X-Com RPG – Beyond Combat: Running the Organization

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

This post includes the following topics:

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


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


Commanding X-Com: Making the Tough Choices

Keeping a Consistent Core Mechanic

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

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

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

Typical Complexity Trait Scale:

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


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

Building Commanders

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

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

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

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

Building Bases

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

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

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

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

Basic Macro-Level Gameplay Model

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

Each Round:

The Night Shadow (From UFO: Alien Invasion)

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

Each Month (15 Rounds = Month)

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

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

Determining Invasion Activity: The Invasion Pool

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

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


Musings on Design Decisions

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

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

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

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

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

from UFOPaedia.org

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


What Would You Like to See Next?

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

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

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

Questions Soliciting Feedback

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

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

About Adam

Adam is a husband, an explorer of the inexhaustible, and a hunter for unexpected synergies and collaborative potentials. His explorations into RPGs began with DMing D&D, though lately he enjoys mining the potentials of diverse systems, especially Cortex Plus.
This entry was posted in CortexPlus, Gaming, Mechanics, X-Com RPG and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to X-Com RPG – Beyond Combat: Running the Organization

  1. As I mentioned on twitter, I like the concept of a core Time mechanic that works across all zoom levels. The Invasion Pool to model the escalating threat from the aliens is also a nice touch.

    Are you envisioning all of the players with characters at the same zoom level (i.e. all commanders or all soldiers) or handling a mix of character types within a single campaign?

    For the consistent roll vs. mini-game question, I think you’ll need to balance the two. A single roll can feel like too little for some actions, but having too many or too complicated of mini-games could bog down gameplay. For tasks like research and construction, I could see having successes generate progress tokens and having a set number of tokens needed to complete a project. Complications could remove tokens.

    The thing that I’d actually like to see next are your thoughts on the structure of the game. What would a session look like? How about a campaign?

    • atminn says:

      Structure of the game/session/campaign, good point Glimm. I think I will explore that topic next. Thanks for all your questions. Your comments are very helpful, since I can’t do this thing well if I do it just myself.

      I started to answer your character question, but realized I was just writing my next blog post, so I’ll flesh it out more appropriately as such.

      Basically to answer your question, Yes: each player will create and control one Commander, role-playing them at all times in the game. On the other hand, they will also create and control individual soldiers as needed (since they will come and go with unfortunate frequency), and a player’s soldiers will generally mirror the player’s Commander character in some way: style or primary strength, etc. just to round out the abilities of the ground crews.

      Let’s see, yes Time is turning out delightfully surprising to me in the ways it is working like a champ truly across all zoom levels, more than I’d anticipated. It keeps surprising me in how well it fits new areas that pop up, so I’m excited to see what else it can do.
      For now, I believe Commander TUs will be significantly different from soldiers’ TUs, so they’ll likely have to be different colored bits/tokens/dice counters/etc.

      I’m excited to dig into an exploration of session/campaign-flow next.

  2. SabastianBludd says:

    It bears keeping in mind that research was always successful in the PC game and its time of completion was only a function of the number of research hours devoted to them. Introducing failure and/or variable completion times is a radical change and should be handled with care. That is, research is becoming harder (than the PC game), so this change should be adjusted in relation to what else in your design has been made easier to hopefully maintain balance.

    I would suggest balancing troop survivability against research. It might seem a little strange, but if you remember how your games of X-Com progress, they almost always start the same way: There’s a mad rush to research and manufacture laser weapons before the first terror site (usually Sectoid with those f#@king Cyberdiscs) pops up around the end of the first month. Why? Because if you don’t have laser tech then you finish the mission with 2 out of 12 pajama-wearing rookies surviving, if you don’t fail it outright.

    If X-Com RPG troops are heartier than their PC game counterparts (a smart decision in its own right in order to keep the number of soldiers per mission low) then they don’t need as advanced tech as quickly. Survivability should also be considered in context with whatever economic model is adopted as a high casualty rate (and the high cost of replacement soldiers) can end an X-Com campaign in short order. Variable research completion times and/or setbacks could be a useful “money sink” in absence of high troop replacement rates.

    • atminn says:

      @Sabastian You bring up very good points. I especially like your ideas about balancing ‘costs’ by changing seemingly unrelated things like troop survivability. I wouldn’t have thought of the economy of casualty rate as a balance against something in a different currency like money or Time. I know exactly what you meant about the research rush to try surviving the first Terror attack. In the RPG I wonder if such expectations will remain, and remain valid at that. Terror missions won’t happen until the Invasion Pool gets large enough to roll high enough to get out of the Scouting/Probing activity.

      Thanks for pointing out the potentially drastic change that different approaches would bring to the game as a whole. My initial ideas for the research and base-building rolls (including the potential for failure/variable completion time) was that the chances of ‘failure’ can be mitigated by spending a lot of Time on the project. Spending 5 TUs to roll a d12 is a significant boost in probability, taking a lot of the gamble out of it. If failure happens even after sinking 5 TUs, then that project apparently required more man-hours than expected and in addition you earn Previous Work d6 Traits to bolster the next attempt. All this is to emulate the idea of man-hours from the original. In this game, players can try to get a new technology in a day, but they’ll have to gamble to do so. Taking longer (more TUs) and investing in quality facilities (Labs,Workshops) and Staff is less exciting for sure, but more reliable. Given all that extra help, pulling off complex research every round could very well be a reality toward the endgame, and may even be required to deduce how to finally stop the threat.

      Is this how you were understanding it? Do you think this achieves some of the balance you mention? I will definitely look into troop survivability, I’m currently wrestling with whether it’s ok for new recruits to improve as the Commander’s stats grow throughout the game. Rookies at the end will be much more potent than rookies at the beginning, which may be just a matter of the world (or at least the world’s military and paramilitary forces) being more associated with the alien threat by then, that is less of a learning curve.

      Please let me know what you think of this. I truly value your keen critical eye on all parts of this project. Thanks for coming by!

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