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Aliens… the xenomorphs are probably the best-known scary badguys of science fiction. And the second Alien movie, Aliens, just begged for a nice military RPG to hunt down those black acid-filled bugs and shoot them to spraying chunks. And Leading Edge Games filled the order with the Aliens RPG.
I was introduced to the Aliens RPG at the University of Ottawa gaming club in late 1990. My first impression of the game was that of a combat system looking for an excuse, and the excuse was one that every sci-fi geek would love – Aliens. Now, if you know anything about Leading Edge Games, then you’ve heard of the incredibly over-complex firearms combat system that was the core of their modern RPG, Phoenix Command.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Aliens uses a simplified version of that famous combat system (I recognized it a few years later, after playing both Living Steel – another sci-fi RPG that uses the same system as Aliens, and when I finally bought myself a copy of Phoenix Command). The actual combat system, while involving a lot of tables and being quite intimidating on first look, is actually deceptively easy to use once you get a chance to learn it. However, try learning it with a group of eight other new players and a GM who has only read it twice. The non-combat portions of the system are quite simple to use, with a base system of rolling under a target number on 3d6 while adding your relevant skill to the target number.
Either way, the game and system seems to be a strange mix of incredible accuracy of statistics and charts, and very general content (stats of aliens, weapons, armor and so on). However, the rule book serves as a great RPG version of the Colonial Marines Technical Manual (a great book of material about the Colonial Marines, and recommended reading for any detail-oriented fan of Aliens).
Our games of Aliens, on the other hand, were held together by our mutual love of the setting more than the rules. The Aliens RPG is really just all these details, and the combat system to use the details in. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of focus on expanding the universe or even on getting a campaign together beyond running games akin to the Aliens movie – a one-shot game with a lot of bugs and dead characters.
We, of course, played a team of colonial marines going to investigate an issue with another planet. Instead of a fresh, hostile colony like LV-426, we went to a very pleasant colony far from the problems in that sector… however (obviously), the problems on site were aliens (could you imagine the GM not using aliens in our first game? Talk about disappointment and false advertising).
Except the lush tropical setting, and an intercession near the end by a group of pirates, the game basically mirrored the events of the second Aliens movie, with a lot of die rolling and table-consulting. And a lot of pauses as we tried to make sense of the system… especially the combat timing which uses no combat rounds.
There are some elements of the system that I really appreciate, even after all these years – the lack of any kind of hit points is near the top of my list. The damage scale is open-ended, and you make tests using your willpower and combat training to prevent yourself from dieing or at least curling up into a ball of pain instead of fighting. The system results in bloody gory injuries, with snapped bones, ruptured organs and so on. Really, what it comes down to is avoiding getting hit, because your combat stats are seriously wrecked once the combat is over and you assess how long it will take to heal.
The slow healing system was also accompanied by another slow system – levelling. Like many RPGs of its day, each skill had its own XP tracking to be done, and would only level up once you had enough XP there… bringing up a low level skill could be done in a few sessions, but higher level skills were not even worth tracking – I remember reading the rules and realizing that we should not expect to raise a high level firearms skill without playing 40-50 games.
Overall, Aliens was ‘just’ another Phoenix Command variant with a cool franchise to back it up. While our games were disappointing because we didn’t really know the rules, I think it would be a lot of fun to break out again now that I have a firmer grip on the Phoenix Command system itself.
That is, if I can convince my players to consider an RPG where the characters are like fragile glass statuettes who’s skills advance once every year or so.
Perhaps it would be better for a one-shot?