Wednesday, 2 October 2013

A Love Letter to Fate (Part One)

I've been one of the Fate faithful for a long time.

I found my way to it, as many did, through Spirit of the Century, Evil Hat's terrific pulp adventure game (which was conceived as a dry run at The Dresden Files, a project so long in gestation people were comparing it to Duke Nukem Forever). Dresden improved in many ways on the solid core of awesome in Spirit, and now Fate Core and its lighter, brighter cousin Fate Accelerated Edition have rolled out to delight the fans again.

Both of these games are very slick re-imaginings of the rock-solid basics of Fate. Chances are, if you're interested in Fate at all, you've already heard about these two. They're both great games, and the core rules are the same for both games -- FAE just strips Fate down a little further, pares away the high-level GMing stuff, and wraps it in a neat little package full of friendly art reminiscent of Saturday morning cartoons. It's a really good starter product, I think, to introduce new players to tabletop roleplaying. And at the price point -- $5 -- everybody should have one.

I'm here to sing the praises of the basics of Fate gaming today, though. The almighty Aspect.

I think Aspects are one the most powerful innovations in gaming of the last decade. Just in case you're not already one of the faithful, Aspects are a game mechanic that lets you draw attention to an element that's important to the story somehow. The best Aspects are short, evocative phrases that capture a complex idea in a small space. Player characters have a number of aspects that describe them, and either help them accomplish things or constrain their behaviour, or both -- if you're doing it right.

Example: the redoubtable Indiana Jones might be described as a Two-Fisted Archaeologist. This Aspect might be his "High Concept", an Aspect that describes the most important role he plays. Of course, we all know that he's got a special phobia which would be his "Trouble" Aspect -- Why Did It Have To Be Snakes? Indy probably has other Aspects like I'm Making This Up As I Go Along and Never Loses His Hat, or maybe It's Not the Years, It's the Mileage.

"But wait," he said, "there's more!"

See, Aspects can be on other things too. Aspects are an easy way of saying what's important in a scene. Indy might wander into an Ancient Chachapoyan Temple that's Full of Deadly Traps. Or track his nemesis Belloq to a warehouse that's Dark as Pitch. If he's trying to climb a castle wall in a rainstorm, the stones might be Wet and Slick. You get the picture.

You can even use Aspects as a way to encourage certain ideas and behaviours in your games -- as Campaign Aspects. Indy's game world might have rules like When In Doubt, Punch It In The Face or It Belongs In A Museum to encourage players to engage in lots of action and tracking down artifacts.

I have been using a suggestion I heard on a podcast (which has, regrettably, podfaded) called Actual People, Actual Play in my games for the past couple years -- allow players at least one free use of a Campaign Aspect per session. That way they're encouraged to use them.

Someone observed on Twitter recently that Fate makes it fun to stat up piles of bad guys, because you can be very creative with their Aspects even if they're faceless mooks. That's absolutely true, and Fate does a great job at making running action scenes full of mooks light work for the GM.

Absolutely the best thing about Aspects, though, is the fact that they are a subjective tool. When a player writes an Aspect down on their character sheet, it is charged with special meaning for them. That has a lot more impact and flexibility than something like a Feat, which applies only in a prescribed set of circumstances, and is available to all. Aspects are unique, and they're a great way to understand your character on a level that plug-and-play game elements can't match.

Writing a good Aspect is a kind of art in itself, because those of us who have been using them for a while have learned that the best kinds of Aspects are deep and flexible. They can tell your backstory, explain why you should get an edge in a situation, drive you to take an action that's not in your best interests, and give the GM material to build the game out of -- all in one concise, pithy package.

Tomorrow, I'll tell you all about what us Fate veterans call "the Fate fractal".

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