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October 1, 2001 > The Case for Aspects  
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The Case for Aspects
by Fred Hicks

Sometimes, it seems that when people sit down to bake up their own personal batch of Fudge, they forget exactly how optional even core elements of the system are. Even attributes.

There's a lot to be said for setting attributes aside. They seem to draw frequent complaint from people who are coming to terms with Fudge -- baseline Fudge, at any rate -- because they "aren't linked to skills," or "it's not always clear when you use a skill or an attribute," and so on.

So let's consider setting them aside. Those complaints do have some merit, but from my perspective, if you're using Fudge, you should get into the mindset of using skills to represent what you can do in general. It's tempting to just get rid of all of the stuff that isn't skills: skills are clearly where it's at, so go ahead -- toss everything else...

But let's stop just short of that point.

To make up for the absence of attributes, gifts, and flaws, I have introduced something different into my games, called Aspects. Aspects are most like gifts or flaws, but they encompass the scope of attributes as well. Aspects which are negative in connotation are bought just like positive ones; there is no "sell-back" effect for these things. I know it's bizarre, but stay with me.

Aspects and Fudge Points

Before we get to how they work, I should cover how I use Fudge points in my games, because Aspects interact heavily with such things. I'll confine it to the following paragraph.

I make Fudge points fairly plentiful, but cheap in their effect; when you spend a Fudge point, it gets you a single +1 on your die roll -- and, you can never spend more than one point per roll. It's a nudge, not a wallop. I also let Fudge points be spent to get the environment to cooperate with you a little -- for example, you're unarmed, in a castle, and being rushed by assassins. Spend a Fudge point, and there's a decorative sword mounted on the wall nearby. I also prefer to do per-session rewards in Fudge points, and grant "experience" -- stuff that allows upgrades of your character sheet -- only when significant plot arcs conclude; I don't provide a means for converting Fudge points to experience. You don't need to do the same to use Aspects in your game, but it does keep the risks under control.

How Aspects Work

Aspects, at the core, assume a "baseline competency" in your characters; this is why using them to replace attributes works -- an Aspect used in that fashion is a statement that your character deviates from that baseline in some way (be that 'Strong' or 'Weak', for example).

Aspects are bought in three levels -- put one way, the levels are "Aspect; More Aspect; Most Aspect". Strength is the simplest example here, and shows the use of Aspects as they replace attributes. As an Aspect, it manifests as 'Strong; Very Strong; Strongest' at its three levels. But, again, Aspects can be negative, as in, 'Unlucky; Really Unlucky; The Unluckiest'.

In play, Aspects are 'invoked' to influence die rolls and character actions. There are two styles of invocation.

A "Voluntary" invocation of an Aspect is an invocation requested by the player, and approved by the GM (as in, "Yes, your Aspect may be invoked in this situation".)

Each Aspect has a number of boxes next to it equivalent to the number of levels in the Aspect your character has -- these are the number of "uses" or "charges" you get per session (they reset at the beginning of each session). Check off one box, get a +2; two boxes, a +3; three boxes, a +4 (the bonus stacks with whatever other bonuses you have, including those from spending a Fudge point), on a single roll. In some ways with multiple boxes it's more effective to just check off a single box, get your +2, and then get a +2 again on a later roll.

Voluntary invocations are the primary way in which "positive" Aspects are used, but any Aspect may be voluntarily invoked. Example: Dutch has an Aspect of 'Weakling'. A large dangerous man has just entered the room and is stalking towards Dutch's party. Dutch voluntarily invokes his 'Weakling' Aspect to get a bonus to his 'Hide' roll -- he's doing what he can to look as inoffensive as possible, and being a Weakling makes this easier.

An "Involuntary" invocation of an Aspect is an invocation made by the GM, often enforcing an action or consequence or circumstance upon the character that follows from their possession of the Aspect. Going back to Dutch from the above example, the GM might invoke the Aspect against Dutch if he tries to kick down a door: "You're too much of a weakling to have much success at that."

The bonus to having an Aspect invoked in this way, however, is that you get rewarded for it -- one Fudge point per level you have in the Aspect (So if Dutch was a Big Weakling -- two levels -- he'd get two Fudge points). The player has the option to buy out of this (e.g., if Dutch's player wanted to get a chance to roll to knock the door down), but must spend a number of Fudge points equal to the number they'd get for playing along with it.

The idea behind involuntary invocations is essentially that, by having an Aspect, you open yourself up to GM plot elements, and should be rewarded for that contribution whenever it comes up. Thus, negative Aspects tend to get involuntary invocations more than positive Aspects, though any Aspect may be invoked involuntarily ("Thag, you're Strong, but what you're trying to catch is fragile. Here's a Fudge point; you break it.")

Proper Application of Aspects

One objection I've heard to Aspects is that voluntary invocations are too seldom, too circumstantial; if they're playing someone who is Strong, it should inform their every action, and suffuse the character. If this is your take, fine -- don't use Aspects. In my world, and my games, I see advantages like strength as something which comes up occasionally in a story -- basically saying "And this is when being Strong made a difference in the story". Depending on session length, if you feel people are blowing through their Aspect-boxes too quickly, you can always have a "mid-session refresh" where all the checked boxes are cleared out, of course.

I use Aspects toward a number of purposes in my games:

Playing to the Aspect:

Often I have my players playing to the downsides (limitations) of their Aspects over the course of a session. When they do so, I often treat it as though I had involuntarily invoked their Aspects, and reward them on the spot; or, in post-session review, an extra dollop goes to them for roleplaying their flaws well.

Raw contests:

Sometimes a contest occurs which doesn't go to a skill -- it's a raw contest of someone's Aspect against another's. Again, Strength is the most facile example here. Generally, if someone has a "governing" Aspect in a raw contest, and someone else doesn't, the person with that Aspect wins outright: If Og, who is Strong, arm wrestles Ben the Accountant, who has no strength Aspects, Og wins. Ties go to dice: If Og arm wrestles Thag, who is also Strong, they dice off; whoever got the higher roll wins. But higher levels trump lower levels: If Og arm wrestles Kong, who is Very Strong (level 2), Kong wins. This application certainly doesn't have to be used, but in practice, it hasn't come up much.

Gateways:

Aspects, when taken, sometimes 'unlock' skills for use that are otherwise unavailable. The best examples of this are powers (like a 'Magically Trained' Aspect opening up a 'Sorcery' skill).

In my game, I have Powers aspects (Sorcery, which gateways to a Spellcasting skill); Personal aspects (Clever, Dutiful, Strong, etc); Resource aspects (Magic Sword, Sidekick, Haven, etc); and interpersonal aspects (Contacts, Alliances, Rivalries).

Aspects and Character Creation

Aspects will naturally mesh well with Subjective Character Creation. For use in the Objective Character Creation (or any variant objective creation system) the GM simply removes the rules concerning attributes, gifts, and flaws, and chooses a number of levels of Aspects that will be allowed. The number of levels provided should depend on the desirability of allowing higher levels ("More Thing", "Most Thing") of Aspects to characters. Each level of any Aspect uses one of these levels, so having "Brave" and "Clumsy" is equal to having "Quite Fast". For those wanting a starting point, 5 will allow a good mix of Aspects and levels.

In the end, the great thing about Aspects is that they so handily cover anything that isn't easily covered by skills, in a way that doesn't compete with those skills. And thanks to the dual nature of their voluntary and involuntary invocations, they create a colorful tapestry for a character, where it's not about whether something is an advantage or a disadvantage -- it's about how it drives and shapes you, and how, under the right circumstances, anything can be made to work in your favor.

Aspects, in their nature, were influenced partly by the Seventh Sea game published by Alderac Entertainment Group. You'll have to grab that game yourself if you want to figure out why. Parts of this article are recycled and re-edited bits of postings I have made to the Fudge mailing list. You can visit the website on which Aspects and other house rules are found at http://www.evilhat.com/.

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