OK, I’ve gotten knocked off on a tangent, and I’ll stay on it for the moment. What the heck, it’s Gencon week, so things are weird anyway.
First off, feedback to yesterday’s post was fantastic. I want to thank everyone who weighed in. Lots of good thoughts, and the starting points of some solutions, I think. Going to percolate a bit.
But the fact that it spun off into Fate lead to me thinking about aspects, and some thinking I’ve had regarding them. I very rarely make concrete declarations about aspects because they are not terribly concrete. Oh, sure, there’s an idea there which can be used, but its borders and shape are quite fuzzy. This is, I think, very much a good thing. It’s the reason the idea of aspects can be so easily inserted into so many different contexts, but it also addresses a harsh reality of gaming – we’re a painfully inconsistent lot.
Nothing reflects this more than the rules for compels, and it’s no surprise that these may often be the most confusing or problematic thing for players to work with. Some of this is because they’re different than other games – players who are used to implicit limiters may balk at explicit ones, for example – but I think there’s a deeper, more essential issue.
So, one of the core principals of gaming in my mind is that bad things are going to happen to your characters. Some people object to this, but I’ll stand by it on the simple grounds that bad things are the basis for almost every interesting thing that can happen in a game. It’s theoretically possible to have a game where players just build everything up positively, but given the relative rarity of such games, I’ll stick by my thesis: Bad things happen in good games.
Given that, the next question is where those bad things come from. It’s entirely possible for the bad things to be random, capricious, or entirely external to the characters. This is fine, but it is my opinion that arbitrary bad things are less interesting that bad things which touch upon the characters in some way. This is not to say everything needs to stem directly from the characters – there’s a sliding scale – but I definitely gravitate towards character-connected badness.
That’s two value judgments so far, and here’s an important jumping-off point. If you disagree with one or both of those, FATE Is not going to be a very good match for you. It won’t automatically become bad as a result, but it’ll be like a pair of shoes that’s not quite the right size. You can still run and walk, but it’ll rub you wrong, and you might just want a better-fitted pair.
Ok, so given that, how do we find good ways to draw things out of characters? Rich backgrounds can do it, of course, but that’s a lot of writing and a lot of reading that no one really wants to do. There needs to be a shorthand. Advantages and disadvantages can do this, but they have a couple problems. First, they tend to have limited lists. Second, they tend to be dominated by mechanics. Some people may pick ads & disads based on flavor, but I don’t think I’m being unreasonable to suggest that they are most often picked for maximum mechanical benefit (for ads) or minimal impact (for disads). Yes, I acknowledge that you may be a special snowflake who would never do such a thing, but me? I _totally_ would. My GURPs characters and various point-build supers over the years are utter embarrassments.
So, obviously, aspects step into that niche. And, conceptually, they’re very straightforward – will it help you? Get a bonus! Will it hinder you? Get a fate point! But there’s a lot of fiddle room in there, and that’s where confuses emerges. Not so often for when the bonus is given, since that’s very straightforward – player asserts the aspect is appropriate by declaring it and if the GM doesn’t countermand or call for elaboration then the bonus is given. There’s a little room for debate, but it’s smooth going overall.
Compels though…that gets kind of crazy. On some level, it would have been easiest if we’d just been more draconian about it and let the GM say “No, you can’t, you’ve got that aspect” and hand the player a point. That may allow the occasional dick move, but it’s very clear. Unfortunately, that’s not quite how we roll. We really _like_ that moment in fiction when someone exceeds their limitations or defies expectations, and it was with that in mind that we included the idea that the player could step up, spend a point and say “No, this matters enough that I will overcome my limitation and press on.”
Nice concept, eh? But the “spending a point” bit really muddied the waters. People love their Fate points, and the idea of needing to spend one without getting a bonus is one that does not sit well on them, especially if they are inclined to see it as GM bullying or extortion. It’s with that in mind that a lot of people have adopted a model of making the compel an offer rather than a demand, allowing players to simply refuse to take the point (and thus refuse the compel). I’ve talked about these Hard vs. Soft compels in the past, and it’s mechanically addressable, but doing so kind of skips the underlying question.
The real question behind any compel is how the player perceives it. That is – how much does the player _want_ to be hindered by the things he declared important during chargen. Sometimes the answer is “not at all” and it’s important to be able to recognize it. Sometimes the answer is “All the time” and you’re likely to have problems with compelling these players because they’re going to be pre-emptively embracing their problems.
But the rub is, how do you make a mechanic that incorporates both of these players?
This, I should note, is part of why I stick with hard compels (ones that demand payoff ) simply to make sure that they have teeth. Provided my sensibilities are in line with my players (and I hope thye are) my compels will rarely be rebuffed because what I’m really doing with a compel is offering the player a chance to do the thing he would have done if he’d seen the connection between it and his aspect. Yes, if the player’s being a jerk and trying to run sprints with a broken leg, then I’m also using it as an enforcement mechanism, but I honestly couldn’t tell you the last time I’ve needed to do that.
And that’s where we come to the self contradiction. Through my embrace of hard compels, I am almost never put in a position where I have to use them, which is really the ideal space. That is – the best use of the tool is not not need it.
It’s a nerdy kind of Zen, but I’ll take it.