ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game - Review

ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game - Review

Mar 21, 2023    

Update: check out updated impressions from after playing: here. Below is my review from before playing the game

Free League’s ALIEN is a master class in both adapting a licensed movie property and horror tabletop.

That is, unless I’m secretly a synthetic and only saying that because of my corporate programming. That seems unlikely though, I wouldn’t let it bother you. Pass the cornbread.

I do not recommend buying the physical copy directly from Free League due to apparent logistics delays at Free League. Maybe it’s just issues in North America. Their customer support was great with a virtual order I wanted to change into a present for my brother. Also, consider getting the starter set rather than the core book.

Purchase: DriveThru PDFs - $19 starter set recommended
Community: ???
Pages: 400 (core book), 49 (starter adventure)
Release: 2019
Roll20: Free Sheets and per module purchase
FoundryVTT: Free System and per module purchase
My Familiarity: Read but have not played … yet

What this game is ‘about’

Reviewer’s note: Games need to know what they are about. The market is crowded and few games have the luxury of being middle of the road. What is the appeal of a game to the players, including the game master?

Alien knows that it is about the key themes: space horror, sci-fi action, sense of wonder.

ALIEN is modern psychological horror and action game, evocative of the movies Prometheus (2012), Alien (1979), and Aliens (1986). Unlike many licensed games it stands on its own merit as a science fiction horror RPG on par with Call of Cthulhu. The game has two modes - Cinematic Play for highly lethal one-shots, and Campaign Play for longer GM and player-guided stories.

chariot of the gods image
Unlike licensed games of past decades, the art of ALIEN does not rely on still frames from the movies

This game is about putting your character through the gauntlet of a 1980s survival horror movie, watching the person who goes exploring on their own die horribly, getting infested with terrifying pathogens, and the lingering knowledge that your fellow players’ hidden agendas could be very very bad for your chances of survival. Both the rules and the three supplemental adventures support this kind of play well.

ALIEN is not about winning. ALIEN is about playing to find out what happens and laughing with your friends as things go wrong or you barely manage to survive.

The One-Shots are well written

Space Tuckers, Colonial Marines, Fronier Colonists? All are possible … but the shining jewel of this game is the starter module “Chariot of the Gods,” which is probably the best adventure I’ve read in the last five years. Sometimes licensed products become a tour through intellectual property and suffer from predictability. Chariots carries all the nostalgia of an ALIEN haunted house survival scenario but mixed in enough unexpected moments that, similar to Cthulhu investigators willingly walking into certain death, players will enjoy the death trap without it feeling too derivative.

character card
the premade characters come with great one-page cards as well as a series of progressing agenda cards for each chapter of the one-shots

The story of Chariots continues with connected scenarios: “Destroyer of Worlds” and “Heart of Darkness”. Destroyer is colonial marines focused and more of a combat romp than a haunted house. Darkness is the concept of the game turned up to 11. If your group has made it this far you can turn it up all the way.

For me, these three cinematic episodes are where it’s at. They are written in a style that reminds me of my favorite parts of running the modern Call of Cthulhu game Delta Green, where high lethality and secret agendas add suspense and a healthy mistrust of the scenario absent from a D&D game.

Give Prometheus another shot

production concept from Prometheus
Prometheus plays heavily into the lore of this game, which can be a negative for some who don't appreciate the prequel's addition to ALIEN canon

Ridley Scott’s return to Alien in 2012’s Prometheus disappointed many fans. Without invalidating any of the original trilogy, the movie focused away from the Xenomorphs we love and onto the origin story of the Engineers and other threats created by their tampering with our Galaxy.

Just like Kubrick’s 2001 a Space Odyssey, this movie doesn’t always make sense on first watch. While it plays with ancient alien tropes, it doesn’t fully explain itself. To lean into the backdrop of this game, I recommend rewatching Prometheus, spending some time on Youtube watching “Prometheus explained” videos, and then finally watching Kroft’s deleted Engineer Dialog video and Deacon explained which get pretty nutty.

How you use Prometheus is up to you. The ‘sense of wonder’ theme of the game will be hard to deliver with tropes like yet another derelict ship. The most important part of Prometheus is the willingness to introduce new things like monsters and morphologies / life cycles. I have the good fortune of having a brother who teaches college lessons on some pretty freakish symbiotic insect relationships. I have an almost limitless source of terrifying ideas there.

I think Chariot of the Gods works because it is still scary even if the players know more or less what is going to happen, just not in what order. It’s a haunted house game, not a haunted house movie. Player expectations can be subverted without all new or familiar content. I think it works.

One warning: a key rule of a good horror RPG is to never name the monster, so make sure to describe the monster rather than saying words like “deacon” or “neomorphs” to the players.

Categorizing this game

ALIEN uses Free League publishing’s Year Zero engine. I haven’t encountered that game on its own, but appreciate the approachability of what I’ve read. I’m going to put this game solidly in the New School. Highly production quality, evocative setting, and rules that encourage emergent narrative and interaction.


The shining star of the game is the stress system, which compliments the horror and action pillars of the game. Witnessing violence, taking damage, losing sleep, even firing a weapon on full auto … increase your stress. So far this sounds like the sanity system from Call of Cthulhu which is a slippery slope. However, unlike Cthulhu, in ALIEN stress gives you extra dice (added chance for successes) as well as a chance of panic-inducing failures. This interesting model of adrenaline and narrative stress means players are more powerful once the game gets going … but are also closer to the freak-out consequences of a roll on the panic table.

The game has rules for all the hazards of space from a vacuum, explosions, radiation, and combat with Xenomorph threats. They are lightweight and involve a fair amount of random taking. Rather than removing agency as it might in a tactical game, in a horror game this system creates a playful lethality that hopefully can be enjoyed like a gory action sequence.

Ecosystem Support

The Game Mother, ALIEN’s fantastic term for the game master, has the freedom to guide stories that have intrigue, combat, and horror set in a world with just enough lore to give the events of the game a sense of place without taking the spotlight away from what’s happening in the story played at the table.

ALIEN has a single expansion book for the Colonial Marines, feeling more like a lore book or alternate game for those who are primarily fans of James Cameron’s 1986 movie Aliens or want to run a military-focused campaign. If you are like me, not caring for lore books, this is skippable.

The Core book is essential for campaign play, having the rules for character creation, but if all you are looking for is an excellent one-shot experience that provides a departure from your normal fantasy game, the starter set is incredible value either in PDF or in person. Most importantly, it contains “Chariots of the Gods”.

As a bonus, this game has excellent VTT support, providing the modules as both Roll20 and Foundry VTT adventure modules for an extra purchase.

screenshot of foundry base system
Excellent publisher VTT support

Read, Play, or Skip?

The books are gorgeous and well-written. For me, ALIEN is a clear addition to my play queue. If you know me IRL, avoid spoilers for those three modules ‘cause I’m gonna run this. I’ll provide a part 2 to the review after running any of the modules.