ALIEN RPG Starter Set Review | Free League Publishing

November 2, 2021 by crew

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Free League Publishing has been doing great work over the past few years with its roleplaying games. ALIEN is no exception with a Core Rulebook, Destroyer Of Worlds supplement and a Colonial Marines Operations Manual already part of its sterling collection. The entry point to the game though is the Starter Set and that's what we're talking about today.

ALIEN RPG Starter Set Cover

Here we're going to be taking a look at what you get in the Starter Set and an overview of the core rules. I think both newcomers and veterans will find something to like about this system!

What's In The Starter Set?

Cracking open the box you'll find loads that will help you get started in the game. At its heart is the 104-page condensed rulebook that gets you up to date with the themes of ALIEN whilst also teaching you the relatively simple rules.

Alien Starter Set Contents

As well as the rulebook you'll also find the fourty-eight-page cinematic scenario Chariot Of The Gods by Sci-Fi novelist Andrew E.C. Gaska. We'll talk more about Cinematic and Campaign play later. Chariot Of The Gods is designed for three-to-five players plus a GM (known as The Game Mother in ALIEN) so it should be good for a variety of groups.

Both of these books are presented really nicely with clean and easy-to-read text and lots of boxouts that draw your eye to important rules and things you need to learn. There often has to be a simple flow to a Starter Set Rulebook and it feels like Free League have been able to nail that here. It felt natural reading through it and getting to grips with the core rules you'll need to know to play.

For players, you'll find five pre-generated characters with wonderful artwork and lots of additional detail that will get them in the mood. The Game Mother also gets a big full-colour, double-sided map which offers up a look at space in 2183 and the floor plan for Chariot Of The Gods.

Xenomorph Art

You'll also find eighty-four game markers that can be used to track characters, motion tracker pings and more plus fifty-six custom cards that detail weapons and personal agendas. There is even a deck for tracking initiative in combat.

Capping things off are the gorgeous custom dice. You'll find ten engraved Base Dice and ten Stress Dice (don't worry, we'll talk about them later).

Whilst often times I would suggest that veterans could skip something like the Starter Set and just pick up the Core Rules, I would certainly consider it here. There is so much packed into the box, especially once you factor in the addition of the dice and card decks for the characters you'll be playing. All of this comes in under £40 which also seems like a little bit of a steal.

Learning The Basics

Now you know what's in the set, we should probably talk about how ALIEN actually works. The basics of the system are tied to the Year Zero Engine which has made games like Tales From The Loop so well-loved. It is a system that uses d6 in order to track the actions of its players with a single success (usually the six on the die) being needed in order for a particular task to be completed.

Alien The Roleplaying Game Rulebook Cover

To put it simply, if you want to achieve something then you take a pool of dice equal to your Skill plus the relevant Attribute. You roll and a single success, as mentioned, means that you have done whatever you attempted. Any additional successes on that roll can then be used to pay for Stunts that are tied directly to the different Skills. Say your rolling for Survival as an example. One success means that you get out of the sticky situation and another might mean that you can pass on a success to another player to help them. It's simple, effective and gets the action done quickly without too much hassle.

There are a few things that you'll need to be aware of with the Year Zero Engine though that feel like they suit ALIEN particularly well. You only ever get one chance at attempting something. You can't sit there and pick a lock forever. If you fail then you've failed and you'll need to try something different. This flows nicely into the "fail forward" mentality of ALIEN and the system. Yes, you failed, but it falls to the Game Mother to decide just how that changes the situation.

Colonial Marines Art

I always like the idea of "fail forward" in roleplaying games. It keeps the action going and means that everyone is always on a knife-edge. It suits the desperate situations present in ALIEN perfectly too and keeps what could be an unwieldy Sci-Fi world feeling like the movies that they have drawn from.

As mentioned earlier, the Starter Set guides you through all of this nice and simply so it should be a doddle to get players up to speed on what they need to do.

Brutal Combat & Consequences

One of the elements that will differ from the likes of Tales From The Loop is combat. Weapons do some serious damage in ALIEN (as you might expect) so you'll want to avoid conflict for as long as possible if you can help it. Think of the movies as an example. Fighting only really arises when there is little choice in how the characters can proceed.

Chariot Of The Gods Cover

To that end, the ALIEN RPG features not only deadly weapons but also a Critical Hit system that tracks the fate of your characters. Once your Health (equal to your Strength Attribute) has been reduced to zero you can become Broken and you roll on the table and find out your fate. You might have just been winded. Perhaps you now have a broken leg? This has been designed to give you that cinematic moment as an injured player drags themselves through a facility, slamming doors behind them as a Xenomorph closes on their location. You can also die in a horrid spray of blood. If you like the Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play critical hit system then you'll enjoy this for sure.

An aspect of the Year Zero Engine that I didn't mention is the way you can Push a roll. Failed your check? Well, grab all those dice again and roll to see if you can get some successes. All sounds great doesn't it, especially when passing checks can be really hard. Well, every time you Push a roll your Stress Level will go up which introduces a brand new dice into your pool.

This is where consequences come into play. Fighting and running from terrifying aliens can be stressful and bring out the best in a person but also the worst. Each time you roll from then on the Stress symbol (or a one on a regular die) can cause you to Panic. So, whilst Stress might cause some to be able to lift heavy metal doors or take that daring shot against an oncoming foe, it could also reduce someone to a blubbering mass on the floor.

Power Loader Art

When that Stress symbol pops up (a Facehugger on the official dice) you instead roll right away for Panic. To do this you roll a d6 and add your current Stress Level to the roll. A one-to-six means that you kept it together but as this builds you could scream out in terror, drop your items, fumble your shot or maybe just fall to the floor, catatonic and in shock.

Stress comes from many different sources, not just when Pushing a roll. It could come from taking damage, when a crew member attacks you or when you see something otherworldly unfolding from the darkness. It's not easy being far from home in the depths of space where one wrong move could see you sucked into oblivion. It can also be cleansed thanks to your crewmates and other special circumstances so don't worry too much on that front. Well, I would worry a bit - things are really deadly out here!

Intrinsically ALIEN

There is obviously a lot more to the ALIEN RPG but the Starter Set provides you with a pretty comprehensive list of everything you'd need to play the game, especially in Cinematic mode. Pages are given over to dealing with equipment, your ship, different forms of damage and much more. If you wanted to play out the first ALIEN movie or something similar at the tabletop then you've got it here on these pages.

Scientist Art

But, ALIEN isn't just about dealing with Xenomorphs. Whilst the aliens are a terrible threat, sometimes the real enemy is the person who flew with you thousands of miles into the depths of space and you've called a friend for months. The ALIEN RPG really draws on that and impresses on the Game Mother the idea of mistrust and misaligned agendas. This is ever-present within Chariot Of The Gods, the mission presented within the Starter Set, and should certainly be a factor in how you plan out most of your games once you've stepped beyond it.

Here is where we return to the idea of Cinematic and Campaign play. Campaign play is designed to work as a normal role-playing game. Your characters are meant to survive from session to session (for the most part) and you'll tell a wider-reaching story. Cinematic play works more like a one-shot style affair. Your characters are not guaranteed survival and it shouldn't be expected either. This (I think), is the way to play ALIEN.

Chariot Of The Gods follows this format which works well for a Starter Set but beyond that, I think that's how you should approach playing ALIEN at the tabletop anyway. The rules, the brutality of the system and the background all of this is built on feel like it perfectly suits the idea of "let's get together and see who survives tonight". After pouring through Chariot Of The Gods (which I won't spoil) and reading other opinions online, this seems like the way ALIEN slots into groups.

Crew Art

Don't get me wrong. You could continue with your characters (that survive) from session to session. Ripley makes it through all of the movies after all! But, I like the idea of playing ALIEN as something episodic and self-contained where the Game Mother can move locations more freely and present you with different and bespoke situations.

Whilst Campaign play is a thing, it feels like everything within the ALIEN RPG Starter Set pushes you in the direction of Cinematic play. In a world where it's hard to get people together to play a weekly or fortnightly campaign, Cinematic play and ALIEN feels very well situated to fill a gap. Gather your friends together and play out your very own episode within the world of ALIEN.

Final Thoughts

The ALIEN RPG Starter Set is a solid one. It presents the core rules simply and effectively whilst also tagging on all the extra bits and pieces that make it feel "ALIEN". It delivers on a quality level too with well put together books, a solid set of accessories that feel like a "must-have" for anyone considering this roleplaying game, and enough to get you started on the next step of your ALIEN journey.

Frontier Art

If you were coming to roleplaying games for the first time as an ALIEN fan then I think you'd find this particular RPG a great entry point to the world as presented on the tabletop. The system is easy enough to understand, the extra mechanics have been designed to suit the feel of the world and because of its Cinematic play mentality, it should fit into an evening or two.

Chariot Of The Gods is a solid adventure too that ticks off all of the things on the ALIEN checklist. I reckon that once you're done with the Starter Set, it should have laid the foundations for the Game Mother who ran it (or others in the group) to tell their own stories. That is one of the key parts of what makes a Starter Set work. It has to inspire you to take that next step towards trying out the full game. I think Free League has succeeded in that.

Have you given the ALIEN RPG Starter Set a go? If so, what did you think?

Let us know in the comments down below...

"It has to inspire you to take that next step towards trying out the full game. I think Free League has succeeded in that..."

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"I think both newcomers and veterans will find something to like about this system! "

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