The Art of Awesome Creations
by Richard Bellingham
Unusual artifacts, intriguing locations, weird creatures, memorable supporting characters—these and other creations are vital to a rich play experience in our games. Whether you’re a player making an heirloom sword for your character or a GM building a MacGuffin to drive your next plot, tailor your creation so that the group will:
- Believe in it. Will it make sense to the other players as a plausible part of the game world?
- Engage with it. Will it matter to the other players?
- Remember it. Will the other players still be talking about it in six months?
In this article I’ll describe techniques that combine storytelling and Fate game mechanics to help you achieve these goals for your creations.
We all have a pretty warped idea of what “realistic” is. We can be shown something completely true to life and—because it doesn’t jibe with the way we think the world works—dismiss it as being totally unrealistic.
But in games, it doesn’t matter how “realistic” your creation is, as long as everyone is willing to believe in it.
Key to this is the group’s suspension of disbelief. In case you aren’t familiar with the term, dictionary.com says it means, “A willingness to suspend one’s critical faculties and believe the unbelievable; sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment.”
Most people have a threshold beyond which they simply can’t do this. When you’re making an awesome creation, it’s important to minimize the need to suspend disbelief.
How can you do this?
First, your creation must be plausible in the context of the world your group has created for your game. In a gritty Cold War espionage game, it’ll bring your group’s disbelief crashing down if you create a wiseacre talking dog. An experimental dog who’s smarter than average and can communicate basic concepts through gestures, on the other hand, might work. Use character aspects, setting aspects, and campaign aspects as guides to what is plausible for your game.
Second, your creation must be internally consistent. Make sure it acts according to a set of rules, even if those rules aren’t obvious. Mysteries are great, but a puzzle with no logical solution is intensely frustrating.
You don’t have to decide all of the rules for your creation when you first make it, and you can start with simple rules and add complexity as you go on. If you do this, it is essential that the more complex rules are consistent with the behavior your creation has already demonstrated. This allows you to discover the rules for your creation along with the other players—or to steal their ideas!
You can use your creation’s aspects and stunts to either share the rules or to hint at them. If your smart dog waxes and wanes intellectually with the phases of the moon, the trouble aspect Lunar-Tied Intelligence spells it out. Moon Sensitive, on the other hand, hints at the rule and allows for a satisfying eureka moment when they work it out for themselves…and it gives you wiggle room to tinker with the smart dog’s connection to the moon.
The Power of Precedent
Real or fictional precedents can be extremely useful in grounding your creations and getting the group to buy into something. For your smart dog, you could research the capabilities of real assistance dogs and cite these to the other players to help them accept the rest of what she can do. When you point out that real-life assistance dogs can sniff out seizures and call for an ambulance, it’s less of a stretch to believe your smart dog can drag you from a river and drain the water from your lungs. If other players are still finding it hard to swallow despite your research, work with them to back it down to something they do find plausible.
If you use a fictional precedent for your creation, you can share it with the other players so they can quickly and easily buy into your creation. Change things up a bit to subvert expectations and make it more original. In its simplest form you’d say, “It’s like X, but Y.” For example, you might say of your smart dog, “She’s like Lassie, but much more intelligent and she doesn’t like humans much.”
Keep your game’s tone in mind when you’re trying to work out how far you can push the group’s suspension of disbelief. The discussions you had during game creation are a big help, and the tenor of the aspects created in play provides another important guideline.
You don’t have to guess whether everyone will find your creation believable enough to enjoy it. If you’re worried you might push the group’s suspension of disbelief too far, talk it over with the group and use their feedback to guide you.
The flip side of this? If someone else’s creation is so implausible it detracts from your enjoyment of the game, talk to them. Work with them to tone it down or make some mild changes to resolve your concerns.
Shared Sense Memories
You can also describe your creations using sense memories you share with your group to make them more believable. Maybe your creature smells of new-mown grass, or your artifact has the slippery feeling of oily metal. Use all the senses in your descriptions, including less common ones like the sensation of temperature or light, and visceral responses like nausea or goosebumps.
Engaging the group with your creation means attracting their interest and attention with it, and providing opportunities for them to be actively involved with it.
Your creation must have a purpose. This isn’t its functional role—not “It’s a sword, a tool for hurting my enemies”—but its narrative role.
There are many narrative roles your creation might fulfill, such as direct opposition to the players’ goals or helping to flesh out the setting and make it more colorful. The following narrative roles are almost always useful, but less commonly considered:
Temptation is the desire to possess or use a place, item, creature—or person—despite knowing that there’s a price to be paid in doing so.
When building a creation designed to be a temptation, ask yourself: What makes your creation desirable, and what is the price it exacts upon those who succumb to it?
Reasons to Desire
- Is your creation desirable without the need for any complicated mechanical effects? Define it as an aspect: A Beautiful Mansion, a Hoard of Gold, a Trove of Forbidden Knowledge.
- Does your creation provide inherent benefits? Build it as an extra (Fate Core System, page 270) with aspects, stunts, skills, etc. The price attached to using the creation should be commensurate with its benefits: A silver brooch in the shape of a lark lets its user automatically succeed on a Rapport roll once a session, but poisons one of their relationships whenever they use it.
- Is your creation a tantalizing mystery? Make it a narrative detail (but not an aspect) like a sealed box with a warning on the lid (“Opening this box will change your life forever!”). When the box is opened and the mystery revealed, it changes or creates one or more aspects to reflect the price of revealing the mystery—but it also contains an extra as a reward. A player has to spend refresh to keep what’s inside unless there’s a price involved whenever you use it.
The Price We Pay
- The possessor of a temptation that has aspects can suffer hostile invokes and compels.
Your Beautiful Mansion needs a lot of money for upkeep; everyone who hears about it wants to steal your Hoard of Gold; and your Trove of Forbidden Knowledge was forbidden for a reason.
- Using the creation imposes a deleterious situation aspect with a free invoke for an enemy.
You use the Silver Lark to help you persuade a town guard to “forget” an indiscretion, and its poisonous magic gives you the aspect My Brother Detests Me with a free invoke.
- If everyone agrees in advance, the price is a permanent change to an aspect.
When you open the locked box that warns it will “change your life forever,” it contains a letter that proves you’re not a Wandering Barbarian but a Prince in Exile and exhorts you to avenge your father’s death. It also contains his heirloom sword.
- When a character takes up or uses the creation they gain a special stress track, consequence(s), or condition(s) that weakens them or affects their behavior (Fate System Toolkit, page 18):
An old magic lantern lets you learn about the object of your desire, but twists your mind. Using it gives you one of these sticky conditions: Evasive, Erratic, Paranoid, Delusional. Every time you use the lamp you mark off another condition, though you can clear one every time you go a session without using it.
- Using the creation results in a dramatic complication equivalent to a compel, but doesn’t grant a fate point:
You use a strange puzzle cube to learn the secrets of eternal life, and it spawns a snarky demon with a fetish for chains who immediately attacks you. If you survive, you gain the knowledge you sought—but you were probably asking the wrong question...
A creation you design to be a reward is like a temptation but without a price. It might be something the group has been coveting for some time, or it might be attached to a particular story.
When you’re designing a creation intended to be a reward, ask yourself: What makes the reward worthwhile?
- Does the reward provide a concrete benefit? Create it as an extra. Give it a strict limitation to usage or a refresh cost.
Eljara, the Red Blade is a wondrously forged sword of red gold with elegant engravings. The sword has a stunt, Blade of Justice, that gives it Weapon:2 when attacking someone who’s a criminal in the current territory. If one of the players wants to keep this sword for themselves they must pay a point of refresh for it, or pay a fate point to use its stunt for a single roll.
- Does the reward change the status quo? Create an organization; a location; or a group, situation, or setting aspect to reflect the reward’s effects.
The group has saved the city and been granted the group aspect of High Champions of the Sun King. They can use this to their advantage.
- Is the reward needed to further a scenario or issue? If so, progressing the group’s objectives is a reward in and of itself, but making the reward an extra or aspect as well gives a little perk that enhances the feeling of success, especially if the group has had to struggle mightily to win the reward.
The group needed Eljara, the Red Blade to resolve a major story arc: it’s the only thing that can slay the dragon that has been tormenting their kingdom! As described above, the sword is also an extra with an aspect and a stunt.
- Does the reward open up a new opportunity? Make it a narrative element like a map, key, secret, or bit of information. Only make it an aspect if double-edged invokes and compels readily come to mind.
A treasure map to a long-lost ruin is full of prestigious and valuable discoveries for your group of archaeologists to find.
Explore Narrative Themes
The theme of a narrative describes what the work is about. A novel or film has one primary theme, but a roleplaying game is episodic in nature and can explore many themes over the course of a campaign. You can use your creations to help you explore themes through resonance or tension.
When you’re designing a creation to highlight your game’s themes, ask yourself: What are the events and aspects that suggest the theme you want to explore? How can your creation showcase that theme through resonance or tension?
Finding a Theme
- What are your game’s issues or setting aspects? Draw a theme from them.
People Pay a High Price for Their Dreams is a setting aspect for your game set in the environs of Hollywood, and it is also a major theme of the game.
- What’s happened in your game recently? Think about the last few scenarios of your game and see if you can identify recurring elements that would link together into a strong theme. When you find one, you can put it into play as a situation aspect.
Your group has recently been troubled by an enemy trying to breed a mutated super soldier, and in the past they failed to save a whistleblower from a sinister biotechnology company. Together these events suggest a theme of No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.
- What are the character’s aspects? Look for commonalities and tensions among character aspects to find the game’s less obvious themes. Boil those aspects down into one or two words, then see what similarities or tensions you can find among them.
In your group of adventurous archaeologists, Hama’s trouble is Driven by Revenge, Cleo has the aspect A Long Memory for Insults, and Quintus has the aspect Fool Me Once, Shame on Me. You boil these down to Revenge, Grudges, and Personal Responsibility. This suggests a theme of spite and vengeance, with Quintus relating to the theme by expressing its opposite.
Exploring a Theme
- Your creation can resonate with the theme to focus attention on it through story events and compels.
In the game of archaeologists, you create a desert catacomb for the players to stumble into. It’s inhabited by a Vengeful Undead Priest who holds up a dark mirror to the characters’ vengeful natures.
- Your creation can instead stand in opposition to the theme to highlight it by reflection.
Instead of a Vengeful Undead Priest you put a Wronged Spirit in the desert catacomb who must forgive his murderer in order to find peace. Will the players be able to overcome their own views on revenge to help the spirit?
Call to Adventure
Your creation can present a question or issue to the other players as a call to adventure in addition to any other narrative function it serves.
GMs, you do this all the time. You create anything from a long-lost map that begins an exhilarating treasure hunt, to a new secret causing trouble for an established NPC, to a cursed artifact that prompts a search for a cure.
Players, you can do this too. Fate gives you a lot of leeway to create interesting objects, places, and supporting NPCs, and you can endow your creations with questions and issues to entice the GM and the rest of the group into a scenario exploring them.
When you’re designing a creation that will also act as a call to adventure, ask yourself: What question or issue does your creation present to the characters that could give rise to an adventure?
- Does one of your creation’s aspects provide an opportunity to start an adventure with a compel or self-compel? If the group isn’t interested in pursuing this scenario right now, they can just tell you so—GMs, don’t charge a fate point to reject a compel like this.
Your character has an ally who is a Curator of Antiquities. You propose a compel to the group to start a new adventure: “My ally is a Curator of Antiquities, and she discovers that a priceless artifact has gone missing from the museum’s vault. She decides to call in that favor I owe her, and asks me to look into the theft quietly so she doesn’t risk losing her job.”
- Does your creation provide information to the players that will entice them to go off on an adventure? That should be enough, no compel necessary.
The locked box that reveals a character is secretly a Prince in Exile is a strong call to adventure; it will prompt him and the party to investigate.
- Does your creation present questions or issues to the players that must immediately (or eventually) be resolved?
Congratulations, you’ve stolen a Hoard of Gold. Now, how do you protect it? How do you spend it, given that you have enough gold to destabilize the local market?
What can you do to make your creations memorable? There are two main—and opposing—qualities that will encourage people to remember your creations.
The Joy of the Unexpected
Your group will remember something shocking, horrific, weird, unusual, or expectation-subverting. There’s a fine line between the unexpected and the unbelievable, though, so start from a recognizable precedent and then twist it into something unexpected.
If your players are exploring an arctic wasteland in your fantasy world, they’ll be expecting threats like polar bears. When a large specimen bears down on them they’ll find it dramatic, but not unexpected. When the bear turns out to be a cub and its 100-foot tall mother drags herself out of the sea to lumber to its defense, that is a moment they will remember.
The Joy of Recognition
Paradoxically, your group will also remember something which is a parody of or reference to something else, or which relates to something from their own experiences. Take this approach sparingly to avoid overloading your game with referential material. Also, mix and match things from different sources to make a whole that’s your own—even though its sources of inspiration are obvious.
For example, your group is exploring a mine where some of the miners have gone missing. You borrow the plot of an old episode of Star Trek and make the “monster” a mineral lifeform that has had its eggs taken by the mining crew as valuable gems. You mix things up a bit by making the monster a mantis-like insectoid made of crystal rather than a lumpy mass like the Horta.
Whatever you’re creating for your game, and whether you’re a player or the GM, aim for these three goals: making creations that are believable, engaging, and memorable. A game filled with awesome creations will be richer, better, and more entertaining for it. +