Thoughts on Aspects

I was writing something else, and ended up needing to think a bit about GM compels, scene aspects and a bunch of other things that can sometimes be a bit fluid in Fate.   Specifically, I’m working on a toolset where it’s entirely appropriate for the GM to spend compels for mechanical effects (like flipping dice to minuses) which is a bit of a bugbear in Fate.  So I ended up coming up with some terminology to make it a bit easier to talk about, and that took on a life of its own.

I am genuinely not sure if this is the final form of these ideas, but I’m pretty happy with them as they stand. I think they clarify some ideas that are useful to me, and give me some hooks for other things I have in flight.  However, I have blind spots, so I’m sharing my thinking here because I’m curious what people think.

Anyway, the core here is 4 terms: Dramatic Compels, Mechanical Compels, GM Fate Points and Scene Fate Points.  The ideas behind them will be very familiar to Fate players, most of the newness is in terminology, and most of that is to set up a way to talk about compelling scene aspects.  Take a look and see if it makes sense.

A Dramatic Compel is a compel without an immediate mechanical effect, such as the GM offering a hard choice or appropriate complication. While it may lead to mechanical issues, the compel itself is entirely a function of the fiction. Dramatic compels cost the GM a fate point, and if the aspect compelled is on a character, then the fate point is given to the player unless they pay a fate point to resist the compel.

A Mechanical Compel is a compel with an explicit mechanical effect, and it costs the GM a fate point. While there may be other uses (from stunts or other rules) the default use for a mechanical compel is to either reduce a character’s skill by 1 (before the roll) or flip a die to a – (after the roll). The GM spends a fate point for this, which is given to the player who is acting or rolling. These compels cannot be directly resisted – rather it is expected that if the player wants to counter it, he will spend points for a countering bonus. Mechanical compels are almost always paid for with Scene Fate Points.

GM Fate Points are the GM’s bottomless supply of points used for most dramatic compels. If when the GM spends a GM fate point, it is given to the player upon resolution (so it cannot be used to resist the compel, but it’s available for use to deal with the consequences of the compel).

Scene Fate Points are the GM’s limited budget of scene-specific aspects. The differ from GM Fate points in the following ways:

  • They may be spent for mechanical compels
  • They are awarded to the player affected at the end of the scene.
  • The GM has a limited reserve of them at any given time.

Scene Fate Points can also be used for specific sorts of dramatic compels – dramatic compels on scene aspects.

One use of this is familiar – if a character is tightly tied to a scene aspect, then the aspect might be compelled against them as if it were an aspect on their sheet. In this case, it’s just like invoking a personal aspect, with the point going to the player at the end of the scene,

The other use may be less familiar, and that is to compel the scene. That is, the GM may spend a Scene Fate Point to compel an aspect on the scene in a way that changes the scene. This is a very powerful tool in the GM’s arsenal, and it’s important that the GM follow the narrative logic of the scene when using this, but within those bounds, this provides a simple tool for reflecting the consequences of action in play without it being entirely arbitrary.

To illustrate, consider the example of the building being On Fire. It’s a classic, and offers plenty of opportunities for use, but sooner or later that fire is going to have consequences. The fire department may show up. The sprinklers may come on. The building may collapse. These are all reasonable consequences of the existing aspects, and the GM could very reasonably use a scene compel to make them happen. In this case, the Fate Point is spent but goes to nobody. If the GM does something like this but targets a specific character (such as by bringing in their nemesis), then that should be a dramatic compel of that character, and pay out appropriately.

Mechanically, these compels will usually be reflected with either the addition of a new aspect on the scene, or by rewriting an existing aspect.

There are a couple practical things this does:

  • It allows the GM to keep the scene dynamic without requiring NPCs to do strange Create Advantage rolls or similar.
  • At the same time, it keeps the amount of changes bounded by the GM budget.
  • It gives a little more potential life to the various aspects that players tend to create on a scene in order to get free invokes, then forget about. Players will be careful to make sure they’re not things the GM can easily use, but if the GM is able to spend to create consequences and results of those aspects, then there’s a lot more room for organic action.

Sidebar: Consequence Countdowns

This is not actually relevant to this discussion, but here’s a tool that has some situational use (with credit to Blades in the Dark which this is derived from) – the GM may opt to add a track (like a stress track) to an aspect she creates (either in framing the scene or that he creates later) as a signifier that this aspect is going somewhere. What leads to checking off boxes is situational, but might include:

  • When the aspect is invoked/compelled
  • When a particular NPC takes an action
  • As a consequence of “Success, but…” or similar rolls.

There might be ways for players to uncheck boxes too. Again totally situational. Whatever the case, when the last box is checked, the aspect “flips”, and becomes its consequence. Effectively it’s a scene compel that the GM doesn’t need to pay for because she provided advance warning and an opportunity to react.

Examples might include an alarm which flips into reinforcements arriving, or a fire that flips into the building collapsing.

As presented, this is an open ended tool for the GM to use whenever she likes, which is all a high trust table needs. There are absolutely ways to mechanize this to make it more constrained, but I’m not going to dive into those now, because this is already a total tangent from the topic at hand.

How Many Scene Fate Points?

There are a ton of ways you could figure out the right answer to this question, and I encourage experimentation. However, I’m very lazy, so I use a simple rule of thumb. Start with X scene fate points where X is the number of players (not including myself). The scene budget is X for most scenes, 2x for scenes that seem more interesting and 3x for big scenes (finales and such). If I’m not sure how interesting a scene is, I check how many aspects I’ve written up in framing it. That tends to roughly correspond with the multiplier.

Named NPCs may also have their own reserve of Scene Fate Points. Ideally it would be something like X, tied explicitly to that NPC and used over the course of a session when necessary. In practice, that is more bookkeeping than I’m likely to do, so if I am doing this, I tend to just add half an X to the scene if there’s a named NPC.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Aspects

  1. Rob Donoghue Post author

    Point from discussion with Fred that merits clarification:

    The thing this is going to help me talk about has a diceless component. Normally, mechanical compels don’t add much to Fate, so they’re not really necessary. However, for diceless play (which this isn’t exactly for, but it shares some similarities) they end up replacing some of the variability of randomization. They’re maybe not the only way to do that, but for the moment they seem the simplest way.

    (That said, they’re less of a big deal than the mechanical collar on using scene aspects for dramatic purposes, but for that I need to write the thing that I wrote this to support. Later.)

  2. Blue

    This reminds me of the Doom Pool in Marvel Heroic Roleplay in concept, if not in execution. One of those points of similarity makes me wonder about feeding in Scene FPs. Depending on the mechanism, this would probably replace giving more Scene FP to interesting scenes, since the various feeders could equate either directly (player-spent FPs feed) or at one remove to interest.

  3. Jay Loucks

    Hi Rob,
    the terminology seems fine, but I’m not clear on the goal of these rules.
    Could you give some examples of play with Dramatic Compels on players, and Mechanical compels on players?
    I like the scene points used for Dramatic Compels on the scene.



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