X-Com RPG – Drop-Team Gameplay (with Video)

Exploring X-Com Gameplay

Today’s post continues the Exploration from yesterday of trying to capture that the particularly moving ambiance and ooh-ooh special feeling of perhaps the best video game ever made, X-Com: UFO: Enemy Unknown by possibly taking cues from CortexPlus and namely Leverage RPG.  To start, the above video is the intro to the original game from 1994, I think I may have found it cheesy the first time I booted up the game in Dosbox, but now it is strikingly nastolgic. It introduces some of the tone I’m looking for: pulp-style action and heroism in the face of a mysterious threat that seems utterly overwhelming and unstoppable. I especially like the music, particularly the tinny tolling bell sound at the beginning. Similar music would play with its ambient variations during crash site raids, leaving mostly drawn out silence, disturbed only by footsteps, doors opening and closing somewhere in the distance, the punctuating shots of phase weapons and the death screams of comrades or civilians wafting out of the darkness…

Here’s another video showing some of what I mean about how easily everything can go wrong and morale can plummet. This shows what happens if you don’t shoot down the UFO first, they’ll be everywhere, waiting on all sides, ready for you:

Having gotten this show-and-tell out of the way, let’s move on to some of my preliminary, and very rough, thoughts on gameplay, at least on the drop-team element. You can see my initial thoughts on character generation in the previous post. For now I’m ignoring a host of Leverage/CortexPlus mechanics such as Complications (bad things that happen when the dice roll 1s) and Plot Points. We’ll just focus on the basics and expand from there.


Drop-teams consist of 5-12 soldiers so players will likely control more than a single soldier. Also, players’ turns intersect, depending on how they want to time their actions. So turns are really only divided between X-Com’s turn and Enemies’ turn.

Basic Mechanic: All resolution is determined by rolling a combination of two or more dice adding together the two highest results.

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

Time/Attention is decided by the player for each action depending on how many Time Units(TU) she is willing to invest in the action. Plain and simple, if you spend most of your turn to make an aimed shot you’ll have a better chance of hitting than making a momentary snap shot, or three-burst auto-shot. Each TU spent increases the Time die size for that action:

  • 1 TU = Time die is d4
  • 2 TU = d6
  • 3 TU = d8
  • 4 TU = d10
  • 5 TU = d12

Other Uses of TU:


  • Moving costs 1 TU per zone (I’m leaning toward a mix of D&D 4e’s squares and FATE’s zones)
  • Any barriers in the zone like debris, rough terrain, or doors cost additional TUs
  • Kneeling costs 1 TU
  • Lying prone or getting up from prone costs 1 TU
  • Picking up items cost 1 TU
  • Dropping items is free

Reactions: Any unused TU can be spent on shots taken when it’s not your turn. If a foe comes around a corner or opens a door within your line of sight and range, you may fire at it immediately by rolling Firing+Time+Reactions. (Should it maybe just be Reactions+Time?)

  • Though Reactions is classic UFO: Enemy Unknown terminology, I’m considering renaming it Alertness. That way it can also be used for Fog of War/Darkness effect as well as Line of Sight mechanics.

Basic Example:

So rookie soldier Igor Milodanovich with Firing d8, and a Standard Rifle d4 (which isn’t worth the risk to include in the roll), who is Kneeling d6 uses a well-aimed shot (using 5TU for Time d12). This would be represented by a roll of Firing+Time+Squatting:

  • Ex: d8+d12+d6 = 3, 9, 4. Add the two highest result (9, 4) to get 13.

The target would roll Agility+Cover+ any extra factors such as smoke, darkness or Special armors. This particular Sectoid alien has the traits Agility d8, Stone Wall Cover d8, and Thick Smoke d10 from a recent grenade.:

  • Ex: Agility d8+Cover behind a wall d8+Thick Smoke d10 = 4,7,3 to get 11, which is less than Igor’s shot, so the target is hit.
  • Damage is determined by weapon and armor, which I’ll deal with later, most likely using inspiration from Rob Donoghue’s Stress gimmicks here and here.
  • But since this Sectoid is wearing no armor, Igor’s rifle blast will prove enough to kill it.

Some Theory Behind the Design Decisions So Far

Lethality: I like the lethality level afforded by weapons that will basically kill you if they so much as touch you. Modern guns do that, for the most part, given decent aim, and thus extraterrestrials with even more high-tech weaponry would certainly do likewise. The only hope is finding a way to armor your soldiers against whatever weapons those visitors are wielding, which probably means capturing and studying their weapons as well as their materials and armor.

Humanity is frail, vulnerable, and perpetually behind in this arms race.

Cover: On a similar theme of vulnerability, I’m liking Defense rolls consisting of Agility+Cover because it highlights the fact that if you linger out in the open without Cover, you’re screwed – a key conceit of the original game. The dilemma is, however, you’ll have to leave that precious cover if you’re going to have a chance clear out the aliens before they hunt you down. Let’s go lads, down the ramp, out of the safety of the drop-ship and into the open fields and orchards, streets, alleys, and highways.

The second best thing you can have besides Cover will have to be comrades within range, watching your back with enough Time left to drop any threats your trek across that empty yard may stir up. Hopefully the priority of cover, paired with the inevitable unavailability of it will build the tension Fred Hicks recommends, “You’re hunting for points of tension — places where the system gives you two or more opposed choices, each awesome and awful.” Somebody’s gotta walk over to the door (past all those terribly exposing windows) and open it. Somebody has to be the first up the stairs, even if that means you lose your head. Play the hero or stay alive. That’s the perpetual conflict of being an X-Com soldier, and hopefully it feels both awesome and awful.

Why Highlight Time?

Next time, I’ll dive into my thought processes behind choosing Time/Attention for a Core die to include in most if not all rolls, rather than say, Roles, Gear, or Ability Stats. In short, this game is all about Time, and never having enough of it.

Have any questions or criticism of where I’m going so far? Leave a comment. I know there are lots of X-Com fans out there somewhere, what do you think a game like this should include or leave out from the originals? What am I overlooking? Does anything seem too fiddly or over-complicated?

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.