I just tweeted about this, but I like this enough that i want to capture it here. I have finally gotten around to reading the new Over the Edge. It’s not released yet, but I backed the kickstarter, and the pretty-much-final preview version got sent around recently, and I finally sat down to read it. I had not read any of the previews before that for two reasons. First, OtE is an INCREDIBLY important game to me, so I was willing to be patient. Second, I hate reading multiple versions of a game because all the rules stick in my head, and I end up in a muddle when all is done. This is why I don’t read any of the preview editions of even games that I love and am super excited about, like all of the Blades in the Dark family of stuff.
Anyway, there is a specific trick in the new OtE that I love and which I think is wonderfully portable. In the game, every character has a question. Now, to get the question, you pick some descriptor of their nature (Honorable, Honest, Merciless, Cruel and so on) but then append it with a question mark, so the character is “Honorable?” or “Merciless?”.
What this signifies is that this thing is both very true to the character and that it’s mostly true, but there are exceptions (which may or may not be communicated) and those exceptions are damn well going to come up in play.
I love this, for a host of reasons.
Dramatically, it’s just great, because it acknowledges that a lot of these essential ideas are more interesting in their exceptions and contradictions (but only if they still have weight to them). “Honest?” is more interesting than “Honest” or “Dishonest” because it implicitly brings in uncertainty and motivation rather than simply leaving it as essential.
Practically, it also addresses a classic communication problem in RPGs – when a player makes a statement about their character, it is not always obvious whether they’re establishing a baseline (and want it to be taken for granted) or if it’s a flag on something that they want to be pushed and tested.
For an easy illustration of this, let’s use a paladin. They’re good for this.
If my paladin is “Faithful” then his faith is a constant. If he is presented with temptations, he will reject them. If challenged, he will be resolute.
If my paladin is “Faithful?” then all of the above is true most of the time, but the outcome is less certain. When my faith is tested, there is a chance it will falter, and that’s something I want to play.
Sidebar: bear in mind that these can both be awesome characters. There’s a storytelling assumption that the latter is somehow better because it’s narratively more interesting, but that is looking at these elements in a vacuum. It’s good to have a mix of essentials and questions to make for a robust character.
Now, if you’ve read that far, it’s pretty obvious that this is an idea that’s easy to port to almost any other game. It needs not mechanics – it’s just a communication and description element, so it can really be applied to any game. But when the game has a space for such things, it’s all the easier to hook in.
The most obvious applicability is, of course, to aspects in Fate and related games. No new mechanics are required, but the simple act of turning an aspect into a question gives all the benefits we’ve been talking about and provides much greater clarity around expectations for compels and invocations. If I, as a GM, see a question mark at the end of an aspect, I take that as a clear indicator that you – as a player – want me to offer lots of possible compels there. And, implicitly, it also tells me to maybe not lean so hard on the ones that you don’t have a question mark next to.
Sidebar: In fact, I might even supplement this approach with exclamation points, to represent “implied comma, dammit” to the end of an aspect to make it CRYSTAL CLEAR that I take this as a bedrock assumption and am not interested in playing against it. This doesn’t mean no compels, but it does suggest the type of compels that the “Honorable!” Paladin is looking for are different than the type of compels the “Honorable?” Paladin wants.
So, as I said, I love this. I 100% intend to use this in my next Fate game, and encourage it in other games I run and play. There’s pretty much no downside to it, and if it sounds cool to you, definitely consider taking it for a spin.
So I have two Aspects: “Law-Abiding” and “Baron von Evil Must Pay”. At some point, there’s an interesting clash – we have a way to get at Baron von Evil, but it requires breaking the law. My Aspects come into conflict, and it’s exciting to discover which way I’ll jump.
If one of them has a !, though, it’s not interesting any more.
Law-Abiding! / Baron von Evil Must Pay: “No, we’ll need to find another way.”
Law-Abiding / Baron von Evil Must Pay!: “It breaks my heart, but there’s a deep truth about omelettes.”
There’s no tension about what decision I’ll make – I’ve already told you. So I’m essentially saying “If you’re going to try to create a dramatic dilemma, don’t do it with this Aspect, because that makes it a monolemma straight away.”
Whereas if I am Law-Abiding?, I’m saying “Please, if you’re looking to create a dramatic dilemma, my first choice is to put this Aspect in conflict. I WANT to be pushed on this one.”
One critical point: the ! May be because while you, as the GM or an observer may find that conflict interesting, I as a player may not, and this makes it easier to communicate and respect that. Thankfully, it’s not like there’s a shortage of interesting opportunities in play – this just excises a subset the player doesn’t want to be leaned on for.
I 100% got to the exclamation point idea before I got to the sidebar where you mentioned it. To which I say, hells yes.
I’d also submit that you could combine them (no! I am not talking about an interrobang, use both dammit), so for example “Faithful?!” would imply that the paladin behaves in an absolute way, but it’s brittle, and eventually someday it will be tested in a way that causes that absolutism to shatter.
I can also see the modifiers changing under specific circumstances.
In the TV series Due South, Benton Fraser is either “Helpful” or even “Helpful!” He’ll drop whatever he’s doing to aid a person in need.
But in the Season 1 finale, when he’s under time pressure to save his friend and reeling from a betrayal, a woman runs up to him. “I’ve been mugged! Can you help me?”
He looks at her sadly. “No, ma’am, I’m afraid I can’t.” And he drives away.
I could see Fraser’s player going to the GM part way through that session and saying “I feel like RIGHT NOW, I need to change my exclamation point for a question mark, to reflect this extreme mental state.”
(At the end of the episode, there’s also a possible Law-abiding! -> Law-abiding? switch…)
Once the circumstances go back to normal, so can the Aspect… but the character will be aware going forward that some of his assumptions about himself aren’t as immutable as he’d believed…
(I played a Paladin based on Fraser for a couple of years in a High Fantasy Fate campaign, and wrote a Victoria figure into his backstory so that those same questions could come up should she ever make an appearance. When a PC died, one of the other players actually brought her into the game as the replacement PC.)
Fraser has been my go-to touchstone for paladins ever since I first saw Due South. Loved that show.
And rightly so. Thank you kindly.
Now I want to get out my Box Sets and do a full rewatch.
This is some nice tech, I like it.
I’m thinking that periods and ellipses might be useful as well.
“Honorable.” is a flat, definitive statement, not as excited as “Honorable!” – more of a bedrock assumption that defines the character but isn’t going
“Honorable…” conveys a “but” – this character is honorable, but there are definitely exceptions.
In Jeremy Keller’s Chronica Feudalis, one of the things you make for your character are Backgrounds, which sketch out your character’s past in a way that’s useful not because it gives you skills, but because it’s essentially the player telling the GM: “These things are real for me and you don’t get to screw with them.”
In other words, you don’t want a scenario in which those things are central to the conflict, you don’t want to explore them, they’re established and they’re real and that’s all they are.
It’s a really cool idea and I think it aligns with your suggestion for the use of the ! as a partner to the ? from Over the Edge.
(By the way, you can still pre-order OTE via the Kickstarter page if you’re keen to grab it.)
Interesting. Often I find that when we highlight something in backstory, it’s because we WANT the GM to be able to draw on them to find things that will particularly matter to us, and make a conflict personal.
Is the Backgrounds mechanic a specific variety of backstory element that’s sacrosanct? (As in, there are things from your past in Chronica Feudalis that CAN be explored?)