Hard and Soft Tags

Lots of good feedback about hard and soft compels last week, but also some interesting discussions. See, this also revealed a few things that speak to the guts of Fate design.

So, playtesting is a wonderful thing, and one of the joys of having an open system is that a lot of people try a lot of different things, often things you would never even consider as a designer. By and large that’s fantastic, but it does mean that a designer may end up facing the challenge of trying to solve problems that he’s never encountered. This happens to me a lot. As a specific example, a lot of the problems people encounter with compels simply never come up at our table. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had players reject a compel. That may sound strange (especially given the number of games I’ve run) but we’ve got a culture of enthusiastically rushing towards badness which I love, but which is not universal.

All this leads to something that is rather the inverse of hard and soft compels, and that is the whole matter of tagging, compelling and invoking aspects external to the character, such as those on the scene or on other characters. Again, this is something I don’t really encounter problems with locally, but I try to listen to people’s experiences and this is why we end up with sometimes confusing ideas like free tags or fragile aspects. Just saying “use your best judgement” is half-assed game design, so things like that are come up with as explicit rules to try to capture a certain feel or style.

Now, this is mostly an issue in the context of fights, so I’ll use that as a basis. Fights in FATE are absolutely designed to model the way they work in fiction that we enjoy, which is to say that it’s all about tempo and momentary advantages. If the hero manages to throw sand in the bad guys eyes, that rarely wins the fight, but it creates an opening that he can exploit. The free tag is designed to fulfill much that same purpose[1] – a player pulls off something interesting and creates an opportunity that he takes advantage of, but it is then lost in the bustle of subsequent action. On a more meta level, it rewards players for creating new situations and playing with new approaches rather than just using the same exploit over and over again.

It is not, however, realistic. Or at least it’s not realistic in the sense we tend to mean it in gaming, which is a whole other discussion of its own. The objection, you see, is not to the free tags per se, but rather that players need to pay fate points to tag these things in the first place. That is to say, if the black knight has a CHINK IN HIS ARMOR, then why do they need to spend a fate point every time they aim for that chink? After all, it’s *there* – it doesn’t magically go away if they don’t aim for it – shouldn’t it just be baked in? (The same logic applies as you get into more game-y aspects that might be reflected as statuses in other games, things like PRONE or STUNNED.)

Now, I have an answer to this, one I feel is pretty persuasive, but I’m not going to delve into it at the moment[2]. It is not my intent to argue against this position because it’s not a matter of the right way to play things. Rather, today I want to talk about how to better support it if it’s your bag. There are a few ways to make aspect use a little more “realistic” depending on what exactly you’re trying to accomplish.

For purposes of terminology, I will be referring to all use of external aspects as tagging, and I am dividing these into two categories, hard and soft tags (yes, I’m stealing my own naming). A soft tag is the normal kind, one you would spend a fate point to perform. A hard tag is one which your internal logic says should not require spending a fate point to receive the benefit from.[3]

Additionally, if you go with a strict model of hard tags, you may wish to consider removing the rules for free tags. I won’t say you have to, but stop and consider what it means and how well free tags fit your vision of play. I’m not going to refer to them in the models below with the assumption that they’re not hard to plug in or remove.

Hard Tag Approaches

Free Hard
This is the obvious one, and I just put it here so I can refer to it: You can tag hard aspects for free. There might be some limitations, like “only one free hard tag per roll” or limiting them to certain scopes[4] but the heart of this is “If it’s hard, it should be free[5]

Half Hard[6]
This is probably the easiest implementation with the least drift from normal play. A hard tag grants a +1 bonus if you don’t spend a Fate point, +2 if you do. That reinforces that fate points are used for dramatic, heroic efforts, but still acknowledges that some opportunities should grant advantage. This approach still encourages the creation of interesting aspects, even soft ones, because the extra bonus is always welcome, and soft tags make for a more cost effective application of fate points.

You do want to decide how to handle this in conjunction with consequences. I would suggest that minor (and perhaps moderate) consequences be treated as soft, but how you set the slider on that will determine the potency of injury. If all consequences are hard then injury is quite scary indeed.

This is not an approach in its own right so much as a supplement to another approach. The idea is that even if tagging aspects grants free numerical bonuses, there may be some special effects which are triggered only by spending a fate point (and possibly by the success of the roll). To use the example above, when fighting an opponent with a CHINK IN HIS ARMOR, that aspect might or might not provide a passive bonus, but if you spend a fate point then the attack will also ignore his armor. If an ancient mummy is FLAMMABLE then fire attacks might get a bonus, but spending a fate point means it will actually catch on fire.

This model proposes a limited set of aspects with fixed mechanical effects that include free tags but may also have other mechanical hooks. This set of aspects will roughly equate to the statuses (like stunned or asleep) you might find in other RPGs, notably in the 4essentials version of D&D. For example, the PRONE aspect might grant a hard tag to attackers within reach, but grants the PRONE character a hard tag on his defense against long range attacks. A character who is OFF BALANCE and has that tagged as part of an attack may end up PRONE.

This model, especially combined with triggers, allows you to get pretty fiddly with powers and stunts, since it gives you an array of custom effects to differentiate things with. That’s pretty cool if you’re going for the crunch, but if you’re not then there’s a danger of it getting overwhelming. Ideally, you want to find a set of statuses that is comprehensive enough to cover a decent range of options but is not so broad that it creates a bookkeeping challenge.

A Few More Notes
With those suggestions out of the way, just two more notes to add:

Hard Tags and Hard Compels
If you’re using hard tags then give some thought to how the inverse works. If players are getting bonuses for free then they probably should not be getting fate points when they are impeded by a hard aspect. This sounds harsh on paper, but in reality most such situations are either obvious in their resolution (“No, you can’t run on on a broken leg”) or just quietly give the opposition a bonus.

Few things are more useful than writing down the aspects in play. We’re fond of putting them on index cards and tossing them down on the able, but other methods work to. This becomes doubly important if you have hard and soft tags in play because you’ll want to note the aspects differently, such as using different color pens or underlining the names of aspects you feel invite hard tags. This won’t be 100% – plenty of aspects are only hard if approached in a particular way – but for common situations this can save a lot of headaches.

1 – it was a bit of serendipity that it also resulted in the “Everyone contributes in some way then one character launches the big attack, using all the free tags for a big, massive hit” model which, while not ideal for every fight, has made for many satisfying SOTC finales.

2 – I will, however, say that hints of the difficulty of this can be found in the SOTC text. Look at the rules for Stealth and concealment sometime and consider how at odds they are with everything else. That’s because the idea of making the character pay for the dark was a bit too jarring.

3 – Internal logic is squirrelly business, and that’s the real reason I’m using categories. I am so very much not going to do the work of telling you what should be hard and what should be soft. if you’re looking to use these rules, it’s because you have already made that decision yourself.

4 – From Diaspora. Scopes are the arenas aspects fall into like personal, equipment, environment and so on.

5 – This is going to be a very dirty-sounding post, isn’t it?

6 – Yup.

4 thoughts on “Hard and Soft Tags

  1. Dave Bozarth

    Dirty dirty boy….

    Half hard tags and triggers sound like just the kind of thing that would be a good stepping stone into the realm of free form. With a set list of setting Aspects and Statuses it would create a really good theme for play.

    Now, if this was incorporated into something similar to Stunts… looks like I may be resurrecting an old game with some new rules. Thanks for the inspiration.

  2. Loyd

    I’ve playtested the “half hard” aspects a bit. We refer to them as Factors in my game, intentionally limp sounding with a flacid free +1 bonus. 😉

    To differentiate, Aspects are dynamic and exciting. They contain verbs and modifiers that make them evocative set pieces. “Raging Storm strobed with Thunderous Lightning”.

    A Factor is stable and boring. Usually just a couple of words. “Heavy Rain”

    Manuevers can place either. Prone is a Factor, Floundering on his Back in Pain is an Aspect.


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