Sunday, October 20, 2013

GM's Water Cooler: Using Aspects in Fate

Over the years of following Fate, and discussions about Fate (or FATE as it was known in 2.0 days), the common misunderstandings that come up most often are those over the use of aspects.

For those who are new to Fate, aspects are the core ‘facts’ that define your character. In the newest and shiniest version of Fate to date, Fate Core, aspects are defined as:
“An aspect is a phrase that describes something unique or noteworthy about whatever it’s attached to. They’re the primary way you spend and gain fate points, and they influence the story by providing an opportunity for a character to get a bonus, complicating a character’s life, or adding to another character’s roll or passive opposition.” (FC pg.56)
And this is exactly how they work in game.

Let’s say that you have an aspect like ‘Sticky fingers’ on your character sheet. This can either be Invoked in play for a bonus (pay a Fate Point and either reroll an undesired dice result or add +2 to the dice result you received), or Compelled by another player or the GM (you gain a Fate Point to take an action you might not have otherwise taken, or pay one of the character’s Fate Points to refuse the compel).
"I really shouldn't...but it's so shiny!"
In the former case, you are using ‘Sticky Fingers’ to improve your attempt to steal/palm an object. In the latter, you are effectively being forced to steal an item even if it’s not to your advantage to do so under the circumstances.

In a nutshell, these are the mechanics of the use of aspects in Fate. A good aspect is generally a ‘double-edged sword’*: it has both positive and potentially negative consequences for the character, and is thus ripe for both Invoke and Compel effects in game.

This part of the use of aspects is pretty well understood, and covered quite well in the Fate Core book as well as various discussion groups about Fate. Since it is a mechanic that it does not share with many other RPG’s, many groups take a while to get used to be ebb & flow of Invokes/Compels in play, but the overall operation of it seems to be universally clear once explained.

But this is not the only thing that aspects do: they also establish facts. Looking at Fate Core again:
“Finally, aspects have a passive use that you can draw on in almost every instance of play. Players, you can use them as a guide to roleplaying your character. This may seem self-evident, but we figured we’d call it out anyway—the aspects on your character sheet are true of your character at all times, not just when they’re invoked or compelled.” (FC pg.76)
And it’s that last part that seems to be the most ripe for misunderstanding for those playing Fate; even some writers who have designed games using Fate as the engine show some trouble with this aspect of aspects

Let’s say that you are playing a character with the High Concept aspect ‘Cyborg Gorilla Kung-Fu Master’. Although this aspect needs to be compelled/invoked to cause mechanical effects in game, the narrative truth of this is never in doubt. It’s always true that:
  • The character is a gorilla
  • The character knows kung-fu, and is known to be good at it
  • The character has some form of cybernetic augmentation
There is ALWAYS a gorilla in Fate
The difficulty grasping the whole truth of this seems to regularly crop up in circumstances where an aspect in-and-of-itself seems to be granting exceptional abilities to one character that another might lack.

For example, George & Ralph are playing a space-opera game (George is always GM) where Ralph’s character is a robot (or ‘droid’ in game). Over the course of play session, things go wrong for Ralph’s character and he is shot out of the airlock without the protection of an escape pod.

A common - and I think 100% incorrect - way to handle this situation is how this is done in the example below:
  • Ralph: "Well, I’m floating in space. But he's a droid though, he doesn't have to breathe, per his droid aspect." 
  • George: "OK, well then pay a Fate point and you will be fine then.

In the above example, the GM is making the player pay a Fate Point to make his aspect true. But the player shouldn't ever have to do that: the aspect is already true, per the rules.

Instead, the interaction should look like this:
  • Ralph: "Yeah, well he's a droid, so he doesn't have to worry about vacuum." 
  • George: "Correct. But you are drifting free in space now..what's the plan?"

Droids don’t have to breathe & don’t suffer from decompression effects in George’s universe, so the droid aspect in and of itself already grants the exception. This is acknowledged by the table, and the game moves on:
  • Ralph: "Well, my droid is 'packed with random gadgets'....I think one of those are boot jets." 
  • George: "You've never had boot jets." 
  • Ralph: "Yes, I did: I've just never used them." 
  • *Ralph then rolls to create an advantage, succeeds with style* 
  • Ralph: "Good thing I have my trusty old bootjets! I coast back to the airlock." 
  • George: "..."

In both examples above a Fate Point spend wasn't needed to make an exception: the aspects themselves made the exception possible by being true.**
Ralph loves making robot characters, it seems...
The narrative truth of aspects is what makes them so very powerful in Fate. Although all aspects are equal in terms of how they impact the game mechanically, they clearly are not intrinsically equal in terms of the scope of the permissions that they grant, or in terms of opportunity for compels & invocation in play.

This means that when sitting down at the table to play a new game, especially one in a new campaign or campaign scenario everyone should have a clear grasp of what facts each aspect on a character sheet does and does not offer.

This is likely a new topic for discussion, but ultimately the concept of game-balance is really giving each player roughly equal screen time to shine. If one player’s aspects are granting that quite well, and another seems to be constantly struggling with their aspects to make any impact, then it’s likely time to revisit how those aspects or being used or maybe even change them to better suit the game.

Thanks for reading! I hope that this article was of help to anyone trying to grok the use of aspects in Fate. As a bonus, feel free to check out ‘Ralph’s’ character from the example above, R5-D4:

R5-D4 (Google Docs)

* (actually, double-edged sword is not a bad Aspect name in itself!)
** Also, Ralph is a total munchkin. ;-)