Keys and Explicit Compels

The Shadow of Yesterday has a fantastic mechanic (one of many) called “keys” that allow the player to determine in which circumstances they gain XP. It’s easier to show than explain so consider this:

Key of Conscience

Your character has a soft spot for those weaker than their opponents. Gain 1 XP every time your character helps someone who cannot help themselves. Gain 2 XP every time your character defends someone with might who is in danger and cannot save themselves. Gain 5 XP every time your character takes someone in an unfortunate situation and changes their life to where they can help themselves. Buyoff: Ignore a request for help.

XP is pretty easy to come by in TSOY, so much so that many GMs just let players track it themselves. It’s so easy that the first time you play it seems like cheating, but really, that’s the way it’s supposed to work.

Now, there are a lot of interesting similarities between Keys and Aspects, and at some point I want to discuss in game currency vs. XP as a reward, but before I do that, I want to highlight one incredibly important difference – Keys are almost entirely player triggered. That is to say, the GM might set up situations where the key might or might not come up, but it’s the player’s decision that drives the reward.

Even more importantly, the player explicitly knows what will trigger a key. There might be a little wiggle room, but it’s much more transparent than something entirely dependent on GM interpretation.

If this idea appeals, there’s nothing that says it can’t get applied to Aspects equally easily – the only thing it requires is explicitly writing down what circumstances might trigger an aspect for good or ill. For example, if I have the Aspect “Soft Hearted” I could add a note that says “Gain a Fate Point whenever the character makes trouble for himself by helping someone in trouble.”

In doing this I am, effectively, writing my own compels. What’s more, I am also communicating very clearly to the GM the kinds of situations where I expect to see this aspect come up. In doing so I’m making it easier for him to do so.

Explicit compels are far from the only technique that supports this. Aside from just talking to the GM, things like anchors[2] are designed to serve a similar purpose. But for players who are not entirely comfortable with the “fuzzy” nature of aspects, this sort of explicit detail may help them get a grasp on things.

1 – Buyoff is basically how you get the key off your sheet. It pays off big time, with 10 XP, more than enough to buy a new Key, but you can’t re-buy the key you’ve bought off.

2 – Explicit setting elements (people & places) tied to each aspect.

10 thoughts on “Keys and Explicit Compels

  1. Loyd

    I like they Key idea but I’m curious as to how prevalent the problem of players not understanding self-compels is in your experience.

  2. Rob Donoghue

    @loyd I’m blessed at my table with players who throw themselves into trouble with such enthusiasm that it’s rarely a problem, but I’ve encountered it. More broadly, I’ve talked to people who have had the problems, and over time I’ve built up a picture that hinges on a lack of clarity. Most FATE GMs would be entirely open to players self-compelling, but there is not necessarily a way for a player to communicate that this is what is going on. At its worst, this result sin a player who the GM never compels because he makes all the “bad” decisions without prompting, but who never accrues any Fate points because the GM has not necessarily noticed that this has happened (usually because the GM is busy dealing with squeakier wheels).

    The player can certainly break out into the meta-level and announce he’s self-compelling, but without some ritual or rules for that,it’s rather graceless. Most of the groups I’ve seen who have solved the problem do so with undocumented non-verbal communications. They use emphasis or significant pauses to draw the GM’s attention to the fact that something’s going on, and the GM responds. This is tricky, though, and takes work to get right. The “Aspects as magic words” post from a week or two back was another way to address this.

    Simplest of all, I suspect, is simply let players take Fate Points on their own. Just put them in a bowl in the middle of the table, but when the player thinks they’ve made an aspect-driven choice, they just take one (or give one to another player when you see them do it, for a slightly different dynamic). This would probably be the hardest approach to sell, but I think it’s probably the most effective, and if you have a group that is already effectively self-compelling, odds are good you can handle the trust element.

  3. Chris Czerniak

    I think a better example than TSoY Keys might be “Houses of the Blooded” aspects which does exactly what you are describing. So, each aspect has further information on how to tag, invoke, and compel it.

    The only problem with this method is that I have found coming up with good aspects to be hard. It is even harder when you try to define how to use them though it it could make them easier to use in play.

  4. Loyd

    I’m thinking of going the explicit ritual route.

    My game is drama styled, three of a PCs six character aspects are highly compellable Motives. I’m advocating a story design style where one motive per PC is the source of a character arch that spans the session and interferes with accomplishing the group’s over-arching goal (hence drama!).

    I’m thinking that every scene of the PC arch should pay out 2 FP to the character central to it. 1 compelling the Motive and another for the scene introducing consequential conflict to be resolved.

  5. Rob Donoghue

    @Chris You’re right, I should have remember HotB as an example. Good news is, it’s actually easy to port that model across with one easy fix: remove the obligation to fill out all 3. While the most interesting and pivotal aspects will have clear options for Compels, Invocations and Tags, not every aspect needs to have all three. Sometimes aspects are strongly positive or strongly negative, in which case you can leave one or more option blank. The classic example of this is “Strong” – yes, you can jump through hoops to com up with Compels for it, but do you really need to? If the player wanted ti to be double edged, they’d have picked “Musclebound” instead.

  6. Cam_Banks

    Smallville’s Distinctions are another example of this kind of thing. Leverage’s are a much lighter version. In both cases, players are in control of when the Distinction applies; in Smallville, the player does whatever the trigger demands in order to earn Plot Points or net some other benefit; in Leverage, the player chooses to add a d8 or a d4 (and gain a Plot Point). No compel exists in either case.

    Lady Blackbird uses TSOY as a foundation, yes? I’ve still not had a chance to play it.

  7. Codrus

    Smallville and Houses of the Blooded have been brought up already, but a couple of thoughts to add.

    I played Housed of the Blooded well after playing FATE. I found its tag/compel structure stifling, particularly in combination with only having a couple of aspects on a starting character. Situational tags felt more like a die modifier than something interesting about my character. For compels, they were sufficiently limiting that they didn’t drive the style dice economy at all. HOTB needs players to have style dice more than FATE needs players to have fate points.

    The flexibility of 2 or 3 different compels would have made it play a lot differently. The limited tags appeared to be an attempt to make PVP more reasonable in the game system.

    I mentioned this in a comment to a previous post, but my plan for my Dresden Files game (which will have players new to FATE) is to create an Aspect Worksheet:

    Two ways it might be tagged:
    Two ways it might be compelled:
    Type of Aspect:*
    Misc Notes:

    * High Concept, Trouble, etc. — I’ve been poking around with categorizing different types of aspects lately.

    For me, an aspect’s name is shorthand. What the aspect actually means has to be a shared understanding at the table. The worksheet helps crystalize that before play. My thoughts on shared understanding have been influenced recently by Mortal Coil’s theme documents; it is difficult to put enough nuance into the name of the aspect, so a document that talks about the aspect helps with understanding.

    One problem here is that players usually have the poorest conceptual grasp of their character during character generation. I think of this like a TV show; when a pilot is filmed, the writers, the actors, the directors, pretty much EVERYONE is still trying to figure out who the characters really are. An advantage to aspects is that they are a little fuzzy; rather than forcing players to hardcode what the aspect is, players can figure it out over time. Leaving an aspect or two blank helps too.

    Which brings me to Smallville. The character generation system, of course, is designed to tell you more about the character, which helps strengthen the conception for an ability. It also gives players lots of abilities, with explicit uses for each. With the caveat that I haven’t played Smallville, my feeling looking at the game rules is it will succeed for me where Houses of the Blooded did not because the typical character has lots of different things to draw on.

    Smallville has one idea that intrigues me as well: a middle ground between a tag and a compel. Don’t have my book handy, but let’s call it a sacrifice here. “Lose something to Gain something”. “Drop whatever is in your hands to improve your dodge”

    In the Iron GM competition here last month, many aspects were played this way at our table (with more fuzziness around the specific uses). “I spend a FATE point AND fall out of the airplane TO take one of the mooks out of play. I know that [Tatyana will save me.]” It was sufficiently interesting that I made a post about it.

    This is pretty long, so if I had to summarize:
    * Explicitly spelling out compels can be useful, but it can also feel very restrictive.
    * If the system gives players fewer aspects, it should let them provide more examples of compels. In other words, if I only get 2 aspects, I should get a few different ways to compel each. If I have 10+ aspects on a character, one compel for each ought to be sufficient.

  8. Rob Donoghue

    The funny thing is that my scheduled post for Friday basically hits a lot of the same notes, as it’s a proposal for how to handle more structured, explicit aspect writeups. Now wondering if it’s a little moot.

  9. Reverance Pavane

    I have to admit a prefer the more formalised approaches to tags and compels presented in House of the Blooded over that of Fate0based games.

    Admittedly one reason for this is the habit of players to want to come up with cool catchphrases or names for their personal Aspects, which can often make them quite difficult to identify what the player wants them to do. Explicitly defining them makes sure everyone knows what the player intends with the Aspect in the actual game, rather than as a part of character generation.

    That being said I do like the idea of help yourself to a Fate Point if you feel you are compelled to do something, especially for large groups. Players will tend to want to play their Aspects but the gamemaster may not realise they are doing so without application of a specific ritual invocation.


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