Monday, October 4, 2010

Magic Words

Aspects in Fate (and by extension Spirit of the Century and The Dresden Files RPG) are an incredibly powerful tool, but like most tools they can be hard to use without a little familiarity. Obviously, if you're already very comfortable with their use then advice in applying them is of only limited use, but maybe you'll find this interesting anyway.

Players tend to be very enthusiastic about using aspects once they feel they can, but there's often an initial period of hesitation, where the player is mostly asking the GM whether or not he can use an aspect. It may be a step on the learning process, but playing mother-may-I with the GM is rarely something that gives players an excited first impression.

More problematic is the GMs end. The process of compelling aspects is one of those things that is harder to explain than do, and the process of explaining it can often end up seeming needlessly arcane. The fact that it works well at some tables does not erase the fact that it's overly tricky on others.

So with that in mind I'm going to propose a model of aspect use which will hopefully solve both problems. This is of especial use for new players and new games since it will have an impact on the type of aspects that people choose (or more specifically, how they phrase those aspects).

In this approach, we no longer explicitly refer to compelling, tagging or invoking aspects, and in fact there are no such actions. Instead, we simply treat aspects as magic words.

For a player this simply means any time he actually uses the aspect as part of his description, as part of what his character says or generally as part of play, he can spend a fate point for appropriate bonuses.

I come at him fast and furious.
"Jet's in trouble!"

I look over the scene cautiously.

When spending for effect, which is to say, spending a fate point for something other than a bonus, simply make it part of the phrase.

I'm pretty well prepared, so I'm sure I've got some spare batteries here somewhere.

I've got a girl in every port and this one's name is Trixie

I've been up for two hours already. I'm a light sleeper.

And that's all the player needs to know. Say the word and slide the fate point forward. No need to ask the GM or check if it's ok. Just go forward. Now, yes, a GM may raise an eyebrow if something is totally out of line, like using well-prepared to justify having a rocket launcher in a boy scout pack, but things like that don't actually happen unless someone is being a tool, so don't sweat it.

On the GM side, the same logic applies. These are magic words, and every now and again you will start a sentence with one while sliding forward a fate point. If the player takes it, that's their cue to pick up the thread. If they don't then close it off. For example:

This guy has been riding you for the whole trip, trying to get under your skin. It would be easy to get angry...
At this point the GM slides forward the chip, if the player takes it, then the player proceeds.
Yeah, he gets me so pissed off that I pop him one in the dinner car over breakfast.
If the player declines, the GM proceeds, taking back the chip.
...but you manage to keep a cool head.

Yes, for the GM's part there's a bit more non-verbal communication, but not enough to break the flow.

Long time Fate players will also notice that in this case, the player was given leeway to make trouble for himself with the aspect. This is not mandatory - the GM can frame the aspect in much more detail - but unless the player is in a position where it might be hard to come up with a way the aspect might complicate things, it's often worth leaving such trouble in the hands of your players.

This model is fairly flexible in terms of what aspects it supports - people, places and things can all be named dropped ("If there's one thing Master Po taught me it's...") but it will get a bit gummy with more poetic aspects. The harder it is to work the aspect into a sentence, the harder its going to be for it to come up in play. Players looking to use this approach in existing games may need to consider rephrasing some of their aspects so they flow more naturally.

1 - Yes, adverbing it up or making other reasonable transformations are entirely valid.


  1. This is perfect advice for the games I've been thinking about trying, thanks! By the way, I notice the compel here doesn't mention the possibility of the player needing to pay a point in order to refuse a compel. I've heard this suggested elsewhere, and I like the idea. Does this work okay as a general rule, making the only cost of refusing a compel being a lost opportunity for a fate point?

  2. Rob: Thanks so much for this. I've been reading FATE games for awhile and played in a few, but I have yet to run a game mostly due to concerns over explaining & using Aspects. I think this is just the kind of "Aspects Distilled" that I've been looking for.

  3. @Goken Yes. If you want to make the player pay then part of the player responding is them sliding forward a chip of their own (or not), but I'm assuming that for this the player can simply defer.

    In general, the need for the player to pay is a good idea in versions of fate that lean towards the crunchy, where the flow of fate points also ties into the use of powers and whatnot, but outside of that sphere, I'm not sure it's a necessity.

    (But don't quote me on that. I'm still chewing over the larger issue in my mind. But for this, where the goal is clarity and easy of use? Definitely better to ditch the play-or-pay element).

  4. This advice reminds me, tangentially, of some of the advice on how to GM Apocalypse World. I noticed bolding of certain phrases in the text...

    “Oh yes, your armored corset. Good! You take 3-harm.” She
    marks it on her character sheet. “Make the harm move. Roll+3.”
    She hits the roll with a 9. I get to choose from the move’s 7–9 list,
    and I decide that she loses her footing.

    Was that one of your inspirations for this idea, Rob?

  5. @Jvstin Good catch - that was very much the inspiration. I was really impressed by the clarity with which AW expresses how to use the rules and wanted to try applying that same clarity to Aspects.

  6. Nice.

    In the compel example, doesn't the player owe the GM a fate point if he declines the compel?

  7. I'm writing a game based on FATE and it occured to me weeks ago to include this idea as a way to avoid arguments over Aspect meaning.

    As a new game designer, I'm very glad my idea was realized by one of the designers of the system that inspired me. :D

  8. Good advice. When it made sense to do so, this is often how we played aspects at the table. You've already mentioned the exception, which is the more poetic/long-winded aspect names.

    If verbal emphasis wasn't sufficient, we'd often hold up our hands to simulate the brackets around the aspect name. "Looks like I'm [Down to My Last Chance]!"

    To be fair, I never saw players having a problem recognizing when their aspects might be invoked. It was that most FATE games ask for too many starting aspects. So I'm going in a different direction than the advice you give, but mine would be Start characters with fewer aspects. A second piece of GM advice would be Ask players for specific aspects that meet your storytelling needs/

    (More details follow, but this might be a little off topic).

    For a SOTC character, the first 3 or 4 aspects are usually the essential character idea, the next 3 aspects usually end up being a subplot, and the last few sometimes feel like a slog through Mordor. I'd rather get playing and discover those last few aspects during adventures.

    To use TV as an analogy, we don't always know everything about the characters in the pilot. There's surprises we get to learn about characters throughout the first season or two. Some characters might be defined up front with their [I'm a FRAKKING Cylon] aspect. Others might pick it up mid-season.

    For my next game, I'm really focused on the idea of asking for very specific kinds of aspects from the players. I wouldn't do this for all of their aspects, but I want specific things to be built into the characters. The inspiration for this was Lenny's Dresden Con game -- he asked for one aspect to be related to a specific NPC.

    Essentially, this is the difference between saying "Come up with 5 aspects" and "I want a High Concept, a Trouble, and a Relationship to Another Character and 2 aspects that are whatever you want them to be. The latter expresses the specific needs for that campaign/one-shot adventure/character group. It also, I think is easier to come up with 3 specific typed aspects than 3 generic aspects. I'm convinced that if I ever run a "10 aspect" game, at least 5 of the aspects would be specifically typed for the campaign, and the other 5 would be open to whatever the player wanted to do.

    In my head, I see this as a convergence between character quizzes and lists of specific kinds of disadvantages (a la Champions or GURPS). I can ask players to "Tell me the crime you committed to send you up the river" and that's helpful. But ask them to embody that into an aspect and the question becomes very important! It becomes a part of who they are during adventures.


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