My buddy Bruce in the UK asks the best questions, questions that make me really think about my game and why it does what it does. From those conversations, I’m cribbing some thoughts to share in order to help give people a better idea of the philosophy behind Sword’s Edge design.
I want to start off by discussing failure. A component of the philosophy of failure in Sword’s Edge is if a player character (PC) is unable to succeed, it generally means the narrative character (NC) can Seize Momentum, which is what the NC should do. This is not the case if the player is simply getting bad die rolls. That’s frustrating but it doesn’t highlight a power disparity on which the NC can capitalize. Bad runs of dice rolling can be frustrating, but there are no real ill effects for the PC. In the case where the PC and NC are pretty evenly matched, it’s kind of up to the GM if they want to risk a Seize Momentum which could end the scene very quick.
I generally have NCs attempt to Seize Momentum whenever it appears at all likely to succeed.
So that’s the idea behind Momentum, but how does one narrate failure on a Momentum Test?
Here’s the thing with Momentum – it’s controlling the situation. That’s kind of easy to see in a fight, especially something like fencing or martial arts. In both of these cases, once that kind of control is established, the controlling party generally ends up winning the exchange. That’s the idea of Momentum.
While I tend to use the terms “passive” and “active” actors, Momentum and Action in SE is really about attacker and defender, if we define attackers as the character attempting to change the status quo and the defender as the character attempting to counter the attacker. Both are active, but one is attempting to change the status quo to gain an advantage (attacker) and the other is attempting to obstruct or redefine that change (defender). The defender is not affecting the status quo, only affecting the attacker.
So, a Momentum failure means that the character does not have control of the situation and is trying to counter the actions of the attacker. In the Action Test that follows, a success by the defender means that the character has foiled the attacker somehow. The character does effect the action, but not in a way that moves the character toward completion of a goal. The character’s success in this case is directly related to the actions of the attacker.
The case of a Momentum win followed by an Action failure is the reverse of this, where the PC is the one attempting to redefine the status quo to their benefit and the NC foils this attempt somehow. The PC may even succeed at their action, but the outcome does not benefit them in the way they had hoped and this is due to the interference or other action of the NC.
That’s a kind of dive into how Sword’s Edge envisions success and failure, and how Momentum is intended to feed into that. It is somewhat different than many other games, so I hope this helps give players and GMs a better idea of the mechanics and narratives of Tests.