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Leaving Situation Aspects Unstated

There’s something many of us Fate players typically do that I think we should dial back on: taking one of our aspect index cards or post-it notes out and writing “Dark” or “Foggy” on it. I certainly do this when I teach the game at conventions, to show the breadth of what can be an aspect, but lately I’ve been thinking about the power of not putting every aspect in mind on the table.

When playing with people who know Fate’s essential nature, obvious aspects—like environment ones—don’t need to be declared as aspects upon introduction. If you have a scene where it’s dark, anyone could say “it sounds like there’s the aspect Dark Room here, so I want to invoke it.” Same with anything that’s dramatically relevant, like Massive DownpourSmoke-Filled, Extremely Loud Alarms, etc.

“Dramatically relevant” is a table-based aesthetic, though no more one that what people consider worth explicitly being aspects.

The reason that leaving aspects unstated works: there are no free invocations on revealed situation aspects, so using one costs a fate point whether it was already written down, you’re asking about it for the first time, or you choose some other aspect in play to invoke. Since you have a finite currency for such invocations, that’s playing Fate as intended.

This technique also follows the “aspects are true until they’re not” philosophy, since you’re taking a fact about the situation that can be leveraged and, well, declaring that you’re leveraging it. The aspect could easily go away if refuted or undone, just as the scene description could be if it wasn’t an aspect.

But that’s all just basic crap about why the technique is valid (as in fact baked into Fate Core anyway). Here’s the cool part…

When we leave aspects unwritten, players will see aspects we don’t.

And that’s amazing! When teaching people, it’s great to put a menu of aspects on the table, so they figure out how the Fate economy and aspect use works. But it’s so easy to get into the habit of that being how one should always play Fate. Though menus are great for relieving creative fatigue—which I’m very much for—they give less space for surprises and spontaneous revelations.

Sometimes Fate aspect play should feel like a fast food restaurant, to keep it quick and simple. Sometimes it should feel like a kitchen when a crapton of food in the fridge and pantry  just begging for some fantastic improvisation.[1]

And if it helps save a few index cards (for those of us who use them), that’s also awesome. :)

Edit: A friend pointed out that I shouldn’t leave unstated “oh, and once someone does point it out, write it down as you would any other aspect.”

Spinning This Action

Of course, this technique can be used incorrectly. I’m not saying to leave every aspect unstated—especially if what you want to do is highlight a scene element as worth being in every player’s mind throughout the moment. In fact, on writing this paragraph I realize that leaving some aspects unstated lets you highlight others. For example, if you have a dark, dangerous dungeon, you can leave off the Dark and Quiet aspect and let Walls Rough Like Daggers hang over the players’ heads.

When someone points out an aspect, they might give it a simple name like “Dark.” They’re flagging that they want the scene’s darkness element to be important enough to invoke. Awesome! You could take that as an opportunity to rewrite for clarity, suspense, or action. Maybe instead of writing “Dark,” write Can’t See Five Feet in Front of Me or No Moon, No Stars, Nothing But Flashlights. Or just write Dark if doing more feels creatively taxing in the moment or would drag play down—only spin the aspect if you have an immediate idea that you want to play off of.

The Caveat I Never Like Giving

If you’re afraid that this opens the door to some abuse because players can point out things are aspects, remember that each use of those situation aspects costs a fate point, and you/the table can call bullshit. But if you really need some sort of limiter, you could say that only one unstated aspect can be revealed and used at a time, sure.

—Ryan

Photo: flickr.com/photos/dalonian/405010680

[1] I may be hungry right now.

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4 Responses to Leaving Situation Aspects Unstated

  1. Ywen says:

    That’s a fine solution for a lazy GM like me ^^. Kidding but we’ve been playing like that, and I just ruled that only a certain number of aspects could be “highlighted” this way per scene (usually about 3).

    Also, players should remember that aspects they create this way can be invoked _against_ them afterwards. (ie. darkness works both ways)

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Totally, and fun when we get to turn those aspects around. :) I wrote about that last part under Hostile Invocations, on the Fate SRD site. All depends on if the situation aspect created can be controlled or if it applies to everyone.

      I like your “max 3” rule. I may steal that in the future.

  2. This seems to be a topic of some interest to GMs everywhere and I’ve come across a number of forum discussions debating similar points to the ones made above.

    Strangely enough, it is old school dungeon crawlers that tend to provoke the most thought on GMing descriptive narration. Why? Because of traps. If you’re running a game of D&D one of your biggest dilemmas writing scenarios might be determining to what extent do you telegraph critical details of the environment to players while maintaining the element of surprise. So, while you want to generate some suspense, you probably don’t want to spell out that there are arrow sized holes covering the flanking walls of the corridor you have entered.

    Now, in Fate, those details can be much more subtle and yet equally impactfull because players are expected to use their imagination to bring aspects into play but it’s none the less a common concern.

    Personally, I love descriptive text (or ‘read aloud’), it’s a great outlet for the writer in me and I much of the time I have to reign myself to avoid over-egging the narration. That’s an aesthetic for sure and I think really, that should take precedence over any other consideration, e.g. is there any real justification for saying that only one unstated aspect can be revealed per scene? Not really. So long as players can justify that aspect being there according to the context of the story then I would okay it as GM.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      The point of limiting aspects in general is to keep scenes focused and promote reincorporation rather than aspect spamming, so there’s absolutely a point to a cap on unstated aspects. At least until a GM really gets the rhythm and flow of aspects in play, and learns how to break rules for powerful, intentional effect.