Alienating the Alien

Due to some sad events in real life, our Alien campaign, What Comes Home to Roost, has taken an unexpected leave of absence over the past two weeks, but has been interfered with even before that by my schedule which has been cast into disorder by moving to a new city, new home, and all that goes along with that. Although we have played a few times since my family relocated, it has been hard to get time to write blog posts or record for the podcast. I could do podcasts from the car, but I prefer not to due to all the additional noises – both canine and vehicular – that go along with that.

In the last post, I mentioned that I wanted to look at some elements of the Year Zero system, as adapted for Alien, that I find make it useful for what I want to do with it. Now that the minimum amount of ado has been dealt out, let’s get into that without any further amounts of it.

The podcast version of this entry can be found here.

In the future, commentary tracks will have commentary tracks

If you are the sort who can listen to or watch Actual Play recordings, you may have noticed that those on my channel include a topical discussion of some kind at the start and end of each session. At the start of sessions there is usually talk about what is ahead and whatever preparation or clarification might be required for it, including a recap of events or interaction about motivations for characters, speculations about what has happened or will happen, or declarations of what the characters will try to do. This includes things like handling character improvement or replacement and discussion of relevant rules. At the end of sessions there is usually talk about what has just taken place, our reactions to it while the feelings and memories are still fresh, and deeper discussion about our ongoing assessment of whatever game it is that we are learning.

If you have stuck around for those discussions, you may have heard us talk about this first point before: Alien’s charts hit a sweet spot between brevity and descriptiveness that neatly balance the needs of newcomers with the abilities of experienced gamers. The charts are short enough to allow for fairly rapid familiarization, and comprehensive enough to cover a satisfying range of outcomes. They are to-the-point but contain enough descriptive and rules content to be a one-stop resource. For the newcomer they can be referenced and read as is, and as experience with the charts is gained or previous experience with other games is applied, they can be improvised upon.

This allows things like critical injury or panic results to be shared in natural in-character dialogue if appropriate, without the need to stop play on that level to communicate information from the system level. As experience grows, players who care to will stop needing to glance at the key words in the charts to identify the results and find the associated system effect – they will just know. This keeps play moving swiftly and enables players to keep their play tethered to the in-character experience – perhaps even our beloved in-character as-character experience.

For example, play could be conducted with a player announcing that an incoming attack has left them Broken – which is a system term that denotes that their character is currently out of the fight – and with the dice being consulted to see which critical injury will go along with that condition. The numbers on the dice could be read out, the chart could be scanned, and then the result could be read out in full. This is a solid way to learn the rules, the consequence of combat, and get used to the injury chart.

I’m hit!

However, play might also go differently. A player recognizing that the attack has taken the character to Broken, either an attentive GM or the person running the character in question, could describe the character going down as a result. In Alien, there are no degrees of broken so the exact number of points overflowing this threshold does not need to be described – it is crossing of the threshold between not broken and broken that matters. A character is either able to function or they are not, so when an attack takes a character down, it is clear in system terms what is going on. At this point, the dice are rolled and the descriptive text can be consulted. This can take shape in a lot of ways, but let’s look at two:

Let’s say a 14 is rolled. Let’s further say that it is the player that rolls those dice for their character. The player can glance at the dice, look at the chart and say, “My ankle!” as their character falls. As everyone at the table can easily have that one-page chart in front of them, that is all that needs to be said about the type and effect of that injury – in system terms. How the characters feel about the injury, what is done to deal with a downed character, and how they interact with each other as the combat continues to play out, can all be maintained without switching to a different level of discourse for play. It can all stay on the character level. Players are drawing inspiration and understanding from what they are saying to each other in-character and from what they know about the system and what the chart quickly encapsulates for them.

Alternately, let’s say that that 14 is rolled by the GM. That is how we like to do it in our campaign because it gives me the fun of rolling some dice and exercising my love of description. We visually track injuries and other conditions by virtue of a shared file, so as a character transitions into Broken I can see that without being told. I can then roll the associated critical injury and fold its description – based on the chart text and the events of play – into my description of the attack and how the environment is changing around the characters as a result of combat. If we were playing in the same room, I would then slip the player a card with the injury’s specifics on it, or if we were close enough, they could just read my dice as I roll in the open.

As we are playing via video conference, and as we are presenting our play as a learning aid, I have been stating the number that I rolled so that viewers can follow along at home. This weakens the effect for the players, but comes with good utility for those who are spending their time to watch the recording, so the trade-off provides the community of players and viewers with a slightly more equitable return across the board. If there were no viewers, then I would have steadily moved play away from game-speak as Alien really requires very little and that maximizes the opportunities for IC/AC play.

It takes more effort to hang on to habits than to an airlock Ripley has opened

The second point I would like to raise is the minimal game-speak that the system requires. This point has been discussed in the recordings here and there, but not as a focal point on its own.

The typical litany of game discourse – with or without attending description – particularly in combat, includes a string of repeated phrases like:

  • Rosa: “I will use my fast action to take cover and then I will attack with my slow action.”
  • GM: “Okay – roll” [GM rolls for the target’s cover – getting 1 success]
  • Bob: [interrupts] “Don’t forget you get an additional die from the gun!”
  • Rosa: [rolls] I roll three successes so…?”
  • GM: [mentally calculates] “You hit even though the target had cover of its own! What do you want to do with your remaining success?”
  • Bob: [interrupts] “You only need 1 to hit, so she has 2 extras…!”
  • GM: [answering Bob] “Yes, but she has only one left after overcoming the target’s cover.”
  • Rosa: “I will use it to buy the stunt PIN DOWN OPPONENT.”
  • GM: You were using your pulse rifle, so that is a base of 2 Damage and [Rolls] the target’s armor does not resist the armor piercing rounds. The target is now pinned down behind cover and has taken a critical injury [rolls = gets 15] I rolled a 15 so that is BLOOD IN THE EYES. Next in the initiative order is Bob!
  • Bob: Okay! My turn! [and they play on]

Some systems require all of this gamespeak and more, but because of the abstract-yet-specific nature of Year Zero and its use of conversational terms whenever possible, it is possible to speak with each other on a level and in a way that connects more to the experience of the character than to the experience of a player of a game – even if y our culture of play is light on description:

  • Rosa: “I take cover and then attack with my pulse rifle.”
  • GM: “The enemy Merc is behind cover.” [GM rolls the target’s cover dice – getting 1 success]
  • Bob: [interrupts] “Don’t forget you get an additional die from the gun!”
  • Rosa: [rolls] I roll three successes so…?”
  • GM: [mentally calculates] “Some of your shots hit even though the merc had cover! What do you want to do with your remaining success?”
  • Bob: [interrupts] “You only need 1 to hit, so she has 2 extras…!”
  • GM: [answering Bob] “Yes, but she has only one left after overcoming the target’s cover.”
  • Rosa: “I will PIN the merc DOWN.”
  • GM: [Rolls armor] It looks like the armor piercing rounds from your Pulse Rifle have wounded the merc and he ducks back out of sight – not even risking a look over the top of his cover – As he pulls back and out of sight you can see he has BLOOD in his EYES.
  • Bob: “Okay! I will run to get a flanking position… [and they play on]

If we are close enough to see each other’s dice or if we are using a dice bot online, then we can shed all of the gamespeak from this example:

  • Rosa: “I take cover and then attack with my pulse rifle.”
  • GM: “The enemy Merc is behind cover.” [GM rolls the target’s cover dice – getting 1 success]
  • Bob: [Does not need to interrupt unless an actual error was made]
  • Rosa: [rolls and does not need to state the result]
  • GM: [Does not need to verbally process the results, but may need to invite the player to define their Stunt if they are keeping the amount of cover dice a secret]
  • Rosa: “I will PIN the merc DOWN.”
  • GM: [Rolls armor] It looks like the armor piercing rounds from your Pulse Rifle have wounded the merc and he ducks back out of sight – not even risking a look over the top of his cover – As he pulls back and out of sight you can see he has BLOOD in his EYES.
  • Bob: “Okay! I will run to get a flanking position… [and they play on]

The whole moment can play out with words that the characters might actually use if recounting the event later – it’s just happening in the present tense now because it is “happening now”. Even better, there is more time and freedom to get descriptive in whatever way the group enjoys or to let discourse at times contract to this base level of minimal interaction without discomfiting the people in the group who feel better knowing what the system details entail or the people in the group who prefer to focus on what is being imagined.

The Obligatory Link to the Playlist on YouTube

Some things matter even if you don’t notice they are there

The last point I want to raise has not been discussed at all in the sessions but is a part of other discussions we have in other venues like a sort of background radiation. That point is that Year Zero in its Alien rubber suit allows for actions to have serious consequences as well as some particularly deadly surprises without insisting on making all instances of ambush or combat turn into an inevitable chargen session. It is possible to have a character be legitimately and brutally taken out of a battle yet find a way to drag their mauled carcass into future battles in the war. Injuries and conditions set up interactions between characters, set up whole lines of decision, and inform the roleplay of not just what the character does, but what they can do – in the moment, and in their future.

In our campaign, we have seen one character’s skeleton shattered under the crushing force of a single, sudden attack, while another has been riddled with bullets time and again, only to survive by the grace of luck and timely medical care again and again. That latter character is now scarred in every conceivable location and has lost a limb – but still he fights on.

The mechanisms for combat and injury in the system are abstract and simple enough to be handled with speed and confidence in play, yet the language for the outcomes of play and the way that violent interactions is presented allows for the questions of system application to be simple while the description of what all of that means can be as complex and detailed as you choose to make it – without having to change, add, or ignore anything.

One way this is carried out is the guidance given for specific alien species and threats. The motivations given for the creature coupled with the short and descriptive chart given for its attacks keep things moving, keep things varied from threat to threat, allow for some interesting learning opportunities for characters and their players, and maintain the helpful layers of consequence, crippling consequence, and deadly consequence that helps to make combat in the game feel different from many others. You end up speaking details out into the world that our words are shaping from the raw stuff of imagination that have effects that reach farther than a tally of damage tends to. From the impermanence of a stun or a cut that occludes your vision with blood, to the threat of ruptured organs, to the instant death of suddenly finding yourself with one less head than you started the day with, Alien teases you into thinking that while you run the risk of death you just might survive…. or at least some parts of you might.

In space, conclusions take forever to reach, so hypersleep is the ultimate blog survival tool

Alien carries its own drive and it does not want to be bullied into being something it isn’t. You can run the horror from a distant perspective and laugh at what terrible things happen to the characters. You can run it really up close and personal, from the perspective of being there. You can set the tone of how you approach what happens, but Alien is pretty clear on what happens. It tells you quickly, quietly, and concisely, with a tone of cruel and seemingly capricious, but probably calculated confidence and clarity that will cut you and make you wonder if you can make it to the autodoc before something worse happens.

If you lean into it, it may be very memorable and if you really lean into it, it might prove to be more than just a window on a way of conceiving of how we interact in play, it might just be a door.

Of course, if that is a door you have passed through before, Alien will be very pleased to meet you…

Comments
One Response to “Alienating the Alien”
  1. As usual, you teach people serious fundamentals of the game you’re playing… and how they can enhance gameplay for everyone at the table. Thank You Sir, and you deserve some leeway for the move… trust me

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