The Binary Challenge in Sword’s Edge

In the last couple of posts, I’ve written about some of the perceptions and ideas that helped design Sword’s Edge, how I view failure and the purpose of Momentum. Let’s now look at an example of a binary challenge and how SE replicates it . . . or fails to do so.

By a binary challenge I mean something that is generally seen as a “do it or don’t.” The example I want to use is jumping over a chasm. In general, when viewing this, it looks binary – one gets over the chasm or one does not. How does a binary action work with Momentum and then Action.

To be honest, when I run a game, this isn’t something I would make a mechanical challenge. There would need to be something significant about it to justify making it a mechanical challenge – a Narrative Character (NC). Does a PC have fear of heights? Is there something about the challenge that touches on a PC’s pivots or other qualities? Generally, things like climbing trees (or buildings), jumping, or smashing through doors are part of a scene, but aren’t the heart of a scene (the goal or purpose of the scene), so I don’t really bother with them.

Let’s say we do. Let’s say there is a good reason to make this an NC, I would then ask myself: “Is this a prelude to something?” For example, to see the sniper before the sniper takes the shot or notice the warriors waiting in ambush. If it is, I would give the NCs a Quality (generally an Element) specific for Momentum that reflects this. The success or failure of Momentum then tells us if the PCs succeeded or failed.

In the case of jumping the chasm, is it to get into a fight? To rescue an individual? Is it in pursuit of a villain? In some of these cases, I would build it into the NC as above. In the case of pursuit, I would represent it as an Element for special use – something like “Using ground for advantage (Physical) +4.” This provides a mechanical replication of the chasm to be jumped over which remains binary for that round, but then does not follow through to the next – the PC either overcomes it or is delayed by it.

What if there is a good reason to create this NC all on its own. It doesn’t matter then reason, but let’s say there is a good story or character reason to create a binary challenge – a do it or not kind of challenge.

In this case, I would definitely make it a minion – one success is all that is needed. I would make sure its rank represented the difficulty of accomplishing the task, and give it a fitting Concept. Still, looking at something like jumping over a chasm and considering how I have described Momentum, one might wonder how it fits together. What happens when the PC has Momentum but fails in the Action Test? What happens when the PC fails Momentum? What happens if the PC fails both Momentum and Action?

Okay, in general I allow the players to narrate the results of their Test. Leading up to the Test, I ask, what they are trying to do, and when we have a result I ask what happened. Sometimes, the player asks for input, so this would be my input.

What happens when the PC has Momentum but fails in the Action Test? The PC makes it across but doesn’t land well on the other side. They barely made it and are hanging over the edge. Think of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, at the beginning when Alfred Molina leaves the whip on the other side of the chasm. Indy jumps, doesn’t quite make it and is hanging there. Another failure? Starts losing handholds. Another failure? Falls for a bit but catches a root or outstretched rock. Etc.

What happens if the player fails Momentum but succeeds in Action? The PC thought they were ready to make the jump but realizes, as they reach the edge, that they aren’t going to make and skid to a halt before going over. Catching their breath, the PC can try again – they can try to Seize Momentum – or maybe they realize there’s no way they can simply leap over this chasm, and they stop to consider alternatives.

Failing Momentum and the Test? I would use a narrative similar to the one above about landing badly and scrambling for handholds, but in this case, the bad landing knocks the wind out of them – or worse. Since this would likely be Physical Stress and therefore Penalty Ranks to Physical, I would continue to represent failures as things that would hurt, like a the slipping down the side and grabbing something wrenches out the character’s arm, and then fall they lose their grip and fall, only to land hard on an outcropping of rock or protruding root.

To be honest, SE doesn’t work great for binary challenges. It’s not really designed for that. As with any generic system, it has its weaknesses, and this is one of them. SE was designed to run the kind of games I like to run, and in those kinds of games, most binary challenges are part of a greater action scene and so rarely stand alone as an NC.

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