In this series of posts, Brendan will tackle games outside of the tabletop RPG realm, dissecting them for any useful tidbits to apply to tabletop RPG design.
XCOM 2: a game of soldiers, aliens, bad calls, upsetting mistakes, a really cruel RNG (random number generator), and many, many explosions.
There’s a tactical level of squad-based combat, in which you move your soldiers around what amounts to a grid-based map, taking turns to shoot at alien monsters with your pew-pew guns. That’s the majority of the game. Outside of that, there’s a strategic level in which you manage the money of your insurgent anti-alien rebellion, research new weapons and tools, manufacture useful equipment, recruit new soldiers, build new facilities, and so on.
There’s a plot to the game, and it does guide the course of events, but it’s not too prominent. The real story of the game comes from your soldiers and what happens as you play the game. Each soldier is named, with a unique appearance, and even a randomized background. You come to care about your team as you watch them go into the fire on mission after mission. And because the game is highly procedural, you’re not guaranteed anything. You can lose your soldiers, even after many hours of development. You can even lose the whole game, if too many missions go south.
Here are some key lessons that we can take from the game, then:
The best stories are the unexpected ones. In XCOM 2, the stories you remember are the ones that happened unexpectedly. There’s something incredibly satisfying in the game when you run through a mission perfectly, killing all enemy aliens without a scratch—but honestly, you don’t remember those missions. You remember the ones where you stationed that sniper in a safe space, atop a building, only to have an alien smash through the building beneath him and collapse the whole thing, sending your sniper crashing to the ground, out of cover.
Attached to the idea of these stories being unexpected is that they’re also often bad for you, the player looking for a win. As a player hoping to win the game, you want every mission to go exactly according to plan, because your plan is to win without cost. As a player hoping to have fun, though, you want missions to be interesting and surprising, which most often means you take some hits and suffer costs along the way.
The game is powerful because it isn’t a fan of the “PCs”. XCOM 2 has a few tweaks to its core systems that help to favor the player—for example, if you miss too often, it starts to skew its random number generator in your favor, so you’ll have a better chance of your soldiers actually hitting enemies. But these are super subtle tweaks, and for the most part XCOM 2 doesn’t care one whit about the soldiers, the “PCs” of the game. It’ll kill them indiscriminately if that’s what the situation calls for; it won’t fudge dice (at least not in any obvious way), and it won’t make a softer move, and it won’t pull punches.
The appeal is similar to games often associated with the OSR—I think of stuff like Stars Without Numbers and Lamentations of the Flame Princess—because you, the player, know that your character isn’t safe. That the system itself might take them from you in a heartbeat. And that is exhilarating, and frustrating.
You can get away with “cruel” game moves more easily if you can blame them on a system. Building off the idea that XCOM 2 isn’t a fan of the PCs, you don’t feel too upset about it while you play, because you know it’s not some intelligence on the other side of the game. You know there isn’t a person, choosing this as the right time to murder your dudes. It’s just the system—the system demands the death of your dude in this instance, and it’s impartial, so you’re sad…but not angry.
A good social environment is crucial to most solid gaming. When you’re sitting a table with friends, and everyone’s into the game and trusting each other, then the GM can feel comfortable making the hard moves and pushing the characters, without anybody getting upset. But there’s still something to be said for how a game system can change that situation. It’s one thing when, within the system, your character loses their last HP or marks their last Harm, and dies. It’s another when that decision isn’t system-based, but is instead based on other factors, such as group consensus, or GM statements.
Interesting game decisions come from risks and costs. XCOM 2 has risks, and costs. A risk is when you can’t see that far into the map, and you just know aliens are out there, but you’re not sure where…so you move your soldier forward, hoping that you don’t discover aliens in the worst possible place. A cost is where you use up your single flashbang right now to make sure that all the aliens over in that corner of the map are stunned. Sometimes there’s overlap—you trigger an ability which will take 4 turns to reactivate (a clear cost), so that you can take a shot that’ll deal more damage but with a lower chance to hit (a clear risk).
It’s worth considering in any game where the risks are, where the costs are, and whether they should be separate. If you’re using up your only flashbang, paying that cost, then should it really be a risk whether or not that flashbang works? If you’re running forward into danger to get a better chance of taking out the enemy, should it ever be a full, 100% chance—doesn’t it undo the feeling of tension and danger if it is a full 100% chance? There’s no easy answer to when things should be risks, and when they should be costs, but being aware of those risks and costs and where they connect is a core component of game design.
Games become more fun when they give you cool stuff, but still make you choose between many options. This is a point specifically about the changes made to XCOM 2, in comparison to the first game in the series. The long and short of it is that the developers focused in on a lot of their interesting ideas from the first game that the player was never able to use—mostly because it cost too much to do so. For example, in the first XCOM game, you wouldn’t research specialized ammunition, because that time would be much better spent on new weapons. In XCOM 2, though, you have a separate facility to research the specialized ammunition, independently of the other research. The cost, now, is that there are other things of equal value and interest to the specialized ammunition for the players to develop in that new facility—but none of it clogs up the actual research facility, where the players can research far more valuable items.
Another core example of this is the refinement of the soldiers’ individual abilities. In both XCOM and XCOM 2, when a soldier advances, you get to choose one of two possible abilities for them to gain. In XCOM, some abilities were definitively more valuable than others. As your soldier would advance, if you chose certain abilities, you weren’t just choosing the ability you liked; you were making a mistake. There was a clear optimal choice, and it meant that the choice was actually an illusion. In XCOM 2, though, any such clearly optimal choices were either given to the soldier by default, or were balanced out against equally valuable other abilities. It’s not perfect—XCOM 2 still has some issues here, with abilities of greater utility than their counterpart—but far less so than in XCOM. Giving choices that are interesting and telling, but not optimal, makes XCOM 2 a much stronger game.
So the lesson is to have choices that are meaningful, but not clearly optimal. It’ll change the game, what can happen, and how you play to pick one set of abilities or equipment over another…but there’s no right choice. Just different choices.
So what does a game incorporating these lessons look like?
- The game needs a strong systematic and random element. Many important events in the fiction—like the death of a character—need to originate from the system itself, not from the dramatic sensibilities of the players.
- The game needs an array of interesting, equally optimal choices of abilities to allow for customization as well as the potential for surprising effects in the fiction.
- The game needs to have clear risks and costs; respectively, situations in which you are taking a chance for a better result, and situations in which you are spending a resource for a guaranteed result.
Is there a game that looks like this?
Yep! I’m sure there are others, but the one that immediately comes to my mind is 3:16 Carnage Among the Stars. It may not be surprising, considering 3:16 is on its face a game about super soldiers in space going on missions to kill aliens—not really all that dissimilar to XCOM 2’s premise.
3:16’s features cover most of the bases on the list:
- A system to determine when your character dies, based on recording damage done to them
- A system to allow the GM to randomly determine the traits of any aliens the characters encounter
- An array of possible equipment and abilities to attach to your character…
- Clear risks and costs, between the need to move your character into better positions for their equipment, and resources like flashbacks that you can spend for an immediate desired effect
And what’s more, 3:16 uses these different pieces to weave together a game that’s ultimately about far more than that face value premise. For all that it’s about soldiers killing aliens—and the system is set up to make that action interesting and fun all on its own—it’s actually also about the toll of war on the people who fight it, how it changes them for the worse, and more. (Definitely check it out for an example of solid design!)