Friday, October 8, 2010

Aspect Technology

I've been kind of randomly designing Fate widgets for a variety of purposes and thinking about some fiddly bits, and I figured I'd share a couple of them.

Hard and Soft Compels
So, one of the most contentious rules issues in Fate revolves around the handling of compels. The question is this: when the GM puts forward a compel, should the player be able to defer (at no cost) or should the player have to pay a fate point to put off the compel.

There are good arguments on both sides that more or less boil down to this: On one hand paying to resist a compel is pretty expensive and not necessarily fun because that fate point could be better spent doing something interesting. On the other hand, paying to resist is the only way to give aspects teeth, and without the requirement to pay, aspects which should have a concrete effect, like injuries or scene aspects like "Out of Air" don't actually have any teeth.[1]

There are other issues too, though less central ones. For example, not-paying is arguably more newbie-friendly (which is why my earlier Magic Words implementation was a no-pay one). You can pick any number of issues, but as long as you can grasp the main conflict, it should be pretty clear.

In an ideal world there should be some way to distinguish between aspects that you opt to take versus those which you must take. There's a temptation to split the terminology here into offers (optional) and compels (Pay or play) but just for consistency I'll refer to them as soft and hard compels.

There are a couple of ways to handle this, so here are two that are on my mind[2]:

1. Straight Signaling
No mechanical change here except that when the GM puts forward a fate point as part of a compel, there are two ways to do it, depending on how the GM intends the compel. On a soft compel, which the player is free to refuse, the GM offers the fate point held upright in his fingers, or in his palm, facing up. On a hard compel, which the player would need to buy off, the GM sets the fate point down on the table (ideally with a forcible *click*) and withdraws his hand.

The one thing this demands are fate points that are clearly visible and easily manipulated. Poker chips are my usual favorite and they work very well for this approach, especially for getting that *click*.

2. Adjusted Cost
One other easy way to do it is to up the effective "value" of a hard compel over a soft one. Doing this effectively reduces the cost of refusing a compel by one fate point, which is to say, when the GM puts forward one fate point, the player is free to refuse. If the GM puts forward _two_ fate points, the player needs to put forward one to counter it. The GM can then put forward a third, the player a second and so forth. This has the advantage of being pretty clear with any kind of fate point, and it implicitly acknowledges that some compels are nastier than others.

Decoupled Refresh
So, a fixed refresh pool is an important thing when it's a part of the rest of the system, as it is in the case of Dresden Files, but that's not a necessity in every game. Similarly, Spirit of the Century has an implicit refresh (it's not called that) equal to the number of aspects, but there's no need why that must be so. Setting a much lower or higher refresh value can tweak a game. Admittedly, setting it higher can get silly, but setting it low, sometimes quite low, can be very powerful. The trick that I am currently very fond of is this: Assume a default refresh of zero, and increase it by one for every aspect on the character's sheet that you've used to plan the current session.

This is a nicely double-edged trick. To players it communicates who is going to be in the spotlight in a given episode. As a GM, it tells you how well you've engaged each player. If you find yourself giving someone no fate points, you've probably done something wrong. I'm doing this in my Cold War game, and, I try to gun for at least two per player as a baseline, with more of them for the character drawing my attention.

Fast Aspects
I love a good phased chargen for building connections between players and characters, but you simply don't always have time to do all that, so here's a quick and dirty way to generate a list of aspects that defines the character and ties everyone together.

First, generate your three key aspects. The first is your High Concept. As in the DFRPG, this is the single aspect most reflective of what your character is, If you were to describe him in a single turn of a phrase, it would be this. The second should be your Trouble, the aspect that lies at the heart of most of the problems you encounter. This is the big obstacle you struggle with. Third is your ace in the hole, your little something extra that makes you a little bit more than yout high concept and trouble might suggest. Maybe it's a secret, maybe it's a different problem entirely, maybe it's some unexpected past experience you can call on. Whatever it is, it's the twist that rounds out your core description.

You will get an additional number of aspects equal to the number of players (including yourself, but not the GM). The first of them is what your character thinks (or perhaps hopes) people think of you. This is your Facade. At this point take a quick pause - everyone should share their High Concept, Trouble and Facade and, optionally, their Ace in the Hole.[3]

The others are each something your character thinks is true about each other character. It's helpful for these to be strong opinions, and it's important to embrace the idea that these (as well as the facade) are not simply _possibly_ wrong, they are almost _certainly_ wrong. That's as it should be. It creates a mild friction that provides a basis for interaction that might otherwise be purely limited to the necessities of play.

Feel free to openly discuss these aspects as you pick them, and players should reveal them all at the end of chargen before play begins.

As a GM, give the players opportunities to change the aspects if they have particularly good player-player interactions that would seem to change the relationship. Make sure that the new aspect is clearly stated. See, no one is one thing all the time, so creating a new expectation is just as much of a play driver as a misapprehension.[4]

1 - The iconic bad example of this is a character with a "Broken Leg" refusing a compel on an athletics roll to keep the from sprinting around.

2 - This pair of options (and others like it) are the kind of rules options I'm very fond of because you can drop them into any FATE variant and they hold up.

3 - Yes, you can keep your Ace in the Hole secret, and while this would seem at odds with my usual problem with secrets, note that with the limited set of aspects, there's going to be a strong incentive to _use_ that aspect. Which is to say, if it's a secret, it's a secret that wants to come out in play, and that's as it should be.

4 - Kudos to the fantastic Smallvile RPG, which inspired this idea.


  1. The decoupled refresh is very effective. It sets our expectations as players, gives us a little structure while seeming organic, and starts the game off with quiet squee of delight that we're sure to get screwed.

    I also like the adaptable aspects, but that's an aside. I don't see much change in the relationships in the Cold War Game. Bull is Bull; Grey is Grey; Anna just wants to avoid boxes.

  2. Regarding Hard/Soft compels, I've found it effective to simply Tag an Aspect to the character's disadvantage whenever I want a Hard compel. Am I doing it wrong, have you found this not effective in your experience or did this not occur to you?

    Decoupled refresh is very useful i've found for the high drama game I'm developing. Since DFRPG came out, I consider adaptable Aspects a MUST to reflect the style of characterization a game uses.

  3. Thanks, this was rather useful. I'd picked up DFRPG recently and after my initial skimming the hard compels was the area where an area where GM technique was particularly important.

    I've played some BESM back in the day, and the uneven use of defects was always a tricky problem even when players were happy to play them to the hilt. I think with these ideas in hand I'm more comfortable with managing that issue.

  4. I like the Adjusted Cost technique. I've never used compels with more than one FP, but with this tactic I may. If nothing else it gets the player more FPs for the trouble.

    I'm using FP and Aspects in my 4e Dnd game actually and it's working out great. I need to pay attention to the aspect list in my session prep, and your decoupled refresh got me thinking about that. When and how to refresh in 4e is tricky. So far, there has been no refresh, but liberal ways to earn FPs. They're my main bribe-tool and the only one I've found to work in our game. Gp and even EXP don't cut it since I've basically scratched both of those mostly out of the game or abstracted.

    Thanks for the thoughts. Here's my question: Don't players complain that different people refresh different FP amounts based solely on GM decision/whim?

  5. @Atminn this is a fantastic question:

    "Don't players complain that different people refresh different FP amounts based solely on GM decision/whim?"

    The short answer is No, but that's probably not useful.

    The big part of it that the players understand the logic of what's going on (Deborah in the first comment is in fact one of my players in the game where I first used this technique). They know that it means that the spotlight is going to be on that guy tonight, and they trust that it will come around. Part of this is that I'm lucky to have fantastic players who want to support one another, but I think most groups would be similarly fantastic if they think of things in terms of their fellow players rather than the GM.

    That said, it also helps that I never make two big a discrepancy. In my cold war game, it usually means one player gets 3 FP and the others get 2. On the one occasion that one player got 4 FP, the response was not one of "Hey, she got more than I did!" it was "Man, she is _so_ screwed".

    Which is as it should be. :)

  6. @loyd Tagging works great when it's a simple matter of creating a penalty on a roll, but it is harder to apply when the compel relates to the character making a choice, taking a particular course of action, or otherwise taking action outside of the scope of the dice. Those are the situations where I find the question of hard vs. soft becomes most problematic.

    (Also, there's a matter of degree. Mechanically, Sprained Ankle and One-Legged would both have the same impact, but I would compel One Legged to prevent running entirely while I might merely tag sprained Ankle to slow the character down.)

    -Rob D.

  7. @atmin We don't fuss about who gets more FP because we know what it means: they get more screwage, so they're going to need more FPs to cope. Also, it all goes away after a session anyway, so it's all temporary.

    It's on the GM to be fairly round robin and balance the load of screwage - and most GMs will. The session where I found myself staring at a waiting stack of 4 FP, my earnest little PC got locked in a containment box and completely run around by her family (and she still doesn't know) who may or may not - argh. It was justified. During that session (my spotlight session), the other PCs were having the kind of fights that define a character (they had to gas Bull, finally, to knock him out, because he would. not. stay. down) and ram the opposition with jeeps. The opposition were not in cars. I don't think anyone felt unloved, and a couple of those moments are seminal character images for me. So it works out.

  8. This is some great advice. I've always found compels to be one of the trickiest part of any Fate game. In addition you could also make compels on aspects like your Trouble hard compels while all other aspects would be soft (as the point of the Trouble is to get compelled).

    I also love the fast aspects. I always liked the idea of the cooperative/story character gen but it never worked for us. We always sat down and struggled with what to write, get frustrated and start talking about something else. We would spend four hours at this and not finish. I think next time I run a Fate game I'll try the fast aspects.

  9. For disallowing an action, tagging for effect, like invoking, can let me say that an action isn't possible.

    In the case of compeling a decision or action, I see that falls out of a tag's ability. In these cases I've favored the adjusted cost.

    If each scene or session has a GM FATE point budget, say equal to the total Refresh of all PCs, I think it would make Hard pay-or-play compelling more fair to players.

  10. @loyd Ah, this reveals one of the minor problems of terminology. I tend to use "tag" in a very limited way, and consider it to be a subset of "compel", but that is also because I'm very old fashioned. I think we're more or less agreeing on methodology, just tripping on terms.

  11. @Rob It seems so. My tag concept is from SotC where its an invoking of an Aspect that isn't your characters. Old fashioned for you may be some version of FATE I've never seen, being a creator and all :D

    What do you think would be a good amount for the a per scene GM FP budget? Is the idea itself a bit too adversarial themed?

  12. @loyd The idea of a GM budget (either in total or in scene) is one of those ideas that I've fooled around with since before SOTC ever made it onto the printed page but which I've never found a truly satisfying solution for. I've tried some yardsticks, like "Budget for a scene == Number of players, plus villains have their own pool" or "GM Pool for the game equals the total number of apsects across all the characters" and they all _work_, but none of them really improve the game in any way to make them worthwhile.

    Which is not to say its not something to try. I suspect some FATE builds (especially crunchier ones) would support it far better than others, so it's still very much a venue for experimentation.

  13. Love the Adjusted Cost option, Rob. That little bit of at-the-table procedure seems like it would really go a long way to streamlining that whole process.

    Fast Aspects also sounds like a lot of fun. You could even squeeze that plus play into a con game slot, I think — assuming a lot of improv on the GM's part to make the ensuing adventure relevant to those aspects.

  14. Nice to see Smallville love. I'm not sure when/if I'll run a game with it, but the ideas in it have certainly been affecting how I look at FATE and FATE aspects. One of the things I like about aspects is there inherent flexibility. Like the relationships/beliefs system from Smallville? Graft it into a FATE game by asking for specific relationship and belief aspects.

    FWIW, I did a FATE hack to allow players to question an aspect in a scene, much like Smallville does for relationships and beliefs.

    Another way I'd look at the soft/hard compel argument is to make soft compels a player choice, and hard compels a GM choice. That may not be clear, so let me try to clarify it.

    As a GM, if I'm looking for a soft compel, I put the player in a situation where one or more of his aspects might be interesting, but I don't explicitly compel the player. I wait for the player to ask for a compel or to take actions that are in the spirit of the aspect and that will get them into trouble. If they take the bait, they get the fate point. If they don't take the bait, they don't get anything.

    A hard compel is when I spell out the scene and present the compel up front. By presenting the compel, it can't be ignored. The player must respond to it in some way.

    I definitely agree that compels need to have teeth.

  15. @josh Yeah, the fat aspects came together after listening to Macklin and Isikoff talk about their Iron GM experiences, and what a big deal getting the relationships in place between the characters was for a game that had to start up quickly. Chewing on how to do that, I stole an idea from a game you might have SOME passing familiarity with, and my hope is the net result is much more convention friendly.

  16. I do hard AND soft compels. It's just a manner of presentation.

    I know I do a body language difference. Soft compels are more coy, hard compels are more direct. Verbally it looks something like this.

    Soft compel: "Are you sure you don't want to..."

    Hard compel: "You are going to..."


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