Fate Core Thought of the Day:  Demystifying the Fate Fractal, and the Nature of Aspects

(AKA, how are those even related?)

So, my first real exposure (in terms of playing Fate) was Spirit of the Century.  I had come from a long history of playing traditional games.  And so I saw Aspects and thought "Hey, neat!  Those are just like Advantages/Feats/Edges/etc.!, except you get to name them cool things and you can make anything you want!"  It seemed pretty obvious, and pretty cool.  Having figured that out, I went on to the rest of the system.

Except that I was wrong.  I couldn't have been any more wrong if my name was W. Wrong Wrongenstein.

This was just one of my first errors in understanding Fate, but it's a pretty significant one.  I was thinking of an aspect as primarily something that gave a bonus, and something that was attached to something else, like an adjective.  And you can make an argument that some aspects are like that, but it's really not a very good understanding.  An aspect is both simpler, and more complex than that.

An aspect, really, is a story element.  It is something, anything, that is important to the story in some way.  It's an 'aspect' of the story, if you will.

At it's most simple, it's something that the story is about.

I'm going to go back to 'narrative first' here.  We need to understand what is important to the story (at least at this point, this scene), and then we capture those things, stick little labels on them, and call them 'aspects'.

But what about characters, you may ask.  They're important to the story, clearly!  And they're characters, not aspects!

Ah-ha!  You have fallen into my trap, oh non-existent-person-that-I-put-words-in-the-mouth-of!  You're assuming that characters aren't aspects, but they clearly are!

Well, then how come characters have skills, and aspects don't?  I mean, clearly Pitch Darkness can't drive a car!

And here, perhaps, there's some presumptions made about what a 'skill' is.  A 'skill' doesn't represent training.  It represents the ability of a story 'aspect' to influence a scene, without being invoked by someone else.

Okay, that sounds like a bunch of crazy meta-talk, so let's try and get back to English.

A character is a story element.  It can influence a scene.  It does so by using skills.  What a skill represents, then, is the ability for an story element to influence a scene, without the influence of another.

So, what about Pitch Darkness?  It certainly can't drive!  This is true, which is why it won't have the Drive skill.  But, depending on the game and scene, it can influence things!  Darkness can make people paranoid, it can cause them mental stress.  Instead of having a bunch of rules for all of these things, Fate just handles it by saying 'Sure, Pitch Darkness can be active and influence a scene if appropriate.  Just give it skills'.

And this is one of the fundamental points of the fractal - that story elements can influence scenes, and they do those using 'skills'.

A character isn't really any different than Pitch Darkness.  It's just easier to lump up some commonalities of story elements controlled by players, and call it a 'character' by convention.

And story elements can have other story elements.  The character story element Han Solo is associated with The Millennium Falcon.  It's easy to call the Falcon a 'detail' of Han Solo since, if he wasn't in the story, the Falcon wouldn't be either.  So we declare The Millennium Falcon to be an 'aspect' of Han Solo (who is, himself, an aspect - a story element).  And, of course, the Falcon can have its own skills, and its own aspects (Hidden Storage Everywhere, for instance).

And that's a pretty good description of the Fractal.  But there's one piece that's missing.  A fundamental feature of fractals, in math, is that they have infinite detail.  You can zoom out of them, view them at a larger scale, or zoom into them, and see them at a tighter scale, and they still have equivalent detail.  That's pretty cool.  And it's pretty important to understanding the Fate Fractal, as well.

Let's say we're playing some fantasy game, and there's the setting aspect The City State of Warrington.  It's relevant to the story, so it's an aspect, and as such can be invoked or compelled.

Now, later on, our protagonists get closer to Warrington, and so it becomes more relevant to the story.  We can start giving it aspects of its own, such as Rules With An Iron Fist, Constantly Guarded, and Bloodthirsty Militia.  We can give it skills, like Conquer Other City-States:4.

Now, let's say that our protagonists get closer to the city.  The city is constantly guarded, but we want some more detail, so we can declare a Gate Guards aspect.  If the protagonists maintain their distance, an aspect, by itself, is probably sufficient to indicate their effect on the scene.

But if we get closer, we might want to have some more detail there, again.  Maybe we decide that there's a Fat Guard and a Skinny Guard.  As we get closer, maybe they get some aspects of their own.  And certainly, if we storm the gates, they'll need skills, and possibly equipment, and so on!  And even their equipment could get aspects - if a PC uses Create Advantage to declare that the Skinny Guard's sword is old and brittle, then so it is!

This is, fundamentally, what the Fate Fractal is really about.  It's about having a universal way of describing story elements, and their ability to impact the world.  It's about having the ability to describe these elements with the right amount of detail for the current scene.  I don't need to know specifics about the two guards if I'm a hundred miles from Warrington.  I need to know that it exists, and that it's oppressive.

But as I get closer, its ability to manipulate things becomes important.  I need to know more about how it impacts the scenes characters are in.  So the Fate Fractal gives me tools to flesh this out.  Even the guards go from being a generalized aspect (Gate Guards), to individuals, to individual elements containing skills, and possibly even sub-elements.

And none of this changes a single thing about them, at any point.  The guards don't suddenly 'gain skills' when I get close to them.  They always had them.  It's just that they weren't actually important until we were in a position to interact with them.  They didn't 'change' from 'aspects' to 'characters' - that's a false distinction.  They were always aspects, in that every story element is an aspect!  And they were always 'characters', because what else could a guard be?  But as we needed to know more about them, we detailed them out further, and when we didn't need that detail, we didn't have to think about it.  The city-state of Warrington didn't become a fractal aspect when we needed more detail - it's still 'an aspect', just one with less detail associated with it.  Nothing about its fundamental nature changed.

So if you have an aspect that needs to be active in a scene, just give it a skill!  There's no change in 'type' that needs to occur.  'Skills' is just how story elements impact scenes, without being driven by another story element.

It's all just aspects.  All the way down.

Until you reach the turtles.
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