X-Com RPG – Research: Embracing an Infinite Tech Tree

NOTE: I’ve added some links and images of a new X-Com remake to the X-Com article Index. Take a look if you’re interested in playing video game versions of what’s happening here.

Last time, I ended by encouraging X-Com GMs to trust Complications that will naturally develop to drive the narrative and plot, to take the game in (hopefully fun) directions that are unique and interesting. Today I continue that idea by expounding on the powerful potential in the freeform Research system that this game supports.

One of the fascinating results of CortexPlus‘s freeform Trait system, especially to fit an X-Com game genre perfectly, is that it allows research projects (and resulting weaponry, defenses, aircraft, etc.) to truly be anything players may find or guess to be effective against their unique enemies. Preliminary research projects can fit a pre-set list or tree (such as laser weapons, medi-kits, and motion scanners from the original game), but beyond those, advanced research will vary from game to game depending on the alien artefacts recovered: sometimes delving into psionics, sometimes teleportation, sometimes human-mechanical grafting, sometimes animal shapeshifting, sometimes facilitating underwater advantage, sometimes space combat on asteroids.

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Within CortexPlus, the tech tree possibilities are literally infinite, bound only by the creativity of players, and the creativity of GMs to provide clear insights into the mysterious enemies that illuminate weaknesses or points of strength that can be co-opted by X-Com such that players know which ways they can go with research and development. What the GM reveals after a successful Research project on alien corpses or UFO artefacts is critical to inspiring useful directions that players’ future research can take due to the details they discover. The Enemy being unknown is powerful for tone and ambiance, but most of the fun of this game is learning to withstand and then conquer the unknown (hopefully using the enemy’s own technology and methods to do so!)

Players may research anything they wish, and when they succeed, the result will be a new Trait that is thereafter available to apply to weapons, armor, aircraft, etc.

Example: Initial research of Lazers produces Lazer d4 as a Trait that can be applied to Pistol d4, Rifle d6, Blaster d8Cannon d10, Battery d12 etc. Researching Lazers additional times can then raise its quality from d4 to d6, and so on.

Additional specialized Traits (such as Plasma, Lightning, Sonic, Atomic, Freeze, Aqua, Psi, Wraith, Glare, Oil, Puffer, Chlorine, etc. ad absurdum) can be researched just like the Lazer Trait and then built into kits as weapons, armor, aircraft, tools, etc. Aside from the colorful narrative value these Traits provide, they also prove highly effective when matched against the Limits of alien species, technology, or situations. (Limits are simply specialized Traits, like Distinctions. When an action intersects with a Limit, the player adds the level of the appropriate Trait to the roll)

Example: An aquatic alien species may have a Limit of Freeze or Dry (Dessicate/Dehydrate), while a species of swarming bugs may have the Limit Fire or Wind. While most humans and aliens alike will have the Limit Plasma, armor augmented with Ether d10 may not. Soldiers with the trait Half-Cyborg d8 may avoid Plasma, Fire, Gas, or Vacuum Limits that would cripple normal humans. It all depends on the game and the details of the aliens therein.

Think Weaknesses, Especially Those Associated with Strengths

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What all this means for GMs is that they will want to give forethought to the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the invading species. Interestingly, these vulnerabilities can be a side effect or counterpart to the invaders’ strengths or ‘secret weapon.’ For example, in original X-Com, the secret weapon was the psionic power of Ethereals and some Sectoids allowing them to control minds and instill panic. In another game the ‘secret weapon’ may be teleportation, super-speed, Cyclops-like eye beams, weather transforming technology, time dilation, spreading Zurg-like creep, Protoss-like pylons, Chryssalid-like contagious zombie-fication or parasitic reproduction, an ability to pass through walls, spawning aquatic pollution, hive mind coordination, destruction of the atsmosphere (terraforming the planet to suit their needs to the detriment of humans’), etc.

Thinking ahead about the strengths or ‘secret weapons’ of the invaders, and any weaknesses inherent in each, helps GMs know what players’ research and autopsies reveal, which, if the information is good, in turn inspires players to create some truly creative technology to fit the particular enemy they’re facing. Perhaps sonic weapons are the answer, or maybe ice grenades; or maybe a glass of water is the answer after all.

GMs Responsibility in Research

GMs are responsible for giving the players all the information they need to invent research projects that actually help their war effort. This is extremely critical to making the game fun for all parties. If the players are ever at a loss for what would be beneficial to research, either the players have done a terrible job investigating landing sites and collecting artefacts, or, more likely, the GM needs to work harder to use vivid descriptions of the aliens bodies, methods, and tactics.

On the other hand, players may suggest a research topic hypothesizing what the aliens are up to, and if it’s a particularly good idea, the GM can co-opt the hypothesis as the truth about the aliens, as if it was his plan all along; the players never need to know otherwise. Embracing this approach will help the players feel powerful and that they’re making real progress against the aliens.Furthermore, accepting their idea as reality will likely spur other research directions that players had in their minds when they suggested this particular discovery. Finally, if the GM is flexible, accepting player input like this has the powerful potential to take the game in fascinating directions that a single GM may never have imagined.

Wow, that’s an X-Com post every day this week. Next I’m very excited to re-visit and flesh out soldier management, from their generation to their death. Stay tuned!

Also, as usual, please leave comments with your first impressions, follow-up thoughts, criticisms, hang-ups, or questions about this idea of the Infinite Tech Tree. Your input will shape and improve this game as it grows!

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.
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7 Responses to X-Com RPG – Research: Embracing an Infinite Tech Tree

  1. SabastianBludd says:

    One of X-Com’s few failings was that, once you got Heavy Plasma researched, there was no reason to use any other type of rifle for the rest of the game. Sure, Sectopods are plasma resistant and laser rifles don’t need ammo, but by and large one could bumble through with Heavy Plasmas without having to think about weapon choice. With that in mind, the tech tree model you propose can not only rectify this, but it can also reinforce one of the idiosyncracies that made X-Com interesting: its different alien races.

    If you look at the aliens in X-Com, thematically it’s fairly diverse. You have: Grays, Snake Men, Floaters, Chrysalids, Cyber Discs, Sectopods, Ethereals, etc. The only thing “missing” is a reason to use anything but Heavy Plasma to kill them (except for Sectopods, yes, yes, I know), and I think the RPG can include that with little problem. Mechanics-wise I don’t know how this would work (I understand “Limits” but I don’t know how you’d incorporate “Resistances”), but a possible guideline for generating 4-6 alien races for a campaign would be to create matched “pairs” (or maybe triumvirates?) that would have opposite weaknesses and resistances. For example, an aquatic alien race might be susceptible to a an Alkali Blaster, but resistant to a Pressure Gun, while a crystalline alien might be resistant to the Alkali Blaster but susceptible to the Pressure Gun.

    If this method is used it might yield a more interesting collection of alien races while also encouraging players to explore more of the tech tree instead of concentrating on one uber-weapon at the expense of the rest.

    • atminn says:

      Now that’s what I’m talking about! Alkali blaster and Pressure weapons are awesome and I hadn’t even thought in that direction (nor crystalline aliens). I think pairing enemies’ vulnerabilities and strengths would be a good technique, making each mission unique. Also, your comment made me realize that at least one of the items on the Invasion Pool table should be the aliens researching new technology as well. That way, once you figure out to hit them with Alkali, they may develop a fitting armor and it won’t just be coasting from there. Having paired or triads of species is another way to insure this, since it’s not cool to have your great idea be negated by armor, but still, I think the aliens shouldn’t be static in their effort.

      Also, tech-fatigue is definitely what I’m looking to avoid. Any rule/idea, etc that forces player into tough but awesome decisions is what I’m going for: if they all choose the same weapon, something’s wrong. Having Technician be the role to roll for highly technical weaponry, while Soldier covers more standard weaponry is another way all players won’t stick to whatever the equivalent of ‘Heavy Plasma’ is. I’m toying with also giving Ace specialty in pistols just to encourage their use, encouraging scouts and tactics for meeting objectives other than just heavy fire. I’m unsure about that last bit though.

      Please post more of the ideas any of you think of see for unique alien types and their Limits like Sabastian just did. This is the kind of brainstorming that require crowdsourcing/collective intelligence, since the best ideas are those that ‘I would never have thought of”

      Alkali and Pressure tech, and Crystalline biology are definitely on the list now. Thanks! What else can you think of? Dark, earth, seismic, temporal, neural diffusion. I nearly want to peruse all the pokemon out there now as well as pulp villains’ unlikely superweapons, and go backwards from there, seeing what types of aliens would be vulnerable to each type. 🙂

  2. Dave Bozarth says:

    What about the Technician being the “prototype expert?” by this I mean, what if during the recovery process the 1st gen of a new tech is considered a prototype. This will add more time to the overall game, but will allow for a more hands on aspect to the research phase “fieldwork”… This also opens them up to be the “Mc Gyvers” so they can be inspired by the new tech they encounter.

    • atminn says:

      Thanks for the input Dave, now that I think about it, this game could have a decent amount in common with your Shadowrun hack.

      I like the idea of the technician on the ground being commissioned to test new technology. I plan for new projects to start as d4s and increase die size with additional research work on the same project. I have also been looking for ways for Technician-strong characters to have unique access to tech that others won’t enjoy, but so far I’ve been stumped as to a good way to do it.

      Could you elaborate on what you mean “during the recovery process”? Do you mean Technicians could pick up alien gear the first time they see it and try using it right away before it has technically been researched (with great potential for complications of course)? That could be exactly what I’m looking for…

      • Dave Bozarth says:

        oh… wow, ok yea, this could have a lot in common with my goals for the Shadowrun Hack.

        The recovery process is anytime the team has their hands on tech/materials before research has begun. So even if they have had the material sitting around for 4 in game months, but have not done any research on it due to a priority on Alien X instead of advancing Alien Y tech. Though, in particular I mean that time right after aquisition. I ran a Conspiracy X game in which there was a lot of Grey tech that the team became familiar with, but then they came across a Suarian gravity tech and it came down to activating and hoping for the best or let terrible thing happen… thats what inspiried the idea of a prototype expert.

        I might want to have some sort of talent for an intuitive alien tech understanding or maybe (depending on how far you want to deviate) a power similar to telemechanics from Rifts (Palladium RPGs).

      • atminn says:

        Ok, I get it, I hadn’t thought of the interim before Commanders take time to actually research captured gear. Research would still be needed, but a good Technician would be like an inventor, spontaneously using and combining alien and human tech, with risk of course, but less than others would have. That makes me think that a Technician/Ace could make a fascinating character concept, adding in some daring flair and bravado.

        I think Technician Talents to moderate risk of ‘hoping for the best’ would be very fitting. Maybe a matter or removing the d4s that would be stacked on top of trying to use unresearched gear?
        I’m unfamiliar with Rifts. Care to elaborate on telemechanics?

  3. Dave Bozarth says:

    Sure thing. Tele mechanics is a psychic power that allows a person to “understand” the function and operation of a machine through a psychic bond at touch range. The bond is so thorough that the character feels the machines an extension of himself. His knowledge includes the schematicsand and he can begin to even affect some repairs if materials on hand. The downside is that the knowledge is fleeting. Rifts also has a few other powers that compliments this one to operate/posses machines at a distance, meld into machines, and my fav, total recal to always remember those schematics.

    As for Technician Talents, it may be a good idea to think of tech in how alien it is from our understanding and assign a number of d4s to go with using it and also impedes the research process (ie sets the TU needed to unlock it)

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