Dungeoneer’s Diary #21 – Some Monsters Don’t Translate

Posted: August 20, 2019 in Uncategorized

© 2019 G.N. Jacobs

Ordinarily, this would be a post about the Monster of the Week complete with game stats. Maybe for shits and giggles, I even resurrect the Stephor the Seeker character that I used for these posts for a while, until I got bored. But, some monsters just don’t translate well out of the original context for which they were created…the Alien Xenomorph comes to mind.

As originally envisioned by writers Dan O’Bannon, Ron Shusett with interpretational stops with H.R. Giger and finally director Ridley Scott, this acid blooded smart predator seems like it would be a worthy addition to any roleplaying game. Until you stop to take a look at the subtle details of in-game physics and/or magic of the various game settings.

The Alien Xenomorph basically works really well in any game setting that has guns, nearly nothing in the way of magical armor or energy shields and where mobility is prized over armor. So pretty much if you’re playing an Aliens campaign in GURPS Space, any other similar generic or modular game system or even the branded tie-in RPG, you’ll have a monster that does it’s job, kills everybody but Ellen Ripley, or in a game setting makes the player characters sweat it out.

Do you get as much as you thought pulling this beast out of its narrow context? I don’t think so, but you are allowed to not believe me and replicate the experiment. Mayhem varies by roll of the dreaded D20.

Low magic fantasy campaign. Perhaps using Westeros as the example. Would King’s Landing do better against Alien Xenomorphs or dragons? The dragon pretty much acts like a living Dresden or Tokyo fire-bombing raid. But, the relative low numbers of dragons and the anti-dragon artillery seen in the last season gives some small measure of hope of Script Immunity.

Meanwhile, the Xenomorph picks off citizens one by one and drags them off to feed the Queen and face-hugger eggs. She hides deep in the sewers near the warm heat seeping down from the heart of the city. The probable reaction force of King’s Landing militia and Kingsguard knights are all going to be wearing lots of steel to deal with a beast infamous for its acid blood, a last fuck you to anyone that might try to kill it.

Okay, maybe the writer or DM chooses the most generous assumptions to even the game/novel out for the one character designated as Final Survivor. Does the local version of Sam Tarley read a book in the Maester Citadel telling how acid is counteracted by base alkaline substances like lye and how glass contains most but not all acids? Does he then discover the local variant of the D&D spell Glassteel buried in that lore? Did Cersei use up the city’s store of Dragonfire on the Red Keep? If the answers are No, No and Yes then pack it up the author/DM got bored and just ended the series/campaign.

High magic fantasy. Continuing on from the above paragraph, if you have enough magic as in most D&D games you’re wasting the Xenomorph. Don’t believe me? This I’ve actually played.

The Great College Campaign. We’re deep in the local trademark safe version of the Underdark (an underground abode home to dark elves and other things that go bump in the dark specific to The Forgotten Realms setting). We think we’re going to pick fights with the dark elves and steal their stuff, a typical Saturday on a campaign. But, there aren’t any Drow…

Eventually, we find the nest. Everybody has seen the movie and we inevitably have our characters act on it. Somehow the DM doesn’t penalize us for this meta play. Step One, we retreat.

We find a village with a glassblower. We make glass shields for the muscle characters up front: a sword based fighter, a dwarf, the pure thief and myself as the gnome Thief/Illusionist (I had a magic dagger with enough moxie to survive acid and no ability to contribute with magic). We cast the Glassteel spell to harden the glass. We went back inside keeping the spell-casters and arrow specialist Fighter in the back rank of the phalanx. I don’t remember us having all that much trouble.

Assumptions. We were high enough level (about 5th) to have common access to the Glassteel spell. We’d all seen the movie and employed tactics to keep the beasts in front of us to negate some of the presumed benefits of playing the Xenomorphs as smart.

Lock three of the beasts in a metal cage? The weakest one will get gutted by the other two in a bid to escape. The other movies depicted them figuring out that machine guns run out of ammunition. Or the tactical value of those overhead air shafts.

Super high tech Sci-Fi campaign. I once contemplated putting the Xenomorphs into the old Star Trek game by FASA. I imagine I would get the same results playing with either the more recent rules or even using the GURPS sourcebook based on the diagonally related Starfleet Battles license. Or any other hi tech SF campaign setting, including Star Wars. I didn’t even put this fan fiction into the field with an adventure.

Why? The ubiquity of various high-energy beam weapons coupled with equally common nearly magic sensors. Gee, how much fun will the DM get out of using this exact creature against player characters armed with phasers (depicted as having a disintegrator setting and energy stores limited only by Plot) and the equally tough tricorder – “Captain, I detect ten creatures with a highly unusual physiology that includes acid blood…” – without upping his/her game into the stratosphere?

Even lasers with just a kill setting might end up being sort of ho-hum, next for the characters. Either power pack management becomes a real thing, the way it almost isn’t in games like this, or it becomes a one-sided affair. Possibly similar to how the Klingons ended the Tribbles only to be teased later – “do the Klingons sing glorious songs of the Great Tribble Hunt?”

As for Star Wars, the existence of Jedi and Sith kind of rob the Xenomorph of most of its impact. Okay, a lightsaber gets in too close for the unprepared Force user. But, said Jedi and Sith are all uniformly described as using the Force to conduct telekinesis. A quick wave of the hand and any flying acid is bottled up and avoided. And everybody else has a blaster, see above. Who knows, maybe even the Imperial Stormtroopers might be allowed to do something?

It is my contention that the author/DM will have to bust out their best ever mayhem game, beyond their regular A-game to make the Xenomorph work outside of the niche it landed in for the Alien Movies. Pretty much the single smartest predator ever, only DMs are only human and don’t always play that uber-smart.

You could up-gun the Xenomorph with toys last seen in the hands of The Predator (infrared, motion, thermals). Unless Ridley Scott pulls off a retconn, both beasts exist in the same universe. And there is other precedent, like a zombie adventure for GURPS with a variant for the Autoduel (trademark safe Deathrace 2000) setting. A quote – “in keeping with the ever spiraling domestic arms race, give the zombies an extra –2 for Kevlar body armor.”

So there you have it, I’ve used a classic movie monster to highlight that not all great movie monsters easily leap out of their movies into your games without careful thought. I have presented an opinion that I wouldn’t use the Xenomorph too far outside of the context in which the movies tell us so. Married to the opinion that few authors or DMs (myself included) are clever enough to give said beast the intellect to make things work.

But, it’s still only an opinion…prove me wrong!

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