Oh now be honest, Captain, warrior to warrior. You do prefer it this way, don’t you? As it was meant to be?Chang
Opposed Tasks Make for Tough Choices
In some TTRPGs, the GM never rolls dice. If a player takes an action against a non-player character, their success or failure is determined exclusively by their own roll against an assigned Difficulty or other target number.
In others, like Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder, the GM rolls dice for monsters and NPCs, including at times to “defend” themselves. Often, the GM is simply carrying-out the game rules using the NPC’s stats, such as performing a “Saving Throw” with fixed parameters. It’s not personal, it’s just business. At some tables, the GM might fudge dice to insist upon an outcome, but this may be a power rarely exercised, if at all.
In Star Trek Adventures, like other 2d20 games, the GM’s own agency comes into play on every single NPC roll. This is especially poignant on Opposed Tasks, in which the GM’s choices to buy dice can greatly affect the true Difficulty a player faces. When you buy 3 extra dice with Threat, and then the bad things happen, to quote Peter Parker: “they happen because of you.”
As 2d20 GMs who root for our player characters to prevail, and do not see Threat as an “adversarial” mechanic, how hard should we go when Opposing player Tasks? How can we best serve the story and the players?
It’s a case-by-case thing, but below are some ideas for moves you can make to achieve a desired flavor in different scenarios. Each differs in the amount and manner of Threat spends, and roughly breaks down to these options:
• the bare minimum
• enough to put it in play
• enough to overwhelm
Each of these options has an appropriate time and place, and each can deliver a variety of story and character beats.
How Opposed Tasks Work
In an Opposed Task, the active participant rolls a regular Task (with an appropriate Attribute, Discipline, and Difficulty assigned, with the potential to use Focuses, Talents, and Determination), and then an opposing reactive character rolls their own. The opposition may utilize a different Attribute and Discipline – they may even have a different Difficulty – but the outcomes of the two Tasks are then compared. The primary actor wins the contest if:
• they succeed and the opposition fails, or
• they both succeed, and the primary scores equal or more Momentum (excess successes)
When to use an Opposed Task? The rules call for them in various cases, notably for any Melee attack. But they’re not limited to physical violence. Two engineers vying for control of a computer system, two advocates arguing in front of a jury, a friendly racquetball game, and many other situations provide good fodder for this mechanic.
When an Opposed Task comes into play, the GM must choose whether & how many extra dice to buy (by spending Threat), which can greatly tip the outcome.
When Should You Declare and Roll?
Star Trek Adventures’ rules are very clear about how to compare active and reactive rolls in an Opposed Task, but leave more room for interpretation as to when each participant should declare their spend and roll to determine the outcome. Through chatting with players and the game authors, I’ve learned of many different ways to resolve this. No single approach has universal adoption, though one approach has been endorsed by later games which also use the 2d20 system. I’ll describe each below.
“Active declares and rolls, then reactive”
This style takes a “chronological’ or “upstream-to-downstream” approach:
- The active player buys dice and rolls against their initial Difficulty (e.g. 1 for a Melee Attack)
- Assuming the active succeeds, the reactive character than buys dice and rolls to resist it
This approach favors the reactive character, letting them tailor their spend to counteract the active’s actual success. It leaves the active character in the dark as to how hard the reactive player will push back, encouraging them to go for broke in case they meet stiff resistance. When the GM is the reactive, this might seem to put players at an unfair disadvantage. When the players are the reactive, they then benefit from this advantage.
“Reactive declares and rolls, then active”
In this approach, the reactive character rolls first, effectively determining the active character’s true Difficulty to succeed at their intent.
This approach may seem to favor the active player by letting them know their true Difficulty. They can then tailor their spend to overcome this Difficulty, avoiding low-balling or overkill. When the GM is the reactive, this approach thus favors the players – e.g. on their attacks. When the player is reactive, this approach might skew towards favoring the GM. Note that having declared an Opposed Task, an active character might still be surprised to discover the high or low amount of resistance offered by the reactive, even though they still have a chance to skillfully overcome it.
This approach is officially documented in the Dune: Adventures in the Imperium rulebook, published after Star Trek Adventures.
“GM declares and rolls, then player”
One variant suggested by a Modiphius representative would have the GM declare and roll first, regardless of whether they were playing the active or reactive participant in the Opposed Task. This way, whether active or reactive, the player knows the true Difficulty they must overcome and has the final word on how much to spend to do so.
In addition to the informed consent this gives to the player, this helps resolve an issue regarding the timing of Threat spends. In some of the variants above including the Dune variant, the player might declare their spends and roll before the GM rolls. This means the player might choose to buy dice by creating Threat – only to have the GM then spend that Threat to buy dice against the player. This may not be of concern – the Threat pool may already be sufficient to buy dice without the new Threat, or the use of the new Threat might be seen as an appropriate dramatic risk taken by the player character. But if this is of concern to you, placing the GM first in the Opposed Task eliminates this confusion.
“Active and reactive declare, then roll”
Another variant I’ve encountered would have both participants declare their spends, but save the rolls until this has been decided. This creates some transparency while leaving the true Difficulty obscure to both parties (since it would only be determined by the actual reactive roll).
Yet another suggested variant would have the GM decide their spend first, but keep it secret, and commit to spending only that much. For example, if an NPC attacked a player character, the GM might decide in advance only to spend 1 die without telling the player. If the player then chose to resist with 3 dice, the GM would stick to their original intent and not spend extra to counteract the player’s resistance.
When I first wrote this article, I was using the “active declares and rolls, then reactive.” In the ensuing discussion about other 2d20 games, I am planning to change my approach to the Dune-endorsed “reactive declares and rolls, then active.”
Whichever approach you choose, you will need to decide how many dice to buy with Threat when Opposing your players’ Tasks. Below are some ways to think about low vs. high Threat spends.
“Resistance is Futile” (the Bare Minimum)
A solid, default option is not to spend Threat at all. This might seem like a feeble option, but it can deliver a good feel even if it cannot possibly succeed against the player’s roll.
You may find yourself not wanting to put up a fight. You may be low on Threat. It may make sense for the story for the player to prevail at this moment. They may have fought hard for this footing: reducing the Difficulty of their Task through Advantages, or spending high to overwhelm the opposition.
In any case, it can be fun to narrate how your NPC fares with no extra help. Do they go right down, their two dice coming up with nothing? Do they generate a little success, bleeding off the excess Momentum the player had earned? Perhaps they deliver some final insult, spitting their last breath in the face of the hero? Or what if, despite the odds, your feeble 2d20 rolls two 1s, generating 4 successes even for an NPC with no applicable Focus, and prevails over the player? This would be an unexpected and thrilling turn of events.
“Balance of Terror” (Enough to Put it in Play)
Above the bare minimum, you might spend a Threat or three to put the outcome seriously in play.
Exactly how many dice should you spend? You’ll have to learn this by feel. You may not know how much the player will spend, whether they’ll spend Determination for a critical success, and certainly how the remaining dice will roll. But you may not need to think too hard about the odds: you can instead think through the possibilities.
If you roll 2d20, you can only get 4 successes (through two crits). If you buy a third? 6. And a fourth: 8. These may be very rare possibilities, but it can be a good way to think about what you’re putting the player up against. If your NPC has applicable Focuses, a high Discipline, and some relevant Talents or Special Rules, the chance of a higher Difficulty goes up.
If your NPC is under-powered, it might feel painful to spend your Threat on such an unlikely chance of raising the Difficulty. But there’s a reason to consider throwing down Threat even against poor odds. Spending Threat in the right way can be a reward to players, since that Threat is thus eliminated.
Without a Threat spend, the player might, for example, score a hit, cause an Injury, and earn 1 Momentum. But with a Threat spend, the player might do all of the above, and extinguish 3 Threat in the process. In such a case, the player’s action was so powerful, it ensured that the game world was a safer place for all the heroes for the rest of the adventure. That can be a cool flourish to deliver to a player. Maybe the player hasn’t had the spotlight in a while. Maybe their action is particularly clever or character-appropriate. You can heap-on the benefits by spending Threat on a “hail Mary,” and then reinforcing it. “You didn’t just knock out the Borg drone; you knocked out three Threat!”
“Let Slip the Dogs of War” (Enough to Overwhelm)
Finally, in some situations you have the option to practically insist that the player’s Task fails. This will often require 6 Threat, buying 3 dice to Oppose the player’s roll.
But what if I told you…that you can spend even more Threat than that? The right NPC may well allow you to spend 8 Threat. But that’s not the end: it’s possible you might even spend 10 Threat to Oppose a roll, or even more.
Let me explain.
As with all Tasks, an un-assisted NPC has a limit of 3 extra dice they can buy (worth 6 Threat). But if the NPC has a relevant Value, they can spend more. This won’t work for run-of-the-mill Minor NPCs, but Notable and Major NPCs can have Values, and can use them to get the effects of a point of Determination by spending 3 Threat. Thus, you can spend the following:
• 3 Threat for the first extra die, gaining an automatic critical success from the NPC’s Value
• 2 Threat for the second extra die
• 3 Threat for the final, third extra
You don’t need to roll the die that gets the critical success. You would thus roll a total of 4d20 to determine the results of the remaining dice. Combined with the critical success, and any relevant Focuses and Talents, your NPC might get a couple more crits and really raise that bar.
So we’re up to 8 Threat, but where am I getting 10? The GM can spend 2 Threat at any time to introduce a Complication. This Complication might reduce the Difficulty of an NPC’s roll, effectively delivering 1 more success to your NPC from the same roll. Technically, you can buy as many Complications as you can afford, but let’s just consider one here, since the base Difficulty you’re starting from is often 1.
10 Threat…critical success…Complications…this is getting pretty scary for our heroes. What happened to not using Threat as an “adversarial” mechanic? Why would we do this to the players and their characters whom we ultimately want to see succeed?
I don’t recommend using this “nuclear option” often, but there are times when it can provide fun for everybody. You might want to avoid doing this on Tasks that are dear to the players’ intentions, or that build on their hard-won progress and plans. Instead, it might be fun to deliver such overwhelming opposition to offhand, “run-of-the-mill” Tasks. Often the first punch thrown in a fight, or the first action taken in a crisis situation, can feel tentative anyway. Leaning-in on the Opposition in these cases can really raise the stakes and set an exciting tone for the resulting Conflict. In Combat, it may help to be aware of whether the player character can Avoid Injury – this way, they can blunt or redirect the effects of this action, while it still serves its purpose to ratchet-up the tension. Making a “power move” like this can help drive home the power of the mechanics, giving the players new ideas for future actions of their own. And as observed above, spending a ton of Threat is a way of letting villains “shoot their shot,” depleting them of their potential and ultimately enabling the characters to prevail.
Here’s an example of how such an overwhelming action could serve the whole table.
The XO, Chief Engineer, and Security Officer beam onto the Orion pirate’s bridge with moments left to stop the stellar disruptor device. The XO barks orders: “Chief, find the terminal and shut down the initiation sequence!”
“Affirmative, sir,” she replies, “but odds are 123 to 1 I’ll be shot by disruptor fire in the process.” The XO decides to draw fire, performing an Unarmed Strike at the pirate Captain.
The GM declares the pirate Captain’s opposition – and goes hard. 3 Threat spent for a critical success using the Captain’s Value The Federation Will Pay. 5 more Threat for two more dice. Just before she rolls, she announces the kicker: “I’m spending 2 Threat for a Complication: Advance Warning.” “Captain, behind you!” shouts a minion, lowering his Difficulty to Oppose to 0.
The pirate Captain has 2 successes from his critical success already, then rolls 3 more successes from his 4 dice. With the Complication pulling his own Difficulty down, the resulting Difficulty for the player is a whopping 5. The XO’s player folds, deciding not to throw away Momentum on such difficult odds. The XO takes the damage, and the GM spends even more Threat to force an Injury.
Has the GM been adversarial? Look closer: the XO’s strategy worked. Even as he goes down, his Turn has depleted the GM’s Threat pool by 10 or more points. There is a much smaller chance that the pirates can repel the players on their next Turns. The XO has various options for staying in the fight: he might Avoid Injury by accepting a Broken Arm Complication, sticking around to draw away the enemy’s Turns. Meanwhile, the Chief Engineer dashes to the terminal and successfully disarms the device, thanks to the XO’s sacrifice. The GM’s all-out insistence on bringing the player down was done in service of the drama, characters, and story.
I hope this has given you a feel for your options when you’re called upon to make tough choices about resisting your players’ Tasks, and how to use Threat skillfully to serve the whole table in the tricky process of Opposing your players’ Tasks.
Yet, another fantastic article, Josh!!!! You do your homework, that’s for sure.
Great article. I actually think a bidding system might be good to really raise tension. Basically the attacker spends, defender spends, and a few go rounds until everyone’s satisfied.
I totally agree, though, understanding Threat is key. It’s how consequences of PCs’ actions are manifest. The GM needs to spend it and should use it at opportune times. Likewise, players should not fear taking Threat all the time. That starves the game of tension.