The ALIEN starter set is designed to give you everything you need to play Cinematic stories in the ALIEN universe. Cinematic adventures are meant to be played in a single session or two, feature pre-generated characters and highly deadly adventures where each character has their own agenda.
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What comes in the ALIEN RPG Starter Set?
The ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game Starter Set was created by Tomas Härenstam and Andrew E.C. Gaska with art and graphic design by Martin Grip and Christian Granath. This starter set was published by Free League Publishing in 2020. The ALIEN RPG uses the D6 based Year Zero Engine originally introduced in Mutant: Year Zero.
For a good look at all of the components in this rather full RPG boxed set, check out my ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game Starter Set unboxing on YouTube.
First off I have to say this is one heavy RPG boxed set. Unlike Free League’s Tales from the Loop Starter Set that I reviewed a couple of weeks back, this box is not short at all on content. Similar to the Tales from the Loops starter, the ALIEN starter also comes in a nice solid, board game quality, box.
In that box, you will find two books. One is a nice thick 104-page rulebook. The other is a cinematic adventure, “Chariot of the Gods”, which is 48-pages long. These are both softcover, featuring very matte covers. The pages are glossy and shiny. Text in both is surprisingly sparse, really using a lot of white space. Well, I should say black space actually, as most of the pages are black with either white text or light call-out boxes with dark text.
There is also a huge full-colour double-sided map and five pre-generated character sheets. The map is printed on high quality thick paper. Each character sheet is on a single sheet of thin glossy paper, two-sided with background on one side and game stats on the other.
The set also includes a cardboard punchboard with eight-four round markers and a significantly thick deck of cards. There are a total of fifty-six cards, which are a mix of gear, personal agendas and cards for tracking initiative.
Finally, there are two sets of dice. One black and white set of Base dice and a yellow set of Stress dice. These are all custom D6s and there are ten of each.
A look at each component in this ALIEN Starter Set in detail:
Custom ALIEN the RPG dice
This ALIEN boxed set contains two sets of D6 dice, ten of each.
The first set is black with white numbers. Numbers one to five are standard whereas the six is a special cross-like symbol which also features a small number six. These are the Base dice, and in the mechanics of the game, all that matters is rolling a six on these.
The second set of dice are yellow with black numbers. These are the same as the Base dice except for the number one has been replaced by an Alien Facehugger symbol and a small number one. These are the Stress dice which mechanically have a negative effect whenever a one is rolled.
I was very impressed by both sets of dice due to just how easy they are to read at a glance. These are very effective dice for taking a quick look to see if you succeed or fail and if there’s going to be an added complication due to stress.
Character Sheets, The ALIEN Starter set comes with five pre-generated characters
Five pre-generated characters are included in this RPG beginners’ box. Each character sheet is two-sided with a headshot of the character, background information, in-game statistics and the character’s unique talent described on one side. The other side is a full RPG character sheet with all kinds of places for tracking all of the additional in-game information.
There are spots for tracking personal agendas, relationships, stress level, health, radiation level, critical injuries, conditions, consumables (Air, Power, Food and Water), armour, weapons, talents, XP, story points, items, attributes and skill levels.
These sheets have most of the information pre-filled but you are expected to use them during play as well. I’m not sure if I would want to do that as these sheets are printed on that thin glossy paper that most pencils and pens don’t want to write on. While you can find blank character sheets on Free League’s website I haven’t seen printable copies of these pre-filled ones anywhere.
Cards, You get a number of cards in the ALIEN RPG beginner box
One deck features artwork showing a headshot of each character/NPC with summarised game statistics on the back.
Then there is a deck of gear cards. These are for the weapons found during the included adventure. They feature a picture of the weapon on the front and game mechanics on the back. I thought it was a bit odd they only did cards for the weapons and not other types of gear.
Finally, there is a set of initiative cards numbered one through ten.
All of the cards are a bit thinner than I would like but do have a very nice linen finish.
The Map, This ALIEN boxed set comes with a huge two-sided map
One of the most impressive pieces you get in the ALIEN RPG starter set is the map. This thing is massive (864×558mm). It’s also made of some type of really nice thick paper and has a nice matte finish which means that you don’t just see glare when you look at it.
One side features the Stars of the Middle Heavens showing off a huge star map with hundreds of systems on it. The map is colour coded to show which faction in the ALIEN universe controls each system. The systems are also divided into rings radiating out from the Core System to the Outer Rim Territories and beyond. I had no idea that this much of the universe was mapped out for the ALIEN setting.
The other side of the map features a number of starship deck plans for the ships used in the included cinematic adventure. This side is meant to be used with the included counters during the adventure. These are some pretty sweet ship maps that could be useful in any Sci-fi RPG.
The Counters, The starter set for the ALIEN RPG comes with a number of counters for tracking character and NPC positions
The icons represent a number of different characters, NPCs, ships and of course aliens in all different shapes and sizes. Interestingly each of these is two-sided with the non-icon side just showing a radar blip icon. I couldn’t help but think of Space Hulk when I saw them.
The text counters look to be a series of order tokens for ship to ship combat including things like “Go Dark”, “Ram”, “Maneuver”, and “Fire Weapon”. I say look to be because these tokens aren’t mentioned anywhere in either of the books that come with this starter set.
The Rulebook, The Alien The Roleplaying Game Starter set comes with a full set of rules for running cinematic adventures.
This ALIEN starter set comes with a very impressive rulebook. It’s over one-hundred pages long and features the full rules for playing out cinematic adventures in the ALIEN universe. This is not a quick start guide or a set of simplified rules from the full RPG, it’s a complete system.
The ALIEN RPG is designed to be played in two ways. The first way is Cinematic Play, where players with pre-generated characters play through a single story. This story is expected to take one or two sessions and features high tension, high adventure and high lethality, with characters working at odds to accomplish personal agendas. Exactly what you would expect from an ALIEN movie.
The second method of play is Campaign Play, where players are expected to play characters that they’ve created themselves, in a long-term campaign where lethality is much lower and the characters are expected to grow and change over time. The stakes are lower and inter-group conflict isn’t as expected.
This boxed set contains all of the rules you need to take part in Cinematic Play. Campaign Play is not covered in his boxed set at all. For that, you will need the full ALIEN The Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook. For any published adventure that is a Cinematic Adventure, this box set is all you need to play. You won’t actually need the core rules unless you want to dip into campaign play.
Now, let’s take a deeper dive into this Cinematic Play rulebook:
Chapter 01: Space is Hell – The first chapter of the ALIEN RPG Starter Set rulebook introduces you to the ALIEN universe and sets the tone for the game which is one of body horror, the unknown, hubris, corporate greed, personal agendas and not knowing what lies around the corner.
After setting the tone, we learn about life on the frontier of space and the various factions at play there. We learn of rumours of alien life and what has come before and where the universe stands at the start of play. A timeline of events is presented setting the stage for new adventures.
What this basically does is go through the various ALIEN movies (and Prometheus) and explain what the characters in the universe know, or at least think they know, happened.
It’s worth noting that while there are rumours, it’s not like everyone knows what a facehugger is or to avoid those egg-shaped things.
We then get an overview of who the characters may be, with a look at various careers on the Frontier before diving into the fact that this is a game and what it’s all about. Here you have your usual description of what roleplaying is and a look at the two styles of play featured in ALIEN.
The key themes are covered, which are: Space Horror, Sci-Fi Action and a Sense of Wonder.
The chapter finishes off by talking about the various tools in this box, the maps, character sheets, dice, etc.
Chapter 02: Your Character – The second chapter of this starter set focuses on player characters. It starts off with an interesting dissociation between your PC and you and why you should care about your character and again notes the difference between Cinematic and Campaign play.
The core character concepts of Career, Attributes, Skills, Talents, Stress and Heath are covered.
Personal agendas are introduced as a way to earn story points. If a player is able to act to advance their character’s personal agenda, despite personal risk or sacrifice, they are awarded story points that can be used to generate automatic successes during play. During cinematic play, these agendas will change in each act.
Interpersonal relationships in ALIEN are represented as buddies and rivals, with most characters having one of each. This ties the group of characters together.
The rules for gear are quickly covered, with a focus on four consumables that are particularly important in ALIEN themed stories: Air, Water, Food, and Power. As this is a game about survival and resource management and allocation, there are encumbrance rules. It’s something you don’t see often in modern RPGs but that I think fits well here.
Chapter 03: Skills – Here we learn now the actual game mechanics work and when they come into play. The system starts with the basic Year Zero Engine of rolling a pool of six-sided dice based on a character’s skill which is tied to a specific attribute. For each point in each, you roll one die. The pool will then be modified based on gear and environmental conditions.
For most rolls, only a single six is required for success. Additional sixes can be spent for additional effect, with these effects being determined by the skill being used.
The new thing added with the ALIEN RPG to this base system is Stress. Managing your character’s stress level is a big part of this game. Characters start off with zero stress but will gain more as the story unfolds.
One way players can gain stress is by pushing their rolls. Whenever they fail a roll the player has the option to push it. They describe what their character is doing to give that extra effort, increase their stress by one and roll again. Characters can also gain stress in a number of different ways like being under pressure, witnessing someone else panic, seeing something horrible, running out of ammo, experiencing something alien for the first time, etc.
Mechanically, what stress does is give the player more dice to all of their dice pools. Stress and panic can help you to focus and the adrenaline can increase your strength and reflex. The downside is that every stress die also has a panic symbol on it (the face-hugger on the one). Panic is bad and covered later in the book.
This chapter includes all kinds of rules for building dice pools, modifying them, characters working together, opposed checks, and full detailed descriptions of each skill and what additional effects you can get when you roll extra successes for each skill.
Chapter 04: Combat and Panic – The fourth chapter of the cinematic play rulebook goes into further details about combat and the results of panic. It expands on the rules from the previous chapter on skills, though the base mechanics remain the same.
The ALIEN RPG uses three different time units; rounds, turns and shifts. Rounds last seconds and are used mostly during combat. Turns are used mainly during stealth mode and last minutes and shifts are used mostly during recovery and exploration and last hours.
Instead of a detailed tactical combat system, this sci-fi RPG uses maps broken into large zones. A single zone would be one corridor, a cargo bay, the bridge of a ship etc. Larger areas like a hanger bay may be broken into multiple zones. All of the rules for combat (movement, line of sight, ranged attacks, etc) use these zone rules. While the game could be played “theatre of the mind” style, it’s expected that you will use the included ship floorplans and tokens for representing this.
Something else unique to ALIEN, that fits in with the theme, is an entire section on playing in Stealth Mode. This is used when characters are moving about a ship and unaware of what may be out there lurking in the shadows and also for when the sides have swapped and the crew is stalking down their prey or setting an ambush. Here you will find a full hidden movement system with the GM tracking things behind a screen, motion trackers and radar blips, etc.
Initiative in ALIEN uses a system I have not seen before. The game includes a deck of cards numbered one through ten and these are handed out randomly. The interesting bit comes from a number of actions that let you swap cards with other players or adversaries. At the start of the round players can swap cards but only if their characters can talk to each other, In addition to this, if you manage to get the drop on an enemy you can swap cards with them. Finally, some of the extra effects of skills will also allow you to swap cards.
On a character’s turn, they get both a slow and a fast action. These are pretty much what you would expect. Slow actions are things like shooting, attacking an engaged opponent, giving first aid, reloading, throwing a grenade, using items, etc. While fast actions are things like aiming, seeking cover, drawing weapons, and moving.
In fitting with the setting there are also detailed rules for both ambushes and sneak attacks.
Actual combat is based on skill rolls with weapons causing a set amount of damage, this can be increased with each additional success rolled. Melee attacks can be blocked but this uses up the character’s slow action for the round, with successes on a block roll cancelling out the attacker’s successes. Armour is rated with a number, which is the number of dice rolled to prevent damage with each success stopping one point of damage.
Each damage that gets through reduces the target’s health by one. When heath hits zero characters are broken and can no longer act. They also roll on a D6 based critical table that can lead to permanent effects. Interestingly most of these effects are not fatal but some are. Healing happens over time or through the use of the Medical Aid skill.
There is, of course, a lot more details here that I don’t think are worth deep diving for this review. Things like grappling, disengaging, shoving, full-auto fire, running out of ammo, cover, overwatch, coup de grace and a simplified system for NPCs.
The second half of this chapter deep dives into the panic system unique to this RPG. Panic is a potential result that comes up once a characters’ stress level increases. Once players start rolling dice pools with stress dice in them there’s always the chance of panic. When panic happens players roll on a panic table to see how their character reacts. Many of these reactions will also be stress-inducing for those around the panicking character which can lead to a cascading effect. Rather fitting for the setting I think.
Thankfully there are a few ways that characters can also relieve stress. One of which is tied to each character’s personal item (something they carry with them that is important to them alone). Again this is something I think fits the setting well. Medical care, drugs and alcohol are other ways to reduce stress.
There are a number of other hazards that could come up during play such as starving, dehydration, exhaustion, being caught in a vacuum, freezing, falling, explosions, fire, disease, radiation, drowning and suffocation.
Finally, we have the rules for Synthetics. Synthetics are a big part of the ALIEN franchise and there are special rules for synthetic characters. In general, synthetics are stronger and faster. They don’t panic and can’t heal but they can be repaired.
This chapter finishes by pointing out that Xenomorphs don’t follow all the same rules. The actual rules for them aren’t included here though, they are presented in the adventure.
Chapter 05: Gear – The final chapter in the ALIEN RPG Starter Set Rulebook covers all kinds of gear and the mechanics that go along with it. The chapter starts off with weapons, which are divided into a number of types: Pistols, Rifles, Heavy Weapons and Close Combat Weapons. Suits and armour come next, with a small handful of types including the Caterpillar P-5000 Powered Work Loader.
We finish off with other equipment including computer mainframes, data storage, diagnostics and display, vision devices, tools, medical supplies, pharmaceuticals and food and drink.
Chariot of the Gods a Cinematic Adventure for ALIEN The Roleplaying Game
Chariot of the Gods is a forty-eight-page Cinematic Adventure for the ALIEN RPG. It is meant to be played over one or two sessions and is meant to be an introduction to the ALIEN system using the content of this starter set. I’m going to stick to a general overview here so I don’t spoil any of the story.
The five pre-generated characters in the box are specifically designed for this adventure, as are the maps and various agenda cards included in the box.
The adventure starts with an overview and description of the situation. It then goes on to present all of the setting information before the actual series of events that comprise the story. This information starts with the character’s ship then moves on to a series of NPCs. There are a lot of these, each of which has a headshot, background information and summarized game mechanics. Each NPC’s agenda is listed, which is important for portraying the characters properly. There are ten NPCs in total.
It’s worth noting that any of these NPCs could potentially become player characters. Character death is a very real possibility in this scenario and players are encouraged to take on the role of any NPC already presented if their initial character dies. This is a feature of the Cinematic Play experience in ALIEN. After the NPCs, you have a lengthy, section by section, description of the main setting for the adventure.
It isn’t until page 26 that the actual plot of the adventure is presented. This is done through a series of events spread over three acts. Interestingly only some of the events are important to the main plot. These are marked as Mandatory. The rest of the events are there to be used by the GM as they feel they are needed to either increase the game length or interject some action when they feel it is needed.
After the list of events, we get the full rules for two different types of Xenomorphs, the details of which I will leave to your imagination.
Finally, there is an appendix listing the talents for the NPCs to be used if any of them are converted to player characters during play.
Is ALIEN The Roleplaying Game Starter Set worth picking up? Final thoughts.
I really wasn’t sure what to expect with this ALIEN RPG Starter Set. I will say that the first time I opened the shipping package and held this box in my hand I was impressed by the weight of it. I had just reviewed the Tales from the Loop Starter Set which is by the same publisher and while I thought the contents of the box were solid and a good introduction to the Tales from the Loop game, I found I wanted more from the box. There just wasn’t much in there.
The overall quality is good to excellent. I love the dice. The map is huge and amazing. Overall, the layout and design work is top-notch. The character sheets could use to be on thicker paper of a type that’s easier to write on, but that’s easy to fix with a quick download. The tokens are a bit odd as there’s a bunch on the punchboard that you don’t actually use with this set, but I guess that makes sense instead of creating an entirely new die-cut pattern just for this one box.
Most impressive to me though is the rulebook. That thing is huge for a starter set!
When I get an RPG starter box I expect to find a simplified introduction to the full game, a set of quickstart rules and maybe a sample module. I don’t expect to get a fully fleshed out roleplaying game rulebook and that’s what you get here. I own published core rulebooks that are smaller than the rulebook in this ALIEN boxed set.
It wasn’t until reading further that I learned that this boxed set is meant to be everything you need to play cinematic adventures in the ALIEN universe. I love the idea that they created two entirely different ways to play in the world of ALIEN, either Cinematic Play or Campaign Play and that this box set is all that you need to play Cinematic games.
Now what this means is that I now have much less interest in ever picking up the full ALIEN The Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook, which isn’t a problem for me but I have to say is a bit of an odd marketing move for Free League.
As for the system, having only read it and not actually played a game using it, it sounds solid. I am already experienced with the Year Zero engine from other games like Tales from The Loop and the core mechanics here are the same. I know those work and work well. The big change in these ALIEN-based rules is the entire stress and panic system, something that I think is brilliantly tied to the ALIEN setting. I love the concept of players having to manage their stress levels and the threat of a cascading panic attack by a ship’s crew. It’s a perfect example of tying mechanics to theme.
The included adventure is a great example of an ALIEN story. It’s the perfect mix of tension, exploration, interpersonal rivalry, corporate meddling and horror that I would want from a story set in this universe. My only concern though is that this does not look like an easy story to run, especially for a new Game Mother (the suggested game master title, based on the MU/TH/UR AI system from the Movies). There is a lot of front loading in this module and a lot for the GM to keep track of all at once. Combining all of that with learning a new set of rules could lead to a bit of a mess.
This isn’t one of those adventures that slowly introduces you to one rule at a time. It’s a full-blown traditional RPG module with a lot of NPCs and multiple sites to explore and varied NPC motivations coming into play.
What this ends up meaning is that while this is a great Starter Set for the ALIEN RPG it shouldn’t be considered a Beginner Box. Besides having a rather complex adventure module, this is also indicated by including a full rulebook for the Cinematic mode of Play. While I think this is an awesome box for an experienced group looking to learn a new system and setting, I don’t think this would be a very good entry point for a group new to roleplaying in general.
Overall I was really impressed by this boxed set, both with the amount of stuff you get in the box and the quality of what you get. If you have ever considered creating stories in Ridley Scott’s ALIEN universe this is the place to start.
This boxed set is much more than a beginner box, giving you the full set of rules for playing Cinematic, high tension, high risk, high fatality, ALIEN scenarios. It also comes with all the added tools for play, like custom base and panic dice, maps and counters. The included adventure, while not designed for new GMs, is a perfect example of the kinds of stories you expect and want from an ALIEN based game.
There you have my thoughts on the ALIEN The Roleplaying Game Starter Set from Free League Publishing, an RPG boxed set that’s packed to the brim and includes a full set of rules for creating cinematic stories in the ALIEN universe.
I don’t own or play a lot of horror based RPGs myself but I know they are popular. What’s your favourite horror RPG? Let us know in the comments!