Cult of the Turtle

Joe Tortuga's musing on life,tech and gaming

Aspects in FATE

November 11, 2010

I was introduced to aspects in FATE, particularly through Spirit of the Century and Dresden Files RPG. In a lot of ways aspects in FATE replace attributes in other games.  In DFRPG or SotC, you don’t have Strength, Dexterity or Constitution, although you can take aspects that imply you do.  The other side to Aspects is that they need to be both good and bad in order to be properly effective in the game (both narratively and game-mechanically).

Here’s a character I made for my Origins game. His name is Tom Dunn, and he’s an unwitting emissary of power, specifically for Coyote.  He’s also a bit of a thief and rogue himself, and you can download his full character sheet and description.  DFRPG characters have Aspects, Skills, and Powers/Stunts.  Skills and powers are pretty standard type things, at least as far as this discussion goes.  But I want to talk about his aspects.

Every character has a High Concept and a Trouble; these are reminiscent of the character’s class and some basic problem they have. They are unique to the character, though, and serve as their first two aspects. Tom Dunn has a high concept of “Coyote’s Catspaw” and his trouble is “But… it’s shiny!“.  His remaining aspects are

  • City Boy,
  • It just fell into my hands,
  • Wanted in 5 states,
  • Francine, dear, can you hold this?, and
  • I can get in there, no problem.

Each of these is based on some part of his life backstory, or a story he was part of.  “City Boy” because he grew up in a large city, for instance.  One actually references another of the characters, Francine.  This way we get unique characters who are all different from each other, and aspects kind of give us a feel of who they are. (The better the aspects, the better that feel. This example, IMHO is only okay.)

Not all of these are good, of course, “Wanted in 5 states” is there to put the threat of authorities on him. It could also be used by the player, who might say something like, “I can elude them because I’ve had practice ditching the cops.”   Aspects like this work as both advantages and disadvantages; our characters don’t have to sacrifice to be awesome, but sometimes their awesomeness is the problem.

The game economy in FATE is designed to encourage aspects which aren’t purely good or detrimental. If the GM compels and aspect, say by pointing out the big jewel he wants because… it’s shiny!, the player can acquiesce, and receives a fate point for that. Later, the player can spend that point to tap an aspect — their own, or one in the scene or on an enemy — to gain a significant bonus to a die roll.

A lot of DFRPG revolves around determining and invoking aspects, and it encourages a narrative approach to these.  The more flavorful the aspect is, the more it can be stretched and implied. An aspect like “It just fell into my hands” could be used to imply bad luck or excellent slight of hand.

Now, this was one of the first characters I made, so the aspects could be better, but this is what you can do with an early effort and (honestly) a minimal understanding of how these things worked. The person who played this character, had fun with some of the aspects, and others never got used.  The more evocative they are, the more they’re useful.

Of course, being a Pen and Paper RPG, aspects are very powerful at the table. Where numbers are great for being precise, natural language phrases are great at stimulating the imagination.  Put a little stress on your players and they will come up with interesting ways to use their aspects, and that is so much better than “I swing my sword at the Orc.”

Any digital game is going to lose some of this flexibility, because computers can’t quite manage that.  But as you’ll see in my next piece, aspects can add depth and intrigue to a digital game, and make a game feel more approachable to people who don’t want to see huge menus filled with numbers.