Archive for February, 2023

an addendum to a really old post on Cha-based magic

February 21, 2023 Leave a comment

Here’s another post on things to do with Charisma, aside from it being a dump stat. And it’s an addendum to this very old post about anthropological theories of magic and why CHA or POW makes sense as the magical potential stat.

Charisma is your “gifts from the gods,” right? How beloved you are by the gods.

Let’s take that literally. As discussed in the link above, Charisma represents your persuasive genius – the degree to which men and the Fates are willing to follow your lead. CHA is your spiritual mass, your tangible presence to the gods; your importance, legibility, and traceability. Your Destiny stat, and also how visible you and the trace of your actions are to supernatural entities.

Followers orbit around you, responding to your distortion of the fateluck continuum

High CHA makes you persuasive and authoritative, but also easy to scry or forecast. When you learn to focus your CHA into magic-working, it makes that magic more powerful and also more distinctive. Low CHA is like a magical stealth bonus – you’re easily forgotten, your acts have no strong spiritual odor.

Under this schema, CHA is the stat you roll against to turn undead, just like persuading living people (unless, in fact, you’re channeling some other supernatural entity to do the turning, in which case maybe high WIS and low CHA helps you invite the god-entity in – if spirit possession is a CHA v CHA battle, having low CHA is an advantage for a medium: you’re (a) easily displaced and (b) relatively unbruised by having the other entity act through you). But you have to roll over CHA to save vs. magic, curses etc – the magic is drawn toward you. Roll over CHA also to use or sense someone else’s residual magic – you can’t hear their static over your own.

This is why technomancers traditionally have low CHA: their goal is not to imprint their own will on the world but to open a space for a mechanical will to be propagated.

Learning from XCOM, 4: look how far we’ve come

February 15, 2023 8 comments

The XCOM games have a power/challenge curve: they get easier toward the end. This is partly just flattering the player (who has already sunk dozens of hours into the game and deserves a bit of a power trip) and partly the payoff for investing in all the balance-shifting tools you can develop throughout the game – like plasma rifles, armor that comes with a built-in rocket launcher, and mimic beacons, which attract aliens’ attacks and give you one more round to retaliate. In the first missions, when your guys are 0-level grunts, with an AK-47 under their arm and no armor, the game balance is right on Jeff Rients’s sweet spot: one hit can kill an enemy, one hit can kill your character. By the last missions, when you’re decked out with all the toys, it’s more like high-level Pokemon – you can afford to wade into combat with an unknown enemy and spend a round or two figuring out what they’re capable of.

The challenge mostly becomes can you finish this mission without any injuries? rather than can you bring even one soldier home?

And that’s OK – when you do face a potential TPK it’s that much more alarming, because you don’t expect it any more and because you know that this really is the best you can bring to this fight.

XCOM adds something diabolical on top, though: it lets you play the aliens, which shows you just how terrifying your own troops have become.

A mind-controlling Sectoid, poison-flinging Andromedon, and everything-destroying Sectopod.

Because when you play the aliens you suddenly realize that that monster you were so scared of never had better than a 65% chance to hit you. The Sectopod, which gets a whole 3 actions per round instead of 2, still needs a round to charge up its Wrath Cannon, so anyone with half a brain can get out of the way. And this is another vital lesson, I think, from XCOM – during the missions, it does a great job of selling the monsters as more than just a bag of stats. Each one gets an introduction, a moment to shine, and a bit of mystique. And a lot of them are tactically interesting – they present novel challenges that cast a shadow bigger than themselves. And they become scarier in combinations – by careful design or simply because they offer a variety of different challenges at the same time, and therefore disrupt the player’s defensive formations.

An alien Priest, simultaneously mind-controlling a venomous Chryssalid and mind-armoring a crappy basic Trooper, while the much higher-level Gatekeeper (basketball) patiently hovers off to the side, waiting for its turn.

so I’m going to finish (for now) with an appreciation of some of the more creative monsters and their special modes of havoc.

The basic troops are boring… until you meet an Officer (in red), who can mark your soldiers (just like your Grenadiers), making them easier to hit. And a Shieldbearer, who can throw up extra armor around half a dozen of its colleagues, and a Lancer, who can run faster than you and melee like your Swordsman. The combo is horrible – you’re scared of the Lancer, who’s in your face, but you need to go find the Shieldbearer, who’s protecting him from behind a building.

The Chryssalid is a game-changer. Its melee strikes are venomous: they keep doing damage until you treat them with a medikit… so if you forgot to bring one, you now have a very short time limit on the current mission. But the smarter/scarier thing is, if a PC or a bystander dies from its poison then they become a coccoon (or zombie), which spits out a new Chryssalid the next turn. And another the turn after that. So suddenly you have to defend all those randos wandering around the map, whom you had previously thought you were helping just by killing the aliens.

The Viper can pull your soldiers across the map with their long, shooty tongue, then bind them – preventing them from acting but not doing much initial damage, so that you have a round to shoot the viper and get your soldier back again. It’s a good job they’re otherwise quite weak – like the Sectoid’s mind control, their special attack is an ingenious way to change your priorities – you may be more worried overall about some giant death-dealing robot, but first you have to get your character back from this mook.

the Spectre pulls a similar trick, except its melee attack knocks your soldier unconscious and then clones them, making a new Shadow enemy. And then it goes and hides out of sight, so you have to hunt it down while this dangerous Shadow is in the middle of your formation. The fact that is has a boat-load of HP and therefore ties up most of your squad in killing it before the Shadow can attack is really just the icing on the cake.

Several aliens have a “you think you’ve killed me but actually you’ve just activated my second form” type power. The Codex is unique in duplicating itself every time you hit it, the remaining HP being shared between the original and duplicate. A pod of 4 Codices is a great way to dissuade the player from using a grenade, which will just make 8 Codices. Also they can teleport. Also they can shoot or throw a magic grenade at you that empties the ammo clips of everyone in the blast radius, and which goes off like a grenade the next round, forcing each affected soldier to use one action to move and one to reload. Which is annoying, when you face 8 Codices.

The Seeker turns invisible and waits for your soldiers to be engaged in some other fight. Then it decloaks right on top of one of your guys and binds them, just like a Viper. They’re not difficult to kill, but they are deeply inconvenient, and until you’ve dealt with them, they change your behaviour – because they could strike anyone and the struck soldier is helpless, suddenly you have to keep your troops in pairs and make sure they use overwatch, to shoot the Seeker before it can do any damage.

And finally the Sectopod. 3 moves (all of which can be attacks) per round, a very high-damage gun, the ability to destroy cover just by walking through it, and a revenge death-explosion, which dissuades the Swordsman from killing it.

XCOM1 and XCOM2 versions

I haven’t fought one in XCOM1 yet, but the way XCOM2 sells these as boss monsters is just a delight. You know they’re waiting, right from the start of any mission they inhabit, because they make a mechanical snorting, wheezing noise that you can hear during the aliens’ turn. When they walk, the interface elements around the corners of the screen glitch and flinch. They start out crouched down, so they’re dauntingly big but still… kind of like a minibus in your way. But then they can stand up tall and get notably closer to the player’s god’s eye view than anything else in the game. If you manage to hack one, you can use it to wreak devastation on the enemies – but it’s also more or less 50% likely to break out of your control every round, so you’re best advised to keep shooting at it anyway. It’s an exemplary wrestling heel – when I finally get around to running my Wellsian War of the Worlds resistance game, the Sectopod will inform my Tripods.

parts 1, 2, and 3.

Epic inconveniences

February 14, 2023 Leave a comment

So you’ve escaped from the Underworld, come back from the dead, or otherwise broken the cosmic order, and now you’re back in the game. Roll 1d8

  1. You’re in a Faustian pact, but you’re the devil. Your handler can place geases on you, but you get to interpret them by the letter rather than the spirit.
  2. You have a True Name so you can be summoned, maybe by lots of people. How can you destroy all records of your name, or change it to something super-secret?
  3. You’re on the run – from loan sharks, the Law, or abandoned spouses. If you can run interdimensionally, so can they.
  4. You require frequent feeding with something exotic or inconvenient – blood’s the obvious one here, but don’t ignore the possibilities of vril, gold, or gunpowder.
  5. You’re eternally tracking your kidnapped sister: you can get diverted to anywhere the DM says you might’ve seen a clue about her, dropping whatever you’re doing.
  6. You’re constantly growing. You must get refitted frequently for armor etc as gigantism takes hold. This is good for your STR but bad for CON – find a cure or eventually your heart will give out.
  7. Your neck is super stretchy, like Jake from Adventure Time – it’s flexible and muscular like a snake. You don’t know how far it will stretch, but it’s at least several hundred feet, at a foot a second. You don’t have to worry about what this does to your breathing or blood supply, but your neural signals are still limited to about 60mph or 100’/second, so if someone pokes your body with a sword you won’t know about it for a while. Oh right and your neck stretches spontaneously while you’re asleep.
  8. You are now a potted plant. You require sunlight and regular watering. You can also control your former body as if you still inhabited it (and maybe other beings’ bodies too, you haven’t tried) but only as long as that body carries you around. You have no obvious means of communicating except with a body that is carrying you.

Learning from XCOM, 3: classes, advancement, and special moves

February 13, 2023 8 comments

Part 1, part 2.

XCOM’s philosophy regarding the player’s characters is different from B/X’s or Traveller’s. It regards them as co-supporting units thatfit together in a spatial/architectural way. They advance in ways that complicate that co-supporting nicely, and in particular they grow special abilities that encourage them to get into special kinds of trouble. It’s some very neat thinking and it’s worth exploring.

I’m not going to rehash the whole of XCOM’s system here – if you want to, the ingredients are freely available. Instead I’ll restrict myself to what I think are the most interesting and applicable bits.

First, XCOM is a wargame, not an RPG, and it uses the limitations of its form to focus both its atmosphere and its mechanics. The character classes are defined by their approaches to combat rather than any sort of holistic approach to solving problems or mode of living in the world – effectively they’re all subclasses of fighter – and their approaches to combat are expressed primarily spatially, by their exposure to the enemy.

The 4 basic character classes have different incentives for how they should move on the map and how best they can support each other. Their names and roles shift about a bit from one version of the game to another, I’m going to describe the XCOM2 classes (which I think are the best-conceived) and call them by what I think are the most descriptive names.

Closest to the enemy, with short-range attacks, we have the Swordsman (“Assault” in XCOM1, “Ranger” in 2) and Grenadier (or “Heavy” in 1).

The Swordsman has a shotgun and a melee weapon, both of which really need to be within 2 moves of an enemy to be useful. Their speciality is stealth, which can (generally) give them 1 or 2 surprise attacks a mission, where the enemy doesn’t know they’re there until they strike. This makes them an ideal forward observer, keeping enemy units in sight while other characters get into good shooting positions. Their best move is to hide in cover until a suitable strike moment presents itself. After they’ve struck, though, they’re exposed, often in the middle of an enemy squad. Their other big advantage that defines their niche is that they are the only beginning unit that can melee attack. And melee attacks don’t suffer penalties from cover, so they almost always hit. Once the swordsman gets a high-damage melee weapon, they become very good indeed at killing low-level enemies.

The Grenadier can learn to mark targets, making them easier to hit (even if they themselves miss with the marking shot – in a fantasy setting you could call it a “curse” or “finger-pointing syndrome”), so their optimal deployment is close to the enemy, where they have a good view. Their big payoff, though, is the grenade launcher – the only weapon that does not require line-of-sight. So they can sometimes run up close to the enemy and throw a grenade over a wall or similar obstruction, dealing damage to multiple enemies without facing return fire.*

The Medic/Hacker (“Support” in 1, “Specialist” in 2) has a remote-control drone that allows them to do their thief-like hacking spells (like disabling or taking over robots) and cleric-like healing spells from relative safety. Their main weapon is a standard assault rifle, which fires at standard range, so they tend to get pulled into trouble in order to back up Grenadier and Swordsman, who have over-committed themselves.

The Sniper (“Sharpshooter” in 2) stands well back, ideally on a rooftop or other high place, with a commanding but distant view of the action. Their gun, which is bad at close range, seems to have no maximum range and they can learn to shoot with it as if they were standing in the shoes of a squad-mate, so that as long as they have line-of-sight, they can support a friend who is close to the enemy. They also get a less powerful short-range pistol (to compensate for their range blind spot), which becomes a horrifying weapon in its own right at high levels.

Lastly (for the basic game) there’s the Psion (“Psi Operative”) – essentially a Vancian magic user with a bunch of one-use powers, some individual, some area-effect, all working at the same ranges as the grenade launcher and requiring line-of-sight but no targeting, and bypassing armor so… they kind of disrupt a lot of the established buffs and debuffs of the other classes. It is notable that you can only develop the Psion after you research and build a load of stuff so… only after some of your other characters are at least 5th level. It’s a prestige class, with its own logic and advancement scheme.

Swordsman, Grenadier, Hacker/Medic, Sniper, Psion

So spatially this set of different specializations is somewhat analogous to the common tactic in B/X of having your burliest fighters take up the width of the dungeon corridor as a “shield wall” (shield mechanics optional) and deploying your weaker thieves and magic users as long-range attackers behind them… except that it’s a completely dynamic spatial system that has to adapt to terrain and sight lines with every move, where you want to keep the fight within sight of your Sniper but hide the Psion and Hacker behind cover and so on.

And there are small details that make big differences:
– the Swordsman’s slash attack allows 2 full moves with a “free” melee attack at the end, so there’s a powerful temptation to have them run off away from their mates – they can just reach that enemy, and you’re confident they can kill that one dude… but what will they see, and what will see them, when they get there?
– the Sniper needs 2 full moves to aim and fire their rifle, so there’s never any point their moving only one move. Instead, the rest of the team searches the area, then the sniper sprints up to the roof so they can shoot next turn.

If you get it just right, you can take out a squad of enemies without ever really getting exposed yourself – Hacker disables the robot, Grenadier strips the armor off the rest, and Swordsman and Sniper finish off the toughest ones still standing. If you get it wrong, you wind up with, say, the Swordsman out in the open where they can be shot by 6+ enemies, and the rest of your squad running in to try to save them. Note also that the Sniper only really works because there are close-quarters units to tie up the enemies – without someone on the ground for the enemies to engage, the Sniper quickly gets chased off their high perch.

Supplements/DLCs add more classes, which are mostly intensifiers or riffs on the basic group.

Shen’s Last Gift adds the SPARK, an autonomous mech/droid with its own advancement track, which is pretty much a Grenadier on steroids, that can act as mobile cover for other soldiers and that learns the most violent abilities of other classes. When you’ve screwed up with the rest of the squad, the SPARK is a tank that can use an extra action to zoom into the middle of the action and buy you one more round. And it’s super polite, like a murderous C3PO.

The War of the Chosen DLC (WOTC. heh.) adds three more classes, which represent Other groups with their own histories, skills, and prejudices. The Monk (“Templar”) is a melee-focused psion, who charges up their extra psionic powers by killing enemies and who gets an extra move after melee attacking, to get back into cover (way cooler than D&D’s Monk). The Sneaker (“Reaper”) is a stealth specialist that can sneak right up to enemies and attach bombs to them or strew land mines around them without being noticed – between the two of them, they pretty much render the Swordsman redundant. And the All-Out-Attacker (“Skirmisher”) has one big gimmick: their attacks don’t end their round. So they can attack-move, or attack-attack, and then they can learn moves that allow them to attack in between enemy actions, on the enemies’ turn.

In many ways these guys share the love-it-or-hate-it supplementary character and built-in backstory of the demi-humans in B/X – they are avatars of power creep looking for a role, sure, but they’re also maybe version 2.0 better-thought-out characters than the basic soldiers. To limit their reach, the game insists they can only use their own classes’ special equipment.

They also speak of a move away from the metaphors of physical-world combat into something more abstract and trump-card-like – a lock-and-key logic where puzzles in the game have perfect solutions. One killer app is the combination of Sneaker and Sniper – as long as the Sneaker doesn’t attack, they’re practically undetectable, so they can stand behind an enemy while up to 5 Snipers gun that enemy down. I’m not saying that’s a desirable outcome, but it indicates a design that allows for some creative tactical work from the player. Or a Psion can advance behind a SPARK, taking advantage of its reliable cover – while one of them can mind-control some weak-willed aliens, the other is completely immune to mental attacks, so if a more powerful psionic alien appears, they can still apply old fashioned lead. ….so once again, XCOM mirrors the trajectory of a lot of TTRPG design, good and not-so-good alike.

….so what can we learn from this, that we can apply to other games?

  1. using maps and minis obviously opens up a lot of tactical play, but there might be interesting ways to interlock different classes’ abilities, even without a map and even outside combat. Heists need a distracter or lookout, pickpockets need a receiver or mark-tripper. The players should be thinking of ways to work together, but the DM can also prompt them. When you’re designing a class or an activity, what are the vulnerabilities that need covering, how can effects be amplified? How do they fit like a puzzle-piece into the overall structure? D&D has weapons and armor restrictions to make characters vulnerable but it really doesn’t deal in specialized combat functions. Many, many other games have given the bow and the sword to different characters and it’s obvious why – each one is strong in their own domain but needs defending from the other. If the archer is specifically bad at short range then you have room for an axe-thrower, too. You could also have an oil thrower (or spit weapon or something) plus a fire-user, who can join their attacks together to make one big problem.

  2. The parallels between XCOM’s and D&D’s classes are pretty clear but there are some odd missed opportunities in D&D – the emphasis on melee reduces the tactical possibilities of missiles and there’s no real indirect fire and few area-effect weapons, all of which could be class specialities. Likewise traps/caltrops, lures, methods of dividing enemies from their friends, or sewing discord or confusion (sure, there’s the illusionist. They can do their schtick once per day and everyone gets to save against it, where instead they could’ve just used magic missile and known it was going to work). If there’s a robust tactical system (like XCOM has – not just to-hit and damage), these other, more imaginative modes of combat can be statted out and clarified. Flasks of burning oil, in particular, are widely considered “unrealistic,” a “cheat,” introduced by a munchkin player to upend the noble balance of melee …but… there are plenty of historical or fantastical grenades to draw from, and XCOM revels in their tactical possibilities – taking down cover, exposing sight lines or avenues of escape, dealing damage without reciprocal exposure – these are classic unfair (ie good) outcomes from the “combat as war” school. Why not have them? Either give them to a particular class – maybe as a level-up power – or have them be common and therefore available to monsters? (no experienced XCOM player bunches their characters up where they can all be hit by one blast).

  3. It can be fun to have special bits of the world that are fitted like keys and locks to special character powers (Hackers turn robots like clerics turn undead, Psions can possess thinking beings like an MU using Charm Person) but the more the game relies on these specialized key-lock relationships, the less communal, full-party action there is. XCOM is pretty controlled about keeping the key-lock activity as a bonus, rather than a requirement. And it mostly maintains a fairly narrow power distance between the key-lock approach and a generalist approach to problems. What do I mean by that? Everyone (including the Hacker, the Psion, etc.) can use a basic gun, so everyone can participate in the combat at a basic level. If you have the Big gun and you’re High Level with it then you can make a big difference, but it’s still like 3x the basic gun in its effects. If you’re stuck with nothing but basic gunners, you can still proceed. You might have to be sneakier, though.

Advancement in XCOM is smart, clear, and for my money stops at just the right place – when your people are competent but before they become superheroes. They start as 0-level, classless “Rookies,” get a random class after their first kill, and advance up to 7th level (“Colonel”) in that class. They get a little bit better at their basic skills every level, and those skill increases pretty much exactly balance the improvements they can make to their equipment and armor – which is a totally deliberate choice: you can drop a new rookie into a tough level as long as they’re equipped really well.

But the big, noticeable payoff of advancing is that they gain a special ability at each level.

In most versions of the game you can choose 1 of exactly 2 abilities each level, but WOTC adds a point-buy system that allows you to push just a bit harder into superheroics. This whole thing works because the characters are a troupe – in a typical XCOM game you maintain a stable of say 9-15 of them – some are usually injured, others may be unavailable because they’re on spying missions or something, so among them all you can explore all the options.

Most of the special abilities are predictable cheats on the strict 2-action mechanic that runs combat – add one more action with a 4-round cooldown, shooting no longer ends your round, that sort of thing. They may not be super inventive but they are super useful, and they’re all carefully balanced to make a difference but not win you a combat outright (until the last level but by then you’re facing enemies that have crazy special powers of their own).

There are people who dislike this sort of thing, thinking it treads on the Magic User’s toes – if you give the fighter a new feat every level, why bother playing a wizard who can’t do anything in combat and gets their one spell a day? Well, yeah, exactly. Note the point about short power distance, above. Why should MUs be so useless when their spells are expended? Who really finds that more fun? Let the MU be a decent support fighter and you can in turn let the fighter have another tactical option, usable once a day, to use or withhold in each combat round as they see fit.

OK but there’s a few abilities that deserve individual mention, because they either tempt the player in interesting ways or swing the whole idea of combat around.

Hackers and Psions can possess enemy units (robots or organics, respectively) for a few turns, which is a live grenade in your hand. While you have control of the unit, they swing the combat chances dramatically – minus one troop for the enemy and plus one for you, and they’re located right in the middle of the enemy’s defensive formation, and some of the robots and boss aliens are Very Big and Scary. But they can shake it off without warning, so you can’t afford to get too comfortable with them. A less obvious downside is that now you have a unit among the enemies. Which, in the logic of XCOM, wakes up other squads of enemies – because they’re triggered by proximity to your units. So you might get +1 alien on your side, only to find they now have +9 aliens on theirs. In more D&D terms, the enemy now knows (a) that your squad is nearby, (b) that they have mind-control abilities. This is likely to change their behaviour.

Panic is a thing Psions and the spectacle of sudden death can do to your troops and to the aliens. Panicking troops may run away or curl up in a ball uselessly, which is inconvenient. Or they may start shooting at the nearest unit or even their friends. Let me tell you, having your troops panic can induce panic. It’s a Psion move, which is awesome. It’s also infectious, which is terrifying.

Psions can also blow up people’s carried explosives (and not be detected doing it) and place a target in Stasis, during which it can do nothing and nothing can be done to it – which is hilariously world-breaking – combine it with a trebuchet to para-drop troops into enemy castles, maybe even use them as ballistic shot along the way.

Sneakers have a lot of play with their invisibility – some of their powers allow them to make limited attacks without the danger of being spotted, or to risk being spotted but control that with cover, but there’s one big special attack that empties the Sneaker’s clip into the target, attacking as many times as there are bullets, with the price that it always reveals them, at which point they’d better hope they’ve killed the thing they were shooting, because they have fewer hit points than anyone else. And it carries the extra cost that they’d better reload before they initiate the attack… so they have to sit there reloading, running the risk of an enemy blundering into them, anticipating delivering a coup de grace. In terms of emotional beats, it’s superb.

Hands down my favourite special move, though, is reaper – the Swordsman can go on a rampage, getting one extra move every time they kill a unit with the sword. Other units can get serial kill abilities too, where their actions are refunded on a kill and they can clear a whole room of enemies, but here’s what’s special about reaper: using it (and some judicious application of armor-shredding or light damage from gunners) a Swordsman can move right across the map, one chopped enemy at a time, way out of range of their buddies, waking up new squads of enemies, getting more desperate and trying to stay one chop ahead of the consequences. It’s the deadly temptation of the slash attack tenfold. And they might get away with it, too, if they also have bladestorm – an ability that auto-stabs anyone who comes within stabbing range… almost completely reliably.

And that’s what I love about XCOM: it’s loaded with ingenious methods for getting characters into trouble. Looking at the level-up powers in a list, I think “this is terrible for balance, how can you have a normal encounter when the party has like 20 of these moves to pull?” …but it’s the Vancian bargain every time – if you use it here, you won’t have it later. Every one-off get-out-of-jail-free power functions most of all to get the characters right up to the walls of the jail. To the extent that these powers over-balance the game, they attract over-extension and over-confidence… and XCOM has the structure to show the player exactly how over-confident they’re being.

* yes, yes I know, everyone can throw grenades. But the Grenadier throws them far enough that they’re not basically doomed having done so. They have grenades as a tool, not a last resort.

Learning from XCOM, 2: a philosophy of cheating and balancing

February 9, 2023 5 comments

The last post was about explicit rules, this one’s about what S John Ross calls the invisible rulebook of games: the assumptions, implicit understandings, even values that players bring to the table. And, again, I think XCOM can teach us useful things to port over to tabletop gaming.

Like many video games, XCOM gives you a bunch of ways to manage your play experience – difficulty levels, extra downloadable content, strategy guides and tips… and most of all, savegames. And out of all of these, the thing that is regarded as “cheating” involves abusing the savegames, or save-scumming; saving frequently or before you do something risky, so that if it doesn’t go well, you can go back to the pre-disaster state and try something else (or try rerolling on the RNG).

I confess, I save-scum.
Not obsessively – once per mission, maybe twice if it’s especially tough. And I feel a bit bad about it but… I use it as a tool to manage my experience.

XCOM plays along with save-scumming. On one hand, it offers an ironman mode, where your use of savegames is deliberately limited (although it’s still far from real life). On the other (in XCOM2), it hands you a stack of frequently-updated autosaves, in case you forgot to put a rescue piton in place before charging those mechs. It doesn’t judge… except to massage your ego a bit with that special ironman achievement badge. At the same time, XCOM presents its story as a life-and-death struggle, where your decisions carry consequences for the rest of the campaign, where characters die and stay dead and take all their xp advantages with them. It gets you to care about those soldiers and then it threatens to take them away – “this isn’t Mario,” it says, “where dying a hundred times is part of the learning curve.” (Oh and the RNG is brutal. I mean, it’s just an RNG so it’s actually… well actually NOT completely fair, it cheats in the player’s favour. But that is not how the fans react to it – instead they complain that it’s willfully vindictive.)
So in fact, XCOM doesn’t just give you tools to manage your play, it also provides you with tools to manage your level of kayfabe – how much you buy into its story stakes, which pitch the conflict as deadly. Will you always rescue your experienced soldiers? Will you let a rookie die to honour the story gods and make the stakes feel more real? XCOM is happy to support you, whatever you choose.
(I have another post about how this works with the implicit story of XCOM 2, btw.)

So what’s this all about? Why all the weird hedging and stake-setting (and quiet stake-uprooting behind the back of your executive function)? Does it render your victories hollow, that you can choose to save-scum until you beat any situation? Does it make the game Nintendo hard or meaninglessly easy?

After a hundred levels or so, I figured out that for me, at least, it’s about managing my emotional exposure. And I think that management is good. If you’ve been playing for 40 hours and in one bad combat round you can lose your 3 top soldiers and then you can’t win the rest of the game without them… that’s a not-fun level of stress, as far as I’m concerned. It’s kind of OSR metal but at the same time… because of the structure of the computer game, if you restarted you would have to relive all the early game experiences, so…
…I would probably disengage from the game right there. If you’re playing ironman mode then maybe you deliberately sign up for that, but I think it’s OK for that not to be for everyone. Anyway I can tell you that, save-scummer though I am, I have been very nearly brought to tears of relief when I’ve finally managed to get through a nightmarish level losing only one rookie. And I do not go back and replay that level to rescue the rookie – that’s the limit of my meta-scumminess (though my limited empathy for that lost virtual soldier may be scummy in other ways).

All of this is built on a second sort of kayfabe, and this is where I think we get into TTRPG issues. Whether I feel challenged or bullied, whether I’m involved enough that I’m tempted (not forced) to save-scum, depends on maintaining the feeling that I will be able to find a path to victory if I’m clever. What we call “balance” is really keeping the player in an emotional state of adventurous expectancy – a sweet spot of tension, slight fear, and hope.

In XCOM that balance is maintained very carefully, encounter-by-encounter, by dribbling enemies out in small packets that are well-calibrated to the abilities of the player’s units, and by leveling up the enemies along with the player’s forces, so they always present a “fair” (winnable but not effortless) challenge. And that calibration gets finer as the series of games goes on: in the 90s, UFO routinely caught flak for presenting unwinnable situations – having aliens show up right where you start a level, having them grenade your troops before they can move out of close formation. XCOM1 has some easy and some monstrously hard missions but I’ve never seen a plain unwinnable one (the point where expectancy tips over into dread and maybe despair in XCOM1 is during the strategic game, where you can get into a campaign death spiral, such that even if you reliably win at the tactical level, you won’t survive to see the final tactical challenges). But XCOM2 is a noticeably smoother, more balanced and consistent experience than any of the previous games – it’s superb at maintaining the impression of a knife edge, without actually risking you falling off the game before the end because you didn’t research down the right path early on. Which is to say, it’s a bit too smooth.

It’s kind of like the obsession with encounter balance that slowly overtook published D&D content after 2e, which has been derided by some as “combat as sport” (which of course it is, in any game) as opposed to “combat as war” (which is the association deadly 70s D&D clearly wanted to evoke). S The quest for precise balance has been discussed in some OSR circles as one of values – of some kind of virtue vs. vice, “real” vs. fakery, red meat vs. soy. The real risk of losing your character is what makes combat fun!

And my revelation here is that probably the optimal emotional sell is neither a perpetually-balanced knife edge, nor a relentless parade of PC deaths, but rather a somewhat noisy equilibrium – something closer to XCOM1 than to XCOM2, where you occasionally feel a little bullied, where you occasionally get reminded of the price of failure, and you sometimes get easy strolls without significant challenge, so that you feel a little more accomplished when you beat a tough encounter compared with those other easy encounters you remember. More like driving a Porsche than a Rolls Royce, but also not like driving a broken-axled wreck that’s liable to explode at any second.

So what conclusions can I draw from all this?

  1. framing things (like fudging dice rolls or being reluctant to kill PCs) as questions of values seldom helps us get to any sort of accommodation with each other. If we admit that the issue, when we speak of cheating, is really one of emotional goods, then maybe we can move toward a way of discussing it that… has more possibilities. Over in OSR/trad circles I see two main attitudes – the game is the creation of the auteur DM, so only they get to say what goes or doesn’t go and the game isn’t serious unless death is on the line, which has to be proved periodically with characters dying. Don’t get too attached. And I don’t really think either of those is necessary nor particularly honest, when we’re thinking about why we play. Let us instead use our session zeroes to set our emotional expectations – what sort of experiences we want, what turns us off.

  2. the stakes don’t always have to be character death. Injury, loss of gear or abilities, and loss of reputation/funding are all highly motivating factors in making me want to beat every mission my soldiers go out on. The loss of a PC, on the other hand, always seems to cause some alienation/disinvestment on the part of the player. So I’m not saying don’t kill the PCs, but maybe don’t kill them without some serious warnings. Or at least have lots of other fail states so you’re not always killing them. I know, some people disagree with that pretty drastically, but on the axis of what’s fun rather than what we think ought to be fun for virtuous reasons, I think it’s pretty solid. Having a stable of characters so some of them can die without it being disastrous for the campaign is also a valid strategy.

  3. But on the other hand, do have a lot of consequences for failing to meet the challenges. Ticking doom clocks, opportunities that will go away or go to a rival, the approval or derision of NPCs, shifts up or down in the scale of operations the PCs can launch on the world. A successful pirate might measure their success in the hauls of treasure they bring in, their ability to retire… but for a game, and for the character of the pirate, it’s a lot better for them to measure their success in the size of ship and crew they can command, the prizes they can go after, their reach compared with other holders of power in the world. Humayun, the mughal emperor you’ve never heard of, lived an almost perfect adventurer’s life – he began as king of all he surveyed, lost it all, was reduced to wandering the land with a horse and a sword, and eventually won it all back. We tend to leave him out of history books these days because he neither started nor ended the Mughal Empire. He had no great innovations or policies. But the emotional beats of his story are the stuff of great adventure stories – he got to see the price of failure and the momentum of success, and I guess that’s what I want from a game.

Learning from XCOM, 1: the rules that matter

February 7, 2023 10 comments

I am not the first person to notice that XCOM is a very good computerization of a tabletop miniatures wargame.

Nor am I the first to notice that playing video games is actually pretty useful for understanding the workings of tabletop/analogue games. It lets you engage with the rules without the noise of table interaction* so you can see what those rules really do. You can play through a hundred encounters very quickly, so you can see what behaviors and tactics emerge once you’ve grokked the system’s affordances.

So having sunk a few hundred hours into the XCOM series, I have some blog posts’ worth of realizations from it.
This first one is about the basic combat rules of its tactical game – when your minis are running around and shooting.
Because I for one find it difficult to design fun combat, and XCOM makes some really good decisions that I can learn from.

A very brief introduction: XCOM is a long-running series of games (canceled, rebooted, remixed) that started with UFO: Enemy Unknown in 1994. They’re pretty consistent except for the most recent Chimera Squad, which I won’t be discussing because it’s a radical departure and also not very good.

The plot: aliens are invading and abducting people exactly in the style of 1950s monster movies. You play the perpetually underfunded special agency that’s supposed to stop them. So the game consists of waiting in your base for the aliens to strike, then scrambling aircraft and small ground squads of 4-6 soldiers to stop them.

The game: consists of two modes – strategic, where you upgrade your base and troops and try to find out what the aliens’ plan is, and tactical, where you skulk around gas stations and graveyards getting shot at by raygun-toting greys and knock-off Martian tripods, resolved in turn-based combat on a square grid map, just like a dungeon.

so you start strategic – learning about a mission/dungeon at your base…

…avoid the wilderness travel sequence with a dropship montage…

…and move to tactical mode when your squad hits the ground.

Every part of this 2-layer experience is designed to ratchet up the tension – if you build the wrong facilities, research the wrong technologies, or get wounded or killed in the field then the aliens get closer to winning. If you want to know what the emotional beats of this are like in play but don’t have time to play the game, this guy has done an astonishing job of documenting them.

People keep comparing XCOM to D&D and… sure, you could do that The squad size, the character classes, the leveling up (each of which will get its own blog post in time) are obvious commonalities. Those aliens could be liches instead. But as a setting it’s a lot more like Delta Green: the enemy really is unknown (at the start), they keep springing gruesome surprises, and not all your shiny soldiers will be coming home. It could also work in Classic Traveller – the characters are pretty flat and interchangeable when they join you: their stories develop through play. And the whole thing is soaked in Trav’s space Vietnam assumptions.

OK, so. I was going to write about combat.

What XCOM gets right about tactical combat and how it’s useful for RPGs.

Disclaimer: there are small variations in the rules between versions – for the purpose of this discussion I will blend them all together into a sort of ur-ruleset that suits my arguments. I may write a post later that breaks out the differences, because it’s an interesting comparative case for RPG edition wars.

It’s tempting to write computer games off for TTRPG design by saying “well if you have a computer doing the heavy lifting, of course you can afford all that fun crunch that… would be fun if it didn’t slow the action down to a crawl.” And yes, XCOM does benefit from mechanization, but don’t get distracted, it also does a bunch of smart things that aren’t about computerization.

Most of all, it’s absolutely ruthless about only including calculations that the player can make choices about. If the player can’t exploit a factor to shift the odds in their own favour then XCOM doesn’t model that factor.

And it knows that meaningful decisions require information at the right time, so it shows the player its work – it shows the calculations that go into its model and rolls its dice right out in the open and, most importantly, it tells the player exactly what they need to roll to pull off a shot before they’ve done it, so they can change their mind and try something else.

Here we’re looking over the shoulder of one of your soldiers – a Scot – and they’re targeting an alien – presumably a sassenach. You can see right there (you might have to click to embiggen): 75% chance to hit. And they will do 3-5 damage if they do hit. Since we know the enemy has 3HP (those 3 bars above their head), that’s a guaranteed kill. More on that later.

And here are the factors that go into the calculation: your soldier’s chance to hit based on class/training (68) +20 for height advantage (because you deliberately went up to high ground to get that bonus) +5 for scope (special equipment you chose) +pfeh for range (we’ll be simplifying that) -20 for cover (because the enemy was smart enough to hide behind a wall).

All the factors in the picture above reflect tactical decisions: training, equipping, choosing positions. If you’re in the game and want to boost your chance to hit further you could:
– destroy the enemy’s cover with a grenade,
– change weapons to something with a bigger bonus, or
– choose another target who isn’t in cover (looks like there are 9 enemies in view – not good! But at least one of them’s probably out in the open).

Since you have a squad, there’s a higher level of choice, too, based on the squad members supporting each other, concentrating fire against a single enemy, or guarding each other’s backs. Who among your soldiers will move first? Who takes each particular shot? Who has the greatest flexibility to shoot someone else, if the current target gets taken care of?

Those choices are the fun of the game, so the game puts them front and center. And it highlights the available choices at every step – it’s very good at letting you know what you know and what you cannot know. For instance, if enemies pass out of view, they disappear from the map. If you can’t target them, there’s no little red head icon over the Fire Weapon tab. And when enemies enter the fight – when they first notice you – they interrupt your action with a “wrestling ring entrance,” to highlight where the threats are. Those flourishes play to the affordances of the computer, sure, but something like them can be approximated with minis and chits or a whiteboard app for those playing on zoom.

The field of choices is kept manageable by rigid constraints. In one round each character can do 2 actions – move + move or move + shoot/do other action. Shooting always ends your round, even if you haven’t moved. And instead of shooting now, you could hold your fire (“overwatch”), hoping the enemy will break cover on their turn so you can hit them with a reaction shot. The rigidity provides the solid arena on which you can base your actions. You can tell at a glance whether an enemy is close enough to be stabbed – or for them to stab you on their turn. You can reckon their action economy and take calculated risks. And you can think architecturally about the combat – choose which enemies must be killed before they can retaliate and which you can afford to have survive for another round; decide where to concentrate your force; when to fall back and who will be vulnerable when you do so.

There’s one of your soldiers. The yellow line shows which squares they can move to within 1 action. The cyan half-shield means they’ll get partial cover if they go to that square. Is that good cover? Depends which direction the aliens are coming from.

This is a bad position for your guy (identified by blue HP markers – enemies are red) That musclehunk thing is close enough to charge and punch him (note how the battlegrid is subtly shown by the pavement tiles) and it has way too much HP for your guy to kill it with one shot. OTOH the musclehunk would have to go through the poison gas, so maybe that’s a lure. BTW the wee full shield next to your guy’s HP meter shows he’s in full cover – both from the signboard he’s hiding next to and from the wall behind him.

The choices can get pretty complex, but they mostly boil down to take more risk to end this now vs. take less risk and try to improve your position for next time. If you ever get in a situation where you’re just standing toe to toe with the enemy trading shots – the stereotypical bad combat experience that people complain about in D&D – it’s because you’ve either had a failure of imagination or you’ve got into a terrible position, from which you cannot reach a place of advantage. It’s a failure mode and you can see that because of XCOM’s clarity.

If the player cannot make meaningful choices about something, XCOM doesn’t care about it either. The big one here is a D&D mainstay – the swingy damage roll. XCOM doesn’t do them. The randomness is already in the to-hit roll and it’s no fun to hit, only to find that the hit doesn’t count. So damage is predictable. Sometimes there’s a little variation, because that little bit of risk – will this shot kill or not quite? – gets the heart racing. And unexpected windfalls are always welcome, so you can still get crits and unexpectedly kill a tough alien in one shot. But for the most part – especially for area-effect weapons (grenades) – it’s a set number of HP. If you’re in the blast radius you get hit, no exceptions. And it works. I don’t think “oh but partial cover!” I don’t miss the damage roll. At all.

The main consequence of damage being a constant rather than a variable is that it makes fights faster and more fluid. Think of it like this: a fighter with a 50% chance to hit only advances the combat once every 2 rounds. They’re like half a fighter, unpredictably doing nothing half the time. The same is true of a fighter who hits all the time but sometimes does so little damage that it makes no difference. Moreover, until that fighter has resolved the uncertainty of whether they will make themselves relevant this round, the threat of the enemy they may or may not kill is still there, tying up other characters. You can’t think past the current enemy, because the uncertainty is so great that it’s not worth considering what things would look like without them. You might spend 5 rounds plugging away at them rolling 1s for damage. OTOH with predictable damage, you can plan farther ahead – if you know an enemy will take 4 hits to kill, you know to concentrate lots of fire on them.
In short, more predictability = more tactical value = more mental engagement. Of course, different people have different sweet spots, between randomness and tactical certainty. Not everyone wants chess. But reading the D&D blogs I feel like not everyone wants B/X’s level of unknown, either. This is a way to shift the balance a bit.

Other simplifications:
– Armor is just more HP (because HP = luck or moxie anyway, right?). Damage takes armor off first. And armor autoheals before the next adventure, so there’s no healing downtime for those HP.
– No perception rolls – you can see everything within 12 squares unless it’s hidden behind full cover, in which case you have no line-of-sight (placing sneaking in the player’s hands, because you have to be careful with the grid).
– No rolling for initiative – aliens get their ring entrance but never get to shoot from surprise, so the player gets a turn of moving and shooting at the beginning of each encounter. That is a massive advantage – there is one game mode where the aliens always win initiative and it’s brutal – but in the interests of a fun game of PCs vs. monsters, it’s amazing how quickly you get used to that little elision, and how immediately you’re in the mode of being scared because you’re in the wrong position, rather than bored because you always go first. If you were playing 2 PC gangs against each other then it would be different, of course (like XCOM2’s multiplayer mode). It turns out that game is all about ambushes.

Complications are many, and they all consist of ways PCs can bend the basic rules. Some PCs can get a third move before or after attacking, some can fire-move or fire twice instead of moving. And there’s a ton of special moves – an extra action if you kill an enemy, automatic reactive attacks if someone passes close to you, suppression fire to disadvantage enemies etc etc etc. That will be a separate blog post, because some of them are really good and deserve special attention.

So, how can we adapt this to improve TTRPG combat?

To answer that question thoroughly, I’d have to actually get around to playing D&D4e and understanding what people don’t like about it. For now I’m just going to offer some principles, while wistfully pointing to this wiki, which – if you had a lot of time – you could scrape for all of XCOM’s rules, which you could then analyze in depth and simplify down rationally over a couple of months. Given the smart job the XCOM design team have done, I think it’s better overall to adapt their rule set and their particular numbers for HP, damage etc. rather than trying to retrofit it to B/X or something but… I know other people have a great big love for B/X, so:

  1. You gotta use a map. Sorry, so many of the tactical decisions here are spatial, and so much information is contained on the map, that it would be a very different game without it. Well, maybe there are ways – you could make “outflank” and “take cover” and “lure out of cover” into Complications, potentially. You could maybe create a theatre-of-the-mind version of this… but that’s at least another blog post.
  1. The 2-move structure allows a good level of PC agency in a round: it’s enough to get into trouble AND do something about it. With only 1 move you always end your round as a sitting duck – it’s not worth trying to get tactically clever.
    So you can move-move or move-attack, but attacking ends your turn. If you hold a reaction shot (overwatch), you just interrupt the enemy as soon as they move 1 square.

  2. Oh yeah, missile weapons. They’re better than melee, sorry. Better tactical affordances, more spatial architectural play. You can absolutely fit this to a D&D-alike, just give all your Vikings throwing axes.
    OK, I understand that’s not a popular stance, but XCOM2 has a neat solution for bringing knives to a gunfight – the swordsman class gets a sneaky 3rd action: if you charge (they say “slash”) then you can melee strike at the end of your second move. And melee attacks ignore cover, so they almost always hit (that almost is a perennial complaint of XCOM players, who get angry when they miss a 98% chance to hit and insist the RNG hates them. I’ve rolled enough dice and been saved in Cthulhu games enough by rolling a 01 to know that it does indeed happen, more often than you’d expect, evidently). It’s awesome, trust me – gets you across the map and into trouble fast. You could also invent a spear charge that increases to-hit risk both for the user and the target.

  3. Damage is a constant for each weapon (though crits are still possible). Some classes and levels could give bonuses to that constant, and those calculations can get baroque if you want, but that’s all precalculated down to a number on the charsheet.

  4. Armor is more HP. Cover is more HP. When they’re gone, they’re gone. Yup, destructible terrain, like in XCOM: you can force the enemy out by taking down the wall in front of them. If you want, some armor and cover could be Special, and give a few points of constant DR until it gets destroyed (“shredded,” in XCOM2’s terminology) by Special attacks. That’s a complication you could add for particular classes/weapons. BTW, cover only applies if you’re right next to it, not if it’s just somewhere in the line of sight.

  5. Use D10 for to-hit rolls. XCOM uses percentiles but… I would just approximate all bonuses/penalties to multiples of 10% (ie +/-1). The point here is to get player-focused simplicity and when you’re trying to decide whether to break cover for a better shot, you don’t really care about less than 10% difference. And don’t be afraid of having a 0 or 100% chance to hit – that’s how XCOM works and it’s great. You get that 100% chance because you did something smart or took a big risk (like closing to melee). As a base target to hit, I suggest you have to roll 7+, simply because there will be more ways to boost your to-hit chance than to reduce it. Oh and a natural 10 is a crit and does double damage. Unless you can’t hit even with a natural 10, in which case no roll, no crit chance, sorry.

  6. Limit the modifiers that aren’t Complications. I suggest: height advantage (+2), smoke/obscurity (-2), and point-blank and long ranges (+2 and -2, with specific distances depending on the weapon and some weapons having minimum ranges – that’s a design call which is really about how much you want to encourage melee)… and maybe some status modifiers, like disoriented or blinded. XCOM also has an “outflanking” bonus, which AFAICT applies if you move from before to behind the target in the same round you attack (+2), but I think that’s going way too far.

Note how in this set of rules, all cover is destructible – acting as cover is a special condition for objects in the world: cover means you can attack from behind it but still be shielded by it. If it’s not destructible, then it’s just a solid object in the line of sight and it prevents line-of-sight attacks in either direction. I’m also gonna say cover does not apply to melee: you can always strike around it.

If you really, really want something less than a 10% bonus/penalty, consider having it apply to only half the situations, instead of trying to make it 5% and breaking the D10 standard. So, for instance, above we had a +5% scope on a gun. That could, instead, cancel 1 point of the range penalty for long range. It’s a measurable advantage for the weapon but it only affects, say, half the times the weapon gets used.

Obviously I’ve forgotten things. Obviously I’ve promised a load more blog posts. That’s what comments are for.

* what I dismiss here as “the noise of table interaction” is actually what I consider to be the point of TTRPGs. But it’s noise as far as this rules discussion is concerned.