Illustration by AntiMingebag on DeviantArt

At this point in the campaign our PCs had completed their first assignment and brought home a ton of alien doodads, though they didn’t know much about them yet. It was time to do something about that last part, and this post will both tell you how they did it and give you a peek behind the curtain of my research system.

The Power of Science!

Research was always one of my favorite parts of any X-COM game, especially in that first playthrough where the tech tree is still a mistery. I wanted to bring the same sense of mistery and discovery to this campaign, while keeping bookkeeping to a minimum. This meant I needed an intriguing tech tree, and a simple way to walk it.

The composition of the tech tree was the easiest part: as it turns out, the Dreams of Ruin book already has a perfectly usable and quite comprehensive tree! I would need some conversion work before I could use it, but the general shape of the thing was already good.

The main conversion work lay in deciding how my version of X-COM could perform this research. The detailed descriptions in the original material are geared towards a D&D fantasy setting: a place with medieval technology but rich in magic where the greatest challenge lies in building scientific instruments precise enough to study the Dreams, each of which is a unique major artifact in its own right.

The research challenges faced by X-COM were the exact opposite of the scenario above: its scientists have an abundance of mass-produced high-precision instruments, but must discover magic from first principles over the course of the campaign in order to truly understand the threat they face. This means I would need to insert a few extra items on the research tree related to that. As pretty much all the alien technology involves some form of magic, discovering its principles is a very high priority strategic goal - the rest of the research will be severely limited until that happens.

Another important consideration was to figure out the pace of research. This is determined by your basic infrastructure, which in the original material is expressed in fantasy terms (“a single wealthy kingdom”, “all the world’s kingdoms”, “the combined might of the Nine Hells”). Each level gives you a shorter interval between possible breakthroughs, which is important because the spread of the Dreams becomes irreversible 13 years after the first trees appear. I had to decide how the X-COM project measured up in that scale.

The Noises in the Dark Research System

At the end of each field op, I would present the players with a list of research topics, drawn from the loot their PCs brought from this and previous missions, and from previous research or other story developments. Each topic would have a cost in Research Points, of which they would have an amount corresponding to X-COM’s research budget. This budget, in turn, would depend on how happy with the organization the Council nations were, just like in the computer games.

Paying for a technology in full meant it gets researched and yields it fruits before the next mission comes up. If they could only pay part of a topic’s cost, those points would remain “banked” until after the next mission.

Each of these “research phases” should represent the effort spent in one research interval, though this part didn’t end up mattering a lot in play as I never really tracked how much time passed between missions. I believe I settled internally on 1-month intervals in my head, though if we were doing this according to the Dreams of Ruin rules it should be three months for a starting X-COM (“intermediary” infrastructure).

The list after their first operation consisted of:

  • Advanced Medkits
  • Personal-Scale Combat Drones
  • Bakegumo Corpse
  • Puppet Corpse
  • Alien Guns
  • Alien Swords
  • Alien Explosives (from mines and such)
  • Black Tree Fragments

The first two items were the technologies they would have started with had they picked Vahlen or Shen as leads, respectively. The rest was from alien loot.

All of the items cost a single point, but they also had a single point to spend at the start. After some discussion, the players ended up voting for the Black Tree Fragments: the trees had really impressed them!

Strategically speaking, this was a good decision, since the Trees of Woe are one of the fundamental research topics in the original material. However, the fact that their destroyed the trees in the first mission using extreme amounts of explosive meant R&D only had a limited amount of material to work with, so I decided this topic alone wouldn’t give them the full information on the trees. It did give them a bit of data in their structure (“more like a fungus than a plant, traces of metal mixed in”), as well as giving them the goal of bringing in a proper tree sample. It also led to the researchers noticing the fragments and most alien artifacts had this weird red dust in all of their nooks and crannies, so the dust became a topic available for the next phase of research.

Soklov’s game benefit also came in handy here, as he also gave the group a more complete picture of what he termed the “Hostage Effect”, which is what the original material calls psychic numbness. No means to counter it yet, but now they know it exists and what it does.

This sort of decision is still something that causes me some worry, to be honest. Was I giving my players a good enough benefit for their choice? This was a PbP game, remember, so each mission took literally months to resolve. Research phases would be few and far between, and I didn’t want to give the group the impression they weren’t making progress. Here, opening up a new goal seems to have satisfied them, but in retrospect I should probably have given them the Red Dust information for free in addition to the other things. Knowing about the spores early on would likely have changed their perception of things quite significantly, and it’s something they never ended up voting for on their own.