Just recently, the Destroyer of Worlds expansion for Alien RPG racked up a bunch of awards at the annual Ennies for best tabletop games. Publisher Free League isn’t sitting still though, and have recently released another brand new expansion for the beloved RPG: Colonial Marines. We talked to Andrew E.C. Gaska, the author behind both the original games and its expansions. What follows is a must-read for fans of the Alien franchise and the tabletop adaptations.
What are some of your personal highlights in the Alien franchise, across all media?
The top of the heap for me will always be the original film, but after that it would be Perry’s Earth War novels (Earth Hive, Nightmare Asylum, and Female War) and their Dark Horse comics’ origins by Verheiden. I love Alien 3 (especially the special edition) and Prometheus as well. Prometheus gets a bad rap, but it’s beautiful, David’s role is fantastic, and it adds so much to the lore. I feel like it suffered in the editing process. Add back all the deleted scenes and that is an epic experience.
Why do you believe the Colonial Marines have become so beloved across pop culture?
There is just something innately cool about them, isn’t there? At the end of the day, I think it’s the script, the direction, and the actors who portrayed them that made them so iconic. They have iconic quotes. They are all believable characters that you come to care about. The ones that aren’t well defined are the ones that buy it early on, and you are left with unique individuals whose conflicting personalities must come together to forge a team. You see films try to do this over and over with varying degrees of success. Here it works.
There’s a massive wealth of content available for the Alien franchise, from novels and comics to the feature films and more. How does this affect your planning process when working on Alien RPG and its expansions?
When I’m writing, I’ll remember something and put it in there, but then check my references to make sure I got it right. If I decide I’m doing something on, say, oil, I look to find any place oil was ever brought up in a franchise.
Example: Turns out Alan Dean Foster said in the original novel that the oil is used for plastics, not fuel. I vaguely remembered some mention of an Oil War in a book. I did some research and found there was a genetically engineered oil eating bacteria in a comic that caused a major problem on earth. Taking these three things together, we can extrapolate what the Oil War was about, why they would need oil at all in a fusion era, what was one of the weapons used in the war (the bacteria to destroy other people’s supplies), etc, etc. It’s all there, written by other authors, over the years. I find the similar concepts and build the connecting tissue around them. Then I can sit back and look at what all that suggests that was never actually followed through on because no one looked at the data altogether as one coherent universe. Those are the gems waiting to be plucked, the stories that seem so obvious when you put everything else together, but somehow have never been told.
What role do the IP owners at 20th Century play in the creative portion of your writing process?
I’ve been a creative consultant on the property for years, so I not only take care of that for the RPG but also for other licensees’ Alien projects (like the Aliens Fireteam video game). I have to back up my work on Alien with citations of where I got whatever info from. Playing it the way I mentioned above is a great way to get everything approved because it’s not rocking the boat – it’s using what’s been here and was previously approved to create new story arcs and exciting possibilities. Everything grows organically out of existing canon to create new canon.
With so much canon out there, how do you balance your work for Alien RPG between being engaging enough for massive fans yet also accessible enough for a more casual audience looking to play?
It’s all about the story. Aliens itself gives you all the info you need to have never seen Alien and still get it. Using the examples above, a casual reader will accept that a story I write has to do with an event called the Oil War, just like movie-goers had to accept that Ripley had encountered the alien before. Those in the know will see the dots being connected, but knowing those connections are not necessary to enjoying the story as it unfolds. Knowing it just validates the previous material to hard core fans, and/or validates the new stuff because of its connection to the old.
The art work in the book looks great – (how) do you collaborate with the illustrators on getting the look and feel right?
The artists are fantastic, there’s no doubt. I send them as much visual reference as I can find and give some feedback before the final art is done. Artists like Martin Grip know how to capture the right mood and tone for space horror.
Earlier releases of Alien RPG took the first film’s setting of being in a confined location and the dread associated with that. What are some of the writing and design challenges involved when you venture outside of that, like in Colonial Marines?
Well, the Colonial Marines in Aliens were also in a confined setting. Cameron wanted to showcase a similar situation to Vietnam, where confident overpowered marines walk into a jungle or tunnel system with a cunning foe that uses the environment to take them out anyway. In Destroyer of Worlds, I wanted to have a full-sized, long established colony, not the small “shake and bake” kind seen in Aliens. To maintain that confined sense of by dread, I made the sprawling colony be 90% deserted—a massive ghost town, so you have all this there and still feel very, very, alone.
For those who haven’t played Alien RPG yet, what’s a good example of an encounter you might run into during a Colonial Marines session?
That’s a tough one, I don’t want to give away any spoilers. Just know that aliens aren’t the only thing you face in these adventures, there are enemy nations at play, rogue corporations, killer androids, other lower lifeforms, and harsh planetary environments.
What’s an area of the franchise where you’d possibly like to take Alien RPG in the future?
We’ll be moving into explorers and colonists next, and then space truckers. I’m hoping to do some corporate and android source material as well. I’ve always been a fan of the previously mentioned Earth War, and all the story potential that could come from there. It’s definitely something I think about. Will it happen? I don’t know, but I’d sure love to do more with it.