Alien: Chapter 4. Combat and Panic

Continuing my read-through of the Cinematic Starter Kit. Chapter four starts with some definitions. We learn that maps are divided into zones, and that zones are flexibly defined, “from a few steps across to 25 meters”, essentially, unless a room is huge, it’s one zone. Time is measured in Rounds (5 to 10 seconds), Turns (5 to 10 minutes) for Stealth (more on this below) and Shifts (5 to 10 hours) for longer term things like Recovery.

In a chapter entitled Combat and Panic it might be strange to find a large section on avoiding combat. But Stealth mode is such a vital trope of the films to replicate, whether it’s the haunted house horror of Alien, the Vietnam of Aliens or even the caper mode of Resurrection. In one turn, humans can move through two zones, or spend the whole turn in the space to do a thing, such as access a data terminal. The GMCs, human or alien, must obey the same rules but many aliens can move faster.

Passive enemies can be detected as soon as you move into a zone, or even further away if you have line of sight. Passive, is I feel the wrong word here. I was confused thinking it meant hidden, like the Alien in the shuttle at the end of the first film. But what it really means is unengaged, not hunting you down. Even such an unengaged enemy will see you as soon as you see them, unless you are sneaking (rolling mobility against their observation).

Active enemies are those that are hiding, or sneaking up on you. You can spot them with an observation roll if they are sneaking up on you. But if they are hiding, you won’t spot them unless you tracked them to a spot with a motion tracker, or accidentally look exactly in their hiding place. The motion tracker that was a staple of the movies works up to four zones, ignoring line of sight (though of course you can’t shoot the enemy until you actually do have line of sight – if they are small you might also need an observation roll).

Initiative is, like Forbidden Lands, based on the draw of a card numbered 1-10, and then playing in that order. I am sure there will be Talents about drawing a choice of cards in the full game. Two PCs bale to speak to each other can swap cards, and of course we know there is a close combat stunt about taking an opponent’s card. Not quite sure how that plays with fast moving aliens, who normally seem to draw two cards, and act on both. Scary!

Again like Forbidden Lands, you get one slow and one fast action, or two fast actions. There is a list of example slow and fast actions, but it’s pretty intuitive. Some actions can take place out of turn order, for example parrying an attack, but they still count against your two actions per round limit. Sneak attacks (testing mobility vs observation) give you one free action, fast or slow before initiative cards are drawn.

It’s worth rehearsing resolution. To hit you roll your close combat skill, one success (6) does whatever damage rating your weapon does (mitigated by armour perhaps) extra success can do more damage, or you can spend them to swap initiative, disarm your opponent, push them over, or grapple them.

They may choose to block you, and you can block their attacks too of course. You must declare your intention to block before they roll, for every success you roll, you can choose to parry each of their successes, disarm, or indeed counter attack, choosing to take whatever damage they were dealing out, so that you can sneak a knife in their gut.

There’s a new action (I think) exclusive to Alien. You can push your engaged opponent into short range (so that you or someone else can shoot them). Given how often the players in our UKGE games pushed each other, I must admit it’s a very useful rule to have.

Which brings us onto ranged combat. same mechanic as above, but a different skill of course and some interesting modifiers. Shooting at a target as small as a chestburster, for example, means -2 dice on your roll.

Autofire works differently to Coriolis. In Alien, declaring autofire adds two base dice and one point of stress (and the accompanying die) to your roll. Extra successes can be directed at additional targets (within short range of the original). Auto fire doesn’t empty your clip like it does in Coriolis, but any 1s rolled on a stress die indicate you have to reload, as well as making a panic roll. The idea being that unstressed, you can manage your ammunition, but in the heat of battle it’s easier to find yourself with an empty clip. Is it realistic? Not exactly. But it does emulate the spirit of the movies.

In another difference from Coriolis, you don’t get to spend stunts (extra successes) on critical injuries, you must break your opponent. And of course if you are broken you must roll your own critical injury. It’s easier to break opponents that in Coriolis as Health is based on strength alone, not strength plus quickness, as in Coriolis. But if you are broken, somebody with medical aid skill can help you recover, or after one turn, you recover one point automatically. Most of the other Y0E games rely on someone else being there to get you back on your feet, so I think this rule suggests that you might be alone more than in other games.

If you want to kill a broken human, you must first fail an empathy roll, and take a stress die (unless you have the Cold Blooded talent of course).

And so to stress dice.

You’ve been collecting these as you have played, one of two doesn’t matter so much, indeed they give you a slightly better chance of success. But now you have three or four, and the consequences of a panic roll are more serious.

When you roll a one on any of the stress dice, (and in some other situations, such as when you are attacked by a creature you have never seen before – we forgot that at UKGE, I just gave them an extra stress die), you must make a panic roll: 1d6 plus the number of stress dice you currently have, and consult a table. Results of 1-6 are “keeping it together” but seven or more and bad things happen. For example: on the seven you jerk nervously, and you and everyone around you takes an extra stress die; on eight you get the shakes, and on nine you drop something. On ten and above you the rolls controls your actions to some extent: you freeze, or you are forced to seek cover or you scream. The latter two cathartic responses actually let you lose one stress die, but again, everyone around you gains one.

On thirteen (only a risk if you have seven or more stress dice) you flee uncontrollably. And everyone else must make a panic roll too. I won’t spoil 14 and 15.

Panic lasts one round if specified, or one turn (5-10 minutes), or until you are broken. Someone else can calm you down with a successful Command roll.

A whole turn spent resting in a safe area let’s you lose a stress die, in a new rule (new since to the cinematic starter kit since we first saw it, you can also interact with your signature item in a significant way to reduce stress.

Towards the end of the chapter is a section dealing with other hazards, including conditions such as Starving, Dehydration, Exhaustion, and Freezing, plus: vacuum; falling; explosions; fire; disease; radiation; drowning; and suffocation. Space is Hell indeed. Then there is a section on synthetics and a little bit, for players I guess, on Xenomorphs. This is written in a way that gives very little away but explains that the GM is not cheating when the Xeno gets twice as many actions as everyone else.


A form-fillable character sheet for Alien RPG

graphic link to PDF
click on the picture to download the PDF

I am not sure I will get to post chapter four of my “Where I read…” today. But instead here is a useful resource. Dave and I have been preparing for the last month or so to run Alien taster sessions at UK Games Expo. To that end I pulled the blank character sheet out of the Starter Kit (that was a story in itself, some errors in the postscript made it impossible to do the easy way) and have made it form-fillable.

You can download it by clicking the picture or HERE.

This is designed for convention play, so rather than a number of talent fields this has just one, with space below to describe the talent.

Alien: Chapter 3. Skills

Before we continue with the read through, let’s pause and head back to the credits page (page 2 on the PDF). What’s this?

Dave and I are listed as play testers! That’s nice🙂. We did offer feedback from our games, I wonder if anything has changed?

I have spotted at least one so far. As I predicted yesterday, Victory Points no longer exist. Instead we have Story Points. But that’s enough looking back, let’s crack on with Chapter 3. And let’s start with Story Points! Buried in chapter three is a new use for these newly named Story points. You can spend them, one for one, for an automatic success, after your roll.

There are twelve skills in this game, just three of each attribute. Not sixteen like in Free League’s other Science Fiction game, Coriolis. And unlike that game, all the skills can be rolled “unskilled”, on the attribute only, if you don’t have points in the skill. Attributes, skills and gear all contribute to your pool of base dice. Like Coriolis there is no damage to stats or gear for pushing, so you don’t need to split them out.

What you do need to split out are your stress dice. You earn one every time you push, and add it to all subsequent rolls, including the push. Sixes, on base dice or stress dice mean success. So the more adrenaline running through your system, the more successful you can be. But ones rolled on the stress dice mean panic. More on that later. Ones on stress dice mean something else as well. If you are testing Ranged Combat, and firing a weapon with a limited magazine, then that magazine empties.

There is interesting advice here in a boxout which should be heeded. Don’t roll too often say the authors:

In the ALIEN roleplaying game, a dice roll is a dramatic moment. Pushing rolls increases stress and can trigger panic in your character. With that in mind, you should never roll dice unless it is absolutely necessary. Save the dice for dramatic situations or tough challenges. In any other situation, the GM should simply allow you to perform whatever action you wish

Our experience suggest this is good advice. In my co-host Dave’s first playtest, he made his players roll the dice too often. Many rolls were pushed and stress points earned. Panic rolls can cause more stress, so there was a sort of cataclysmic chain reaction. I ran a playtest with that in mind, and made fewer (too few?) rolls, and didn’t experience a Panic cascade.

Dice rolls can be modified by difficulty (ranging from +3 for trivial actions, to -3 for formidable actions – though I don’t think we should be rolling for trivial actions, considering the advice above). Or, you can get help from other PCs, as with many Year Zero Engine games, by adding one dice per character helping, up to a maximum of three. Some rolls, for example when you use Mobility to sneak, can be opposed by the NPC with an Observation roll, you have to get more successes than they do. NPCs never push their rolls.

If it’s not opposed, then one success is all you need (difficulty modifiers are on the dice rolled, not the number of successes needed). And each skill description includes a list of stunts you can spend extra successes on. These include things like; rolling an extra die on a related skill check; completing the task more quickly or quietly; sharing a success with a PC in the same situation; or, in combat, simply dealing more damage.

Finally, for those wanting to compare the skills other Y0E games, they are:

  • Heavy Machinery (STRENGTH)
  • Stamina (STRENGTH)
  • Close Combat (STRENGTH)
  • Mobility (AGILITY)
  • Ranged Combat (AGILITY)
  • Piloting (AGILITY)
  • Observation (WITS)
  • Comtech (WITS)
  • Survival (WITS)
  • Command (EMPATHY)
  • Manipulation (EMPATHY)
  • Medical Aid (EMPATHY)

Alien: Chapter 2. Your Character

STOP PRESS! I just heard the first batch of the Starter PDF is coming though, so from now on, you will be able to read along with me 🙂

Continuing my “Where I read…” the starter PDF does not include full rules for character creation, but rather gives readers a guided tour of what makes a character. It’s a sort of introduction to the pre-gens included in the scenario.

As usual with Year Zero Engine games, there are four attributes, Strength; Agility; Wits; and Empathy, each with up to five points allocated. A sidebar indicates that Androids generally have higher physical scores. There are three skills attached to each attribute, but there is a whole chapter on skills later.

There are two other stats: Stress starts at Zero, but goes up by one every timid you push a roll; and Health starts equal to your Strength stat. So, I guess damage is not linked directly to the attribute like it is in the Mutant games and Forbidden Lands – you don’t become less effective as you take damage – but your “hit points” are just as few as in those games.

Personal agendas are mentioned briefly, if only to say the campaign version of personal agendas will be covered in the full rules, and that in cinematic adventures you get given personal agendas each act. If you take actions toward you personal agenda during the act, you can remove a point of stress before the next act, and you get a “Victory Point”. We’ll see if this last survives to the published version though, as there was talk from Free League that suggested Victory Points might get changed. You also have buddies and rivals, though with no game mechanics attached to them. If the other Year Zero Engine games are a guide, there will probably be experience points attached to them in campaign play. Androids can’t push skill rolls, don’t suffer stress and never make Panic Rolls. They also suffer damage differently.

Unusually for a RPG, there is a box out on PVP or, player vs player. Basically when tensions get high, the GM warns everyone that PVP is imminent, and the aggressor loses their character.

The most important part of a section on gear is the resource roll. Roll a number of dice equivalent to your resource, and for every 1 rolled, lose a point of resource. Ammo isn’t included as a consumable. We’ll read about that later.

Alien: Chapter 1. Space is Hell

Today, pre-orders for Free League’s new Alien RPG go live. To inspire you to buy it, I will start a “Where I read…” going through the Starter PDF that will be free to everyone who pre-orders. (Yes, I know I haven’t finished the Where I Read … Liminal, but I will return to that when I am done here. Sorry.)

Effekt co-host Dave and I have been asked to run taster sessions on the Free League stand at UK Games Expo, so we have had access to a not-quite-finished version of the Starter PDF to prepare. When I say not quite finished, I mean, missing a few illustrations, the text is there, all 168 pages of it. I wouldn’t rule out there being a few tweaks between this version and the final one, but I am pretty sure they will be minor.

Anyhow, let’s crack on with Chapter 1. This serves as an introduction to the world, and introduces us to the ships log of Captain Charlize, for whom I fear, things will go badly wrong by the end of the book.

We will be playing among “the rough and tumble colony worlds on the Frontier of known space.” There are three “great powers” in space, the dominant being the United Americas. The largest, not not the most successful economically is probably the Union of Progressive Peoples. I have a soft spot for the Three Word Empire formed from a formal alliance between Britain and Japan, and the merger of Weyland and the Yutani corporation. Weyland Yutani plays well with both the Empire and the United Americas, but it hedges it bets, also owning outright some independent worlds. These and other privately owned planets reject the three super powers and band together as the Independent Core System Colonies. Other companies, BioNational and Seegson being two examples, are also manipulating the national governments and, really, driving colonisation.

The game is set roughly three years after the events of Aliens, and Alien 3. Something of what happened on the prison planet in the third film is known publicly, because of of the prisoners published an ebook, that also implicates Waylamd-Yutani in bioweapons research. Some people argue that Wayland-Yutani may be working with a rouge nation to assume control of the frontier colonies. The chapter includes a timeline, from “Peter Weyland’s infamous TED Talk address of 2023” to the publication and subsequent banning of “Star Beast.”

The rest of the chapter is written for both newbies and experienced players. It starts with what you can play, adding Company Reps to the triad that pre-publicity had already mentioned: colonists, Marines and space truckers. Then there is a description of what the Gamemaster does, and the two different modes of play, saying in cinematic mode “In fact, most of your PCs probably won’t live to see the end of the scenario.” Whichever mode, the key themes of the game are: Space Horror; Sci-fi Action; and A Sense of Wonder. In its last few pages the chapter runs through the tools of the game, character sheets, dice, and cards, before finishing with “What is a Role Playing Game?”

Right at the end of the chapter? Well, if they didn’t know by now …