Introducing the Alien

At the time of writing, today has just slipped into the insubstantial and furtive new day that tags along with the wispy tatters of its passing predecessor as we unthinkingly drag them with us as the hour of midnight slowly morphs into whatever hour people wake from sleep. When enough of these transitions have blended forgetfully into one another, it will be Saturday again and that day is important as it is the day reserved for the Alternators. It is with the Alternators that I have recently been having the pleasure of sampling Alien: The Roleplaying Game by Free League, and our eighth session, in which we will finish our 4th mission as Colonial Marines, is what that coming Saturday will bring to us.


Since our first Saturday session of Alien: The Roleplaying Game in September, this weekend and next are the first break we have taken from it. We have taken that break not by lack of interest, but in respect for other obligations as important as the iron bond we have forged in our commitment to gaming as the sun rises on the players’ side of the world and sets on mine.

During those months of play, I have wanted to sit down and prepare a podcast or blogpost about the experience, but each time felt pressed for time. Not so today! Where I would normally be editing the Actual Play video, I have a breather to visit here and also prepare an episode for the podcast.

Can you breathe deeply enough to scream in that atmosphere?

As with my few previous experiments with video conference horror games, I note that before, during, and after each session that the sense of horror seems very distant and conceptual. I had hoped for more, but there are specific factors which interfere. To be clear, this does not make the sessions less fun, but it might if the group were unwilling to communicate about what the experience is like, and what we want from it. It might if even with communication, some or all of the group were unwilling to redefine what the goal of play can and will be.

In our case, with the military action theme, and with the balance of people with an active interest in an IC experience of horror, we have come to a new stance of an IC experience of tension and a sense of fatalism. We have stepped away from hope and toward a mix of desperation and self-sacrifice as a form of meaning in a life where the gap between rich and poor must be measured in light years. This is just as intense as an atmosphere of horror would be but moves and breathes with a different cadence.

What I as the GM have been pleased to note is how lean and unobtrusive the system can be even when directly invoked in play and that is an excellent sign for using the game to really go for horror in a context and among a set of players that are seeking that experience. As predicted, the barrier of the video screen is an awful lot to overcome and, in our case, the early start, the preference for other genres, and the short play times contribute to the fragility of such an atmosphere as well.

One response to this which I have had is to approach the sessions from two directions, the in-play experience, and the viewing experience.

The first is to focus firmly on the moment while in play and to do my best to facilitate moments of IC:AC play when they arise despite the conditions which work against it. This is as much stepping away from it when it isn’t happening as it is in stepping toward it when it is. A big part of that is recognizing that there are varying sensitivities to intensity of emotion within the group and that an emotional scene will cause some of us to shift to roleplay and cause others to shift to quiet introspection or to a tension-breaking joke. Learning to see all of those responses as signs that the game is having an effect on the players is important. It is possible to create failure out of success by looking at it the wrong way.

The second is to augment the spoken word with a variety of tools which are available to me once the video is in editing. This adds and intensifies the context and atmosphere reached for in play. It can bring out the visuals of the Alien franchise, as well as make the suspicions and disheartening knowledge of the characters stand out in stark relief against the challenges they face. The corruption, the raw ambition, and the cruel cheapness of life can be put on display in a response to and in support of the action taking place in the session. As a fringe-benefit, rules and GM notes can also be included onscreen for any who come to the series as an aid in their own learning or investigation process.

Each annotation is accompanied by a chime

Did you tether yourself to the hull?

The group has a good attitude toward character death and has been growing to like the way that violence is embraced in this version of the system with each step toward greater familiarity that is taken. Given how straightforward and condensed the system is, that progress in facility has been visible in each session to the point where some mastery of concept and grasp of nuance is evident in the way the players interact with and as their characters.

View the YouTube Playlist Here

There has been one brutal fatality, and several close calls, so far. At this point in the campaign, we are in the middle of our 4th mission with a plan to go for about a dozen or whatever number makes sense as things play out. Each player has backup characters ready, and they fade in and out of sessions in a limited fashion to help give a sense of continuity and help emphasize any sense of loss when death occurs. The characters are starting to benefit from earned and spent experience and elements of their backgrounds as marines and as people in the Alien universe have been coming increasingly into focus as fundamental building blocks of how to interpret things in play.

We have struggled against harsh environments, against devious traps, against the merciless weapons of the setting, against trained and untrained soldiers, and against ferocious beasts. What we have not yet encountered is the ferocious creature which lends its identity to the title of the game.

In space, everyone wonders when the Aliens will show up.

As was discussed earlier in the series, the characters have been able to make an ally of Corporal Dwayne Hicks, and so were able to learn what to expect from species XX121 as well as to be informed by his and Ellen Ripley’s suspicions and certain knowledge about the goals Weyland-Yutani has for it.

In Mission 1, the characters were sent as the rescue team mentioned in Aliens. They arrived 19 days after the events of the film and found a damaged pirate vessel and a seemingly-deserted Sulaco orbiting each other on a collision course toward an orbit control station for Calpamos (the world around which Acheron / LV-426 spins with deadly anticipation of visitors). In their handling of that situation, they discovered signs of some sort of bug but had no direct contact with it. Hicks put their experience into context when they thawed him out. MISSION 1A MISSION 1B

In Mission 2, the characters were sent to help put down an insurrection on a formerly independent frontier world which had recently been annexed by the United Americas and ceded to the full administrative control of Weyland-Yutani – despite the wishes of the colonists and corporations already there. During that mission they lost their first marine, saw another narrowly avoid the same fate, and witnessed the savage brutality of the mercenaries hired to fight for the colonists. They also witnessed first-hand the effect of an illegal W-Y program to weaponize alien creatures for combat deployment. MISSION 2A MISSION 2B

In Mission 3, the characters were sent on the trail of the mercenary commander they had rousted from the colony, despite sabotage to their vessel, the Montebello, an assault on one of their assigned pilots, and the disappearance of several members of the unit. The machinations in higher pay grades were becoming more obvious and lines of allegiance were being drawn. Which one to stand behind was becoming clearer as well. The marines tracked the merc back to LV-426 and knew exactly what he was up to: obtaining species XX121 for sale for sums that would dwarf the economies of the frontier worlds they risk their lives to protect. In the fighting, the merc vessel was forced into uncontrolled atmospheric insertion and the marines had to abandon the wreck before it burned up. They found themselves on the surface of Acheron / LV-426 with few supplies and the certain knowledge that the merc was on the surface somewhere with them – still intent on his goal. MISSION 3A MISSION 3B

Mission 4, now in progress, had the marines organize themselves to deal with their three priorities: survive, capture the merc as ordered, and destroy species XX121. In so doing, they uncovered physical evidence of W-Y’s involvement in the endangerment of commercial shipping as well as their fear of the legal repercussions should news of their intentions for species XX121 become known. As the first half of the mission came to a close, the marines found themselves facing a devil’s bargain they have no intention of accepting. MISSION 4A

Those paying attention will note that in seven sessions of play, none of the titular aliens have been harmed in the production of this roleplaying experience. One fierce and homicidal lion worm met a nasty end, however. ‘Where are they?’ you might ask. Well, they are now within reach of the characters and the characters know it. The marines know what the xenomorphs are. They are sure they know where the xenomorphs are. They are quite sure they know the awful things that the xenomorphs can do to them. What they are unsure of is what they can do to the xenomorphs in return.

The players have two weeks to think about it.

That is a good recipe for anticipation and tension and in the context of our play that is a great stand-in for dread.

The characters have it in their hands to seek out and encounter this fearsome species and learn intimately if what Hicks told them was true. They are being pressured to collect specimens in return for rescue from what may be the last world they ever walk on. They have no reason to expect that they can survive on LV-426 indefinitely, with or without the xenomorphs and with or without a madman in orbit above them with nukes. Things are about as bleak as they can get – yet morale is high.

That is also a good recipe for anticipation and tension.

The memories of player emotional reaction in play, combined with their imagination of the events of play, and their sharing of their perspectives on those events, coupled with the final rendition of the recording might give us a glimpse of horror, but even if it does not – the ride has been excellent and engaging so far.

For those who prefer audio, a version of this post is available as Episode 3.7 of the Casting Shadows podcast.

The next installment in the series will look at this specific implementation of Year Zero and how it helps to facilitate play in the Alien universe~

2 Responses to “Introducing the Alien”
  1. Sounds like a great series of games so far. The Alien IP setting is rich for role playing material.

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