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.  ↩

5 thoughts on “Anchors

  1. Cam Banks

    It really fascinates me how much the drift toward WaRP is here, although I shouldn’t be terribly surprised. WaRP/Over the Edge traits are also the reason why I love rated descriptive traits of any kind in games, it’s why I love backgrounds in 13th Age and it’s why Cortex Plus is full of them.

    Aspects are another form of that, and so attaching an anchor (WaRP/OtE calls them “signs”) to aspects shows a nice lean in the same direction, which I can only commend.

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