Home > Uncategorized > Learning from XCOM, 3: classes, advancement, and special moves

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

February 13, 2023 Leave a comment Go to 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.

  1. kelvingreen
    February 16, 2023 at 2:43 pm

    Oh dear, panic. I have terrible memories of the entire squad losing it in UFO on the Amiga.

    • February 16, 2023 at 3:33 pm

      such a hard death spiral! Taking one guy out is already like losing your first roll-off in Risus, but then 2 others become useless because of it? Restart level right there.

  2. kelvingreen
    February 16, 2023 at 2:49 pm

    D&D4 did the interlocking role abilities very well; it’s clear that it was a central design principle, and they got it mostly right. Well done.

    One problem was that they unshackled role from class to a certain extent. So you had this weird situation in which ranger, thief, and warlock (for example) were mechanically very similar. Their abilities differed in details, but they were all designed to be glass cannons. Clerics heal through magic, warlords heal through… shouting orders at you? Carry that across all the classes and you ended up with this game that was at the same time both tactically interesting in the battles but also oddly flat in terms of character choices.

    • February 16, 2023 at 3:35 pm

      Perhaps the problem there was the legacy of D&D already having lots of options. Thinking about the architecture of XCOM’s play, I’m not sure there are more than 4 or 5 really distinct roles that improve the game. After a while you start retreading the same ground or inventing weird key-lock subgames that don’t really address the map, or coming up with very specialized roles that only work in certain circumstances.
      “What if we had a character who could swim? Then they could go to bits of the map nobody else could reach!”
      “And have nothing to do unless we deliberately put deep water in the level”

      • kelvingreen
        February 16, 2023 at 4:04 pm

        Yes, I think so. The PHB outright states that the roles map to the classic four classes, but then you have a bunch of other classes that they also bodge into the roles, with abilities that vary (for the most part) only in description.

        It almost feels like they could have just had four classes and then described how they could be reskinned; “You are a Striker, your job is to do massive damage while avoiding getting hit. Strikers can be backstabbing thieves, quick rangers, or blasty warlocks.”

        It doesn’t solve the problem, but at least it has brevity on its side.

        • February 16, 2023 at 11:51 pm

          yeah, that’s interesting. I feel like if the XCOM series carried on it might get into trouble in this way too – there is a great hunger among players for more character classes. WOTC introduces 3 and… really only one of them (the Reaper) is successful in opening up any new tactical options, and that’s just because they’re more generous with it regarding stealth than they are with the Ranger.

          If I have a complaint about the basic classes in basic XCOM2, it’s that concealment is this wonderful alternative game mode that hardly gets any mileage because it immediately gets canceled, the minute you engage anyone. I think the idea is that it represents a “setting up the ambush” condition and maybe the designers were worried it would be easily abused, but the way it works in play, fairly frequently your basic classes lose concealment almost immediately.

  1. February 15, 2023 at 7:46 pm
  2. March 20, 2023 at 6:04 pm

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