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Dark Side Aspects & Fate Points

I love the Dark Side in games, but usually games don’t handle that well. The rules make it too rigid and predictable. (Since Mythender is built around a giant Dark Side mechanic of its own, this is something that’s been on my mind for years.) I’ve played in Fate games where I’ve messed around with it — usually as a convention game where a long arc of someone falling to the Dark Side wouldn’t really be played out, so it played more like Dresden’s sponsor debt (which isn’t a bad model to start). But for a longer-term Fate game, I always felt like I’d need more.

Then Josh Roby showed me I was wrong. He wrote up a thing for the Smallville RPG called Jediville, where the one Jedi Padawan and the one rogue Force adept have a Distinction:

The Force (Heritage Distinction)
d4 — Add a d6 to the Trouble pool and Earn a plot point when you call on the Dark Side, rolling your own Angry or Afraid.

And that’s it for the mechanic. There’s no checking to see if the character falls further into the Dark Side. It’s just a freebie…that screws over the group in general. And the implications of that are what will drive a “falling into Dark Side” arc, not a score-keeping mechanic.

I found that to be damned delicious. The idea that the group could just play out the fall at their own pace is pretty awesome! Now, it’s not for every game — sometimes you want to feel the pressure that it could happen (like I do in Mythender), but for other games this is gold. And that’s what I want to see in the Star Wars-inspired Fate games I run. With that, here’s…

Dark Side Aspects & Fate Points

Dark Side aspects is an aspect type (see my Typed Aspects post).[1] This aspect type can be applied to any aspect — character aspects, location aspects, world aspects, etc.  These are not invoked or compelled normally. Instead:

Invoking Dark Side Aspects

You invoke Dark Side aspects for free — that is, you don’t pay a Fate point to get the +2, reroll, or whatever other benefit an aspect might provide (such as skill substitution). This is not the same as a free tag, though. When you get the bonus, the GM gets a Dark Side Fate point specifically for your character. At a later point, he’ll use that Dark Side Fate point (see below) to compel you with that or another Dark Side aspect.

When you do, you need to incorporate into the narrative how the Dark Side changes what you do. Sometimes that’ll be obvious (like, say, with Force Lightning), and some won’t be. As with all other invocations, you and your group will find the right narrative spot.

Compelling Dark Side Aspects

The GM can only compel a Dark Side aspect if he has a Dark Side Fate point waiting in the wings for your character. Valid compels include corrupting something you’re trying to do or pushing you to act on your emotions. You know, getting your Dark Side on. Take the compel, and you get that Dark Side point for your character.

(Note: If you’re making a distinction between internal vs world compels, these compels are of the supernatural variety.)

Alternatively, some location or world Dark Side aspects make sense as something you could compel normally. “Sinister Caves of Dagobah” is something that could possibly cause mayhem to anyone. In those cases, it’s whatever you’d consider a normal compel, with the normal Fate point deal.

Buying off: Yes, you can buy off these compels, but it’s harder to resist the Dark Side when you’ve let it in. For every Dark Side point being pushed forward, you need to buy it off with two normal Fate points. Naturally, the GM can escalate, provided you have enough Dark Side points queued for him to. If you do buy them off, all the points go away; you’ve successfully resisted the Dark Side, so those points are discarded.

Creating Dark Side Aspects

Your build will determine this. The GM can declare some location or campaign aspects as Dark Side type. And Jedi-type characters may be required to take a Dark Side aspect. Maybe there’s just a campaign aspect called The Dark Side (and maybe further Dark Side aspects on a character). But that’s all build-specific.

Side note: there may be some fruit in looking at the Lawbreaker stunts from Dresden Files RPG for this. But that’s a further topic, I think.

Using Dark Side Fate Points

Dark Side points should look different from other Fate points. They are counted separately, and should just be more menacing in general.

These special Fate points may be spent on any aspect, as per normal Fate points. You get a +3 bonus instead of the +2. As with invoking a Dark Side aspect, you need to incorporate how the Dark Side affects the action you’re doing.

Unlike with regular Fate points, you can spend them on Dark Side aspects. For those, you get a +5 bonus instead (or a reroll & +3 — treat it as invoking the aspect once for free and once with the point). You’ll give your Dark Side point back to the GM, who’ll keep it in the wings to compel you again (you’ve spent one point, and one point gets put in for the free invoke).

Dark Side points want to be used! After every milestone (assume a Dresden-style progression), you lose one Dark Side point you’re holding. If you have none, the GM loses one that’s waiting in the wings for you. You can out-wait the Dark Side with utter inaction, if you so choose. (Why you would, I don’t know, but it feels fitting with Jedi going on years-long retreats.)

Dark Side Stunts

Oh, here’s a thought. Everyone with a valid character concept (you know, Force user) as a free stunt:

Force Lightning

Pay a Dark Side Fate point. For the rest of the scene, you may use your Mysteries skill (assuming a Spirit of the Century skill build — replace as necessary) in lieu of Guns (or similar skill). Treat as Weapon: 3.

If you invoke a Dark Side aspect for this roll, add +3 to your roll instead of +2.

It’s also possible that this entire post is its own free stunt for valid character types, rather than something the entire party can use. If you, you know, want to make the game feel more like other Star Wars games that deprioritize non-Force characters.[2]

What Using the Dark Side Means

Ideally, as you use the Dark Side you’ll end up doing actions that support different Aspect changes (though enforcing that with a rule is beyond the scope of this post). You’ll also have an impact on the relationships around your character, both PCs & NPCs. The world changes for the Dark Side users. Now, you can treat this humanistically, in that it’s how you’re treated that changes you — just like how gunfighters are treated in Western fiction, compared to other people. Or you can treat it cosmically, where the Dark Side makes people around you act different to drive you further in. From the point of the story, it matters less why and more what happens because of it.

And it leaves characters free to truly explore the power & consequences of that grey area between pure Light and pure Dark. I find that a more enriching option for Star Wars play than just feeling you’re Light until the one day all your “I have a good soul” hit-points are gone, flipping the switch that makes your character an evil NPC.

(There’s also a question of whether the Dark Side additional bonuses apply to fully-Dark characters. If Lord Vader’s statement of “If only you knew the power of the Dark Side” is an absolute truth, then yes. On the other hand, if it’s the comment of someone who has once experienced the rush of Dark Side power before it ebbed, much like a cocaine or heroin fiend feels over time, then no. Either way, there’s something interesting to say about the setting there.)

Where One Might Use This

Check out Brennan Taylor‘s upcoming Fate game, Bulldogs! It’s sort of a cross between non-Force Star Wars & Firefly. So, hey, add some Force right in. :)

(I’ve been alluding on Twitter to a Bulldogs! setting hack in my head mixing this idea with Dragon Age’s Circle Mages & Templars.)

– Ryan

[1] Another way to look at it is that it’s a meta-type, as it can be applied to aspects of any type…depending on your build.

[2] Incidentally, Jediville above doesn’t. So, it’s not an either-or, even if my snark suggests so.

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18 Responses to Dark Side Aspects & Fate Points

  1. Leonard Balsera says:

    If it were me, I wouldn’t let Dark Side FPs start to go away until you’ve gone one whole milestone without using or gaining any. In the fiction, the taint of the Dark Side is pernicious as all get out – if you go by the Expanded Universe, Luke has it on him for years before he finally has to face it in the second Thrawn Trilogy.

    I’m reflexively wary of leaving it at “incorporate the Dark Side into the narrative” without something else there to give it teeth. It feels like something that might get relegated to just color and copping out.

    If you’re going to keep with the source material, I think you need some tangible sense of the Faustian bargain, and of what happens when the Dark Side “ensnares” you. I don’t think you should lose a character over it, but there’s definitely an aspect (no pun intended) of addiction going on in the fiction – at first, the bennies from the Dark Side are free and powerful… but then, there’s a point where the returns diminish while remaining the best/easiest option.

    Off the top of my head, here’s how I’d hack your thing to handle characters past the corruption point:

    * You stop being able to invoke Dark Side aspects for free. If you want Dark Side FPs, they have to come from compels of your corrupted aspects, which also means you have to change some of your aspects into Dark Side aspects at some point during the process to stay in the Dark Side’s graces.

    * Any use of aspects that does not involve the Dark Side is at double cost or half benefit. So if you get compelled by a non-corrupt aspect, the buyoff costs you two. If you invoke, one FP only gets you +1, or you have to spend two per invocation. All Dark Side related uses retain their enhanced bonuses, though – the Dark Side is still powerful.

    * If at any point in time, you avoid the use of Dark Side FPs long enough to not have any, you tip back to normal rules, but it costs more milestones to “redeem” your corrupt aspects.

    Thoughts?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Lenny,

      I can see the milestone point you bring up. I wonder if that’s more paperwork/keeping track that folks dig on, but it could be the stronger option.

      As far as the Dark Side needed teeth, the premise of this post is “the players will give it the teeth is deserves in that story,” that the players want to play it out with their own sense of story. Now, that’s not going to appeal to everyone, but how to extend this idea further is a separate post.

      I’m not sure how much I really like the methadone approach to things, though. The other side of the coin is that the Dark Side continues to put you in situations where you need to draw from it to survive — and that’s the GM ratcheting out the difficulty. Which would also cause a sense of alienation, as everyone would know that if said Dark Side-walking character wasn’t around, the situation they’re in wouldn’t be as difficult.

      – Ryan

    • Leonard Balsera says:

      The methodone thing comes out of a desire for Yoda to be right about what he says to Luke in ESB, that Clark’s pointed out – “Is the Dark Side stronger?” “No. Quicker, easier, more seductive.”

      The way your thing is set up, the Dark Side is stronger than the Light Side, period dot – the only advantage you get as a Jedi is that people like you better. So my inclination is to want a big catch there, where Jedi might not get the raw output, but have a much greater flexibility to act than the Dark Sider who is “ensnared” does, which eventually balances out.

      But that’s my bias at wanting to take Yoda at his word.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Lenny,

      Ah, yeah, I hear you. I think that gets into a form of advancement, though, in order to make the truth of Yoda a tangible and reinforced thing.

      Of course, if we were to step out of the Star Wars box and into a “supernatural power corrupts” box, this could be a viable-on-its-own option.

      – Ryan

  2. WillH says:

    I have always been frustrated by dark side mechanics in Star Wars games. Instead of making the dark side a viable and interesting character choice they take the form of a threat. Do too much of this and you will lose your character. Even Dresden’s lawbreaker powers do this.

    I also think the same rules can, maybe should, be used for the light side of the force. Particularly if you go with the view that the Jedi are a corrupt shadow government in the form of a fundamentalist theocracy.

    • WillH says:

      I should clarify something. The lawbreaker power do provide an opportunity for interesting character choices, but they do still have the threat element.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Will,

      Hah! The idea of both sides having restrictive stunts is interesting.

      – Ryan

    • Leonard Balsera says:

      Seconded, on the idea that the Light Side is just as “corrupting”, in its own way, as the Dark. That’s nifty.

  3. You know, all judgements on rules & stuff aside… I really just like reading your posts. Keep up the good work sir!

  4. Codrus says:

    I played the rogue force adept in your Taste of Smallville game last November, so nice to see this come up. I liked the basic premise of the rule — the use of it is under player control (possibly with GM encouragement), it offers a useful reward, and it isn’t automatically used as a club to the head of the force-using character to drive that character out of the game.

    I can’t recall offhand if it came up in play for me, but adding anger and fear dice into the roll was actually the mechanic I LOVED for the flavor. It also means that both of those things are obvious damage types for a cruel GM (or player) to inflict on a force-wielding player. More dice is always a seductive lure. :)

    I agree with Lenny’s feeling that implementing the dark side needs to have teeth. One of my feelings in play was that adding trouble dice didn’t sink enough teeth into my character nor did it necessarily have long term effects on the character. Oh you had a monstrous trouble pool in that game, and I helped provide some of it (*grin*). but the trouble pool feels like “generic bad stuff” for the party. During that adventure, I played up the consequences of using the dark side more than the system imposed on me, in particular by proposing changes to the character during character advancement. That’s a strength of Smallville for a group of good roleplayers willing to send their characters through dark character arcs. The obvious question is whether the system or the GM should impose those changes or problems onto the character or whether it should be mostly under the control of the player. Consensus at the table also sounds like a good idea to me. But, for example, maybe the GM uses some of those trouble dice to try to inflict some dark side scarring on the character (fear and anger).

    An idea from Dresden Files that I particularly liked was repeated offenses slowly consuming you by changing your aspects. That gives dark side mojo a nice long term punch and you see the character changing, which makes much more entertaining than “accumulate x dark side points and become an NPC” systems. I don’t necessarily think that you need to make it harder to invoke non-dark side aspects; it’ll simply be harder for that character to go over the top without tagging a dark-side aspect. And more dark side aspects just gives more surface area for a GM to compel. I think as a GM I’d be more aggressive about tagging those dark side aspects without being obnoxious about it. (Smallville generates similar effects by changing your relationship and belief statements).

    Going back to Smallville for a second, what if Dark Side force was automatically tied to questioning a relationship or value (which is typically how those things change in Smallville). That is, to activate dark side powers, you must question a relationship or value, and in character advancement, any change in the value should be spun in a negative way. Something like “I love Padme” -> “I’m afraid for Padme’s safety”. And hey, that brings up an idea: why must dark-side compels only target someone’s dark side aspects? For a character vulnerable to the dark side, even the things that are good in the Jedi’s life might become twisted inside him. “I dark-side compel your ‘Obi-Wan is a Wise Master’ aspect — in a lot of ways, you are already more powerful than him, you know….”. If Anakin accepts the compel, he gets a big boost in power, but it might suggest that he change this aspect in the next milestone. The aspect has become corrupted.

    To try to finish up, I see a few common story arcs that a dark side system needs to allow:
    – A character staying on the virtuous path, with difficulty.
    – A character starting out light, dips into the dark side and then redeems himself.
    – A character starting on the dark side, and trying to atone.- A character’s slow slide into the dark side, eventually becoming a villain of the story.

    I even think the last one is a reasonable character arc. Arguably, I’d prefer that character arc to be under player control. But you want someone to be able to achieve a goal for their character but succumb to the lure.

    Fundamentally, I want to see the scars inflicted on the character when the character uses dark side powers excessively. In FATE, aspects seem to be the right place to show that progression…to buy their way out, they have to slowly atone, replacing dark-side aspects until they are ‘pure’.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Codrus,

      The idea that your aspects slowly change is something I was thinking of as well. I guess if I were to implement a methadone-like element to it, at some point the GM (with either rules or guidance) would say “Okay, you don’t get those special bonuses for Dark Side points until you turn one of your aspects into a Dark Side one.”

      And if he doesn’t, some other consequence. For said teeth. If something handled your arcs, they wouldn’t feel binary like normal Dark Side mechanics.

      In Mythender, if you use enough Mythic power, you need to roll a die at the end of a battle to see if you become a Myth — the “bad” ending for a character. It’s semi-binary — you’re a free PC until that moment the die rolls bad, but it means nothing is entirely certain. Gamers like taking risks. Any teeth element added would need a sense of risk rather than certainty, or you’re gaming a straight numbers system. And that’s boring to me. (The other element there is that the first few times you use it, it’s free, just like a drug. You get used to the bennies you can get, which you usually need at least some of to deal with a battle.)

      – Ryan

  5. JDCorley says:

    Prior treatments of the Dark Side (even in the last 3 Star Wars movies, yes they do exist, people) have really not been too satisfying for me. Eventually I made a character (a snotty Galactic Senator) that recast the Dark Side in his political/social ethics as being based on “cowardice and petulance…sorry, fear and anger? Whatever.” It gave me a really great way to radiate disdain and be vicious with the gothy lightsaber wielding assholes who were always trying to cut me to pieces.

    This looks pretty interesting. I like Codrus’ thoughts too.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      JD,

      Yeah, the Dark Side’s always been something of interest to me because there’s so much potential juice there. I hear the Expanded Universe plays with this a lot more.

      – Ryan

  6. Clark says:

    I like this a lot. I think it would work best in a campaign with an express player desire to explore a Dark Side story arc – presumably then there’s incentive to really look into the abyss.

    There’s something worth exploring further with the notion that fully-Dark Side characters would get some additional bonus. I’m thinking on Yoda’s wonderfully brief description of the Dark Side: Not more powerful, but quicker, easier, and more seductive.

    To me, this suggests something the opposite of more powerful for fully Dark Side characters. Sure, at first it’s a quick hit of power. The first few times you force choke someone, or really wig out and shred a bunch of sandpeople, you feel like a _god_. But the further down the rabbit hole you go, the less effect it has. Like a junkie developing a tolerance, you need more and more to get the same high. You can’t rely on your ordinary Fate points and aspects, because they’re becoming less effective at the same rate. You have to become progressively more of an utter bastard. Palpatine is being evil just to be evil? No – he’s jonesing so hard that nothing short of taking over the fricking galaxy will get him a fix.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Clark,

      For the methadone approach to work, you need uncertainty.

      And here now I’m thinking about having a separate Fudge die you roll along with your normal dice. This is a Dark Side die, where +, – & blank mean different things, and those meanings change at different times as you progress down.

      Like, say, that + is a +2 to start, the blank is a +1, the minus is also a +1. Later, the + is a +4, the blank a +2, but the minus is now a -4…which you can reroll with a Dark Side point. I don’t know if that’s crap, but just thought about that.

      – Ryan

  7. Zac in Virginia says:

    A thought: rather than trying to quantify how far one’s gone down the dark path, it could be more interesting if dark-path actions cause sufficient fallout that the player(s) must really grapple with how to respond. They don’t get stuck marching down the dark path, but they do have to walk it, either back up to light or further down into shadow.

    Not the greatest example, but this does happen in episode 3 (and maybe 2 also; I don’t care): Anakin is assigned to guard Amidala -> Anakin falls in love with her and acts on it, violating his oaths -> Amidala gets pregnant -> Anakin greatly fears that she’ll die in childbirth -> Anakin finds out the Dark Side could prevent her death -> Anakin becomes a Sith apprentice to gain that power.
    It all ties into the theme of Jedi non-attachment, and when Anakin seizes upon emotional attachment and connection as more important than the discipline and remove that characterize a Jedi, he chooses to go further away from the right path.
    In play, there would be many outside factors informing his choice: the brewing threat of war from the Separatists, the death of his mother, the strictness of the Jedi code, etc.
    Not sure about explicit mechanics to handle it, but I think the difference between Jedi and Sith would involve spurning emotional connections (and the power, of a sort, that they bring) in favor of the tidy skillfulness of the Force.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Zac,

      *nod* That sounds a lot like fuel for further Dark Side compels. Compels in Fate are about making the characters’ lives more complicated. This sounds like the building blocks for guidelines on ratcheting up those complications.

      – Ryan