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Fate Misconceptions and Aspect Spamming

There are a couple things I’ve seen pop up again in the Fate community, which seems to pop up as new people discover Fate. People, you gotta understand two things about Fate:

To the people who say “It can do everything!” no, it can’t. Fate has a particular player dynamic and information economy that lends itself better to some types of play than others, much like how you can use a Leatherman multitool — which can cut things and screw in things and file things down — to bang a nail in, but that’s gonna take more effort and result in something less optimal than using a hammer.

Understand that when Leonard Balsera and I were sitting down to start the rewrite of Fate Core, we took this idea as a feature. We accepted that survival horror (where characters aren’t especially empowered), gritty combat (better executed by systems that give a damn about equipment), intense mysteries (where all the information creation is in the GM’s hands) are not strong suits in Fate. They can be done in Fate, so long as you also understand that Fate’s own sensibilities will twist them.[1]

(Also, as a professional game designer, whenever I hear anyone say “this game can do anything/everything!” I hear “I don’t know what this game is about, and it does nothing especially well.” For of advice for those designing their own games: have a better answer or statement than that.)

To the people who say “Make it an aspect!” I wince every single time. To give a brief history lesson, Spirit of the Century had you go through five story phases of character creation, and come up with two aspects for each. Ten aspects was deemed too many — partly because GMs felt overwhelmed by the perceived (and incorrect) needs to keep all of them in mind for all players, and partly because creative fatigue meant that some of those aspects would either suck or just end up never getting used. The Dresden Files RPG introduced the high concept and trouble aspects, and pared down the five story phases to one aspect apiece. Still, seven was more or less slightly too many, so when we tinkered with Fate Core, we removed to story phases and brought the character aspects down to five.

That gave room for situation aspects (and to a lesser extent, game aspects) to shine. So when I see people say “oh, you want to do X? Just add an aspect!” I cannot do anything except see that as amateur aspect-spamming. This is especially true with people trying to model equipment.

Not everything needs to be an aspect. Some things are about narrative permission — you can’t shoot someone unless you have a gun. No aspect needed. Some things are just cool, like having (an example from a recent G+ post) a double-bladed weapon. And if something is really key to a character concept, then that’s a character aspect, stunt, or just something you note down when you make your character — not inherently an aspect in and of itself.

If something can be used or taken away and it is somehow different from most others of its kind, then maybe it’s a situation aspect — like the Fabled Double-sword of the Haleish or a cursed double-axe. Otherwise, you’re aspect spamming, and you’re breaking the information element of Fate’s economy.

Whenever you think “oh, this is another thing attached to a character, it could be an aspect!” stop, look at how that’s a high concept or other existing character aspect, or a stunt relating to privileged talent or extra (if it makes you better or different all the time, and not just on invocations), or decide if it’s just awesome color that you want to use to describe being interesting and badass. But don’t make it an additional aspect attached to a character except as a last resort. And maybe not even then. Your Fate games will be better for not aspect spamming.

Treat aspects, persistent and not, as their own economy. Having double-edged sword is as useful an aspect as I have arms — which unless having arms is unusual in your game world, isn’t worth taking up a precious slot of this actionable-information economy.

– Ryan

P.S. I realize we’re going to lose this war, but when you capitalize “Fate” as an acronym, it just looks ugly. We don’t do it anymore. Also, if you acronym-ize “Fate” in a third-party  product, I’m going to assume that you’re either a joke or someone who isn’t a part of the Fate community trying to leech off of it.

[1] One of the struggles I had early with Achtung! Cthulhu’s Fate build was reconciling the pulpy nature of Fate’s player permissions with the horror elements of the Cthulhu Mythos. If not for A!C having a pulpy flair to it, that would be genuinely near-irreconcilable.

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16 Responses to Fate Misconceptions and Aspect Spamming

  1. Hi Ryan

    So turn #1 around for a moment. What types of play do you think FATE is best adapted *for*? (I have my own conceptions, having played it and run it, but I want to know what you, much more on the inside, think). When would a GM best “Reach for fate”?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Games where high-player contributions work, where granularity isn’t a big deal (especially with equipment). That generally means pulpy, actiony settings, times where swashbuckling feats are awesome, and settings where magic or other fantastical elements changes the situational landscape.

      Essentially, the opposite of low-player empowerment games, which is most adventure games.

  2. Greg Sanders says:

    Thanks for this. I’m a Fate amateur and I think I’ve been aspect spamming. I’m a player in a game that’s been switching over an adapted 4e sci-fi campaign to Fate and have been going heavy on extras (to the tune of seven refresh) to get the epic-level equivalent feel.

    My solution to how to handle a character from a hive-minded alien race with seven specialist progeny was treat each of the kids as situational aspects that could be introduced with an extra-enhanced contact skill. I even gave each of them a concept and a trouble. They very much are unique and can be taken away, but it sounds like I made a rookie mistake there.

    Probably I need to accept that not everything needs a mechanical representation and lean more on just having awesome color available. Generally speaking my builds tend to simplify as I gain more mastery, so this is probably a pattern from other systems repeating itself.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Keep in mind that some things can cover permission or access based on the narrative and a character’s backstory. Think about games you played before Fate, where you could use something about your character (either history, an item, a scar, an accent, whatevs) that allowed you to position yourself differently than if you didn’t have that.

      As far as it being a rookie mistake, I can say that I learned this the hard way myself when I was new to Fate. :)

      – Ryan

  3. Bill Garrett says:

    While Fate isn’t ideal for everything, I do think that it shone a metaphorical light on a very large landscape unexplored by conventional games. The people saying “Fate is good at everything” simply haven’t reached the borders yet. So it’s nice to see one of the expert explorers selling maps at the entrance like you are. :)

    Fate certainly suggests itself to several applications because of its granularity. The time cost for me to put together a prehistoric low-fantasy game is about the same as a space opera set on a jungle moon with lasers, spaceships, and 12 varieties of ape-man. Aspects and skills come pre-balanced (+2 is +2, a reroll is a reroll), and stunts still have pretty decent guidelines for balance. That low cost might put weight on the scales for anyone deciding on rules for their new campaign if a different (but more appropriate) set of rules took more effort to set up.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      By “because of is granularity,” I hope you mean Fate lack of granular? That lack is exactly why the Fate fractal/Bronze Rule can function — one of the features that we made sure not to break in Fate Core.

      – Ryan

  4. Bill Garrett says:

    Yeah, “its deliberately low granularity” is what I should have said. It seems that sacrificing “heavy” was the price of allowing Fate to be great at “light”.

  5. When I started developing Do: Fate, I decided that I would try to see how few Aspects would work for the game. At first, we had just two (basically a high concept and a trouble), and that seemed like too few. There were a lot of times that players had fate points, but didn’t seem to have a way to comfortably bring them into play.

    But when I added one more (Dragon Aspect!) and added some Scene Aspects, the session worked beautifully. In fact, the Scene Aspects really leapt to the forefront now that the players only had a few personal Aspect options. :D

  6. Andy says:

    As an aside, I really dig how Fate has evolved into something incredibly lean and intentionally-structured. It’s a complex engine, and all the parts do very particular things.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      A lot of that is (and I will probably say this until the end of time) due to seeing Bulldogs! present skills. Fate as an engine was always intended to be (and in practice for us was) lean. It took structuring and a few come-to-Jesus talks regarding how we explained things to arrive at a presentation as lean as the system.

      I could go one for days about the art of game presentation.

      – Ryan

  7. Rob Hanz says:

    Well, hey, I totally agree. Fate does a lot of things well, but not everything. Other games are good, too, and usually because they do certain things very, very well. And I don’t know if you can make Fate do those things without making it basically Not Fate.

    I generally find character proactivity to be one of the defining points for what makes a good match for a game running in Fate. It’s awesome at that. If the game is more about discovering what the GM has hidden up his sleeve, not quite so much. Same with heavy resource-management or tactics games.

    As far as aspect spamming, it usually seems to be some combination of assuming that certain levels of detail are needed because they are in some other system, and thinking that aspects = advantages/disadvantages/feats from other systems.

    I generally tell people to use movies or TV shows as their guide to what’s important and what’s not. While it’s not spot-on, it’s seemed pretty close in my experience.

  8. “Also, if you acronym-ize “Fate” in a third-party product, I’m going to assume that you’re either a joke or someone who isn’t a part of the Fate community trying to leech off of it.”

    This comment intrigued me. I’ve been keeping an eye on Evil Hat and its products since Fate 2.0 was released. I’ve vaguely watched things go up on the Evil Hat site for WikiDot, and I’ve picked up Spirit, Dresden Files, Fate Core, as they became available. This is the first time I can recall seeing someone explicitly come out and say “we say Fate, not FATE.” I guess that you could make the inference based on the descriptive text being used though.

    I am also intrigued by your description of “leech”, because it’s not immediately apparent what that capitalization costs you. It sounds a bit like you’re creating a semantic “us and them” – is there some larger background here that I’m missing, perhaps because I’m not on some message board somewhere? I’ve been contemplating putting together a couple of scenarios based on the Fate Worlds books for the wiki site (since Evil Hat is not very good at providing ready-to-play scenarios) – am I a leech because I wouldn’t have known about FATE v Fate?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      If this is the first time you’ve recalled seeing this, then you haven’t been paying much attention — in which case, yes, I would call you a leech. Now maybe that’s not fair, but first impressions are never about being “fair.”

      Fate, like every other successful OGL game, has drawn its share of opportunists, and most of them don’t pay any attention to the community around said game. So if I have a reason to not believe that you’re involved in or even aware of the community, I’m not going to put my limited funds for buying games into your Fate game, or recommend it to anyone else.

      Now, if you want to see that as some “us vs them” stuff, sure, whatever. The “them” is “people who can’t bother to get a name right.” And I don’t care about those people.

      – Ryan

  9. Ryan Macklin says:

    Folks, if your comment is nanny-nagging about how you don’t like my tone, you’re welcome to say so. And I’m welcome to use my spam button on all such comments devoid of meaning or utility (which I’ve done a couple times already).

    Now, if you’re looking to add to the conversation, cool! I totally welcome that. Almost everyone who comments is super-awesome. :)

    – Ryan

  10. Patrick J says:

    I’m new to the Fate RPG and I decided to start working on a setting. As I start writing my stuff I add aspects to locations like *Crawling with spiders* etc. but now that I read your post I think I need to read more about the game before I start butchering my setting with over usage of aspects for everything.

    Maybe the bronze rule is misunderstood and used in such way because GMs suddenly feel like they are finally in control of their creation and a desk can have the aspect “Wooden desk in the corner” and the skill “Fight +3” with a stunt “Small toe magnet” +2 to target small toes. This game is awesome!

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Thanks for your comment! That’s good to point out, as it gets to another issue: people sometimes conflate the bronze rule/fate fractal with the desire to put aspects on stuff, and those aren’t the same thing.

      – Ryan