Designing for Momentum

December 4, 2014

Momentum is the term I use for when games flow and have a palpable energy at the table.  Some games are better designed to produce this than others, typically a major part of it is how well the game communicates the goals of play and gets everyone on board with it, and how well the mechanics match that.

Notably this is how well a game communicates it’s Creative Agenda, the process by which it gets there, and often times, the group’s individual ability to understand that, fill in any gaps, and do cohesively as one.


Character motivation is an easy way to get momentum – “What does your character want to do?” gives a direction to players.  It also tells the GM what to focus conflicts on.   These motivations can be hard set (Inspectres- you are a team of ghost busters), it can be player authored (Drifter’s Escape – list things your Drifter wants to do/get before leaving town) or it can be from a pick-list (Poison’d – pick Ambitions) etc.

Two key points must be understood for motivation mechanics to work.

First, they must be relevant to immediate play.  If your character has motivations that aren’t going to show up for another 2 months of play – they effectively do not exist until that time.  It’s important that at least some of the motivations apply to your character’s situation, here, and now.  This is both an issue for players and GMs – the players have to pick things that are going to be immediately addressable, the GM has to also include them into scenes and conflicts.

Second, motivations should lead the player characters together.  This could be together as a team or a group working towards a common cause, or it must lead them to conflict.  Some games do an excellent job of doing both- which creates an amazing tension of characters gauging whether cooperation or conflict is in their best interests.  Although a few games out there recommend potentially doing characters’ stories in parallel -without necessarily intersecting, I haven’t reliably been able to pull it off and don’t think it is as reliable of a thing to design for.

Over the last few years some of the more mainstream games have attempted to try to take in motivation mechanics but failing in these regards have basically added another line you fill in on your character sheet and forget about 97% of the time in play.

Conflict Cueing

How does the game produce conflicts in the fiction? How do you know WHEN to add more conflict? I’m using conflict here to mean overarching or recurring issues – a swordfight isn’t important, pissing off the Red Sword Clan is (a source of problems > a given set of problems).

It can be player authored (Primetime Adventures – players set scenes), GM authored (Most RPGs, but especially assisted if given good Flags or targets to base conflict on), a result of resolution mechanics (“But only if…” in Polaris and Thou Art But a Warrior) etc.

One of the biggest killers of momentum is either a lack of conflict – literal – as in no stress is upon the characters to do anything, or communicated, as in, why things should be important or why the players themselves should care, is absent.  This is the primary reason a lot of Illusionist/railroaded play falls down – in such play the conflict is often artificially stretched out – so you end up with a lot of information withholding and blocking of options – so players either don’t know what to do, or don’t care because they realize there just isn’t a lot to engage with after all.


Pacing Mechanics are pretty excellent and a great way to do things.  Either they require the players to push their characters to cause the pacing to advance, or else they put a time limit so the players have to push their characters to achieve goals before the game ends.

These pacing mechanics might be a hard set of sessions like Primetime Adventures “seasons” or it might be a set of conditions such as My Life With Master’s scores for the characters.

Pacing mechanics can also force changes in play or focus – Bliss Stage forces players to use Intermission scenes and focus on character relationships.


Rewards are points – advancement, experience, hero points, bonus dice, whatever.   Points or bonuses that you can use to improve your choices or odds in play.

Rewards tie tightly to motivations and conflicts (facing them, overcoming them) and serve as a great tool to push momentum.  The key point is about whether the rewards are pushing folks in the right directions – you can see games where there’s “Get an XP for good roleplaying” and no real direction on what good roleplaying looks like – and all you end up with is most players spinning out.

Rewards are not the only way, though they are extremely reliable for producing momentum.  These can be hard set (The 80’s Marvel Superheroes game laid out it’s Karma system as the code for heroes), they can be tied to player authored Flags, or they can be completely open to judgment by the group (Primetime Adventure’s Fan Mail, Tenra Bansho Zero’s Aiki).


Avoiding, removing penalties, or being forced to work with limited options because of penalties can drive a good set of momentum.  The key point to a good penalty mechanic is that it forces you to make interesting choices (relative to the Creative Agenda/point of the game, etc.).

Just having a penalty that makes you worse at everything doesn’t mean much, unless there’s choices that come out of it – options to use other means/methods, options which indebt you to others or otherwise affect your motivaitons and character in a larger sense, options which you spend valuable points or resources, options which basically boil down to “Here is a desperate situation I can run or I can risk myself for it.” etc.

It’s also important to realize some forms of penalties, such as injuries, may in fact, be more of a pacing mechanic – bringing a foreseeable end to a character, or forcing a personality change upon them (Sorcerer’s Humanity 0 rewrite rule, for example).


Primetime Adventures

The meta view of making a TV show helps a lot of players really understand to design the situation and their characters to interact with each other, compared to many tabletop RPGs.  The Issues mechanic serves as a great Motivation set up, which is followed through with the scene setting rules that pushes players and the GM to focus on those as Conflict sources.  The generation of new conflict also occurs in places with the narration trading mechanics.   Fanmail serves as a reward that is passed between the group for engaging with all of the above in interesting ways.

The episode/season rules set up a pacing mechanic for the overall campaign, but also in terms of characters’ story arcs – when you have more Spotlight you are able to achieve more and narrate more often, when you have less, you often stack up problems and conflicts for later.

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