YAOSC: Opposition Tracks

Setting sail from Alexandria

Once again, I was reading someone else’s thoughts on tabletop RPGs when I was inspired to riff on one of the ideas to my own ends. In this case, it was Justin Alexander’s “Stealthy Thoughts,” and the part that caught my notice was the idea of lifting stealth out of a binary all-or-nothing state into a stepped state. He uses three states: Hidden, Detected, and Revealed. My first response was that I’d bump that up to four:

  • Unknown (observer is unaware of the stealthy character’s presence)
  • Suspected (observer has an idea that someone or something is nearby, but that’s all)
  • Known (observer is confident that someone is there in a general location/direction)
  • Found (observer knows where their target is)

Using YAOSC rules, stealth encounters would be resolved with skill challenges. Each degree of success on the observer’s part would move the stealth state from Unknown toward Found by one step, while degrees of success beyond the first would allow the stealthy character to cover their traces and move back in the other direction. (The first degree would simply maintain their current level; but them’s the breaks.)

Example: a scout has made a noise that alerted a nearby guard. The GM rules that the noise sounds like it could have come from an animal, so the scout’s alert state is raised to Suspected rather than Known, but now the guard is actively scanning for intruders, and it’s time for a challenge roll. The scout gets a 20, while the guard gets an 8, and the scout is able to shift their state back to Unknown by holding still until the guard relaxes. If they had only rolled a 12 (only one degree of success), they would have shifted, coughed faintly, or otherwise left the guard in a state of suspicion while remaining unseen. If they had rolled less than an 8, they would have moved enough,or made a sound loud enough, for the guard to become certain of their presence and begin zeroing in on their position.

From sneaking to fighting

Alexander also mentions that he’d extended the paradigm to other situations; in this case the way my mind went was using the same concept for combat. Note that I’m not talking about restructuring hit points here; I’m talking about partially divorcing combat results from hit points, because in the real world most combat-as-such (as opposed to, say, the act of a predator hunting prey) is designed by evolution to end in surrender rather than death. So, we’d have something like this:

  • Ready (100% up to a fight)
  • Pressed (starting to feel some pressure)
  • Disadvantaged (definitely going downhill)
  • Overwhelmed (just about ready to give up)
  • Defeated (not willing or able to fight any longer)

I envision the steps of this “opposition track” as representing an abstract mixture of the character’s available resources, positioning, stamina, and morale. If you whittle your opponent down to “Defeated,” maybe you disarmed them, backed them up to a cliff-edge, wore them down to exhaustion, or simply batted them around until they gave up in despair, or even a combination of the above. Narrating the details together can be part of the fun.

I like this idea a lot, and it would be nice to be able to use it in YAOSC, but I’d also rather avoid the complexity of a combat system that tracks abstract “readiness” on top of the D&D-style mutual whittling away of survival meters that’s already in place. The question of how I could integrate opposition tracks without things getting messy has stumped me every time I think about it for months.

From fighting to… a different way of fighting

Aside: Obviously, the idea of an opposition track is portable to a wide variety of situations, and the details can be adjusted to suit. (For example, you may have noticed that my example above had five steps instead of the four I suggested for stealth.) In its most general form, the format can be used to describe any changing situation. Even binary states are just tracks with only two entries. By this point, I’m left with the feeling that I’m just recreating and renaming the idea of “clocks” from the “Powered by the Apocalypse” family of RPGs.

But just now, I was re-reading this post about contests of will, and that’s when an answer to my dilemma suggested itself: instead of replacing or being layered over HP depletion for mortal-stakes combat, YAOSC can use opposition meters to describe nonlethal combat, contests of will, or any other situation where two forces are opposing each other in pursuit of opposed end states instead of attempting to deplete each other’s HP or other mechanical resources.

Nonlethal combat

In lethal combat you choose a skill to attack with, and either check it against the target’s passive defense, or roll a challenge against their chosen active defense. If you succeed, you roll your weapon’s damage and/or apply any other effects based on the skills chosen, the degrees of success scored, and relevant in-world factors. The damage inflicted is added up until it exceeds the the target’s HP meter and they fall down; meanwhile, they’re trying to do the same to you.

For nonlethal combat, you instead set up an opposition track. Start with an equal number of spaces (let’s say three, for a default?) on each side – in other words, expand the combat track above to something like this:

  • (Side A is defeated)
  • Side A is overwhelmed
  • Side A is disadvantaged
  • Side A is pressed
  • ~ Both sides are evenly matched ~ ◀ START HERE
  • Side B is pressed
  • Side B is disadvantaged
  • Side B is overwhelmed
  • (Side B is defeated)

Then you roll skill checks and challenges as usual until one side is defeated and stops. But instead of the specific effects and HP depletion of lethal combat, each degree of success that you score moves the track one space closer to your victory and the other side’s defeat. (As always, the mechanics should be coupled to the narrative: All players should be describing the in-world manifestations of their rolls, and the GM should be giving bonuses or penalties, when and as appropriate, to reflect the in-world situation.)

Variations on a theme

If you want to spice up the track a little bit, here are some things you can do:

  • Adjust the number of steps from start to defeat, depending on how long you think the struggle should continue.
  • Allow each side to add the modifier from a chosen ability score to their side, between “overwhelmed” and “defeated.” Call it “hanging on through sheer ~.” Characters who would otherwise be defeated may be able to hang on a little longer through sheer guts (Con), cleverness (Int), force of will (Pre), and so on.
  • Add a “death spiral” by having each step taken toward defeat apply a penalty to further rolls. The penalty might be anything from a mere -1 at the “overwhelmed” (or “hanging on”) step, to a cumulative.
  • If you want to get really wild, try a third (or more!):

For three or more sides participating in one conflict at the same time, you need to split up the tracks; go back to a track that ranges from “ready” to “defeated” for each side taking part. (If you want, you can add another space or two in a better position than “ready,” and call it “advantaged” or “upper hand” or the like.) Everybody takes turns taking actions and making rolls as usual. The only difference is that where a two-side opposition track means that one side’s loss is the other’s gain, here you have to choose. Each degree of success that you score in a roll can either move your target a step toward defeat, or move you one step away from defeat. This reflects the difficulty of pressing one of your opponents without also becoming vulnerable to the other.

  • Finally, there is one situation in which the nonlethal opposition track can overlap with HP-depletion combat: when one side is fighting to kill, but the other side is only fighting to subdue.

In this case, set up and use your track as normal… but based on the action narrated and the skills and equipment in play, each side can choose to use its successes to either shift their position on the opposition track, or inflict HP damage and other effects.

  • The grappler’s rule: the main problem for the side trying to cause lethal harm is that, if they are lower on the scale than “ready,” they’re limited to weapons that can actually be brought to bear.

Example: A grappler is facing off against a spearman. If the spearman is “ready,” they can jab at the grappler for real damage. But if the grappler succeeds on a challenge and the spearman is “pressed,” then the opponent is inside the spear’s distance and the weapon becomes more or less useless. The spearman must either use their rolls to regain a good distance (return to a “ready” or better state on the opposition track without focusing on causing harm) or abandon the spear and switch to a close-range weapon such as a dagger.

A more abstracted battlefield

This brings us back to contests of will and “turning undead.” As above, set up your opposition track, make rolls, and move along the track according to degrees of success scored while narrating the in-world action as appropriate.

Depending on the situation, various skills may be brought to bear: if you frame a courtroom drama as a contest of wills, perhaps each side will be rolling Profession: Lawyer, while two wizards facing each other down may use Concentration or even Gnosis. When no skill seems especially appropriate, the default tool for resolving contests of will should be Pre challenges.

As I discussed here (same link as above), I feel like contests of wills with a supernatural element should carry extra stakes. While a normal sports-duel or staring match can be called off at any moment, a psychic battle against a magician or sentient undead requires a Psychic save to escape, and the winner may inflict magical effects on the loser. For magicians, the default is to impose the effect of any spell known by either contestant; against undead, the default is the ability to make a simple command that must be obeyed. This should also be the default rule used by cursed swords, angry ghosts, and the like if they want to possess the body of a living character.

(While I’ve moved away from the previous post’s emphasis on strain, there might still be a part for the Stability meter to play in this. I haven’t discussed this yet, but I envision some aspects of physical combat leading to a buildup of fatigue, meaning warriors would need to keep their Endurance meters in mind whether a given combat is lethal or not.

Similarly, I imagine that some aspects of a contest of wills could inflict strain – whether as a cost of certain “moves,” or whether as psychic harm, similarly to how nonlethal combat can still be met with lethal intent, as described above. We’ll see how that goes as YAOSC continues to take shape.)

In summary

In YAOSC, opposition tracks are a tool for measuring the course of an abstracted conflict that is decided by relative advantage rather than by the amount of harm inflicted or some other mechanically-concrete effect. The GM should determine the parameters of the track, after which each side in the conflict makes rolls and uses its degrees of success to, essentially, push any and all opponents off of the track. Details such as the skills or attributes used, or the consequences of defeat, depend on the situation within the gameworld.

Uses for opposition tracks include: nonlethal combat, legal or political struggles, financial negotiations, social face-offs, arcane battles of pure willpower, and psychic struggles against supernatural forces.

About Confanity

I love the written word more than anything else I've had the chance to work with. I'm back in the States from Japan for grad school, but still studying Japanese with the hope of becoming a translator -- or writer, or even teacher -- as long as it's something language-related.
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