Some Notes and a Question

Another session of the Cold War game last night. Went interestingly, as the bit I’d expected to be the framing conflict ended up expanding to fill the session. I could probably have manhandled things back on track, but since this was primarily driven by player action/reaction it was more fun to run with it, and it will just mean that I have more notes prepped for next session.

Took my own advice at a few points, When planning this session, I was uncertain how to keep things dynamic, so I asked myself how I’d do it, and told myself to put another ball in the air. That very much did the trick. I also needed to actively stop myself at one point when a player’s plan didn’t make sense to me. There was a temptation to just force a quicker resolution, but I stopped, asked for clarification, and let the dice fall where they may.

I continue to have the “problem” that I am successfully engaging the players, but only rarely hitting their aspects directly. In large part this is because the aspects in the game are a little bit abstract, and that lead to a thought experiment – what would a game look like if all aspects were external? That is to say, what if all aspects were other people, places and things and none of them were internal or descriptive?[1] I certainly like the thought as a GM, since it helps me with using aspects as plot hooks, and I think I like how it would make players think. They can still have aspects that are effectively internal, but they need to have an external expression.[2] That is, if you want to be a Ninja, rather than take the ninja aspect,you take an aspect for your ninja teacher, ninja clan, or even sworn ninja enemy. That you are a ninja is implicit in the arrangement.

That said, this might be a bit weird (and definitely not useful for my current game) so I wonder if it might be more practical to allow players to “anchor” their aspects. Sort of flip the idea on its head. After they’ve picked the aspect, allow them to add a parenthetical note of the external thing which symbolizes that aspect to them, so it would be “Ninja (Enemy Ninja Clan)”. That may be the best of both worlds, since it allows the full range of aspects, but it still allows for hooks.

As I think about it, this also does a nice job of enriching the aspects as well, associating them with a character, a set or a prop[3]. For example, if Harry Dresden has an aspect like “Connected to Paranormal Chicago” then the anchor might be “Mac’s Pub”. On his “Wizard” aspect, “The White Council” makes an excellent anchor. Does the cause an aspect to do double duty? Yes, it kind of does. Is that a bad thing? My hunch says not. For players, it better defines the scope of when an aspect will come up, and that’s always useful. Also, as i thin about it, this ends up being a great shorthand for worldbuilding, especially for games that didn’t do a whole session of setting creation. There’s a lot of setting potential tied up in Anchors, especially if you can get your players to pick related anchors. [4] I think I’ll have to see if my players are up for adding some anchors.

Ok, this one has nothing to do with Fate or Aspects. I am pondering doing a little bit of light game design in this blog, at least in part because it seems like a good way to illustrate a few thoughts. To this end, I am pondering between a “Fantasy Heartbreaker” (a somewhat snotty[5] name for a D&D knockoff) and something in the Storytelling/Unisystem/L5R Stat+Skill spectrum. So that leads to two questions: 1) would that be worth reading and 2) which system approach should I take?

Genuinely waffling on this one, folks, so input is welcome.

1 – For DFRPG, make exceptions for the one essential aspect like “Wizard”. Heck, maybe even make the idea of one exception universal. Force players to think about what that one defining thing is.

2- Sort of like how in Over the Edge, each trait must be reflected in your character description, or how every setting element should have a face.

3 – Yes, that’s a bit of an explicit TV bit of thinking, but having known sets and props in play is pretty useful in my experience.

4 – As an example, suppose Harry Dresden picked “Wizard (White Council) ” as an aspect and anchor pair. What happens when someone else in the group picks the pair “Duty (White Council)”. To me, that suggests some instant mojo.

5 – Enough so that I am using it tongue in cheek.

20 thoughts on “Some Notes and a Question

  1. Doc Blue

    I, for one, would definitely be interested in seeing some light game design here.

    I think I would lean toward seeing a “Fantasy Heartbreaker”, largely because I would prefer to see linkages to genre than general system work.

  2. Fred Hicks (Evil Hat Productions)

    One perspective on abstract aspects is that they are themes which should show up outside of the character in hownthings develop in play. Much like the tv show thing where both the a plot and the b plot are about the same theme, but expressed in different ways due to the character in focus. A plot is the pc with the aspect, b plot is some externality.

  3. Joel

    I second the interest in seeing the “Fantasy Heartbreaker” work, though any kind of light game design would be neat 🙂

  4. John H

    I third the interest in the “Fantasy Heartbreaker”, although it would be more interesting to me if we pretended some fantasy RPG other than D&D had dominated the field.

  5. Rob Donoghue

    @fred Yeah, there’s definitely mileage in abstract aspects, but they end up having an indirect impact, which makes them a bit rougher to create an economnic churn off of (though as an aside, I don’t push for many rolls in play, so that is the other side of that equation).

    The rub, I think, is that we (and I so very include myself here) are fond of clever wordplay, sometimes to the point of undercutting the power of the underlying idea. Not always, but enough that I notice it at times. For cases like that, I like the idea of the Anchor as a clear, player directed pointer at the kind of thing they were thinking of.

    (Though that reminds me that an important point of Anchors is that they’re exemplary, not exclusive.)

    -Rob D.

  6. Bartoneus

    Answers – Yes to it being worth reading, so write about it! As far as between which of those two ideas, I’m more up in the air on that so I can’t offer a suggestion, sorry!

  7. Johnoghue

    So Maybe I am the odd duck but I don’t let Wizard, Fighter, Ninja, or the like fly as aspects any more then I do Strong, Tough, Or Fast Etc.

    Is it heavy handed to lean on a player to come up with a better aspect? Maybe, but usually it can be done as part of the Character Creation process and makes a better character with a more invokable aspect.

    Pilot to “Any landing you can walk away from.” Ninja to “Scion of the Grey Fox Clan.” Wizard to “Necromancer Extraordinare!”

    I feel that the books activly Encourage the playful and descriptive aspects, but doesn’t require it. I do though and I think that helps solve some of the tagging problem.

    A note: I Like the 7th Sea over L5R, despite their similarities. I like the Swashbuckling flavor of getting stabbed and getting a Dramatic Wound, yet still fighting on vs L5R where you get Stabbed and Die.

  8. Jvstin Tomorrow

    what if all aspects were other people, places and things and none of them were internal or descriptive?

    Well, what about a hybrid approach? As said upstream, abstract aspects are useful for character development, but external, concrete ones are ones that GMs can develop plot around.

    So, suggest to players to have a balance of both abstract and external aspects.

    As far as external expression, and abilities (Ninja Teacher==Ninja skills), that starts to blend into PDQ, doesn’t it?

  9. Dave Bozarth

    I wonder if the use of High Concept as Aspect already fills the role of the needed internal and abstract aspect, thus freeing the remaining Aspects to be tied directly to some external expression that can be better interfaced. Perhaps a bit of structuring to the High Concept, in the vein of Macklin’s first Mythender character concept method of [Adjective] [Noun] [Prepositional Phrase] would give it enough girth to encompass most ideas.

    Well, I am always eager to read about game design so yes, I would find it worth reading.

    As for system choices, I am incredibly fond of the 7th Sea way of handling magic and sword styles, but Unisystem (Angel and Armageddon in particular) have done well in my experience.

  10. Cam_Banks

    I believe this is very much how Over the Edge nails the Traits into “reality” as it were. You have to list some tag or flag or whatever they call it next to your Trait. I’m also reminded of the coolness of Feng Shui’s multi-layered Skills, which we stole totally for LEVERAGE.

  11. Reverance Pavane

    Actually I fond the simpler Aspects easier to play simply because they are easier to remember in the heat of the action. Obscure Aspects such as catch-phrases, look very interesting on the page of the character but can be very difficult for a gamemaster to remember and apply at the appropriate time.

    I think the solution is one more akin to that used in Houses of the Blooded where you get the players to write down what they feel are valid Invokes, Tags, Compels for their Aspect. If they can’t provide a reasonable explanation for all three states then it is not really a valid Aspect.

    Whilst I don’t expect either players or gamemasters to limit themselves to the Invokes, Tags and Compels they have specified (that would defeat creative game play), it does give everyone a strong idea of how the player wants to play the Aspect and how it can affect them in a negative way.

    As for your totally unrelated question, as a compulsive game collector I don’t mind seeing any new game spring to light. Although I find I prefer simplicity over complexity when it comes to rule systems (this is in play; character creation is allowed to be quite complex). But everything is interesting.

    I do have the feeling you want people to vote for Heartbreaker, the Fantasy RPG so that’s where my “vote” is going. Although that’s simply because your idea is a bit more formed there, so it’s something you’ve been thinking/wanting to do.

  12. Nick

    a big yes to some light game design. Both things sound interesting, but if the second option is going to be super generic, go for the Heartbreaker, if not, I don’t have a preference. 🙂

  13. misuba

    I’m gonna cast a vote for “something in the Storytelling/Unisystem/L5R Stat+Skill spectrum.” I don’t fully understand how systems of that ilk can be compelling, and I’d learn a lot about that if we watched you design one.

  14. Carl Rigney

    I like the idea of power coming from emotional links to people, ala Bliss Stage (or my imagined-yet-not-run Super Bliss Force Zeta), but just thought that perhaps it could be like relationships in Dogs in the Vineyard: People, Places, Organizations, or Sins. With all of those having a face you can talk to, naturally.

    (For those unfamiliar with Bliss Stage, your relationships are rated in terms of Intimacy and Trust, with Intimacy providing power and Trust providing resiliency.)

  15. Johnoghue

    Re: Simple aspects Vs Interesting aspects.

    Aspects are defining characteristics of your character. If you want to be Strong, well that is lame. There I said it.

    Yes you get more uses out of it, but that is not the point. If an aspect becomes a blanket statement it loses it’s punch.

    Here is an example I use. If I have a player with the Thief aspect, I might ask “What Kind of thief?” If it’s “second story man” well then Why not used that instead.

    If they are not sure, I might ask “What do you Steal” and I might get Art thief, which is at least a little better.

    If a player can’t define what sort of thief they are, or can’t come up with anything they have stolen, “Wannabe thief” Might be in order.

    I also try asking Why they took thief as well. Sometimes that clears it up.

    If they answer is Cause I wanted another aspect I could invoke when I am doing thief stuff, I get sad.

    Its like naming your Wizard Damian Helborn, or even Larry Thesden, Wizard PI. Unless you are being Ironic, it is Unoriginal and Boring.

    If you do it right you will never have aspects that don’t inform the game. Will you invoke “Sucker for a Dame” in every challenge? Maybe not. But Would Rick be Rick without that aspect? Hell no. Does it inform his choices even when not directly in play? Heck yeah.

    So thats my 2 cents and I am spent.

  16. Rob Donoghue

    @John Dude, yellow card. The idea that making a “Smart, Quick, Thief, Debts, Heart of Gold” is comparable to making “Drarry Hesden” is total strawman-ing.

    The trick is this: it’s important to know why complex aspects are powerful and useful, but if you have that knowledge and go simple, more power to you.

    Plus, at some point someone may ask you the reasonable question “Aren’t I making my aspect less useful by narrowing it down? A thief might be able to get a bonus to pickpocketing, but it’s more of a stretch for a “Safecracker” or “Art Thief” and it’s not like I get a _bigger_ bonus with safes or art.” If the only answer you can give to that is “You should play better” then there’s a problem.

    In the end, aspects are versatile. Simplicity may not be to _taste_, but it’s very far from doing it wrong.

  17. Johnoghue

    In my defense, Lame is different then Wrong, but I understand your point. I guess I just want people to be excited about their aspects and it is hard to get excited about Strong.

    Circular argument though, I respectfully Bow Out, with sub clause of a restart of discussion next time I am in town 🙂


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