Stories that Shape Us: Vulnerable Heroes – X-Com RPG

X-COM – UFO: Enemy Unknown and its sequels from the early 90’s are often hailed as one of the best video games ever made. I only played the original, just a few years ago and loved it.  I never got very far–partly because it’s so stinking hard, and also because I take so long to think through the constant high stakes choices–but I relished the relentless tension and delicious tone of directing painfully frail drop-teams through barns and orchards in the dead of night, exploring a UFO crash site. Dropping the thing from the sky was satisfying, but crashes never killed all the ship’s occupants, and not knowing what or how many of the unknown intruders waited with amazingly lethal bizarre weaponry just beyond that barn wall or just beyond your range of vision made me delightfully afraid, truly afraid.

A view of the Battlescape mode from Wikipedia

Enemy Unknown harnesses all the feelings and tone of vulnerable men and women just like me facing off against all odds in a doomed effort to somehow locate, study, slow, or stop a “faceless enemy that is violently probing and plotting its way into our world.” (Quote from XCOM a reinterpretation in production as of 2010 by 2k Games. The link has a pretty interesting/vivid video)

I’m not a fan of horror films in the least, but for some reason, I just drank up the vivid vicarious experience of hopeless heroism that X-COM provided me. Maybe it is the classic feeling of heroism in the face of impossible odds that I love about so many stories: the movie Armagedden (admittedly the first movie in my life that made me cry) Independence Day, Braveheart, Last Samurai, Lord of the Rings, etc. just to name a few movies. When someone chooses to face certain failure and disastrous ramifications with the resolve to nevertheless offer all the small effort they can, I’m moved, inspired, and taken outside of my small experience. It feels good; it rearranges my priorities and values; these stories really change my life. I hope they do the same for you.

Lately I’ve moved away from video games and board games in favor of exploring the possibilities of role-playing games and corporate storytelling. I’d love to have more of that vicarious feeling that lifts me from my comfortable little bubble of existence and makes me think about my place and purpose in that grand, continually-flowing story: History. I want to participate in a game of Enemy Unknown.

How do you capture ambiance in an RPG

I know many people have talked about or experimented with an X-COM RPG already. The topic has been in discussion on a Mongoose Publishing forum since 2003. Still I can’t help thinking about it myself. With the recent release of LeverageRPG, I’m becoming increasingly enamored of the versatility and elegance of CortexPlus as an RPG rules system. I can’t help thinking of XCOM in a Cortex framework. Leverage captures the tone of caper-genre to a T, as SmallvilleRPG captures the tone of relational drama. But how do you capture the tone of X-COM?

Do you isolate the drop-teams and give those brave, frail soldiers faces and personality? This would cut out a lot of the aspects I really loved: research and development to harness the intruders’ captured gear, international politics and funding, tactics of base-construction and layout, global vigilance, buying unmanned tanks vs hiring more rookie soldiers/scientists, or buying more incendiary ammo, healthpaks, or stun rods. I know most people don’t get into the micromanagement that I appreciate, but is it enough to just drill down to the drop-teams coming face to face with comrades dying by plasma blasts and reaching near-panicked hands to open the doors of UFOs filled with waiting foes with whom you can’t communicate and who don’t deal in parley? Can it rightfully be called a role-playing game if these soldiers don’t have personality and stories of their own?

Quick Soldiers

If we don’t just drill down to the drop-teams, then the tactical element must be simple, fast, but still engaging enough to give attention to. Especially in the beginning, you’ll go through a lot of soldiers. In the original game, you hired more Rookies, they came with a name (each being wonderfully international in diversity) and a randomized set of stats. As an rpg, the level of lethality–especially in the very beginning–makes me want to keep character generation quick and easy. I’ll keep it to a single dice roll.

[NOTE: As of 1/19/11 I have decided to go a different direction with soldier stats so the following is no longer how it works, but I’ll leave it here since this is where the thought process started.]

How about this, loosely following the CortexPlus model and the original game:

  • Assign skill levels among the following: (2 at d8, 2 at d6, 2 at d4)
    • Firing Accuracy
    • Throwing Accuracy
    • Reactions
    • Strength
    • Bravery
    • Agility (Can be no higher than d6 for Rookies)

Random Rookies

To make it even easier, we can build lots of random Rookies in a flash as follows:

  • Roll 2d8, 2d6, and 2d4
  • Assign the die size of the highest roll to the first stat (Firing), the second highest to the second stat (Throwing), etc.
  • This will generally leave Agility and Bravery low with occasionally strong soldiers, but most just generally good marksmen.

Skill descriptions:

  • Firing and Throwing are self-explanatory
  • Reactions is used for shots when it’s not your turn
  • Strength determines what heavy gear you can use, and how much it slows you down.
  • Bravery determines how much demoralizing you can take before Panic takes over.
  • Agility – Determines defense and the number of Time Units you get per turn (TUs determine Time die size)
    • (d4 = 4 TUs, d6 = 6 TUs, d8 = 8, etc.)


Roll all action resolutions (where failure would be interesting) as a combination of two or more dice and add together the two highest results.

    Rolls consist of Skill die plus Time die, with possibly other additional dice as applicable such as cover, weapon, armor, and morale or personality factors etc.

Hunting that Elusive Game

Obviously there is more to it than this. I have some more gameplay thoughts that I’ll dive into in tomorrow’s post, but I’m still stuck wondering how to capture that most excellent Ambiance from the original. My prey in this hunt is an elusive and fickle thing, easy to miss without realizing it’s not there. I don’t want to get bogged down in standard RPG mechanics and forget that my main goal is to harness and highlight the tension, fear, and feeling of vivid mortality and vulnerable heroism.

Please help me. I know you brilliant, creative story-weavers and game designers are out there. Lend me your thoughts, comments, and experience. Have you experienced in tabletop gaming the vivid ambiance and immersive, moving, vicarious experience I’ve described? How have you evoked ambiance and tone through intentional game design choices?

About Adam

I'm a husband, father, explorer of the inexhaustible, and synergy cultivator. Starting with D&D, my explorations into role-playing and game design have brought me to savor mining diverse systems, initially Cortex Plus, then PbtA, ORE, Forged in the Dark, and now anything I can get my hands on.