One of my greatest struggles as a player is trying to make that mental transition out of GM mode. Oh its easy enough to tell myself that I am running a character and not a world, and it is a lot of fun building a character with skill points and stunts and such. But that is surface level transition. Players and GMs are different at their very core, and not making that complete transition results in a very sad game.
Rather than outline a debate about differences or list a pros and cons survey, I thought it would be more helpful (and fun) to go through the Fate Core character creation process and highlight important notes as they come up in the discussion. Note that I am going through the process in general, rather than actually making a character.
If you are a natural at making/running a player character, then reading this article will probably inspire internal dialogue along the lines of “I already knew that” and “Actually, I have more fun when I…” and so on. Believe it or not, this process does not come naturally to the rest of us.
And here we… go!
Not everyone starts here, but it really is the best place to start for most of us. When you are making a character, you have got to know what kind of character you want. Even if the concept changes while you are doing the other steps, you really need to start here.
GMs tend to make a LOT of NPCs to cover a broad range of encounters and niches. When you only have one character to work with, it can be very hard to limit yourself to one specific focus (especially later when you start assigning skills). Do not try to cover everything with your aspects! Come up with one core concept you want to play before you worry about ANYTHING else.
The purpose here is to come up with something fun to play while LOCKING you into a limited space. This can be very uncomfortable. Giving up the freedom granted by FATE Core is hard. Like drawing on a blank canvas or typing the first page of your NaNoWriMo novel. You may be afraid that you will regret your choice, but trust me on this: it will be worth it in the end.
So pick a Main Aspect that sounds fun to play. 3 word aspects are my favorite, with the last word being the noun and the first 2 words being the adjective/adverb descriptors of that noun. And it should easily bring a verb to mind. Which leads us to our next step.
Trouble And Other Aspects
Come up with 5 different situations for your character to be in and see if you can figure out what they will do using their main aspect only. I tend to use these 5: combat, search a room, get past a guard, find out some information in town, and solve a puzzle lock. Note that the goal is not to come up with a way that your character automatically succeeds with your main aspect. You just want to get a feel for how the main aspect alone would push the character to handle the situation.
If you cannot come up with 5 different ways an aspect would push your character to react, then you probably need to rework your main aspect. It is ok if they are similar (punch things, rip things open, and intimidate people with your fists for example). In fact, that is a good sign that you are on the right track. Just make sure you avoid a ‘because they also have this aspect’ in your internal dialogue.
What does this have to do with your Trouble? Well once you come up with those 5 situational responses, you will probably notice some are better than others. In fact it will probably jump out to you that your Seductively Athletic Neurosurgeon needs other people to interact with or that your Wizard Private Eye will be depending on magic for almost everything. Why not make a trouble out of it? Your character can be Terrified of Being Alone or Tempted by Dark Powers.
Go for the obvious, but put your own twist on it. As a GM, you may be tempted to keep your trouble too close to the main aspect (Barbarian settles everything with fists, Thief is incredibly greedy, Android acts like a robot, etc.). This works well for building quick NPCs, but you want your character to be fleshed out and for your trouble to stand on its own. Believe it or not, it is boring for a PC to get a fate point because they Only Speak Whispers that the player then spends immediately to tap Acolyte of Whispering Demigod for a +2 on Rapport, claiming that since they always whisper they are used to communicating in loud whispers.
Instead, go another step and ask what these constant shortcomings would do to a person. If your character is a librarian that needs to read about something to understand it, what affect does that have on a personality? They probably have a very finite definition of reality and would not deal well with anything that did not fit that definition. Or maybe they are always perceived as nerdy and it has affected their shy self-esteem. Or perhaps they know things that no one else does, and it has made them paranoid or pompous.
This will also apply when you are going through your other adventures, staring and costarring with other player characters. The purpose of these cooperative stories is partly to get you to think up new aspects, so you will be doing this exact same thing: imagining scenarios for your character to play out. You will probably pick one of the 5 above for your character to star in, whichever one seems the most interesting. The others are actually going to be your character costarring in another character’s story. Take a look at the story when you are done and imagine what affect this situation had on your character in order to pull another aspect, but again do not be too direct.
By taking that one extra step, you put enough distance between aspects that they don’t overlap all the time, which really helps start a character off as dynamic rather than flat. At the same time, the aspects are not so far removed that they are hard to link to the same character. They will likely broaden through play, but starting out a character you really want to enforce them as just one main thing, whatever that thing (Main Aspect) is.
It is very tempting for a player that is often a GM to want to diversify their character. There are a couple of reasons for this: GMs are used to winning, and GMs are constantly thinking about variety in encounters. You have to be prepared for failure, and not “Yes I know I won’t always win or be good at everything.” GM’s can get around both of those by moving on to the next encounter with new characters, but players cannot do that every session much less in the middle of a session.
It makes me laugh to write that GMs are used to winning. I don’t have good luck rolling dice, and I imagine I am not the only GM that feels that way. But really, GMs have a lot of success they feel in a game. We succeed when we roll well, when an NPC achieves a goal, when a story is exciting, and really when our players succeed.
Building a character for variety is very difficult to do, especially from the beginning. And when we design for variety, we tend to think along the lines of our own GM style, which is always a mistake. I personally have never found a GM that runs games the way I do, so why should I design my character for my own encounters and expect them to be run the way I would run them?
So, with all of that in mind, when it comes to skills you will want to stay true to your Main Concept and be prepared to fail at other aspects. If you are not starting out a typical low level game, try to have as few skills as possible (opting for higher power skills instead of a good handling on a wider variety). On the 1-2-3-4 typical starting pyramid, just push everything towards the character you have designed. The high skill should be the one that best defines your character’s main concept, and the two Good skills should fall into that as well. Have your Fair skills compliment your stories and aspects, while your Average skills are more there to put your character into the world your GM built.
Again, you are trying to fit your character into a limited but well defined mold that will be fun to play and easy to explain to others. Of course a Homeless Gun Slinger is going to be good at Shoot. It is not impossible for her to be knowledgeable and educated, but since it is not obvious there is no need to take Lore unless everyone left in the world has some Average level of education.
Stunts and Refresh
Stunts are all about customizing a character, and you should definitely take advantage of them. Pick a stunt for each of your top 3 skills, and I highly recommend spending a refresh for another stunt that goes well with your main aspect or trouble. 2 refresh is all you need, and really you can do well with just one.
The less fate points you have, the better. Players in a GM mindset will try to stock up fate points and spend them to have more control over the game. You really want to get out of that mindset, and having fewer fate points will help you rely more on the character than your control of the game.
I know you are supposed to have a name back before you start writing adventures. I recommend a web search if you don’t have one in mind. Don’t make it goofy or hard to pronounce, and make sure the name (or nick name) is 2 syllables at most and easy to pronounce. Make sure you can smile as well as groan into a double face palm when you say it.
Don’t worry so much about low stress tracks if you did not pick up either skill associated with that track.
Now I’m really wondering if I should have just made a character and explained why I made the choices that I did…