by Brendan Conway
Stress in Fate is an abstract resource used to track how long you can stay in a conflict. Often, marking stress doesn’t immediately change the story, which is great for a game about highly competent adventurers being awesome at what they do! But it doesn’t work so well for some genres such as horror. Why should I be afraid of the monster making me mark stress, when that stress is just going to go away at the end of the scene?
In this article, I present a new system for dealing with stress: damaged aspects. Rather than characters simply absorbing shifts of stress with a stress track, their aspects will change dynamically as they take stress, representing their lives going to hell. You can use this system in games and stories in which protagonists are changeable and the tension is high.
Creating Aspects to Damage
When players create their character aspects, make sure they all follow this simple rule: a character aspect represents a status, not an intrinsic fact. A status is something that can change; it might be true right now, but it might later become untrue. An intrinsic fact is something that is simply true, no matter what.
This is the difference between the aspect Best Ninja from the Lotus School and the aspect Trained by the Lotus School. Having been trained by the Lotus School is an intrinsic fact—it happened, and nothing can undo it. Being the best ninja, though, is a status that can change. It still implies that the character was trained by the Lotus School, one way or the other, but it doesn’t make that intrinsic fact central to the aspect.
Patrick is an investigative journalist for the Tribune, and Patrick’s player wants to pick a high concept that reflects his profession. Something simple like Investigative Journalist seems good, but it’s more of an intrinsic fact than a status; Patrick could still be an Investigative Journalist no matter where he worked, even if he worked on his own. Patrick’s player then thinks about Investigative Journalist for the Tribune. It’s better because it includes Patrick’s status as working for the Tribune. Eventually, Patrick’s player lands on Prize Journalist for the Tribune. This aspect is all status—Patrick works for the Tribune, and he is the prize journalist there.
How to Damage an Aspect
If you’re using damaged aspects in your campaign, the characters won’t have any normal stress boxes. Every aspect, instead, has five stress boxes attached to it. These work just like regular stress boxes, and all the normal rules of stress and consequences still apply.
NPCs and Damaged Aspects
Using damaged aspects draws attention to how protagonists change throughout a tense and dramatic story. It’s not a good idea to use this system for NPCs, though—they’re all inherently supporting cast in stories about how the protagonists change. Continue to use normal stress rules for them.
When a PC marks the third stress box on one of their aspects, it becomes warped. A warped aspect is twisted, not what the character would want, but not yet completely negative. The core of the aspect is still true, but the description and details are different.
An aspect doesn’t become warped the very second the third stress box is marked; instead, wait to make the changes until a fictionally appropriate time, generally during the next scene. A PC wouldn’t be knocked from their top slot in the Lotus School during a fight against an enemy ninja; it would happen during the following scene, when an elder judges their performance during the previous fight and finds it wanting.
You and the player should work together to write the warped aspect when it’s needed, but ultimately you have final say as to whether it is warped enough.
Patrick’s high concept is Prize Journalist of the Tribune. During a chase scene with a suspect, though, he marks his third stress box on that aspect, so he knows he’ll have to change it to its warped form during the next scene. When the chase ends, Patrick goes back to the Tribune to find his editor waiting for him. She tells Patrick how worried she is about his recent pattern of behavior. Patrick’s player works with the GM to reflect this change in the story, rewriting his high concept to the warped form Eccentric Journalist of the Tribune. The core of the aspect—Journalist of the Tribune—is still true. But no longer is Patrick the golden boy of his paper; he’s starting to be considered a crackpot.
When a player marks the fifth stress box on one of their aspects, it becomes broken. A broken aspect is ruined, completely undone, even inverted. The core of the aspect is broken.
Broken aspects should often look like new trouble aspects. They are highly compellable and cause trouble for characters left and right.
Just like with warped aspects, an aspect doesn’t have to be broken instantaneously. Wait until the next fictionally appropriate moment to change it, usually during the next scene. A PC wouldn’t lose their job in the middle of a shootout; they would lose it when they get back to the police station.
As with warped aspects, work with the player to write the broken aspect, but you have the final say.
During an incredibly tense scene interrogating an ex-serial killer, Patrick takes more stress to his high concept. His aspect is now broken. Nothing changes until the next scene, when Patrick’s player and the GM work together to write the broken aspect. They decide that his high concept changes from Eccentric Journalist of the Tribune to Ex-Journalist of the Tribune. Patrick is fired—the stress he’s been taking caused him to neglect and then lose his job. His editor is waiting for him with boxes to clear out his desk.
But What About My High Concept?
If you use damaged aspects, then the core pieces of the PCs might change. That’s fine! This system is best used in genres where dynamic characters are interesting and important. If it’s a problem that a PC’s fundamental character ideas might be undermined, that’s a signal that using damaged aspects isn’t the right choice for your game.
Stress boxes on damaged aspects do not clear at the end of a scene, or even after a session. It takes real work to clear stress on aspects.
To clear the first or second stress box on an aspect, the character must find some way to relieve that stress and succeed on an overcome roll. The opposition is Good (+3) for the first stress box and Superb (+5) for the second. If you want to clear both at once, then it’s Legendary (+8) difficulty.
Patrick has accumulated some stress on another of his aspects—My Family Is My Life—because he’s been neglecting them in favor of investigating the serial killer. His first and second stress boxes on it are both marked. To clear some stress, he decides to spend some quality time with his wife and children. He rolls to overcome with Rapport against Superb (+5) difficulty to clear just his second stress box, reducing the tension but not eliminating it. He rolls and gets a +5—enough to tie, so he succeeds at a minor cost. The GM puts a boost on the table: the serial killer was Covering His Tracks while Patrick was spending time with his family.
Once an aspect is warped or broken, however, the PC can only fix it by taking steps in the fiction—and if there is no way to do that, then that’s just the way the cookie crumbles. For example, if an aspect referring to the love between the PC and their spouse is broken when the spouse dies at the hands of the serial killer, then the only way to fix it would be to bring the loved one back to life. Good luck with that!
To get an idea of how to repair an aspect, you can outline a number of steps the PC must take. Fixing a warped aspect should take two or three steps; repairing a broken aspect should take three to five steps.
These steps can be as general or specific as you deem appropriate. Repairing a warped aspect of Contender for the Top Spot of the Lotus School back to Top Ninja of the Lotus School might require a PC to defeat a specific rival, prove themself on a mission given by the school, and recover their lost sword. Repairing a broken aspect of Off the Force back to On Probation with the Force might require a PC to give up alcohol, make amends with the police chief, make amends with their partner, and prove their investigation wasn’t worthless.
Any rolls related to fixing a warped or broken aspect have Superb (+5) opposition at least, and it may even get higher. Fixing a warped or broken aspect never comes down to a single roll, though; the PC usually need to take multiple actions to get back on their feet.
Patrick is determined to mend his broken high concept, which is currently Ex-Journalist of the Tribune. The GM outlines some steps to repair it back to its warped state: Patrick’s character must make amends with his editor, prove he can do the job by the rules, and get the paper a valuable story. When Patrick goes to make amends with his editor, he fails his Rapport roll, so the GM tells him how he can succeed at a major cost: his editor tells him that it’s possible to get his job back, but only if he drops this insane investigation into the serial killer. Patrick is left with a hard choice: can he give up on his investigation to get his life back?
Repairing a broken or warped aspect automatically clears the fifth or third stress box, respectively. Repairing an aspect does not clear any other stress boxes on its track. When an aspect is broken, the PC must mend the broken element to clear any stress from it; the PC cannot clear stress from their first or second stress boxes on the aspect, for example, until it is repaired.
When an aspect is warped, the PC can try to clear its fourth stress box in the same way they would relieve the first or second, but against Epic (+7) opposition. Clearing the fourth box doesn’t mean the aspect is no longer warped, but it does allow the player to mark it again to absorb stress.
If a PC does mend their warped or broken aspect, then they clear its appropriate stress box and return their aspect to its least-damaged state possible: for example, if the aspect is repaired but its third stress box is still checked, then the aspect returns to its warped state. If the aspect is repaired and its third stress box is not still checked, then the aspect returns to its original, undamaged state.
Patrick accepts his boss’s deal to get his job back if he stops looking into the serial killer. It still takes more work, especially with his family, to convince them that this is the right move. But he does it and ultimately clears his fifth stress box on his high concept. His third stress box on his high concept is still marked, however, so the aspect returns to its warped state: he’s still an Eccentric Journalist of the Tribune instead of a Prize Journalist of the Tribune. He’ll have to earn that status back, as well, to return his aspect to its original state.
It may seem nonsensical to damage a trouble—after all, it’s already pretty much a broken aspect. But troubles can always get worse. Imagine a trouble of Hunted by Mafia Hitmen becoming the warped trouble of Hunted by the Entire Criminal Underworld and then the broken trouble of Life Shattered by the Criminal Underworld. Just remember that warping an aspect is about changing its details but keeping its core, while breaking an aspect is about changing its core—you’re not just hunted anymore; they’ve actually ruined your life.
Damaged Aspects at Your Table
Using damaged aspects will keep the stress and tension much higher for all characters involved, and it’ll make the characters much more dynamic. I hope you enjoy the “watching a car crash in slow motion” feel of damaged aspects!