Thursday, August 4, 2011

Quantum Aspects

OK, I've gotten knocked off on a tangent, and I'll stay on it for the moment. What the heck, it's Gencon week, so things are weird anyway.

First off, feedback to yesterday's post was fantastic. I want to thank everyone who weighed in. Lots of good thoughts, and the starting points of some solutions, I think. Going to percolate a bit.

But the fact that it spun off into Fate lead to me thinking about aspects, and some thinking I've had regarding them. I very rarely make concrete declarations about aspects because they are not terribly concrete. Oh, sure, there's an idea there which can be used, but its borders and shape are quite fuzzy. This is, I think, very much a good thing. It's the reason the idea of aspects can be so easily inserted into so many different contexts, but it also addresses a harsh reality of gaming - we're a painfully inconsistent lot.

Nothing reflects this more than the rules for compels, and it's no surprise that these may often be the most confusing or problematic thing for players to work with. Some of this is because they're different than other games - players who are used to implicit limiters may balk at explicit ones, for example - but I think there's a deeper, more essential issue.

So, one of the core principals of gaming in my mind is that bad things are going to happen to your characters. Some people object to this, but I'll stand by it on the simple grounds that bad things are the basis for almost every interesting thing that can happen in a game. It's theoretically possible to have a game where players just build everything up positively, but given the relative rarity of such games, I'll stick by my thesis: Bad things happen in good games.

Given that, the next question is where those bad things come from. It's entirely possible for the bad things to be random, capricious, or entirely external to the characters. This is fine, but it is my opinion that arbitrary bad things are less interesting that bad things which touch upon the characters in some way. This is not to say everything needs to stem directly from the characters - there's a sliding scale - but I definitely gravitate towards character-connected badness.

That's two value judgments so far, and here's an important jumping-off point. If you disagree with one or both of those, FATE Is not going to be a very good match for you. It won't automatically become bad as a result, but it'll be like a pair of shoes that's not quite the right size. You can still run and walk, but it'll rub you wrong, and you might just want a better-fitted pair.

Ok, so given that, how do we find good ways to draw things out of characters? Rich backgrounds can do it, of course, but that's a lot of writing and a lot of reading that no one really wants to do. There needs to be a shorthand. Advantages and disadvantages can do this, but they have a couple problems. First, they tend to have limited lists. Second, they tend to be dominated by mechanics. Some people may pick ads & disads based on flavor, but I don't think I'm being unreasonable to suggest that they are most often picked for maximum mechanical benefit (for ads) or minimal impact (for disads). Yes, I acknowledge that you may be a special snowflake who would never do such a thing, but me? I _totally_ would. My GURPs characters and various point-build supers over the years are utter embarrassments.

So, obviously, aspects step into that niche. And, conceptually, they're very straightforward - will it help you? Get a bonus! Will it hinder you? Get a fate point! But there's a lot of fiddle room in there, and that's where confuses emerges. Not so often for when the bonus is given, since that's very straightforward - player asserts the aspect is appropriate by declaring it and if the GM doesn't countermand or call for elaboration then the bonus is given. There's a little room for debate, but it's smooth going overall.

Compels though…that gets kind of crazy. On some level, it would have been easiest if we'd just been more draconian about it and let the GM say "No, you can't, you've got that aspect" and hand the player a point. That may allow the occasional dick move, but it's very clear. Unfortunately, that's not quite how we roll. We really _like_ that moment in fiction when someone exceeds their limitations or defies expectations, and it was with that in mind that we included the idea that the player could step up, spend a point and say "No, this matters enough that I will overcome my limitation and press on."

Nice concept, eh? But the "spending a point" bit really muddied the waters. People love their Fate points, and the idea of needing to spend one without getting a bonus is one that does not sit well on them, especially if they are inclined to see it as GM bullying or extortion. It's with that in mind that a lot of people have adopted a model of making the compel an offer rather than a demand, allowing players to simply refuse to take the point (and thus refuse the compel). I've talked about these Hard vs. Soft compels in the past, and it's mechanically addressable, but doing so kind of skips the underlying question.

The real question behind any compel is how the player perceives it. That is - how much does the player _want_ to be hindered by the things he declared important during chargen. Sometimes the answer is "not at all" and it's important to be able to recognize it. Sometimes the answer is "All the time" and you're likely to have problems with compelling these players because they're going to be pre-emptively embracing their problems.

But the rub is, how do you make a mechanic that incorporates both of these players?

This, I should note, is part of why I stick with hard compels (ones that demand payoff ) simply to make sure that they have teeth. Provided my sensibilities are in line with my players (and I hope thye are) my compels will rarely be rebuffed because what I'm really doing with a compel is offering the player a chance to do the thing he would have done if he'd seen the connection between it and his aspect. Yes, if the player's being a jerk and trying to run sprints with a broken leg, then I'm also using it as an enforcement mechanism, but I honestly couldn't tell you the last time I've needed to do that.

And that's where we come to the self contradiction. Through my embrace of hard compels, I am almost never put in a position where I have to use them, which is really the ideal space. That is - the best use of the tool is not not need it.

It's a nerdy kind of Zen, but I'll take it.


  1. I think that I am perfectly in line with you all the way through this. I guess that's why I'm drawn to FATE so much.

    I sometimes wonder if there would be less objection to compels if they were called something else. Twist? Catch? Maybe even push? I think that a lot of people just get a knee-jerk reaction to the idea of the GM forcing them to do something, even if it's something that the character should be doing anyway. And, that reaction tends to overwhelm a lot of the actual implications of how compelling works.

    As a related note, I'm currently running a 7th Sea game, and one of the players essentially has an Aspect of "Wet Behind the Ears" that he is constantly self-compelling. Note that this is with the actual R&K system, and not with FATE. I'm trying to remember to give him a drama die every time he does, just because it's awesome. Similarly, I think that rewarding self-compels with a FATE point is often enough to cover the second type of player you mention.

  2. [Just some semi-random Aspect feedback on some of my experiences with Fate. YMMV and will.]

    One problem we always had with Aspects is that we would inevitably end up in a race for the coolest sounding aspect titles, which may have been great during character generation, but kind of sucked during play. Especially as we tended to only want to invoke an Aspect when we felt it directly applied. As such I prefer a more Houses of the Blooded approach where the Compel and Tag are explicitly defined. Less poetic but much more playable.

    The other thing (which may be related) is that
    the game became a lot easier when players compelled themselves and were free to take fate points. They could always remember the flip side of their Aspects while it may not always be possible for the gamemaster to do so.

    There is a great tendency to revert to D&D style resource control in these sorts of games, which causes the players to want to hoard against a perceived future need. So the solution is often to turn up the generosity, and make aspects less of a serious matter. [ie no "dum dum dum ... he's invoking the compel].

    I do prefer a game where the FATE points (or Style Points or similar) are in constant circulation. Aside from investing in a set of plutonium markers (collect too many and go boom) it often depends on player and session dynamics. However I think I like the idea (haven't tried it yet) on bringing Refresh into the main game context, so that Bad Stuff (kudos to Amber) starts happening if your accumulated Fate points exceeds the character's Refresh. I think this might go best with Dresden Files.

    It also helps if you then work out other methods where Fate points can be used. The ability to build the world (such as exemplified in Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies), works well. But then, when you start doing all that, you really aren't playing a Fate-based game any more.

  3. I know this is preaching to the choir but...

    The problem with disadvantages (with the typical structure seen in either Hero or GURPS) isn't that they come from a fixed list. Indeed, Hero doesn't really provide a fixed list of disadvantages as much as it provides a list of disadvantage *categories*. I actually think having categories can be helpful to communicate different possibilities to a player, particularly if those categories describe genre tropes.*

    No, I think the problem is that the benefits for taking a disadvantage are almost entirely front loaded. You were paid up front mechanically with additional points to spend, but after that there's no mechanical pay off for keeping it on your character sheet. So, there's a mechanical benefit to having anemic disadvantages that don't really affect you during play. There are also some edge cases where you should be able to get rid of a disadvantage for rational reasons in game, but you don't have the points to spend to actually do so.

    This is the problem that 7th Sea solved with Backgrounds. It moved the problem out of the character generation space and into the play space. When players are paid because a backgrounds come up in play, players want those things to come up in play. Because it can keep earning them points, players are encouraged to not try to wrap up their backgrounds in the first session.

    The fact that 7th Sea actually made you pay for backgrounds is also interesting -- it means players are unlikely to stack their character with as many backgrounds as possible. I think a big problem games like GURPS and Hero have is that they encourage too many disadvantages for each PC. When every character had 8-10 disads (typical in Champions), the GM has to really work at it to bring in more than 1 or 2 per player per adventure. I've made similar statements about having too many aspects on a PC in fate. # of aspects x # of players = # of aspects the GM has to juggle.

    Two caveats:

    1. Large numbers of disadvantages can work better in a game with fewer players. In an larger ensemble game, each PC should have fewer disadvantages.

    2. While a GM might only be able to bring in one disad per adventure, if he's bringing in different disads each time, that provides *variety*. It keeps a game from getting stale. Lois Lane can show up in every Superman story, but probably shouldn't be in every JLA story.

  4. * I'll note that 7th Sea's backgrounds fit into this mold: you aren't paid up front, but the kinds of backgrounds you can acquire are spelled out in the system. I've experimented with a similar concept in FATE using 'named' aspects. Giving an aspect a name suggests certain kinds of compels and invokes or a certain story role that the aspect brings to the game. If I call something a Hunted, I'm expressing the relationship I have with that character.

    Arguably, the openness of FATE lets me take any disadvantage from another game and turn it a descriptive phrase:

    "Doctor Doom wants to see me kneel at his feet."
    "VIPER wants to harvest the super serum from my blood".

    Here's the post I made about named aspects:

    I brainstormed a list of named aspects (categories) at one point, but it never made it into a post. I'll have to fix that. :) The idea was to take traditional disadvantages and turn them into named aspects, focusing heavily on how to use each in telling stories.

    One of the concepts I was investigating was to use named aspects to structure a game a bit more. For example, this was a structure I considered for a Dresden Files game.

    1. High Concept
    2. Trouble
    3. Core Belief
    4. A relationship you have with an NPC
    5. A relationship you have with another PC
    6. A relationship with a place.
    7. Wildcard-- take whatever you want.

    This was very much inspired by Smallville -- I wanted to know the characters, their beliefs, and to ensure that there would be plenty of NPCs and places to bring into stories.

    I know Strands of Fate and some of the other FATE derivatives have played around with named aspects as well. LoA had "quest" as an aspect, which struck me as a very nice genre convention.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.