X-Com RPG – Game Structure: So How Does this Work?

I’ve given a smattering of mechanics covering various parts of X-Com RPG, but I’ve left a lot of holes. So, as far as an overview, how would this game actually play out? This game is very, very far from being able to offer a full example of play. But when I do provide a sample X-Com experience, let’s say the GameMaster will be GM Jack, and the five players will be Walt, Jen, Carlos, Kate, and Lev. In fact, they may even show up today as needed.

I’ve put together a quick CortexPlus Primer to get a grasp of the system as a whole.

In addition, the following are some tentative ideas on how this may go together. Critiques and concerns are very welcome, since these thoughts now are speculative. Would this game be fun the way I’m suggesting it? Would it fairly represent the original? I’m trying to keep firmly in mind my primary goal, which is to capture that ambiance and tone of desperate heroism and bravery and triumph in the face of unbelievable vulnerability.

Game Structure Overview

Setup and Requirements

As currently conceived, this game requires little but 4-6 players, lots of index cards or post-it notes (to track all the traits of numerous characters, bases, and aliens) and lots of dice (at least 2 of each size from d4s to d12s, with a handful of spare d6s: the more the merrier).

Although technically it’s not necessary, you may want a world map for reference, and tracking the Night Shadow. Any type of world map will do.

This game is probably ideal with 5 players, matching the number of roles so that at least one player will be primarily skilled in each area. It may work well enough with more or fewer players, although I’m not sure how player count affects the balance of TUs, funding, and other game currencies.

(Just off the top of my head, decreasing the number of rounds in a month by 3 for every player over 5, or increasing the number of rounds by 3 for every player under 5 may work, but then again that may be problematic. My thought is that this will balance more/less money per month to match the greater number of TUs earned and used each month)

Follow the Leader… Commanders

At the beginning of each campaign and each game session, players assume the roles of their respective Commanders, taking their places in the Command Deck of one the X-Com underground bases that serves as headquarters. Players play the same Commanders throughout a game, following them as they grow, learn, and bear the burden or responsibility for the human race against horrifying threat. The Commanders personality traits and style trickle down to affect every facet of the organization in which they participate.

In game terms that means players cast their vote for the kind of play they are interested in by crafting their Commander accordingly. The player’s efforts thereafter, from ground assault, to research and base-building, are guided by those build decisions, more or less, allowing some changes and adjustments over time, of course, as the Commander grows and changes.

Example: At the beginning of a new game/campaign, player Walt creates Commander McHenry, representing the Euro-Syndicate, and assigns his primary and secondary Roles as Soldier and Technician respectively. He also assigns Cdr. McHenry a few Distinctions to flesh out his Commander’s personality: Demanding, Bull-headed, Unflappable. He’ll choose some other elements to build out Cdr. McHenry, but we’ll ignore them for now. The important thing is that Walt will be viewing all events in this game from the perspective of Cdr. McHenry, from pushing to add missile defense to the X-Com base, to unflinchingly throwing recruits onto the battlefield to face fear, aliens, and the frailty of their own lives, and come out as stronger soldiers because of it (that is if they survive their first mission).

It Takes an Army: A Host of Minor Characters that Matter

What is unique about X-Com as an RPG, is that all players control many different characters throughout the course of the game, from Commanders, pilots, and soldiers, to diplomats, spies, scientists, and engineers. Which type of characters players control depends on the ‘zoom level’ of the current scenario, while the individuals in question–especially in the case of soldiers–will often rotate frequently. Each of these people will be unique to some extent, depending on how much spotlight they get, but a single player’s characters will all share some distinct commonalities.

The commonalities each of a player’s many characters will share are the traits and persona that player chose in building their Commander.

Example: When the players spot a UFO and zoom in to the level of an airborne Intercept Mission, Walt may choose to control a pilot, but whomever he controls, he will roll to resolve tests and contests using Cdr. McHenry’s traits. If Cdr. McHenry’s Ace role is rated at d6, then Walt’s pilot in this mission will roll a d6 for actions related to maneuvering, stunts, and dare-devilry, but when employing Bull-headed aggression on a dangerous run with weapons blazing, he will enjoy the  benefit of Cdr. McHenry’s Bull-headed, and Unflappable Distinctions, and the added bonus of Cdr. McHenry’s Soldier d10 Role.

This is not to say each minor character that players control will be miniature versions of their commanders. Nevertheless, the players’ choices in building their commander will provide guidance as to the style or archetype of the minor characters they wish to control. This will help make soldiers and pilots more than merely gun-toting alien fodder as they are in the original game. This is an RPG after all, so playing an array of unique characters ought to be interesting, but it also ought not be overwhelming. Using Commanders’ stats for minor characters is sufficient to provide interest and variety without requiring overwhelming bookkeeping of stats and character sheets, while minor characters with a bit more spotlight (namely, soldiers) will get a little more mechanics to embody their own individuality.

SideNote (Tentative Idea): Given the idea of opening up Commander Roles to minor characteres to allow a wider range of capability at lower zoom levels, I’m considering more colorful, broader names for the roles to better encompass situations for which soldiers or pilots may need skills.

Perhaps Soldier(Officer)/ Investigator(Scientist)/ Ace(Pilot)/ Technician(Engineer)/ Agent(Diplomat) would serve better?

(EDIT: This change has been finalized as of 1/25/2010)

This way, when a soldier is exploring a dark sewer system looking for alien survivors from a crashed scout ship, he can use Soldier to be generally tough, strong, and adept with weapons, Investigator to notice clues, signs, or weaknesses, avoid being shot, and make deductions, Ace to make daredevil stunts of mobility, and do whatever it takes to take down bogies and get notches in his belt, Technician to rig improvised mechanical systems or hack computer networks, Agent to talk down panicking civilians, encourage allies in the face of fear and panic, or attempt parley with communicative foes.

This move would streamline some of the soldier-level skills such as Firing Accuracy, Strength, and Reactions. I want to maintain some stats that are specific to each individual soldier, so that soldiers who survive missions and rise in the ranks can actually grow, improve, and take on their own significance independent of the Commanders whose Role traits they borrow.  I will re-visit these considerations later.

Forecast and Feedback

Well, that was a lot longer than I expected, so I’m sorry I didn’t get into actual Play Progression. For now, here’s a summary from which I will be working:

Summary of X-Com’s ‘Zoom Levels’

For the most part, players will act at one of three zoom levels:

  1. The Command Deck, making macro-organizational actions including research and politics
  2. The cockpits and engine rooms of Interceptor Craft, hunting down aerial UFOs; or
  3. The cricket-song-filled darkness of Drop-team Missions, hunting for survivors, investigating wreckage and alien artefacts, and trying desperately to save civilians and public order, all while keeping the whole invasion a global secret.

Please leave comments or tweet me @atminn your critiques, feelings, or opinions about the unique structure of this game that I’ve posited here. Do you like it? Do you think it works for the game/genre? What problems can you foresee. For example I know I’ll have to deal with TUs over various zoom levels. For now I see Commander TUs being the most potent, and therefore usable as Plot Points in either Intercept or Drop-team Missions to secure significant tactical advantages.  What else do you see? 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.