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.]