned into more of an information dump than I wanted and would have been required with an IC Q&A, but it served its primary purpose. As I was reorganizing and stripping down the information that they needed to know as it was being delivered, and as I was adjusting my delivery to help our play shift to IC-AC, this turned into a sorting process which would have been easier and less effort with an IP that I knew better. This only matters because of the marine context and the very professional nature of the people who attain and survive that duty. While speaking and watching the players, I found myself hesitating about not only if I should make the information revolve around the jargon, gear, and ships required, but also what those items were best called in the fictional USCMC tradition. That gave me my preparation goal for the next session. During the downtime between sessions I can practice actually talking about things the way that I did not feel comfortable attempting in the moment. It can be hard to recognize when familiarity is only passing familiarity and not fluency with a set of terms and circumstances – especially that first time. As the actual scene plays out, it is characterized by a mixture of types of pauses, some for pacing and impact, and some for my own processing. Curious? LINK

Pauses would have been there anyway as it is a tool that forms part of my style and technique of delivery. Normally though, there would not have been so many. As a result, this decision also ended up serving a secondary purpose of allowing the players to note the sort of pauses and longer silences that I will be using to help set tone and reinforce anticipation. My method of speaking in this campaign differs from how I approach our Leagues of Adventure campaign and how I approached our recent cult-based Leagues of Cthulhu one-shot, and very much from how I approached our recent plays of Mythras. Each game asks us to do things slightly differently so that what we see in them can be seen by others. Of course, that ‘pause-familiarity exposure’ worked a little too well in this instance, and we had a funny moment about everyone waiting for everyone else to speak that I hope you enjoy as much as we did if you watch the session.

When we return for our second session, the dramatic events of play from session 1a will enable me to leap back to my initial expectation of representing more of the NPCs from an IC standpoint as regardless of how much posturing and bantering the characters do from this point on, the seriousness of the situation from the first session is an experience we share and its context will ground them in the tone and consequence of the campaign rather then the moment to moment actions of new characters.

The Pause that Refreshes

I have found over the years that the controlled use of silence can be a real asset in specific games. While there are times where I will ask that cliché GM question, “What will you do?” I prefer not to. I prefer to let silence do its job. What job does it do? Silence begs to be filled. Silence is the vacuum and the void and it is rightfully abhorred.

As you get familiar with a group, and if in the moment you let go of habit in order to make adjustments to what you have learned to do in order to instead accommodate the requirements of a new game, moments of silence can speak volumes. Among the topics one might peruse in those volumes are how a pause can indicate the real flow of time, or that a pause can spark feelings of uncertainty, hesitation, tension, or an emotive and empathetic signal of the struggle to glean a detail in difficult circumstances. A pause can be the sign that an NPC is thinking…. and hint to what they are thinking about… A lie? A shading of the truth? A question of whether or not they can trust you…? A pause is pregnant with a litter of possibilities.

Another interesting aspect of the pause, particularly in small doses, is how it brings out the hierarchy of the group in terms of who is willing to speak first to fill a void, who will interject or clarify, who is able to interrupt, who will interrupt, who checks to see signs of another about to speak and what they do when they spot those signs. While all of this goes on around us all the time in real life if we care to look, what is interesting to me in the context of an RPG in general and a horror game in particular, is how and when the filter of character does or does not come into play in that hierarchy of respondents. As a sign of growing agitation in horror as the players begin to see options narrowing, sense violence or horrific discovery around the next corner, or recognize that they are dangling from the last few threads their character has to offer – the nature of response in a group and how it reacts to silence is an incredible tool.

Session 1a

This first session felt quite short but I feel that it demonstrates a lot about the nature of IC play early in a campaign. There is rapid shifting between IC-AP and IC-AC play, with an easy shift to and back from OoC when needed. As a chance to establish character and tone for our own idiomatic approach to Alien, I am quite pleased. I can and do wish that I had done my parts better, in particular the use of specific USCMC jargon, designations for all of the vehicles in use or referenced, and the inclusion of a Ready Line scene before they boarded the Mantis for their Boarding OP, but I am very satisfied at the characters and characterizations that I saw in the group. I have already started compiling easy-to-read notes for the gear and vehicles to be ready for next time – just in case I don’t have time to review them before play.

That short feeling for the session has also led me to decide that two sessions of play will effectively be part of a divided whole. That will roughly translate to approximately 20 sessions at this duration of play to shoot for. The first reason for this is that we have other games to play and the list keeps growing, so I don’t want to start another open-ended campaign at this time. The Alien universe for all that it seems to be a one-note IP on the surface has a lot more going on beside xenomorphs and corporate malfeasance. The second is that pacing through a session becomes too forced and rough if there an expectation of engaging with the strengths of the system during every 90 to 120 minute session. If each session is counted as half, that frees up some room for events to breathe and to flow more naturally. It allows players to not worry about a pause to look up and become comfortable with what rules they might need to deal with the other side of a stand-off or a cliffhanger.

Anyway, as a first go, it seems like we all had a positive or mostly positive response to the aspects of the system and setting we got to experience. It feels like something worth giving a second session, and I am very much looking forward to realizing that second session as soon as we can~

*OoC = Out of Character
IC-AP = In-Character, As Player
IC-AC = In-Character, As Character

Alien RPG Playlist

A version of this entry has also been done as a PODCAST

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