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XCOM in the mirror – Phoenix Point

March 20, 2023 Leave a comment

In the previous posts in this series, I’ve praised XCOM for its focus, clarity, and elegance. It gives you the right amount of information at the right time to allow you to make informed decisions. It aims for simplicity, winding up at a level of complexity that allows for good tactics. In those parts of the game where it’s less clear, it’s also less successful.

Those posts are all retrospectives – written after I’d had a chance to absorb and think about XCOM’s lessons, not as I was experiencing them.

This post is different: it’s about Phoenix Point, another game made by some of the same developers, which shows how you can get it wrong, where XCOM gets it right. And it’s written as I’m in the middle of trying to get to grips with it.

Phoenix Point is what happens to XCOM when its enthusiasts want more of everything. More enemies, more complex variants on those enemies, more research, bases, faction diplomacy, decisions, action points per round, weapons… and most of all, more ways to get into a position from which you cannot win. At the same time, less information up front – more interface ambiguity, more traps hidden in subsystems, which slow you down in your race against the enemies, more forcing the player to take leaps in the dark and then backtrack later. The overall result is more confusion, more paralysis, more stress (of the “I think I unwittingly did something wrong last week and now I’m screwed” variety), and less fun.

Geoscape view looks familiar! Each of those little circles with logos inside is a site I’ve explored. Blue and pink logos are bases of different factions, whom I can befriend or raid or rescue from disease/alien incursions, which come out of the red areas.

On the tactical level, where XCOM has 2 action points, for MOVE and SHOOT, PP has 4, so you can have actions that take 1, 2, 3 or 4 points… the result of which is that your heavy gunner and sniper, who have 3-point guns, are slowed to a crawl, having only 1 point left for movement. Where XCOM has a lot of one-shot kills, PP routinely takes 3 characters’ actions to take down one enemy soldier… the result of which is that combat is much slower and less predictable, tactically – because most of an enemy squad will escape any ambush you set, or turn the tables on you by failing to die and instead swarming you. And where XCOM gives you infinite reloads, PP wants you to gather up ammo from the battlefield (or, by default, leave it there when you end a mission… so you get into a situation where you’ve probably killed all the enemies but maybe not, but you don’t want to Do The Thing to declare victory because there might be some valuable bullets lying around in the opposite corner of the map). And where XCOM has a sometimes-enraging %-to-hit counter, PP has a touchy-feely “how much of this circular sight does your enemy occupy” interface, which probably appeals to sniping enthusiasts but takes multiple clicks to access and anyway, those guys are probably playing Call of Duty.

In brief: XCOM = quick and deadly, PP = slow, fiddly, and less tactical.

Character Advancement is both less clear and less varied than XCOM 2. There are 3 classes and everyone can dual-class at level 4, so your squad of 6 people certainly contains duplicates – it winds up being a sort of class-and-a-half system. Why would you do this? The main reason I’ve found so far is to overcome class restrictions on equipment. Snipers can’t normally get the Heavy’s jump jets, which is the only practical way to get to many of the sniping platforms in levels. Dual-class, like Omar, below, and you can jump to a sniper’s perch… and leave your short-range Heavy gun at home.

Ammo management is a huge part of the game, but there’s no clear interface for reloading a weapon. And there are like 6 different minor variations on every basic weapon because…………..? I guess to make ammo management harder. So that’s why you end up with a giant Storage bin on your loadout screen. For 2 dozen ammo types.

But where the game really makes strides is the strategic layer. This was kind of rudimentary in XCOM. Now it’s…. a lot more complicated.

This video, ostensibly offering tips for the strategic game, actually provides a really thorough list of its design problems. First, it says the way to win the game is to strike before the aliens get to show you much of the content (which, OSR sensibilities aside, seems like a funny way to spend your development dollars). Friendly relations with other human factions are vital, so you should murder the first few humans you meet for their stuff, because the bad will that generates will only grow more expensive later (mixed messages, anyone? What sort of character are you playing, anyway?). And you should avoid researching anything that you can get by any other means – the video explicitly calls most of the research options “traps:” wasteful sinks for time and resources. Avoid developing your bases, building aircraft (steal them instead – but early on, before factions get properly mad at you for doing so), and try to win faster than both the aliens and the human factions’ mutually-assured destruction countdown. In other words, absolutely do not try to explore the things that the game puts in front of you. Along the way, there are several sub-games you should exploit without getting attached to them: a gold-farming trade game, diplomacy that’s kinda doomed, and a flying Godzilla, impossible to attack, that destroys the friends you first invest in.

Do I sound bitter? Well, I’ve only sunk 20 hours into it, and I’ve already realized that I should probably restart rather than sinking another 20 into a lost cause. I bet that puts me ahead of the average player.

The experience has, however, reinforced one thing for me: the importance of managing the player’s cognitive capacity, when learning a new game. Dribbling out information, letting the player grok the basics before getting fancy with special conditions. Some folks resent XCOM’s hand-holding tutorials, which callously kill off your soldiers to show you that soldiers will die and throw grenades at you to show you how dangerous they are and so on. When you’ve gone through XCOM’s 0-level funnel-like first mission, you think “that was really basic, I totally could’ve handled more options” ….but XCOM is smart to start with that funnel, allowing you to figure out movement and cover without thinking about the affordances of different character classes.

PP offers a very unattractive alternative, where you’re assumed to know how XCOM works, therefore you’re ready to have your expectations subverted. It throws you right into its XCOM++ world with all the options open from the start and… it’s overwhelming. Hundreds of (trap) research topics; pages and pages of (mostly probably irrelevant) lore about factions, your own history, the aliens; half a dozen separate base/aircraft/weapon/manufacturing systems to optimize, much of which, apparently, not worth the bother. And laced through it all, a basic failure to explain. To take one, stupid example, look at this interface element:

a yellow, dotted circle around your aircraft. It shrinks as you move toward a goal.

I bet you think it represents the range the plane can go without refueling at a friendly base, right? I was pretty scared even to approach that edge. I thought I might have to always have enough fuel aboard to make it back home. No. The plane can auto-refuel (if, in fact, that’s what it means at all) at any abandoned graveyard/alien base/curious swamp-grotto you’ve explored. You can tell it to go somewhere far outside that circle and the circle will just keep re-setting to max every time you pass over an icon. It took me 20 hours to find that out by accident. There is no manual where the dotted circle is explained.

If only the game dribbled that stuff out a bit, maybe its complexity would be a virtue, not a vice. So my positive lesson from this not-so-positive experience is, an empire-building game/earth-girdling campaign begins with a single step. Is there exploration? Let the players explore a small map (maybe an island or cave) first, revealing the next, bigger step when the first one is internalized. Is there redundant research? Let the players do some useful research first and then give them clues about what redundancy looks like, before having them lose a game to find out… There is never a point in the game where you should abandon this design principle: any time you’re about to radically expand the scope, even late in a campaign, add a little training, where the players can figure out the new possibilities before they have to depend on them. And for god’s sake, teach the players about any new thing with a good, reliable example, before betraying their hopes with a treacherous one.

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

March 14, 2023 7 comments

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.

Maps of classic dungeons 4: the rats in the walls of the Opera Garnier

March 1, 2023 Leave a comment

Screenshot 2023-02-17 at 12.47.06 PMAlexis Dornier: Stilt Studio. If you like that, see also his Birdhouses resort in Bali.

Part of the myth of modern architecture is that it’s all function. But that’s hardly ever true – and even when it is, somehow the expression of that function tends to come across in an ostentatious, theatrical way. 

Screenshot 2023-02-17 at 1.08.40 PMArkwright’s cotton mill, Cromford, 1771

Take this cotton mill building, for instance, often forwarded by British people as the birthplace of the industrial revolution. It’s supposed to be purely, practically functional. You can tell because it’s unadorned – no fancy pillars or porticoes or stepping of the facade architecture – and it’s sometimes cited as an important moment in the development of the new clean modern movement in architecture; if you’re wondering why the industrial age abandoned ornament just when it could mass-produce it, the relative cheapness of these buildings is your answer.

Cromford_Mill_GatewayAnd yet even Arkwright’s mill was theatricalized, as a place of work, with this entrance gate, reminiscent of a medieval castle barbican or a prison. The gate announces that within these walls is the place for mechanical labor.    

Architecture can’t really help communicating. Splendor – which Arkwright’s mill self-consciously eschewed – also has a function – if it didn’t, people wouldn’t spend so much on it. It tells a building’s inhabitants how to feel and behave, what to pay attention to and, conversely, what to ignore. An institution’s buildings are its visible presence, its self-portraits, and theatrical settings – showcases for its power, arenas for its executives’ performances. 

How-FosterPartners-Elevated-Apple-Store-Design-Azure-Hero-1600x900Foster & Partners: Apple store, Macau

Corporations love gigantic foyers and atriums, that both dwarf the visitor and offer an interior world to get lost in. Hotels and cruise ships have grand social gathering spaces – dining rooms and ballrooms – where they can make a spectacle of their guests. And temples have whole complex schemes of teaching spaces that make their creeds visible. Theaters of theology.

Anatomy Theater, University of Leiden short, theaters are everywhere. And theaters are dungeons and dungeons are theaters: they frequently contain self-consciously theatrical storytelling spaces – the old raised dais at the end of the room, the sacrificial altar, the monster pit, the pentagram in the middle of the floor. Also, fairly often, these theatrical parts of the dungeon are left as set dressing – whoever made the temple, they’re not here any more and instead it’s giant rats or opportunistic hobgoblin mercenaries, staining the tapestries.

But a theater is a terrible thing to waste – especially one dedicated to fiction. The lies people tell you can be so informative about what’s really on their minds.

Ok, so, some theory.

Theaters (arenas, ritual spaces) dramatize the functions of society.
Justice is theatrical – prisoners and executions are displayed in public to show an example to the rest of the court.
Power is theatrical – both to attract the court’s attention and to set a standard that enforces humility among the servile classes.
And rituals/displays show a society its own structure – as well as offering moments when that structure can be suspended, changed, and re-asserted. Weddings, promotions, judgments, declarations are all status changes for members of the community – moments of structural vulnerability, where stuff is up for grabs, where everyone has to update their hierarchies.
(Victor Turner wrote the classic book on this – the whole thing is interesting)

And/So theatrical rituals offer moments of crisis where PCs can insert themselves to maximum effect – Bond and John Carter routinely escape right at the moment of their spectacular, exemplary punishment, when all eyes are fixed on them – the intended display of the tyrant’s power instead becomes their spectacular humiliation. Years of careful plotting are undone in a way they wouldn’t be, if the whole thing hadn’t been so damn public. And when the heroes escape, they don’t just illustrate the contingency/risk that gives the ritual its power, they also tell us about the holes in their captors’ moral architecture: Carter can slip out of his spectacular starvation chamber through the same tunnel the tyrant uses to enact his sadistic urges – the tyrant is defeated by his own vices, embodied in his theater of cruelty.

But it’s also worth thinking about how a theatre divides its space into the scene – what you are required to look at, to understand the drama – and the obscene – both that which is hidden behind a curtain because it’s too upsetting for the public, and that which is off the stage: the stuff that is necessary to the production but which the audience has to ignore – the lights, flies, and rude mechanicals that make the magic happen. And, fairly often, simply people right there on the stage whom you must pretend are not there (kuroko, servants, boom operators).   

People fret about the obscene becoming visible, but it’s just as useful as a (open) secret place, from which one can observe without being observed. Bond gets inside (infests) Goldfinger’s model of Fort Knox (showing us how the villain’s plans are paper-thin) and learns all of Goldfinger’s plots from that blind – even the bit where Goldfinger plans to betray his mafia allies.

In The Hunchback of Notre Dame the spy gallery is the cathedral bell tower, which offers a commanding view of the bustling square and its centerpiece gallows. While the tyrannical archdeacon sets up a punishment theater for the burghers of Paris, to condemn Esmeralda for failing to return his love, Quasimodo uses his bellside perch to spy on the proceedings from above – a nice reversal of the panoptic power of the state. Also he improbably uses a bell rope to Tarzan down to her and snatch her away from the archdeacon’s own rope necklace, which is probably super Freudian or something but I digress.

gargoyles and saints, locked in an endless staring match

Getting up to that bell tower, by the way, involves entering a rabbit warren of passages – the private scurryways of a very public building, which the archdeacon only barely understands. If you’re intimate with gargoyles then you’re definitely not in a place intended for the worshipful visitors – or at least you weren’t before Victor Hugo’s novel made the bell tower tour one of the most popular parts of a tour around Paris’s Old Dame.

I can see the king’s bedroom from here

And then there’s the actual theater: a building devoted to fixing the audience’s gaze on only one place–the royal box, where Louis XIV and his court just might let their guard down, as they watched their entertainments. Or the stage, if Louis XIV himself (or his wife, or his mistress) were performing.

the Opera at Versailles in the mid 19th century, dressed for a rather staid performance by Queen Victoria

The quintessential theater, the Platonic ideal of the modern palace of illusions, if you like, is of course an imitation, rebuilt on a grander scale, of Louis’s court theater – Paris’s Opera Garnier. It was commissioned by the commoner emperor Napoleon III to form the centerpiece of his “theater state,” and had to be capable of accepting the bourgeoisie as well as dukes and visiting royalty.

The Opera Garnier, Paris’s other hunchback – the giant peaked-roof carbuncle spoiling the symmetry of the dome houses the flies – all the scenery-changing machinery that turns a stage into a cave into a forest or a mean peasant’s hut.

This is the Opera that’s now mostly famous for its Phantom… which was originally written off the back of the fame of the building itself. So it goes with the ravages of time.

I wish I could tell you that Victor Hugo wrote both The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, and that these two epics about disfigured men with yearning hearts hiding out in Paris landmarks were both scathing satires on the French society of their day – that from their secret vantage points they laid bare the hypocrisies of the powerful. Both do indeed theatricalize French society – Notre Dame offers a “god’s perspective” from which we can see the venal goings on of the city. The Opera Garnier, (at least when it was first built) was a factory for fantasies, both on the stage and in the auditorium, the perfect metaphor for the pasteboard Second Empire. And Hugo had plenty to say about Napoleon III as a pasteboard character – “Napoleon the little,” “the nocturnal strangler of liberty”, that would fit snugly into the whole Phantom thing. But unfortunately Phantom was written in 1910, 25 years after Hugo’s death, by melodramatic mystery scribbler Gaston Leroux and if there is, indeed, a common moral shared by the two books it’s something about the dangerous power of being a sexy woman in a city full of deformed horny romantically-inclined men. At best, they could be partnered with Cyrano de Bergerac to make a series on ugly monomaniacs of Paris, 1630-present.

But let’s forget the sad accidents of history for a moment and pretend that the two books and buildings really are in dialogue. Because they are, regardless of their mere authors’ intentions. The books’ obsession with vertical limits – Quasimodo’s heavenly tower and Erik the Phantom’s subterranean sewer-palace – seems to says something about the anatomy of Paris as a great beast impelled by carnal drives, looking to the stars, etc. The secrecy of the spaces suggests a Paris of labyrinths – which it is, from sewers and catacombs to “secret” entrances to the Louvre and other landmarks. To say nothing of the Law. And the physical structures of the buildings…

Here’s the thing. Notre Dame is a labyrinth, sure – from subterranean crypt to chorister’s gallery to belltowers, there’s plenty of places for ecclesiastics to get up to no good. A family of urchins could easily hide in its decorative niches, posing as statues when the organist shuffles by. And, like most cathedrals, it has a wooden skeleton, so it’s not just a giant pile of stone. But the Opera is another sort of labyrinth altogether – the sort of collection of hanging facades with big holes behind them that you could only build in the 19th century, with metal frame construction and a limitless fund of decorators. The grandiose rooms that make up the public front of the Opera

are surrounded by hundreds of other spaces, many of which can’t really be dignified by being called “rooms,” which threaten to engulf it.

detail of a longitudinal section model of the Opera Garnier, at the Musee d’Orsay, Paris

The famous auditorium is that rather small gilded space, 4 stories under the dome. The skyscraper next door is the stage and flies.

There are at least 3 buildings in that building: the gilded front of house, the actors’ backstage, and a third hidden set of service and maintenance spaces, which are not just tiny scurryholes but whole galleries and kitchens and staircases and staging areas – an architecture of supports and buttresses and food carts and stagehands and whispered orders, where the rooms are cut into by the backsides of domes and mock plaster pillars. These are the spaces that even the Phantom doesn’t talk about: room for an army of goblins – or of plumbers, seamstresses, and waiters. Like Manhattan or Disneyland, where the public thinks they’re standing on solid ground they’re really on the upper floor of a building that extends below their feet for several stories; a whole other city that leaks into their view only through steam blasts and the occasional odd clank.

The front/maintenance divide continues into modernist works, of course. Eero Saarinen’s masterwork design for Bell Labs (which was instrumental to creating this internet thing we’re using right now) was a featureless box on the outside, leading to a classic grandiose atrium inside

but the bit that made the internet work was between and around the famously pristine labs, in the service corridors and closets

Nowadays these cable tangles have got big enough to demand whole skyscrapers of their own, and the front of the theater is your cellphone screen.

the windowless block of a “hut hotel” (telecoms data exchange), suggestively dropped on Manhattan’s Avenue of the Strongest

OK, great. So what do you do with all this?

The first thing is obviously to imagine and then make use of all the ductwork, plumbing, and behind-the-scenes service spaces that your dungeon’s Death Cult Temple demands. Does your local post-apocalyptic warlord live in a palace that used to be a big public building? Then he can’t possibly know all the murder-holes that lurk behind the seemingly-solid walls. Have you always been bothered by the weirdness of classic D&D maps, of rooms connected by long noodle corridors? Now you know that those black “solid” spaces are just rusticated fronts stuck over service corridors that connect to other dungeons, maybe displaced half a floor or half a genre up or down from the version you fell into. How do goblins and ghouls get everywhere? In this swiss cheese environment, the occasional secret door seems like a jokey lampshade.

Do you guys still watch Die Hard? Then you know how grandiose ductwork can be. But just in case you missed Bldgblog’s amazing post on the topic, here’s a reminder. Describing the Israeli Defense Force’s invasion of Nablus, it talks about squads blasting their own passages through a basically hollow spatial labyrinth, which wasn’t previously suited to their movements, but which they turned into an architecture of continuous surprise:

“soldiers moved within the city across hundred-meter-long ‘overground-tunnels’ carved through a dense and contiguous urban fabric.” Their movements were thus almost entirely camouflaged, with troop movements hidden from above by virtue of always remaining inside buildings. 

Breach-charging through walls, floors and ceilings, they deliberately avoided the expected entry points – doors and windows – that the architecture offered them. From Lethal Theory:

In the IDF we now often use the term “to smooth out space” when we want to refer to operation in a space as if it had no borders. We try to produce the operational space in such a manner that borders do not affect us. Palestinian areas could indeed be thought of as “striated”, in the sense that they are enclosed by fences, walls, ditches, roads blocks and so on . . . We want to confront the “striated” space of traditional, old-fashioned military practice [the way most IDF units presently operate] with smoothness that allows for movement through space that crosses any borders and barriers. Rather than contain and organize our forces according to existing borders, we want to move through them.’

…which makes me wonder why D&D parties are typically so respectful of the frame of the dungeon. I mean, obviously the answer is because it’s set up that way, like a Skinner box, part of the invisible rulebook of dungeon delving, which also blocks out the rest of the world with its social consequences etc, to produce a murder-palace full of monsters and trophies, sure, but… if you’re also interested in dungeons as heists, then it makes sense to set them in heistable spaces. And to be aware that spectacles always turn back to face their viewer, who is also on display – the royal box at the opera allows royals to watch the audience and vice versa. The invading murderhobos, who think they’re being sneaky as they inch up their darkened 10′ corridor are being studied for their tactics and equipment – if the dungeon boss isn’t a complete idiot.

And if you’re interested in dungeons as heists then you can build dramatic cues right into the map. Let’s say you have a boss with personality – a Strahd or Acererak or Alp Arslan, and you’ve been thinking about the space for the final showdown. There are advantages to making it a theatrical space, beyond the merely melodramatic – it can be at the focal point of the dungeon, where everyone can see the fight. Its boundaries can be clearly marked, so the players can prepare themselves – and do their homework -before stepping into the arena. And of course they can’t step into that space without themselves becoming part of the spectacle – what are their stakes? Why should they be hesitant to grab that cup, defile that fane, take over that dark lord’s sepulchral domain? The theatrical is also where you find the thread that pulls the villain’s whole architectural scheme apart – the whip-carrying slaver that everyone loves to hate, the feast you can ruin to turn the court against the villain, the seemingly minor functionary who turns out to be critical to the alarm-raising system. If you’ve done your homework, you can make your grand entrance deliberately, confident that you have your own surprises waiting in the flies.

You didn’t think I’d write all this without mentioning Renzo Piano’s and Richard Rogers’s Centre Georges Pompidou, did you? The sneaky trick here is, they shifted all the vital infrastructure to the facade in order to leave uninterrupted space inside for a clean, pristine and reconfigurable gallery box, all the better to show whatever crazy ductwork modern artists can cook up.

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.

Art and Bitterness

December 15, 2022 6 comments

If I were making gallery art I would make a robot that goes around art galleries rating the paintings and an installation of an empty room with 2 monitors in it, one showing machine-generated art produced continuously as quickly as possible, the other looking at the first machine’s product and categorizing it by style, movement, and quality.

That’s all I’ve got to say about the AI art debate, really. There’s some theory behind it, which follows, but if you get it, you can move on to the next blog.


Still here?

  1. there’s some anthropological theory about communication. First, art is communication – that’s clear enough, right? And communication implies at least two communicants – a speaker and a listener. Both of these are active in any act of communication: an utterance (“speech act” in the disciplinary jargon) is not complete until it’s been received. In fact its meaning is not fixed except by the receiver – think of a gift (as Christmas looms). Is it a good gift? Appropriate to the person and occasion? You only know when the receiver smiles. Or a joke – does it serve its purpose? Only the audience can tell you. All speech acts are like this.

    Thus, also, art. Which brings me to a common misunderstanding about AI art: people fixate on the part the machine does, but we humans remain in a partnership with the machine because we select what we think is good out of its products. All the AI art produced so far gets subjected to this process of selection or reception. Without a receiver, it’s not even art, as such. Much like a bicycle is not a mode of transport without someone to ride it.
  2. the craftsmanship has already sailed. When Walter Benjamin philosophized about how industrial production kills the specialness inherent in individual objects, he was observing a process that had already been at work for a century. And he feared that art, as maybe the last bastion of the human trace in the stuff we interact with, was being rendered obsolete by photography (an art based almost entirely on reception, btw). The camera could make images instantly, without even requiring a human operator. And Art (as in gallery art) responded by shifting its value structure, in a way the general public still hasn’t caught up with… about a century ago. Gallery art has spent that century wrestling, more or less angrily or amusingly, with the obsolescence of craftsmanship, until now it’s old hat and there’s simply no agreement about what makes an artwork good. So (as people often state without fully articulating their question) we’re mostly left wondering why the gallery owner/curator chose to show us this rather than that. We’re focused on the receiver, that person being someone other than ourselves.

    Benjamin worried that machines outperform human craftspeople in producing most of the things we use. The one thing human artists had over machines (apart from a quasi-religious value in being human) was the quality of their thought. But AI art promises to replace that in short order – not because the machines are smart but because the receivers of their products either can’t tell the difference or will tend to prefer the machines’ production, while continuing to ignore/discount their own role as selectors. And the more they select, the more the machines will learn what pleases them.
  3. Benjamin’s fixation on the aura of the individual crafted object is hard even to imagine these days: art is already ubiquitous and easy to find, provided you’re happy with its translation into pixels. The internet offers us the world’s biggest library, at our fingertips. If you were thinking of making something, chances are it already exists. You’d just have to search to find it.

    Borges wrote a story – The Library of Babel – about this situation, and about how it might actually be easier to write your own book than to search an almost infinite library for the extant one – even with our modern search tools it’s most likely to be hidden way down in the cheap end of the search results. But AI art promises (perhaps) to short-cut that search. It will make something maybe close enough to what you wanted – close enough that the extra value in making exactly what you want (if, in fact, you are able to achieve that) is a frivolous luxury.

So my modest proposal is, if you’re going to replace the hand, why not also the eye? AI can throw out images at a rate no human viewer can keep up with – the logical next step is to replace the viewer.

But why would you do that? Why even go to the expense and effort of building this machine that does not need a human at any stage? The machine doesn’t need it, either.

That’s why this is a blog post, not a gallery installation. I don’t need to build it in order to question the continuing value of making more art (which has been actively in question for a century).

…so is art – or Art – dead? No, I don’t suppose so. Gallery Art continues to fulfill social and economic functions for those people rich enough to deal in it and it has been demonstrating that it doesn’t even need authors for decades now. As for popular art – the stuff you can retweet from google image search or DeviantArt, well…

I expect it to go through a process like vanillin. Back in the 17th century (when commissioning a portrait told everyone you were important) vanillin commanded a king’s ransom. You could only get it from orchids in Mexico. Louis XIV dazzled his mistresses with it. Then manual pollination allowed it to be transplanted around the world and the middle class could afford it as a treat. Then in the late 19th century someone figured out how to extract it from pine wood and it became a bi-product of the paper industry – one of the cheapest commodities known to man. And now people use the word “vanilla” as a vague insult denoting something with no special qualities, too ubiquitous to be valued. And more vanillin is consumed, in more contexts, than ever before.

Art, like vanilla, is already everywhere. Commercial art is already unwelcome noise in our urban landscape. And there are efforts afoot to make everything a projection surface or, better, an oled screen, capable of surrounding us with movies 24/7. It takes a lot for an image to break through that noise.

Maybe, eventually, we will have less of it. Maybe machines can finally get us there.


I needed to read a few things to write this minor rant. Those things contain much more interesting insights. So I recommend:

Signs of Recognition, by Webb Keane. An anthro study of how people tell their listeners when they really need to listen. Also contains a thorough examination of the speech act process.

Fictions, by Jorge Luis Borges, which includes the dazzling stories The Library of Babel and The Lottery of Babylon, both of which have implications in a thousand astonishing directions.

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, by Walter Benjamin. Which seems foolish at first but then he keeps going and it’s… really good in the end after you’ve thought about it for a decade or so.