X-Com RPG – Design Decisions: Building Tension with Time

Collaboration: Strength in Numbers

In X-Com, soldiers die a lot. Those that don’t die get better, but then when they die it’s just all the more loss for you.  All that to say, there’s strength in numbers and soldiers only survive when there are comrades watching their backs with enough Time to provide covering fire.  Metaphorically, designing an rpg effectively takes collaboration (especially one like this that many people have already attempted), so I’m glad to have Glimm the Gnome joining this little endeavor with very insightful thoughts on his blog Glimm’s Workshop. His first post has helped me consider the options available for scope and how best to present the good stuff without running into trouble trying to swallow it all at once.

So Why Highlight Time?

Previously, I dug into trying to capture a specific ambiance in rpg rules, as well as preliminary ideas for X-Com drop-team gameplay using CortexPlus/Leverage. I ended the gameplay discussion highlighting Time as one of the key elements for most actions. Why?

The game X-Com: UFO: Enemy Unknown is all about Time, and never having enough of it.

What’s Great about CortexPlus…

The coolest thing about Cortex Plus is it’s flexibility within an elegant framework to account for very diverse play experiences.  All CortexPlus games use rolls of two different core Traits plus any extras. Whatever you most want out of your gaming in terms of tone or focus determines what to use for core Traits.  Leverage’s core Traits are Abilities (Agility, Willpower, Intelligence…) and Roles (Hacker, Hitter, Mastermind…) in order to provide plenty of action with a focus on competence.  Smallville uses Values (Justice, Duty, Love…) and Relationships with other PCs and NPCs to provide plenty of drama with a focus on character conflict (internal and external), which also grants the perk of superpowered characters being on an even plane with non-supers characters, at least in terms of what matters most to the game.

What Matters Most in X-Com?

In X-Com, what matters most? During tactical missions, what matters most is whether you kill enemies faster before they get you. There are no set roles for soldiers, allowing deep, freeform strategic potential to suit each player’s preferences. If you give a guy armor and a rocket launcher, he’s now your heavy weapons guy (hopefully with decent aim). Do you make your finest sharpshooter the pointman, better able to take out threats immediately but also facing greatest danger, or do you plunk him down behind a tree to give covering fire to the quicker lighter armed scouts? Who gets the short straw to walk in the front door of that UFO right into the sights of an unknown number of waiting plasma rifles: the incompetent, frightened, but expendable rookie, or the valuable Colonel Rambo Blastalicious?

So accuracy, bravery, and mobility matter a lot, hence we’ll have one core Trait be these Skills. The other important factor that accounts for a lot of the tension and fear is timing. If soldier Igor Milodanovich uses all his time to scurry behind cover of that wall, he won’t have any time to squat down, let alone shoot at anything that may emerge from the darkness. On the other hand if he moves cautiously, saving enough time to blast a Chrysalid right before it tears apart his comrade Meg McConnely. For these reasons, I hope setting Time as the second core die follows Fred Hicks‘ recommendation, “You’re hunting for points of tension — places where the system gives you two or more opposed choices, each awesome and awful.”

Pay attention to one thing, you’ll miss something else that’s either awesome or awful, lethal or game-changing. Every choice is as valuable as its opportunity cost, and hopefully forcing decisions between equally important ways to spend time and attention will make for riveting play experiences. What do you think?

Is it Simple, Versatile, and Poweful?

Furthermore, if we can fit more macro layers of the game on top of drop-team tactical raids, Time can be the constant. Time always matters, especially in the big picture. Do you spend time improving your base/increasing coverage by building new locations, or spend time researching captured aliens and gear to get some kind of advantage against the invaders? Do you send injured soldiers down day after day or give them time to recover? Do you wait for morning and risk the landed craft leaves or dare a dangerous night raid? Do you stop the terror raid in Japan and ignore the juicy target of a supply ship over France? As the clock ticks, the enemy is always probing and seeping into this world. Delay your vigilance for a moment and they’ll establish bases in Buenos Aires, and infiltrate the upper echelons of Japan’s government with psi-espionage.

This game is all about Time, and never having enough of it.

From a design perspective, I’d rather have one good mechanic that’s flexible and powerful enough to handle diverse situations with class. I don’t want players to have to wonder which roll to make just because they’re dealing with Russia cutting their funding instead of whether Juan Valdez makes a shot or not. With Time as the constant, the rules will be much more comprehensible and consistent, injecting the tone of vulnerable desperation into every choice players make.  Sounds delicious to me.

Perhaps it would make more sense to call it Attention instead of Time. Either way,  it would represent the same thing.  How much time am I going to spend on this shot/researching this technology/placating Germany/building this hanger: that’s Attention but it takes time.

What do you think?

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.