Keeping Aspects Interesting

For awhile, we were playing a regular Diaspora campaign, The Precious Few.  We have since set that campaign aside and are playing a couple of Burning Wheel campaigns: Bloodstone and the Butcher, Baker, and Candlestick Maker.

While we were playing the Precious Few campaign, there were several aspects that were constantly compelled or tagged:

  • Cheeky AI
  • “I’ve Got This Easy”
  • “I Love Sound of Gunfire”
  • “I loves my Precious (ship)”
  • “Hidden Resources”
  • “The best pilot you’ve never heard of”

If you ask any of the players, they will likely remember the above aspects; Or at a minimum, that these aspects strongly flavored the campaign.  And I can guarantee that everyone in the campaign will remember the Cheeky AI.

In this regard, aspects are successful.  Everyone from the campaign still bemoans the Precious’ damn cheeky AI.

However, in an aspect’s success was also it’s failing.  Namely, the table felt as though we leaned too heavily on those keystone aspects.  My character, Billy had the following aspects:

  • Father knows best
  • Always looking over my shoulder
  • In the Navy
  • I love the sound of gunfire
  • Former agent of New Florida
  • I have to clear my name
  • Poor judge of character
  • Jaded
  • I read the manual
  • Friends are for keeps

I know that I rarely, if ever, used “Father Knows Best” and “Friends are for Keeps.”

I suspect one of the intrinsic problems is that there are too many Aspects to track. Referencing Magic Number 7, Plus or Minus 2, then I would assert that a character should only have 5 Aspects.

By reducing the number of aspects the amount of “aspect querying” a player would need to do during the session would be reduced.

But, that may not be the desired goal.  A 10 aspect character is almost certainly more nuanced than a 5 aspect character — given a comparable skill at writing aspects. And not every aspect need show up with the same frequency.  If the goal is to instead ensure that you are not leaning to heavily on a given aspect then perhaps a different mechanic would make sense.

Let’s Look at Mouse Guard.  Mouse Guard has character traits, much like Aspects, which can be invoked once per session.  These traits can be refreshed if the character detrimentally invokes a character trait.

I don’t think Diaspora, or other Fate-based games need necessarily limit the amount of tagging or compelling of a given aspect.  For the first tag and compel of an Aspect is at it’s normal rate.  From that point forward tagging it costs 2 Fate points and it’s second compel yields 2 Fate points.  This proposed tweak might gently nudge players and the GM to cycle through a character’s different aspects.


10 thoughts on “Keeping Aspects Interesting

  1. In my experience (Spirit of the Century) I found that 4-5 Aspects represent the core of the character and are tagged/compelled often while the rest of the Aspects are tied to a more or less distant background that don’t get involved in the story very much.

    Luke’s “Moisture Farmer on Tatooine” or “Pretty Face” (compare to “Jedi wannabe” or “Hotshot Pilot”
    Indy’s “Rats ? I hate rats !” (compare to “Nazis: I hate these guys” or “It belongs to a museum”)

    Having 3-5 PCs at the table means that most of their “distant background” Aspects won’t come up most of the time, I’m not sure wether an incentive like the one you propose can change that.

    But I’d love to read feedbacks about it !

  2. I think deep down, the challenge is that there are so many things to balance – especially as a GM. Since most of my preparation is conceptual and not necessarily the standard dungeon tropes, I’m looking at ways to help me, as either player or GM to more effectively engage characters.

  3. My FATE experience has all been with one-shots, but I have observed this behavior as well. Play always seems to focus on a handful of each PC’s aspects, and others go completely unused.

    Honestly, rather than try to weight the Fate Point economy, I’d rather just see PCs start with fewer aspects. The tendency of some FATE games to front-load PCs with up to ten aspects is counter-productive; there’s just no way to come up with that many meaningful, useful aspects for a brand-new PC, much less enable a GM to juggle 40-50 of them when running a game.

    I’d prefer to see more FATE games encourage players to leave available aspect “slots” blank and let them develop through play, topping out at maybe seven aspects per PC.

    • I definitely agree with leaving several slots open and filling them at runtime.

      The other key component is making sure that aspects are well written. Make sure they drip with setting nuances:

      “Escaped the Fiendish Snake Cult”

  4. As much as I grumbled about above points during The Precious Few… I do feel that having 10 aspects from the beginning allowed us (at least you and me) to understand which ones were useful (or perhaps crutches), which ones were story board material, and which ones needed help.

  5. I know that we hit on Aspects in Diaspora way more than we’ve been hitting on Beliefs in Burning Wheel. Besides being more general and having just plain more to hit on, the mechanic for Aspects is just plain simpler and easier to grasp.

    I see Beliefs as trying to steer the story and Aspects just as rewarding the characters for acting in character.Sound about right?

    • You are correct that beliefs are trying to steer the story. Beliefs are intended to be proactive; And I would wager Instincts are intended to be reactive.

      Aspects are descriptive and quite enjoyable. I enjoyed the Diaspora campaign, both running, and playing. However, it felt as though overcoming Failure (ergo avoiding complications) in Fate was a matter of burning a Fate point. I’m still kicking around my feelings towards fate, and they are very positive with a few concerns – About the same as Burning Wheel but along a different axis.

      Both Beliefs and Aspects reward players for acting in character, the cycle is simply different.

      Aspects, as I’ve come to see them, are very tactical. Yes I can write a Goal-based Aspect. However, they come into play in a given moment.

      Beliefs are there to inform play. As such, they are perhaps weaker. They are “the passive” voice saying “I should fight for this”. The way that we (both GMs and players) are engaging our Beliefs and Instincts is certainly out of tune with Luke Crane’s intended direction.

      • If Aspects are like anything in BW, it’s Traits. I.e., descriptors that say, when it comes to X, your PC is more X than anybody else.

        Beliefs are explicit goals, and more importantly, they are premises that the player specifically wants to address. Players are rewarded both for addressing them and for rejecting them (“mold breaker”), since rejecting a Belief is itself a way to address the premise contained within. Beliefs are not about staying “in character”; IME, treating them that way never results in the Aryha economy working properly.

        Aspects enforce character and genre (GNS-Sim). Beliefs prompt questions and drive towards conflict (GNS-Nar).

        • @buzz thanks for the break-down. This is a helpful breakdown that I’ve been teetering around. For those other readers here’s a link to GNS Theory (

          One of the interesting components is that I believe I am cementing my desire for Narrative play as the primary component. After all, my favorite game sessions are when the characters are working towards slightly differing goals and the wheels come off.

          As I’ve given thought to our Bloodstone game, I shouldn’t be pushing the story as much, and instead focusing on the character beliefs that are proactive – the premise of the story works, but the beliefs don’t tie as well to the premise.

          I may need to sit down before our next session with all the players and have them hammer out what they want to be doing within the scope of what has been established.

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