Last week I invited my immediate family to join me for a tabletop RPG session via webcam and in a system none of us had played before. What could go wrong?
I’ve been trying to find a group to play the Alien RPG with me since the system hit shelves. The series is one of my favorites, bleeding into my real life in minor silly ways like my xenomorph cane (I don’t need to use a can often, but when I do it’s going to be awesome, darn it!) and acting as my rainy-day comfort films. Sick at home with the flu? Alien. A nervous flyer on a cross-country flight? Aliens. Home alone all weekend? Time to finally watch Prometheus. So when everyone started staying home for days and weeks at a time and suddenly had much more of their nights and weekends freed up, I knew my time had come. It’s family game night.
The cast was simple. My mom and dad – two people who haven’t played any tabletop RPGs since D&D first edition, my two younger brothers, and my husband. Dad is the reason I enjoy the Alien series so much and honestly probably introduced me to them a little too young – I remember a number of nightmares, and Mom hasn’t seen a single movie in the franchise. One of my brothers is the infamous person who always makes insane high-concept characters who I hate GMing for. He told me he was going to be the medic but insist on checking insurance before doing any medicine adjacent checks. I told him that an alien would drop out of the ceiling and eat just him for no reason regardless of where anyone was on the map so he switched over to a very straightforward roughneck and was actually very tolerable to play with. My future sister in law was supposed to join us and had made a pilot character for herself, but wasn’t feeling well at the last minute and dropped out. Don’t worry, she’s fine.
If this reads to you like a recipe for disaster, you’re not wrong. This was a mess. But in the way that every small child’s birthday part is a mess. If you get to the end and everyone had fun and nobody is seriously injured, you’re doing fine.
Character creation took three hours (one of my brothers was forty five minutes late, the book we were using was on a google drive and not the fastest to load, and as I said before, my parents haven’t made a character since 1E), and the actual game took six (I’d designed it to be a three or four hour game. More on this later.) so I’m obviously not going to give you a blow by blow of the experience, but here are my highlights as well as what I learned.
- My parents jumped into character IMMEDIATELY. Voices, full personalities, motives, knee-jerk feelings about the other characters. I had assumed it would be a struggle for them since they hadn’t played pretend-with-rules for so long, but I had been wrong.
- As soon as my intrepid crew found the abandoned ship, they all knew something was amiss and played the game SO SAFE. It was infuriating for me as the GM. A proud and true trope of any horror movie is that 3/4 of your cast is reckless or stupid and none of them were either. This was my fault, but I’ll discuss this in what I learned.
- Somebody at the virtual table, and I won’t name names but I’m sure they know who they are, only ever rolled successes. Even as the odds made it increasingly more and more impossible. This isn’t to say that one of my dear family members was cheating at the game of space pretend…. but one of my family members was cheating at the game of space pretend.
- Only Mom’s character died although we did get close with he-who-likely-fudged-his-rolls. She promised no holiday presents, but I’m pretty sure she’s bluffing.
- I was asked “How do I roll that again?” probably upwards of two hundred separate times.
- The characters with separate motives and goals had no qualms about ruining everyone else’s day. It was very on-brand for the series and stirred up some delightful in-party fighting.
- Honestly, the whole thing was a wreck in a way that I am both thinking of fondly and felt very very drained by. But my family had fun and is asking when we’re going to play again, so I’ll consider the day a rousing success.
What I learned:
- As the GM I could have done more to prepare for this game. Sending out a rolls and rules cheat sheet would have gone a long way, especially for anyone not familiar with the system or new to or rusty at TTRPGs.
- We should have used a program like Roll20 so that our maps, sheets, dice rollers, voice chat, etc. could have been in one simple place. It would have cut down on confusion, incorrectly submitted rolls, and probably saved some time.
- Don’t underestimate anyone in your group! In many ways my family surpassed my expectations in gameplay, role-playing, and being fun and hilarious. Inexperience definitely doesn’t mean a lack of ability.
- I was too nice to them! This probably goes hand in hand with not underestimating your group, but I let them slide by with a little extra health and a little more disregard for specific game mechanics meant (like speed) and they didn’t need it.
- The mixture of babying my crew a little, not being able to verify rolls, and a rule that I had misread (Entirely my fault, but it was my first time playing a game in this system let alone running one so I’m cutting myself some slack.) all joined forces like a terrible Voltron to make the game last entirely too long. I should have ended the session earlier, “So long, thank you. Come back next week for some rules corrections and all of your exciting and terrible demises,” but we instead played the whole thing out. Learn from my mistake. If it starts to be exhausting instead of fun, take a break, recoup, and make adjustments.
My general take-away from all of this? If you have family and friends who live far away or can’t come over physically right now, play online! It’s a bit of a struggle and it takes a little more organization at the top, but it’s worth it. And honestly, now is the perfect time to talk somebody who may usually be resistant to TTRPGs into joining in. I challenge you to reach out to somebody, tell them to put down Animal Crossing, and join you for electronic game night.
Have you played the Alien system yet? Can I join your game so I can actually play? Which unlikely person will you be inviting to join your in some tabletop RPG action during the pandemic? Let us know in the comments!