Monday, 29 August 2011

Awesome Aspects

Warning: the word awesome is used 12 times in this article. Not because I’m too lazy to use a thesaurus or because I don’t know any other words or because I live my life like the 80s never ended. Ok, well, it’s all of those things. (Cowabunga, dude!) But it’s also because today’s idea is pure awesome-sauce.

See there comes a time when you come across an idea that is so awesome that you have to fall to the ground and start gathering the pieces of your brain off the carpet because the awesomeness has BLOWN YOUR MIND.

The mind blowingness today comes third hand. Many of you have heard about it a lot already. It’s called Aspects.

What are Aspects?

Aspects are like taking your favourite food and directly injecting the flavour into your brain. It’s watching the cinematic trailers from a video game and then having the game actually be as cool as that stuff looks. It’s so much freaking awesome, it would be wasteful for me to describe it here.

Therefore, I’ll point you to Tourq over at Stuffer Shack and his great overview: Playing with Fate- Learn How to Play! Go ahead and take a look.

You’re back. Or you never left. Hopefully you know all there is to know about aspects now. But maybe you didn’t read the link. Let me 'splain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.
  • Aspects are a list of catch phrases that capture the essence of your character. A list of attributes that paint a clearer picture of your character more accurately than any character sheet you've ever put together before. There is absolutely no one or no thing that you can’t make using Aspects. People have tried and failed. I even heard Stephen Hawking used it once to prove the existence of alien life. It’s just that awesome.
  •  In Strands of Fate, you make a list of 10 aspects that define your character. It’s even in alphabetical order:
    • 0 = Defining Aspect
    • A = Ambition
    • B = Background
    • C = Conviction
    • D = Disadvantage
    • E = Exceptional Skill
    • F = Foe(s)
    • G = Gear
    • H = Help
    • I = Inferior Skill
  • Every character (and the DM) receives Fate Points that they use to trigger aspects. This triggering can be used to get a bonus to a roll, make a reroll, activate some cool effect or take over the narrative. In addition, you can use Fate points to trigger the Aspects of an area, an item or even enemies.
  • The DM can tempt you with bonus fate points so that you will do something suboptimal that fits into your aspects. Or you can willingly give yourself a penalty and ask for a fate point. It's like a bonus for roleplaying.

Aspects are Important

Aspects are not important to just players, they're important to characters. Or rather, aspects tell you what the most important pieces of your character are. Aspects may not portray everything your character does, but they take the picture you have of your character and put it on paper. If 10 aspects can give you the whole picture, and a picture is worth a thousand words, you’re getting a great return back on your investment here.

This is not to say that your character can't or shouldn't do anything not related to your aspects. You might be great at hiding because your exceptional skill is "One with the shadows", but that shouldn't stop you from climbing walls, researching in a library or picking locks. You might even be really good at all of those things. But when the party needs someone to sneak past a guard, everyone turns to you.

Besides making it obvious to yourself what your character excels at, it’s even more important that everyone else knows what your character is good at- especially the DM. Looking at a character sheet, a character’s high stealth score may get glossed over since there are 6 other trained skills, 5 powers, racial abilities, class abilities, a theme and a feat or two- all at first level. But a DM who knows you are “One with the shadows”, not only knows you are good at stealth, but he also knows that you consider stealth to be important to playing your character. This lets the DM make sure there are opportunities to sneak past a guard, scout ahead and move into an ambush before and during combat. Now your efforts in playing a stealthy character have instant payback for you and the DM never had to look at your character sheet once.

Set Your Priorities

Once upon a time, I read Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. Well, I might have looked at the Table of Contents and then had someone else read it and give me the highlights. I’m sure I got the gist of it and I should be highly successful any day now.

One of the points that came out of that read is that decision making stress comes from not having a clear enough picture about your priorities. Do you work late or spend time with family? Make a healthy meal or go out for supper? Eat Chunky with a fork or a spoon?

Making a character is the same thing. Last article, I talked about 4E and how too many choices makes people unhappy with their characters. There are so many choices, it’s not only about taking the right choice, but figuring out what the definition of “right” is in the first place. Try as you might, your character will not be great at everything. They will not insta-kill all their enemies, laugh off all the damage they take, make all their saving throws, easily succeed at social encounters and get as much free beer from the dwarven breweries as they want. (dwarves are insane when it comes to protecting their breweries’ price point)  Generally, they won’t even be able to do one of those things perfectly. It’s mind numbing to compare powers that focus on different areas to one other. When it comes time to choose powers, it’s not just apples vs. oranges. It’s apples vs. oranges vs. spaghetti vs. free move passes vs. Kleenex boxes.

This is where it’s important to set priorities- what is important to your character? We already did that- it was aspects. With our aspects defined, we don’t have to compare apples to free movie passes- now you can dump out anything that’s not apples. Remove the distraction. While every character optimization wiki says take Improved Defenses and a weapon expertise feat, is that really going to help you be “One with the shadows”? If you want the DM to put in encounters where your stealth is an asset, you have to put an investment into stealth to get that awesome payoff. Or else you might find your role being usurped and you lose that spark you had for your character.

Know Your Limits

Besides detailing the strengths of the character, we’ve also determined all of the fields which are not your character’s strength. It’s a limit we’re putting on ourselves and it’s necessary to recognize that boundary and stay within it. There’s a little devil hovering near your ear, reading the rulebook over your shoulder and convincing you to ignore those invisible lines. He’s begging you to take the strongest option you can find. After all, if you don’t, the other players will choose it, and then you’ll be useless. They’ll get all the glory. They’ll kill all the monsters. And they’ll get to bed the hot princesses while you’re chasing after the bar wench who smells like a troglodyte and has three glass eyes. They’ll be better than you! They’ll win D&D!!!

Which is true. (the being better than you, not the winning D&D part) The other character will be better than you – at one thing. Remember, no one can be good at everything. You chose the things you wanted your character to do well- the things that made your character fun for you to play. So did the other players. Everyone gets their chance to shine at their time.

If you take that super powerful option outside of your character concept, a few things will happen. You may start an arms race with the other players. Not because you took something to be more powerful, but because you likely took something that intrudes on their specialties. They’ll either try to overpower their specialty now, or feel invalidated by your new dominance.

Or the other character may still be dominant in that field. This is more likely since they’ve invested more effort in their specialty. So there’s no problem, right? Wrong. The problem is you’ve made a sacrifice of power over character. Even when it’s not there on paper, the sacrifice has been made in your mind. To make that sacrifice worthwhile, you’re going to want your new power to have a significant impact. And when it doesn’t, possibly because of the other character who is supposed to be specialized in this field, you feel unsatisfied.

And that starts an arms race with yourself because now you need to increase the value of your new option to make it worth your sacrifice. You take other powers and feats to build up your ability, and each one is a new sacrifice that sets your expectations higher and higher. In the meantime, your other abilities, the ones defined by your aspects, get left behind and soon you’re not as dominant in those fields anymore. And that little red jerk on your shoulder is laughing himself silly.

The more powerful that new option is, the more it overshadows your other aspects. This makes it a greater sacrifice and sets the bar that much higher. A mediocre option is much easier to absorb into your character concept because you don’t expect much. Plus, we also said that we can still be good in areas not covered by our aspects. What we don’t want to do is expect to be overwhelmingly great in those areas- a common trap those super powerful features can lead us down.  Even though you are not focusing on swordsmanship, taking blade expertise is acceptable, possibly necessary, to keep up your effectiveness in combat and make sure you don’t hinder yourself. But you might not need to take it at first level and follow it up buying a magic sword the first chance you get. You could wait until level 4 to take blade expertise; it’s enough to make it useful for you, but not so prevalent as to define your character.

Enough Rambling

OK, that’s enough. I’m just starting out this blog and sometimes it’s hard to wrap this all up. In closing, I just want to say one last thing: awesome, awesome, awesome and …. Awesome.


  1. Hey bud, nice topic!

    I think the link you provided was for an old page. I redirected it on Stuffer Shack so readers can find the correct page.
    - - -
    The best aspects are those that have both a positive effect and negative one. Aspects can give you bonuses when spending Fate Points, but you get those Fate Points by having aspects used against you. So, "Superhuman Strength" is good if you want to signify that your character is strong, and thus, a better fighter, but "Strong as an ox" is better, because that implies that you might be a bit bulky as well (you could take a penalty to attack or defend in tight hallways, on a ledge, etc.).

    More importantly, I like how aspects tell a story about your character. 10 little aspects (phrases)can easily substitute as a two-page background.

  2. Tourq:
    Yay, my first comment! This is what happens when you start a blog right before the summer starts- it ends up taking 2 months to post something and then your links are outdated. Thanks for the redirect.
    Your blog was my introduction to aspects and I still go back for reference and inspiration. I barely touched on the potential of aspects here and I hope to do more with it in the future.
    Without affecting the game at all, I think the story of your character contained in aspects are phenomenal- better than any other background device I've tried. Integrating them into a game system is revolutionary- at least to my gaming style.

  3. Thanks bud, that was one of my favorite characters ever, simply because I knew him so well, and the aspects had an active role in helping and reminding me how to play him.

    Good luck with your site!