Category Archives: Fate

Fixed and Dynamic Aspects

Padlock with fate icons in lieu of a combination“Always On” aspects is one of those ideas that has been kicking around as long as aspects have existed. There are a lot of great implementations do things like  grant simple bonuses for aspects. TinyFate is based on this idea, and the truly excellent Three Rocketeers by PK Sullivan is almost iconic in its application.

With that in mind, I decided to solidify my thinking on this approach to aspects in a way that makes them easier to talk about, and to that end I want to talk about locked and dynamic aspects.

What’s a Dynamic Aspect?

That one’s easy – it’s a “normal” aspect. I’m applying this label purely for clarity.

What is a Fixed Aspect?

A fixed aspect is written up like a normal aspect, but its Fixed nature is denoted by it being underlined. Mechanically, a Fixed aspect’s impact is very simple: If it would help on a given roll, it grants a +1 bonus. If it would hinder a given roll, it applies a -1 penalty. Simple as that. Note that there is no interaction with fate points in this – it’s simply something to be taken into account.

How to Use fixed & Dynamic Aspects

As designed, fixed aspects can be used interchangeably with dynamic aspects. In fact, their use is the easiest part of this. If I have the aspects:

  • Strong
  • Fierce Fighter

And I make a roll to attack, let’s say I get a +2. Now, Strong is a fixed aspect, so it’s going to give me a +1, bringing that to a +3. Fierce Fighter is a dynamic aspect, so if I spend a fate point, I’ll bump that to a +5. Mechanically, this is all very simple.

Where this gets a little more complicated is the question of what aspects should be locked and which aspects should be dynamic. To that end, there are a few different models:

Free For All

The simplest model is to simply decide what type each aspect is when it’s created1. As an option, you may allow for an aspect to be ‘flipped’ by spending a fate point to change it from fixed to dynamic or vice versa. This works well if there’s a balance, but it breaks down in edge cases. Specifically, if characters simply load up on fixed aspects, then bonuses can quickly get out of whack, and characters will also get much more boring, since the usual advice (“More interesting aspects are more mechanically potent”) stops being true, and aspects that grant more bonuses more often become more desirable. As such, this is not a recommended approach.

Constrained – Capped

This is the same as the Free For All, with the single caveat that the bonus from fixed aspects is capped at +3. This is still quite potent, but it can work decently well in games where there’s a more constrained set of other bonuses (such as FAE).

Option: If you like math and a world FULL of aspects, instead of a hard +3 cap, consider 1 aspect grants a +1, 3 aspects a +2, 6 a +3, 10 a +4 and so on.

Constrained – GM Only

Another approach is to make fixed aspects the domain of the GM, and any aspect the GM creates is considered to be fixed, while character and player-created aspects remain dynamic. This model has a lot of advantages – it drives any GM invokes and compels towards the players while allowing for simpler mechanical application of things like environmental aspects and unnamed NPCs (who could be expressed purely as aspects). In fact, under this model, the GM will probably almost exclusively create static aspects except for very key elements (like named NPCs or plot points worth hanging a lantern on).

Blended

Note, this model does not work well with skills or even approaches, but it is a solid way to handle aspect-only play. In this model, aspects are both fixed and dynamic. That is, they will provide their passive bonus or penalty, but can also be invoked or compelled for an additional +2/-2 as appropriate.

While this is very simple on its surface, the one complication is the question of what fate points are used for. Because the fixed bonuses can be substantial, players may decide they do not need as many Fate Points to function, and we can end up with similar problems to the free for all. If your game has some additional use for Fate Points (either because you’ll be pushing compels hard for setting reasons, or because they have some other mechanical value, such as fueling stunts) then you should be fine, but if not, consider implementing a cap.

Pure Fixed

As with Blended, this works poorly in conjunction with skills (unless you introduce a cap, as in the Constrained-Capped model) but this is another way to do aspect-only play if you have always been interested in Fate but less into the whole hippie-dippy fate point economy stuff. This will complicate specific games that require fate points for mechanical elements (Dresden Files, for example) but for many games, this offers a different but functional model of play.

Other Options

There’s still plenty of room for nuance and tweaking within this space – the approaches I’ve outlined are far from the only ways to handle it. But for all that, this can be a useful tool to throw into your toolbox, especially for GMs who like the descriptive  nature of aspects, since it allows the GM to go aspect-only in many situations.  Starting up NPCs is as easy as noting they’re a StupidBrutish Thug and you know they have +2 to most violence, -1 to anything depending on cunning, and you’re good to go.

This also can interact well with consequences.  While I recommend that most character aspects are dynamic, consequences can be a reasonable exception to that for games which want injury to carry a lingering impact.  This becomes even more true when you decide to replace stress and consequences with conditions,

Anyway, my goal here is not to exhaust the idea, but simply to talk about it in a way that allows easy interchangeability between fixed and dynamic aspects. If nothing else, it’s provided me a way to talk about it in the future, so I’m good with that.

 


  1. Important mechanical note: if you create a fixed aspect, then that effectively forgoes the free invoke (or extra free invoke for success with style) and that may disincentives creating fixed aspects. That sounds like a bug, but it’s really a feature, since it means player-created aspects will tend to be dynamic, while GM-created aspects (those for framing a scene) will tend to be fixed. ↩︎

Blades of Fate

Blades in the Dark clarified a lot of things that Fate 2 and Spirit of the Century tried to do, so I decided to steal its tech to go back over some old territory, mashing it up with new technology where appropriate. So, hang on tight.

Adjective Ladder

Step 1, we’re compressing the adjective ladder as follows:

X: Poor
0: Mediocre
1 : Fair
2: Good
3: Great
4: Superb

And done. You can extrapolate from there if you want, but that is the functional core, and to take it a step further, Poor and Superb only show up in very rare circumstances, so the heart of things is 4 steps. Compressing the ladder also means the honorable retirement of “Average” and years of discussions regarding the difference between mediocre and average. It also, I think, improves its conversational usability.

Dice Rolling

When you roll dice, you roll a number of Fate dice determined by the ladder, and pick the best one.

If it’s a (success) +, then you succeed, free and clear, based on the terms of the roll (more on that in a bit). This maps to a 6 result in BITD. Multiple Plusses map to a critical success.

If it’s a blank (Mixed), then you succeed, but the GM gets to complicate it in some way. This maps to a 4-5 result in Blades.

If it’s a – (Failure), then you fail, and what that means also depends on the terms of the roll. 1

Poor and Mediocre rolls

If you’re mediocre, then roll 2df and keep the lower. If you’re poor, you just fail.

Skills, Approaches and Whatnot

In fine Fate tradition, this supports any kind of descriptors. Skills? Approaches? Professions? Descriptors? Whatever. They all work. But you need to pick one and run with it.

For illustration purposes, we’ll use approaches, but please consider it the tip of the iceberg. This will be largely familiar to anyone who has played FAE, but the main difference is that in addition to each approach having an implicit meaning, it has implicit failure states and these matter a lot on mixed rolls and failures.

For example, the failure states on Flashy are 1) Insufficiently flashy and 2) only flashy. That matters because by default, a mixed means that you were flashy enough, but the problem emerges because you were insufficiently Quick or Forceful or some other approach that might have mattered. In contrast, a full on failure is a failure to be sufficiently flashy.

These failure states are not cast in stone – situations can freely generate exception – but they exist to give a more clear default for how to handle what approaches mean.

Terms of the Roll

When a roll is made, it has 5 components:

  • Action – The action and situation being described which has called for a roll
  • Effort – The skill/approach chosen and the dice rolled
  • Position – how risky of controlled the action being taken is.
  • Effectiveness – How well or poorly this is likely to work, under best/worst circumstances.
  • Effect – The result of all this. IN the case of a success, this is synonymous with effectiveness.

Action is either a whole thesis topic on its own, or perfectly obvious. The player has described an action which is sufficiently interesting, uncertain or both as to call for the dice. For simplicity, I’m going to treat this as a solved problem

Effort comes from the player: They choose which approach they’ll use, roll the dice (and make any decisions related to that die rolling).

Action and effort combine to determine position (which will be Free, Controlled, Risky or Dangerous2) and effectiveness (which will be potent, normal or weak). These are determined and communicated by the GM as a logical extension of the action and effort.

This is, explicitly, where the “That approach is bullshit” filter gets applied, especially with effectiveness. The GM is free too (encouraged even) to diminish effect for approach selections that seem more made for the bonus than the in applicability of the situation, and by the same token to reward clever approach selection with greater effect. This should not turn into a game of “Read the GMs mind for best bonus” but it should be resolvable within the bounds of common sense.

Position

Position impacts the effects of failure. Failure or mixed success from a controlled position tends to be have minor consequences. From a risky position, they can have more teeth, and from a dangerous position they can be very costly indeed.

I’m not going just restate the table from Blades, but in my head, that’s what we’re talking about.

Effectiveness

Just as position shapes failure, effectiveness shapes success. The best roll in the world can only make so much of a difference with the wrong tools solving the wrong problem. But on the flip side, the right tool for the job can make heavy work light. In practice, a success with potent effectiveness will have more punch (a free crit, perhaps) while weak effectiveness means diminished effect. Again, mentally I’m just stealing the Blades table for this at the moment.

Do we need both?

In theory, you could collapse position and effectiveness. You wouldn’t want to have a 3×3 grid because that would be fiddly, but a fair number of games tie effectiveness back to effort (by modifying the roll, with bonuses and penalties) and trust the diminished roll to reflect the diminished effectiveness. Of course a lot of games do the same with position as well, so we could arguably ditch both in favor of a more robust effort model. That kind of works, but it’s very game-logical rather than human logical.

But even beyond that, I like having the explicit GM tool to express an opinion. Explicitly calling out position and effectiveness forces a fruitful moment of clear communication between player and GM while providing protection against the rules getting too disconnected from reality.

The Free Roll

This equates to the Fortune roll in blades. A free roll has neither position more effectiveness (and is probably sketchy on action and effort) because it has no particular consequences, and is simply a roll the GM may call for to answer a question.

Crits

Success is more common in this system, but that’s fine – this is for somewhat friendlier games than those about cutthroat thieves. Trickier is the fact that it means criticals are more common, so we’ll need to make sure their meaning is very clear. Not fully unpacking that yet, but planting a flag as something to come back to.

Scale3

As with Blades, Scale affects position and effect because it encompasses both, and carries them to a greater magnitude. The most obvious example of scale is size – a mouse has a hard time fighting a horse, or a soldier an army – but it can encompass much more than that, including available time, appropriate tools, correct understanding an so on. Sometimes scale exists on a ladder (such as with tiers of size) but sometimes it’s a simple gateway (like a language barrier). It is a many faceted thing, but when something is impossible, the barrier is usually scale.

Functionally, scale’s impact on position and effectiveness are independent and situational. Sneaking past a giant robot might be no harder than usual, but punching it is unlikely to have much effect.
Now, the nuances of scale are very much a genre driver, because it speaks to the kind of situations that can come up and what things like a “fair fight” look like, so with that in mind, treat this generalization as very suspect.

Scale has only two meaningful steps (beyond parity): “Oh Crap” and “Oh, hell no”.

If it’s Oh Crap, then the scale difference is enough to make your life harder. One guy fighting a gang. One chef cooking for a wedding. It’s doable, but harder. This can imperil position, reduce effectiveness or both. If it’s Oh Crap for the other guy, that’s effectively reversed.

If it’s Oh, Hell No then you just don’t bother. You cannot fistfight an army, nor can you pick lock a bank vault. These are sufficiently out of scope that failure is presupposed and you go to the dice for things adjacent to it (like running away from that army you tried to fistfight).

Where this gets interesting (and genre raises its head) is where scale can be ignored or altered. A legendary bar fighter might be able to ignore Oh Crap in a bar fight. The god of bar fights might be able to punch an army (ignoring the Oh, Hell No).

Skills are flash, but scale matters

More critically, with planning and effort, a brawler might manage to get in front of an army at a point where they’re forced to come at him one at a time, overcoming scale with skill and cunning. It still probably won’t end well, but it’ll be a hell of a fight.

And that’s the rub. When we talk about “skill” outside of the RPG context, there is this idea of legendary skill, and legendary acts of skill, and when we map that to RPGs we tend to map that as very high values overcoming very high difficulties. The problem is that this only represents a very small subset of significant actions. Hitting a target can be dramatic an exciting, but it is a different order of action than, say, winning a war or curing a disease. There are entire categories of actions which are not resolved with a single act, but rather by steadily changing the situation so that something that started out as impossible becomes possible.

Scale is how you handle things like that and, critically, scale rules are how you communicate how important actions like that are to your game. Not every game needs a path to cure cancer or gather enough votes to become mayor.

All of which is to say that scale is a bigger deal than we tend to acknowledge, and how we handle it is a critical descriptor for genre.

Aspects, Fate Points and Stress

There is no mechanical reason not to port Stress into Fate. It’s not hard, and requires only a few decisions. The simplest model is this:

  • Fate Points and the stress track are now Stress Pool
  • Players may spend Stress to invoke an aspect to add a die to a roll
  • Compels replenish the stress pool.
  • Damage is taken to the stress pool
  • Consequences can ablate damage as normal
  • Devils Bargains effectively combine a simultaneous invoke and compel

This totally works as placeholder, but I’m going to put a pin in it because this is the the point where we need to stop and think.

Ok, So What’s The Point?

This text file had sat idle on disk for a while because I was not sure it was worth pursuing. It’s a fun technical exercise, but does it serve any real purpose? I couldn’t answer that until the other night, when we had a session of Blades where the dice were very strongly in our favor, and it pretty radically changed the tone of play for the session into something a little bit more cinematic and wahoo. Maybe not the tone we want in Blades all the time, but there are definitely games where that is exactly the tone I would want to hit. So that example persuaded me that there’s definitely room for this, but explicitly not as any kind of direct port, so I’ll be well served to re-examine any assumptions as I review them.

To that end, I suspect a focusing tool will be in order, so the next step will be, I think, coming up with an It’s Not My Fault variant version of this. It’s core system is FAE, but it may well benefit from a bit more structured play, and some concepts from Blades might help to that end.

All of which is to say, this is the rough starting point of an idea, and I’ll be refining it over time.

  1. Multiple minuses are not a critical failure because, if so, then almost every failure would be a critical failure. ↩︎
  2. I’m explicitly stealing Blades terminology here, but I’m also doing it by memory, so if you see a divergence from Blades, that is me making things up, not me pretending I’m not stealing from Blades. ↩︎
  3. I’m 80% convinced to rename this “scope” just to reflect how it’s used here. ↩︎

 

More Fun With Index Cards

So, I was working on a little side project that won’t be done quite in time for Gencon, and since that was the point of it, I figured I’d share the fruits of it.  I was dinking around with fitting Fate event generation on an index card.  I started out with simple two die tables, like this set for quick high concept generation – take two dice, roll once on each card, and combine:

card1 card2

 

Worked ok, but it didn’t seem like the most efficient use of the card.  Lots of wasted space.  So I tried a different format for some utility tables, inspired by Fiasco:

card8 card7

 

And that worked ok, so decided to make a set for plot generation, a la two guys with swords:

card3 card4 card5 card6

That, I think, worked pretty well.  it’s a fun format, and one I’m going to have to try to get a little bit more use out of.

Any suggestions for tables the world needs?

BONUS

This one is inspired by a question David Goodwin asked. Using it as a chance to try a slightly different dice presentation.

card9

 

FURTHER EDIT: NOPE.  Uneven border doesn’t work.  so much for the quick and dirty fix.

 

When You Need to Spend a Fate Point

When someone asks if their aspect allows them to do something (or generally tries to act upon  ‘aspects are alwasy true’ thinking), the answer is usually obvious, but there are fuzzy border zones, and this create some confusion.

You can resolve that confusion by spending a fate point, but it’s not always clear when that threshold is hit.

Some people think that this should be resolved conservative, with things that *might* be within bounds demanding a FP.fp1

 

But me, I’ve always opted for a more open policy – the FP is necessary only for stretching the aspect beyond expectations.

fp2

 

In reality, it’s not always clear cut. You and I may disagree on where that line is.  And in large part, this is why I feel that as a GM you will rarely go wrong with the more generous interpretation.  If the player constrains themself, then you aren’t creating a problem, but if you end up constraining a player, that’s fun-corroding.

 

On the off chance that you need an example,  let’s say I have the Hell on Wheels aspect and two questions come up:

1. Do I know how to hot wire a car?

2. Do I know a car thief in this town?

Is #1 covered by the aspect as written? Mmmmmaybe.  By conservative interpretation, the player would need to spend a FP to be able to do it (however that is handled), by a liberal interpretation, it’s in bounds.

Is #2 covered by the aspect as written. Probably not, but since you can make the case that it’s in the same domain, then it becomes possible with a Fate Point under a liberal interpretation (and probably impossible under a conservative one).

This is not to say that my answer is the right one. Both approaches have their place, and there are a lot of nuanced issues of genre, taste and tone that they fold into.  But what *is* important is that everyone at the table have the *same* understanding of how aspects are being interpreted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Invulnerability and Property Damage

Last night, a friend of mine was asking about how to handle damage in supers, with the specific question being how you can really have a normal human get knocked around in super-strength context (getting smashed through stuff etc) without totally snapping suspension of disbelief. This lead to a good discussion, but it also generated a very useful tangent – It created a much simpler solution to knockback and property damage for invulnerable characters.

At it’s heart, it boils down to this – when invulnerability cancels out damage, it “grounds out” as property damage. That is, you take a hit for X damage, that damage is reduced to 0 but the action that corresponds with that mechanical even is you getting knocked through a wall or similar.

This is related to Ryan Danks’ great post on how to handle Superman’s Invulnerability but scaled down somewhat for characters who are a bit less truly invulnerable, but are still superhumanly tough. Where Superman sheds damage onto the setting, a less powerful character sheds damage onto the environment.

This is a bit of narrative sleight of hand, but it simplifies one of the great bugbears of supers design – knockback. Conceptually, it’s an essential part of superheroic fighting, but mechanically it has a habit of introducing complexity that is best compared to grappling rules.

Now, the exact implementation of this idea depends on the details of how invulnerability is implemented in a system, and there are lots of ways to do that. It might be ablative, it might be armor, it might be any number of things. For example, let’s say that in fate we treat it like a skill to roll after you get hit, with a difficulty based on damage.

  • Fail and you get hurt.
  • Succeed with style and you ignore the blow.
  • Just succeed? You take no damage, but must narrate property damage.
  • Exact success? No damage, but your attacker narrates the property damage.

Admittedly, that’s probably not how I’d handle invulnerability, but hopefully it showcases the idea well enough. Obviously, any invulnerability effect needs to have limits, and those limits may tie into how often you can get knocked around, but that is ultimately an implementation detail based on what you want to showcase.

Atomic Action and FAE

Fate AtomThere is a tendency in RPG’s to think of actions as atomic. You swing a sword, pick a lock, climb a rope or whatever. This is, of course, a convenience that helps mechanize the experience. It allows us to create a consistent fiction and crystallize out moments of uncertainty in the form of actions with uncertain outcomes, resolve those uncertainties, and proceed with the fiction.

It’s good tech, and it dovetails well with the existence of skill lists. Skills are, after all, flags for uncertainty which are agreed upon in advance. As the OSR joke goes, no one fell off a horse in D&D until the riding skill was introduced. Rolls happen when the conceptual space of skills intersect with the crystallization of a challenge.

For all that this approach is very common, it is not the only way to go. Even within atomic systems, things break down when you step back a level of abstraction – picking a lock is a very different challenge than getting past a door, which might also be smashed, circumvented, dismantled or otherwise removed from the equation. In an atomic system, each of these is a separate moment of uncertainty resolved differently. In fact, one of the hallmarks of a good GM is their ability to interpret unexpected actions within this atomic model.

In the case of games without skills, there are no clear intersections. That is, whereas pickpocketing, climbing and lockpicking provide easy cues for when an where to introduce uncertainty and challenge, “The Artful Dodger” does not. And so most game nerds will, effectively turn broader descriptors into what are effectively containers for a skill list which exists in the GM’s head. This is a reason that games like Risus or Over the Edge are often very comfortable to affirmed gearheads – they look light, but they can run on the substantial backend that the GM has in their head.

More interestingly, those sorts of games can take on a whole different character if one is not already trained in more atomic games, but that’s a rare case. But it crystallized very interestingly for me in recent discussion of FAE. See, FAE’s approaches are structurally similar to broad, descriptive skills[1], but they critically differ in that their domains overlap VERY strongly. That is to say, there is no practical way to construct a virtual skill list for each FAE approach because it contains too many skills AND it shares most of those skills with other approaches (sometimes all other approaches).

On its own, this is neither good nor bad, but it creates a very specific problem when one is used to the intersection of skills and challenges. If you are used to thinking of problems in terms of skills, and you present the players with challenges in uncertainty in those terms, then you’re going to be staring down a disconnect, because your players are already thinking at the next level up of abstraction – you may want them to pick the lock, but they want to get past the door.

And this, in turn, points to a very common concerns with FAE’s approaches – that a character will always just pick their best approach. At first blush this seems like a problem because if this were a skill, it would be. Over-broad skills and skill substitution are known problems in RPG design, best avoided or carefully controlled. FAE runs blithely past those concerns, and that looks like a problem.

And it is, if your perspective does not change. If challenges are approached atomically, then approaches get very dull, very quickly – do you quickly pick the lock? Do you carefully pick the lock? Maybe you sneakily pick the lock?

Honest to God, does anyone really care?

If you narrow your focus down to picking the lock, then approaches become virtually meaningless because the action (and by extension, the fiction) becomes muddled. If someone was watching your character pick the door, they’d just see you pick the lock – there would be no particular cues that you were being quick or clever or whatever the hell you were being.[2]

And that’s because picking the lock is solving the wrong problem. There are games where it’s the right problem, and you probably have a lot of experience with those games. It is not the wrong problem in those games, but in FAE, it is driving a screw with a hammer.

The heart of it, to my mind, is this – different approaches should inspire different actions, even if the ends are similar. If there is no obvious difference in how an approach impact the scene, then of course the player will use their highest bonus. This is not them exploiting the system, this is you asking them the wrong question (or going to dice over the wrong thing). You need to step back a level, get the bigger picture, and see what that looks like.[3]

As a FAE GM, you have a little bit less power than normal, but you still have some potent tools, and one of the most subtle and critical is that you determine when a roll is called for. In atomic systems. this does not necessarily call for much consideration – character uses a skill, player rolls the dice, character gets results. FAE does not offer you that same crutch, and if you turn to it out of habit, then you run the risk of diminishing your experience. FAE is a bad skill-based game[4], and if you run it like a skill based game, you may have a bad experience. But FAE is a pretty good approach-based game. Try treating it that way, and see what happens.


  1. For a non FAE example, consider systems with very broad stats like BESM. Similar issue.  ↩
  2. The counterexample is, of course, Sneakers, for showing us how you forcefully pick a lock.  ↩
  3. Incidentally, doing this also clears up another difficulty in FAE – setting difficulties. There is a bad habit of setting difficulties on an atomic level as well – that door is a Great difficulty, and thus you roll great whether you try to pick the lock or smash it down. That is easy, but dumb, and utterly devalues player choices (which is another reason they’ll just grab the big bonus). The door does not matter. The character’s action is what matters. Hear it, understand it, and set a difficulty based off that, not some sort of narrative physics engine model of the world.  ↩
  4. It does not help that stunts are often constructed to look like skills, but that’s a whole other topic.  ↩

Anchors

anchorI make occasional reference to Anchors as a piece of technology that I use when I run Fate, but I genuinely am uncertain if the idea has ever been articulated fully anywhere, except in bits and pieces.

Anchors are a very simple idea, loosely inspired in part by an old idea from Over the Edge where each of the freeform skills of your character had to be reflected in your physical description. It was a very small thing, less notable than the requirement that you draw your character, but it stuck with me because it told a little story about your character. Better, it did it in a way that I nowadays recognize as akin to good brand building. There was no need to tell the story (though perhaps you might) because the richness came from the fact that there was a story.

There is a magic to meaningful things which make them stand out against the backdrop, and this magic is magnified by fiction. It is also magnified by play. I could probably go on about all the reasons why this is so – showing and not telling, microcues, hidden information, symbols and so on, but that would probably be its own post.

Anchors are an attempt to capture that magic.[1]

Practically, anchors are super simple. They are a person, place or thing which you declare to be associated with an aspect. How exactly this is implemented can depend, but the simplest approach is that you create one anchor for every aspect on your character sheet.

For Example, let’s say I have the aspect Always Looking For the Next Big Score. Possible anchors might include:

  • A good luck coin (Something from my Dad’s biggest score, the job I live in the shadow of)
  • The Bank of Interaad (Someday…)
  • The Lightfingered Guild (Frequent rival, sometime ally for big jobs)
  • Jimmy McKnickles (Best locksman in the empire, if you can pull him out of the bottle. Old friend, and frequent crewmember)

I pick the one which I want to see come up in play. They might all be true things in the game, especially if I spin the tale for the GM, but the key is that I’ve called out one thing in the game that carries deeper meaning for me. I then do that for each of my aspects.

Anchors represent a concrete way to leverage an aspect, especially an abstract one, into play for both the GM and the player. They provide physical things to hang compels and invokes off of. Aspects can still be used as normal, but the anchor expands that domain in a very specific way.[2]

For players, this is an obvious avenue for some setting authorship[3] but, importantly, not a mandatory one. An anchor can be as small as a piece of personal equipment or as large as a 13th Age Icon.

For a GM, it creates a host of signifiers to stand in for player’s aspects in the setting. This is incredibly handy when you sit down and start thinking about how to make adventures matter to the players – in addition to the conceptual hooks that aspects offer, you now have a host of physical hooks that you can draw into a game that you know have meaning.

Anchors are a great way to get more out of aspects in their most basic implementation, but once you grasp the core idea, the idea can be expanded in a few ways. For example:

  • There’s no reason you can’t ask for 2 anchors, especially if one is of a specific type. For an Amber implementation I wrote up, the trick was that every aspect had 2 anchors – the first was a person (specifically, a member of the Amber family) and the second was any kind of thing. As a result, every aspect had a built in relationship and a hook. And as a bonus, I could write all the anchors down on cards and deal them like a Tarot deck, knowing that every card tied to a player.
  • You can use common elements for anchors, either by GM fiat or player collaboration. That is to say, more than one player may have the same anchor, creating a nice second order connection between the characters.
  • Theoretically, you could even have players take other characters as anchors, which gets interesting if its asymmetrical.
  • Changing anchors is a kind of fun play driver that lets you advance a character’s story without changing their nature.

There’s more, but let me pull this together into a practical example. Let’s say you want to capture the idea of the 13th Age’s icons in Fate. You tell the players that they need to choose an Anchor for their aspects, and they have the option of picking a second anchor. However, the second anchor must be one of the icons of your game[4]. There might be some limit on how many times a given icon can be used by one character (say, 3) but at the end you have a full spread of icon relationships and, sneakily, a bunch of second-order relationships through the character’s aspects. That is, if your anchors for Master of the Night Wind are “Academe Mystere” and “The Stormcaller” then the GM may very reasonably ask herself “What do the Academe and the Stormcaller have in common?”[5]

This is, I will admit, a very long post for an idea that can be boiled down to “After you choose an aspect, name a person, place or thing which is connected to it”, but I consider this one of those very simple ideas that can go a long way, so I wanted to frame it out properly.


  1. it was also necessitated by the fact that my players are goddamned poetic in their aspect selection, something which alternately delights and frustrates me to no end.  ↩
  2. At first glance, this may seem like it makes aspects more powerful, but that’s sleight of hand. There is already so much leeway in invoking an aspect that the extra space an anchor provides is really not that big a deal. But what it can do is make invokes and compels more concrete and clear. If you’re Insecure, that is easy to invoke, but bland (because it’s largely internal). But if your anchor is your parent, who you always disappoint, then that gives a specific hook for what that means in a scene.  ↩
  3. Though again, that’s sleight of hand. Players already have powerful authorial abilities with their aspects, even if they don’t use them. Anchors just offer an opportunity to use that authority with aspects that are less explicitly setting elements.  ↩
  4. Extra points if you haven’t defined your icons yet. This would be a really neat exercise in collaborative setting design if you came at it from scratch. Eve moreso if you use the idea of scaled down Icons as drivers of a smaller part of a setting, like a City.  ↩
  5. And because someone will ask, here’s how you bring the “icons” into play. Before play, every player picks one aspect/icon, and the GM picks 1 aspect/icon per player. The GM can add more by paying the player in question a fate point, and the player can do the reverse. GM puts three columns on a piece of paper, labeled “Making things better (+)”, “Making things Worse(-)” and “Waiting in the Wings(0)”. A dF is rolled for each icon (more than one if the icon is brought in more than once) and the Icon’s name is recorded in the appropriate column, and the GM now has a clear sense of who is in play, how they impact the situation, and how things may be further complicated (because the GM is basically free to pull icons out of the Wings column whenever it seems appropriate). And note, the GM has also just seeded the adventure with ways to touch on player aspects, so it’s a win all around.  ↩

FAE 2

I have a FAE hack (Which I am calling FAE2[1]) that has been eating my brain which I will almost certainly use next time I need to run FAE because it’s very simple to implement, requires minimal changes from any existing material, and it opens a number of doors that I want to see opened.

The hack is this: When you make a roll, rather than choosing an approach and rolling that, you pick two approaches and add them together, and use that. Mechanically, this means that the potential bonus has changed from 0–3 to 1–5, so it will require a small (+2ish) bump to any passive difficulties or simply statted enemies, but otherwise you can largely play as written[2].

So why do such a thing? I have many, many answers:

  • Allows GM and player to each input into a challenge. The GM can say this is a Careful challenge, but the player can try to muscle through, and choose Forceful, and those are the two stats to use.
  • 2 approaches means two possible causes for failure. This is a subtle but important point which is key to respecting player’s schticks. If a player is super sneaky, but they blow a roll, it sucks to say the problem was with their sneakiness. This offers an obvious alternative.
  • Which approaches are chosen and how they combine offers an obvious area for mechanical hooks. Stunts which trigger a mechanical effect if two approaches are combined. Effects (fictional or mechanical) which force the choice on one side or another. Situations where you double down on a single stat. Switching up approaches to change the dynamic of a situation. Lots of possibilities.
  • This allows for the addition of an additional character- or campaign-specific approach to cover something that is important to a specific campaign. The most obvious possibility is some form of magic, but it does not take much imagination to see the possibilities of things like status, resources, alignment or very nearly anything else. In straight Fae, adding an approach for specific situations means those situations are all about that approach. This means that those situations will be tempered by other elements on the character’s sheet, which I very much like.
  • It also is an easy way to model games where there are things which not everyone can do, but which have differentiation among those who can do them (like, say, Avatar).
  • The handling of the extra approach is also a robust and profound mechanical hook, especially since nothing demands that it be consistent. Actions might charge it up or run it down.
  •  I hate to even say it, but I suppose I must. Spamming your best approach is the obvious abuse in Fae, and this mitigates it somewhat. It can outright counter it if the GM similarly just always picks the players worst approach, but that is an example of two wrongs trying to make a right but actually creating a pretty bad game for everyone else.

I fully get that for some people this might be an arbitrary or fiddly change, so I’m absolutely not suggest ing it as a blanket change. But the benefits seem so self-evident to me that there’s no way I can’t try it.


  1. Electric Boogaloo  ↩
  2. Alternately, you could reduce all approaches by 1 (so the go from –1 to +2) and leave everything else as is. I have an instinct to not do this, but I cannot fully articulate why, especially since I can intellectually think of a lot of potential benefits to it – for example, it now might now becomes an interesting compel option for the GM to compel you to use an aspect (at –2) rather than an approach, because the door has opened to negative approaches. Dunno. It’s apart I need to think about some more.  ↩

Aspects as Approaches

Fred threw me an interesting idea about approaches and alignment yesterday, and as is the nature of such things, I’ve ended up in another place entirely. The other half of the thinking in this came from watching some Anime – Bleach in particular – where you see sometimes-interesting, sometimes-lame narrative tricks that keep fights interesting despite super powerful protagonists. One of the better ones is when the hero’s heart is not in the fight, and so they do poorly against an opponent they could usually squash because they’re hesitant or distracted. The passions that make them strong (compassion, justice, whatever) become weaknesses.

You can model this with aspects, straight up, but I really got in my head the idea of that emotional component of a fight, where what’s really going on (through stakes, escalation and so on) is that the hero’s reasons to fight are steadily being brought online, especially in a climactic battle. It’s a little meta, but storywise, that’s often what’s going on.

This in turn lead to thinking about baselines. If you’re running a game where everyone can kick ass, how do you model the guy who doesn’t? If everyone’s built from zero, then it’s no big deal, he’s just built differently, but if you’re going to assume a baseline of badassness, then he needs something to bring him down a step or two, which suggested the possibility of approaches with negative values.

That (and the discovery of an old character sheet) lead to some thoughts about Exalted’s four Virtues ( Compassion, Temperance, Conviction and Valor) and how they’re potent but double edged, but how that’s more the domain of aspects in Fate, and that lead to a leap which seemed very obvious in retrospect – aspects are approaches, or very nearly so, so why not mash them up further?

That is to say, every aspect is effectively an approach with a +2 (or –2) value, with rules surrounding when and how often you can apply it. And viewed that way, there’s no real reason that the value of 2 needs to be set in stone – we can embrace the idea of variable potency by simply having it be baked right into the aspect – I’m a knight of the cross (3) and a drunk (1) but I’m also a secret freemason (2). Not only do those have different mechanical weights, they enrich the data set. Consider the character I just described, and contrast her with I’m a knight of the cross (1) and a drunk (2) but I’m also a secret freemason (3).[1] Tells a different story with the same elements.

Similarly, for scene aspects, size can tell a story, so there’s a difference between On Fire (1) and On Fire (2).[2]

Plus, this also allows for a trick that solves one of the great communication problems surrounding aspects – I can explicitly write down how I want it played. That is, if I note a number (2) then I’m saying that’s a normal aspect that can hinder or help me. But if I want, I can explicitly note it as positive or negative (+2 or –2) (though I can’t think of many reasons to do the latter) to indicate that it can only be used in that way. That’s important mechanically, but it’s more important as a communication to the GM and the table that makes it clear where I do and do not want my safe zones to be.

Ok, yes, at this point were going far enough from Fate Core that this probably would merit its own build, so I’m going to have to sketch it out some, maybe run a game or two, but I have to say, I’m a little excited by this line of thinking.


  1. Parenthetical numbers also allow for these things to be called out as aspects in plain text without additional formatting, which is handy if you’re going to steal HQ’s 100 word chargen. Which you should. In fact, it’s a great way to do pre-gens, since you could leave the blanks, and let the player come to the table and weight them.  ↩

  2. That’s actually the tip of a very big mechanical iceberg. By allowing the improvement or diminishment of aspects, you open the door to a whole new approach to how aspects are mechanically interacted with. Just putting a flag in that for the moment, since that’s totally it’s own subject.  ↩