I’ve tended to play and GM traditional RPGs, that follow in the vein of D&D, with a traditional GM/PC relationship, classes, skills and dice mechanics. In the last few years there seems to have been quiet revolution in game design, and it is is one that I think has largely passed me by until now.
The trend I’m focusing on here began in 2003 with the publication the Fate RPG. Fate is intended to be a generic RPG. It includes a number of innovations that embrace a more narrativist style of play. I never really took it seriously as I was put off by its use of Fudge dice (6-siders with “+” and “-” instead of numbers), which I viewed as a gimmick. Games using the Fate system include the heroic fantasy game Legends of Anglerre, the sci-fi Starblazer Adventures, and the Dresden Files RPG.
The key innovation of Fate is the use of “aspects”. An aspect is a descriptive phrase made up by the player that expresses something about their character’s skills, personality, and/or history (which may be positive or negative, but is ideally both). Examples of aspects are: “Tempted by Shiny Things”, “Veteran of the Goblin Wars”, “Knight of the Dusk Blades”, “Honour-bound to Avenge my Brother”.
In Fate aspects can be exploited in an appropriate situation by spending 1 fate point, and this allows you to re-roll your dice or gain a +2 bonus when making a skill roll (as the 4dF die roll in Fate normally gives +4 to -4, then +2 is quite a big bonus). Players usually start with 3 fate points.
As an idea, the “aspect” has been quietly ticking away and I’ve been struck by how many modern RPGs use a similar mechanic.
The 13th Age RPG uses a similar idea called “backgrounds”. Instead of spending points and buying skills, players have 8 points to spend on backgrounds which they make up. Each background is a descriptive phrase like an aspect, such as “Cat Burglar”, “Assassin in Training to the Black Wyrm”, “Imperial Mage”, “Wild Mountain Tribe”, “Transformed Animal”, etc.
Trying to do something in 13th Age means rolling 1d20 vs a target number modified by your level and stat bonus plus any points in a relevant background. So each of the background aspects acts like a whole cluster of related skills.
In the Shadows of the Demon Lord RPG, characters have two “professions” instead of skills. A profession is something like “scholar of magic”, “animal trainer”, or “terrorist”(!). Task resolution in SotDL involves rolling d20 against a target number 10 modified by stat bonus. A relevant profession can give a bonus (a boon: an extra d6 to roll and add to your d20 roll), or an automatic success.
Creating a character in the Numenera RPG involves selecting a character class (warrior, wizard or rogue, effectively), a “character descriptor”, and a “focus”. Descriptors and foci are similar to aspects but they must be chosen from a specific list and each provides specific mechanical benefits or powers.
There are 12 descriptors (charming, clever, graceful, intelligent etc). Each of these gives a stat bonus, a limitation, makes the character skilled in specific things, and gives equipment. There are no defined list of skills in Numenera, and the skill training obtained via a descriptor is broad in scope e.g. graceful makes you “skilled in all tasks involving physical performing arts, and all Speed defence tasks”.
There are 30 foci, such as “Bears a Halo of Fire”, “Exists Partially Out of Phase”, “Explores Dark Places”, or “Works in the Back Alleys”. Each of these gives you a special power which improves as you level, equipment and an extra connection to another character.
The Cue system used in the Valiant Universe RPG uses “cues”, and these are effectively aspects that act as inspiration for narrating your character’s actions.
I’m attracted to the idea of aspects because of the potential they have for really allowing you to express the essence of your character. The use of an aspect feels like it should be a big deal, but I find the Fate RPG mechanic disappointing and limited. First because just getting a bonus (albeit, a big one) isn’t that exciting, and second because you can only invoke your aspect by spending a fate point.
Instinctively I much prefer the 13th Age RPG’s idea of aspects standing in for a whole cluster of skills and experience, and being able to use that whenever appropriate. But what is missing here is the Fate RPG concept of your aspect being used against you (more on that later).
But the downside to aspects is that they are broad and both the GM and the players need to be sensible. For example, arguments might arise about whether a player who is a “Warden of the Land” should get an advantage to navigate in city sewers “because they are like underground caves I’ve explored”.
While I think you should be able to use your aspects as much as possible, Fate’s limiting mechanic prevents these kinds of arguments because every use of an aspect requires a fate point, and allowing a broad interpretation is less likely to set a problematic precedent.
How can we take advantage of aspects? What kind of benefit should they give? How should they be limited?
EDITED: to provide some examples of professions in SotDL.