Home > Uncategorized > Learning from XCOM, 5: the bit that would be better as a TTRPG

Learning from XCOM, 5: the bit that would be better as a TTRPG

Ok, so I’ve been singing the praises of XCOM here for a while, but it’s not flawless by any means. A friend tried the game, based on my posts here, and did not like it at all, principally because of the various doom counters that it uses to make you feel like each mission has larger consequences than just success/failure in the moment.

My experience was that when they work, the game’s various hurry-ups put you in this interesting double-bind where:
– you need the toys that the strategic game unlocks in order to survive the next tactical mission,
– you also urgently need another tactical mission to raise money for the strategic game.
So you’re constantly worried about just surviving to the end of the month. A worry exacerbated by soldiers needing to heal, your second-best squad being some levels behind your first, etc.

My friend’s experience was that the strategic game was a hectoring cacophony of doom counters and impossible threats and constant interruptions preventing any sort of coherent thought. It was especially galling that the aliens continually did stuff that was deliberately designed to be far out of the player’s reach, so there was no chance to save all the days or all the people (the aliens also occasionally go on spite murder rampages, which are supposed to discredit your resistance – and yes, it’s upsetting to have a counter of civilians you’re supposed to save, and see them being picked off before you can even get to them. It’s storytelling – these aliens are despicable murderers – but it’s also kind of an anti-game moment – are you not playing this in order to prevent exactly that?).
My friend did not appreciate the feeling that the game was sadistically making them feel stressed and powerless, watching things spiral out of control.

There’s a possible macho response to this – that that’s the difference between surfing and drowning – but my friend is an experienced game player. And anyway, if you signed up for a squad tactics game, that doesn’t mean you signed up to surf a noisy wave of countdowns. Which seems like a generally applicable thing to say about games: if you have a game that does one thing well, it’s probably best not to require your players to also do some other thing, in order to experience it. Multiple flavours can combine to taste even better together, but if you put peanuts in my chocolate then I will spit the chocolate out and consider it wasted.

And after some consideration, I think the issues are really intrinsic to XCOM being a pre-programmed video game, where the strategic/campaign level would be better handled – more responsive, more free, more explorable – as a TTRPG.

The strategic level of the game has a lot in common with the boardgame Pandemic Legacy – and XCOM2 especially has a lot on common with Pandemic Legacy 2 (hereafter PL2).

It consists of a map of the world, on which things go wrong every month and you get a chance to place workers to fix some of them. Like PL2, you don’t have access to the whole map to begin with: you only get to know about stuff that’s happening around your contact network, so as your contact network expands (through communication tokens with locals, and radio masts), so does your understanding of the plot.

Here we are, fairly late in the XCOM2 supplement War of the Chosen, having made contact with 3 other resistance factions.

The first and greatest weakness of the XCOM implementation of this strategic layer is, it’s essentially passive. It’s a “race against time” but your method of racing is largely… waiting for missions to pop up. And, while you wait, hoping that not too much goes wrong before you can research plasma rifles. In a TTRPG you could handwave the waiting and invite the players to take on proactive missions – spy on the aliens, find caches of tech, rescue experts, and raid supply convoys. Then the players would always be busy with something when a surprise mission lead comes in. But that’s… a whole other game to program.

That waiting weakness leads to the other great problem XCOM digs for itself: it has to artificially generate urgency, in the form of a race against a Secret Alien Scheme (represented by those red and black squares at the top of the screen – as the aliens progress on their scheme, the squares turn red – that’s the primary doom counter). XCOM has a nice tech tree (for which it never shows you a map), a set of resource-gathering dependencies (always expand your network first, that gives you money for little things like medicine and weapon powerups) and a story, told in missions you access in series, via research. But if it weren’t for the hectoring doom counters you could just take a leisurely stroll through all that content, unlock all the branches of the tech tree, and level your soldiers up to max. It’s only the doom counter that makes your choices, about what to prioritize and what to defer, difficult or stressful ones. Because now you have to anxiously wonder if it’s better to spend time doing an autopsy on the new bugsquid or trying to figure out more efficient radio, whether you must expand east toward the alien base you’ve heard about, or south toward a nest of potential friends. And whichever thing you choose, XCOM will force your stress level a bit by dangling things just out of your reach.

But why is this a weakness? Aren’t races and tough decisions… cool?

Well, first because XCOM doesn’t give you any information about the likely outcome of your tough decisions – it’s really keen on the story of you unlocking secrets so… it’s a long series of leaps of faith in the dark, rather than the kinds of carefully considered risks that the tactical game excels at. And second, because the way XCOM’s race works is – boom, the RNG pops up a mission:

(some missions are monthly regulars, some are triggered by you hitting certain milestones, some are on some other mysterious schedule).

and you can either go fight it in tactical mode or ignore it – which is the same as fighting it and failing. If you win, you might set the aliens’ doom counter back, buying time to see what happens when you choose “nest of friends” and ignore “alien base lead” on the next decision fork. But if you lose/ignore the mission, the doom counter clicks forward. Which is, obviously, a positive feedback loop or death spiral – failure means you have less time. And that death spiral is intensified because:
(a) you don’t get whatever rewards the mission could have handed out,
(b) your reputation with the people funding you gets worse, so they may give you less funding,
(c) during the tactical mission, some of your soldiers probably got killed or injured, which means you lose their xp progress, their readiness for the next mission, and any unique equipment they had.

And (d) you trigger a flurry of “we can’t afford to lose like this, the aliens will win” NPC voiceovers, which are surprisingly stressful and effective at making you feel bad. If the aliens’ doom counter gets all the way up to 12, BTW, you get a literal doom clock:

and scare windows, just in case you weren’t feeling the failure.

Notably, XCOM never tells you that you’re doing well. Or, if it does, it does it with a broad wink that says “hubris? Pride before a fall? You know what comes next.” (skip to 51:30)

So this “race” is really just a challenge to:
(a) accept and win all the missions that pop up
(b) guess the right order in which to develop your base, soldiers, and informant networks.

In contrast, Pandemic Legacy has a negative feedback loop – if you’re not doing well, it gives you more resources. And in PL2, where you’re uncovering the mysterious map as you go, you know that you don’t know where you should prioritize expanding, so you take action and hope for the best. And, critically, although your decisions change the way PL2 plays, they don’t lock you out of winning or put you on a long, torturous path to assured destruction in several turns’ time, which is what XCOM explicitly threatens to do, even though that threatened destruction might really be farther away than they suggest.

So, XCOM and PL both have arbitrary cutoff victory/failure conditions. XCOM’s aliens win if their doom counter goes off, the player wins if they reach a critical research point and definitively sabotage the Secret Scheme, at which point the story beats have set you up to believe in eucatastrophe. PL is limited to one year (12-24 game sessions), at the end of which you might lose outright but are much more likely to score a limited, weird victory by stopping some of the diseases or limiting the damage they do. Anyway, you’re guaranteed to at least understand what’s going on and why.

BTW Phoenix Point, an off-brand XCOMalike made by the XCOM developers, doubles down on the Pandemic elements of the game – now instead of aliens it’s a virus that turns your fellow humans into aliens, some of them distinctly copyright-infringing.

And it makes a point of telling you, at the end of the tutorial:

But imagine if you were playing a TTRPG and all you needed to provide, for the players to go looking for trouble and plot heists, was:
1) a map with some targets on it*: e.g.:
– mystery lab,
– supply depot,
– places with frequent street battles that point to resistance cells (actually, these are all things that XCOM2 tells you are going on, but the only interaction it gives you is “sit and scan this for 6 days and get 50 supplies or an engineer.”)
2) some random tables of mission ingredients and complications, e.g.:
– destroy the transmitter
– put false info in the dead drop
– person you’re supposed to retrieve is unwilling
– ambush
Then you wouldn’t necessarily need to provide definitive end conditions – or you could have them emerge through play. Think Game of Thrones’s endless political roil, out of which emerges a win/lose dyad of zombies or Targaryen world-empress. For any long campaign, the players would find out enough about the world to potentially set their own win conditions, if they even want that.

…I’m actually (still) implementing a thing like this, called Countercolonial Heistcrawl, so I’m not going to anticipate that by writing a reduced version of it now, but… in the spirit of this blog post series, here are some principles, learned from XCOM, for making such a thing. Note – I am not talking specifically about making an alien invasion/human resistance game, for which this video covers the bases of XCOM’s story very neatly, but rather any warbox game where you have a strategic overlay (or “campaign”) that sets goals for a series of tactical missions (or “dungeons,” if you like).

Principle 1: the game continues as long as the players want to play

Or, “don’t impose a limiting win condition at the start.” Players are apt to give up if they lose all their followers but… Babur, the first Mughal Emperor, was just an idiot with a horse and a sword when he set out to restore his ancestor Genghis Khan’s empire. His son Humayun lost it all, being reduced to a horse and a sword, and got it all back (with a surprise twist ending!). Neither one accepted that their game was over. In the history of (actual anti-colonial) resistance movements, it’s very rare for anyone to definitively be done away with and never heard from again. Instead they mostly just lose ground – resources, reach, personnel. There are cases, in fact, where every individual person in a movement dies, or the leader dies, and a couple of generations later a new resistance movement forms around their memory and ideas. From a game-running perspective all of this can just be counted as the same player – if they get knocked right down, they get a negative feedback boost to keep them in the game. So then the stakes of the game are not elimination but capability. If their factions have levels (of reach, influence, military might), those can be drained but the faction doesn’t die unless it chooses to.

If the game is getting stale, by all means change things up, maybe introduce a story that can definitively take out an enemy – but you don’t have to Ragnarok the whole setting: any single definitive change can act as a campaign keystone, leaving room for a sequel with somewhat different rules.

Principle 2: information is not just power, it’s also interactability

XCOM’s tactical layer is a superb model of clarity in information – you know your chance to hit, you know what damage you’ll do, you know where the enemies are and you quickly learn what they can do… and the result is you, as a player, can interact in a sophisticated way with the game. XCOM’s strategic layer is a blind graveyard of opportunities that you stumble over – or cheat your way through by reading other players’ stumblings. You have no idea what to build because the game doesn’t tell you what anything does; you can’t guess at the likely outcomes of research projects; and there are myriad easter eggs in the design that would get you to difficult destinations… if the game told you how they worked (skullmining, I’m looking at you). I get that the designers want the aliens and their tech to be mysterious. I get that they want you to feel joy in discovery. But. The practical result is that you can’t play these parts of the game strategically, you’re just surprised at every turn.

So don’t do that. Instead, think about what you really want to be a surprise reveal, and let everything else be meaningful information that the players can use. Tell them how strong they are (give their faction a level rating, if you like) and what they can take on. Tell them what is rumoured to exist in the wilderness (and make the rumours mostly true), the likely outcomes of research, what their options are for expanding and what those choices mean, even what the next obvious step is, trusting that there will be enough surprises and mysteries and missed connections to make their busy times interesting. It’s when they can choose between two obvious steps that they will surprise you with a creative third option that you hadn’t considered, not when they’re paralyzed by a dizzying load of Decisions on Zero Information.

And when you really want a surprise, tease it – if the player anticipates it, half expects it, they’ll be interested and alert when it finally shows up. XCOM2 War of the Chosen has these three super-enemy nemeses – The Chosen – who can unexpectedly show up and destabilize any mission. Each one gets a theatrical entrance, each one taunts you and laughs villainously, and each one is announced with a set of strengths and weaknesses when it first shows up. So these Chosen, out of all the game’s elements, show real design thought regarding their lines of clarity and unknowability. They’re unpredictable but still interactable. They’re a surprise you can try to plan for, an extra enemy you dread. They make you wish you’d planned better, they don’t make you throw your hands up in the air and say “how was I supposed to know about this?” That’s a good surprise.

Principle 3: the world is made of agent units (targets), and those are dungeons

As players explore/trade for info/spy/listen to the radio, the map gets populated with targets. These targets are elements or agents of the enemy’s network of power – that is, their organization is broken down into modules (or, from another perspective, players can cleverly identify weak points) where attacks can make a difference. So a target is a railway signals box or a warehouse or a general or a genetics lab or some bit of enemy infrastructure that they depend on, that you can disable or appropriate, the loss of which has knock-on effects for the enemy’s operations. Ideally, you draw up an actual network of dependencies, tying these points together. Attacking targets is played out in tactical mode.

Per Principle 2, recon can tell the players the threat level of (almost) any target, so the players can compare it with their own to get an idea of whether they can hit it, take it down, take it over, or leave it for now as a long-term goal, for when they reach level 5.

XCOM really only has 3 types of missions:
1. Kill all the enemies
2. Sneak into an enemy installation and steal/destroy something
3. Get a resource safely across the map to an exit point
and that already allows for a lot of different sorts of challenges, that are not really all dungeons. But you could have a lot more –
– show someone something (especially: show a potential ally the enemy behaving badly… by getting them to chase you).
– plant/construct something in the enemy’s operations – this could be installing a bug, or planting evidence to destroy trust between enemy agents…
– pull enemies into an ambush

Defeating targets gives the players rewards and puts a hole in the enemy’s network. The enemy’s network heals with time, but if you shoot it full of enough holes fast enough, it may drop entire capabilities/departments.
Rewards could be:
– information (new targets),
– expertise (new tech/toys),
– personnel (new soldiers),
– resources… etc.
If you merely destroy a target, you might get a subsidiary reward (local resistance contacts, defectors, info etc). But if you take over a target of equal or higher level to your own group (extract useful resources/abilities from it), you level up.

Principle 4: separate the game ingredients by function and give them a face

This is a thing XCOM does very well – your research subgame is a scientist with a personality. Your make new toys subgame is an engineer with a personality. It makes the bits of game easier to find and understand – this is a new technology, therefore research, therefore go talk to the scientist character. That is a thing we can make multiple copies of, therefore it’s engineering.

So given that a warbox depends on information, give the sources of that information personalities – and assign different ones to streams of different reliability, so the game can set up a language for establishing the level of confidence that the players should invest int them: game mechanics/advice comes from Judi Densch, the enemy informant is Andy Serkis, and the supplier of rumours is Steve Buscemi.

Curiously, Phoenix Point doesn’t do this. So maybe there is a need for posts like this one, full of obvious advice, after all.

* actually, it looks like Phoenix Point might adopt exactly this sort of structure for its strategic layer. I’ve just started playing it and… there’s a bunch of targets to investigate around my base in the upper Amazon, including some supply-scavenging missions. Just when I thought this series was over. OK fine, I shall play more and report back with an addendum.

  1. kelvingreen
    March 14, 2023 at 8:50 pm

    Lots to think about here.

    There’s a tabletop rpg called Mutant Year Zero that has a robust (if simpler than XCOM) base-building and research subsystem. There’s a computer adaptation that, perhaps predictably, drops the main rpg side and replaces it with an XCOM-like. I haven’t played it but I wonder if it has retained the strengths of the other half, and whether it is more successful than XCOM‘s strategic layer.

    • March 15, 2023 at 5:02 pm

      I still haven’t played either the tabletop or computer versions – and I really must! It seems right up my street.

      • kelvingreen
        March 16, 2023 at 1:16 pm

        I’m very fond of the tabletop version, but real life has conspired to keep me from the computery variety so far.

  2. kelvingreen
    March 14, 2023 at 8:51 pm

    One of the first campaigns released for Savage Worlds was an alien-invasion-in-your-forgotten-realms thing called Evernight. It’s generally regarded as an excellent idea with dubious execution; what you outline here would seem like a much better approach.

  3. March 14, 2023 at 8:57 pm

    Wow. Thanks for writing about your friend’s experience with XCOM. Saves me the trouble of playing it. If I want stress I’ll avoid games and just stay in Real Life.

    • March 15, 2023 at 5:01 pm

      Fair enough. I enjoyed it but I agree that the strategic layer isn’t nearly as good as the tactical one.
      My comments here ignore the extra subgame in XCOM1 where you send fighter aircraft to shoot down the UFOs and…. hope that your upgrades are good enough. That has a very distinctive “difficulty” curve where, during the first 2 months of game-time, you are stronger, then the aliens get stronger and there’s little you can do about it, then you develop enough firepower to shift the balance again.
      It’s effective writing in a novel but it seems like a misunderstanding of interactivity – a known failure mode in TTRPG adventure-writing.

  1. March 20, 2023 at 6:04 pm

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