By AntiMingebag on DeviantArt

In my 2016 in review post I mentioned a GURPS X-COM play-by-forum game which I unfortunately had to end mid-campaign that year. In this post I’ll talk about it in more detail, because even though it didn’t reach its conclusion I think a lot of things about it were great successes. Perhaps this knowledge can help others, including Future Me when I try something like this again.

The Setting

The setting was 2020 Earth, and the five-year difference was only there to give me some chronological wiggle room. The original intent was to keep everything as close to the real world as possible, other than the existence of X-COM and the alien invaders. In fact, my mapping tool of choice for outdoor action sequences were Google Maps and Google Earth!

My iteration of X-COM blends influences from several places, as you’ll see below. The Council responsible for funding it is made up of the 36 nations described at the end of this page. Its command and science staff were NPCs, but I wasn’t entirely under control of who would take which position!

At the start of the campaign, before we even made characters, I gave the players two choices for the position of Commander and three for the position of Lead Scientist. They chose a character who was basically a Big Boss expy for Commander, and an… eccentric Russian scientist named Yuri Sokolov, whose specialty was in weird science.

The other two scientist choices were Dr. Vahlen and Dr. Shen from the original game, and they stuck around as prominent NPCs despite not being the official heads of research. The other Commander choice, a British spy named Smiley, went into the cold and out of the game.

The players also got a choice of two different alien invasions, and I’ll talk about them in more detail later.

The Characters

Character Creation

Player characters were built using 250 points, and preferably a GURPS Action template. There were a few added restrictions. Highly cinematic advantages such as Gunslinger were off-limits during character creation, tough there would be opportunities to acquire them in play. Traits whose scope was limited to a specific area of the world were also disallowed, since this would be a globe-trotting campaign and they’d almost never come up. These mostly consisted of social traits such as Contacts or Enemies.

The point total was dictated by their choice of commander, since the two of them represented different popular strategies in the original games. Mr. Fox (“Big Boss”) prefers to have a few very competent soldiers with extensive robot support when that becomes available. Mr. Smiley would have gone with a large number of relatively expendable soldiers, which would have led to teams of 150-point characters and several NPC redshirts.

The other main variant rule I used was the simplified Guns skills from Pyramid #3/65, which I find a lot simpler to handle than the default spread.

The PCs

There was a bit of churn in my player and PC roster during the campaign, as is the nature of forum games, but these characters showed up the most during the entire run of the game:

  • Kendall Fairbarn: A paranoid Hacker from the UK. Was completely convinced human society had been heavily infiltrated by shape-changing aliens… and it turned out he wasn’t entirely wrong.
  • Minette Duvall: A bomb-disposal expert from Southern France, Minette is also quite handy with a rifle. She’s devoutly Catholic and swears a lot when faced with danger, which is all the time.
  • Niu Yulan (AKA Julia Yulan): A former hostage negotiatior from China, built without a template but approaching a shootier Face. Her innate kindness and empathy came in handy in several of the missions! Julia was ran by three different players during the lifetime of the campaign, which earns her a medal for Most Helpful Backup Character.
  • Jack Choi: A former police detective from Hong Kong, and a staunch adherent of the “kick down the door” school of policing despite his light frame. Also built without a template. His player dropped out of the planet near the end of the game, but not before making things interesting for the rest of the group.

We had others, but they stayed for a shorter time than the four above. Several actually never saw action as PCs, though Russian Shooter Vasily Valenkov gets another medal for always being there for his teammates even with no player to run him.

The Organization

X-COM itself was also a character! Between field assignments, players stepped out of their normal characters for a moment and moved to a “strategy” layer where they made decisions that affected the organization as a whole. Since I didn’t want to make this part too complex, it was mostly about deciding what to research next.

Each strategic phase, the group got a certain number of “research points” that depended on how well they had done in their previous mission and how well-favored by the Council X-COM was. They allocated that between several different research topics, most of which cost a single point at the time the game stopped. A topic that was fully paid for would bear fruit in the form of new technology by the time the PCs went on their next deployment.

The Enemy

As I mentioned before, I gave the group a choice of enemy to fight. I wasn’t very forthcoming with details during this particular part of the vote, of course, as the whole point of an X-COM game is that the enemy is unknown. The two were described mostly in terms of what their early signs were: Lights in the Sky and Noises in the Dark. As you can guess by the title of this post, the latter’s more mysterious nature won out in the end.

The Lights in the Sky invaders were pretty much the aliens from the original games, mostly as shown there. I would have introduced some variation, but they would still have been largely recognizable. I can’t really into more detail, as this path wasn’t chosen and thus wasn’t developed.

In retrospect, I’m really glad the players chose to go with Noises in the Dark because this meant I had the opportunity to pit X-COM against the Dreams of Ruin.

Art by Melissa Uran.

If you follow that link, you’ll arrive at a DrivethruRPG page for the book of the same name, which had come out shortly before I started the game. I backed its Kickstarter, and was dying to use it somewhere. I think this book is probably the best thing to come out of the OSR, not the least because I don’t have to use any OSR rules to run it. The good stuff is all system-agnostic and the rest is relatively easy to convert. Go download it, it’s free!

The best summary I can give about the Dreams is that they are a weaponized ecosystem that feeds on mundane evil and spreads the cosmic variety wherever it goes. Its creators in the book purposefully obscured their identity and simply let the thing loose in the multiverse, but in this campaign it was being purposefully deployed as a weapon. Instead of UFOs and sectoids, the PCs get to deal with evil fungal trees and homicidal puppets.

The identity of the author of the Dreams is left mysterious in the book (unless you have access to an obscure old edition of Deities & Demigods, I guess), but I needed slightly more concrete masters here if I wanted this to feel like X-COM. I eventually settled on something that’s a mix between the original Ethereals and the devils from the excellent Kill Six Billion Demons comic. They were beings of congealed energy whose intellect and personality was entirely provided by the masks they wore. The ones at the top of the hierarchy wore black masks, with the progression going black -> gold -> green -> red -> blue -> white. Other species these Masters had subjugated also had these masks imposed upon them.

Alien technology was largely based on magic instead of mundane engineering, as every non-human species in the setting had natural “magic circuits” in their bodies that could channel mystical energies. They used Ritual Path Magic quite extensively, with their artifacts being products of enchantment despite looking like advanced technology. The Dreams produced TL 4+5 gear for their servants, and the masters of the Dreams used TL4+7 gear.

The PCs never met anyone higher in that hierarchy than a white-mask, aside from this one rogue blue-masked alien who defected to their side in a mission and helped with research. X-COM was able to learn the basics of magic before the game ended, and use some effects in the form of the Technomagic described in GURPS Monster Hunters 5: Applied Xenology.

There was also not one but two extra factions in this war. One was a species of snake-people from Nilfheim who acted as interdimensional smugglers and drug dealers - they rode on the tails of the Dreams and preyed upon the worlds they victimized, disguising themselves as natives. So yes, Kendall was right and there were reptoid infiltrators everywhere. These took the place of the night hags from the Dreams of Ruin book.

The other secondary enemy faction was a band of mercenaries and shady operators run by Mr. Smiley, the commander they rejected at the start. He used funding from corrupt elites from Council nations who weren’t satisfied with the way that X-COM failed to cater to their interests and sought an alternative. Yes, this organization was named X-ALT.

Copyright 2013 Firaxis.

Not all of these aliens have corresponding GURPS stats, since many never appeared in the actual game, but enough have them that I could make a future post or two out of them. Stay tuned!

What Went Right

In Noises in the Dark I put to use several things I learned from previous attempts at running play-by-forum games, and tried several more. I’m happy to say several of my riskier experiments were successes!

  • Giving the players a set of campaign-shaping choices at the start worked pretty well! It made some of them a little more invested in the setting, and more importantly gave me a lot of motivation to flesh those choices out once they were made.

  • The “strategic layer” gimmick worked very well and was a very X-COM thing. Players cared about the choices they made there and they genuinely shaped future events.

  • At the same time, the tabletop format allowed for missions that were more elaborate than was possible in the computer games.

  • Google Maps/Earth as a mapping tool was simply awesome! Players had a very positive reaction to this one, as did I. It greatly enhanced the missions and quickly led us to further enhance play by seeking extra real-world information about the places in question. (“Is this a residential area? Let’s check by seeing if there are any apartments to rent around there!”).

  • The monsters were suitably spooky, and encounters with them provided great atmosphere. The group perceived their first Tree of Woe on Halloween (of 2015), which was serendipitous.

What Could Be Better (and Why It Ended)

Sadly, not everything was perfect with that game. If it was, it would still be going! So what didn’t work like I expected?

  • Overly elaborate fights don’t work so well in a GURPS play-by-forum game. I usually roll everything myself and resolve up to 3 rounds before posting, following general directions from the players. That, however, makes some setups both exhausting to resolve and, I imagine, unsatisfying to read about.

  • The “realness” offered by using Google Maps is a double-edged sword, especially for this game in particular. The Dreams of Ruin tend to flourish in sites of great natural or human disaster. The second mission was in such a place, and it already made me few slightly uneasy. By the end of 2016, I was no longer willing to mine real-world tragedy for plot hooks.

Both of the above factors contributed to sap any energy I had for keeping this game going. Rather than leaving it entirely unsolved, I ended it officially and posted all of the spoilers for the players to see. What the items in this section taught me is to keep fights relatively simple in future games, and not make them the central focus of the campaign. And to stick to fictional settings for darker storylines. I’m OK with making analogies to real-world issues in fictional settings, but outright using them as plots in a game doesn’t sit well with me.