Not The Time for THAT Kind of Direct Action

This being released concurrently with a post at my Patreon.

TL,DR: I support the protest of police violence against the Black community and demand police reform. Due to current circumstances, I am unwilling to release a game of military action, and will re-purpose it as a SF-action game of resistance against alien overlords in a near future Earth. 

If you disagree that systemic racism is an issue in the US, Canada, and pretty much around the globe, and that we—as the privileged—need to support the Black community, please don’t support me. You don’t want to give me your money as it will be going to support the Black community and police reform.

Okay, the details:

I hope everyone is well and safe. These are truly trying times, and while Canadian streets are not seeing the same kind of protest as many US streets are, we are not insensate to what is happening. Change must occur in Canada as much as the US—I honestly don’t know a country in which racial equality is not a problem.

And if you disagree with that, you would probably be happier not following me and not supporting my work, because I feel very strongly about this. I have been supporting food banks the last couple of months, but I will be supporting causes that have come to the fore in this crisis, causes that are supported by the Black community and especially Black creators and members of the tabletop RPG community.

Having said all that, the militarization revealed in the police force, the use of National Guard troops, and the threat of using US service personnel to police US streets has made me feel very queasy about working on and publishing a game about the military right now. Much like WARMONGER changed because of the COVID-19 virus, I feel Direct Action must change due to current circumstances.

The game will remain the same, I’ve been running two concurrent alpha playtests and the rules are getting close to a viable form. There are much less changes than initially planned, mostly because d20 and 5E were pretty solid platforms to begin with.

So, instead of Direct Action, I’ll be releasing Resistance: EARTH. Themes resonant with the current crisis is appreciated but unplanned. I had playtesters who were not at all interested in playtesting modern SOF, so Resistance: EARTH became a setting we could playtest the rules in.

Resistance: EARTH is kind of a post-apocalyptic action-adventure RPG. You play part of a resistance against alien overlords 10 years after an invasion. A primer is available at my Patreon which provides some insight into what I am proposing.

Thank you as always for your support. Please feel free to cancel that support. You won’t be missed.

It Came From The Sea! Crunching the Numbers

This post was original presented at my Patreon on 6 Aug 2019.

I’ve embarked on writing for Saga of the Sea Peoples, (which you can follow at my Patreon) and in doing so, I’ve started to consider the costs that would be associated with bringing it to actual fruition, meaning distributing it beyond Patreon. The costs for doing a print product – something more than 100 pages – are pretty prohibitive. A ballpark estimate puts the Kickstarter goal at about US $11,500. My biggest success for Kickstarter was Centurion: Legionaries of Rome which brought in around $5,900 USD. Nefertiti Overdrive only brought in about $4,900 CAD, which was about $3,800 USD.

It’s possible to produce a 125 page book without editing or certain sections I’d like to include – such as considering migration and integration in the context of the Sea People – and using stock art. That goal would be about $3,000 USD so a Kickstarter goal of $4,450 CAD . . . or, to be more careful, $5,000 CAD.

A PDF-only product, substantially shorter, and using stock art, would have a goal of $4,500 CAD. That means I would need 350 backers at $13.50 CAD (around $10 USD) a pop to hit that target. Were I to do the base minimum – editing, consultation, extra sections, and more art as stretch goals – I could set the goal at $2,000 USD, meaning I would need about 150 backers.

Centurion only had 180 backers, Nefertiti Overdrive had 302 backers, and Sword’s Edge had 144 backers. So far, it looks on the edge of do-able, but with definite failure potential. Failure is fine – it means the market isn’t interested and if I want to pursue it, it would be on my own dime with minimal expectation for sales.

One thing I learned from the Centurion vs. Nefertiti Overdrive Kickstarters was the value of high ticket pledge levels. Something like creating one of the iconic characters for the game or being a model for a piece of art can support a pretty heft price tag, but does it help?. For the art, I would have to actually increase the goal of the Kickstarter to compensate for the added cost – three openings for modelling for art would increase the cost by almost $600 CAD while bringing in a maximum of $750. That’s about eight extra backers, so there is some potential but it’s not significant.

In the end, I’m going to push forward with the writing, and can promise you the rules portion. There’ll be some historical discussion thrown in there, and I’m continuing to research the era and the Sea Peoples, as it has turned out to be fascinating, but I won’t have a “history” section per se unless I’m able to finance this some other way. Kickstarter looks like a possibility, but it needs more analysis and consideration.

It Came From The Sea! . . . or maybe the pool

This article was first posted to Patreon on 18 May 2019

Today was the first day this year that I skimmed the pool.

Bear with me!

Skimming allows me to zone out, to kind of enter a Zen space where my thoughts are divorced from my actions. The body does what it needs to do while the mind is free to wander. So it wandered to Egyptian history.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the 25th Dynasty in order to write a history supplement for Nefertiti Overdrive, and while reading about the transition from the New Kingdom to the Third Intermediate Period, I came across mentions of the Sea Peoples, a kind of boogeyman often blamed for the Late Bronze Age collapse, which seemed to affect most of the Mediterranean civilizations. The Sea Peoples were apparently a kind of maritime nomadic group that swept in, messed things up, and then moved on until Rameses III of Egypt put them in their place – that place being the Levant. This allegedly led to the creation of the Philistines, who – according to one theory – were displaced Mycenaean Greeks.

Fascinating stuff, you say. So what?

Because I think the saga of the Sea Peoples would make a great game. Here’s why:

Often the Sea Peoples – and “barbarians” in general – are depicted as the villains. Here’s a nice orderly polity, imposing law and order on a specific region, and in come these terrible barbarians who create chaos and suffering. Except those polities were run by a very small elite for their own benefit. Often – especially with Rome – the fight was about stopping immigration. The Goths just wanted to some land to farm, but they weren’t obsequious enough with the Romans. The Gauls earlier had been pretty much minding their own business, ruling polities that had already imposed order on a wide area, but they weren’t serving Rome’s – or at least Julius Caesar’s – interests. Heck, it was a “Celtic menace” that was a factor leading to the empowerment of Marius and therefore Sulla, who led pretty much directly to the fall of the Republic. Those Celts weren’t even really interested in in the Italian Peninsula, though they did attack Roman town and forts in what might be called Celtic territory.

And there are parallels today, as elite interests attempt to portray those seeking a better life inside the elite’s polity as criminals and barbarians. The elite see a threat to the status quo as a threat to their privileges and power, and so change is bad.

I think history has been very clear that change is good.

So let’s have a game with the Sea Peoples as the good guys. Yes, they are forces of chaos and yes they threaten the status quo. But that status quo protect a rapacious elite. Let’s not kid ourselves, the Sea Peoples and other barbarians generally do not come as liberators. Most of them wanted to challenge the status quo, if only to find a place within it. But changing the status quo can be seen as good, protecting a society against atrophy.

All this to say that as this game evolves, it’ll be doing so in this Patreon. I will share here my notes, my thoughts, my intents, and my design. This will not be something for which patrons will pay, but the posts will only be open to patrons.

It will all start with design goals, and maybe even a philosophy.

Wish me luck.

Note: the development of Sagas of the Sea Peoples will be conducted at my Patreon, so if you are interested, look for it there.

Mechanics Informing Spotlights

About a month ago, I wrote about sharing the spotlight among characters in RPGs, why it’s important players get a chance to have a character in the spotlight, and how you can make sure that happens. But since the spotlight is supposed to be about highlighting how special the characters are, how can you – as the DM/GM/whatever – create spotlight moments that fit the characters?

Of course, in order to fashion spotlights that sing, one needs to know and understand the characters. If one doesn’t know about the characters, one can design events that provide relatively generic spotlight moments – something to do with a good fight, something to do with a good sneak, something that needs magic, something that needs persuasion. These kinds of spotlights can be adapted on the fly to better suit the characters as the GM recognizes them or the players present them. This can be difficult to accomplish along with all the other tasks and responsibilities a GM has in many games, but doing so can really help to make the session memorable.

While how a player presents a character in play is perhaps the best guide to developing spotlights for that character, most systems will have hints for the GM. The games that I have designed all have a mechanic that can be used by players to signal the kind of scenes and spotlights they want for their characters. Pivots in Centurion, Nefertiti Overdrive, and Sword’s Edge all provides rewards in a slightly different manner, but the mechanic has another purpose which is the same across all three games – it signals to the GM the kind of spotlight the player wants. In general, this is by providing an indication of what is important to the character.

Sword’s Edge goes a step further, including a goal, a quirk, and a style to help fashion different kinds of spotlights. All three of these could even be used together to design a scene in which the character truly owns the spotlight. It might relate to the character’s goal, the character might be able to reveal or utilize their quirk, or the scene can require the kind of style which the player has noted. Of course, any one of these alone could inspire a scene in which the character can shine, but together could make it particularly notable.

Most RPGs have mechanics in their character design that can indicate to the GM the kind of spotlight that would interest the player. Of course there are classes or careers, but these can be relatively generic and spotlights built on them tend not to feel personal to a character. However, if a player builds a fighter with a non-traditional skill – perhaps some kind of musical or artistic ability – that should tell the GM that the character needs to have a scene in which they use that skill. D&D 5E has personality information used both for gaining Inspiration but which also should inform the GM in building spotlight moments. Fate has Aspects and Stunts that can reveal much about the kind of cool scenes the player wants for their character. Look at what the player has built and be especially aware of the uncommon and non-traditional.

Spotlights are important for players, and the right spotlight, highlighting how unique the character might be, can really fuel the player’s enjoyment and immersion.

The earlier post on spotlights.

Someone Else’s Great Big Wall

So I’m giving another listen to Dr. Kenneth Harl’s Barbarian Empire of the Steppes series from the Great Courses. This is maybe my fourth listen-through. Especially with Dr. Harl, I can listen to these series over and over again.

In episode three, Dr. Harl discusses early Chinese contact with the steppe nomads, and he talks about the Warring States period. He mentions how many of the northern states started building the kind of defensive structures that evolved into the Great Wall, and as is my wont, I started thinking about how cool that would be as a setting.

I can imagine a group of soldiers overseeing such a construction. The workers are peasants with whom the soldiers might have a lot in common, but the PCs saw that there was social mobility in the military. Some might be mercenaries, and some might be “auxiliary” troops, soldiers from neighbouring cultures hired into the military. The base of operations would be a fortified camp.

This could actually be something similar to the Hell on Wheels TV series which is a Western action-adventure retelling of the construction of the railroad. Like that, there would be characters conflict, cultural friction, and fights within the camp, with actual incursion by the steppe nomads a rare occurrence.

The easy over-arching plot is the rise of a leader that could unite the steppe nomads. The first hints would come from defectors, leaders from assimilated tribes unwilling to bend the knee to this new ruler. Attacks might become more coordinated and the PCs notice troops from different tribes/cultures raiding together. The PCs might be trying to get a warning up the chain of command but – as always seems to be the case – no one listens. And then the camp is overrun. The PCs are behind enemy lines, trying to link up with another military unit, possibly also trying to protect civilians.

A different narrative might see sickness spreading through the civilized lands and news keeps reaching the camp of this town or this village succumbing to the sickness. The reports are wildly exaggerated – as happens – but no one in the camp knows that. A local nomad leader comes with their shaman and warns the camp that unless they abandon the wall and come to join the nomads, the sickness will consume them to. The shaman has seen it in the oracle bones.

In both these cases, the chain of command is focused on the wall above all else. More raids? Not our problem. But you’re behind schedule on the wall. The village where you purchase supplies lost half of its population to the plague? Not our problem. You know you’re behind schedule on the wall, right?

This could also be a framework for a more traditional adventure, with ancient sites near the camp disgorging supernatural threats that the PCs are then sent to investigate. There might be a big evil rising from its slumber, attempting to bring the steppe nomads under its control so it can re-conquer its ancient empire – basically the plot of the Sword’s Edge campaign I just wrapped up.

Education, great on its own but also awesome for inspiring RPGs!

You can find out more about Barbarian Empires of the Steppes here.

I’ve discussed Hell on Wheels elsewhere.

Please support my Patreon.

Angling Away from Saxon Britain

So, D&D happened last night (as I write this). We took up a lot of time getting characters ready. D&D is at its most complex with character choices, especially if you come at the game as a complete novice. Without preconceptions and assumptions, nothing is apparent and everything is mysterious. Two of the players had no exposure to D&D5E and had not had played D&D for ages – for at least one of them it was pre-3E.

But in the end, the delay in getting the game going wasn’t the biggest problem for me. The biggest problem for me were the setting assumptions hardwired into the system. I should have known this – I did know this at one time, but distance had made me forget. I had not run D&D for a decade and had not run anything even d20 adjacent since 2010 (save for a con game using D&D Next).

I knew how magic heavy D&D was. That was really the issue. The demihumans all became versions of the Fey, matters of belief to those around them, but very few actually interacting in society so figures of prejudice and suspicion. That’s cool. We could work with that. It could fit into early 6th century CE Britain. It was the flashy magic fired like bullets from an AK that gave me pause.

My intent had always been to address the system-setting clashes in the narrative. Give a narrative explanation for the spells. Address the prejudice to the Aelfar through role-playing. The latter works. The former?

And let me say that I very much believe system matters. That is to say that one’s play experience will degrade if one uses the wrong system. I knew this going in, but accepted it because – honestly – I wanted to play D&D again.

All of my games have very specific design goals. Even Sword’s Edge, a generic/genre-free system was built to deliver a specific kind of game, one in which the mechanics serve the narrative. Once again, I knew in my head the mistake I was making, but in my nostalgic heart, I thought I could paper over the cracks.

It just ain’t so. The narrative stretch to cover a cantrip like Fire Bolt in Anglo-Saxon Britain is extreme. And I don’t just mean historical Britain at that time. That kind of magic is not terribly apparent in the worldview and folklore of the time. The Ango-Saxons believed in magic, sure, but not like that. It might fit into the folklore of many places in Asia, but not Europe.

So, in the end, the setting will bend to the system. I am recompiling the setting as a second-world, a place inspired by early Anglo-Saxon Britain, but not tied to it. There will be names and places, cultures and events that are all based on early 6th century Britain, but it will not be that locale, because Fire Bolts and Flaming Strikes have no place there.

Thankfully, the other D&D game that I will be running is built specifically on the setting assumptions of the system. Let’s hope the narrative is strong.

The Sword at the Edge of Wuxia

A good friend of mine (hey JJ!) asked about creating characters from a genre like wuxia using Sword’s Edge. Would one do it mechanically or narratively? Would one use SFX? I didn’t really give an answer, but I’d like to now.

For this example, I’m going to use the character of Li Mu Bai from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This should provide a kind of objective target from which to draw Qualities.

Okay, so we have our character, but before I can create Li Mu Bai mechanically, I need to know the setting in which he exists, and this is why I would say the kind of qi powers seen in wire-fu and wuxia stories can be replicated both narratively and mechanically.

If we are playing in a setting similar to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, there is no need to mechanically represent Li Mu Bai’s more fantastical abilities, like walking along the top of a bamboo forest, flying, or bouncing off of water. These are all accepted parts of the genre, and so I would expect that I could relate how Li Mu Bai acts using those factors narratively rather than mechanically. If Li Mu Bai were instead to be part of a story in which such powers are not common, then I would need to create a Quality that could explain them.

In creating Li My Bai in a fantastic, wire-fu setting, I’d be looking more to his character than to his powers. To me, the key part of the character is his fight against injustice. He arrives, seeks out the wrong, and attempts to right it. So I would make his Concept “Knight Errant.” That touches on both his martial skills but also his questing nature. I think his training would be his Background, and so I would make that “Warrior Monk.” I’m tempted to make his Faculty “Martial Arts,” but in this setting, most characters would be martial artists, so I’m going to call his Faculty “Sword Mastery” – this reflects the style that we see him use through the movie.

Here’s where I would deviate from the expected. To me, it is neither Li Mu Bai’s physical power nor his intelligence that drives his martial arts, but his force of will and sense of justice. I’m linking his “Sword Mastery” to Charisma. I’m also going to throw in an Element there, which is probably sub-optimal, but I think his “Arcane Medicine” is important, but that needs to be linked to his Cunning – I have a really hard time justifying it as a Charisma Quality, even though mechanically that would make sense.

As for Pivots, I believe his Goal would be “Justice for All,” his Quirk would be “Doomed Romantic,” and his Style would be “Contemplative Tornado of Violence.”

So Li Mu Bai in a fantastical, kung fu setting would be:
Concept: Knight Errant +4
Background: Warrior Monk +2
Faculty: Sword Mastery +4 (Charisma)
Phy +0; Cha +6; Cun +0
Arcane Medicine (Cun) +2
Pivots
Justice for All; Doomed Romantic; Contemplative Tornado of Violence.

Were Li Mu Bai in a more common setting, like a straight-up fantasy, or semi-historical adventure, I might need to add more mechanics to justify his more “magical” abilities. I think in such a case, his Qualities would be about his abilities while his core character is expressed in his Pivots. I would change his Concept to “Mystical Sword Master,” and his Background to “Warrior Monk.” To really hit this on the nose, I might go with “Supernatural Sword Master” for Concept and “Mystical Martial Arts Monk” for Background. For Faculty, I think I would use “Perfect Balance,” but would still link it to his Charisma for the same reason. I could mark this as an SFX Quality, as something that allows him to do actions outside of the laws of physics. I would also have the Element “Leap of Faith,” as he doesn’t really fly, more jumps really well. This time, I can link it to his Charisma since it is powered by his qi energy.

I think his Pivots all still work really well, but I would replace “Doomed Romantic,” with “Knight Errant.” I think it’s important that the GM understand that this is important to the character – and that’s the role of the Pivot. I would love to work the doomed romance in there, but I think that could be done through the level of narrative control a player has. I could insert it into the story and link it back to his Knight Errant, many of whom – in European lore – were part of tragic love affairs.

So to insert Li Mu Bai into a more conventional fantasy, the character would look like:
Concept: Mystical Sword Master +4
Background: Warrior Monk +4
Faculty: Perfect Balance, SFX +2 (Charisma)
Phy +0; Cha +6; Cun +0
Leap of Faith, SFX (Cha) +2
Pivots
Justice for All; Knight Errant; Contemplative Tornado of Violence.

So that’s how one could create a wire-fu, qi-powered warrior like Li Mu Bai both for a game that is specifically set in a wuxia environment or in a game that is in a Western-style fantasy. In the end, I prefer the former version, because it is much more about the character than his abilities. I think characters are more evocative when players can reveal their cores through their Qualities, but everyone enjoys something different. The beauty of light systems is they tend to be able to be flexible and hit a variety of targets.

At least, that was the plan with Sword’s Edge.

If this sounds cool, please check out my Patreon, for more adventures and games.

Building a Non-Combat Challenge in Sword’s Edge

In the last post, I shared with you some of the thoughts I had about building binary challenges. This and the other recent posts grew from discussions with a friend in the UK, Bruce. Much of this sprung from a question about representing a spaceship crash-landing and how to best represent that. And that’s what I want to share this time, how I would create a crash-landing scene as the mechanical component of a scene.

USS Vengeance Crash from Star Trek Into Darkness.

Now, it is possible to do this as a binary challenge, as discussed in the last post. If this isn’t supposed to be a major scene, more like a speedbump or a reminder how dangerous the adventure is, it could be created like a binary challenge, a minion Narrative Character (NC) – hit the emergency gravity compensator and the ship will right itself.

If I wanted it to be a bigger scene, something that has impact on the characters and their narrative, I’d likely set up multiple NCs, one for each PC and probably create them all as regulars. So, for example, you might have the piloting challenge of keeping the ship on course, an engineering NC of the engines overheating, and a navigation challenge of finding a soft landing spot. Depending on the situation, maybe there are enemy fighters on the ship’s tail and another character is gunning for them (in this case, maybe three enemy fighters, an easy explanation for a Regular).

Let’s take piloting as an example. It might look like:

Keep Her On Course (good regular) TN 17
Concept: Rough re-entry +2
Phy +0, Cun -2, Cha +2

You’ll notice that Charisma is an option as a Trait to use against this NC. To be honest, the only way one could really use Charisma in such a way is if there is a crew one is commanding. If this were Star Trek, that would fit. The PC needn’t be the captain, it might be the helmsman working with other crewmates to get the ship levelled out and under control. If it were something like Serenity and the PC is Wash, it might look like:

Keep Her On Course (good regular) TN 17
Concept: Rough re-entry +2
Phy +2, Cun +0, Cha
Note: Charisma cannot be used for this NC

So, why is Physique +2 and Cunning +0? Because in my mind, wrestling the ship’s control to keep her flying isn’t as good as the knowledge and alertness to choose the best options and methods to keep the ship on the course the navigator provides, when the navigator provides it.

This NC is a regular, so the PC needs three successes to overcome it and remove it from the scene. In creating it, I would imagine what each success might mean. I think for piloting, that’s pretty easy. First success gets the ship basically under control. She’s bucking and not flying straight, but the pilot is wrestling to get her on course rather than lacking any control at all. The second success has her pointed in the right direction, but she’s bucking and the controls are sluggish. The pilot feels like they could lose it at any moment. That third success is what finally bring the pilot relief. The ship is going where she should go, with some bumps and shimmy, but that’s normal for a rough re-entry. The pilot has done it!

Then I would do something similar for each other challenge, keeping all the PCs busy, because if it is one NC, they can work as a group to beat it, and unless it’s a great hero, they’ll likely do that without much effort. These NCs should be tailored to the PCs – these should provide spotlights for each PC and showcase how each has a role in the team and on the ship.

That’s how I would approach building a non-combat challenge that is supposed to be an important scene providing character’s spotlight and moving the story forward in an exciting fashion.

In case you were wondering, I would estimate that with four players (and therefore four PCs) this scene would likely last between ten and twenty minutes. Some groups are all business, working through the scene mechanically with some narrative but not a lot of extraneous discussions. Other groups like to discuss possible responses, what would look best, often bringing in character personality and backstory. But if you are running this at a convention, a scene like this would likely take about fifteen minutes.

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.

Representing Momentum in Sword’s Edge

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.