The Theory of (Aspect) Evolution

Commentary Aspects Dresden Files FATE Houses of the Blooded

Charles DarwinOne of the most rewarding facets of playing any game based in the Fate system is the mechanic called “Aspects.”  To call them a ‘mechanic’ is somewhat misleading; rather, Aspects represent what many gamers do during character creation.  They represent the character’s story, in a way that a quantified statistic never could. They can lend in-game benefits, certainly, and have the potential to imperil the character as well.  There is no math that will yield the perfect Aspect, however, and a player will never min-max theirs to remove that inherent risk.

After all, Aspects are meant to be concise reflections of who the character is, not just what they can do.  They reflect the character’s assets and deficits, which can sometimes prove difficult to extricate from one another.  As each player at the table is a sum of their successes and shortcomings, Aspects seek to represent role-playing characters in a similar light.  For story-driven gamers, this aim can prove a great blessing.  It can, however, prove an equally great burden.  As with so many things in life, the difference is often where they start.

The (Literary) Primordial Soup

As they’re explained in the Dresden Files RPG’s ‘Your Story’ rulebook (p.18):

“Characters also have a set of traits called aspects.  Aspects cover a wide range of elements and should  collectively paint a picture of who the character is, what he’s connected to, and what’s important to him (in contrast to the “what he can do” of skills). Aspects can be relationships, beliefs, catchphrases, descriptors, items, or pretty much anything else that paints a picture of the character.”

This kind of free poetic license is at the heart of Aspects; any detail from any area of a character’s past, present, or future could be fertile ground for an Aspect.  Just like that proverbial kid in the candy store, however, the problem is where to begin.  Likewise, that kid’s only got so many pockets; or in this case, a player can only choose so many Aspects- usually seven.  So which details from their rich, poignant backstory stay and which will have to go?

If you were to read the description of Aspects in the “Houses of the Blooded” core rulebook (p.138), they add a bit of interpretation to the definition:

“They represent the character’s real experiences and the skills, talents and abilities she learned from those experiences.  That’s what you should be thinking about when you create your character’s Aspects.  Not just who your character is, but how it all happened, when it happened, where it happened, and why it happened.”

Through this lens, the focus on how to choose one’s Aspects seems to narrow on major turning points in a character’s story, moments that have defined them as the character that will appear in this campaign.  In this framework, Aspects chart a course of character development.  One could read them as a timeline of that person’s evolution, as shaped by their life’s events.  Just as that character has experienced growth and change, just as they will throughout your campaign, the Aspects that define them may need to evolve as well.  The picture that Aspects paint isn’t static, but rather constantly changing to reflect the character as they are in that moment.

Desired Traits

Let me start by reinforcing my earlier statement: There is no such thing as a perfect Aspect.  More accurately, you can’t create an Aspect that is 100% positive, and insulated from any negative implications.  Nor would you want to, as much of the Fate system thrives on the currency that comes from those negative implications being compelled.  I’m assuming of course that you have some passing knowledge of how Fate works, or I doubt you’d have gotten this far in the post.

Perhaps the most important ingredient of a good Aspect is ‘invokability.’  In other words, the Aspect needs to be easily remembered, related to, and accessed by the controlling player, the Narrator, and even the other players in the party.  That said, here are some of the major characteristics of a good Aspect that we’ve discovered during our recent Fate-based campaigns.

FOCUS

As you might suspect, finding the proper focus of an Aspect takes some practice.  A player wants to be able to potentially use their Aspects in a variety of conflicts and challenges.  At the same time, Aspects should be unique to represent individual growth and personal milestones of your character.  This is not in reference to which events you focus on, but instead carefully wording the impact of those events.

The temptation in making an Aspect unique is to draw it too narrowly.  For instance, let’s say that Charlie’s character believes that his position as captain on board one of the newfangled steamliners of the day is a major building block of his personality.  He wants to name an Aspect for this position, so he creates ‘Steamship Captain.’  This tells everyone his rank, and indicates his access to progressive technology (at least for Victorian England).

However, the minute steam power goes out of fashion, or the party discovers some super-secret new technology that surpasses what normal folks can find, ‘Steamship Captain’ might as well be ‘Professional Dog-Paddler.’  Instead, ‘Officer on Deck’ might work well for this, although it lacks a specific focus on technology; ‘Captain of the Future’ meets both criteria (position/technology) but sounds… well, cheesy.  ‘Always at the Helm’ might be a good compromise, which has universal appeal and automatically implies command.

In the same way, trying to cast a very wide net over a particular Aspect can drastically reduce the storytelling opportunities for your character in the campaign; additionally, one runs the risk of making an Aspect so broad that it becomes difficult to realistically decide when it should be applied.  Just like trying to eat every candy the store has to offer all at once, trying to get too much out of an Aspect is likely to yield diminishing marginal returns.  You may get to try everything once, but most of it won’t be very memorable.

Finally, in the ‘focus’ column, the language you choose needs to be focused as well.  If you start getting too flowery or esoteric, the meaning of your Aspect is likely to float away.  Everyone (including yourself) will likely find it difficult to remember a highly philosophical Aspect, or find time to apply a poetic Aspect laden in imagery.  For instance, I assigned my female character in this era of Victorian propriety an Aspect called “Tis Better to Light a Candle,” representing her efforts to break out of her proper shell after several months of dealing with more traveled, worldly men.  The aspect was stolen from this quote:

“It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”

While the quote expressed the perfect sentiment, it proved to be utterly useless.  It sounded good, but it didn’t really have a focused purpose in the game.  Needless to say, this is the one I altered after last weekend.

A good Aspect should clearly communicate one integral idea about that character, and do it in such a way that the others at the table automatically think of your character (and yours alone) when the Aspect is invoked.

LENGTH

Go ahead, I’ll wait for everyone to stop snickering…

I used the word ‘invokability’ above partly to express the powerful energy of how Aspects should work: a quick punch of adrenaline to gain a bonus, or a sudden jolt that drives you to success.  When you invoke something, you summon its power, or perhaps even the thing itself.  Invocation needs to be quick, because chances are if your character has a genuine need for that boost, the need is pretty darn urgent.  The longer it takes for a character to utter the invocation, the longer you have to wait for its effects to show up.  Sometimes, that wait can be the difference between life and death!

Likewise, refer to the earlier directive to make your Aspects memorable.  As players, and as a narrator, we are much more likely to remember ‘Legionnaire’ before ‘French Foreign Legion Officer, Third Battalion, Second Foreign Regiment.’  Strangely, while it might seem to suffer from being too broad (as described above), Chase has made ‘Legionnaire’ work to his advantage several times in our DFRPG campaign.

That also implies, then, that an Aspect can be too short.  That is, it is so brief that it doesn’t communicate very useful information to the rest of the players or the narrator.  Chase’s ‘Legionnaire’ Aspect is a perfect example of ‘short & sweet.’  The term conjures a certain image, and emanates a certain vibe.  However, had Chase decided on simply ‘Soldier’ or ‘Veteran’ or ‘Warrior’ to describe his character,  there would be too much left to the imagination.  You have to give everyone some solid information to work with, in addition to making it easy to remember.

Well, there you have it; apparently length is important.

ACTION

Aspects work because they are meant to define those moments that have made a character who they are, and consequently inspire them to action when invoked (or compelled).  If your Aspect itself lacks any action, how can it possibly inspire your character?

Houses of the Blooded makes this point well: Aspects are Aspects because they capture the spirit of something that has happened.  Action took place.  Moments were seized.  Battles were waged.  Conflict was resolved.  Adversity was overcome- or maybe it wasn’t.  Either way, the overwhelming common denominator in Aspects should be this sense of urgency, this spirit of doing.

In short, you need a verb.

At least while you’re starting out.  Has your character overcome personal hardship to attain her current status? “Battles Her Demons.”  Is your character a staunch defender of the common good who can’t tolerate injustice?  “Runs to the Fight, Not From It.”  Is your character a man of his word, who must always honor a pledge no matter how agonizing the sacrifice? “A Lannister Always Pays His Debts.”  I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist.  Please don’t sue us, Mr. Martin.

Without a good action word (like ‘litigate’ for instance), you run the risk of an Aspect just sitting there, as passive as the language you’ve chosen.  My example above about the poetic “Tis Better to Light a Candle” actually fits well here, too.  If I were to invoke that Aspect, the natural follow-up to it is “Yes, and?..”  An extra step is needed to explain why it’s relevant, and that step should be my Aspect.  “Keeps a Candle Burning,” for instance.  Without the action that the new Aspect inspires, it might as well have read “I Like Cats.”

Paging Mr. Darwin

The thing to take away from acknowledging these desired traits is that you may not always get them right on the first try.  Aspects may need to evolve- either in focus, in length, or in action- to better suit the needs of your campaign.  Otherwise, they’re doomed to die off.

There are several strategies to account for this that you may want to try, not the least of which is group brainstorming as a means to character creation, which Chase outlined in an earlier post this week.  In addition, the narrator could allow five minutes of ‘tweak time’ after each scene in your game- at least at the onset- for rewording or reworking Aspects.  If nothing else, the character advancement in the rules outlines certain milestones where Aspects can be changed, dropped, or recreated.

Alternately, here’s an experiment you can try that allows for the evolution of your Aspects while limiting the time it takes to adapt them during game sessions.  Write out three versions of each Aspect on your character sheet:

  • Version One should be very broad, and leave lots of room for interpretation
  • Version Two should be very short, and condense your Aspect into one or two words
  • Version Three should be very detailed, spelling out exactly what happened to the character

Once the game gets rolling, and it’s time to call on that Aspect, see which version works best in the given situation.  Maybe none of them fit perfectly as written, and in fact they probably won’t.  However, it’s likely that by combining the wording from some or all of the versions you wrote out, you’ll hit on that one version that will inspire your character best.  Take a minute to record that particular wording, or maybe even get some feedback from the group.  If it seems to be what you’re looking for, that hybrid Aspect will be the one to survive into future games.

Hopefully the same can be said for your character as well.

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