Corporate Dystopia, Androids, Cults, Science, and even Archaeology: Alien: The Roleplaying Game by Free League

Saturday, December 21st, 2019 | Posted by eeknight

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“You don’t beat this thing, Ripley. You can’t. All you can do is refuse to engage. You’ve got to wipe out every trace. Destroy any clue. Stop its infection from spreading. Make sure there’s no chance of the human race ever making contact with it again. Because the moment it makes contact, it’s won.”
―Marlow (from Alien: Isolation)

Sweden’s Fria Ligan has been running up the score in the tabletop role-playing game industry lately with titles like Tales From the Loop and Forbidden Lands. So when I heard they had finessed a license to an RPG set in the Alien universe, I ran down Grandmaster Games in Oak Park and told Charlie to get me EVERYTHING in my best Gary Oldman voice.

The only absolutely necessary items you need to enjoy the game is the Alien: The Roleplaying Game core rulebook, a couple handfulls of assorted six-sided dice, and an ordinary deck of cards. The game itself is simple to understand yet is role-play heavy enough that seasoned gamers will enjoy it. I’ll go a step beyond and say this would be an excellent game for introducing someone who has never played a tabletop roleplaying game to the hobby.

The world is familiar. There are tons of reference points to explain game mechanics like panic (“you know when Lambert just froze up in terror?”) or a character sustaining enough damage that they are broken (“like after Cpl. Hicks got the acid splashed on him…”). You just need six-sided dice of two colors (or two different sizes) and the usual paper and pencils. The mechanics are simple: take your skill at doing something and add the controlling attribute for that skill and roll a number of six sided dice equal to the total. If you get a six, congrats, you succeeded.

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The Joy of Starter Kits, Part One

Wednesday, December 18th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

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The Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (TSR, 1977). Cover by David C. Sutherland III

There’s lot of ways to get into role playing these days. But recently the industry has embraced the Starter Kit (sometimes called the Beginner Box, Essentials Kit, Beginner Game, or something similar) in a big way.

They all have their roots in the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, the granddaddy of all Beginner Boxes, created by J. Eric Holmes and based on Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s original boxed set from 1974. The D&D Basic Set was first published by TSR in 1977. It was the way I learned how to role play, and I wasn’t alone — the D&D Basic Set sold hundreds of thousands of copies in the late seventies, and was so successful it was constantly updated and kept in print by TSR, with revisions in 1981, 1983, 1991, and later.

Gygax’s masterpiece, the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Players Handbook, was released in June 1978, and was the gateway into role playing for millions of young gamers. Not me, though. That damn thing was a 128-page hardcover, and you needed the Monster Manual and Dungeon Masters Guide just to use it. By contrast, the Basic Set had a slender 48-page rulebook and everything you needed to start playing immediately. That’s right, everything, including dice, a pad of sample maps (“Dungeon Geomorphs), and an introductory adventure we played through at least a half dozen times. I didn’t have anyone to teach me how to role play, but with simple, clear instructions Holmes taught me everything I needed to become an enthusiastic Dungeon Master for my brother and our friends.

At long last the industry is rediscovering the power of Starter Kits to attract and educate new players. The best ones are cheap, easy to learn, and packed with goodies. In just the last few years there have been beginner boxes released for Call of Cthulhu, Pathfinder, Starfinder, Battletech, Dungeons & Dragons, Star Wars, Traveller, Shadowrun, and many others. They haven’t all been well promoted, however, and many gamers who could be taking advantage of an inexpensive entryway into a new gaming obsession are unaware they even exist. Let’s see if we can fix that with a look at a dozen of my recent favorites.

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Play Host to Newborn Ghoulish Creatures in Alien: The Roleplaying Game by Free League Publishing

Tuesday, December 10th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

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An official Alien role playing game is arriving in game stores next week, courtesy of Free League Publishing, the geniuses behind the brilliant Coriolis science fiction game, Mutant: Year Zero, and Forbidden Lands.

Any RPG that does justice to Ridley Scott’s science fiction horror masterpiece will have to have a dark and chilling aesthetic, and a cinematic play style. And for accuracy, probably a short (very short!) character life expectancy. Fortunately Alien: The Role Playing Game looks like it’s captured the look and feel of the franchise with real surety. Here’s Rachel Watts from her preview at PC Gamer last month.

Free League Publishing and 20th Century Fox have joined forces to create a tabletop RPG set in the harsh universe of the Alien films. It will drop players into the dark, merciless void of space, but this adaptation sounds far from empty.

Alien: The Roleplaying Game has two playable modes, cinematic and campaign. The cinematic option lets you play through a scenario similar to the events of the films in one session, and emphasises “high stakes and fast and brutal gameplay”, which doesn’t sound ominous at all. The campaign mode takes more of a Gloomhaven structure and lets players explore the Alien universe more freely over multiple game sessions.

The RPG comes in a chunky 392-page core rule book, which I think definitely leaves the definition of rulebook behind and goes straight into short novel territory. Free League Publishing have printed these rules in a hardback book and thrown in some cool illustrations… Alongside the core rule book, you’ll get a set of custom dice, a set of maps, and a GM Screen.

Can Free League Publishing get the all important feel of Alien right in an RPG? The rules follow their acclaimed Year Zero Engine, used in Tales from the Loop and Mutant: Year Zero, and they warn that “it’s unlikely your character will survive.” Sounds like they got the basics right to me.

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Traveller Journeys into Deep Space with a New Kickstarter: An Interview with Martin Dougherty

Sunday, November 17th, 2019 | Posted by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones

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Traveller RPG: The Deepnight Revelation Campaign Box Set

I’m a long time Traveller fan. It’s not just the simple but effective game system that’s been pretty much the same since its design, but the appeal of the sweeping hard science/space opera of the default setting, lovingly added to through the decades.

Of course you don’t have to use the Imperium as your setting, but a lot of people do, or use part of it, or use it with modifications. A new Kickstarter launched last week focused upon the exploration side of the Traveller universe. Many of the adventures and campaigns that have appeared for Traveller over the years have been focused upon small spaceship crews and their potential exploits, rather a lot like Firefly. This Kickstarter, though, is going to take a naval ship into areas unexplored by the Imperium, deep into the unknown. It looks splendid.

The man writing it is one of my very favorite adventure writers, Martin Dougherty, who never fails to entertain with clever and inventive scenarios that favor role-playing over rolls, and reward ingenuity. He was kind enough to take time away from writing the new campaign and answer some questions.

Howard: Before we really get started, what do you think is behind the appeal of Traveller, and the Imperium itself?

Martin: That’s a difficult question. I suspect it’s different for everyone. For me, I like the grounding in hard-ish science. I’ve never really got on with fantasy-in-space with swords the size of ironing boards and little actual science. The scale is attractive, too. For the most part it’s a bunch of resourceful people doing the best they can rather than superheroes. I know it’s fun to play someone incredibly far above the human norm sometimes, but I suspect a lot of us identify with the talented-but-ordinary protagonists of the typical Traveller game.

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Plot Hooks, Apocrypha, and WTF: Degenesis by Six More Vodka

Monday, November 11th, 2019 | Posted by eeknight

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I’ve been meaning to write a review of Degenesis, the doorstop of a post-apocalyptic RPG from the “there has to be a story behind that name for your company” SIXMOREVODKA creative team for a while now. The main problem holding me back is that I haven’t played it yet with people, just dinked around testing things. Luckily, John’s editorial standards enjoy a certain amount of flexibility when it comes to old friends, and let ye who have not passed judgement on a game without playing it cast the first stone.

There’s another reason I feel safe recommending this beast. The art alone is worth the purchase of the slipcased two-volume edition of rules Katharsis and worldbook Primal Punk (Retailing at USD “If you have to ask you can’t afford it”). I’ve never seen a game with this level art throughout. Page after page of imagery usually reserved for a couple of splash pages in most game books.

What is this world? Refreshingly, it’s set in Europe and North Africa five hundred years after a 2073 meteor storm changed the face of the world (called the “Eshaton” but I think they meant “Eschaton”). Maybe the year is a hat tip to Fallout, I dunno, but Earth went through hundreds of years of cloudy hell and now there are a few hints of a Renaissance for a radically altered world. To make matters worse, the meteors brought with them a spore-like form of life called “Primer” that is radically altering flora, fauna, and us. Humans who have been taken over by the Primer (the process is generally called Sepsis) eventually become Psychonauts or Abberants, two names for the same deadly syndrome. Some of the spores carrying the primer have been deactivated or neutralized for use in drugs called Burn, because if thousands of years of human history have proved anything, it’s that people will try to get high by any means necessary. A final existential confrontation of homo sapiens vs homo degenesis is building.

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Gaming at the End Times: Degenesis

Saturday, November 9th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

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Sample page from Degenesis: In the Blood adventure book

Gen Con 2019 was a journey of discovery for me. Well, more like a long painful marathon where discovery whacked me in the head with a club every few feet.

Over the course of three days I walked the floor of the massive Exhibit Hall, taking a picture with my iPhone every time I came across a booth I found interesting. I took hundreds of photos every one of those three days, and I doubt I could write up every one the interesting games I came across if I devoted the rest of my life to it. But I can talk about the highlights. So yeah. Let’s do that.

Gen Con this year seemed to be all about the board games. Titles like Raccoon Tycoon from Forbidden Games, mechanical monster game The Boldest from Stronghold Games, and the forest warfare simulator Root by Leder Games all captured my attention, but after trudging past five hundred new board games, I got kind of numb to them. New role playing releases were thinner on the ground, but the ones I did come across were very high quality, and perhaps none more so than Degenesis from Berlin development shop Six More Vodka.

Degenesis is set in a devastated Europe and North Africa, 500 years after a major asteroid impact completely reset human civilization. An alien something buried in the asteroid has begun to infect terrestrial flora and fauna, giving rise to horrific mutations. New cultures have emerged and given birth to 13 powerful cults that partner, war, and trade with each other. So far half a dozen core books and sourcebooks have been released, and they are gorgeously illustrated and beautiful in design and production.

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Exploring Pathfinder‘s Age of Lost Omens

Tuesday, November 5th, 2019 | Posted by Andrew Zimmerman Jones

LostOmensWorldGuideWith the release of Pathfinder Second Edition at GenCon in August, Paizo set out to once again re-capture fire in a bottle. They’d done it once before, a decade ago, when they took the ruleset of Dungeons & Dragons 3.5e, slapped it together with a ton of house rule modifications and other changes, and then rebranded it as the Pathfinder RPG. Here they were taking that very same Pathfinder RPG, which had itself grown wildly successful, and trying to create a new and compelling variant of that.

Having played a handful of the Pathfinder Second Edition games now, I’m finding quite a lot to like about it the system. But one of the things that drew me so powerfully to Pathfinder First Edition was when I got my hands on the Inner Sea World Guide. While the rules were great, the dynamic nature of the setting, with the rich diversity of nations and storytelling options, was what really engrossed me.

And clearly I’m not alone, because one of the first releases that Paizo planned to follow-up the release of Pathfinder Second Edition was the Lost Omens World Guide (Paizo, Amazon). The default setting for Pathfinder (both editions) is the Age of Lost Omens on the world of Golarian, and thus the name of the guide. This re-introduces the core of the Pathfinder setting, while at the same time introducing a quick infusion of new character creation and advancement options to supplement the basic rules.

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Ply the Space Lanes in Search of Profit: The Traveller Customizable Card Game

Tuesday, October 29th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

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Traveller was one of the first role playing games I ever played — and it definitely was the first science fiction RPG I ever played.

But that’s not what I remember about it. What I remember about it was the strange little mini-game in the back of the rulebook, essentially a set of rules for interstellar trading. Really no more than a few tables and some guidelines, it was a bare-bones simulator for an independent trade ship in the stars. It was nonetheless enough to fire our imagination, and my friends and I spent many summer hours rolling dice, struggling to keep our tiny commercial vessels profitable as we tried to find viable trade routes between Altair and Ursa Major. Other games had better combat and character generation, but none could terrify you with the specter of bankruptcy like Traveller.

I think that’s why I’m so interested in the new Traveller Customizable Card Game. While it’s not an RPG, it does promise some of the deep-space capitalist thrill that those old tables delivered. It puts you in the shoes of a independent ship captain — think Mal Reynolds in Firefly — plying the mains in search of profit and adventure. You can hire a crew, find contracts, explore, choose piracy, pay off your ship, and go bankrupt, all against the rich backdrop of the Third Imperium.

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Against the Darkmaster Kickstarts for High Fantasy Gamers of the World

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

Against the Darkmaster

Sword & Sorcery is a late attraction for me. My first and abiding love, ever since encountering Tolkien in the fifth grade, was and has been Epic High Fantasy, with its Heroes struggling against the Dark Lord in a battle of unequivocal Good versus Evil. I have said it before, and I think this present context makes it appropriate to say it again: when this thing called “fantasy roleplaying” first came to my attention, having no older siblings or neighborkids to introduce me to the more popular and recognizable Dungeons & Dragons, I spent my allowance at Waldenbooks on the red box set of Middle-Earth Role Playing (MERP).

I was young, roleplaying was brand new to my friends and me, so, of course, we didn’t “play it right,” just as, as an adult, I learned that those other kids who were playing D&D at the same time weren’t running their games “correctly,” either. MERP is derived from the Rolemaster (RM) percentile system, which was first designed as modular additions to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1e), and has a reputation for complexity and lethality. I add this second characterization because RM’s critical hit tables might be its most famous feature. My young friends and I enjoyed many idle sessions simply reading descriptions out of the charts, language that evinced wry and gory humor in the spirit of 1980s slasher films. Here’s a favorite example: “Blast annihilates entire skeleton. Reduced to a gelatinous pulp. Try a spatula.”

When the designers of the forthcoming Against the Darkmaster (VsD) revisited this favorite childhood game of theirs, they, too, felt the desire to “play it wrong.” After awhile, they realized they had made so many tweaks and modifications to the core rules that they, essentially, had created a game of their own, a houseruled or hacked “retroclone” of MERP, reformulated to emulate specifically the works of Tolkien and his imitators, fantasy movies of the 1980s, and epic heavy metal music.

I was an early adopter of the VsD playtest, and a not infrequent critic of the VsD rules system. You can find the first in a series of these critiques here on The Rolemaster Blog. The designers aim to distinguish their game from others such as D&D through its emphasis on its source materials. In VsD, player characters are heroes, not “mere” adventurers of the Sword & Sorcery variety. The “plot” of a VsD campaign is intended to contain a high stakes struggle between Good (the PCs) and Evil (a force culminating in the person of the Darkmaster, played by the GM).

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Cults of Prax: Then and Now

Sunday, October 6th, 2019 | Posted by Michael OBrien

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Cults of Prax, first printing 1979. Cover art by Anders Swenson

The RuneQuest supplement Cults of Prax was published by Chaosium forty years ago this year.

RPGNet describes Cults of Prax as the first-ever roleplaying game ‘splatbook’ (a ‘splatbook’ being a non-core sourcebook for an RPG that provides additional rules and material that can be used with the main system) — but its importance and influence goes far beyond that distinction. In a 2010 retrospective review Grognardia said Cults of Prax is

A true classic of the early days of the [tabletop roleplaying] hobby. …quite rightly considered one of the best treatments of religion in a fantasy RPG ever written and it’s certainly one of the most inspirational.

Written by gaming legends Steve Perrin, co-author of the RuneQuest RPG rules, and the late Greg Stafford, creator of the fantasy setting Glorantha, Cults of Prax’s ground-breaking presentation of gods and how they interact with the world through those who worship them still makes it one of the most influential and important works ever released for the RuneQuest RPG, and indeed for tabletop roleplaying games in general.

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