X-Com RPG – Research: Embracing an Infinite Tech Tree

NOTE: I’ve added some links and images of a new X-Com remake to the X-Com article Index. Take a look if you’re interested in playing video game versions of what’s happening here.

Last time, I ended by encouraging X-Com GMs to trust Complications that will naturally develop to drive the narrative and plot, to take the game in (hopefully fun) directions that are unique and interesting. Today I continue that idea by expounding on the powerful potential in the freeform Research system that this game supports.

One of the fascinating results of CortexPlus‘s freeform Trait system, especially to fit an X-Com game genre perfectly, is that it allows research projects (and resulting weaponry, defenses, aircraft, etc.) to truly be anything players may find or guess to be effective against their unique enemies. Preliminary research projects can fit a pre-set list or tree (such as laser weapons, medi-kits, and motion scanners from the original game), but beyond those, advanced research will vary from game to game depending on the alien artefacts recovered: sometimes delving into psionics, sometimes teleportation, sometimes human-mechanical grafting, sometimes animal shapeshifting, sometimes facilitating underwater advantage, sometimes space combat on asteroids.

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Within CortexPlus, the tech tree possibilities are literally infinite, bound only by the creativity of players, and the creativity of GMs to provide clear insights into the mysterious enemies that illuminate weaknesses or points of strength that can be co-opted by X-Com such that players know which ways they can go with research and development. What the GM reveals after a successful Research project on alien corpses or UFO artefacts is critical to inspiring useful directions that players’ future research can take due to the details they discover. The Enemy being unknown is powerful for tone and ambiance, but most of the fun of this game is learning to withstand and then conquer the unknown (hopefully using the enemy’s own technology and methods to do so!)

Players may research anything they wish, and when they succeed, the result will be a new Trait that is thereafter available to apply to weapons, armor, aircraft, etc.

Example: Initial research of Lazers produces Lazer d4 as a Trait that can be applied to Pistol d4, Rifle d6, Blaster d8Cannon d10, Battery d12 etc. Researching Lazers additional times can then raise its quality from d4 to d6, and so on.

Additional specialized Traits (such as Plasma, Lightning, Sonic, Atomic, Freeze, Aqua, Psi, Wraith, Glare, Oil, Puffer, Chlorine, etc. ad absurdum) can be researched just like the Lazer Trait and then built into kits as weapons, armor, aircraft, tools, etc. Aside from the colorful narrative value these Traits provide, they also prove highly effective when matched against the Limits of alien species, technology, or situations. (Limits are simply specialized Traits, like Distinctions. When an action intersects with a Limit, the player adds the level of the appropriate Trait to the roll)

Example: An aquatic alien species may have a Limit of Freeze or Dry (Dessicate/Dehydrate), while a species of swarming bugs may have the Limit Fire or Wind. While most humans and aliens alike will have the Limit Plasma, armor augmented with Ether d10 may not. Soldiers with the trait Half-Cyborg d8 may avoid Plasma, Fire, Gas, or Vacuum Limits that would cripple normal humans. It all depends on the game and the details of the aliens therein.

Think Weaknesses, Especially Those Associated with Strengths

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What all this means for GMs is that they will want to give forethought to the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the invading species. Interestingly, these vulnerabilities can be a side effect or counterpart to the invaders’ strengths or ‘secret weapon.’ For example, in original X-Com, the secret weapon was the psionic power of Ethereals and some Sectoids allowing them to control minds and instill panic. In another game the ‘secret weapon’ may be teleportation, super-speed, Cyclops-like eye beams, weather transforming technology, time dilation, spreading Zurg-like creep, Protoss-like pylons, Chryssalid-like contagious zombie-fication or parasitic reproduction, an ability to pass through walls, spawning aquatic pollution, hive mind coordination, destruction of the atsmosphere (terraforming the planet to suit their needs to the detriment of humans’), etc.

Thinking ahead about the strengths or ‘secret weapons’ of the invaders, and any weaknesses inherent in each, helps GMs know what players’ research and autopsies reveal, which, if the information is good, in turn inspires players to create some truly creative technology to fit the particular enemy they’re facing. Perhaps sonic weapons are the answer, or maybe ice grenades; or maybe a glass of water is the answer after all.

GMs Responsibility in Research

GMs are responsible for giving the players all the information they need to invent research projects that actually help their war effort. This is extremely critical to making the game fun for all parties. If the players are ever at a loss for what would be beneficial to research, either the players have done a terrible job investigating landing sites and collecting artefacts, or, more likely, the GM needs to work harder to use vivid descriptions of the aliens bodies, methods, and tactics.

On the other hand, players may suggest a research topic hypothesizing what the aliens are up to, and if it’s a particularly good idea, the GM can co-opt the hypothesis as the truth about the aliens, as if it was his plan all along; the players never need to know otherwise. Embracing this approach will help the players feel powerful and that they’re making real progress against the aliens.Furthermore, accepting their idea as reality will likely spur other research directions that players had in their minds when they suggested this particular discovery. Finally, if the GM is flexible, accepting player input like this has the powerful potential to take the game in fascinating directions that a single GM may never have imagined.

Wow, that’s an X-Com post every day this week. Next I’m very excited to re-visit and flesh out soldier management, from their generation to their death. Stay tuned!

Also, as usual, please leave comments with your first impressions, follow-up thoughts, criticisms, hang-ups, or questions about this idea of the Infinite Tech Tree. Your input will shape and improve this game as it grows!

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.