GM Lessons from Aliens

This is a guest post from Stuart of Robertson Games.

Originally, a year or more ago, Stuart shared this essay privately on Google Plus. I thought it was insightful enough that I saved a text copy for my own personal use, and recently while looking through some of my files I came upon it again. It was a shame, I thought, that it was not available to the general web, and so I asked Stuart if he was amenable to me publishing it as a guest post here, and he generously agreed. All words below the horizontal rule are Stuart’s, very lightly edited for flow in the blog post context.

Everything I Need to Know About GMing I Learned from Aliens

Aliens (source)

Aliens (source)

Aliens was very influential in the way I approach GMing. Over the years I’ve noticed that there are so many great tips for running the style of game I enjoy that can be taken from this movie. That doesn’t mean the genre or plot of the movie (although I think it could work) but rather little bits and pieces that are applicable to running a game about exploration and adventure with a lot of suspense and danger.

Very important is that the Aliens don’t show up until well into the movie, but you see lots of clues about them earlier in the film. Fighting a monster isn’t as scary as knowing there’s a monster somewhere in the environment and learning about how much you don’t want to be fighting that monster.

The monsters move around the environment and your actions (or inactions) have a lot of bearing on what will happen when you run into them. Aliens is not a “kick in the door, kill the monsters, take their stuff” kind of movie. When the Marines try that kind of thing in the Reactor Room… it goes very badly for them. Scouting, sentries, patrols — and fighting withdrawals are an important element.

When the Marines set off at the beginning of the film there’s a lot of bravado and they have lots of big guns, armour, and they feel very confident. They’re soldiers. But “It won’t make any difference” if they start making bad choices and their strategy is poor. The situation isn’t one they can make their way through on force of arms alone.

There’s a big group of Marines initially. Some, like Hicks, Hudson and Vasquez are more well defined characters (like PCs) while others like Crowe, Spunkmeyer and Frost aren’t around long enough for us to learn much about their personalities (like Retainers). Seeing the group suffer casualties lets you realize how dangerous the situation is and the main characters can shift their tactics before they’re removed from the game/story (“Drake! We are LEAVING!”).

Even the humour in the movie is what I think the right balance for a scary and tension filled adventure game. Monty Python jokes and “silly” jokes can spoil the mood, removing the tension and making everyone take the game less seriously. While darker humorous moments won’t do that. Characters losing their cool in humours ways (“Game over man! GAME OVER!”) or suggesting clearly ridiculous things that demonstrate they’re not handling the situation well (“Maybe we should build a fire. Sing some songs.”) adds levity but doesn’t take the players out of the game world.

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