Alien: The Roleplaying Game, and Stealth Mode

My copy of Alien: The Roleplaying Game, from Free League/Fria Ligan, has arrived! It’s a big, beautiful book (affiliate link to the PDF) chestbursting with game material for playing in the universe of the Alien film series. It’s also the very first RPG in the history of the medium (to my knowledge at least) that explicitly addresses the “hidden goblin” problem I’ve been writing about recently. To recap: the “hidden goblin” problem is how does a game master handle what happens out of sight of the player characters?If the GM knows there is a goblin behind a door, but the characters never open the door, what happens to that goblin? Does the GM forget about it as if it was never there? Does the GM secretly make choices for it for the rest of the game?

Other games (such as Apocalypse World) have dealt with the problem by solving around it, reframing traditional assumptions about how a game master creates a fictional environment. Most games don’t even think about this at all.

The solution in Alien: The RPG is Stealth Mode. It’s a short section, a few paragraphs in total, but it does make history in the medium (unless there’s something before it I’ve missed). It works as follows:

  • Stealth mode is a turn-based exploration system. The characters move carefully through an environment, scanning for enemies and surveying the spaces they pass through.
  • It’s actually substantially similar to the dungeoncrawling model we’ve seen since early Dungeons & Dragons, right down to the length of the turn. The innovation, though, is that after each player turn, the GM takes a turn to move enemies.
  • To track these secret moves, it is recommended the GM has a secret map (sold separately) behind a screen (sold separately) where they move enemy markers (sold separately). Or they can just be scribbled down on paper, like in a hidden movement boardgame.
  • The GM therefore must keep a list of all enemies in the space, designating them either active or passive. Passive enemies don’t know or care about the characters and can be ambushed, while active enemies are hunting the characters and can ambush them.

That’s pretty much it! An included scenario gives an example of use, with alien critters located on a map, just like a D&D dungeon.

It looks like a decent set of rules covering many of the things mentioned over the hidden goblin series of posts. The subject matter of the game, a kind of paranoid survival horror about being stalked by deadly monsters, lends itself well to hidden movement.

A more traditional approach to the game was always possible, where the GM can just drop unseen monsters back into their pocket to reintroduce later on wherever is logical or dramatically appropriate. However, knowing the GM has a map that says exactly where a creature is feels different. It gives every character movement tension, knowing that somewhere on the map there’s a danger and hoping you don’t blunder into it. If the GM can just put the monster in front of you whenever they like, that movement-based tension goes away.

There are gaps in these rules, though. For example, there is no clear guidance about which characters and NPCs should be tracked with hidden movement, and which shouldn’t. Imagine the scene depicted in the Aliens film, where the heroes wander into a nest filled with dozens of creatures – does that mean the GM would place dozens of markers on their hidden map, moving each of them after every player turn? That sounds a bit unwieldy. What about NPCS with more complex behaviour patterns than these alien monsters – is the GM expected to silently roleplay their behaviour and choices? No shortcuts are provided, no advice is given. The rules tightly simulate the situation depicted in the film but don’t provide much support beyond this.

Despite these reservations, I am hugely impressed by these rules. It is nice to see any acknowledgement at all that the “hidden goblin” problem exists and that solutions to it can provoke new and exciting gaming moments.

Now to actually see how it works in play!

This brings to an end the Hidden Goblin series – an unexpected ending, in that when I began the series I didn’t think there’d suddenly be a game out there that covered these issues! There’s plenty more to explore in the hidden goblin design space, and I have a few plans of my own, but this blog series is finished. Onwards!

Find the rest of these posts under the hidden goblin tag.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *