GAME THE GAME: Game Over, Man!

I don’t think aliens are trademarked, though most games that try to incorporate the non-TM Aliens (capital A) from the film franchise (and can we please just forget Prometheus ever happened, I would rather revisit Aliens 4) they call them xenomorphs or some such thing.

But they are Aliens.

And they are bad news.

I sat on a panel a couple years back about classic sci-fi movies, and I argued debated with my fellow panelist about the first Aliens film, I made the argument that it was more horror than sci-fi. He vehemently disagreed. But perhaps that is a topic of blog-discussion for another day, or perhaps I am just passive-aggressively throwing that out there and then just moving on, leaving you, my faithful reader with no choice but to accept my thesis.

Anyway, capturing the essence of these Aliens in an RPG is something every sci-fi seems to want to try, that is how iconic these films were. What do we know about them? They are tough, fast, they impregnate suspects who have no idea they have been impregnated, they have tons of natural camouflage, they can fit in small spaces, they have acid for blood. Ok, so then we have to try and break all that down into game stats.

Heck, there was even an entire licensed game™ dedicated to these nasties in their official incarnation. This is one of those games that is discussed at length in all sorts of RPG online forums as a classic example of way too much.  As source material it was great, but the system itself was… very, very, very complicated. From my understanding the creators of the game literally went back to being rocket scientists or some such when their game company didn’t take off. These were smart dudes, but their Mechanics did not support their intent. If I play in an Aliens game, I want to be scared out of my skull, terrified. If I run a game, I want it to feel like the second film in the franchise, fast, brutal, and deadly, and if folks want to scream out lines from the film, all the better.

So, Leading Edge Games made a very crunchy game that was unwieldy. They have stats for all the characters in the film. Too much, I would say. Each character can pretty much be summarized by the weapon(s) they carry and possibly they have a secondary skill (Hudson comes to mind as the tech specialist), but aside from that, shouldn’t gameplay be quick and deadly (I was going to use another phrase but a Vin Diesel movie franchise and a game publisher might sue). So, what to do?

I wrote a game supplement that is designed to capture all the craziness of a zombie movie: the paranoia, the jump scares, the sense of dread and the unknown.  I would argue that many of these elements are very much a part of an Aliens tabletop experience. So, if you have the sci-fi system you love, and stats for xenomorphs (maybe found online, or published in a supplement), go for it. Find ways to bring in those horror film type elements. Take some of the Mechanics out of the players hands, increase the sense of the unknown. If a player knows that they need to get a 27 on their hide check, they will know if they succeed or not based on what they roll. BO-RING! And stacking armor and feats and traits and powers to get maximum effect… that is not nearly as cool as “nuke it from space, it’s the only way to be sure!” But this is of course my opinion.

My second idea, which is likely going to be harder to implement, is to get yourself a copy of the Aliens board game (same publisher as the RPG). Copies are not easy to find or inexpensive, but, boy does it get the whole thing right. Characters are either alive, wounded, or dead, there is a very elegant system for having Aliens appear on the game board. The characters from the second film are all represented, and all have a bit of flavor, as they should. And your night of gaming will not get bogged down in looking up rules for players trying to min/max their abilities. The whole point of the game is to not die. But, chances are, you will. And then you can scream out “Wierzbowski! Wierzbowski!” Until I owned this game, I always thought that was Michael Biehn yelling out “Where’s Baski?!?” or some such last name.

Don’t overthink things. Some things should be brutal, simple, and deadly. This can make them very elegant. What is really neat is that there are games out there now that have the explicit goal of doing just one thing and doing it well, yes, choices are taken away from players, but instead of focusing on the loss of free-will, look instead at the finely-tuned focus of these games and how an evening of communal storytelling can be driven by these limiting effects. It does mean that you don’t have free will, but it also forces you to make very interesting choices. If you are like me, this is a challenge you might appreciate. I recall playing Knightmare Chess at my old workplace. I am not the best chess player, nor am I the best CCG player. But, I focused on making my deck one that did some things and did them very well, and I never lost. I gamed the game. So, I had a card that moved all my pawns forward, I had a card that let one of my pawns move three instead of two. I had a card that let a pawn push a piece off the board, I had a card that made it so my any pawn that made it the last rank could become a super piece. I made two kings. I played my hand, and focused on winning the game we were playing, which was not regular chess.

So, if you want an evening of Alien-rific fun, think about what are the best parts of those films, and how to translate them to your game. Scaring players in a game where they have 100+ HP and each attack does only 2-12+4 damage can be difficult. So, mess with their heads. You don’t have to break the rules, and throw challenges at them that are higher level than they can handle. But you also don’t have to share with them every piece of relevant information.

~Barak

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2 Responses to GAME THE GAME: Game Over, Man!

  1. George Claxton says:

    I actually own the Aliens board game and have always found it to be enormous fun and very playable with a group, or alone.
    As an RPG, if you are doing a campaign setting, in which there is actual role playing and not just fighting, GURPS would work well as it has the weapons stats that you need and a good way of building the characters so that they are fully developed people and not just guns with meat attached.
    The system would also be good for building the Aliens, if you use the Supers rules, you can mimic their speed, claws, teeth and camouflage abilities perfectly.

    • barak says:

      sure, but if you give something a number, PCs will always find a way around that number, and a way to beat it.
      I really like the utter sense of danger and panic that the board game inspires.