Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What Else Compels are Good For

One of the curious issues I have with Aspects these days is that I almost never compel them. Not because I don't bring their negative implications into play, but because my players are sufficiently enthusiastic about playing up the negative side themselves that I don't even need to bother.

It's a good problem to have. I can easily swap to a pile of fate points in the middle of the table for them to draw out of as appropriate, but I tend not to do so because those few occasions where I offer a classic compel tend to be fun and memorable, and I don't want to lose that.

The problem, of course, is that this experience is not universal. A lot of people have encountered a lot of different problems with compels, and these problems are wide ranging enough that there's no one solution. They are either too much power for the GM or too much power for the players, depending who you ask. They're too restrictive, or too open ended, also depending who you ask. This has always made them a bit rough to write about because if you speak to one set of concerns, you inflame another. This is why I've steadily fallen into the pattern of talking about what I consider good or rewarding practices rather than seeking to solve specific problems.

So with that in mind, there are two things that go on around compels that I'm not sure get enough airtime, and which offer a slightly different perspective on things.

The first is something my players make clear to me on a regular basis, and that is that a compel is really the GM offering you an opportunity that isn't immediately visible to you. That is to say, the GM has a slightly different perspective on what's going on - maybe she has more information a broader perspective or whatever - and that means she will occasionally look at a situation or choice and go "Wow, that speaks _directly_ to this thing my player finds cool" and calls the player's attention to it with a compel. The assumption is that if the player had seen this opportunity, they would have already taken it (and that assumes a certain type of player-GM relationship). If the player has seen it and declines, then all is well and good, but the GM's done her job.

Obviously, this is harder to do if you're doing all hard compels all the time, and I tend to treat these compels as soft (that is to say, can be declined freely).

The second is that a compel can zoom the camera in on a moment, ideally a moment of choice. If the player is faced with a choice, the compel flags it as something significant, that it's a choice that means something for the character. Not every choice is necessarily this important, and some might merit hard compels and others soft, but the bottom line is that the compel is a spotlight, and it's worth using to shine on things worth seeing.


  1. I also tend to look at compels for two other reasons:

    One, to train players who aren't used to thinking of play in those terms. The kind of players who like to pretend disadvantages don't exist, rather than embracing them for the awesomeness they can bring. That involves either hitting them with a compel that turns out to be awesome, or compelling an aspect that they have been invoking too freely (to illustrate that everything is double-edged).

    Two, to build the scenario. One of the great bits about compels is that they can be used as leads to pull the group from one scene to the next, instead of putting up walls to push them down the rails. So long as you are using compels in ways that make sense, and have a back-up plan in case the player either refuses the compel or deftly avoids the set-up for the compel, it can give your plot that feeling that the PCs are uniquely qualified to solve the problem.

  2. When I compel, I frequently pair it with my own vague version of how the compel will be interpreted, but I leave it completely open for the player to bring their own, alternate interpretation. "Hey, you're an Amateur Scholar of Worldly Experiences? You can't help but tell the girl something that will shock her." That's exactly in line with the idea of compels as a spotlight on an unrecognized opportunity.

    But that also touches on compels as a reminder. It's usually difficult for players to think about their characters' contradictory natures when they aren't faced with a clear choice. They pursue a line of thought to its logical conclusion. A compel frames a situation as a choice so that it's easier to roleplay a complex character and have unexpected results.

    I think that's why I'm enamored with the literary nature of Aspects. A turn of a phrase that can be taken literally or metaphorically. "Observing a Misfit Tradition" could easily focus on how a character stands out or is a troublemaker, as well as the fact that their family or line of work is filled with unsavory types on whom they could call; but it could literally have to do with observation of, say, criminals. It can make for yet another layer of choice and unexpected events.

    I think that for all the complaints I've ever heard about Aspects, they almost all fall back to how that person or their group write them and how their GM compels. And, as you've illustrated, there's a wide variety of approaches for each process. I think it's generally harder/less interesting if you don't have a somewhat of a literary mind, that doesn't apply to every approach.


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