Aspects are a big part of the FATE system, acting as a key point of system interaction during play and essential to defining characters. As a result, there are a lot of competing pressures on a player when writing an aspect:
- It must represent the backstory events in the character creation mini-game
- It should be able to be usefully invoked to do the sort of things the character is good at
- It should offer good, characterful opportunities for GM compels
- Reading it should give someone a good idea about what the character is about
- It should be “interesting”, punchy, and well-written
Add to this the fact that players will often have only a limited number of aspects to describe a character that might be deeply nuanced, which urges players to use aspects to inform multiple character traits simultaneously. Trying to satisfy all of these goals at once is challenging, even for a good writer. Often, trying to do so many things at once leads to lengthy baroque aspects that are clunky to use in play.
Successfully solving such a writing challenge also tends to lead players to be deeply invested in the particular wording they’ve selected. In prose writing there’s a piece of advice known as “kill your darlings”. The basic idea is that it’s very easy for a writer to fall in love with a particular turn of phrase, character quirk, or other minor aspect of their writing that ends up detracting from the impact of the overall work, even if it’s beautiful on its own. Writers need to be reminded to be ruthless while editing to keep from falling into this trap. All of the pressures on FATE players to write “good” aspects can easily turn each one into a “darling” that they’d have difficulty killing. In the Dresden Files version of FATE, players are frequently given the reward of being able to change an aspect to let their characters change based on the events of the story. In my play of the game this option seemed to be rarely used. Even when I felt that the events of the story warranted changing my character I was reluctant to alter my aspects because I didn’t want to lose the many things that each one seemed to be accomplishing. There were aspects that I found difficult to use in play that I was reluctant to change because they were the only link I had to backstory or character points that I cared deeply about. There were aspects that required lots of uncomfortable jawboning to use during play because they were too cleverly written to satisfy the goal of making double-ended aspects that could be both good and bad. While aspects seem appealing at first glance, I think they are problematic as implemented in FATE 3.0 games because they are trying to serve so many masters simultaneously (and that’s without even going too deep into the tricky topic of compels).
On Thursday my regular Skype group picked up our Dungeon World game again after missing a bunch of sessions during the holidays, and I wanted to record some more observations (earlier DW posts here and here).
My Fighter Seems Overpowered
The Fighter’s base damage is 1d10. On my first level up, I took the Merciless advanced move, giving me +1d4 damage. On my second level up I took Scent of Blood for +2 damage any time I attack the same enemy in subsequent rounds. If I’m supposed to have +1 damage for wielding a sword like the equipment page says, it would be even more damage (it’s unclear to me if the Fighter’s signature weapon inherits the tags from the base weapon — it would be nice to have that clarified). I have a lot of armor and hit points, so the weak hit and strong hit are both pretty good for me, and I started with a +2 mod on my strength so (if I’m doing the math right) I get a 7-9 weak hit 41.66% of the time and a 10+ strong hit 41.66% of the time. That means 83% of the time I’m whomping monsters pretty badly, frequently killing even impressive beasties in one or two hits. Compare that to a typical cleric, who’s doing 1d6 damage, might have a +1 strength mod, and likely has less armor and hit points (which means the weak hit isn’t a very desirable outcome). He’s getting a strong hit 27.78% of the time, at which point he’ll generally do less than half the damage my Fighter will, and he’ll get a weak hit 44.4% of the time, which will probably hurt pretty badly in exchange for doing a comparatively small amount of damage. In play, it sort of feels like the other player’s Cleric is kind of a spectator in these fights (he’s also a level behind, experience-wise, exaggerating the effects, and I increased my strength at third level so my hit rate is even better). His healing has been important, but I feel guilty for seeming to be so much more effective in combat. Now maybe this is the way it’s supposed to work, and I’m just very effective in my spotlight area while he’d be able to shine when we’re doing something else, but I’m not sure I’ve seen that in play (and I noticed a similar Fighter + other guys pattern in The Walking Eye DW APs). I thought maybe the Cleric would have some sort of edge when dealing with mystical stuff, but he doesn’t appear to.
Having Strength Highlighted Is Boring
This session my Strength got highlighted for experience again, and I noticed I had a lot more fun when my Strength wasn’t highlighted last session because it encouraged me do to a bunch of crazy stuff. Since my Fighter does so much damage, the Hack & Slash move starts to feel like an “I win” button, and the reward for hitting it over and over again starts to feel pretty hollow. While I’m having fun stomping on monsters, I think I have a lot more fun when the fights seem frantic and on the edge of control, where I’m Defying Danger quite a bit and the fight is dynamic and interesting rather than a slugfest.
The Classic D&D Stats Don’t Translate to Enough Stuff in the Mechanics
I gave my Fighter a high intelligence because I thought it would fit the character. The only thing I can really do with that in play is Spout Lore, which I’m finding that I don’t really enjoy. It always feels a little bit awkward when I do it, like I’m fishing for information, and the stuff that the GM tells me on a hit frequently feels like stuff I had already worked out from context anyway, so it ends up seeming cheesy and redundant. I suppose I could use my multi-class move to pick up the wizard move that would let me Discern Realities with Int rather than Wis, but that seems like a weak use of the multi-class move when it could give me something as impressive as spellcasting. Basically, I feel like I’ve made decisions based on the fiction (what my vision of the character is) that are obviously mechanically suboptimal, and that’s not a good feeling. I think that some of the stats are too narrow in what they affect mechanically, such that it’s hard to rationalize spending points on them.
The Aid/Interfere Move Kinda Sucks
Since we’re playing with only two players and a GM I think we frequently forget about the Bond mechanic. We were in a situation last session, though, where it made fictional sense to use it, so I rolled Aid, and then realized that the thing only goes off on a 10+, which means that more often than not you’ll end up making things worse when you try to help. I probably won’t try to use this move again since it seems like such a bad deal mechanically. I don’t like that I’m feeling encouraged to completely ignore this subsystem. [edit: In the comments, Jesse suggests that I'm not interpreting the 7-9 result for this move correctly, which is certainly possible]
Grundloch’s Magic Is Annoying
Dealing with Grundloch’s magic in the intro adventure often makes me feel like I’m standing around like a chump, which is completely at odds with how I want to view my character. Maybe the way our GM is running things has something to do with it, but I think the mind control and illusion stuff that my character is being subjected to is really frustrating, and I can never actually get my hands on the caster because he seems to act via illusionary duplicates. In the last session we were in a room with illusionary monsters that were inflicting a mental effect on us. We knew exactly what was going on, but it didn’t seem like there was anything we could do, mechanically or in the fiction, to make it stop. His ability to arbitrarily act at a distance is just lame, as far as I’m concerned, because all we really seem to be able to do about it is wait until it’s over.
I’m Not Sure What D&D Tropes This Game Is Trying to Embrace
When I created my character, I decided to make him a weathered mercenary type, so his priority in going to the dungeon was to find some treasure, but in our initial explorations there barely seemed to be any, but the “dungeon” included a cavern large enough to house multiple armies. Now our GM is really pressing the “if you don’t stop Grundloch bad stuff will happen!” thing, and it feels like the forced urgency of that is totally overshadowing anything else that I might be interested in doing in the dungeon. I’m not really sure if DW is supposed to be about old-school dungeoneering or whether it’s supposed to be more of an “experience this thrilling action tale across a sequence of set-pieces” thing. Personally I’ve never played any version of D&D on the tabletop (which also means a lot of the lame D&D-isms in this game like the dramatic change in survivability between level 1 and 2 just feel lame to me rather than nostalgic), but my mental image of exploring a dungeon doesn’t involve a numberless horde of baddies or being taunted by a big bad. I think I want more mirrors and ten-foot poles than I’m getting.
After a few weeks of missed sessions we got back to our Dungeon World game. I think most of my observations from the last session still apply, but I noticed a few new things I wanted to comment on.
Parallel real-world player tasks are a human interface design issue
I’m playing a Fighter, and in both sessions my Strength has been highlighted (which is probably what you’d expect). The most common way for me to roll my strength is when I Hack and Slash. Since I have a high strength, that means I’m almost always going to get the 7-9 or 10-12 result, which means I need to roll damage. But whenever I roll my highlighted strength I need to mark experience. I use the same hand to roll dice and put marks on my character sheet, so I can’t do those things simultaneously. Rolling damage is the more important thing (since another person is waiting on that result) so I usually do that first. As a result, I often forget to mark experience because I’m paying attention to the damage and the accompanying description and getting caught up in the momentum of what’s happening. In later lulls, I’d often find myself wondering whether I had remembered to mark experience and having no way of figuring it out, leaving me with a vague sense of being cheated out of something I deserved. I think having a game process that asks a player to do two independent things in parallel is asking for trouble in a game’s design (I ran into a similar problem when playtesting my own game and felt the issue was important enough to completely revamp major subsystems). As I understand it, Apocalypse World usually puts the job of interpreting the results of a move into the GM’s hands after the 2d6 hit the table which leaves the player less mentally encumbered for remembering to mark experience.
Am I indestructible?
My Fighter has Armor 2. Most of the foes I faced in last night’s game were doing 2 points of damage when they were hitting me. Let’s do some math: 2 – 2 = 0. It became immediately obvious that they weren’t really threats to me, at least in terms of hit points. This caused a bit of a fictional disconnect for me when we got near a goblin army camp: on one hand an overwhelming horde of goblins ought to give my character pause, but on the other hand I know (or at least think I know) that nothing they can do to me is actually dangerous. I’m skeptical that flat monster damage and flat armor ratings are doing good things for the design. I wonder if there should be something more like AW’s Harm moves, maybe something like: “When a blow strikes you in a place you are armored, roll +Armor. On a 10-12, take 2 less damage. On a 7-9, take 1 less damage.” Or maybe take an idea from Iron Heroes and make the damage reduction from armor into a die roll: bigger dice for better armor, but you still might get a 1. This might just be a symptom of a different problem, though, which is that our GM was having a hard time wrapping his head around what to do with moves besides “the monster does damage”. Maybe things would have been more interesting if he was offering hard choices, etc., on a miss.
I played Dungeon World last night and had a lot of fun. It was the first time for everyone in the group so we ran into a few rough patches since we’re not familiar with the system yet, but none were so bad that we stopped enjoying the game. I wanted to note some of my initial impressions of the system while they’re still fresh in my mind.
The basic miss/hit/strong hit mechanic is a lot of fun and works well to support the dungeon-delving situation. When were were using the mechanics well things seemed to have a good, fun flow. I felt like there was a lot of room for creative descriptions and vivid imagery, but also a strong mechanical foundation that was well aligned with what we were trying to do.
I like the “describe what you’re doing, and if it matches a move we’ll roll those dice” mechanic that AW and DW use, but some of the moves are more natural than others. Spout Lore seemed the clunkiest to me. There didn’t seem to be a way to naturally work in the fiction that would translate into Spouting Lore, it felt a lot more like I was pressing the Spout Lore button and having a power go off (I was strongly focused on this because my INT was highlighted as a non-wizard character and this move was my only way to get experience for that stat). The most natural way I was able to do it was to say a lot of “I heard about this when I was in …”, but that still felt pretty awkward. I find it hard to telegraph that I’m angling for this move because the “fiction” that the move corresponds to is so abstract. It’s easy come up with things to do that will obviously translate into Hack and Slash, but “probing my memory” is hard to make into something that would be naturally foregrounded with my normal storytelling instincts.
The fighter’s Bend Bars, Lift Gates move on the other hand was a lot of fun. In the first room we entered in the dungeon there was ancient magic that was trying to keep us from using our weapons, but my fighter wasn’t going to tolerate that kind of nonsense. After some initial frustrations with more mundane approaches, I was able to turn to Bend Bars, Lift Gates as my “all right, it’s time to stop screwing around!” move and start smashing stuff and eventually convinced the magic to back off. The scene turned fun and the situation helped my character concept to gel — when I first started out he was mostly just a seen-it-all mercenary guy without a personality. Now I know he’s really ornery and won’t give in to anyone or anything.
The jump in hitpoints going from first to second level was pretty dramatic. When we first started playing my fighter only had 8 hitpoints and it felt gritty and dangerous, especially since I had been taken down to only 4 after a few hits. But leveling up gave me 7 more, and it felt a little incongruous. The fictional situation hadn’t really changed, but suddenly the world was half as dangerous as it used to be. I know this is kind of a D&D thing, but I’ve never played D&D so I don’t have any nostalgia working against the feeling that the psychological signals this was sending didn’t make any sense.
The idea that I could use the Multiclass Dabbler advancement to pick up the Wizard’s Spellbook, Prepare Spells, and Cast a Spell moves seemed a little strange to me. It feels like I’d be taking the Wizard’s entire shtick if I did that. Maybe there’s some subtlety I’m missing, but that feels like a bigger deal than dabbling to me, and like a bigger deal than some of the other available advancements. I suppose they’re not all meant to be equal, but the difference in degree felt a bit odd to me.
In some ways the Improved Weapon advancement is a little odd, too, since many of the enhancements seem like they would be hard to see developing “in play” on an inanimate object. I also made some of my chargen-time enhancement decisions based on aesthetic decisions, so I’m not inclined to change them during play — I decided that I didn’t like the image of a sword with hooks and spikes so I didn’t pick that one (even though the mechanical effect was appealing), but for as long as I have the Improved Weapon advancement available to me it’s going to feel like I need to constantly revisit that decision. In theory I like the idea of being able to pick an extra enhancement when I level up, but the particular choices I’m looking at are making this feel less cool in practice than I think it ought to.
I’m not really feeling the “mark XP when you use highlighted skills” mechanic. I know there’s been some commentary on the net about other people not liking this subsystem either, and I’ll probably need to check out some of those discussions. I think part of it is that focusing on different stats in Apocalypse World can lead the drama in different and interesting directions, but the dungeon exploring premise of Dungeon World already focuses play quite a bit, so the highlighted stats seem more arbitrarily mechanical without a lot of story payoff — I’m still a badass fighter exploring a dungeon and chopping heads off goblins: highlighting my INT will cause me to Spout Lore more often but it probably won’t have a meaningful impact on the actual events of play. At least that’s how I felt in the first session.
I’m really excited to be playing the game and am really looking forward to the next session next week.
In my Thursday night Skype game, I’m participating in a campaign of the Dresden Files RPG. I really want to love this system (I’m a big fan of the source material, and playing SOTC was what got me actually playing games instead of just reading them a year and half ago, and was the basis for forming my Thursday night Skype group), but I’ve got a few issues with FATE that make loving it difficult. One of them came up in the last session, and I think it’s fundamental to the system: FATE point bidding wars suck.
After you roll the dice on a skill check in FATE, you can invoke aspects to give yourself a +2 bonus to the roll by invoking an aspect (i.e. you spend a Fate point and indicate why a particular aspect is relevant to the particular action you are undertaking). When you make an opposed roll against an NPC, and the NPC has his own Fate points, the GM can do the same thing for his side of the roll. So here’s the situation: you roll the dice and fail, but care enough about the result that you want to succeed, so you spend a Fate point and invoke your most relevant aspect. Then the GM spends a Fate point on one of the NPC’s aspects and you’re now losing the roll again. You can either suck up that failure, feeling like you wasted a Fate point, or your can spend another point on another aspect, probably one that isn’t as on-point as the first one (otherwise you would have invoked it first), and now you’re winning again. And then the GM spends another Fate point, so now you’re two Fate points down and have to eat the failure, or you can spend another one… Which you do, but now you’re probably getting into “that’s a stretch” territory with your aspects. This scenario combines the negative feelings that come from resource-loss-avoidance with the negative feelings that come from weak ties between the mechanics and the fiction. That’s a really lame and fun-sucking place to be. Intellectually, I suppose that draining off an opponent’s Fate points is a valuable mechanical thing to achieve, but it doesn’t have a strong emotional payoff so I always find this scenario to be an anti-fun element of FATE.
Brad Murray started a potentially interesting thread on Story Games about prep people do for their games. I thought I’d join in by posting an image of my notes from my most recent session of Mouse Guard.
I really enjoy a lot of things about Mouse Guard (and there are some frustrations, too). I’ve heard some people talk about Mouse Guard as a potentially no-prep game, but I think that’s nuts. The prep I do is a key component of my fun as a GM. When I lock in the scenario up front, I can act like an impartial referee and appreciative audience when I GM. When I try to dynamically scale the mission for the players I feel like the success of the mission and the fun of the session is all on my shoulders. I think no-prep games are valuable (the game I’m designing is no-prep), but it’s not a gameplay-neutral decision. Some games work better with prep.