The winners of the 2020 Ennie Awards were announced at GenCon Online this year and the gold winner for Best Game went to the Alien RPG by Free League Publishing and 20th Century Studios.
For me, Alien RPG was my most anticipated RPG release since Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition and I was not disappointed when I finally got my mitts on the massive core rulebook. At almost 400 pages, the hardcover core rulebook is packed with lore and gorgeous illustrations that invoke the feel of the best Alien films. It also presents a rule system that is quick to pick up, favours narrative play over number crunching, and is potentially and deliciously lethal.
Free League Publishing is a Swedish game studio that has built itself an impressive reputation for award-winning RPGs. Alien is just one of the latest, and interestingly, it and other RPGs from Free League that have won the hearts of fans and critics are all based on the core mechanics of their first major hit: Mutant Year Zero.
Mutant Year Zero was released in 2014, but its roots date back to 1984 with a system called Mutant. Published by Sweden’s Target Games, Mutant was set in a post-apocalyptic future where players could play as humans, mutants, and robots. That system evolved over the years, eventually morphing into The Mutant Chronicles. This was the early 2000s, I do believe. This was when I first became aware of the RPG, though I never played it. You might recall the 2009 movie The Mutant Chronicles starring Thomas Jane and Ron Perlman. Well, the roots of that movie stretch back to the original 1984 Mutant RPG.
Target Games had a video game division. When Target Games folded in 1999 that video game division was spun off into Paradox Entertainment, which continued to produce video games based on Target Games’ properties. Fast forward several years to when Free League Publishing started developing a prequel to Mutant under license from Paradox Entertainment. In Mutant Year Zero, mutants have been kept isolated from the outside world in Arks. Players are these mutants and as the story begins they learn of circumstances that will force them outside the Ark for the very first time. Mutant Year Zero then becomes about exploring the world outside the Ark, but also maintaining and improving the Ark, including its food and water sources, its defense, and its social structure.
Mutant Year Zero is a D6 system as are the RPGs that use the games’ core mechanics. You roll some D6 based on your skills and attributes, add some modifiers, and look for a single 6 to succeed. A failure is never just a “well, that didn’t work”. A fail always brings consequences that drive the story. There is also a cost to your character for this kind of failure. In Alien RPG it is stress. In Tales from the Loop it is an emotional, mental or physical condition. In Mutant Year Zero it is the chance to trigger your mutant characteristic, which can be helpful or a hindrance depending on the situation. The twist in Mutant Year Zero is that your mutation will eventually kill you. Player characters are literally killing themselves with every triggering of their mutant abilities. They are dying even as they try to make their Ark a better place.
Tales from the Loop and its sequel Things from the Flood use the Mutant Year Zero system. So, too, do Forbidden Lands and Alien. Each has its own twist on the core mechanics, as hinted at above. Each operates in a different genre: A 1980s that never was for Tales from the Loop; a 1990s that never was for Things from the Flood; a ruined fantasy realm in Forbidden Lands; and the universe of Alien as described by Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, and numerous books and comics. Each favors collaborative storytelling and narrative play over dice chucking. Each has won accolades.