FATE aspects in the Cypher System

I’ve written a number of posts regarding different elements of the Cypher System, which I still rate as one of the best systems around. However, recently I have switched from Numenera to FATE (specifically the Dresden Files RPG, though we’re also incorporating elements of FATE Core). FATE naturally has its own set of mechanics for dice rolling, tracking damage, etc.. which are perfectly adequate, though I don’t like them quite as much as the Cypher System. However, FATE’s core concept, which I absolutely love, revolves around the use of aspects.

A quick primer for those unfamiliar with FATE:
Aspects are descriptive phrases that are used to describe characters and the world in general. A character might have an aspect, “Stubborn as a mule,” or a location might have the aspect, “Shadowy corners.” These aspects can be used to affect play when it makes narrative sense, generally in one of two ways; either the GM can offer fate chips for playing aspects to the player’s detriment (“There’s no way you’re backing down from this fight; you’re stubborn as a mule.”) or the player can spend fate chips to gain bonuses if the aspect helps (“I’m stubborn as a mule… no one can mind control me.”)

Aspects are a great way to model the intangible or narrative aspects of a character. Most systems don’t have a mechanical way to represent a very stubborn character, for example. Certainly you can give them a high willpower score or whatever, but other characters could have that for a variety of reasons that are nothing to do with stubbornness. Aspects allow a player to say, “This is an important part of my character… I want it to be represented in play.”
Aspects also allow the tracking of unusual conditions (many systems have rules for “prone” or “tied up”, but few have rules for “covered in bees”, for example), logical use of the environment (a simple aspect like “tables everywhere” can be used for all sorts of defensive or offensive moves) and modelling social standing/favours (this is an idea I’m working on that I will expand on in my next blog post).

So here’s my dilemma. I love the aspects in FATE, but otherwise I would prefer to run games in the Cypher System… so could we port one into the other? Here is my suggestion to do exactly that.

First, let’s lay out my general principles…
1) Compelling aspects (i.e. giving out chips) is not necessary – the Cypher System already has GM intrusions, which are fine as they are.
2) I’d also like to separate invoking aspects from spending XP – there are already enough uses for XP without adding another one.
3) Therefore, aspects will function much like assets – a relevant aspect will reduce the difficulty of a skill check by one level. Indeed, you can essentially treat aspects as a specific subset of asset that is just slightly more formalised.
4) Since the players (and NPCs too) are getting the benefit of aspects for free (as opposed to FATE, where they spend a chip), some further considerations are needed to avoid making aspects too powerful.
a) Only one aspect may be used in any particular skill check.
b) The aspect should be legitimately relevant. In FATE, since the player is spending a chip (a limited resource), there is a tendency to accept any vaguely related aspect as fine (“I’m stubborn as a mule, so I’m not going to stop bashing this door until it breaks.” “Ok, sure.”). If the player is now getting the benefit for free, only genuinely logical aspects should apply (“I’m stubborn as a mule, so I’m not going to stop bashing this door until it breaks.” “That’s not going to help… you’ll just spend longer bouncing off it, before you give up.”).
c) In line with the Cypher System mechanics, the aspect should be added to difficulty calculations before dice are rolled, not searched for afterwards when a roll is just missed. If an aspect is not obvious enough to include from the start, it probably falls foul of the previous point.

With those principle in mind, here are a few additional notes on specific types of aspect that I would envisage.

Character aspects:
The character’s descriptor and focus should be treated as aspects (the type is too general to be easily used). These can be used in any skill check where relevant. Particular care should be taken that the descriptor aspect is not overplayed (e.g. the “tough” descriptor does not also encompass “strong”). This would allow for some fringe benefits of foci in particular, outside of the mechanical abilities they grant. For example, someone with the “Performs feats of strength” focus might use the aspect to assist in seducing an NPC, since his focus has given him an impressive looking physique; mechanically, no such bonus exists for this focus, but it kind of makes sense (unless, of course, the GM knows that the NPC in question would not be turned on by rippling muscles).

Scene/location aspects:
As in FATE, you should provide a couple of aspects for each location or scene; “shadowy corners”, “tables everywhere”, etc… Obviously, NPCs can use these aspects too if it makes sense. These are the closest usage to that of the assets mechanic that already exists. In this case, the GM is just providing a couple of obvious assets as a starting point for the players.

Temporary aspects:
These can replace specific rules for conditions like “prone” or those rules can be kept and these can be used for anything not covered in the rules. In combat, it should generally be easier to apply an aspect than deal damage; this also gives characters with minimal combat ability a few more options. A social character might have little chance of damaging the big bad, but if he can apply the aspect “distracted”, then the combat-oriented character has an improved chance to hit with his big attack. These aspects should only last as long as makes sense – “distracted” might only last a round, “prone” would last until the character stands up, “sand in the eyes” would last until the character takes an action to properly clear them.

So, that’s my theory. I certainly don’t feel that the Cypher System needs these additional elements, but given how close they are to the existing asset rules, I don’t feel that it would be unbalancing to include them if you like the idea of descriptors/foci/conditions/etc.. as having narrative meaning, as well as mechanical meaning. As always, comments and suggestions are welcome.

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