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. For the last three entries I have spent my time working on ideas and explaining how the XCOM series works, primarily to give myself the chance to refresh and brainstorm on how it could be turned into a tabletop experience. This entry is the final entry meant solely for ideas; next time I will begin formulating rules. The last big element of XCOM that has yet to be addressed is the personnel, and in particular the soldiers.
The Evolution of Soldiers in XCOM
Soldiers in XCOM have undergone tremendous change as the series changed. In the first XCOM game, UFO Defense, soldiers were highly randomized, with several attributes that varied greatly from soldier to soldier. There were ways to increase a soldier’s stats over time, but the sad truth of the game was that some soldier were just better than others and always would be. Because of this, you would pick out your best soldiers and do everything you could to protect them, even if it means sacrificing several weaker soldiers. Soldiers were expendable in this game, and on harder missions it was expected to sacrifice a significant portion of your team to accomplish your goal. This was offset by the fact that you could bring large numbers of soldiers on a mission, but this just served to increase the body count. I’ll be honest, I’ve never played Terror from the Deep or Apocalypse, but from what I understand the soldiers are largely the same in both of those titles. Then, in Firaxis’ reboot of the series, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, soldiers received a massive overhaul. Instead of variable stats, soldiers begin with the same set of stats. However, instead of gradually increasing individual stats through experience, soldiers would rank up, earning a specialization that determines their stats and unique abilities that only soldiers with that specialization can use. This lends the game a strong RPG feel, with each specialization feeling like a class. Because the improvements are so powerful, this leads to soldiers being less expendable, to the point that many players “save scum” whenever a soldier dies in order to prevent any of their favorite soldiers from dying. The death of a high-ranking soldier can cripple a game, so most people choose to cheat rather than deal with the consequences of their failure. This largely remains the same in XCOM 2, though resources are much more scarce in XCOM 2, so the loss of a soldier is felt more harshly.
What Works for Tabletop
With that out of the way, I have to figure out what elements of the soldiers work for tabletop. The “class” system of newer XCOM games seems like a natural fit for a tabletop RPG, but at the same time I feel like weaker, more expendable soldiers makes for more dramatic combat. However, weaker soldiers really only works in large numbers (trust me, I’ve tried plenty of XCOM mods that fail because they severely limit the number of soldiers you can bring on a mission), and it’s not reasonable to expect players to run three or four soldiers a person just to make that work. Limiting it to one soldier per player, each with a reasonable level of power, seems like the best option. I want to keep the “class” system, though they will be adjusted to fit the flavor of a fantasy setting. Existing D&D classes would be too powerful for the kind of game this needs to be, but they can be used as a base and then tweaked. More ranged options should be provided if I want to fit the feel of XCOM. Since this is a tabletop game, the players can’t cheat to get back a soldier, but perhaps there could be a way to resurrect dead soldiers to reflect the fantasy setting. If so, this option should be prohibitively expensive to ensure that mistakes have serious consequences.
The other personnel in the XCOM series have remained consistent in terms of what they are, but have drastically changed in what they do. Researchers in the original XCOM could be individually assigned to a research project, or assigned as a group. This remained largely the same in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, though it became more difficult to acquire scientists in this game. In XCOM 2, scientists merely provide a modifier to the time it takes to research something, allowing you to research things faster the more scientists you have, with diminishing returns for each additional scientist. Engineers in the original XCOM worked like scientists, but instead of researching new technology, built items that had already been researched. In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, they became more difficult to acquire, and a minimum number of engineers were required to build certain projects. In XCOM 2, they were radically redesigned, where they essentially served as a type of currency you used to maintain your buildings and expand your building space. I’m not entirely sure how these elements will translate to tabletop. Research is a critical component of an XCOM game, so it needs to be a component of the game one way or the other. Perhaps engineers could be reskinned as alchemists or enchanters to give them a more fantastical feel.
Next I take the first steps into designing the actual mechanics of the game. I think character creation will be the cornerstone of how I proceed from there, so unless something changes my mind I will come up with at least the basics of character creation, if not more. Game design is a messy process, so depending on where this takes me I might actually end up working on a completely different element entirely, so I won’t make any promises other than I’ll be back with an update.