X-Com RPG – Beyond Combat: Running the Organization

Today we’re diving deep into the workings of this extensive organization. I hope you enjoy the ride.  I’m quickly getting to the point where I need to compile all this info into a single well-organized resource for easy consumption.  We’ll see when I get a chance to do that.

This post includes the following topics:

  • Table of Post Contents
    • Commanding X-Com
      • Keeping a Consistent Core Mechanic
      • Building Commanders
      • Building Bases
    • Basic Macro-Level Gameplay Model
      • Determining Invasion Activity
    • Musings on Design Decisions
      • Mini-games?
        • Example Research Mini-game
    • What would you like to see next? (Options)
    • Questions Soliciting Feedback


X-Com (Extraterrestrial Combat Unit) is a complex clandestine organization. It must be complex to maintain any hope of repelling frighteningly powerful aliens on behalf of an unsuspecting world. X-Com is internationally funded, enjoying very wide jurisdiction, but is otherwise secret from the general public. Alien activity is expected to be investigated, subdued, cleaned up, and kept secret, and that becomes an enormous effort when UFOs start landing simultaneously in Ecuador, Italy, Bangladesh, UK, and South Africa.  Nations will cut funding if they believe they are not getting the protection they are paying for, which is rather short-sighted, but we’ll cut some slack for the bureaucrats who don’t realize how hopeless the situation is, or how potent the foe. Even so, X-Com is a powerful entity, given all its initial disadvantages, and it has potential to become truly remarkable under strong leadership.


Commanding X-Com: Making the Tough Choices

Keeping a Consistent Core Mechanic

My aim is to maximize the innate flexibility and potential of CortexPlus (Quick Primer on CortexPlus) to maintain a thrilling, consistent game experience regardless of the level of ‘zoom’ at which the game is running. That is to say, action sometimes focuses at the level of an individual rookie soldier’s fears, and sometimes at the level of financing and building out a high-tech training base in Bangkok. Entrusting the endeavor to the elegance of CortexPlus, I aim to maintain a high level of continuity among the various types of resolution necessary in this game, both to keep the game simple to learn and then improvise with, and to give players as much immersive feeling as possible that they are actually commanding various interdependent facets of a single over-arching organization.

All rolls (with a few exceptions) will follow the pattern:

Role + Time [+ Accessories] vs. Complexity + Quality + [Accessories]

Typical Complexity Trait Scale:

  • Simple d4,
  • Routine d6,
  • Intricate d8,
  • Advanced d10,
  • Mind-boggling d12


  • Battlescape: Firing/Soldier d8 + Time d6 + Kneeling d6 vs. Cover d6 + Sectoid Alertness d10 + Darkness d8
  • Research: Inquisitive d8 + Time d8 + Lab d4 + Scientists d4 + Prior Work d6 vs. Mundane d4 + Medi-kits d6
  • Intercept: Ace d10 + Time d6 + Interceptor d4 (Craft-Type) vs. Near d6(Complexity) + Small Scout d6(Quality) + Needs Repair d6 (X-COM Craft Status)
  • Build/Upgrade/Manufacture: Technician d10 + Time d8 + Engineers d8 vs. Standard d6 + Laboratory d6

Building Commanders

Players take the roles of the men and women who command X-Com: the most highly trained and experienced specialists the world has to offer. Each represents not only their area of expertise, but also a region of the world they call home.

Players begin with d10 in their primary role and d8, d6, and (2) d4 in the rest of the following:

  • Soldier/Officer (combat, soldiery, recruiting, training, strategy, and base defense)
  • Inquisitive/Scientist (Research and development)
  • Technician/Engineer (Manufacture, base-building, design, and production)
  • Ace/Pilot (Patrolling, Finding UFOs, shooting them down, transporting stuff, and inserting/extracting drop-teams, general dare-devilry)
  • Agent/Diplomat (PR, International Relations, Funding, Placation, Spin-doctor, Anti-infiltration, espionage)

Commanders begin with Distinctions and other Personality traits (including nationality), turning them real individuals in the standard RPG sense, and their skills and quirks will affect the operation of the organization. (I’m toying what having their stats also factor more heavily into the abilities of the soldiers they control as well.  I mention it more at the bottom, but will likely explore it more in a later post)

Building Bases

Choose a location and name for your first X-Com base, from anywhere in the world. It comes complete with the following Traits:

  • Facilities:
    • Hangers d8,
    • Living Quarters d4,
    • Labs d4,
    • Workshop d4,
    • Radar d4, and
    • Storage d4
  • Staff:
    • Scientists d4,
    • Engineers d4, and
    • Troopers d4.
  • Equipment:
    • (2) Interceptors d6,
    • (1) Skyranger d6,
    • standard basic equipment.

These facilities provide everything you need to conduct operations, but they will quickly become limiting, so make sure to plan ahead… and act quickly.

New Bases: Commanders can build additional bases in other locations to increase their coverage and service. Future bases begin with no facilities.

Basic Macro-Level Gameplay Model

As previously stated, Time always matters. Therefore, play proceeds in periods of Rounds and Months.

Each Round:

The Night Shadow (From UFO: Alien Invasion)

  • Advance the Night Shadow (Half of the world is Night, the other half is Day)
  • Commanders take 1 TU from the bowl
  • Commanders can spend TUs to take actions in any order
  • When nobody wants to take any more actions:
    • Roll Invasion Pool for the next Round

Each Month (15 Rounds = Month)

  • Committee of Funding Organizations (CFO) judges X-Com’s performance, and adjusts funding levels accordingly
  • Receive Funding and pay Upkeep (Wages + Maintenance)

I’m ignoring all matters of money for now (Funding/Expenses). I have some ideas but I’m still working them out, and deciding between a few. Feel free to offer any ideas you may have.  It’s one of the areas proving the most elusive to my mind.

Determining Invasion Activity: The Invasion Pool

Whenever X-Com Commanders roll 1s, complications arise, either in the current action, or more often in the form of UFO activity. Similar to the Touble Pool in Smallville RPG, the Invasion Pool will grow (and less frequently deplete) as the game proceeds. In X-Com RPG, the Invasion Pool is rolled at the end of each Round to determine the amount and type of activity the Enemy initiates the following Round. At the beginning, activity will be light and sparse, as the game continues and Commanders begin making more organizational actions, the Invasion Pool will grow more dangerous and insidious.

  • Set aside all dice that show 1s and once the current action is resolved, add the set-aside dice to the Invasion Pool


Musings on Design Decisions

I am currently toying with two attractive options for running macro-level operations:

  • Keep a consistent mechanic throughout all rolls and layers of play: Commanders use Role Time vs. Complexity + Quality rolls to represent research, UFO interception, and base-building, just as Soldiers determine shots on the ground.
    • This would make the game very accessible, easier to learn and keep track of, and just simpler all around, since everything would be abstracted to the same level.
  • OR
  • Craft each type of action as a mini-game with unique mechanics for each. Players then choose which types of actions they prefer to participate in and assign their skills accordingly. Any functions that nobody is interested in can fall to an Auto-Pilot mode (still to-do) which will suffice, but not as effectively as when functions are directed by a live Commander.
    • I like this option a lot, since drop-team missions already feel like a mini-game within a bigger game, and I would enjoy having other endeavors “feel” more like their respective actions (looking at Pilot and Scientist, mainly).
    • The only trouble with this option is that I have yet to develop mechanics for Inquisitives and Technicians that are exciting enough to compare with the mini-games of Soldier and Ace.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, manufacturing a batch of Lazer Cannons for profit, or researching Alien Alloys is interesting, but those actions are just not as sexy as blasting Sectoids off barn roofs, or gambling your (pilot’s) life going Top Gun with an Interceptor against an alien Battleship. It’s just not.  Should I drum up a mini-game that’s interesting, or just handwave the boring parts like waiting for research to be complete?

Example of Intercept Action consistent with the Core Mechanic: When a UFO is spotted, any Commander with enough Time can scramble aircraft and pursue it either to destroy, crash, or simply follow and observe it.

Mini-Game possibility: Success in pursuit (catching up) is determined normally, following the Core Mechanic, but the actual dogfight between X-Com and Alien craft could be much more dynamic, involving weapons, tactics, risk/aggression, and damage.

Another mini-game example to better evoke the feeling of Research:

from UFOPaedia.org

  • Start by rolling the standard roll but the result does something unique:
  • Inquisitive+Time+Lab+Scientists+PriorWork vs. Complexity+Quality
    • If you succeed, the difference of results determines how many d6s comprise the Hypothesis Pool
    • Complications increase size of a die in Hypothesis Pool
    • Opportunities decrease size of a die in Hypothesis Pool
    • Call a number and roll the Hypothesis Pool: If the called number shows up at least once on the dice, your hypothesis is correct and the attempted research project is completed.
    • NOTE: 1s rolled when rolling the Hypothesis Pool are not added to the Invasion Pool
      • Inquisitive Talent: Spend a TU to add an extra die to the Hypothesis Pool
      • Inquisitive Talent: [Once a month?] Spend 3 TU and call an additional number
  • Success: Complete the attempted research
  • Failure: Project remains unfinished
    • Add the trait Prior Work d6 to the project for later subsequent attempts. (A single project may possess any number of Prior Work d6 traits and may roll all of them in future Research Actions.
    • All Prior Work traits are lost if any commander takes a research action at this base for a new/different project.


What Would You Like to See Next?

~~ I’ve worked up some more examples of mini-games like the above for most roles, and in doing so, I’ve found very fitting instances where I can introduce a couple more fundamental components of CortexPlus: Talents (rule-breaking speciall abilities that vary by player and primary Role) and Plot Points.

~~  I also have some thoughts on the Enemy Unknown Toolbox that will generate fresh species, methods, and goals to help maintain the tone of desperate fear and ominous unknown for every game, even for die-hard X-Com fans. So far it somewhat mirrors Leverage’s Job generation Toolbox.  I have a feeling the human research tech tree will have to be somewhat freeform to reflect the unique aliens in any given game.

So, next, should I head in the direction of Talents and Plot Points, give more examples or mini-games, or explore the Enemy Unknown Toolbox and fill in some of the gaps in what has already been laid down?  Where would you like me to go next?

Questions Soliciting Feedback

What do you think of this solution to running macro-scale layers of the X-Com game? Do you think gameplay will flow seamlessly between the various activities, zooming in on action here and there, and zooming out again.  What do you think of the alternating Night/Day Rounds representing days somewhat abstractly, allowing players to determine whether to let the clock fly by not using TUs or to slow it down to minute-by-minute focus by spending many TUs in a single round? What about the growing Invasion Pool determining Alien actions?  Do you think the decisions Commanders face are as poignant as those of soldiers on the ground (choices between opposed options that are “awesome and awful”)  Am I still staying true to my aim of capturing the ambiance, tone, and feeling of X-Com above all else or have I lost that in layers of mechanics?

PS. There’s an awesome project here, where Niklas Jansson is recasting the X-Com with new art, and a new story.  I haven’t looked into it in depth, but I will.  The art is astounding and there is a ton of info there.

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.