by Jason Corley
I’ve played Fate for a long time, since its spinoff from FUDGE. The primary innovation of Fate, in all its incarnations, is the aspect. As a pillar of Fate’s central economy, aspects create the cycle of bad decisions, unfortunate situations, and resolutions that defines much genre fiction. Picking aspects can be great fun: players get excited about them because they’re wide-open and promise total, unfettered freedom to express unique characters.
However, this freedom doesn’t come without trade-offs. Once players understand how central aspects are to the system and that the field of possible aspects is almost unlimited, some become paralyzed by indecision, I’ve found. Even worse, some players end up with bland, broad aspects that don’t provide clear direction for playing their characters. My personal solution for an ill-conceived aspect—change it to something good after the first minor milestone—doesn’t work for people who are in that bind, since the prospect of returning to that agonizing indecision is worse than soldiering on with a off-target aspect.
If your group is experiencing these problems, consider using pre-generated aspects! They give up a bit of the freedom of the wide-open aspect in exchange for stronger direction in play, whether selected by them or by you. In this piece, I’m going to tell you how to tune your aspect categories to your campaign, as well as three ways of using pre-generated aspects. These techniques give better focus for players and play, hopefully provoking creative responses within the tighter boundaries you design.
Sharpen the Aspects
Many of the aspect types in Fate Core are quite broad. By making aspects more specific, you can focus the players’ attention on the situations they’ll likely encounter in play and help them make more relevant aspects. To sharpen an aspect category, replace a broad one like trouble or crossing paths with a very specific one like The Empire or Murder. Be sure the aspect category is relevant to the planned activities of the campaign. It might be a relationship with a specific character that all the PCs have in common, or a concept or theme that you will bring to the fore. The answer to “What is your game about?” should be the same as the answer to “What aspects have you asked the players to write on their character sheets?”
For example, consider a campaign about strangers who are abducted by aliens to battle in an intergalactic gladiatorial contest. In this situation, the crossing paths aspects might not make sense—the characters will be developing their relationships for the first time in play. Instead, you might require that the players give their characters a Glory! aspect: do they seek it, shun it, or feel conflicted about it? This aspect will give the players something to turn to when their characters are being interviewed for Interplanetary Sports Entertainment News or when they have the opportunity to do a risky but flashy move that the audience will go crazy for.
This aspect will also clue the players in to what types of situations they will get into in play. If you didn’t prompt the players to think about fame and celebrity, they might not be prepared when an opportunity for just that comes around. When you say “The blue-skinned youth at the counter runs up to you and asks if you will laser-tattoo your signature on his forearm,” not only will that character’s player feel something about the interaction, but also all the players will have useful aspects to direct them in the scene.
Traditional literary genre rules can help you as well. In a recent game based on a space-Western TV show that got cancelled, I asked the players to create aspects addressing the three elements of a Western: the Land, the Law, and the Gun.
For Land, the players thought about their characters’ connections to the worlds of the frontier: Are you a settler, an explorer? Do you focus on community and towns or individualism and hunting? When the conflict between farmers and ranchers comes, whose side are you really on, Shane? Law was the easiest Western element to think of: Are you a bounty hunter searching for fugitives, or a bandit trying to go straight? In a town far from people with badges, how does one find justice for the community? And of course, what’s a Western without a Gun? Are you bloodthirsty or pacifistic? A defender of the innocent or a predator of the wealthy?
All of these aspects proved immediately actionable in virtually any Western Fate scenario I could concoct, because they were drawn from the core elements of Western novels and television shows, as I identified them. When a big-time rancher seized people’s land with thugs and shady legal maneuvering, the characters were faced with protecting people’s roots, keeping townsfolk safe, but meting out what justice they could with cool-looking six shooters and impassioned social conflict. It was everything one could want out of a John Ford knockoff.
This approach leaves a wide variety of aspects available, but focuses them on the themes and action of the game much more aggressively than the standard Fate Core aspects. There’s just no way a Western’s going to happen without a showdown or shootout. Intergalactic gladiators are going to get famous. And when this happens, having sharp aspects guarantees everyone at the table will have at least one relevant aspect generating fate points or bonuses, and clear ideas of how to play out the scene.
Pick from Pre-Created Exclusive Aspects
Say your game focuses on the relations of characters to a contained structure: a family, a small town, a military unit. In such a situation, the players might find it easier to understand the setting if they have to select their characters’ aspects from a list you created beforehand. Imagine your ideal set of PCs; how do they relate to the situation you are going to toss them into?
If you’re creating a game about supernatural family drama, for example, you could begin with a pool of aspects that describe the characters’ positions and reputations in the family: Hated Matriarch, Prodigal Child, Kooky Uncle, Protective Big Sister, Harmless Child, and so on. Lay them out on index cards and have each player pick one for their character.
Although it’s tempting to only make as many aspects as there are players—especially when adapting existing properties in which vivid character types are already drawn—doing this will leave one player, the last to pick, with no choice in which aspect to select. The goal of this method is for the players to see, understand, and buy into the nature of the family, not to get trapped into roles they aren’t interested in. Make sure you create more aspects for the players to choose from than there are players.
Along the same lines, be sure you tell the players about this part of character creation as you pitch the game. Your players might be all virtuous Fate Core veterans who know to come to a character creation session with a blank slate, but I know a player who gets really excited about campaign concepts and starts thinking about and working on character concepts and aspects in advance, even though he knows he shouldn’t. (Okay, technically, it’s me who does this.) Be clear with them so they don’t get locked into an idea that they’ll have to discard.
Finally, it’s important to be flexible with your list. If someone wants to alter an aspect you wrote, or add something that you didn’t think of, their aspect might just work better than yours. After all, the player will have a clearer picture of an aspect they created than of one you did. If their aspect could fit in the category, that player clearly understands the game’s concept and is ready to engage with it. Say a player wanted to be the Hated Patriarch in the family instead of the Hated Matriarch. It’s likely they already have a specific idea in mind that will make their Hated Patriarch really memorable and cool. That’s “mission accomplished”—go with it.
Connect Aspects to Stunts or Equipment
Another way of distributing your pre-generated aspects is to attach them to stunts or pieces of equipment. Put the stunt or extra (depending on how far you want to take it) on one side of an index card and the associated aspect on the back. Only let the players look at the aspect once they’ve decided they want the stunt. This is a good way to get extremely specific aspects into the game (see Give Out Pre-Generated Aspects following), ones that no player would just happen to create.
For example, someone might pick the Gorgeously Attractive stunt, but when they look at the back of the card and discover The Queen of Faerie Is Jealous, now their character practically leaps to life—and starts running. The energy of the unknown fuels a new direction for the character that the player discovers instead of authors.
If a player really objects to an aspect but really wants the stunt or extra, that’s good! Their strong objection means they likely have an equally vibrant vision for their character. The important thing is not that everything in the game conforms to your vision, but that everyone shares the vision. Work with that player to develop a different aspect for that stunt. Trust me: this will only happen very rarely. Once the player sees an aspect that jumps off the paper—and believe me, what you write will be that good!—they’ll really, really want it, even (or especially) if it brings along potentially dire consequences.
Create Non-Exclusive Aspects
Sometimes you may want to have non-unique aspects on a list instead of offering one unique aspect to each player. This is particularly relevant for military campaigns or campaigns where characters have very similar training, background, or capabilities.
In a military game, for example, you might relate an aspect to the specialty you have been most significantly trained in, and require players to pick from a list of specialties offered by the military group the characters belong to: Radioman, Coxswain, Infantry, Navigator, and so on. If you are dealing with the United States military, they helpfully publish a great deal of organizational material into the public domain so you can find a way of differentiating someone’s military role or experience in a way that will help your game.
In such a game, it might make sense for two people to have the same aspect—or even for all characters to have the same aspect! Consider a game full of Infantry characters—this could reflect the devastating effectiveness of the unit portrayed by the characters when they are doing Infantry things. (To keep your game mechanically consistent, you might require nameless NPCs to have a comparable aspect if they were teaming up.) But perhaps the PCs end up Out of Position, or Behind Enemy Lines, or simply in a touchy negotiation, and their infantry training (“go over the top!”) works against them—giving all the players a burst of fate points.
Whether you let players choose the same aspects or not, your method in generating them should be the same: think about the general shape of the campaign events. Who are the antagonists; what are they up to? What is the milieu of the campaign; who is doing what that’s relevant to the milieu? What are your plans for advancing different parts of the setting? Once you’ve answered these questions, create aspects that will put tension on the characters in the situations they’ll likely find themselves in.
In a supernatural family drama, having a mysterious benefactor suddenly pass away under suspicious circumstances might be relevant to the Hated Patriarch if you have NPCs blame them for the death because they’re hated; it might be relevant to the Curious Mother-in-Law who is digging into her child’s spouse’s weird family. In a military game, being a Radioman is relevant if the enemy is searching for you but you need to get a crucial message through. If you can’t think of a good way to make a pre-written aspect relevant to the campaign, don’t put it on the list just to fill out space or because “it makes sense.” Murphy’s Law suggests that’s exactly the aspect a player will pick first, and it will just sit there as dead weight until traded out.
If your campaign is going to be extremely varied, with a massive diversity of events, places, and people—say, a group of wandering adventurers or a gang of fugitives on a cross-country trip—it might not be a great idea to use this technique. Remember, the advantage you gain by focusing the PCs in a particular direction has to be significant enough to offset the freedom lost by the players in requiring it.
Give Out Pre-Generated Aspects
You might just give out aspects you made without getting input from the players. This is going to be controversial enough in most groups that I feel like I should lead with some cautions:
- Don’t do this unless you’re sure you can write a cracking good aspect, something everyone would be pumped to have.
- Don’t do this unless you get explicit buy-in from the players. If they really value full (or nearly full) freedom in creating their characters, the cost to their enjoyment of doing this will be too high.
If these aren’t problems, though, and you’re really looking to create situations that will surprise the players, giving them fully pre-generated aspects can be a powerful, memorable tool.
In the real world, not every part of our life is under our control. (If you accurately wrote out the aspects describing me, you might determine that only two or three are things I can control.) The rest come from our obligations, from our relationships, from our past, and most terrifyingly, from the random dictates of a capricious world. This feeling of being not fully in control of our lives is one of the most common anxieties of humanity at all ages and in all times. Using fully pre-generated aspects—things that neither the characters nor their players deserve—can help the players identify with their characters and become motivated to make changes in their situation.
Consider a game of classical fantasy in which the gods curse or bless certain people for petty offenses, flatteries, or as responses to obscured prophecies or seemingly unrelated debts. This is a game that plays on the anxiety of control, one which asks the players to put themselves in the role of characters who, although perhaps quite powerful in their own right, remain at the whim of the gods and their own fate.
For example, a player might never have thought of his beautiful courtesan as having Hair Made of Venomous Snakes, but it makes for great conflicts and immediate action. Why were you cursed like this? Did you bang a goddess’ husband? Did the husband namedrop you as the hottest thing on Earth? Is your mom a witch draining your beauty for herself and replacing it with her overflowing cruelty and, uh, affinity for snakes? I promise you, that player will want to find out what’s going on and fix it!
Of course, you don’t want to completely invalidate a player’s vision of their character or their actions. If you suggest an aspect that a player is truly opposed to it, take the hint that they aren’t interested in going that direction. Going back to the example: perhaps it would be more interesting if only people you fell in love with could see the snakes, or perhaps another curse entirely is more appropriate.
Past the campaign concept, assigning pre-generated aspects lets you point players directly at plot elements and important NPCs. Is there a brave NPC knight in the land whose deeds are relevant to the story? Excellent, make a character Wildly in Love with Sir Bedevere. (Even better, make two characters in love with him!) By doing this, you won’t need to use NPCs to keep updating the PCs on Sir Bedevere’s activities; they’ll be tangled up in them due to their own actions. In another game, is there a new steampunk punchcard virus that’s destroying the Intertubes? Perfect, put Well Known for Creating Punchcard Viruses on someone’s sheet. It’ll make things easier for the NPC cops, and will bring the PCs into the plot in a memorably aggressive way.
Don’t plan ahead too far—make these aspects immediately relevant to the world and story, not something that might be revealed four or five sessions down the road. You want to show players on the first day of play why this aspect you wrote is so great. In a cyberpunk game, if you give someone a Bank Error in Your Favor, make sure the repo agents come right away to take away their car, cybernetic leg, and girlfriend. In a supernatural family drama, give Uncle Larry’s Murderer news first thing that Uncle Larry’s pale silhouette, wearing funereal black, has been spotted at the end of the long, winding drive into town, or have the cops show up to ask some questions about the incident.
If you designed and executed the aspect well, the spotlight’s immediacy and the aspect’s surprise will make the player leap into action on their character’s behalf. In this way, you can get that big rollercoaster drop feeling into your campaign: The biggest hill is always the first, right? Right.
If your world is more improvised or collaboratively developed, you might not need to use these methods. But if you’re a GM with a clear vision of a world, and you want to help players who might not have a perfect view into your ideas, these methods will help you spark a shared creativity. And don’t forget to design NPCs the same way too! The players will be able to recognize, respond to, and strategize more in response to the NPCs’ situations and traits as they learn how their own situations and traits work.
Remember the core tradeoff: remove a bit of the players’ freedom to infinitely customize their characters in exchange for pointed, sharp campaign energy and conflict. If you can make that tradeoff work, you might find it’s a huge success. +