Random Ideas

X-Com RPG Brainstorming

X-ComAlong with Adam Minnie, I’ve been thinking about what a role-playing game based on the X-Com computer games would look like.  In addition to a lot of discussion on twitter, Adam has started a series of posts on his blog which has prompted me to share more of my thoughts on the idea.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, X-Com is a classic computer game where the player takes the role of a secret international organization tasked with fighting against a growing alien threat.  The player was in charge of both management of the organization such as building bases, researching new technology, and hiring personnel as well as commanding squads of soldiers in turn-based tactical combat against the aliens.

Key Elements

In order to capture the feeling of the X-Com computer games, a role-playing game would need to contain at least some of the key elements of X-Com.

Combat against the aliens needs to be dangerous and suspenseful.  The computer game is known for its lethality and the tension is enhanced by things like reactive shooting, fog of war, soldiers panicking, and hearing the sounds of civilians dying out of sight.

Sectoid AutopsyOutside of combat, research and development was one of the most memorable features of the computer games.  At the beginning of a game, the organization was equipped with cutting edge human technology, but the technology of the alien forces easily outclassed anything X-Com could deploy.  In addition, the aliens themselves were an unknown.  In order to address those shortcomings, the player would need to research captured alien technology and interrogate prisoners.  Then once the technology was understood, X-Com was able to manufacture new equipment and weapons for use against the aliens.

The other major element to the game was the relationship between X-Com and the nations that funded it.  If UFOs and alien attacks weren’t addressed quickly near a nation, it could withdraw support from the organization and force X-Com to make due with far less funding.  In addition, soldiers in the game were given random names from around the world in order to illustrate that X-Com was an international organization.


Thinking about X-Com, I can see a couple different ways to approach a game. A game could focus on the soldiers in drop teams and feature a lot of tactical elements. I think a game like that could be well covered by several existing games, such as d20 Modern, with just a few tweaks. Another approach would be to allow players to take the role of a wider range of X-Com personnel including pilots, scientists, and engineers. In a game like that, combat would have to be more abstract, but the players would be exposed to a wider variety of the computer game’s features such as research and development of new technologies. A third approach would be to have the players take the role of X-Com’s commanders and/or directors. This approach would cover the strategic aspects of the computer game, like funding and high level personnel allocations, but I think it might be best suited to a 2-player board game rather than a role-playing game.

Adam seems to be primarily focusing on the soldiers of X-Com so far, but he has plans to address the other aspects of the game.  I think I’d try the second approach with less of a focus on the tactical aspects of combat, but giving players more exposure to other parts of the X-Com organization.

Enemy Unknown

As I mentioned above, a big part of the computer game is researching the aliens themselves in order to uncover details about their biology, plans, and weaknesses.  In order to capture that feeling in an RPG, a rules system would probably need to offer a toolbox for alien creation rather than just a collection of statistics for fixed alien species.  In one game, the aliens might be greys with horrible psychic powers that plan to take over the earth through manipulation while in the next the aliens could be cybernetic crusaders with a more overt military strategy.

Play Sequence

I think an X-Com RPG could benefit from a relatively fixed session structure that emulates the flow of the computer game.  First, the players would prepare and wait for a UFO sighting to occur.  Then, the team would react by either sending an interceptor or a squad of soldiers to combat the aliens.  Next, if the aliens were defeated, the players would salvage what they could from the battlefield.  Finally, the players could engage in research and development of new technologies, interrogate alien prisoners, or otherwise react to the outcome of the alien encounter.  Even in a game heavily focused on soldiers and the tactical elements of combat, I think incorporating abstract versions of the other phases would go a long ways towards capturing the feeling of progress in X-Com’s wider goals.


d20 ModernI haven’t gotten to the point where I’ve put together any game mechanics yet, but I think several different systems could work well depending on what scope you wanted for the game.  As I mentioned above, a system like d20 Modern could definitely work for the tactical combat aspects, but some tweaks would be needed to fully capture the right feeling.  Adam has some good ideas for mechanics based on the Cortex system used in Smallville and Leverage, and I think it’s worth watching his blog to see what else he puts together.

By Scott Boehmer

A game enthusiast and software engineer.

6 replies on “X-Com RPG Brainstorming”

Great thoughts, and good summary of game and what makes it rock. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on your considerations of scope, and I’d love to discuss that more with you. I’m focusing on soldier-level (option 1) at this point, since it’s the most like Leverage as-is, but I definitely want to include the macro-layers, since those were my favorite parts. I had been thinking lately of going the 3rd route with players as commanders and directors of the whole organization, but I’m very attracted to the 2nd route.

Is it bad that I want to combine 2 & 3, or maybe all three? 🙂 I suppose I’ll have to write about it.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and I am eager to hear more of them. I’ve found a couple people who’ve tried making d20 versions, but I believe they became to wrapped up in capturing all the math and details and lost the core. I couldn’t find their actual work, just their discussions though, so I could be wrong. You could check those out.

Thanks. I’m glad you thought the scope ideas useful. The second one is my favorite, but I’d definitely be interested in seeing how any of them play out.

Trying to match the math of the game definitely isn’t something I’d try with d20 Modern or any other system. Instead, I could see starting with d20 Modern’s core mechanics, boosting the lethality a bit, and adding mechanics for missing elements like fear and research progress.

Oh yeah, and I too agree that the enemy unknown species/tech/goals toolbox is a must for a game like this. Like the 2010-11 remake that includes bizarre aliens that are nothing like greys or snakemen, and therefore all the more terrifying, each game would only be scary to the level of unknown that can be generated. I’ll look to Leverage’s Job generation toolbox more in-depth on that in coming days.

An X-Com RPG sounds like a great idea, and I think you could do a great hybrid game with the combat being battle-grid oriented and the story elements being classic RPG, or even some sort of interesting peer-to-peer technology of the drama that goes on in the outside world while you’re fighting. I think the monthly funding readout from the world nations (where they would increase/decreases funding or join with the aliens) is a great unexplored opportunity for nato-scaled political based roleplaying which I haven’t seen done before, but if you could capture some of the elements of Civilization in that part, you’d have something very interesting.

Find me on twitter @ThickSkullAdv if you ever do any more group brainstorming on this one.

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