Friday, October 29, 2010

Crunchy Aspects

Ok, here's the thing - Aspects make for a great shorthand because most of the "rules" that surround them are actually based around our shared understanding of a word or words. If I say a guy is STRONG, there's not a lot of confusion regarding what that means, nor is there much confusion regarding when that might be helpful. Lifting furniture? Check. Smashing stuff? Check. Reciting Poetry? Not so much.

Even more, the reality is that for 90-odd percent of aspects, that works just fine. That's enough that it's entirely possible to play and enjoy the game without worrying about the edge cases. At the very worst, it might be necessary to make the occasionally impromptu ruling, but that's just not terribly onerous.


I am entirely aware that there are players who like the open ended nature of aspects, but at the same time desire a little more structure to them. These players may not have thought of it, but they would enjoy the benefits of a common pool of aspects which they can draw from and establish a shared understanding. Such explicit aspects would serve several purposes, not least of which would be tying mechanics to specific aspects, possibly even doing away with stunts entirely in favor of what I will call "Rich Aspects".

In the land of rich aspects, most aspects would remain unchanged, but the manner they're presented would be expanded, using write-ups in a manner that might be more in keeping with the way that powers get written up in some other games.[1] A Rich aspect will be composed of five parts: a description, bonuses, benefits, penalties and complications. Bonuses and Benefits are things the player can invoke the aspect for, either for a bonus (for bonuses, natch) or a narrative element for benefits. Penalties and complications are situations where the aspect might be compelled, either when acting (penalties) or as plot seeds or events (complications).

For Example:[2]

Soldier of the Empire
Service in the imperial legions gives a man the opportunity to see the world at only moderate risk of life and limb. The imperial infantry is well respected for its discipline and prowess, and a man who returns from his five years with all his parts can expect easy employment with the guard of any of the great houses.
Fight with sword or spear, set up or break down camp, march, walk sentry duty

Collect a small pension. Find a war buddy. Immaculately maintain your gear.

Pass as something other than a military man, disobey a rightful order.

Be recognized by an old friend (or enemy). Get called back up.

There are two benefits to this approach. First, for players, this has one of the benefits that keys offer - explicit clarity. For game designers, it makes it possible to make aspects a more mechanically central part of the game, creating aspect lifepaths or making specific aspects into necessary gateways to other aspects, powers or skills.

Now, me, I'm sufficiently lazy that they only reason I'd really delve into this is as a proof of concept, but I admit it tickles some crunch-happy part of my brain, even as it otherwise makes me flinch.

1 - Look, if this sounds absolutely heretical then just keep moving along. I am aware this is a drastic departure from the normal way of doing Fate, but that's rather the point.

2 - Curiously, I did write all this in advance of Wednesday's discussion. That said, that discussion makes me more inclined to explore this idea a little further later, just because it, and examples like Houses of the Blooded, suggest it may have more legs than I originally thought.


  1. I've been doing much of this in my head as a GM, so it's nice to see the crunch hit paper.

    The cool thing is it's easy to do in other systems. I've made templates in Champions which act this way all the way down to roleplaying the character. Even in D&D I get players to play their character's quirks and drawbacks, leading to a glorious A-Team moment when the sorcerer cast Hold Person on the hydrophobic dwarf to continue pursuing the bad guys across a river.

    I can't wait to see gamefiend's aspect mods for 4e, as it looks like it's right up the same alley as you're talking about here.

  2. Interesting.. as you mention in your footnote this is very different for a FATE game. However...

    I could see this best used with aspects directly connected with the a GM's game world. Such things help establish the both the game world and the implications of belonging to groups and organizations.

    Since such things are not common knowledge they help the player define their role in the world, and define how the aspect they chose operates within that world.

  3. I use a similar version of Aspect to describe the non-human races of my world. This Racial Aspect detail gets listed on an index card cause I think it'll busy up a character sheet.

    If every Aspect where like this it would undermine the simplicity I LOVE of FATE. Might as well play one of those ... burning games. For shame! ;)

    BUT, Richer Aspects have been on my mind as well as a way to reduce Aspect vagueness. My approach more literary.

    Taking your Soldier of the Empire example. On it's own the title only communicates two concepts: job and allegiance/cultural color. It's like a D&D uber-feat. Your detail explicitly defines mechanical influence but a strong inference with added descriptive wording can serve the same purpose intented in each detail point in this rich aspect.

    Bonus - change Soldier to Swordsman or Spearman, legionaire or hoplite.
    Benefit - it says "old and experienced" to me. Add Paragon or Exempler or just Seasoned.
    Penalties - add duty bound to say how this life affects them.
    Complications - long experience serves the potential for recognition. The re-enlistment threat is new. The Empire needs them.

    My Rich Aspect: Exemplary Legionnaire duty bound to the Emperor's Whims.

    Using the idea of Magic words which you wrote on, this aspect applies to any action that can be described with a piece of its wording.

    Further, my idea of advancing Aspects would be changing or adding more descriptors to the Aspect reflective of the story rather than more Aspects per milestone.

    So, after adventuring from a Good apex pyramid to a Superb apex character, the Aspect could be Once Honored, Now Fallen Legionnaire cursed by the duty to serve a Land that No Longer deserves It.

    That's a rich Aspect :D

  4. @loyd Hmm, or you could make the entire writeup into magic words:

    Soldier of the Empire - Soldier, Sword, Spear, Duty, Pension, Travel, War Buddies, old enemies, war.

  5. Wow. I was just going to mention that there's nothing stopping you from writing up ANY Aspect as a Rich Aspect. You *can* predefine certain ones, perhaps with plenty of places for customization as Lloyd suggests, but there shouldn't be anything stopping a player from taking a freeform Aspect and detailing what it means in a very similar way.

    Also, the idea is somewhat tied to scopes -- all of these aspects of the Aspect (if you will) are tied together, so of course I can't tag both the experienced soldier and knows how to use a sword parts of the aspect for double bonuses on the same act.

    I know, this is a little incoherent, but I love this idea and I'm totally going to run with this in my FATE heartbreaker system that exists only as bits and pieces in my head. :)

  6. @Rob You could, but my version is much prettier. This is an Aspect that's like a baby food stew (simple collection of varied details) versus an Aspect souffle (fancy structured varied details), both are nutritious for the story and digestable by different levels of the FATE-experienced :>

    @George My idea was to broaden an Aspect by tying two or three lame ones into one with umph.

    I'm using something like Scopes and this encourages players to write fleshed out Aspects to get around them. Three to four detail components make a decent Aspect for my game's purposes.

  7. @George The ability to switch between structured and freeform on the fly is definitely one of the benefits I'm really thinking to exploit.

  8. This is great. I've been toying with an adapted Ars Magica system using Aspects that are tied to certain virtues. Especially if I go with a more fantasy world with a different god representing each art...

  9. This is most useful when the benefits and complications are unclear. Mmy HOTB swordsman had a "student of the emerald dance" aspect representing the sword school he was taught. Good start, but needed fleshing out to understand what it actually means.

    Another way to spin is aspect templates. This is the "named aspect" stuff I've mentioned. Take a generic concept and build up a list of common bonuses, penalties; the player customizes it when they take it. Back when 7th Sea came out, I was turning Champions Disads into 7th Sea backgrounds. Today, I'd do that with an aspect, and make sure the aspect said something colorful. So "Hunted: VIPER 8-" becomes "Hunted: VIPER wants to experiment on me". By calling it a 'Hunted', there's immediate shared agreement about ways this aspect can be used in play. TV tropes also work well as templates. A "Mentor" template is an relationship to someone who taught you.

    After making some initial posts about the idea, it is stuck in my head but I'll get back to it at some point. :)

    @Loyd - The thing I don't like about your proposal is that I think packs 2 or 3 aspects worth of material into a single aspect. It makes it a thorny knot to untangle and inconvenient to use at the table.

    The aspect name is long enough that it isn't shorthand. I can say "I tag my Soldier of the Empire aspect to blah blah" and that flows naturally in conversation. If I tried to say "I tag my Once Honored, Now Fallen Legionnaire cursed by the duty to serve a Land that No Longer deserves It aspect", I'd forget what I was trying to do. ;) It would probably be spoken aloud as "I tag my Fallen Legionnaire aspect to blah blah blah" and so that's what the aspect should be named. I'm not sure if there are good guidelines for how long an aspect name should actually be, but it helps to recognize that aspect names are often spoken aloud in play.

    By breaking the aspect into parts, it is easier to see what tags, compels, and invokes look like for each piece. I've also seen enough RPG net posts about aspect packing, that it pings my radar a bit there, in the same way that at the table of a Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies game, I'd be worried about Fortes with overlarge penumbras.

    I don't want to sound completely negative. I really like that it isn't a generic aspect. It says something about the character who has it, and does so quite well. A Fallen Legionnaire has different flavor than Soldier of the Empire does, with added complications.

    At my table, I'd give a big thumbs up for the concept but I'd ask for it to be broken up into smaller bites.

    I totally agree on one point: Aspect names should evolve as the character evolves. Keeping aspects fresh is essential. To keep this on topic: If you have crunchy aspects that provide specific mechanical effects, how does a player change those aspects? Is one crunchy aspect always replaced with another?

    * In Dresden Files, aspect changes are a milestone event, but the Extreme Consequences and Lawbreaker rules also that GMs should demand a change in aspect after big story events.

    * Smallville has players question the descriptions of beliefs and relationships in the middle of the story; at the end of the story, they change to reflect their new equilibrium.

    I like the Smallville approach a little better, if only because I aspect changes might be lost in the noise of other character character changes that happen at a milestone.

    One answer may be to ask players to track the aspects that get used for tags, compels, resisting compels, etc.. I kit-bashed a Smallville-like rule that allows players to buy their way out of a compel for free, at the cost of having to revise that aspect in the next milestone.

  10. @ Codrus The Aspect though long would be run with the Magical words version of Aspect use.

    It was a few articles back but basically Aspects apply when parts of their verbiage describes the action they're influencing.

    So it's not just descriptive but broader in scope the richer it becomes over my Aspect advancement scheme.

    Fallen Legionnaire can be used for an invoke. Once Honored invoked in another scene. Cursed by the Duty to Serve could be compelled in another scene. A Land that no Longer deserves it (duty) could give a declaration.

    Its essentially Aspects within an Aspect whose tone and theme codifies all of it's components.

  11. One of the other reasons I like more detailed definition of Aspects is that it also helps players form ideas about exactly what their chosen Aspect involves. Having explicit hooks into the Aspect is a great source of inspiration for actually using the Aspect.

    [And yes, they shouldn't need it, but I've found that during play it can be difficult for a lot of players to engage their Aspects with the game system (with the exception being the simple Aspects such as Strong, Fast, etc.)]


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