Recently we conducted a survey asking players what part of Fate they found most confusing or difficult to understand.
Below is our attempt to answer some of the questions in comments received in this survey.
Where to begin
Today we are going to try to tackle one of the more unique mechanical features of Fate Core, and often the most confusing for new and experience players alike: Aspects. In Fate Core, everything has aspects: characters, scenes, locations, and even the campaign itself. They are a wonderful tool, though complicated and often difficult to explain in words.
But not only can aspects be difficult to explain, they can be downright monstrous to deal with. Trying to come up with the perfect wording. Trying to remember how long each type is supposed to last. Keeping track of a growing number of them. It can be really frightening for GMs and players alike.
But like any monster we face in game, this challenge can be overcome with the right skills. Rather than write a book of our own to explain everything about how aspects can be used, I’d like to address a few myths and assumptions about aspects that really seem to be causing a lot of the confusion. Hopefully these will help make your gaming experiences easier.
What Is an Aspect
Actually, we should probably cover what an aspect actually is first. So here is the definition from the Fate Core book:
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.
This is a great definition of what aspects are in a passive sense, but really you need the rest of the book to figure out how to use them. And even then, it can get pretty confusing. How do we make good aspects for characters? How do we use aspects when we are not spending fate points? How do we keep the game feeling like an RPG while managing all the aspects on a scene?
Myth 1: All Aspects Must Be Equally Invoke-able and Compellable
The most common problem I hear about aspects is figuring out how to word them properly. Usually a player wants to word their character aspect in such a way that it is useful for gaining fate points in compels and using fate points for invokes. Which leads us perfectly into the first myth about aspects: All aspects must be equally useful. In other words, they should be equally good and bad.
This myth is an extension from the idea that a GREAT aspect is one that you can use for invokes and compels, or for good or evil as far as your character is concerned. This is actually true. A GREAT aspect is one that everyone can use. But not every aspect has to be great, especially during character construction, and more importantly a GREAT aspect is not EQUALLY good for compels and invokes.
Take for example your main aspect. This is really supposed to be an aspect for invokes. You should be able to use it to do whatever your character does best. Maybe it can get you into trouble sometimes, but if it does then that should be really rare and honestly a HUGE deal. The flip side is true for your trouble aspect, as it should often be used for compels and RARELY used for invokes.
Should all character aspects be double-edged? Well the game creators say so in their official game writings, so I’m guessing that’s a yes. But please do not think that each edge has to see equal use. Remember that you are trying to balance a character and not every aspect of that character. It is perfectly find to have aspects that challenge a GM when it comes to compels and you for invokes. Remember, especially when building a character, that you are NOT trying to make aspects that last you through the entire game.
Myth 2: Aspects Are Eternal
Character aspects are able to change at every milestone of play. Consequences are designed to change until they finally go away. Overcome actions can remove aspects, and Create an Advantage actions can be used to alter them. Yet somehow we have the idea that a good aspect needs to be worded in such a way that it will never be changed.
I personally think the fault for this myth lies with the sticky aspects. A sticky aspect disappears when its free invoke is used, so it is very temporary by nature. Other aspects do not disappear when used and so we tend to think of them as longer lasting. But aspects should be as changing as the thing they are attached to. Otherwise you get a very stagnant character/location/world.
When trying to create an aspect, first and foremost make sure that it states the truth. That really is what an aspect is at its core: a story truth about something. If you are making aspects, especially scene aspects or even minor NPC aspects, don’t worry so much about how easy they are to invoke or compel. STAGNANT COLORLESS FOG inspires quite a few thoughts, but for a scene THICK FOG will do you just as good starting out. Just keep them simple, and everyone will figure out how to manipulate them.
If you have an important NPC or player character that you are wanting to give good aspects to, then again I recommend you start them off as simple. Keep the amazing ideas if they come to you, but otherwise stick with the simple truths. If they really are important characters, then change those simple aspects between sessions to reflect their growth. Trust me, it will feel better than starting out with great aspects that never change during a campaign.
Myth 3: More Aspects Are Better
The rule in FATE Core is that you cannot invoke an aspect more than once per check, but you CAN invoke multiple aspects on a single check. This is meant to inspire teamwork between the group and prevent abusive play. But most players at some point will consider the obvious solution: let’s spend 3 rounds every game building aspects and then cash them all in for one big attack!
This is probably why Blocks from the Dresden RPG were thrown away when Fate Core was created, as they could easily become giant game-breaking barriers that could not be overcome when used offensively. How else are you going to make a +15 roll in one turn? Sorry. Bad memories. Ignore.
Too many aspects can become a problem for both GM and players alike. Keeping track of aspects, much less which type they are, becomes tricky when you get into the double and triple digits for the count. The more there are, the less special each individual one is. And what players really benefit from are the free invokes, so once those are used up the aspects become more clutter than anything else.
Now I love that the Create an Advantage action is such a core part of this game. It allows noncombat characters to be useful in combat, and it makes interacting with the environment so much easier to manage than most RPGs. But like anything it can be abused, and it ruins the game for everyone.
Making the Mythical Mechanical Monsters Manageable
I’m quite proud of that header, actually. So how do knowing about these myths help us run better games? Well here are some tips for applying the information above into your games with actual examples.
If you want them to be a rouge-like character, try to think about what kind of roguish things you want them to do. The aspect SNEAKY ROGUE may seem like it is only advantageous to the player for invokes and not compels, but at some point the GM will figure out that they can compel you to sneak away from a fight rather than help your friends. Whether you accept that compel or refuse it with a fate point, that action tells you enough about your character to allow you to change that aspect next milestone to a COWARDLY SNEAKING BACKSTABBER or a LOYAL STEALTHY SCOUT.
When you are changing a temporary or scene aspect, consider removing it altogether to keep things simpler. When the duke overcomes the COFFEE STAINED PANTS by changing pants, it is not really necessary to give him a new aspect of SPOTLESS SILK PANTS. Everyone at the party should probably be wearing pants, so this isn’t anything especially special that people can use.
Keep a list of aspects where all the players can see it, and when you can have a player actually do the writing for you. Sharing the responsibility also helps keep awareness of just how much is going on, much better than trying to explain it in words anyway.
Also, try to remember that Aspects are still true even if they do not have any free invokes. Just because a character cannot use a room’s UTTER DARKNESS aspect to their advantage does not mean that the room is dark. They do not get a fate point if they cannot aim a shoot attack because of the darkness. If the UTTER DARKNESS compels them to walk into a crate face-first, THEN they get a fate point.
Hopefully that helps out a little, or at least sparks some thoughts that will eventually lead to a better understanding. Maybe in a future article I can go into more details or examples on how to use aspects.
Feel free to leave any feedback you like. Especially positive and helpful kinds.