Decoupling Aspects from Phases

In Fate Core, character creation and aspects are meant to be a module you swap out for specific settings. But in reality, we didn’t really give a lot of space for that. The aspect dynamic in Core is:

  • The core notion of the character’s role, and make an aspect
  • Something interesting that makes the character’s life hard, and make an aspect
  • Share some recent backstory, and make an aspect
  • Linking characters together, and make a couple aspects
This post is expanded in the Fateful Concepts: Character Aspects Fate essay e-book, available through DriveThruRPG.

In Spirit of the Century, the first two bits weren’t called out, and you had three phases for the backstory in which you should bake in the character’s role and difficult situation. Then you have the two rounds of Crossing Paths. This generated 10 aspects. In The Dresden Files RPG, we added in high concept and trouble, left in three phases for backstory and the two for Crossing Paths — all while paring the aspect list down to 7. But in working on Fate Core, Leonard Balsera and I saw that we needed to reduce further, so we cut out two of the backstory sections to get the aspects down to 5.

Lately, I’ve been thinking that we cut out the wrong thing. We kept aspects coupled to phases, and we cut out some good stuff in the sake of cutting the aspect list. That’s lead me to the notion that we should decouple aspects from phases. This came up again in a recent thread in the Fate G+ community about how Crossing Paths can lead to poor aspects. And that 40% of your aspects come from that part of character creation, I’m not as happy with it as I was when I wrote that chapter in 2012[1]. So here’s what I propose:

  • Come up with the high concept, as a general statement and not as an aspect.
  • Come up with the sort of trouble the character must contend with, again just as a general statement.
  • Detail some backstory. But one question isn’t really great for making three-dimensional characters, so let’s go with two:
    • Detail some formative experience that lead to who your character is today.
    • Detail a vivid memory of pride or fear, and how that shapes who your character is.
    • Detail a recent awesome thing, ideally (but not necessarily) something other characters could be involved with.
  • Then do two rounds of Crossing Paths. This can hook into any part of another character’s story, not just the “recent awesome thing” adventure analogue.  Two characters who grew up together could feature in each other’s formative experiences, for example. This could also be a new story moment, rather than one that comes from what’s already been established — two characters who have no reason to be in each other’s backstory might instead have met last night in a barroom brawl, and happened to be on the same side in said fight.

At no point have you made aspects. Even if you have a good idea for an aspect, don’t write one down yet — leaving it blank forces you to revisit your ideas, whereas writing it down and saying “I’ll change it if I have a better idea” doesn’t force that.

So, with all of that, make up five aspects. Cover these bases with the aspects you make:

  • Your character’s role in the greater story
  • Problems that will haunt your character
  • Ties to other characters or to the world

Anyway, that’s what I recommend today, after seeing Fate Core in the field for the last year or so.

Addendum: Right, I forgot the other thing that prompted this. Sometimes you’ll, as a Fate GM, tell folks stumped on an aspect for a given phase to leave it blank and fill it in later. This is sort of a progression of that idea, and it’s easy to say “Okay, fill in three or four now, and fill in the rest in play.” Since they don’t have to be explicitly or implicitly linked to a phase, that’s even easier to handle.

Also, it opens up making aspects from another person’s Crossing Paths about you, not unlike the Fate Boost Trio idea I posted a bit ago.

– Ryan

[1] A side effect of time away from making something is getting to examine it on its own principles, rather than as a reaction to something else. Certainly Core’s setup is an improvement over what we did with Dresden, but time shows that it can be improved still.


9 Responses to Decoupling Aspects from Phases

  1. I’m intrigued by the idea of being able to cross-paths with any part of another character’s story, I haven’t done that much Fate but can immediately think of a few ways I’d use that.

    That said, it does dramatically increase the choice space in a way that could be intimidating and also could leave one of the characters under-connected on the receiving end. On the other hand you’re still just talking 4*([number of players]-1) choices and since you’re listening to those anyways probably something has caught your attention. I guess I’m curious whether you think some structure will need to be added back in or if that structure wasn’t actually that necessary to begin with.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      This still goes with the Fate idea of each person doing two Crossing Paths, so the choice space doesn’t increase with number of players. That said, I’m reminded that I need to add to this post a note that you can also draw aspects from someone else’s crossing paths bit as I mentioned in a previous post:

      But yeah, it could help to have some structure, like:
      * High concept
      * Trouble
      * Something about you from your past or background
      * Something about you from a Crossing Paths moment
      * Wild card

      Is that the sort of thing you’re thinking about?

      – Ryan

    • Ah yes, that completely clarifies things. I was overly reductionist in what “Crossing paths” meant and took the term “another character’s story” to mean any character rather than maintaining the structure of passing left/right/shuffling/whatever.

      So, with that modification, you’re only choosing from 4 background phases per round, which isn’t too challenging. The only implication i can see is that players may want to hand around a background sheet rather than an index card with their adventure. That doesn’t seem like a problem.

      So the structure you discuss below might be a good idea, but I meant the structure that you were leaving in.

      Thanks for the response.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      No problem!

      To be fair, I also think that the Crossing Paths unit an be swapped out for other models (and in fact, I’ve send a couple dozen people something I’m workshopping to that end, and people seem to really dig it.) However, the “how you intertwine others” element is still separate from the “making aspects” element in this breakdown. You do point out the biggest risk is changing the Crossing Paths formula though if you have a character group of sufficient size — if you aren’t limit it, you are creating overwhelming choice space. Worse, you’re introducing creative fatigue far too early.

      To build on that last point, it’s my hope that this can solve creative fatigue problems for some people, as some players find making interesting aspects taxing. And I don’t just me new-to-Fate players.

      – Ryan

  2. Chuck Cooley says:

    I am currently running my third Fate (inspired) campaign since Spirit of the Century, and this time around we decoupled the Crossovers from Aspects, with mixed results.

    In the first two campaigns, we found the Crossover Aspects to be generally the weakest and least used ones. High Concept and Trouble continue to be useful, reinforcing what the character should really be good at, and providing juicy story-driving Compels.

    The downside is that some of the characters relationships are not as strong as they were in previous campaigns. It’s better than (“We met in a bar last night.”) but not a whole lot. Fortunately, the players are experienced enough to generally go along with the group vibe, but sometimes the seams show, and that can be distracting.

    The other problem we have encountered is one Rob Donoghue mentioned on his blog: Sometimes the players are too damn poetic. But allowing Aspects to be revised (not to say completely replaced) without waiting for Milestones has helped with that. Leaving Aspects blanks has worked out well too, although we are coming up on Episode 10 and one or two of them (on the more casual players) are still blank.

  3. Scum of Dunwall says:

    Talking with guys about aspects (my comlain – isn’t enough aspects to define my character) we created interesting variant (for potential Planescape hack):

    Make 4 aspects, limited by cathegories:

    High Concept:

    Choose one of the aspects above, to be your Trouble.

    Add up 3 aspects of your choice, whenever you want to.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      This is an example bad Fate design and a misunderstanding of how character creation can work. As-is, those are boring prompts, but you could spice those up with giving an interesting question to answer for each one that would help the aspect from it not be phoned in.

      For everyone who says that five aspects isn’t enough to “define my character,” well, I can’t help you folks. I can’t help anyone who thinks they need to write down an aspect to define their character. I can’t help anyone who thinks they need to answer someone else’s prompt in order to creatively contribute to their character’s story.

      So no, it’s not an interesting variant. It’s the sort of variant people have been making for nearly a decade, that never catches fire.

      – Ryan

    • Scum of Dunwall says:

      Thank you for response. I am appreciate it.

      Fate is a appealing, but restive system. It’s hard sometimes to reconsile my ideas with it’s dynamics. And maybe too easy to misunderstand it and screw up everything. To turn small miracle into pile of dirt.) Certainly do _not want that_ to happen.

      But your article actually helping me with my “not enough aspects!” problem. I just wanted to share idea about “virtual Trouble aspect” – when one oyou can make less aspects, because ‘role’ of Trouble aspect may be assigned to the _existing_ one.
      Sorry. Didn’t wanted to faze you that much.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      No problem. I don’t know what you mean by “restive system,” though.

      All games of sufficient size are complex, just in different ways. Fate seems simple because its core mechanics are, but aspect creation and management — the heart of the game — gets complicated.

      We’ve talked about in detail on the G+ community and elsewhere why we went down from 10 aspects in Spirit of the Century to 7 aspects in Dresden to 5 aspects in Fate Core. I’ll reiterate the two high points: 90% of the time there are around two aspects that suck when you’re making 7, and reducing the character aspects creates the proper reliance on situational aspects (and game aspects, to a lesser extent) that we wanted from the beginning.

      To take your breakdown from before, I would definitely decouple those, and then turn them into prompts. Here’s a quick example:
      * High concept: what’s your role in the story world, and what separates you from others who also do that?
      * Race/Origin: What happened in your early life shaped your relationship with your race or origin? (Which could mean having a strong tie to your race, or rebelling from it.)
      * Alignment/Attitude: What’s your alignment, and what happened to you to put you on this path? (Alternatively, what happened that made you question your commitment to this ideal?)
      * Faith/Philosophy: same as above, I guess

      Then add the typical Fate Phase Trio prompts, or at least Crossing Paths, and you have a character fairly well defined. Then turn the answers you really want to play with into aspects. The rest go into how you play your character, and could easily becomes aspects in a future character arc (by swapping out an aspect you’re bored or done with on a major milestone with one inspired by a facet of your character that hasn’t yet been made an aspect).

      – Ryan