Interview to Andrew E.C. Gaska, author of ALIEN RPG: Colonial Marines Operations Manual
In recent days, we had the privilege of being able to interview Andrew E.C. Gaska, the lead writer for story and setting of ALIEN RPG, the award-winning official RPG of the ALIEN franchise by the Swedish publisher Free League Publishing. He is, in fact, the signature on Chariot of the Gods and Destroyer of Worlds, the two Cinematic Scenarios released so far and on the very recent Colonial Marines Operations Manual, which we reviewed a month ago. Beyond that, Andrew E.C. Gaska is also a consultant for 20th Century Fox regarding the continuity and canon of the ALIEN brand and other major franchises, as well as being an acclaimed science fiction writer.
So let’s go back to the interview, in which interesting topics emerged such as the management of the canon of a famous brand and the future of ALIEN RPG.
Intervie to Andrew E.C. Gaska
Hi Andrew, thank you for your time. We know that as well as being the lead writer and setting writer for ALIEN RPG, you are an acclaimed writer of Sci-Fi novels and that you also have a prolific career in the world of comics, as well as being a consultant for 20th Century Fox for the continuity and canon of the ALIEN, Predator and Planet of the Apes brands. Please, tell us a little more about yourself.
Hello, and thank you! Looks like you covered the big stuff above! I’m also an avid toy collector and would die for my cat, Adrien. There’s a lot about me to tell, but let’s talk about RPGs and ALIEN!
When did you approach the world of roleplaying games? When did you start writing for roleplaying games and what prompted you to become involved in games creation?
I approached the RPG world when I was 12 and my mom bought me the D&D Basic red boxed set! I was hooked, became a game master for about 20 years and then had to put it away because of work. After I wrote my first Planet of the Apes novel (Conspiracy of the Planet of the Apes), Josh Izzo (formerly franchise director for Fox) read it and asked me to be a consultant on POTA for them. This led to me working on the Alien Bible and completely writing the Predator one. Fox told me if I could find someone who wanted to make an ALIEN RPG who would have me write it, they would approve it. I shopped it around for 18 months before my friend Joe Lefavi found Free League. They had just told him that their dream RPG was ALIEN, so the stars aligned and here we are.
Being the holder of the canon and continuity of such important brands that gather a large number of enthusiasts must be a considerable responsibility. How do you relate to the expectations, tastes and even the demands of the fans, who are sometimes too fussy?
Well, there is a common misconception that I set canon, which isn’t the case. I look for the canon that is there, make my recommendations on connecting the dots to include stuff that may or may not work, and then am approved by a franchise director. My title is franchise consultant. Usually my recommendations are approved, but ultimately it’s up to Fox/Disney, not me. Once they rubber stamp it, I just call ‘em as I see ‘em.
The films and the game Alien Isolation are Tier one canon. After that, everything is Tier 2 (expanded canon) or lower. The best way to incorporate as much as possible is to implement what I call “barroom canon,” which allows everything to fit within the context of “the version of the story you read was overheard by someone talking to someone else that was told by their drunk cousin about the event.”
This leaves room for it to may or may not be true, as per your personal head canon. Most fans have been happy with the approach, because it gives them free reign to determine what they consider the truth while still establishing a canon framework around it. I am very active with the fans, I love to talk to Alien. Every now and then there is an angry fan who wants to know who the hell am I to tell them what is canon?
The answer to that is simple: I’m just the guy they hired to figure it out and make recommendations. I then report back on the final word as approved. The only thing different about me is that I stuck through this as a career despite all the ups and downs that make most people seek more stable employment than the creative industry offers.
The history of science fiction and horror is full of menacing aliens and threats from outer space, what do you think is the reason that has led ALIEN to be so successful, since the first Ridley Scott film?
The key to ALIEN is that it was a film about a freighter on the ocean that follows an SOS to an island and discovers something horrific there. Oh, and the ocean in space, and the island is a moon. It was the first space horror film to take itself seriously. The Star Wars lived in aesthetics and the everyday workers worried about their bonuses set up a living, breathing universe ripe for the bizarre horror that follows. The movie never treated itself like a farce, and that set a precedent for a new genre of horror.
Regarding the canon of ALIEN, how do you move through the large number of movies, novels, comics, video games and technical manuals released over the years?
I do it real careful like! No seriously, I was exposed to most of it as it came out, and I retain information on these kinds of things. Then 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.
Can we consider all the material contained in the ALIEN RPG manuals canon?
Absolutely canon… until it’s not. Let me clarify. Everything we do here is canon. Other ALIEN licensees are beginning to coordinate with me to keep us all on the same track. The only thing that can violate that canon would be a major film event, because the Scotts and the Camerons out there don’t subscribe to any canon but their own creative impulses. If they throw us a curveball, then it will become my job to straighten it out and work that into the canon.
For the curiosity of our readers, is there a published list of what is and what is not canon regarding the ALIEN brand?
Yes, I posted it on my blog. here’s the link https://roguereviewer.wordpress.com/2020/10/12/defining-canon-in-an-alien-world/
I update it as new info comes in, so I recommend bookmarking it to check back.
Let’s focus now on ALIEN RPG, we know that you are the lead writer about the game setting and the plot of Chariot of the Gods and Destroyer of Worlds, the two Cinematic Scenarios released until now. You are also the author of the Colonial Marines Operations Manual, that I have just reviewed and that it’s really a masterpiece. What were the biggest challenges you faced in developing all these manuals?
Word count limitations! I overwrite everything. The universe is super dense with so much material to draw upon, I try to put as much in as possible. I’m getting better at it, though.
In my review, I wrote that the Colonial Marines Operations Manual is something like two products in one that intersect with each other: a sourcebook where you can find a wealth of information on the iconic Marines and the history and geopolitical situation of the Frontier, and a manual of campaign all about the Marines. The result is something immense and amazing, in terms of the volume of the book and the amount of information. Do you think this is an acceptable definition? What was the choice to enclose all this in a single product, instead of dividing it into multiple publications?
I think its a great definition! It was intended to be a campaign book with a little bit of info, but I blew it up to what it is because I wanted to give players as much as they could get as a marine sourcebook. There’s so much I still haven’t gotten to, that will be handled in the next marine book when we circle back there after explorers/colonists and space truckers.
I had actually recommended they make it two books, but Free League likes to make each book have stuff for everyone in it, so this made more sense.
What inspires you when you are about to write material for ALIEN RPG or other media related to the ALIEN brand?
I have the films and or the soundtracks playing in the background as I write. I also have H.R. Giger’s art books, the Necronomicons I and II and Biomechanics, which have always been a huge inspiration. Over 30 years ago, my mother bought me the softcover German edition of Biomechanics before it was available in this country. I poured over that book daily. When it fell apart in college, I took its pages and put them up like posters all around my bed (that didn’t go over well with the ladies back in the day). For the past 13 years, the wallpapers on every computer, phone, and tablet I own have been Giger art.
We saw that with Chariots of the Gods, a story arc began and continued into Destroyer of Worlds. The campaign featured in Colonial Marines Operations Manual takes its cue from what happened in the latest Cinematic Scenario and takes the narrative further. What should we expect for the future? Can you give us some indiscretions on where this story arc will go?
Heart of Darkness is the next Cinematic Scenario. This will close out the 26 Draconis Saga trilogy of scenarios. After that is the Explorers/Colonists campaign called the Building Better Worlds Handbook, which works off of clues from the Marine book and Heart of Darkness to open a new chapter to the ALIEN saga.
Its my intent to tell continuing stories that affect the greater Alien universe that will have ramifications in other ALIEN products. Aliens Fireteam is a great example; they mention the Frontier War from the Colonial Marines Operations Manual in the game.
Were you in any way involved in adapting the Year Zero Engine rule system to the ALIEN RPG setting?
I was not! I didn’t even know what rules we were using until I was halfway through with writing the settings material in the core book. I think that’s one of the reasons the books work so well as universe sourcebooks as well as game books, they aren’t written specifically for the game only. Its universe first, and rules designed to fit the universe. The Stress mechanics and the Story Agendas are examples of successfully looking at a universe and designing rules to accommodate it. The genius of the Year Zero Engine is that it is flexible enough to be adapted to a ton of things with the addition of connective rules tissue.
As a writer and storyteller, what advice can you give to the Italian Game Mothers to make the best of the ALIEN atmosphere during the ALIEN RPG game sessions?
Use the tools around you! Use mood lighting, keep the room dim but the table lit. On YouTube there is a video of like 10 hours of Nostromo sounds, so play it in the background. Describe things, don’t just say what it is. Example, instead of saying “there’s an alien,” say: “something huddled in the corner shifts in the shadows, getting larger. Whatever it is is huge, because now its standing, and you can hear it breathing above your head.” Treat the game like you are sitting around a campfire, telling ghost stories, and you’ll do great!
Most RPGs players at one time or another try to create their own game world, often with disappointing results. What advice can you give to those who are about to take on the role of the creator of worlds? What elements are essential to make an interesting setting?
I’m the destroyer of worlds, not the creator! 😀
Seriously, I do creative consultation on things like that (feel free to reach out to me on FB if you are interested in that).
Generally speaking: Story comes first. If you are making a new world, the best advice is to create a world around a story, not a story around a world.
If you are using a pre-existing universe (like ALIEN), remember that that world started with its own story first. Its now up to you to find the untapped and untold story potential that the world suggests just by its existence.
Do you have any other ALIEN RPG projects in the works? If so, in what direction will they push the setting and story of ALIEN RPG?
I recently consulted on the Aliens Fireteam game. I’m working on new RPG content, and some other things which I can’t discuss yet.
What will your future projects be? Any other projects related to the world of roleplaying games?
My Choose Your Own Adventure graphic novel 8th Grade Witch was just released by Oni Press. I am creative director of the dieselpunk World War One RPG called Carbon Grey from Magnetic Press Play, and the writer of the upcoming Terminator RPG from Nightfall Games. There’s a bunch of other stuff I cant announce yet, but be assured I’ll be around a while. I’ll also be continuing to do ALIEN as long as the fans demand it.
Are you playing any RPGs right now?
I don’t really have the time as I’m too busy making them! I hope to see that change in the near future.
Thanks again Andrew for your time and your friendliness
Thank you! Let’s chat again soon!