I've been busying myself with Star Schlock, my sci-fi miniatures game over the last few months, but took a break over the holidays to run the new Alien RPG for my family.
What follows is an account of the one night session we played. It's long (looooong), but I felt it was important to document it since I ran my wife and 12 year old son through the situation from the original Alien (1979) movie. The boy knew nothing about the creature or its life cycle, and it had been 20 years since my wife last saw the movie. How would a crew not controlled by a scriptwriter fair against the perfect organism? Would they make the same choices? Could they use their greater agency to make mince meat of the beast or would it be too overpowering and wipe them out as in the film?
I created a number of handouts and resources. Feel free to steal them for your own games:
Nostromo Bridge and MU/TH/ER cards
So in the name of RPG science, I present my findings - a report on the fate of the Nostromo crew and their investigation of LV-426.
SETUPMy son is aware of the ALIEN films. He's a huge scaredy cat, but seems nonplussed by them. "It's not scary. I already know what the alien looks like. He's got that big sausage head." After overhearing me playing the Alien RPG with some of my gaming buddies over Zoom he asked if we could play sometime. Not wanting the Prometheus lore of Chariot of the Gods to be his first exposure to the film, but knowing he wasn't ready to watch Alien (1979) quite yet, I felt my only choice was to introduce him to the concepts of the series through a scenario based on the first film. I certainly could have just told him the story, but felt this would be a more interesting version and give me a chance to perform an experiment to see how someone with no prior experience would handle the situation the crew of the Nostromo found themselves in.
Before playing I asked my son what he knew about the Alien movies. "Well, there's an alien. And there's a spaceship. That's it." He'd have to run multiple characters in the game, but to share some of the burden I also roped my wife into playing. She's seen Alien, but it's been about 20 years. She's not a big fan of RPGs as she doesn't like being responsible for making decisions or getting characters killed. I was pretty sure I could foist Brett and Lambert on her, and I asked her to avoid spoiling some of the surprises.
THE CHARACTERSI created characters for each of the crew and used them to explain how the rules work. I gave the players the option of replacing any of the crew with characters of their own design but they were happy to go with the stock crew. I told them I'd run Kane, the Executive Officer and Ash the Science Officer since in the movie "all they really do is feed information to the rest of the crew."
Happy with that explanation, they began picking characters. My son picked Captain Dallas and Brett. I was... surprised. Brett? "Yeah, he's great! Look how strong he is!" To make each of the characters equal I followed the chargen rules as written. Since Brett didn't seem to have a ton of interpersonal skills ("Right.") I put most of his character points into strength, close combat, etc. He turned out more formidable than I think he is in the movie. My wife chose Ripley and Parker. Lambert was a floater. I told them I'd run Lambert until they took a casualty but they felt they could run the pilot themselves so my son took on a third character.
THE "PROLOGUE"I gave my son a brief primer on the universe. "It's about a hundred years in the future. Private companies have handled all spaceflight research, kind of like Space-X now, so they became the ones who colonized the local star systems. That gives them even more power than even governments. You work for one of them as the crew of a commercial towing vehicle."
I pulled out a small, color map of the Nostromo's Deck A and gave them a brief tour of their vessel starting with the bridge and ending on the cryopods. "Ok," I told them, "now to get you used to how the rules work we're going to play a brief prologue scenario. Since you are close to your destination, you'll be docking the ship with a space station in orbit around Earth."
The crew collected in the galley, we made some test rolls for Jones the Cat to jump on to the table and so I could explain pushing and stress. The players were a bit surprised at how so many dice could roll up zero successes, a them that would carry on throughout the game.
"So the crew is eating and shaking off their grogginess from being in cryosleep for several months. Ash notices a yellow indicator light which means MU/TH/ER has a message for Dallas." My son directed Dallas to MU/TH/ER and I suggested the rest of the crew dock the ship. They assigned each crew to a role, Lambert as pilot with Ripley next to her as co-pilot, Kane and Brett behind them in comms. Since my son and wife don't know much about crewing a spaceship ("That's not true!" my wife piped up, "I'm watching The Expanse again. I know all sorts of stuff about ships.") I gave them a Nostromo Operations Manual with common procedures to refer to.
Each procedure had some in-world steps they could follow (but which I expected them to ignore) and some game rules in red for how to actually complete the procedure. They flipped through it until they found Docking Procedure via Main Bow Tube and immediately started reading through the steps.
"Ok, we need to contact traffic control. You do that. Here, just read it out."
"This is commercial vessel Nostromo, registration number 180246 contacting traffic control. Do you read me?"
"I'll start locking the navigation sensor on the docking bay."
I paused them there so we could practice a roll. I covered "aiding another" and despite a huge pool of dice, Ripley was unable to contact traffic control. They asked if they could try again but I let them know that they weren't picking up any radio traffic, let alone Antarctic control. In fact scanning everywhere, they couldn't even find Earth.
"Ok, so did Dallas get to talk to MU/TH/ER yet?"
He did. I explained only the ranking officer could use a thumbprint to unlock the keypass and access MU/TH/ER and that she was kind of like Siri, but could only communicate via a text readout. When Dallas asked for his message I handed my son a readout of MU/TH/ER's reply.
UNKNOWN TRANSMISSION INTERCEPTED
POSSIBLE DISTRESS CALL
FLIGHT PATH DIVERTED
CREW REMOVED FROM CRYOSLEEP
REGULATIONS REQUIRE INVESTIGATION,
RESCUE OF SURVIVORS
Dallas rejoins the crew. He explained the situation to the rest of the crew on the bridge.
"Where is the signal coming from?"
"You are near a gas giant, like Saturn. It has several small moons. The signal is coming from one of those small planetoids."
"What does the message say?"
"It's a radio signal that repeats every 12 seconds. You can't understand it, it could be coded or in another language, but you are sure it's from an intelligent source."
"Can MU/TH/ER decode it?"
"Ash volunteers to work with MU/TH/ER to decode the signal for you."
"Ok, we wait."
That was an unexpected response. Since we could be stuck at an impasse here, I suggested they approach the planetoid while Ash worked on the signal. They returned to their stations and within a few hours were in orbit high over a rocky moon, smaller than Earth but of such density that gravity would be similar. They tried to spot the source of the signal from orbit, but I told them cloud cover made precise location impossible, but they had narrowed it down to one area. I made a roll behind a screen for Ash's progress on the signal decoding and rats! he just hadn't figured it out yet.
"Ok, well let's land on the planet and get the prologue done so we can get to the real movie mission."
THE LANDINGThe players broke out the Operations Manual again and began going through the procedure. This was all quite unexpected. I'm accustomed to players ignoring stuff like this.
"Ok, we determine cargo orbital height and speed."
"I do that. Uh 'check!'"
"Right, so you guys should know the Nostromo is just a tug so you'll leave your cargo in orbit so it can land."
"Wait, don't we have a shuttle? Can we take that?"
"Unfortunately the Narcissus is for space travel only, so you can shuttle to space stations or use it as a lifeboat. It doesn't have shielding for atmospheric landings."
"Ah, ok. Well I check to make sure the EC pressure readings are under 5.0 psia."
"I'll lock the pressure seals and monitor the pressure readings."
Following the landing procedure from the rules I had them roll an initial piloting check. I was hoping they'd fail to get some damage to strand them on LV-426 but no such luck, Lambert aced the roll. I narrated the descent and told them the local storm required another piloting roll, but again Lambert killed it. "Lambert's great! He's becoming my favorite character. Is he this cool in the movie?" "Ah, not quite."
The Nostromo touches down on the planet. Howling wind batters the front viewport with particulate matter - ice or gravel or something. It's dark, but the ship is fine. They scan for the signal and find it's only 2000 meters away. "Close enough to walk," Kane mentions and offers to go find the signal.
"Ok, we let Kane go check out the signal. Wait. We should probably send someone with him. How about Brett."
"Yeah, he's so strong and tough."
They discuss the composition of the search party and settle on Kane, Brett, Ripley and Parker. Dallas isn't an option since he's the captain and you never put the captain in harm's way, and Lambert has to stay on the ship since she's the pilot/navigator and essential to getting back into orbit.
They each get in an EVA suit and I tell them they can take one piece of gear. Parker takes a grapple harpoon gun that was stowed in the Narcissus, Ripley takes a rangefinder that can home in on the signal (to use Comtech rather than Survival to navigate to it), Brett takes a hand held light and I have Kane carry a multi-kit (a suitcase like object with parts to assemble emergency gear including a tent, stretcher, 12 foot ladder or winch with 60 meter cable).
THE DERELICTThey navigate towards the signal with successful rolls. The weather starts to clear and they spot a horseshoe shaped object in the distance. It's big, about half the size of the Nostromo, but weird. It doesn't seem to have any straight lines or hard angles. They reach the derelict and find two large holes in the side of it that could offer access. It's taken two turns to reach the derelict and poor Air Supply rolls have dropped Ripley to only 3 air remaining. My wife had been enjoying some "space wine" and started to forget her role in this process.
"Oh, no way. Ripley is not going in there!"
"But we've come so far," Kane replies "We must go on. We must go on!"
Kane crawls into the first hole. They discuss leaving someone outside. My wife's characters Ripley and Parker are particularly reluctant ("I'm not gettin' paid enough to go into this spooky old place!" Parker grouses) but eventually they all head in. The continue through a weird ribbed corridor before finding an opening in the ceiling into a larger chamber. They boost each other up, leaving Parker behind in the entry tunnel. The chamber is dominated by a huge structure, an enormous fossilized alien pilot fused to a weird control chair. They choose to keep their distance rather than inspect any closer (like what may have killed it). Kane spots an opening in the floor.
"Perhaps the survivors are down there." Kane volunteers to go down. They assemble the winch, Kane is lowered in and they hear him over the radio.
"it's a cave of some sort." "positively tropical" "row of extrusions on the floor. Like cabbages." "layer of mist" "appears to react when broken." "wait a minute. There's movement."
They hear Kane gasp, a squeal and then garbled gurgling. The line goes slack.
The players discuss what to do, immediately suggesting they send at least two people down to get Kane and figuring out the logistics of getting Parker into the chamber so he and Brett can rescue Kane. I remind them they can just winch Kane up which they happily do. Kane appears with some sort of brown organic creature sucked to his face, having crushed and pushed through his helmet. They are worried he's losing air but I assure them his lifesigns are stable for now, but that there is a slow leak in the mask. The entire crew makes another air supply roll with terrible results.
"We need to get out of here!" They disassemble the winch and using the LEGO-like abilities of the multi-kit reassemble it into a stretcher to carry Kane back to the ship. The wind has picked up again, but Ripley manages to find the Nostromo with Ash's help from his seat in the science blister. Air supplies continue to drop and by the time they limp into the pool of light from the ship's flood lights Ripley's air supply runs out. Parker and Brett struggle through the howling winds to drag Kane and Ripley to the cargo lift, pushing rolls, shouting over the comms to get Dallas to open the airlock. Dallas obliges and Ash opens the airlock, he and Dallas rushing Kane to the infirmary while Lambert pops Ripley's helmet off so she can breathe again.
KANE'S SONDallas, Ash and Lambert get to the infirmary, put on scrubs and get out medical tools. Ripley retires to the crew barracks to recover from her ordeal and de-stress while Parker and Brett take off their EVA suits and slump against the wall outside the infirmary observation window.
Dallas uses a laser scalpel to cut away Kane's EVA suit. He finds a brown, spider like creature with eight limbs stuck to Kane's face, a long segmented tail wrapped around Kane's neck. Two lobes ("Dad, what's a 'lobe'?") or pouches on the rear of the creature seem to inflate and deflate in rhythm with Kane's breathing. The look of disgust one my son's face was priceless.
"What's it doing to him? Can we scan him or something?" They move Kane to the autodoc and perform a scan which shows a long tube extending from the creature down Kane's throat. It could be providing him oxygen or it could be sucking nutrients out of him. They pull Kane out of the autodoc and Dallas prepares to cut it off with the laser scalpel, right at one of the lobes.
"Wait just a minute, wait just a minute." Ash interrupts, "If it's feeding him oxygen, if we cut it off we could wind up killing Kane."
"Hmm," Dallas ponders, "You could be right. Ok, you monitor Kane and study the creature. My agenda is to recover my tarnished career by getting things done for the company correctly and efficiently. Let's take off and get out of here."
Once the rest of the crew had rested and destressed, they took positions on the bridge and blasted off from the planetoid ("Good riddance! I hate that place!"). A few in-game hours later and an easy piloting roll and the Nostromo had picked up it's cargo and was on its way to Earth.
"So hold on, how far away are we from Earth?" Lambert does some calculations and reports the Nostromo is ten months from its destination.
"Hold on, hold on, hold on. TEN MONTHS!" we had now left my wife's spotty memory of the movie and she was incensed, "I thought you said it was only like six months from Thedus! Where are we! Show me a map!"
I was surprised at their reaction, but I dutifully got out the star map from the Starter Kit. We located Thedus and nearby LV-426. It looks pretty close on the map but I explained it can't account for Z-axis distance. LV-436 is obviously very "deep" along the galactic axis. Whew!
Ash interrupts the discussion via the ship's intercom. "Captain Dallas, I think you should join me in the infirmary. There's been a change in Kane's condition."
Dallas arrives to the infirmary to find Kane sitting up, a robe around his shoulders sipping a cup of water and being comforted by Ash. Ash explains that he'd been monitoring Kane, and was checking some samples at the analysis desk when he heard a noise behind him. He turned to find the creature had dropped off Kane and crawled into the far corner of the room, quite dead. He shows Dallas the dead creature, curled up on its back with its legs curled together like a dead spider.
"And you are sure it is dead?"
"Quite certain captain."
My wife was rolling her eyes HARD at this point, despising Ash. "I do not trust that guy.", but we had left her spotty memory of the film (save for the one encounter mocked in Spaceballs) so she was in uncharted territory along with my son. As for my son, he had Dallas call the rest of the crew to the medbay to show them Kane was alright.
"Ok, so everybody's ok. We checked out the signal and found no survivors. So I guess the prologue is done. Can we go into cryosleep to get to the real mission?"
I told him of course, but cryosleep dehydrates you and Kane says he's famished, so maybe a final celebratory meal is in order. My son agrees that's a great idea and the crew joins in a jovial meal to toast Kane's good health. Kane is wolfing food down like there's no tomorrow when he starts to choke. Dallas tries to help him, but Kane starts to convulse and then flips on his back on top of the galley table.
"Oh no! Get a stretcher! We need to get him to the medlab!" my son exclaimed. I describe a spot of blood appearing on Kane's shirt. My son is confused. "Blood?" I describe a huge gout which sprays everyone in the galley as a small snake-like creature with metallic teeth and a pair of tiny t-rex arms erupts from a hole in Kane's chest.
"Wait. What?!" my son asks. Obviously the crew is shocked, and the chestburster is able to squeal and dart across the galley table before making its way into a small air duct on the far side of the room.
It was silent for a moment before my son came to the realization. "So Kane's... dead?"
SPACE BEASTTension levels were rising among the players. "We need to catch that thing. Are there any weapons on board?" I explain the Nostromo is just a big space truck and doesn't carry weapons, but the crew can improvise some things. The players agree to split up into pairs to gather supplies. Ripley and Brett head to the maintenance garage to get cargo nets and materials to assemble cattle prods, Ash and Parker move to the science blister where Ash says he can create some crude motion trackers. Dallas decides to get some info from MU/TH/ER while Lambert waits outside.
We discuss the computer's AI component and if it's aware of the creature. I decide MU/TH/ER has access to Kane's life signs, the autodoc scans and anything Ash has notified her about. I had a number of cards with stock text replies. Dallas interfaces with the computer and starts probing for info.
"What is the organism"
"Has it been seen on another ship?"
UNABLE TO CLARIFY.
"We were so far from the distress signal. How did you detect it in order to reroute us to the planet. Wasn't there a closer ship."
DOES NOT COMPUTE.
"Aargh! I hate this stupid computer. Why does it not compute? MU/TH/ER, you sent us there. Why did you send us to that planet?"
UNABLE TO COMPLY DUE TO SPECIAL ORDER 937
"Wait what? What is order 937?" my son was pretty irritated and confused by MU/TH/ER at this point (naturally). "Hold on, I saw something in the manual," my wife offered. They flipped through until finding the MU/TH/ER instructions.
"I use my emergency command override. What is special order 937?" My son read the order explaining the requirement to capture the creature. Crew expendable. My son grimaced. "Where is Ash?"
He finds him in the science blister, just finishing up the motion trackers. Dallas tells Parker to take them up the galley ("I'm not taking them up there all alone, I'm not gettin' paid enough for this! We need to discuss the bonus situation." "I use Dallas' special talent to order Parker to the galley.") Now alone, Dallas pushes Ash against a wall.
"I know about special order 937!"
"I'm sorry captain, it was science officer eyes only. I had no idea we would be put in such jeopardy."
"It said 'crew expendable'. You knew!"
"I don't like this any more than you do, captain. I suggest we capture and contain the creature as quickly as possible."
"Ok, let's get the creature back to the company. This should look good on my record. Just don't tell the rest of the crew ok, this will be our secret."
"Of course captain."
At this point, I wasn't sure what to expect. I hadn't needed to prod the crew very much thus far, other than having Kane volunteer to go down into the derelict ship's cargo hold. They had revealed order 937 earlier than scripted but I was surprised by Dallas' conspiracy of silence with Ash. We were in uncharted territory for all of us.
After placing Kane's corpse in a sealed cryochamber ("His family will want to bury him."), the crew assembled in the galley to take stock of their supplies. In addition to the cargo net, cattle prods, and motion detector ("I want to know how it works. Dallas asks Ash to demonstrate it. I move my hand in front of the detector. Does it make a noise or something?"), they are also able to gather two incinerators, a few fire extinguishers and medkits. They took a look at the map of A deck and asked where the ventilation shafts run. At this point I told them the shafts run through the life support system and throughout the ship so it could be anywhere. To illustrate I unrolled three 18" x 24" blueprints, one of each deck on the ship.
"Oh boy." They decide their best bet is to split into two teams. One team will search Deck A, the other will search Deck C. As they clear the decks they'll move to Deck B, hopefully flushing the creature there. Prior to them searching I decided to place the other lifeforms aboard the ship where they appeared in the movie, happy to move them in response to the crew's actions. Parker, Lambert and Dallas start on Deck A, while Deck C is searched by Ash ("Ripley doesn't trust Ash, give him the cargo net."), Ripley (motion detector) and Brett (incinerator). They take the maintenance lift down to the dimly lit bowels of C deck. They enter the vestibule outside the air scrubbers and activate the motion detector. It picks up a faint signal in the maintenance garage. The team enter the cluttered garage, stepping around cargo crates and a grav sled loaded with coolant cannisters. They use the motion detector again. It clearly signals a locker on the far side of the garage. They approach, tension rising ("I'm not tense. There's no way we are going to find it that easy Dad!"). Ripley flings the locker open, something small and brown darts out of it.
"Oh! I was wrong!"
"Does Ash need to make an attack roll with the net to catch it?"
"He would, but Ash raises the cargo net and lets it go."
"WHAT! Ash you traitor! I knew Ripley shouldn't trust him!"
"Ash looks at you surprised. 'It was Jones.' he says, 'It was the cat."
The crew let out a variety of Charlie Brown-style AAAARGHs before deciding they'd need to catch Jones first so it doesn't keep setting off the motion detector. Ash, having already put himself in harms way and in no way the owner of the cat states that it shouldn't be his responsibility to catch the cat.
"Fine. Brett can catch it. Which way did it go? Right here into the landing claw chamber? Ok, you all stick together, I'll just go in here and get the cat." Brett enters the landing claw chamber alone. The vertical shaft rises three stories above him, holding the enormous landing claw over his head. Maintenance chains rattle in the breeze generated by air vents high on the chamber wall. The condensation provides a constant trickle of water over every surface here which has rusted and corroded much of the metal in the chamber. Brett can hear Jones meowing in the distance and he spots a discarded transparent glove below the landing claw.
"A glove? I'll check it out. Is it gross? I don't want to pick it up."
"You can use a pen or a small tool to get it off the floor. You examine it and realize it's more like a discarded snake skin after it molts."
"Weird. Oh is it from that snake thing that came out of Kane? It's growing? What are these cards you are dealing out?"
I describe an enormouse black creature, it's long snaking tail and 'sausuge shaped head' crawl down the landing claw behind Brett. It drops to the ground, then rises up to attack! I roll a 2 on the Drone attack chart - 'Playing with its prey'. The enormous creature swats at Brett knocking him to the ground, his incinerator clattering to the floor. He screams. The A Deck crew hear him over the open comm channel and race towards the maintenance lift. Ash and Ripley turn and rush towards the landing claw chamber. Ripley is first in, dropping the motion dector and unslinging her cattle prod. She charges the beast, and fudging the rules a touch, I give her chance to make an attack. The cattle prod sparks and skitters across the creature's carapace. It whirls, grabbing her and 'Ready to Kill'. Its lips pull back, its jaws open revealing a second set of jaws inside. Ash reaches the door to the landing claw chamber. And closes it.
"ASH!" My wife and son are yelling now, both in character and ooc simultaneously. This game is great. The Deck A crew weren't previously dealt cards, so I redeal everything. Dallas reaches Ash first.
"What did you DO!"
"Captain, the creature inside. We don't know what it can do. I had to make the moral choice of protecting three other crewmembers against the two inside."
"Ash open this door! Wait, I can use my command talent!" Dallas rolls successfully and Ash reluctantly complies at the cost of a stress point to Dallas. With one action left, the players check to see what equipment they assigned Dallas so he can save Ripley.
"A FIRE EXTINGUISHER! We gave him a FIRE EXTINGUISHER!" My wife is apopleptic.
"Ok, can I shoot the extinguisher at the creature from here? Maybe it will scare it."
I remember the final scene of the movie where Ripley drives the creature from its hiding spot by venting gas on it. I tell my son he can vent the fire extinguisher which will give him an opportunity to attempt a manipulate roll to drive the creature back, but this will be the one and only time this will work. He agrees and rolls. 0 successes.
"Ugh, Ripley's dead. It's fine. I knew this was going to happen."
"Wait, I can push it!"
Dallas takes a stress point and rolls again, three successes. Cheers erupt from the table as we decide additional successes not only force the creature to release Ripley but compels it to retreat back up the landing claw out of sight. The rest of the crew gathers and attempt some ineffective incinerator blasts up the landing claw but are unable to even spot the creature higher in the chamber. Ripley grabs Jones and the crew retreat, sealing the landing claw chamber behind them.
"LET'S BLAST IT INTO SPACE"The crew collects in the maintenance garage, Ripley berating Ash for leaving them to die. Dallas quiets them and they start formulating possible solutions. They pull out the blueprints and realize the landing claw chamber spans all three decks, but there's only one door that provides access which they've just sealed. There's some concern that the creature may have "burrowed into other parts of the ship."
Brett's incinerator is low on fuel and the other is on the table in the galley. Ripley, Brett and Lambert head to A deck to get the second incinerator and refuel Brett's. While they are gone, Dallas confers with Parker.
"Is there any other way in or out of the landing claw chamber?"
"No. I mean, just the airlock in the floor of the chamber that allows the claw to deploy as landing gear."
She summons her courage and sends Ripley, Brett and Parker to B deck. Darting from bulkhead to bulkhead, swinging the incinerator and motion detector back and forth, jumping at shadows, they reach the terminal on B deck. They check the pressure logs and find the landing claw chamber seals all closed correctly, but when the door was opened atmosphere began venting from the life support ducts on B deck, drawing atmosphere in from throughout the ship and venting it into space.