In my last post, I tried to illustrate some of the thinking regarding success and failure in Sword’s Edge, and specifically with Momentum. This time, I want to talk about how one can represent that in the narrative.
To reiterate, Momentum is about who controls the conflict – who is in the driver’s seat. The winner of the Momentum Test is considered “active” and the loser “passive,” but this is only because the terms “attacker” and “defender” have the context of combat whereas Tests in Sword’s Edge can be about anything. In this article, let’s agree that the active character is attempting to change the status quo in a manner that benefits them and the passive character is attempting to stop that change. Both might be active, but only one is acting on the status quo – the passive character is instead acting on the active character.
How does this relate to the narrative of the game? What does this look like? Consider a fight scene in a movie: while the protagonist might generally be shown succeeding – especially when facing mooks – there is often a point at which there is some kind of setback (especially in a Jackie Chan movie!). The character is momentarily thwarted, but this generally leads to a new and different attempt that succeeds in some way. The character in this case did not lose Momentum – they really still controlled the fight – but they did not succeed in that particular action.
Now, this is different from the big fight scenes when the protagonist is fighting a boss or mini-boss, as this is much more like a fight against a regular or hero – a success doesn’t result in an outright win, merely progression towards a win. Sometimes, in such a scene, you can actually see where the opponent Seizes the Momentum. This usually leads to another moment where the protagonist steals it back, but there is often a moment when the tables turn on the protagonist until they can reassert control of the fight.
But what about other situations in which the visual of controlling a situation is not so obvious. Let’s take the example of a starship crash-landing on an alien planet. In such a situation, what does failing to control the situation look like? To me, that would be the PC unable to concentrate, unable to focus, forgetting the processes or lacking a real solution to the problem. Failing Momentum means that the situation is out of the PC’s control. She’s flailing about, maybe doing something, but not doing anything right.
And then a failure when the PC is the passive party – on the defensive – means that the PC has done exactly the wrong thing due to this lack of confidence or confusion. I’d likely narrate this as the PC having a crisis of confidence, questioning her ability and knowledge (a Penalty Rank to Cunning).
I think we can all think of examples in our own lives in which we did not have control of a situation. We were faced with a problem and lacked a way forward. We did not have Momentum. But then we took a chance, took a stab at a solution – uncertain if it would work but unwilling to allow the situation to persist or even degrade. That was us Seizing Momentum. Get it right, you have control of the situation and can now influence the status quo in your favour. Get it wrong? Yeah, really bad things can happen.
So that’s how I think about representing Momentum and failure in the game. It can be more clear when one is representing combat, but the same dynamics carry over into all resolutions.