Aspects vs. Information

Noodling over the Discover action yesterday lead to people making comments about how all information takes the form of aspects. Today seems like a good day to attempt explaining why that’s not correct, and hopefully that’ll help some people out with more mystery-oriented Fate games.

In Fate, we frequently talk about how “aspects are always true, even when not invoked or compelled.” That’s correct, but like many simple koans in any hobby, the simplicity of that statement trips people up—it frequently gets inverted to where people think “if aspects are always true, then all truths are really aspects.” Hopefully, some discussion will help clarify the difference between what’s “just” truth or information, and what’s worth being in the aspect playspace.

Universal Aspect Concepts

Here are four things that are true of all aspects.

Aspects highlight narrative importance. Once an aspect is in play, people are going to be eyeing it for potential invocations and compels, so it becomes important in a dramatic sense and has its own sense of gravity and spotlight.

Aspects can be pinned on anything, but they are always pinned on something or someone (and possible multiple things).  In addition to the character aspects (including consequences) and game aspects, you have all of the various situational aspects that are discovered in play or created as advantages. All of those aspects exist on something: a location, an object, a person, the game itself. There are no truly free-floating aspects, though game aspects come close to that concept.

Aspects constantly limit options or give permission and justification, even when not invoked or compelled. This concept is best shown by example. Aspects like Grappled  limit a character’s options in the story while that aspect applies to them. Acquiring an Experimental Sonic Rifle or taking Superpowered Genetic Drugs gives a character some narrative permission to do actions that she might not normally be able to do. This works on a broader level: having Enemies in the Underworld is going to limit your options in that situation, just as Friends in Low Places would give a justification to stretching the narrative in that scene to the character’s advantage.[1]

Aspects exist until action is taken on them, they naturally transition or cease, or the story’s focus shifts away from them. This is the basis for the kaon that Leonard Balsera and I use as a shorthand: “Aspects are true until they aren’t.” Many things can change an aspect, but until that happens the aspect still limits options or gives permission and justification, even without being invoked or compelled. A house that’s On Fire will remain that way until either it burns itself out (a natural transition that makes it A Smoldering Ruin), firefighters successfully put it out (action that transitions it to Partially Burnt Home), or entirely disregarded when we shift the story’s focus away from that location and expect to never return to it. This is even true for character aspects, though no direct action can be taken on them to change, though that’s a longer-term thing, with milestones or extreme consequences.

Example: To go with the Grapple aspect, let’s say that I grapple you. Being grappled is clearly important to the narrative if, in fact, that’s what’s happening to you in the action. That aspect is pinned in you (pardon the pun), but it’s also pinned on me as the person who is doing an action that constantly need to be done to do it. While the aspect exists, it limits your options for movement, engaging others in the zone, etc. It might give me some other permissions, like using Physique as an attack skill as I try to constrict your airway, but mainly I’m doing this to limit your options. It’s true until you do something to overcome it, I stop it (in which case either you automatically overcome it or I stopped because you’re Unconscious), someone else interrupts it, or for whatever reason mid-conflict the scene is over.

What Is and Isn’t Information

“Information” is a broad word. If you’re searching for something like Cover, that’s not what I’d call just information, but establishing something for positioning purposes, because you’re looking to use that with intent. If you’re searching for a tool, like a Crowbar, also not merely information, even if the fact that a crowbar existing technically is. In those cases, you know what you’re going to do with the aspect you’re intending to create, so it’s about getting permission to act and an edge in said action than it is about revealing truths and secrets.

On the other hand, if you’re doing research about some strange sigil, looking into a family’s genealogy, or ransacking a room to find evidence of murder, the result you have isn’t something about action or positioning. You don’t know what you’re going to do with the information you’re looking for precisely because you don’t know what that information will be. That’s the sort of thing I’m thinking about when I’m thinking of information.

When Information Isn’t an Aspect

Most of the time, information isn’t an aspect. If it were, then every little write-up would be formed like this:

George returned Home. The Man with the Yellow Hat told him Not to Give Up. He gave George a Fitness VideoGeorge watched the VideoHe took Many NotesHe was Ready to Coach Professor Wiseman!

Hopefully that looks ridiculous and absurd (as well as adorable). You might not be so aspect-spammy in your approach, but as you fill in the aspect playspace, you’re cluttering up what worked best when lean, because every aspect placed becomes something that newer Fate players overly consider and desperate players try to shoehorn into an action. Having many aspects doesn’t make the game better for those who are having an easy time playing, and it makes it harder for those not. So for the chief reason of playability, we don’t have everything in Fate work as an aspect.

When you reveal information, and you aren’t sure if it’s an aspect, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this information important enough to be worth keeping in mind on every action as a potential invocation?
  • What is the information pinned on? Does anyone significantly care about the element it’s pinned on?
  • What options does it limit or permission does it give?
  • Do you have a sense of what actions could be taken to remove the aspect?

Having answers to the first two questions is crucial. If you don’t have strong answers for them, it’s not an aspect right now. It could become one later, as the story develops, but for the moment it’s just information. If you have answers to the other questions, then you definitely know it’s an aspect worth playing with.

How This Relates to Discover

Discover is about asking for information, which by default isn’t assumed to be an aspect (though the door is open for it to be one). Create an Advantage is about action and positioning.

I hope this helps! This is getting into a bit of an esoteric Fate space—though only made esoteric because we don’t spend as much time talking about  mystery-oriented Fate  as we do about action-oriented Fate. Please ask questions!

– Ryan

Image from: engraveacrete.com/blog/footprint-cleanup-tips-of-the-trade

Fun fact: I apparently started writing this in April, but then WordPress ate all of my line breaks so I shelved it.

[1] It gets even broader, with game aspects like Danger Lurking Around Every Corner giving thematic permission, but that starts to get obtuse. Hence why this is a footnote and not in the body.


2 Responses to Aspects vs. Information

  1. John Taber says:

    I am going to be starting my first Fate campaign soon. This thread really helped gel my thoughts on Aspects and what they are/are not. Thanks Ryan…nice post. :)

  2. The Bane says:

    Agreed, what John Taber said. Though reluctant to show my lack of Fate prowess by commenting over in the G+ thread, I really think you are helping us new players to Fate think outside the conventional gaming norms. Thanks.