Character Creation: 6 Aspects and 20 Questions

Commentary Aspects Character Creation DnD FATE
Character Development

Your character's personality doesn't have to be a mystery

Regular Intwhiskers (can I call you that?) will know that our home group has been playing through a game of The Dresden Files RPG over the last several weeks. The thing I love most about DFRPG (and FATE in general) was summed up by Chase very well as he described the game to a new player.

Paraphrased, Chase explained that in a game like D&D, a character with an intelligence of 6 had no incentive to role-play his stupidity. In essence, an Int 6 and Int 18 character can be acted the same way–the former will simply fail on more rolls. FATE, on the other hand, provides in-game mechanical bonuses for, um, being dumb. (For example.)

These mechanical benefits come through the Aspects system, where you essentially have “bumper stickers” describing facets of your character. You earn points when an aspect is used against you, and you spend points when you use an aspect to your benefit. In the case of our Int-Sixer, he’d earn a point when he couldn’t read the signpost; he’d spend a point to “play dumb” to the town guards. This is an oversimplification, but it gets at the general idea.

I like aspects so much that I’ve been noodling around with how they could be used in non-FATE games. Obviously, they wouldn’t provide the same mechanical impact without some house-ruling (some house-rules will come in a later post), but they can still be great for thinking about (and acting like) your character.

I’m working under a conceit that developing an arbitrary number of aspects–say 6–could be the most effective way of building any character in any system (presuming the system doesn’t do random character generation).

The first two aspects to start with will begin to give more concrete form to the character who is likely already in your mind. These are the “High Concept” and “Trouble” aspects used in DFRPG and other FATE games. The High Concept aspect generally provides a foundational definition of your character. The “Trouble” aspect represents what always gets your character into trouble.

Let’s consider an example from the D&D world. For an upcoming campaign, you’re interested in playing a character with a religious bent. The typical “D&D” way of approaching this is to decide to be a cleric, pick a race, and worry about “color” later. Using aspects to build a character moves color front and center, and has you chose mechanical facets of the character as a secondary step.

Lucius Lyons

You come up with the concept of Lucius Lyons: a young man who developed his faith-based powers in the cult of a death god. Lucius has left the cult (not on good terms) yet retained his supernatural powers. He’s turned to the adventuring life to try to redeem his past.

The high concept here should reflect both the past (power source) and present (adventurer seeking redemption). Something like “Reformed Death Cultist” could work, or if you want to get fancy, try “Thief of the Death God’s Power.” The trouble aspect probably relates to one of two things–either the cult who is not fond of their AWOL member (try “The Death God is Out to Get Me”). Alternatively, if you want a more internal conflict, try focusing on what made this character turn to the cult in the first place: “Tempted by Shortcuts to Power.” For this example, we’ll go with the second option.

Four More Aspects

With the High Concept and Trouble aspects, you’ve already got a pretty rich character. You can say much more about Lucius, the “Thief of the Death God’s Power” who is constantly “Tempted by Shortcuts to Power” than you could “Lucius, the Human Cleric.”

Adding a handful of additional aspects adds richness to your character. Some players have no problems coming up with aspects, but a series of questions can help. Below, I’ve included a list of 20 questions which, with the help of a d20, can help you identify some more aspects. Feel free to use your own campaign-appropriate questions, or consult resources like D&D 3.5′s Player’s Handbook II.

For Lucius, let’s start with a d20. I rolled a 13, which on the chart below is “How far would you go to help a friend in need?” There’s dozens of possible answers to this question, but one immediately jumps to my mind out of the two we’ve created so far. Lucius might respond to this question by saying, “I’d leave a cult to help a friend in need,” establishing part of his backstory that he fled the cult of the Death God to aid a childhood friend. Perhaps a childhood friend was kidnapped by the cult for sacrifice, and Lucius freed the victim. Let’s make this into an aspect: “Friends before Faith.” (Broads before Gods?)

Let’s say the next roll is 4, “What is your favorite movie/myth/folktale?” Hmm. I think Lucius would be fond of stories like Prometheus, Orpheus, or Persephone. Even if these don’t fit your campaign world, they can easily be adapted. An aspect here can be “Seeker of Divine Mystery,” or “To Hell and Back,” or even “Punished by the Gods Who Empower Me.”

You get the idea.

On to the Mechanics

Consider Lucius, “Thief of the Death God’s Power” who is “Tempted by Shortcuts to Power,” but will always pick “Friends before Faith” even when it means he has to go “To Hell and Back.” All of a sudden, he’s sounding a hell of a lot more interesting than a class/race combination.

But you’re making a D&D character, so mechanics like class and race are critical. On the surface, a character in a cult is going to be a cleric, but Lucius might not be best served by that class. His “Friends before Faith” aspect suggests that Charisma might be important to him, and “To Hell and Back” might suggest a high Constitution. Lucius could be a prime warlock! Alternatively, oddly enough, paladin could be a good fit.

As you pick feats and skills, keep the aspects in mind. Sure, you’re not going to min/max this character’s crunchiness, but you’re going to end up with a very coherent character. And coherency becomes critical for interesting stories. If you’re the kind of player who burns through characters like quarters at a slot machine, consider building coherent characters with aspects. They might hold your interest long enough to play to level 2!

20 Sample Questions for Generating Aspects

  1. When did you last lose control of your emotions, and what happened?
  2. What must none of your allies ever find out about you?
  3. Where are you on a “fight or flight” scale of 1 to 10 (1 is “always fight,” 10 is “always flee”)? Have you ever been in a dramatically different place on this chart?
  4. What is your favorite movie/myth/folktale?
  5. How would your friends and family describe your behavior when you’re sick?
  6. What’s a recurring theme in your dreams?
  7. What would you like to believe you’d die for?
  8. How do you usually go about correcting your mistakes (i.e.: apologies, penance, conciliatory action, money)?
  9. What kinds of activities make you lose track of time?
  10. What are you proud of?
  11. When mealtime comes for a group of people, do you prefer cooking, cleanup, or slinking away while the work is done?
  12. Think about someone you’ve known since childhood, and never gotten along with. What was that person like?
  13. How far would you go to help a friend in need?
  14. What qualities do you look for in a mate?
  15. Tell me about your mother.
  16. When you get to a city after a long day’s travel, where do you go first?
  17. Where are you on an “planning vs. improvising” scale of 1 to 10 (1 is “obsessively plan,” 10 is “capriciously improvise)?
  18. Who are you still trying to impress after all these years?
  19. What do you do on vacations?
  20. What will you kill without a second thought (i.e.: mosquito, fish, rabbit, dog)? Where’s the line between this and something that deserves a second thought?
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