War in RPGs

Playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown has helped solidify some thoughts that have been kicking around my head since Forge Midwest in April. While I was up in Madison, I was lucky enough to playtest Souls of Steel by Dana Fried and Elle Addison, both of I Podcast Magic MissileSouls of Steel is an ace pilot military drama game that draws inspiration from Battlestar Galactica, Top Gun, and various anime. It’s a powered by the Apocalypse game with some really clever takes on what a playbook means. I enjoyed the game quite a bit and I can’t wait to see it get refined further; it also taught me some things about how I don’t GM hard enough but that’s an aside.

Souls of Steel got me thinking about the drama in conflicts and how they can be zoomed in and out for different narrative focus and punch. My thought was that a military game – where the players are sent on missions but the big emotional conflicts happen back at base – could be zoomed out to a more squad-like tactical set of moves. The drama in a mission isn’t whether my character makes a particular shot or not. The drama comes from whether we succeed in the mission and what the mission costs the squad members, the unit, and the war effort as a whole.

XCOM ties into this as a computer game that is a squad-based turn-based tactical shooter with individual actions. And I think computers do that really well! Move Kira here, fire on the Sectoid. Send Bashir to the flank and lay down covering fire. Martok goes up the middle and double taps the hoverdisk at close range. Each action I take as a player directs my squad toward the stated objectives of the mission. This is the sort of thing that narrative-heavy role playing games don’t do well. Miniatures games also work well here but they’re a very, very different sort of game from RPGs.

And I’ve been role playing the hell out of XCOM as a [Starfleet] commander. My squaddies have almost no personality – a few pre-programmed quips that trigger on actions: “Rack-tap-bang” when they reload; “X-ray neutralized” when they kill and alien; or “Negative damage” when they miss. So I’ve been thinking about what drove me into role playing in XCOM so heavily and how I could get that investment into an RPG. Role playing in XCOM comes from the investment I have in my squad – naming them, planning their advancement, and giving them call signs really creates an emotional investment for me. The other half, how do I translate this to an RPG took some more thought.


Zooming Out

Rather than having moves about personal actions maybe moves would reflect goals and objectives. The moves I brainstorm here are more focused on a unit of ground pounders or mechs rather than pilots. I believe pilots would need a different set of moves because of the nature of their warfare options – they don’t exactly hold a line and bombing runs would need a move, for example.

  • The characters Advance to move through the combat zone.
  • Some missions may require the squad to Take an Objective like a fortified position, a VIP, or some valuable materiel.
  • The most violent action is to Engage the Enemy but it has little mission utility. It might however buy the squad some breathing room without having to fall back.
  • They can Hold the Line when facing a counter-assault, waiting for extraction, or after an objective has been acquired.
  • Reconnoiter may be needed to gather intel before the mission can move forward.
  • If the mission goes south, the squad may need to Fall Back to avoid getting pinned down or to avoid an insurmountable enemy force.
  • Lastly, the Call for Evac move lets the squad get to safety, either at the end of the mission or while under fire.

Some of these share things in common with existing moves from various games powered by the Apocalypse but I think the fiction behind them differentiates what the move does and how it’s triggered. Take an Objective seems like Seize by Force at first blush but it’s not about getting in someone’s face and claiming something as your own. It’s about carving out an area of control in an intense field. Similarly Hold the Line is less about holding steady or acting under fire and is more about keeping the enemy at bay. A Reconnoiter is partially a Discern Realities move but also partially some sort of stealth – it’s about gaining and controlling intelligence.

The list above isn’t exhaustive – it’s just a preliminary brainstorm from my uninformed ideas of how military operations are executed.

GM Moves

While the player moves get zoomed out like this, the GM moves will largely remain the same. As a generic example, if a player blows an Advance roll the GM can use that to describe future badness. Characters can be take harm from a lot of the moves but I think most of the hard moves will focus on taking resources, failing objectives, and creating blowback once the squad gets back to base. Again, the drama we’re going for isn’t about the individual combats but what it costs to succeed and what happens in the military culture we create at the table. That said, I think one of the most interesting ways to inflict harm would be to harm another character- you don’t lay down covering fire or aren’t covering your arc and one of your teammates gets hit as a result. How’s that look when you’re back at base?

Rather than having the players all be part of the same squad the game might even put them each in charge of a squad. The PCs are the Lieutenants and Captains and they each have a squad serving under them. That way when harm gets inflicted the GM can start scratching off squaddies without removing a player from the game. This also puts an interesting twist what moves in combat mean. They become the orders given by the officers and those orders might get people killed. Which plays into the blowback at base vibe we’re going for in this hypothetical game I find myself designing much more fully than intended in this once-short blog post.


So. GM moves in combat become about generating drama back at base. How do you deal with a failed mission? What happens when you get your squad killed? How badly do you fight with another PC when they didn’t get to their objective in time and you suffered losses? This fits the way powered by the Apocalypse games work and also gives us a nice framework for drama generation and drama execution in separate phases of the game.

Scene Framing

Zooming the moves out like this would require rethinking how combat is handled. The moves listed above assume that the players have an objective that needs taking. Mission parameters would need to be set before each mission.

Anyone who plays turn-based tactical video games has seen this done a dozen different ways: the commanding officer gives a mission briefing, central command gives orders over the comms in medias res, or it could even be the highest ranking character’s player who gets to outline the mission. The biggest point is that each mission should have a goal. In this sense a game zoomed out to tactical moves is more directed than combat in other games.

I do think that the GM should avoid creating a plan of action, calling for specific moves to be made in a specific order, because that violates the principle of playing to find out. It also takes away the agency of the players – not necessarily a bad thing if a theme of your game is that soldiers follow orders but that’s probably not a good theme for a powered by the Apocalypse game.

Narrative Punch

Will this provide the narrative punch I’m looking for? I don’t know but I’d sure like to give it a try. Feedback and discussion is appreciated.

About PK

PK Sullivan is a game designer and writer living in Chicago.
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6 Responses to War in RPGs

  1. Pingback: War in RPGs | I Podcast Magic Missile

  2. Dana says:

    My co-author Elle Addison can be found here: https://plus.google.com/u/0/102423771918263079078

  3. Ben Woerner says:

    Very cool. I think Take an Objective and Reconnoiter might cover the needs of the Advance move unless the Objective is a few very specific locations in the mission. I know from playing XCom I either took a location to hold it by force (Took an Objective) or I’d send a squaddie forward to check on enemy locations and fall back if there was heavy enemy presence (Reconnoiter). What do you think?

    • PK says:

      My thinking was a bit different. Take an Objective is literally about taking things – a VIP, the high ground, an area of control, objective materiel, etc. It’s very goal oriented (which includes blowing an objective and humping the mission if you roll poorly). I kind of see Take an Objective as the stage markers in a mission. When you successfully Take an Objective the mission advances to a new stage of some sort. Kind of like the half-way markers in Donkey Kong Country. Once you grab an enemy general (if the mission is snatch & grab) with a Take an Objective move, you’re not done. You still need to get to an LZ and pop smoke – which might be a few moves away.

      Reconnoiter is about managing intelligence. It’s not just knowing something about the opposition’s deployment or forces, it’s about keeping them from knowing what you know.

      Advance would be moving through the theatre – it’s about changing position, clearing areas, and changing the fictional position in the game. Where you Take an Objective to click a stage, you would Advance to clear a room, cover open ground, or just put distance behind you.

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