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[SotC/Fate] Leading with aspects...

System: Spirit of the Century / Fate v3 (www.evilhat.com/?spirit)
Hack Type: Advice

So, almost four months ago, I promised Ben Robbins' (www.lamemage.com) gaming group from Seattle that I'd write about this topic somewhere. I'm just now getting around to it. Sorry about that, folks, if you're reading.

If you've ever played DC Heroes, you'll know that you can use Hero Points to boost your values and generally give you better rolls in a given round of conflict. What's interesting about it is that you actually do it before the roll, not afterward, and it's usually either done when a.) you know you're fighting someone that's normally out of your league or b.) when you want to hurry up and nail the conflict in one go or as few goes as possible.

By contrast, in Spirit of the Century, you invoke aspects by default after the roll, usually to diminish the effect of a bad roll and add some spice into the narration before you describe the result. At GenCon, Ben and his group patiently explained to me that they tended to go ahead and declare before the roll, because they knew they wanted to invoke those aspects anyway and it was appropriate in the narrative to do so. I said, "Cool." I'm pretty much the epitome of the loose constructionist when it comes to game rules, so it strikes me that this approach is a fine one. It has an interesting impact on the play experience, too, which is what I'm writing about. I'm not really going to make a value judgment here, so much as provide some food for thought for your games.

1.) Perhaps obviously, this means you get the elaborate narration as part of the action description before the roll. "I dive behind the [Crates] and shoot a hail of bullets at them, not even blinking due to my [Nerves of Steel]. Here's my fate points." And then you make your roll at +4. In a way, it kind of resembles the feel of other systems where you'd explain how you're stacking situational modifiers up from the chart to your advantage: "I take a 5-foot step, and that puts me within my range increment, and I have Point Blank Shot, and 1/2 cover from my position behind these crates."

2.) Some people might find the dice rolling a greater source of tension that way, because you're paying in opportunity cost - you might have invoked three aspects, but you still could roll -4. Had you waited, you might have been able to reroll that -4 and gotten something better, and then spent the other two fate points on an even higher roll. Even if you technically allowed further invocations or tags after the roll as well, it's likely that you've already used all the ones that came immediately to mind, so it ends up making the die roll a more definitive influence on events. Interestingly enough, that also means that while your actions will sound more tactical in a fight when you narrate them, mechanically speaking, they wouldn't be as optimally effective. But I think some would be attracted to the visceral thrill anyway.

3.) Given the above, sudden crushing hits out of nowhere in a conflict become a much greater possibility, which some folks will think is cool and some folks won't. It wouldn't be uncommon to experience a 5+ shift hit even if you bought up your defense, because a bad roll could bottom you out and leave you with no recourse against it. If you're using any of the alternate rules to speed up conflicts (like the ones from the Evil Hat wiki), you may want to consider switching back to the slower default rules if you lead with aspects habitually.

4.) The flow of action in the combat round changes, because if you're front-loading invocations, you have to stop before every attack and defense roll to make sure no one wants to change their positioning before the roll. The impact of this is wholly dependent on personal taste - it may stagger things too much for some people, or be just right for some other people. 

5.) It can potentially create a zero-sum game where you spend most of your fate points trying to remain equal to your opponent for as many rounds as possible, and leave you with a scene that'd have effectively been no different if you hadn't spent any points at all. In default SotC, that choice is less automatic because you get to see the results first and alter from there. If I beat you by 5 in default SotC and you invoke to reduce it to 3, I might be happy with that and not spend any points to resist you - but if you make that expenditure before the roll, I'm way more likely to spend the point to either keep things even or retain my advantage, because I don't know what's going to happen.


So that's pretty much all I have to say about that. Now, it's possible some of my worries about it might be smoothed out by allowing invocations before and after the roll, but I think that'd make the action really confusing, because you'd have a pause before and after the roll for position adjustment, and I can see some people's actions getting lost in that mix. I also see potential agenda clashes there, as some folks geek out to the cool narration and tense moments, and some folks walk all over those guys by gaming the system better. So I think it has to be one or the other, in your group, and you have to decide which.*

So really, what it all boils down to is how your group most comfortably parses out the action and flow in a scene. Leading with aspects puts all the narration stuff right up front, at the risk of letting you get hosed by the dice more often or not really getting a lot of bang for buck from your fate points. Sticking with the default is mechanically optimal and gives you the widest range of system choices, but ends up with the narration stuff getting used less often, or getting used in "aha, but..." statements more often than initiatory ones.

[ * : When I say "it has to be one or the other," understand that I'm talking about a general rule. This doesn't mean, if you're playing the default system, that you should flip out if someone wants to go ahead and spend the fate point up front once in a while. Sometimes it's appropriate. Likewise, if you agree to invoke up front, you shouldn't have a tizzy if someone asks to bring in a really appropriate aspect after the fact every once in a while. I only mean to say that in order to keep the action moving smoothly, you should agree to habitually do one or the other as the standard procedure.]


GREAT stuff. Make a note: this has to go into v3 Core.
In reading this, I find I like the part of the concept of invoking Aspects before the roll -- the more direct involvement of that Aspect in the narrative. But, I much prefer the player empowerment that is emphasized by invoking Aspects after the roll.

But, I could see blending these two together. In declaring your action, you could flag some Aspects in that description. Then, after the roll, you could apply those flagged Aspects as per normal SotC rules.

So, with "I dive behind the [Crates] and shoot a hail of bullets at them, not even blinking due to my [Nerves of Steel]," you flag Crates and Nerves of Steel, but you don't have to pay for them until you choose to actually Invoke their effects after the roll. However, you couldn't also work in your "Nose for trouble" Aspect, because you didn't flag it beforehand.

It wouldn't cause many of the effects you're talking about, though -- particularly the ones involving the uncertainty of modifing an undefined roll result. Also, it could possibly result in undesired over-narration. Still, maybe something to chew over.
Ben, his group, and I talked about this. The issue there is, yeah, you can narrate it, but without the mechanical reinforcement, it doesn't feel like it has the same impact viscerally. I can sympathize with this position, and it's why I don't advocate any "in-between" positions on this particular continuum.
Yeah, I can see that. That's partly why I mention that it would likely result in over-narration, sort of a cover-your-ass mentality.

But one Fate point usage I like is the reroll, and it doesn't look like this is an option at all. I suppose another in-between position that you could not advocate is that Fate points are still spent at the beginning, before the roll, but how they're spent is determined afterwards.

But I definitely see how the pure solution you're talking about produces a certain type of desirable play.
I think there's another middle ground. In the example above you indicate that the Crates and Nerves of Steel are going to be used only for +2s to the roll (and maybe that's exactly how Ben and his group play things). So that rolled "----" is only going to get back to dead even. But what if they declare their Aspects before rolling, do some narration, roll, and THEN determine whether they're going to be looking at a re-roll and then adding +2, two re-rolls, or adding +4?

In my group, the players declare their Aspects and do their narration after rolling (per default), and as GM I have the option of doing the same. But I almost always declare what I'm invoking beforehand, whether on offense or defense. Since I have a lot of power as GM, I like to forgo my ability to respond to the dice and put that all in the player's hands. I arrived at this after trying it a lot of different ways, going back to Fate 2.0. Paying Fate Points and bidding up my baddies' defense after seeing how well a PC's attack did felt too much like saying, "No. You are actually NOT awesome."
Good to see you around here, Matthew. Welcome to Lenny's Land of Tinkering With Stuff.

I'm hoping Ben gets the chance to weigh in here himself, but one issue the group appeared to have is making the narration and the mechanical effects be intertwined as closely as possible, to feel as "real" as possible. That's me putting words in his mouth, though, so take it with a grain of salt.

Going with that for a second, though, what you're proposing still has an issue of potential disconnection if the player rolls really well, because he simply might not need to spend those fate points. So, the player says, "I gather up my [Nerves of Steel], pop out from behind the [Crates], and fill the guy full of lead." He rolls ++++, and the GM's like, "Awesome, you totally take him out."

Then, the invocation was pretty much meaningless - good narrative color, yes, but no "oomph". I don't have an issue with this, but I can see where some people might.
Yeah, your example is a good reason why I personally prefer to let the players invoke their Aspects after they roll.

On the GM-side, though, nothing is wasted by me paying up front, 'cause I don't have to worry about whether I'm (via my NPC) awesome. You should see the players lean forward to see my roll when I invoke two or even three Aspects up front. They really want to know what my roll is going to be in those cases, cause if it's +++ or ++++, they know it's gonna hurt. ;)
Incidentally, the "Failure Insurance footnote" on this blog entry of Ben's helps elucidate his group's preference:


The lack of tension that sometimes occurs using the default method, particularly when the PCs have their full complement of Fate Points, is something I've continually struggled with for what is otherwise my favorite system. Being able to pay a couple Fate Points after the fact and say "Not only did I not fail, I succeeded spectacularly!" in almost every instance where you've still got Fate points drains ALL of the fortune out. I don't mind this much, but most of my very trad players do, and I'm always on the lookout for ways to put *some* of this back in.
Then, change the default refresh to 5. Or don't have a refresh - sure you start the campaign with 10 points, but after that, you have to rely solely on compels and tags.

Be careful about a 180-degree flip, though, where players spend significant game time mulling over whether or not a fate point expenditure will be worth it.
My default is five, along with five Aspects. No refresh is an very interesting option. Have to think about that one... Lot of impacts.

My concern has more to do with what occurs *at the moment* the dice are rolled if a player has even two Fate Points and two broadly useful Aspects. If they need to, they *will* succeed. Thus, NO fortune. I am content with this; If they spend those points now, they may not have any wriggle room for that next roll they *need* to make. Some of my players bristle at this ability to remove fortune at will up until the point they are completely void of FP.
I kind of don't want to jump in, because I fear the actual points we made may not be as fertile ground as the discussion that has ensued, but what the heck...

What happened was, we were all very new to SOTC and everyone had spent a long time coming up with ten clever aspects, so there was a natural urge to think of them as "how your character would behave." So when a person started describing their actions, they would naturally start to weave their aspects into the description and think they were supposed to spend Fate then to invoke them. "Okay, because I've got Nerves of Steel, I can..." and we'd interrupt and say "no your aspect doesn't come into play yet, roll first" and they'd give us those puppy dog eyes. They wanted to bring in all those cool aspects they had slaved over. We probably should have just let them run with it but we were still trying to get everyone clear on the rules. We weren't really arguing for spending Fate before the roll, just noting that it seemed the natural urge to bring up aspects to describe actions.

The part that felt odd to us all was that when you were succeeding, your aspects didn't come up -- you only invoked them to compensate for bad rolls.

The clever thing that Lenny pointed out at GenCon (as we surrounded him in the hallway and badgered him like harpies until security came) was that you could invoke an aspect when you were already succeeding moderately to succeed _really_ well, generate spin, etc. Anyone else would have just punched the guy, but invoking my Two-Fisted Hero aspect I knocked him through a window and into the street. Which is very cool, and I think needs more mention in the book.

December 2010

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