Ten Things I Fate About You: Aspects and Codifying Best Practices
Helpful NPC Thom back again to talk about the Fate RPG. Today's topic: Aspects. It turns out that you, as an excellent GM, have been using them all along in other RPGs without realizing it.
Disclaimer: I judge all my superhero knowledge based on Saturday morning cartoons. I don't read comics. Please don't contact me with angry messages about how canonically, in issue #742, it was revealed that... because that is missing the broader point I'm making.
For those interested in the tl;dr of the article, I'll summarize it briefly: Fate's use of Aspects codifies GM "best practices" that have been used for ages.
But let's dig in.
What Is An Aspect?
An aspect is a phrase that describes something unique or noteworthy about whatever it’s attached to. Thus spaketh the rules. The rules go on to d
escribe different forms of Aspects (such as scene Aspects, character Aspects, and Consequences). At its heart, an Aspect is a fact that possesses narrative weight.
The Principles of Aspects
Some basic principles of Aspects.
Aspects are (always) true. They represent (fictional) reality. If the (fictional) reality changes and they would become untrue, th
e Aspects changes to accommodate this change.
Aspects are fluid. They can be added, removed, altered, or revealed during gameplay. This may involve the use of Fate's mechanics, though it does not require it.
Aspects are legion. Aspects are everywhere and part of everything. You don't need to write down an Aspect for it to exist. However...
Aspects are story elements. If it's important enough to call out in the form of an Aspect, it's important to the story.
Since everyone knows Superman, I'm going
to talk about Superman. Let's start off with the basics. Superman has the Aspect The Last Kryptonian because he's the lone surviving member of his race. What does this mean when you consider the principles of Aspects:
Superman will always be The Last Kry
ptonian. If he's not, the Aspect immediately changes to reflect this. If we were to suddenly discover that this Aspect weren't true, say, Superman met his long-lost baby sister, the Aspect would change to something like The Second-to-Last Kryptonian. If his sister were to die, the Aspect would change again, either reverting to The Last Kryptonian or another change representing the change in the story: Krypton's Lone Heir. (Theoretically, Superman could instead have the Aspect The Last Son of Krypton and the Aspect wouldn't change upon discovering his sister, but that's not the point.)
These represent the fluidity and truth of Aspects. Let's talk about the latter two: Aspects as ever-present story elements. Superman has a lot of
Aspects: My Secret Identity Is Clark Kent, Reporter at the Daily Bugle, I'll Do Anything to Protect Lois Lane, Adopted Son of Ma and Pa Kent, Faster Than a Speeding Bullet, and so on and so forth ad infinitum. The man could be divided into a hundred Aspects, and while it may be true that Superman is a Registered Voter in the State of Kansas, it doesn't need to be written down for it to be true. Aspects are called out when they become an important story element. Once Superman has the Registered Voter in the State of Kansas, the story changes to involve his status as a voter. If that Aspect fades to the background or becomes unimportant, then it's fair game to rewrite it or replace it altogether. For instance, if the story shifts yet it's still about the electoral process in Kansas, Superman's Aspect might shift to Conflicted About Governor Barnabus, and thus the story changes course to being about Superman's convictions and Governor Barnabus as a person and a p
What Do Aspects Do?
There are strictly mechanical Aspects to Fate, which are detailed in the SRD. These are all fairly straight forward: declare a story detail, reroll the dice, add +2 to a roll. As mentioned, Aspects also describe important story elements. There's also a particular mechanic called Compels that I'm not going to address here. Instead, I'm going to focus on how Aspects serve another important purpose outside of strictly mechanical elements.
Reminder! Fate is a toolkit of mechanical widgets. Different widgets are used in different circumstances. Sometimes, more than one widget can apply. It's up to the G
M and/or table to decide what widget provides the most satisfying resolution.
...is a fancy phrase that boils down to: Aspects are a big traffic light that says or go. Aspects permit or deny the ability to act. With an appropriate Aspect, a character might be able to do things that others cannot. The same applies inversely: an Aspect might totally deny the ability to act.
Batman is Handcuffed. Batman's player says, "I want to hurl a batarang at the Joke." Sorry, Bruce, you can't because you're Handcuffed. You can't throw a batarang until you deal with being Handcuffed.
In that same way, Martian Manhunter has sp
ecial abilities that other characters don't by virtue of being the Last Surviving Martian. (What's DC's deal with being the last of your race, anyway?) He has the narrative permissions necessary to shapeshift, fly, communicate telepathically, and so on that someone like Batman cannot.
You're probably thinking, "Duh," because it's obvious. In this context, narrative permissions and denial are easy to grasp. But it gets more nuanced in gameplay.
Superman and Spiderman are in a comicbook crossover. Each character possesses super strength. There's a contrived situation in which they need to lift the following items: a motorcycle, a sedan, and a semi-truck. First up: the motorcycle. No problem to lift and throw for either character. Second: the sedan. Superman can toss
it aside with a flick of his finger. Spiderman, on the other hand, has to try harder. He can deadlift the sedan and flip it with a bit of straining. Finally, the semi-truck. Superman hurls it away but Spiderman is outta luck. He simply cannot lift the semi. He can probably shoulder it to move it around, or he can use his webs to pull it, but there's no possibility of him lifting and throwing it.
The important thing to illustrate about this is that it's not a matter of bigger and smaller numbers. Aspects interact with the numbers side of the system, but their ability to impact the fiction through narrative permissions and denials is far more important.
Aspects Impact Passive Opposition
Passive opposition is Fate's fancy term for what not-to-be-named games describe as Difficulty Class. Aspects alter this. Batman takes the Batmobile for a spin in a race to a crime location. First scenario: the streets are Backed Up Wi
th Rush Hour Traffic. Second scenario: it's midnight and the streets are Empty Save for Stragglers: hoodlums, drunks, and streetwalkers. What's the difficulty of the test to get to the crime scene before the criminals escape? The exact number doesn't matter, but we can clearly see that one situation is more difficult than another. In this way, the difficulty is altered: a GM is likely to automatically increase the passive opposition in the former situation. Formally, the GM could spend a Fate point on the Aspect to bump up the difficulty, but I feel that's unnecessary. (The GM doesn't even need to spend the time writing out these Aspects: he can just say, "Gotham's streets are jammed with tra
ffic, the passive opposition is +6 to navigate them quickly.")
Thus far, Aspects are all fairly simple in play.
They get more complicated as multiple Aspects hit the table. Return to the handcuff situation with Batman, but substitute Superman. Batman wants to punch the Joker, no dice. Superman wants to punch Doomsday. Sorry, Man of Steel, no di--wait, you're the Man of Steel who is Empowered By Earth's Yellow Sun and More Powerful Than a Locomotive. Are you really Handcuff
? Sure, you can have handcuffs on your wrists, but being Handcuffed implies something that Superman doesn't have to worry about. Can't Superman snap out of his cuffs and sock it to Doomsday? Does he even need to roll the dice?
Probably not. Let's take another example. Batman--I'm picking on him today because he lacks true superpowers--is in a spot. The Joker's thugs have tommyguns and he's Pinned Down in a warehouse Stacked with Boxes. Batman wants to use his bat grappler to pull himself up to the ceiling and conceal himself in the Shadowed Corners of the warehouse. How the heck do these Aspects interact?
Start with the warehouse Stacked with Boxes. These boxes present opportunities to hide and move unnoticed (permissions). Second
ly, they block gunfire unless the shooter has a direct line of sight (denial).
Now for the Pinned Down Aspect. The thugs are blam-blam-blamming and Batman is risks a hail of bullets if he's not careful. This doesn't mea
n he can't act, but it means that there's some nasty consequences involved if his attempts g
o awry. I'd fully expect the thugs to use the mechanical bits of Aspects (the +2 or reroll) against Batman's attempts, but I would say it doesn't impact him via passive opposition otherwise.
The Shadowed Corners, though? That's double duty. It gives Batman the narrative permissions to hide himself (if they were Exposed and Bathed in Fluorescent Lighting, that's a no-go). Additionally, I'd say that the darkness implied by that Aspect denies the thugs the ability to shoot Batman directly, and it increase the passive opposit
ion of attempts to notice him.
You can see where this gets complicated pretty fast. Throwing around +2s and rerolls, narrative permissions, passive opposition, it's a slew of GM judgment calls in the moment.
A Final Example and Summary
I'm going to summarize this with an example fro
m a theoretical D&D adventure that demonstrates how Aspects give a name to something that GMs have done for ages.
Suppose we have a brave band of adventurers
who are venturing down into the sewer system. Their missteps leave them grimy and reeking of waste. In a traditional RPG, the GM notes this whereas in Fate, it's formalized: the characters have the Aspect Slimy with Filth on them. Upon returning to the surface, the adventurers demand an audience with the king for some reason or another. The guard holds his nose and tells them to suck eggs because there's no way the king will permit an audience with smelly beggars. (In this case, th
e Aspect denies narrative permission to see the king.) The fighter wants to try to talk his way past the guard, so he explains that it's urgent and in relation to the king's son. (The king is Worried for His Missing Son, in terms of Aspects.) The GM allows a check to make it past the guard, but he increases the difficulty to account for the stench. (Increased passive opposition for Slimy with F
ilth.) Later, the rogue tries to sneak off to the king's treasury, but alas, the guard dogs immediately scent him out because of the smell. (Again, Slimy with Filth comes into play.)
Finally, the party returns to the inn and scrubs themselves clean and changes their clothes. They no longer stink. And in Fate, the Aspect Slimy with Filth is no longer true, so it fades into the aether.