I played the Free League Alien rpg for the first time yesterday and it was a very interesting experience.
(To be clear, there are no spoilers for any of the scenarios in this post.)
I opted to play an android while the other two players played humans, and I think that gave us very different play experiences in a way I haven’t seen in other games that have a similar division before.
To explain why, I need to go into the rules a bit. Alien uses Free League’s standard d6 dice pool system: You roll a number of dice based on your abilites and equipment; any six is a success; one success is usually enough but more is better, especially in combat; and after you roll you can push yourself (once) to re-roll all non-sixes…
The focus in Alien is on the stress and panic mechanisms. You accrue stress through a number of means, the main ones being when you see scary or gruesome things, when you’re attacked by xenomorphs, and when you push yourself. Each point of stress allows you to roll an additional d6 for all your actions, but if you roll a one on any of your stress dice you also panic. When you panic, you roll one d6 and add your stress to get a result from a table - at the low end, nothing happens, but higher up you can freeze, or spread your panic to other nearby characters. You mostly recover stress when you have a little bit of downtime - spending 5-10 minutes to catch your breath and rest allows you to shed one point of stress.
In our game, this worked brilliantly. For most of the game the stress levels were kept under control, but at the desperate finale it shot through the roof when the players desperately pushed their rolls to get extra successes in the hopes of taking down the last few foes.
But the one big thing that made this so interesting is that androids are completely exempt from the stress system, including the ability to push.
It’s difficult to overstate the impact this has on the play experience. For the other two players, their stress levels were the constant focus of their play. Where was it safe to rest? When should they push themselves? When should they use their once-per-session ability to shed a point of stress? Afterwards they spoke positively of the intense pressure the game put on them.
For me, the experience was very different, but still very positve.
Since I didn’t have the choice of pushing myself, once I was at the point of making a roll everything was out of my hands - I would either succeed or not based on the dice, whereas for the other players that was just the setup for tthe hugely important choice of whether they should push or not.
Since I wasn’t under the same kind of pressure or the randomness of the panic rolls, I also became a slightly detached observer of the behavoir of their characters. The mechanisms very strongly induced the sense of being a different kind of creature: I always had full control of my actions where a bad panic roll could often force them to drop something or make them scramble for cover even when that wasn’t to their advantage, and since I was also very durable (though that was partly due to a talent available to both androids and humans) I could often take seemingly cracy risks in order to try to protect them from harm.
The lack of mechanical pressure also did something similar to my position towards them as players. The stress they felt as players over managing the stress and danger to their characters made them more engaged in a way, whereas I think I had a little more distance. Not that I was more objective, but I wasn’t as emotionally engaged - and again, this was a good thing, because it made it easier for me to play to being an android rather than a human.
And that’s the core of my experience here. There was a huge mechanical difference between my character and theirs - not in terms of power, because overall they were probably more effective due to rolling more dice from stress and being able to push - but because one subsystem that was absolutely vital to their direct experience with the game was a much more indirect part for me. Even if the stress and panic rules didn’t affect my character directly, it was very important to me how much stress their characters had in order to assess my course of action. And that difference translated into a very different game experience, but one that meshed very well with what that mechanical difference represented - they were human, and I wasn’t. They would get the shakes, or freeze, or scare each other by showing how scared they were, and I had to navigate around that while not running the same risks, but they could also trust to luck and take chances where my actions were governed by stricter probabilistic calculations.*
The closest parallel I can think of is if you were playing a character in Call of Cthulhu who could never lose sanity or be affected by fear, but who also couldn’t learn anything about the Mythos. You’re immune to one of the biggest dangers of the game but you’re also shut off from an important resource.
Of course, there are plenty of roleplaying games that have different character types engage with different parts of the system, with spells in D&D being a very obvious example, but in my experience they rarely induce an emotional effect of this kind, or at least in a way that meshes this well with the fiction of the game.** Or perhaps my experience is just limited and I’ve missed other games that successfully do this?
Either way, I find this very exciting. I’d like to see more examples so I can triangulate this into my own designs.
- That’s obviously not true in an absolute sense, but the feeling was very different. I could make a very clear risk/reward assessment before deciding what action to take and sometimes discarded a course of action as having too low a probability of success that they could have chanced because they had the option of a re-roll.
** Asymmetrical design is much more common in boardgames but there the emotional engagement is typically not as strong.