Alien and the Power of Asymmetrical Rules

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.

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very cool write-up. I agree that this sort of asymmetric character design is woefully rare

One example I can think of is Burning Wheel. Each of the races has an emotional track, and while they all mechanically function the same way (except for humans), they are each designed around a different emotion.

Elves have sadness, Orcs have anger, Dwarves have greed, and humans have faith. Whenever you are confronted with a scenario that triggers your emotional track, you roll to resist being overcome by it. The asymmetry comes from the ways each race interacts with their emotion. Elves are largely inhibited by sorrow, but they are also the only race in the game that can decrease it, for all other races it can only ever creep upward. Orcs can use their anger for bigger and bigger feats of anger, but resorting to this causes it to grow even more. Dwarves get better at dwarving the greedier they are, but doing so will inevitably bring them into more contact with sources of greed. and finally, humans use Faith as a magic skill; its level determines how powerful your miracles are, and using it trains it to be better, but if you ever max it out your character achieves gnosis and transcends the mortal realm.

It’s not nearly as divergent as the system you described, but it does give each race an emotional guide that informs your roleplay. Elves will slip further and further into depression if they live a violent life. Orcs will also be continually consumed by their rage unless they make effort to curtail it. Dwarves will be continuously thrown curveballs, especially if they pursue a career of dungeon diving. Humans will find their faith rewarded if they continue to invest in it, but there will be a dangerous tipping point where they are at risk of losing their sense of self and abandon their own character.

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The interesting thing about this is that we’ve had asymmetric design in RPGs pretty much since day 1. The Wizard has a list of spells they can memorize, and when they’ve cast them all, they’re done, whereas the Fighter can keep on swording stuff until his HP total makes it too dangerous to keep doing so. These sorts of asymetries go back to the very origins of the hobby. The wizard might push for a rest when the rest of the party is still good to go.

The problem is that they haven’t usually been very… interesting? Often these sorts of things feel very mechanical. It’s neat to see one that doesn’t.

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Interesting! I own Burning Wheel but I haven’t read it enough to get to grips with it. It’s, uh, a bit dense.

That is an interesting example, though.

Yeah, I mentioned D&D spellcasting offhandedly in my screed, but I do think it’s worth going into a bit deeper.

I don’t think the differences between the classes in D&D has the same kind of emotional impact as the Alien stress mechanism. But then they’re not designed primarily for that impact, and I think they do affect how you approach the game in some ways.

Like, a prepared spellcaster will be pushed towards planning ahead in a way that other characters aren’t. A Fighter typically doesn’t have to consider what obstacles the party may encounter that day (yes, exceptions exist, moving on), whereas the usefulness of a Wizard or Cleric can vary wildly depending on whether the spells they have prepared for the day match up with the challenges the party encounters. It’s not an emotional asymmetry but it is still an asymmetry.

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This is a great write-up! I’m still processing all your thoughts, but Imp of the Perverse’s Empathy mechanic jumped to mind in response.

In Imp of the Perverse, you play monster hunters in 19th-century America. One of the pools you have access to is Empathy. Empathy can be spent to create new relationships with NPCs or (in certain situations) to have your character “see themself” in the monster.

You decide at character creation whether your character has encountered a monster before. If you have, you begin the game a little more experienced, but your pool only holds one point of Empathy. If you haven’t hunted before, you’re not quite as capable, but your pool contains three points of Empathy.

Having access to more Empathy means your character moves through the world in a much more relational, intuitive way. By the end of the first session, you’ll have a wider net of friendship and allies. Not having Empathy means you’re forced to rely on yourself (and your Imp, the devil on your shoulder) to get what you want.

It’s a small shift, but makes a lot of difference in how characters develop over time.

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That’s a game I’ve only vaguely heard of, but it sounds like an excellent example! From your description it sounds like it could have a strong effect on how you view NPCs and perhaps how invested you are in protecting them?

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Blockquote
Like, a prepared spellcaster will be pushed towards planning ahead in a way that other characters aren’t. A Fighter typically doesn’t have to consider what obstacles the party may encounter that day…> Blockquote

I would argue that this is the number 1 reason why D&D 4th edition failed. D&D no longer felt asymmetrical. Every character had the same approach to battle because every character now had the equivalent of cantrips, spells or attacks that refreshed after every battle, and once per long rest type actions.

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Yes, Imp is a really beautiful piece of design. And absolutely. There are some mechanical interactions that tilt you that way, too. The game is divided into self-contained ‘Chapters,’ with the idea being that the Protagonists remain the same across Chapters, but the web of monsters & NPCs is new each time. Using Empathy to create a relationship with an NPC ensures that they will appear again and be dramatically relevant in subsequent Chapters.

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I don’t think that’s even close to the #1 reason. If “cantrips” and rest based abilities are the problem, why doesn’t D&D 5 have the same issue? Everyone also has cantrips and rest based abilities.

@Airk, I can tell you with certainty that playing a Mage in D&D 4th ed. felt exactly the same as a fighter.

To quote a random dude on the internet at the first place google took me to


The homogeneity of character classes was a significant reason players disliked it. It was probably my #2 reason I personally disliked about it.

Could we please leave the pros and cons of D&D 4E out of this discussion? It (still!) tends to be a contentious topic and it’s not really relevant to the main discussion.

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That’s a really cool experience. Brainstorming some other places there might be easy space for a similar effect… Dread? What if one person never had to pull, but always had to assign their pull to someone else? What would that even feel like? Primetime Adventures, what if someone could only spend fanmail 1 at a time but someone else had to spend fanmail in chunks of 4? Goblinville, what if one goblin could always add as many Harm dice as they wanted to their own roll rather than “GM decides 0 or 1”? Definitely seems easier when there’s a core mechanic to alter.

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Following this thought, what if a mercenary character type in Trophy could cut and run without passing a dark die to the group that stays? Would it break the game? Or, build distrust against this character?

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D&D 4th Edition didn’t fail. It sold very briskly, was in print for 7 years, and sold a giant pile of accessories for WOtC and Paizo.

4th Edition very consciously followed a lot of the design logic of MMO video games, which some people love! But other people don’t. It was an audacious experiment, and definitely generated controversy, but by any reasonably objective metric, it was quite successful. I certainly sold many hundreds of those books while it was in print and I owned my store(s).

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To reply to @GuySrinivasan, too, I think both Trophy Gold and Goblinville are so nicely designed for those kinds of small rule tweaks (and probably others mentioned, those are just the two I’ve played).

Ruin & Burden might be other cool places to push for Trophy Gold. A Charming Rogue class with the “Magpie Brain” ability can raise their Burden by 2 to pull an item worth 1 Gold from their bag. A Scabmettler with Blood Armor can raise their Ruin by 1 to participate in combat, even if they don’t carry a weapon, etc.

Also @Anders , though I haven’t played it, Red Markets has a character class called the Roach who can burn a point of Humanity (the game’s measure of how you’re holding up in the zombie apocalypse) to get a +1 bonus. In the game’s thematic terms of ‘economic horror,’ they monetize their sanity and spend it like they would a commodity or piece of equipment. It’s such a lovely bit of theme meeting mechanics that I kinda wish every PC had access to it.

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Probably too obvious to point out, but a game master is an example of asymmetrical rules, where the role gives a different experience than being a player.

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Yeah, I was thinking about the player/GM dichotomy but decided that this is completely different type of asymmetry than what @Anders was describing. I’m not sure if this is a correct or complete classification, but I’d say that asymmetry happens on 3 levels:

  1. Role variation: participants divided into players and GMs[1]
  2. Mechanical variation within a role: players have access to different mechanics depending on who they portray[2]
  3. Experience variation within a role: players experience the same adventure differently

It’s kinda clunky but I hope you get the idea. What Anders was describing is not that there are different responsibilities by the table of that different rules apply (although they do). It’s that these differences led to a completely different experience by the table. Whether you can have 3. without 2. - I don’t know. But I sort of feel that it’s different. :wink:

[1] not all games have this asymmetry and, arguably, it’s wider than that if we take “content creator” (setting author for example) into account
[2] this is fighter vs mage vs bard vs cook asymmetry

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Yes, I think everyone’s quite aware of the GM/non-GM experience divide, since the GM and non-GM players are typically involved in fundamentally different activities. In the Alien game I played, I and the other players were involved in the same activities - exploring the base and fighting/running from xenomorphs, mainly - but the conditions under which we did that were different enough that it strongly colored our experiences.

Some of the examples brought up in this thread are of a similar kind, though I feel like they’re not of the same degree. In Alien, the difference between the humans and the androids is very stark. For the humans, the stress and panic systems are fundamental to gameplay and the player experience, while they are completely absent from the direct play experience for the androids. I think this is a bigger difference than most mentioned above, where different character types are more or less invested in a certain mechanism or can utilize it for different ends.

But perhaps I’m under valuing the effect those differences can have on the gameplay experience.

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I’m certain you’re right. None of the possibilities I threw out there would be of the same degree. You’d have to do something more extreme like putting a Torchbearer character in with a party of D&D 4e characters exploring a dungeon. Except in Alien you got that feel without such an enormous rule-set change.

I recently finished a Goblinville campaign, so that’s what’s fresh.

To have a goblin doing all the same things as everyone else with very different experience and feel, and maybe tactical priorities… actually there’s a mechanic similar to stress, namely, getting conditions and relieving them during camp. So what would happen if one goblin was a ghost who cannot receive conditions? If they roll a harm die, instead of having to assign a die to harm they must drop the highest result. If they would receive a condition via other means, they instead roll +1d and drop highest on their next roll. This seems like a huge change, but still (I predict) wouldn’t induce a similar level of division.

Conclusions: none

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