The XCOM D&D Project Part 3: Missions and Research

This is part 3 in a series. To read part 2, click here. To read part 4, click here.


Welcome back to the XCOM D&D Project, my blog series where I attempt to work out how to run a game using D&D 5th Edition rules inspired by the XCOM video game series. In the last two entries I laid the groundwork for how the game would work regarding setting, core concepts, and base management. In this entry I want to look at how missions will work, from the planning and preparations phase through the wrap-up phase and everything in-between. The tactical missions of XCOM are critical to the fun of the game, and they are just as important to this game. In addition, I will look at research advancement, another key element of the XCOM franchise.

Anatomy of an XCOM 2 Mission

XCOM 2 is not my favorite XCOM game (that goes to the original UFO Defense), it is the one I’ve played most recently and the one I believe will translate best to a tabletop setting. For that reason, I will be using it as a guideline for now.

Before a mission can begin in XCOM 2, the player must first find the mission on the world map and move the Avenger (your mobile base) to the mission’s location. Then, assuming you have all the gear crafted and troops rested, you launch the mission. Before the mission launches you get a brief summary of the mission, showing the variety and numbers of enemies, and giving you one last chance to back out of the mission. When you launch a mission the first thing you do is pick which troops you are sending on the mission (up to 6 with a fully-upgraded base), as well as their gear. After that, the mission launches, and unless you are running a specific kind of mission, your soldiers begin the mission in stealth mode. Until you engage the enemy or walk within their line of sight, the enemies will not pursue or attack you. The mission timer will still usually count down during stealth, but without enemies firing at you you generally can make faster progress towards the objective than you would in a direct engagement. Inevitably your cover will be blown, and the next phase of the mission begins, the battle. Enemies will attempt to flank and suppress you, and you will have to battle your way through the enemies until you reach the objective. Enemies will usually receive reinforcements, so you can never be complacent even if you think you’ve eliminated every enemy on the map. Tactical use of cover and equipment is critical to your success in combat. Once the objective has been completed, the mission either ends or you have to reach an evacuation point. If the mission requires evacuation, then there is still a good chance of losing soldiers even after the objective has been completed. I’ve had one instance where I managed to complete the objective but then lost all of my soldiers during the evacuation. After evacuation, or upon completion of the objective, the final phase of the battle begins, the debriefing. Your soldiers return to your base, and you can see who survived, who is injured, how long the injuries will take to heal, and who has leveled up. If a soldier has leveled up, then you can choose what upgrade they gain. After that, the game shows you what loot you’ve recovered, and the mission ends.

While this will no doubt require a few tweaks, I think this is mostly a solid blueprint for how missions should work in this game. The biggest issue I had with XCOM 2’s missions is that they were almost all reactive. Besides the story missions, all the missions that you would play in XCOM 2 were reactions to an alien’s actions rather than active choices. I would prefer for this game to focus more on players taking aggressive action against the alien incursion rather than waiting around for the aliens to do something. Occasional reactive missions are fun to keep the players on their toes, but the game should be about the actions the players make, not their reactions to bad situations.

Mission Variety

The XCOM series has a large variety of mission types over its long history. Early in the series, the majority of missions were simple extermination missions, though there were a few complications thrown in every now and then. XCOM: UFO Defense had terror missions, base assault missions, and base defense missions. Terror missions added stakes to an extermination mission by including several civilians that the aliens were actively hunting. If you did not kill the aliens in time, too many civilians would die and the mission would end up hurting XCOM more than it helps. Base assault missions put you in the alien’s turf, with tight corridors and tons of strong enemies making these missions incredibly difficult. In addition to the change in location, base assault missions could be won by destroying the enemy command center rather than exterminating all the enemies (though that approach works as well). Base defense missions bring the fight to you, with aliens storming one of your bases through its hangars and entry lift. These missions can be devastating to bases built primarily for research or manufacturing, but an assault on your main base is usually a trivial threat, assuming you’re keeping up technology-wise. The biggest danger of these missions is that explosions can damage your base, completely destroying entire rooms. Later XCOM games added a greater amount of variety to missions, including missions where exterminating all enemies simply does not work. XCOM 2 has hacking missions, rescue missions, sabotage missions, and protection missions that change the objective of the mission from extermination to completing a specific task. However, in my opinion XCOM 2 focused a little too much on these missions and didn’t give players enough opportunities to just hunt aliens, so while I’ll want greater mission variety in this game than the original XCOM, I still want there to be a focus on exterminating enemies in tactical combat.

Loot and Research

I’m a sucker for research mechanics in video games. I love the feeling of slowly unlocking more and more technology and upgrades while also having a sense of mystery about what each branch in the research tree holds. The XCOM series, especially the original UFO Defense, excels at this. When you kill an alien, it leaves a corpse behind that you can loot, which in turn you can use back at your base to research new technology. Capturing aliens provides even greater opportunities for research, as the aliens can be interrogated to spill invaluable secrets. Other loot can be researched, such as alien weapons and artifacts, and certain upgrades can be researched without needing alien components at all (like the overpowered laser rifle). Some research was ultimately pointless, such as alien entertainment, but that made it all the more exciting because you knew there was always some risk involved with dedicating your research teams to a task, and you were always rewarded with some amount of lore with each completed research, so for players interested in the game’s world it wasn’t a complete waste of resources. Loot like alien weapons and technology can be used by your forces if you have researched them, providing a bigger incentive to collect dropped alien weapons. While the fiends in this game won’t have a technological advantage like the aliens do in XCOM, they will have advanced magic that can be researched, and their bodies will possess magical properties that can be discerned through research. Instead of advanced technological gear, the fiends might have magical weapons and items, or their weapons might be made of different materials, giving them different properties than the baseline weapons that the players would normally have access to.

What’s Next

I said I would cover personnel in this entry, but this one is running quite long so I will cover that in the next entry. However, I will also start to make a few mechanical decisions about the game in that one, including some possible character creation rules and ideas for character classes.

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