After a TPK ended my Dragon Age game, one of the players in that game offered to run a Dresden Files game in the same time slot. I had heard plenty of good reviews of the system and I’m always eager for a chance to sit on the other side of the GM’s screen, so I happily agreed to play. Because most of us are current or former University of Michigan students, we decided to use Ann Arbor as the game’s setting. In the first few sessions, we’ve investigated the collapse of two student housing buildings, found and stole some sort of magical orb, beat up some magic-using thugs, and crashed a faculty party.
This is the first time that I’ve played a Fate-based game even though I picked up the Spirit of the Century book last year. The system is quite different from D&D and d20 systems games with more of a focus on character-driven stories rather than tactical combat. One of the most interesting mechanics of the Fate system is how traits of characters and objects are represented using aspects.
In the Fate system used by Dresden Files, each character has several aspects that describe them. For example, my character Adam has the aspect “To The Rescue!”. During a game, players can spend a fate point when performing an action related to one of their aspects in order to get a bonus on the roll. That means that I can spend a fate point and invoke my aspect for a bonus whenever Adam is trying to rescue someone else. The thing that makes aspects most interesting though is that a GM can compel a character to act in accordance with one of its aspects. As an example, during last Friday’s game our GM compelled Adam to run into a dangerous situation in order to help out one of the other characters. The player can avoid this by spending a fate point, but going along with the compel is how fate points are earned. This point economy encourages a player to pick aspects that can be both advantageous and problematic and at the same time provides a nice mechanical framework for character-driven stories.
In addition to describing characters, aspects are also used for other traits on people and objects. For example, during a fight a character might use a spell to add the “Rough Terrain” aspect to a scene. The first time such an aspect is used it is free, but after that each use costs a fate point. While I can understand the game design reasons behind this approach, it sometimes feels a bit odd during gameplay, especially for certain aspects that seem like they should be more permanent. Rob Donoghue has some nice suggestions for representing different types of aspects (hard vs. soft tags and compels) that I’d be tempted to use if I was running the game.
Conflicts: Aspects and Stress
Characters in Dresden Files have three stress tracks that are used to track physical, mental, and social damage. When a character takes a hit, suffers an insult, or casts a spell a box is marked off on the stress track. If there isn’t a box with a value equal to or greater than the difference between the attacker’s and defender’s rolls then the defender is either out of the conflict or takes a negative aspect to represent longer-lasting damage. In addition to attacking, a character can perform maneuvers or declarations in order to add aspects to the scene or other characters. Because the first use of a new aspect doesn’t cost a fate point, these actions can be key to set up a more powerful attack later in the conflict. Because the fudge dice used in Fate produce a narrow distribution, the bonuses from just a few aspects can have a huge impact on an attack and change a roll that would be a light hit or even a miss into an overwhelming attack. Because all of the players in our group are new to the game, we’re still getting used to this approach but it has lent itself to fun combat scenes as we try to take advantage of as many aspects as possible.
Have you played Dresden File or another Fate RPG? If so, what did you think of the mechanics for aspects?