Separating Aptitude from Capability

A couple weeks ago, I riffed on an idea about using Fate Core for Mage: the Ascension. And based on a conversation with the ever-Enlightened Travis Stout, I’m revising the idea some. What I’m about to talk about will address a specific case, but the topic behind it is worth understanding in general.

At the core of it: I’m divorcing the notion of capability (whether you can do something) with aptitude (how good you are at it).[1] This is a common thing in skill systems — if you have the skill at all, you can use it at whatever rank you have; and sometimes you don’t even need that, and can use a default. However, in some esoteric setups (like with Mage), how good you are and what crazy shit you can do are linked. If you’ve got Forces 3, then you’re better at Forces 2 stuff than someone who just has Forces 2 — the system collapses capability with aptitude.

And that’s how we made it work with the Cortex Plus Action hack I did a couple years back.

Fate Accelerated’s approaches[2] introduced another idea: instead of treating ranks in different magical Spheres like skills, instead treat them as permission. If you have Matter 1, you get to do X; Matter 2, X & Y; and so on. (And for this purpose, I would just refer to the Mage book on what different ranks mean.)

That handles capability. For aptitude, I would dust off the Resonances, treating them like approaches:

  • Stasis: for analysing and understanding something, for bolstering something that exists, and for countermagic
  • Dynamism: for changing something that exists, for creation of something new
  • Entropy: for pure decay and corrosion of something, for the enforcement of natural law, for luck and chance

And to be clear, you’d mostly use dynamism to attack someone with Forces, entropy for harsher types of assaults, and stasis for defense. But, as with all approaches, it could be flexible. Maybe.

In character creation, maybe you would choose either: (1) pick one at +2, and the other two at +0; (2) pick two at +1, the other at +0. (I am honestly tempted to use negative numbers in this build, if to psychologically enforce the notion of resonance, but for now I’ll stick with this.)

And if you can justify how your paradigm aspect fits with what you’re doing (notably with a focus or apparatus), that’s a further +1 — without even spending a fate point.

This build means that the chance of being successful is based not on what you can do, but on the sort of Avatar or Genius within and how you understand magic to work. Take two different concepts:

  • Forces 3, Dynamism +2, “Neo-Heremtic” as a paradigm — that guy’s going to be slinging around heat at +3 if he’s doing it with his wand
  • Forces 3, Stasis +2, “I’m the Montgomery Scott of the Void” as a paradigm — the same capability of throwing around that heat, but this character’s mindset means she’s more capable of turning a bomb into a larger bomb (bolstering something) than altering local physics to make a blast of fire
  • Forces 3, Entropy +2, “Harmony with Nature” as a paradigm — yeah, you want to see someone cause a thunderstorm? That’s this person. (Provided its advancing the cycle of nature, and not just inventing one out of nowhere.)

This build also satisfies a bit of what I like regarding Cortex Plus, namely that you’re declaring multiple things on your character sheet that are behind the action you’re doing. Here, it’s simple: “Matter 1 lets me understand the nature of this strange material, but I only have Stasis +0, so I’m not as good at that as I would be if I was reforging matter, and this fits in my paradigm of ‘Mad Scientist with Ether Goggles.'” You can do it, and you’ll roll +1.

[Edit: I would also likely build in mechanics for pushing yourself past your limits, but that’s a different post, as it’s an extension of the idea.]

– Ryan

[1] There are likely better words for this, but it gets muddled in English much of the time.

[2] Which I have complicated opinions on in general, and am slowly coming to appreciate.


11 Responses to Separating Aptitude from Capability

  1. Kit says:

    “This build also satisfies a bit of what I like regarding Cortex Plus, namely that you’re declaring multiple things on your character sheet that are behind the action you’re doing.” Yes, that. That is a really nice thing to have in games of a certain stripe. And that’s exactly why I’m excited about the idea outlined up here.

  2. The Jake says:

    I really like these thoughts on Mage. I have been noodling around with a Mage hack for a few months on my site. It is interesting to see where our ideas are similar and where they differ. My hack is quite a bit more complicated, whereas I think yours is simpler and manages to really get to the heart of the matter. i may steal bits of this for when I actually start playing.

  3. Jess says:

    What about for those of us who don’t use Mage 2.0? I’m not really familiar with the concept of Resonances in Mage as I’ve only really played/run the early editions of Mage.

    However, on the topic of capability vs. aptitude, there’s the roles of the Sphere vs Arete. Given an earlier mindset for Mage (eg. 1E) we’re talking, I think, more about the Sphere rating being the skill with which a Mage uses a Sphere and the capability with which they wield magic at all, being represented by Arete. Of course, early Mage doesn’t really distinguish distinctively between the two either, but that’s how I read it.


    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Recognising that we’re speaking a slightly different language because my familiarity is more with Ascension Revised…

      You don’t really need to be familiar with Resonances — I’ve twisted the concept to fit the idea of FAE approaches, so what I have is enough to play with. Resonances are more color, with fringe rules around them that most people could ignore. You could as easily get Ars Magica on this, and say: Create, Understand, Change, Destroy, Control. Which maybe is more intuitive anyway.

      Mage’s system inherently collapses capability and aptitude. Having Forces 3 makes it easier to do a Forces 2 thing than just having Forces 2. Mechanically, Arete is primarily a way to make becoming a super-focused character expensive and difficult — you’re paying to (more or less) raise a skill cap. As a narrative concept, it’s awesome; as a mechanic, it’s uninteresting, so it’s the first to go in my Mage hacks.

      – Ryan

  4. Ryan Macklin says:

    In fact, the more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to use the Ars Magica-esque verbs. Partly because they’re more intuitive, and partly because that’s five points of fidelity or resolution rather than three.

    – Ryan

  5. David says:

    I was wondering if you couldn’t line up the five points with the outcomes in Fate. The first point could be information – if you want to investigate/gain info and is baseline permission (+1). After that, Defend (+2), Attack (+3), Overcome (+4), Create Advantage (+5) . That’s just off the top of my head, you could probably come up with a more cogent order that lines up better with the sphere ratings out of M:tA Revised.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      First, I’m going to respond with how I misread your comment (thinking actions, not outcomes), because it caused a worthwhile idea to pop up.

      You could, and it would mechanically work, but here’s my gut reasoning for not:

      * I defend against your attack by using Create and Forces to make a barrier of force against it.

      * I defend against your attack by using Forces to make a barrier of force against it.

      It’s the same effect. It’s the same numbers, likely. But it’s one less point of contextualization.

      However, for similar reasons, I would still want to keep those separate. But it could work. Or serve as a limiter/permission gateway. Hmm. Something to think about.

      – Ryan

  6. David says:

    Your response was right in line with what I intended. I meant actions and typed outcomes.

  7. David says:

    Totally makes sense.

    I was coming at it this way: I’m going to describe what I want to happen, just like any other game of Fate. At that point, we would figure out what Action I was trying to achieve. Much like Mage, the fiction could even map to multiple outcomes (Attack the barrier vs Overcome the barrier vs Create an Advantage for dealing with Barrier). What if the skill rating limited what Actions were available to me? Then I not only need to have a rating in a sphere to attempt it, but I also need to be proficient. Your comment about a limiter/permission gateway is exactly right.

    Then that leads to whether I can lash out and try doing things beyond by proficiency level. Sure, the difference is the built in shift differential of the ratings. +2 is needed to Attack, and I’m only +1? Ok. Difficulty increases up the ladder by 1, or I have to eat Paradox stress, etc…

    I like moving the syntax back towards Ars Magica Verb/Noun because that extra point of context is really the meat of Mage (and I have always loved that formulaic base to magic). I’ve been trying to figure out a good way to implement that with Fate without seriously tearing apart skills and stunts. I keep going back to Cortex and building dice pools, but that still has the wrong feel.

  8. Loving the ideas here, and every Mage post you do makes me want to play it more, regardless of whether its the actual system or an FAE hack of it.