Thursday, June 21, 2012


I'll say it again:
Ok, you been warned.

So the Alien movies are dungeon crawls.


Some notes...

-What Prometheus reveals is that this was an Old School campaign from day one:

the dungeon persists (as does the GMing style) but the players change.

-Technically LV-426 (the planet in the original Alien and in Aliens) isn't the same as LV-223 (the planet in Prometheus) but, really, they easily could've been. What Alien and Prometheus really seem like is two groups run through exactly the same module:

The one in Alien goes in, splits the party, someone stumbles into the horrible egg room, then comes back to the ship and is like fuck this and the GM then turns the vessel they arrived at the dungeon in into a dungeon by releasing the monster into it. (Any dense system of structures--ship or city--built on the scale of the PCs turns into a dungeon as soon as a monster appears in it.)

The Prometheus crew goes into the same dungeon, stumbles on a whole different set of stuff, then has to stick around because the party is, on balance, more greedy than scared.

-Most Alien movies start with this very horrory structural assumption: Start with a goal...No wait just leave. Anyone assuming there is anything to gain from the situation either dies quickly or is evil. Except the last scientist at the end of Prometheus.

-Perhaps the Prometheus crew is playing it as D&D, the Nostromo crew is playing Call of Cthulhu. Still: same module.

-Something is highlighted here. Something everyone knows: horror requires less monsters. Fear is the content, not widgets and strategies.

-Something else is highlighted here: the high-lethality style of play we usually agree to call Old School exists in the center of a continuum with horror on the left and adventure on the right. The Old School crawl is generally more horrory (aesthetically, structurally) than the epic form of D&D. It's details and inventions are the details and inventions of desperate people. The gonzo part is less horrory, but the scary probably-die part is more horrory. Anybody who thinks you can't get horror out of a PC you just made up and who you have pre-accepted might die by the end of a session hasn't played Cthulhu.

-Another fact about horror: on the tactical level, ingenious set ups and tricks aren't that important. Just the monster and its overwhelming scariness makes every detail of the situation suddenly come into focus. The scarier the monster is, the fewer actual detail and moving parts you need to make the scene work. Call of Cthulhu's GM advice actually says something like "Range? Maps? Screw that noise" (and it is, in my experience, right). Me I like a little of both, or at least room to have an encounter slide totally into panic or totally into tactics.

-So here is Prometheus in this semi-horror space--it's not unfamiliar. Structurally, Prometheus bears a striking resemblance to Jeff Rients Wessex/Caves of Myrddin/Dungeons of Dundagel/Surfeit of Lampreys campaign. Let me count the ways...

1-Megadungeon that persists but different, sometimes non-overlapping, parties go in (plus it's reused in Alien and in Aliens)

2-Drama inside and out of the dungeon

3-Outside the dungeon, people have sex and drink

4-People who go into the dungeon sometimes show up undead

5-Healing is available outside the dungeon

6-Some delves are "undone" by PC action (in Wessex, a bad delve was wished out of existence, in Alien and Prometheus, the planet is forgotten and re-discovered by a new party)

7-Warning messages on the walls


9-Helpful, self-sacrificing nonhumans (Bishop the android and Gleichman the dog)

10-Information and maps are exchanged between different parties of delvers

11-Evidence of previous expeditions inside

12-Different people have different motivations for going in

13-Deadly liquids splash about

14-Carousing goes horribly awry

15-Religion persists in the face of appalling blasphemies

16-Vertical and horizontal mapping

17-Semi-horror aesthetic structure: A wandering monster just showing up (with no more set-piece complexity) often pretty much is enough to make a memorable scene due to the low power levels involved.

18-Woefully outgunned PCs

-The whole Alien saga is also just a really good example of how you can start with a dungeon crawl and a few background elements and get a whole campaign, in-and-out of the dungeon, out of it. Wait, ok, what if that corporation kept going? Wait, where did the aliens come from? Wait, what about the dog?

-The Aliens comics (Good ones exist: Salvation by Mignola and Labyrinth by Killian Plunkett) develop the idea of an alien-worshipping cult. However, they do kinda fall down on the world-building front by making all about the same aliens again. Aliens vs. Predator, Blade Runner (meanwhile, back on Earth... Ridley Scott said that actually) and Prometheus do a better job on that score. Basically, start with androids and Aliens and go: what monsters are implied by this monster?

-Both Alien and Prometheus feature the concept of competing dungeons--two complexes (ship and planetside), both of which are sites of action and badness. One is a pure dungeon (totally unknown) the other is a domestic-place-as-dungeon. The second kind of place is interesting because, unlike the pure dungeon--which is easy to fill with and justify deathtraps, the domestic-place-as-dungeon has to repurpose relatively mundane, functional toys as tricks and traps. The Prometheus' operating table is a prime example, as is the Nostromo's radar system and self-detruct system.

-The ordinary-stuff-as-dungeon-toy thing is a big deal in zombie games and superhero games. These things tend to have endless supplements on building and subways and things released in the hope that somehow the right toy will come up in your game. In truth, it is a lot easier to write a scene where the dumbwaiter is important into a movie than into a game. Something like the random techroom generator does me pretty well in most sci-fi games and seems to be the best option unless you want to give the PCs a "tour" of the place's toys before the game starts. Basically the same approach as in the city kit: there should be stuff you can use, but not like a pure dungeon where the whole point is stuff you can use or that can kill you pretty much everywhere.

-Anyway: competing dungeons. What a bitch that must be to run, amIright?

This brings up the question of motivation. In Alien and Prometheus the androids are basically the ones who want the gold. Everybody else is kinda just a dubious low-level. They'd much rather be on the ship because, tactically, they know they're gonna have to fight a monster and it's better to do that in their "home" dungeon.

-The previous is their logic in D&D terms. In Cthulhu terms everybody is just a PC in the throes of investigating or freaking out and acts accordingly. GET ME BACK TO THE SHIP!!!! The D&D characters know they are on an adventure a little more than the Cthulhu people do.

-The Marvel Super Heroes FASERIP Secret Wars module kinda has a two-dungeon structure (herobase vs doombase). And both are supposed to have their rooms randomly rolled as they come up.

-I think the Nostromo in Alien and the abandoned colony as seen in Aliens could've both been completely randomly rolled as the game went along, except the escape endpoints--the shuttle bays--in each.

-Basically: just decide how many rooms are between a PC and where they want to go, (say: self-destruct control panel) then randomly determine the contents of each intervening room as you play. (This would be for a game where the PCs presumably already knew the layout and one where the choice of path was not an important decision.)

-The opening of Alien contains about exactly the right amount of gameworld information for a one shot or campaign starter. "Commercial mining vessel Nostromo. Distress call." Done. Go make characters.

-Alien: Resurrection is probably the most explicitly D&D one: diverse party with weird specialties. Actually armed on purpose. Alien3 is the least RPGable. Really one PC and a ton of NPCs.

-Surgery-as-plot-event is a theme. Making Remove Curse into an encounter is an under-utilized idea, I think.

-Have faced stuff referred to as "Prometheus goo" twice in D&D games since the movie came out. In neither case did the inception of the goo postdate the movie. The movie now owns the concept of evil black goo.

-Starmap room: that's the intro to the hexcrawl part of the campaign. Do the players take the bait?

-David is the secretly evil cleric from Keep on the Borderlands.


Scott Faulkner said...

Very inspirational and helpful writeup, Zak. On the comics front, I would give most of the credit on Aliens: Labyrinth to the writer, Jim Woodring. He also did a good job the Dark Horse Jabba the Hutt mini-series. His own stuff though, like FRANK, is pure genius. You should really check it out if haven't already.

Zak Sabbath said...

I like frank but I think it is insane philistine heresy to ever give most of the credit for a good comic to the writer and I think it happens way too much because art criticism is logocentric.

end rant

mordicai said...

David is the thief who pries out the statues jeweled eyes even though the Player knows that the DM is probably going to curse him.

Miranda said...

I still say that Prometheus is to Wessex as David is to Philip the Bloody.

Zak Sabbath said...

In pieces in someone's backpack?

Mark Harris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Harris said...

ok lets try that again - using phone to post sucks

not as relevant to D&D but,
I think that a lot of the horror in Alien(s) is due brutal and effective dashing of any hope of survival and what that means.
In takes THE ur-horror - you are going to die and you can do nothing about it - and tightens it "you are going to die very soon, and there is nothing you can do". No where to run and no chance of winning the fight
(unless strong and lucky as Ripley, but in our hearts we know we're not).
In a way the actual monster details become incidental to its real power as a symbol of inevitable death.

(hmm that sounded much more deep and insightful before I typed it up, ho hum)

Zak Sabbath said...

well, yeah, I mean, it is a horror movie

Miranda said...

There are multiple reasons.

Miranda said...

The other big ones are not caring about the other PCs' well-being and trafficking with the terrible things found in the dungeon itself.

Zak Sabbath said...

...and paying the price for it

Miranda said...


Zak Sabbath said...

...and both slain by a god.

Scott Faulkner said...

Good art is critical to good comics and I can often enjoy a comic with nice art and good storytelling chops, even if the writing is a little weak. When I talk about writing in comics though, I don't just mean the words on the page. Woodring is someone who draws comics and knows how they work - he may have even provided some basic layouts, as many comic writers do. Without the writer, there wouldn't even be a story - conversely, good writing won't save a poorly-drawn comic.

Zak Sabbath said...

The Labyrinth comic is good because of Killian Plunkett's art and even when Woodring isn't writing he makes good comics. The writing in Labyrinth is nowhere NEAR as good as Jim, it's just a workmanlike Alien plot

Scott Faulkner said...

You're probably right; my memories of the comic are from when it first hit the stands and I believe Plunkett was just starting out at that point - I picked it up 'cuz of the Woodring name. I found it odd that you didn't list writer as well as artist but now I know your reasoning. I can't believe I haven't read Mignola's Alien book yet.

Gus L said...

There are gems and nuggets in this here post. Allow me to explains. I have been suffering a problem of PC's not wanting to go on the mega dungeon crawl that the entire campaign was based around after an upsetting/lethal initial delve. The idea that "Alien" is a template what to do with a party of rational risk analysts/cowards is pure gold, or platinum in the OD&D context. When the megadungeon is open and ignored it's denizens get pushed upward by its own internal logic - I know it's a kindergarten level realization, but tonight I am a kindergartner.

Also how would you feel about posting Blixa and Gleichman's stats and/or portraits? Yes, I mean for use in other people's games - which is a species of immortality.

BigFella said...

I was in a game with Delta where he turned a remove curse not just into an encounter, but an entire dungeon that turned out to be the cursed PC's symbolic internal mindspace that we had to fight through to affect a cure.

It was awesomest!

tammy said...

hey man wow that was really hott :D
seo dubai

huth said...

Alien3 is the least RPGable. Really one PC and a ton of NPCs.

The GM decides to continue the campaign but with a bunch of new players that end up dropping it and their characters get killed off.

Unknown said...

Although I wasn't completely happy with the flick ( hopefully the 20 minutes directors cut will be better) It did give me one hell of an idea for a megadungeon with it's pitch black decore , mummified Engineer corpses, rooms with strange alien tech. I'm hoping will see some sort of concept art book for the film in the near future.