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Decoupling Aspects from Phases

This is one of many ideas I wish I had back when we were working on Fate Core. Alas, it often takes publishing a game and seeing it in the wider world for such ideas to occur. Nature of the beast.

In Spirit of the Century, there were five phases — who you were before the Great War, a moment that defined you, your first adventure, and two times when you crossed paths with another’s adventure. Each had two aspects. In Dresden, there were the two core concept aspects, the high concept and the trouble, but after that there were the same five phases — rethemed for Dresden, and with one aspect apiece, but still those five.

In Fate Core, to bring the aspects down to five, we cut the first two phases, treating that, from an end result standpoint, the aspects that came from that were very high concept or trouble in their nature. And from an end result standpoint, I think the decision to do that is solid. But I also think that very decision operated under a flawed logic: that we had to pin aspects created to individual phase segments.

In watching people make characters in Fate Core since it came out, I’ve found myself wishing for a couple steps in between high concept/trouble and first adventure, because I saw out that was a useful tool for conceptualization — not because everyone goes through the same path, but because that allows for three different entry points into getting a character on paper: what they were like early on, what they did recently that was awesome, and what moment redefined them? Pick the one you want to start with, and then pick the other two. But with how we did Core, we said “just start with what they did recently that was awesome.”

What I would do now, and what I will do when I run Fate, is add those narrative beats back into character creation, for five phases, but I’ll also keep to three aspects, because that economy works well. Which means my procedure is:

  • Phase one: Who you were early on
  • Phase two: The moment that crystalized you
  • Phase three: Your adventure
  • Phases four & five: Crossing paths[1]
  • Afterward: make three cool aspects from all that stuff, _which could include how you’re involved in someone else’s questions rather than just your own_

This also allows a release valve for those moments when we say “here’s the awesome thing I want to write for this beat, but hell if I can come up with an aspect for it.” In any case, I think there’s something big to decoupling aspects from phases, something that we should look at as we’re making character creation schemes. I know I will.

– Ryan

(Folks who saw what I was working on at Metatopia won’t be surprised to hear that this has been on my mind for some time now.)

[1] This scheme could allow for ignoring the crossing paths, and say “oh, my character hasn’t met up with the others yet.” I’m not yet sure if that’s a feature of a bug, though you could half-couple to say that at least one aspect needs to come from crossing paths.

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11 Responses to Decoupling Aspects from Phases

  1. Seems obvious now, right? There is a long-standing philosophy dating back to D&D, of course, that disfavors effort in character creation that doesn’t have a mechanical impact. Character creation phases that are just for color? Unheard of!

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Eh, I don’t buy that. Don’t Rest Your Head does that with questionnaires, as does Dread. Look at every World of Darkness game. And even iterations of D&D ask you to think about character elements that aren’t directly mechanized.

      – Ryan

  2. Is there anything special about three aspects? I assume you want to have the same number across different characters in the same game. But if the setting involves a third non-phase aspect or if most of your players have trouble coming up with three, is there something that breaks by going down to two?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I actually do two phased aspects (or, really, four aspects — we shouldn’t discount high concept and trouble) for my convention games.

      I’d have to try it in an extended period — cutting down to four total aspects might make taking an extreme consequence an even more dramatic shakeup. And five total aspects allows for three “mostly invoke” and two “mostly compel” dynamics. Not that everyone does that consciously, but I’ve seen it subconsciously enough.

      So my gut says that four works for a short game, particularly one where you have an easy-to-compel game aspect. After that, it might seem a bit short, but that’s easily solved by just adding another one later in the story. Which is a cool hack in and of itself, to force that fifth aspect to be made later.

      – Ryan

    • Thanks! That makes a lot of sense.

      I guess another feature of this adjustment is that it could scale to additional crossing paths in games with more than three players. I’m not sure to what extent that was left out because it bogged down character creation versus resulting in too many aspects.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Actually, crossing paths is pretty much what it needs to be, numbers-wise. In a five-player game, you’re connecting with everyone: you’re involved with the two on your left, and the two on your right are involved with you. In fewer than five players, there’s some double-up. In more than five players, you have some people who don’t connect right away, but they’re interconnected from a web, and will find their own connections in-play.

      Also, adding more crossing paths will result in creative fatigue, where that third one is far less inspired than the first two, and the fourth even less than that. Better to cut off before creative fatigue happens than attempt to fill in everything. (Hence the soft character creation rule in Core about being okay leaving aspects blank.)

      – Ryan

    • I just finally went through my first straightforward Fate Core character creation (I wanted to give the base rules a try once). In practice, I now really see the appeal of both this approach and also not having any more phases afterwards. Think I’ll be using this going forward.

      Also, I didn’t really catch it the first time I read over, but the ability to draw from other people’s phases with your character is actually a lot more important than I first realized.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Drawing from other folks’ phases is (I think, biased as that is) the real magic here. I hope this method works out for you!

      – Ryan

  3. Chuck Cooley says:

    Yeah, I found that unlinking Aspects from phases works better for my group. While it seems awesome on paper, it doesn’t seem to work in practice. We ended up with weaksauce Aspects that didn’t much get used, and important parts of the character concept that weren’t reflected in Aspects. We had better results working through the Phases, and then looking backwards to create Aspects as you suggest. With my group, I would definitely require at least one Aspect to come out of the Crossovers. Some of the linkages are very weak as it is.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Part of the issue in game design is where you can get fixated on something because it works in practice for so many people, so often, than when it doesn’t work one doesn’t inherently re-examine that deal — after all, “it worked for many others.” Enough to where the question doesn’t even come to mind, it’s unconscious.

      It’s an interesting space in game design.

      – Ryan

    • Jess says:

      We actually just did this as well in our DFRPG game we recently started. We all went through the 5 phases and the GM had us choose 3 of those (one of which had to be a crossover, and another of which had to be either your Background or Defining Moment). We all ended up with very different combinations that better suited the characters and what our emphasis on them has been. It’s been working well for us so far. Whenever I run a Fate Core game, whatever setting it ends up being in, I’ll definitely use this process for it.