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The Situations

Fiction is full of moments when instead of facing an enemy head-on in an open Conflict, an attacker prefers a sneaky approach that, if fully successful, bypasses combat. Whether it's Léon sneaking from the floor below and suddenly pulling the ambushed gangster down the stairwell to his death, or Agent 47 sedating the target's Very Combat Capable bodyguard, or a dangerous assassin getting taken out by a bomb under the bonnet, or a sniper aiming for a one shot one kill, the unifying characteristic of all these situations is that the attacker goes through some additional preparation in order to bypass the conflict (and often also remain undetected in the process, thus not alerting other opponents).

But while Conflicts seem like a situation for which the game-mechanical support is pretty solid and transparent, assassinations and sentry removals seem to mostly fall either under invoking an Ambush Aspect of some sort (which is likely to only slightly tip the scales into the assassin's favour against comparable foes), or some sort of homebrew mechanics (or at least a very distant extension of RAW mechanics that borders on homebrew). Fair enough, it's not the first case when the best practices of doing something with the system fall outside the boundaries of canonical text, and within the area of veterans' experience.

I must admit that this question is partially inspired by succeeding in a one-shot takeout in a session yesterday, but it is exactly the conditions and unlikeliness of said success that prompted me to take a closer look at improving the handling of such situations. (In my case, the opposition was weaker than my character, the dice were strongly in my favour a few times, and the whole thing involved three free Invocations from preparation that involved expending limited in-setting resources and three FP.)

Thus, I turn to the community with the question of how to fairly and consistently handle such situations.

Definitions Used in the Context of the Question

'Fair'

By 'fair', I mean primarily as compared to the default alternative of just getting into a conflict. I don't want the covert approach to unambiguously make the overt approach pointless by comparison. I wouldn't want the opposite unfairness where the covert operators can never take out a target quietly and are better off being replaced by open-conflict specialists because a modest initial advantage followed by a global alert is the only likely outcome. That of course means that there should be both a real challenge and/or risk and a real payoff to the stealthy approach.

'Consistent'

By 'consistent', I mean the 'Any tool or technique in the protagonist's arsenal may also be used by an antagonist'. If the hunter can take out the jaguar by a well-placed dart with arrow frog venom, then the risk of being jumped by the jaguar from the ambush in the branches (assuming the hunter and the jaguar are of a comparable tier of threat on their own - comparable skills, numbers of stress and consequence boxes etc.).

'Silent' and 'Assassination'

While not all such eliminations (lethal and nonlethal) need this, a common trait of such actions is that they're meant not to alert anybody upon successful completion. Of course, setting up an assassination or knockout in a way that doesn't limit itself to remaining covert after a success should often be easier than doing so with a maintenance of complete stealth.

A Solution Considered But Not Yet Tried

I've been told of Consequential Contests (where at the shifts of success can translate into Stress done). I have the impression it is somewhat limited in terms of what narratives it will fit, so I'm looking for other, better ways of handling such situations. If I find none, I'll probably put this one in the queue for testing in my campaign, or suggest some variant of it as a player.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @BenBarden See this FAQ for why your comment was removed. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 21 at 18:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ Related (in fact the answer posted is for this question and ignores the actual system and question being asked): How can I adjudicate more-lethal combat? rpg.stackexchange.com/q/100150/14848 \$\endgroup\$ – the dark wanderer Jan 21 at 23:56
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Taking out nameless sentries and guards is honestly best modelled as a single Overcome roll, when they're not worth zooming in on for a full Conflict scene. The single sentry on the balcony is simply not worth more narrative time than a tricky-to-climb wall and thus gets about as much mechanical attention. Sometimes a single Overcome roll handles multiple guards at once: the two guards posted at the entranceway may represent a single obstacle together. If there's a series of guards worth focusing on, model getting past the guards as a Challenge: individual rolls in the Challenge might be about individual or entire groups of guards depending on how much ground the protagonists cover during that Challenge, and some may simply be about getting into a new place unnoticed.

My group has used this multiple times and found it helped us maintain both a good pace and tension, where we found dipping into conflicts or other more involved mechanics would be a drag.

Once the roll is resolved, the target is gone in whatever way the narrative said they were. Did you bomb them or shank them? They're probably dead now. Did you paralyse them or knock them out? OK, they're on the floor being quiet for a few hours now. (We're employing the Silver Rule here: see its example about consequences. The narrative is telling us what needs to happen mechanically right now.)

Physical confrontations should not always necessitate dipping into a Conflict scene. In fact, most of the time in stealth fiction like this, individual fights are simply not worth zooming in on and the guards are taken out in a single action, so we should leverage the Golden Rule's capacity to help us just ... not zoom in at all. Thus we resolve the defeat of a sentry in a single roll.

Since Conflicts are just about the most complex and time-consuming mechanic in the game, they ought to be reserved for when it's absolutely worth it. I've written about this before (the last section, “don't use conflict rules for this”): reserve Conflicts for pivotal, awesome fights between people with serious, personal, dramatic stakes, where you are at such an impasse with each other that the only choice is that someone needs to go down. At this point the drama fuels the scene to make it actually worthwhile to focus on their turn-to-turn interactions and spend this much time closely zoomed in on these people finally coming head-to-head. When you just need to get past someone less significant, it's a single roll, a Challenge, or a Contest depending on the mechanic.

Handling the minutae

Since these are just sentries and lackeys, we shouldn't spend a huge amount of time on them. If they get assassinated rather unceremoniously, that's OK: they weren't worth that much time to make a huge deal out of it. It's not fair, exactly, but it sucks to be a secondary character sometimes.

Let's revisit briefly that dice should only be rolled when there are interesting outcomes:

You roll the dice when there’s some kind of interesting opposition keeping you from achieving your goals. If there’s no interesting opposition, you just accomplish whatever you say you’re trying to do.

This means we need stakes, risk, and difficulty, and should spend our time only where those exist. Taking your sniper rifle assassin example, that almost entirely happens either before or after the trigger is pulled:

  • If we focus on before the trigger is pulled, the difficulty is in obtaining information about where the target will be, finding the right place, and catching them out at the right time and place for you to assassinate them.
  • There is a single moment of tension for the roll to take the shot itself: does your assassination attempt succeed? If you screw up, you still might stick around long enough to try one or two more times.
  • If we focus on after the trigger is pulled, everyone has heard the shot and the target is dead. You, the assassin, now have to pack up, leave no trace, and get the hell out of there as quickly and quietly as possible before anyone finds you.

The first is a challenge, the second bullet point is a single roll (or, if you screw up your first shot, a contest to see if you take them out or they get away), and the third is either a challenge or a contest. Failed rolls in the last phase mean you make noise that helps people find you now, or leave evidence that lets people figure out who you are later. Your story will tell you which, if any, of these bullet points are worth spending time on and how much zoom you want to give them, and usually the last bullet point has the most capacity for drama and excitement. (It is also a perfect opportunity for compels to screw up.)

On Consistency

I read you here, but I don't advise actually going for symmetrical consistency. Taking out an enemy villain is simply a completely different narrative arc than an enemy taking out the hero the same way. It deserves completely different kinds of attention, should be handled very differently with different risks and outcomes, and the Golden Rule tells us we should use different framing devices completely to handle this different kind of arc. The two sides are also simply given different odds: the antagonists exist to provide short-term setbacks to the heroes, but the heroes exist to ultimately defeat the antagonists in the long term.

  • When the heroes are storming the enemy HQ, they're generally expected to succeed (potentially at cost) and to be able to take down a lot of mooks. By contrast, when the enemies are storming the heroes' HQ, they're generally expected to be able to flee and save a lot of lives or stop the assault entirely, unless this story is dark enough it's expected almost all our allies will die.
  • When the heroes are assassinating a significant villain, it's almost certain they'll succeed and we'll explore the surrounding drama. When a hero would be assassinated, it's almost always going to go wrong: the first sniper bullet misses and breaks the glass in the protagonist's hand instead, or knocks their helmet off, or gets them in the shoulder. The heroes now scramble for cover, tend to the wounded, try to find the assassin themselves, and likely either find them or clues they left behind which lead to future plot.
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Compel and Concede can get you to the same place as Taken Out.

So, this Mr. Killingyouguy likes a Bottle In Front Of Me, hmm? If I can get him a spiked enough drink that would take down the last obstacle between me and Perducci.

--Dangeresque, waving a Fate Point at the GM

If an acceptable operational difference between methods is "the GM is okay with losing where the characters aren't", then consider that stealth takedowns can often be concessions or compels rather than full "I am your author now" Taken Out.

Run. Just run. If you raise the alarm, I'll know.

--Athens, making a Provoke Attack on one of Dark Stobolous's lieutenants she previously put Blade to the Neck on. They offered a concession on precisely those terms, which she accepted.

Players can set up schemes to take advantage of GM character flaws; that's a bit non-mirrored, in that the GM runs the world and can just slide a spiked drink in front of a player character without having to play out a suspense sequence putting it together in their own base.

Players or the GM can ask or offer a concession when they've got a character in a difficult position thanks to some successful stealthing and/or ambuscade.

A less total capitulation on a player's part might look a little something like this:

GM, waving a Fate Point: So. Twilliam. Lover in Every Port?

Twilliam's player: Where are you going with this?

GM: Imperial spy lover in this particular port, darn the luck?

Twilliam's player: Had to happen eventually. So, what, I wake up in a warehouse?

GM: Nah, you're still on the Mephit. Sometime during dimcycle, you're not sure when, you wake and see your night's companion looking over a very sophisticated data reader she definitely wasn't showing off before.

Twilliam's player: Play it cool, Twilliam. Her name was... "Dusty?"

GM: She smiles, but not really. "It's cute how you thought that was my name." Your eyes can pick up more than the screen-glow, now. You see the outlines of a very familiar sword-

Athens' player: Wait. Ithaca? Tell me we didn't let Ithaca on the ship.

GM: Well, she was in disguise, but that's a fair point, this does affect everybody. So I'll pass you and Starhound a Fate Point for not giving a one-night stand the third degree and we can keep going?

Twilliam's player: So, uh, can I shout or hit the alarm or something?

GM: You can try. :an exchange!: -but that's not enough to get the blade off your neck, Twilliam, sorry. Her turn again, and-

Twilliam's player: Nope, nope, I give, I cannot put up those kinds of numbers on my own.

GM: What are your terms?

Twilliam's player: Not dying would be nice.

GM: She tells you she's not here for anyone's head, but a copy of your jump-trail is worth a lot to the right buyer-

Athens' player: Wait, Ithaca went freelance?

GM: And if you just go back to sleep, you can write this all off as a bad dream.

Twilliam's player: So she's going to knock me out. Can I, like, resist that and play dead until she leaves, then we can all track her down in the port?

GM: You can try. She twists the hilt and the blade hums like a stun-rod warming up. You'll be rolling Physique- :an exchange!:

Twilliam's player: Yeah, not the big numbers. Can I succeed at a cost?

GM: Sure! You kind of drift in and out of clarity for a bit, but the Mephit's door shutting brings you fully awake. Put "Splitting Headache" in your mild consequence box, take a Fate Point for the concession, and tell me what you're telling Athens and Starhound when you wake them up...

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