Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Ruminations on Aspect Generation and Use
This discussion is inspired by posts by +Wil Hutton, +Robert Hanz, +Jack Gulick, +Ryan M. Danks, +Michael Moceri, and a great many other wonderful people over the last year. I will be using parts of their ideas as well as my own throughout this post.
Nothing I am saying here is all that new or groundbreaking in the least. This is more an attempt, by me, to codify how I view aspects. Sometimes I learn much by trying to define a thing. That said, if you find this useful I am glad.
Aspects are a great many things to a greta many people. At heart they are simply the mechanization of nebulous fictional objects within the sphere of player agency. Things that are important to the player characters in the moment. Some have described them as levers for the narrative, or handles for the fiction. I like to avoid using terms like narrative and the like as it tends to lead gamers mind down unproductive paths. Saying that it relates to the narrative gives the impression that there is a preplanned narrative to begin with. It is thinking like this that leads to the GM using aspects as a goad rather than as a incentive and complication.
It is no wonder that many people new to Fate latch onto the aspects as the most important part. Aspects are everywhere in Fate. They define your character and the world around them. They define the important genre conventions and the mood. They encompass everything and in a way they control the rest of the mechanics in Fate. In this way, while not being the most important part of Fate, they are definitely the most distinctive part. as the major distinction between Fate and many other games, an explanation of what aspects do is needed as well as a guide to what makes a good or bad aspect. And so we begin.
Aspects as character
As a general rule the first time a player runs into aspects is with character creation. Your aspects(whether ten, seven, five, or some other variable) define your character. More specifically they define what is important to your character. This may seem like a pointless distinction but it is not. Being, The Finest Swords-woman in the World, is only useful if two things are true. If your character's belief that she is the finest swords-woman drives her actions in some way or if the game revolves around Swordplay to some extent. Basically a character aspect is a cue, both to the player and the GM. It lets the GM know what kind of game the player is looking for. It also serves as a reminder to the player that she wanted this type of game at some point.
This goes back to something I say fairly often, "aspects should be of immediate use." At the core, if you go through a whole session without using at least two of your aspects(preferably all of them), you may want to change your aspects to fit the scenario, or remind the GM of your relevant aspects(self compel). If you keep buying off compels on an aspect, that may be a sign you didn't really want that aspect and you may want to rework it.
Another way that character aspects can be problematic is if the tone of your aspects do not match the intended tone and mood of the game. Basically if you have a bunch of aspects that encourage humorous play in a serious existential horror game, that can be a problem. If you are playing a gritty world war one game about how rough it is in the trenches, then having a bunch of super-heroic aspects could cause issues. On the other hand if used right, they can define the game and make it better. When a character has an aspect(or a bunch of aspects) that clash with the tone of the game, this is when you want to bring it up and discuss how to handle that. Maybe it will work, maybe it won't, you need to know before play starts.
Aspects as world
The other introduction a great many new Fate players have with aspects is with City/World/System/Setting Creation. In this case the aspects define the permanent or semi permanent parts of the world through aspect generation. these aspects represent the Places and Faces that will be recurring throughout the first major campaign(could go further, but generally the first campaign changes many of these as you go along). Often GMs will have a difficult time using the major themes and threats designed during this period. Sometimes this means that the PCs aspects are changing the direction of the game away from the original themes, others it is when the aspect is poorly worded. For a poorly worded aspect, just change it to work better. When the PCs are moving away from the original themes and threats then compelling is what to do. If they keep buying off those compels, or get upset when they can't, it is time to talk with them about the direction of the game. It is here, where I see a lot of GMs using aspects as a goad. Many times, they think they are making the game they all want, when in reality the wants have changed, and no one spoke of the change.
Aspects as Permission
Some aspects let you do things that would be impossible without the aspect. The Last Son of Krypton aspect would let you do a great many things, whereas The King of England aspect would allow for different things than most can do. This is a big grey area in the game, the power of a given aspect must be discussed during character/world generation. You as a table must decide on the scale of the game, and what can be accomplished with aspects, skills, and stunts. The reason the Fate Core has no listing of what a +1 means compared to a +4 is so that you as a table can define that. As Fate Core is fiction not physics nothing is all that definite. In fiction Spiderman is as strong as needs to be for that story, and no more. Sometimes he can hold up a collapsing building, and sometimes he can only lift a car(heh, only). So when we look at his character sheet, we would(perhaps) only see the aspect, Spider Powers, the rest is handled by the skills. The aspect just gives scope to the skill. It grants permission to do things that would otherwise be impossible.
This can also mean that a temporary aspect can allow you to do things not normally allowed. It can allow for you to attack a whole zone, defend a zone border to prevent movement, allow you to roll when you normally would be allowed, and many other interesting tactical things. All of this is subject to table agreement, so if you intend on doing this sort of action bring it up early.
Aspects as Harm
Although I generally do not like using the term harm to describe consequences, it is relevant here. While consequences do not represent Harm every time, they are the only true way to define it in game. Consequences are an aspect that lasts for a given amount of time due to stress. Primarily they are negative aspects, in that they will most often lead to you gaining fate points rather than being something you can use fate points on. Now this is not always true, but it should be true more than not. So if you find yourself invoking consequences more than they are compelled, you are either in a unique situation or you have a poorly worded consequence.
Aspect as Meta-game principle
Aspects are your primary method of gaining and using fate points. they are without doubt the core of the fate point economy. Without aspects you would gain no points. without aspects you would be unable to spend them. this is why much aspect advice revolves around making aspects double edged. Double edged aspects are by far more useful than a good or a bad aspect alone. In fact they are twice as valuable!
As much as this drives play, it is really self explanitory. At first glance you can see how it should work. The really hard part of the meta-game piece of the aspects is that you have to keep that in your mind at all times. In your more traditional game their are two modes of play(well there are more, but for now I am only interested in the primary two). There is the Role-play mode, where you think in character and attempt to achieve a seamless verisimilitude. Then there is the Game-mechanics mode, where you engage the mechanics and attempt to "win" through manipulation of game mechanics. Generally speaking you would do each part fairly separate from each other. When you engage in combat in D&D you do not have to think to hard about characterization and motivation. Conversely when you engage in discussion with the local baron, you may only need to engage mechanical bits rarely, one or two roles and you are done.
Fate Demands you engage both modes simultaneously and continuously. You must always keep in mind your motivation and goals, you must always engage the mechanics. There are few parts of the game that allow for just one mode or the other. When I first started playing Fate this wore me down. Constantly keeping both sides of my mind operating at full rather than being allowed to "rest" by engaging only one mode or the other. It is something to keep in mind as you go forward and try and play the game with newbies.
I hesitate to call these aspects temporary, as in reality all aspects are temporary to one degree or another. These aspects represent things that were true of the setting(or were just created within the setting) and suddenly became the focal point of a roll or series of rolls. These aspects last as long as it makes sense for them to last. they are like the devices Macgyver builds. Generally they are only used to overcome an obstacle or defeat an opponent and then forgotten. However that does not mean those devices just vanished. It merely means that those devices are no longer important in the continuing adventures of Angus Macgyver. In fact I like that analogy(metaphor?), from now on I will know these aspects as Macgyver aspects.
These aspects appear in one of two ways. either they are declared by the GM or they are declared by the Players. If a GM declares them it is either as an impartial part f the world(no tags/free invokes) or as an NPC(they must use a skill or spend a fate point). If the player is declaring he must use a skill or spend a fate point. In some Fate games there are a lot of different names for this process of declaring aspects. I really like that in Fate Core they have simplified it all down to the Create Advantage action.
I don't like this term for the same reason I don't like temporary aspects. Aspects last as long as it makes sense for them to last. What I mean by permanent aspects are aspects that, when changed, alter the entire point of the game. If you are playing a gritty World War One game and you change the aspect, Vicious Trench Warfare, to a new aspect, The Joy of Christmas, it changes the whole nature of the game. Some folks may not wish to play anymore. Some will claim that this is no longer even a war game. The nature of the game has changed so drastically that it would be difficult to play in the same way you had played before. That is what I view as a permanent aspect.
there should be very few permanent aspects. As I have said before, they change everything. Having a lot of them can make the game feel rail-roady and deprotagonizing. However you will need a few. Generally speaking these will be major themes or conflicts within the game. Once they are resolved the game changes.
Aspects are mutable. They can change. However they are true. they only exist as aspects when they matter to the game. Thus, they only change when the change is due to the game and due to the importance of the change in the game.
Basically aspects exist only so long as they are important. So when your character's aspects are no longer as relevant as you would like, it is time to change the aspect. often people will hang on to aspects far beyond what is necessary in a given scenario. This can lead to a feeling of stagnation with a character, when it does not need to.
Misconceptions on aspects
That aspects need to be good and bad.
While it is true that the best aspects are both beneficial and problematic, that does not mean that you need to do this. Sometime you just want a beneficial aspect. When you do that be sure to remember that you will not gain any fate points from it. Other time you may want a purely detrimental aspect. In that case make sure to remember to gain as much fate from it as you can. The important thing is to get as much out of the aspect as you want. In fact, when making your first character for Fate ever it may help you to come up with negative and positive aspects. Then as you go along, you can change them to better suit your needs. Remember that aspects on the sheet are not permanent things. You can make "bad" ones, and fix them as you go along.
That aspects must be short and catchy.
WHile it may be fun to make short and catchy aspects, it is best to make an aspect that is unambiguous. Short catchy aspects can end up being a bit ambiguous and wibbly-wobbly. The goal is that an aspect will let you know the kinds of situations it is useful in. You may be playing the character for a while. You don't want to come back to your character sheet after a long week and not remember what your aspect means.
Aspects define what you can and cant do...the aspects as special powers in the game
WHile aspects can be special powers I would like to think that I have shown that aspects can be a lot more than merely define what you do.
Here is my aspect break down. I have no idea if this will be of any use to anyone. ever. Let me know what you think. discuss, comment, complain, critique.