Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Discussion: Does Momentum Exist in Table Top RPGs?

First, a warning. This post was written while watching the Super Bowl, specifically started with 12 minutes left in the 4th quarter where the Packers finally woke back up after the first half. The performance by the Packers on that drive has been amazing. They were like a totally different team from what they had been just the quarter before. The reason for this? A swing in momentum caused by a turn over. This isn't unusual in sports, momentum is always a key factor in a game, and is discussed constantly. "They have good momentum going into this half", "How are they going to take the momentum back?", "Who will control the momentum going into the last few minutes of the game?"

You can also see this with combat units, only with them it is morale. Though, momentum and morale can be much the same thing. The belief, the firing up needed, to believe that you can do it, you can accomplish something. It can be amazing to feel it, and when you are swept up in good momentum, or high morale, it really does seem like you can give 110% or more.

Next, because I'm a big geek, I started to wonder if this applies to RPGs at all? Now, obviously the players can get on a hot streak, start rolling really well and really destroy the opposition. But is that the same thing? Sure, the players will feel good during it, but I don't know if it would count as momentum. I've seen luck turn bad far too suddenly for me to believe it. See, in RPGs we use dice - or cards at times - to determine what happens. Those dice give you the same chance of success or failure every time though. Yes, you can catch breaks. You can roll the amazing roll needed to pull off the big, but hard to do, thing. But that isn't going to really improve anyone's chances of riding that momentum and boost to morale.

So, I guess the question for this discussion is 1) am I wrong? Does Momentum actually exist buried within the systems (or a particular system) for RPGs, just waiting to show up and change things the way it can? 2) If not, how would you, or can you even, add it into a situation? Would it be worth giving bonuses for the breaks? Do you then have to give penalties when things are going poorly? Could it be an effect off a critical? "Whenever you pull a critical off, all allies gain +1 to all checks this round" and just apply that to both sides?

What do you think? Sound off on it below.


  1. It's not a bad idea, a lot of wargames obviously use it.

    I do think that momentum can exist even in a random system if the good rolls get the player's confidence up and they start thinking that they can win, then they think a bit more about how to accomplish it or they are less risk averse and put more resources in.

    Even in a random system, if I get a few good rolls by chance, that can mean I got through a earlier challenge with less losses than was expected. Unless the GM subsequently ups the difficulty the players have the momentum of still having hit points (or just less damage in general) that they may not have had. Maybe they even used fewer expendable resources and so are more capable than they expected to be.

    So in a number of ways yes, but most RPGs don't really model the psychological advantage of winning directly. With the momentum I just mentioned, you'd have to be careful not to over do it. It could be a small effect and have a big impact.

  2. I like your point about having more HP/less wounds/more resources as representing the momentum. I think that is an aspect of it I completely didn't consider properly when writing this post.

    Momentum makes things easier, and those good rolls do that by making you lose less resources.

    I think I'd still like to see a way for the psychological to have an impact, but I think that would have to be the main part of a game, mechanically anyhow.

  3. It could be modeled by a higher resistance to fear effects (+10 for saves vs fear and intimidation) and/or a slight advantage to initiative rolls (the chars are more alert and energetic). That's just one way of modeling it.

    How to track momentum, is another matter. It really matters how you would consider momentum building. It could be something as small as making three consecutive successes. Another possibility is a "Reversal" like you mentioned for football. The characters pull off something like an interception. Maybe it's a number of things that the GM can look out for.

  4. I think RPGs have momentum as much as sports or anything else.

    What is momentum in sports? Is it people suddenly just becoming much better at what they do? No, it's confidence and one side gaining the initiative. I have seen it happen in RPGs a lot. The group begins to "click," and to work together instead of just around each other. They act and the enemy (slash GM) reacts instead of vice versa. The party finished off one guy and kicks down the next door instead of farting around. Bad guys don't get buff time or the ability to organize counterattacks.

    I remember once we were playing a bunch of pirates going through this dungeonlike thing with a bunch of rooms of hobgoblins. It was trying to channelize us into carefully approaching one small ambush group dug into cover after the other, getting hit by readied crossbow bolts, etc. Instead we flipped out and just started ravaging the place, rushing in on one group and hacking them and part of our group rushing the next door before we had finished them all off even - their tactics were overcome by the blitzkrieg and we rolled them right on up.

    Similarly I've seen groups crumble and the other side get the momentum. There's fear, the group's unsure, half the party tries to retreat and the other half stay and fight so then some of the retreaters come back but by that time one of the fighters is down... There don't need to be numerical bonuses, it's all reflected in the complexity of the tactical situation and chosen actions.
    You could try to model momentum at the character level (morale bonuses) but I think it's fine to leave it at the player level.

  5. I can see your point, but some of what you have their I'd actually chalk up to team work and communication more than morale/momentum. Yes, morale/momentum has a dramatic impact on teamwork/communication, but they're not necessarily the same thing.

    Some people retreating, while others stay to attack, is generally because different people have different ideas for things. Morale and player fear can be a factor for sure, but large scale instances usually come from a break down in communication. Which is usually player morale, not necessarily character morale.

    I say this because in numerous L5R games I've seen those break downs happen in the beginning of fights, and in a system like L5R that spells out death for the whole group.

    You are right though, you can leave it at the player level and be perfectly fine.