Thursday, August 5, 2010

Big Aspect - Little Aspect

(Or, How SOTC Lost Its Checkboxes)

So, let me tell you about my character.

I played Finndo, son of Oberon, in Born to Be Kings, the first FATE game ever, run by the inestimable Fred Hicks. Probably one of my favorite characters in one of my favorite games ever. As an early game, there were all manner of interesting things and oddities in the mechanics, some of which sorted themselves out in time and others which we just muddled through.[1]

One particular thing that Fred did was dictate some element in each of our backgrounds. Nothing so big that it overwrote the choices we would make, but rather some particular touchpoint. For Finndo, it was that he had a strong sense of duty. I took that and ran with it - Finndo was the eldest (acknowledged) son, and had walked way form duty in his youth, lost everything, and had returned. Externally he was a powerful, charismatic figure, but internally he was a hollow shell with nothing but his duty pushing him forward. This was a big epic game, and as a result, this was a big epic DUTY.

Now, in the initial draft of the game, chargen had phases, but in each phase the player chose between getting an aspect or getting a few points to spend on skills. In retrospect this was a terrible arrangement, but at the time we don't know any better. But part of that arrangement included the implicit understanding that when a player opted to forgo skills to take an aspects, that aspect was a big deal. An aspect tied to a power meant you could do serious magic. An aspect without magic was similarly powerful, but expressed differently.

The net result was the Finndo's duty was a bedrock truth. Empires would fall before his sense of duty faltered. The only way that duty could ever be broken would be the day that I, as a player, decided he had refilled his shell, found some sort of life again, and walked away from it all.

All of which is to say that while it may have been "just an aspect", it's impact was huge.

I consider Finndo's duty to be an important example, because it highlights the idea that an aspect is something IMPORTANT about a character, not merely something that is true. By the time Kings wrapped up and Fred rolled into his Miskatonic Buffy game, we had started seeing the utility of aspects as an all-purpose multi-tool.

Fast forward to a bit later when we're coming up for the initial rules for what became Spirit of the Century[2]. This was originally just going to be a local game designed to support a rotating cast of players and to give us a chance to test ideas for the Dresden game we were working on. A lot of things came up as we were discussing things, but two in particular merit mention here: aspects and fate points.

So, an important thing to remember is that up until that point, aspects had checkboxes next to them. Those checkboxes cleared out at the end of a session, and when you wanted to use an aspect, you checked it off. You could take the same aspect multiple times to get multiple boxes next to it, indicating it was something particularly important to you. Once a box was checked off, that was it.

It was with this in mind that we originally decided to go with 10 aspects. That allowed us to do 5 phase chargen and have the numbers work out evenly. If someone really wanted to go for 10 single box aspects, they could do so, but they also could focus on a few, important aspects with more boxes too. Since the expectation was that the latter would be the norm, there was no real concern about too many aspects or aspect dilution. Players would, we presumed, gravitate towards their taste and comfort level.

That was all well and good, until an unrelated conversation came up regarding what fate points could do. Remember, they had nothing to do with Aspects at the time (except for earnign them through compels) and Fred and I both had experience with Fudge Points (Fate Points' honorable ancestor) that were few an very potent. We also were pondering non-mechanical things like coincidences, declarations and the like. It's also worth noting that at the time, players started with _no_ Fate points except those they had earned, which were so rare[3] and important thatthey were actually preserved from session to session[4].

And that's when a little idea popped up which had far ranging consequences. "What if," we asked, "spending a fate point could uncheck an aspect box?"

Oh, man, did it unspool form there. It was, after all, an entirely reasonable proposal, and it pushed bonuses onto aspects more than just fate points. There were some implications we had to handle, like bringing aspect bonuses and FP bonuses into line with each other to reflect priorities, and in doing so we had nother idea. But that suggested that the pattern would go liek this: player would leave aspects checked until the very last second when they needed an aspect, and would only then pay to uncheck it. Given that, we considered just starting with every box checked and letting players start with some number of Fate points, but that seemed awkward and artificial. The obvious answer was to forgo the boxes entirely. Sure, it meant that everyone would have 10 aspects, but that would hardly be a problem, right?[5]

We ended up going with the players starting with a number of fate points equal to the number of checkboxes they'd lost (10) because, hey, it's pulp. But the thinking was that number could be adjusted up or down to capture different kinds of tone, with more points getting closer to superheroic and fewer points getting closer to noir.[6]

The thing is, it worked. It worked REALLY well. We had lost the BIG, DEFINING aspects, but in return we'd gotten a tool that could apply elements of descriptive language to virtually any element of games. Where the Fudge/Fate ladder was a universal tool for qualifying things, this was a universal tool for things that didn't need qualification. Hell, with aspects as a descriptive language, it was not hard to start envisioning games that were nothing but aspects, though that's probably its own topic for some point down the line.

But the problem is...well, I miss Finndo's DUTY. Attribute it to how positive the play experience was, or nostalgia or what have you, but some part of me still wants to see a few, potent aspects rather than many descriptive ones. The good news is that's hardly an impossible goal - just as fate was tuned in its current direction, it can be tuned in other ways. God knows, the double-edged nature of aspects are showing up in so many different games in so many different ways that it's not like it's hard to come up with one more implementation.

So this is on my mind. My current game is having some serious fate point economy issues because, frankly, I only call for a handful of die rolls per session, and the characters are capable enough that the bonus provided is not that big a deal. I've been giving them fewer and fewer fate points at the start of each session, to try to find a sweet spot, but frankly, it's just not quite working, in large part because this is probably the lightest version of Fate I've ever run, so light it that could probably be diceless. The answer calls for some pretty serious thinking about the economy of fate points, which are well tuned to scarcity, but not so much for abundance.

1 - Issues with magic are one of the big reasons that FATE supports so many magic systems.

2 - Sad fact - This is why I have no iconic character in SOTC. The various centurions largely came from local games, but as I was running them, I had no PC.

3 - At the time, just as using an aspect was a big deal, compels were also big. You didn't get a fate point for playing your aspect or being inconvenicend by it. You got one when your aspect knocked you down, kicked you in the face, and went through your pockets while you wept in the gutter.

4 - This last was actually one of the issues we were facing - how does that work in a game that's a series of one-shots?

5 - ah, sweet sweet unintended consequences.

6 - We never really explored this tonally (though, mechanically, it's very important to the Dresden Files RPG) , but this is where I give a shout out to Brad Murray, who ended up drilling into it very interestingly in
this post over at his blog. That post is what pretty much lead to this one.


  1. I am reminded of Johnathan Rose's "Hard" aspect (and its many boxes), as well as Deborah's "Quick Study" character.

  2. I want to respond specifically to your last paragraph, about the economy in the Cold War game.

    Part of the problem, truly, for me, is that when we roll, we don't NEED aspects. We are often (as would be expected) applying our best possible tools to the tasks that we're hit with, and our best possible tools are usually rated either Bad-Ass (+4) and Best In The World (+6) (or whatever those numbers are supposed to mean).

    More rarely, we find ourselves having to rely on our worse tools -- Untrained (+0) or merely Competent (+2) -- but to a great extent I think we selected low ratings in those abilities because we wanted the chance to fail.

    The crux of it is, at least from where I'm standing, that neither circumstance incents us, from a mechanical perspective, to engage the aspect machinery.

    When I'm rolling my +6 rating in Observer, I'm rarely thinking "you know what? I really need to be getting a +10 on this fucker". I've never had such a bad roll on one of my high-point skills that I've needed to recover in order to pull back from that four-minus roll. If I end up with a +4 result on a -2 roll, I'm still a bad-ass Observer, at the end of the day. To address this, you'd need to give us harder targets (+8 and higher) and desperate circumstances that compel us, no pun intended, to bring in aspects to make sure we perform above average. Most of the time, I think, you're challenging us at or below our skill levels, so there's been no need.

    I also think you need to tax us for our special abilities more often. I think the only times I've spent a fate point -- though there may be one or two exceptions -- have been paying something in order to activate the psi-power aspect I have so that I get that extra context and scope of action. Honestly, I'd crank this up by giving us some explicit X fate points = Y kind of fiat with this power kind of thing. Imagine if I knew that 1 fate point spent to invoke my psi-power meant that I could pull out a few impossible details and impossible speed from a sea of data, but if I laid down all 5 fate point at once I ended up plugging into the heartbeat of the world and attained something close to cosmic awareness for the length of the scene (which essentially sets the standard that 3 or 5 fate points + a minor psi-power makes you operate at a minor league Mark level for a short period of time -- which gets fun when you then consider that Marks get to do that all the damn time for free). *That's* some potent juju, right there, and honestly would give me a reason to spend fate points even when the dice aren't hitting the table.

    Which is a related point: if you're calling for few rolls, you need to come up with more ways to spend fate points on things that do NOT involve rolling. Increase the role of the aspect-lensed declaration or fiat.

    There's some more stuff bubbling around in my head but I can't lay a finger on it yet. :)

  3. Oh, right: anchors. I think those are going to be a good add, but they seem more oriented on relevance at the compel end of the spectrum. Right now it seems like the "problem" is more about triggering spends.

  4. I don't know if you did it on purpose, but I love the fact that before the first paragraph starts theres a Doctor Strangelove reference AND a Life Aquatic reference

  5. The Strangelove riff was intentional, but the Aquatic one was total coincidence.

  6. I've been noodling around with "hard" and "soft" aspects in a system hack I'm contemplating, with the main difference being that soft aspects do not require a fate point to refuse a compel. I'm not sure this will really do what I want it to at the table, though.

  7. In the pre-Dresden Dresdenfiles game (i.e., before the game came out and we were using what bits and playtest files we had, and filling in the rest with our best guess), one combat would usually drain 3 of us of Fate points. Maybe it's because the Dresdenverse is on the gritty side. The GM nailed the "things go from bad to worse" aspect of the novels.

    Now, the one exception was me. I made a PC who wasn't really geared for physical fighting -- he had people for that. His area was social combat. Nevertheless, somehow, he walked away nigh unscathed from most fights, with most of the fate points unspent.

    I think part of this was a misunderstanding or two that would have been cleared up had the game continued until the actual pdfs / books were available. But, part was that the GM was giving things to me that he should have been bleeding me of fate points to pull off.

    I'm not saying this is the case here, but it may be worth checking. In my case, he rarely called for rolls in social situations, and by rights, he should have. The PCs were almost never dealing with anyone below their weight class, and often with folks quite above it, so it would have forced me to spend the fate points.

    Mind, we did eventually see that putting the character in a duel with a Red Court Vampire made the fate points vanish, but, given that the PC won, it was totally worth it. Hm. The GM used an interesting tactic here that might help in some situations: He handed the NPC to another player, and this guy played the NPC to the hilt, to win, as was right and proper.


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