Tuesday, October 4, 2011

18 Dexterity - Using FATE Character Sheets To Write Great Fiction Now

The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game is currently my favorite game yet outside of Oregon Trail III: Dysentery Avenger.  I mostly play RPGs to tell cool stories about interesting characters.  And after I tried out DFRPG, I realized just how well it fit my needs.

1.  The game uses the FATE rules system, which has a heavy focus on creating a cool story.
2.  Characters can influence that story by invoking and compelling Aspects.
3.  Aspects are an instant shortcut to awesome storytelling and great characters.

Aspects are basically little phrases that describe your character.  The spicier, the better.  So a strong guy can be "Strong Like An Ox", but it's better if he's "The Colossus of Oakdale".  Aspects can be invoked in-game to do better on challenges, but the real fun is when they're compelled - in exchange for Fate Points that can be used to change the story later, something interesting happens now. 

For example, here's Mr. Hacker with "This Script Kiddie Flatlined The Pentagon", and he's trying to get into some secret bank accounts because if NASA won't send anyone else to the Moon, he'll buy a shuttle and do it himself.  But if he takes a compel on "No Plan B...or Even A Good Plan A", he gets a Fate Point in exchange for security catching his data trail.  Then later he can use that FP to do something else he wants to succeed on.  Maybe hack into someone's heart monitor and spell out limericks or whatever playful hacker scamps are wont to do.

It's so simple.  A bunch of Aspects, and a set of ranked Skills.  That's basically it.  The game mechanics take care of the rest - you capture an instant, credible feel for what your character will and won't do once you dangle those tempting points in his face.  You don't have to answer lists of questions or write journals or OKCupid profiles or "what he did before he got hit by a Boeing" obituary.  All you need is the heat of the moment.

Choose Your Destiny

But let's say you don't play tabletop RPGs.  Let's say four guys in the basement sound more like a Saw film than a social event.  Can you still make great characters with basic RPG character sheets?  Sure.  And you don't even have to stick with FATE.  There's tons of narrative RPGs out there like FATE with great character mechanics.  But FATE gets RPG neophytes up and running fast.  Let me show you what I mean.

1.  Figure out his Defining Aspect.  If you had to describe this guy in four-five words, this would be it.  Maybe he's a "Guardian Scion of Freya" or the "One-Shot Outlaw".  Remember - spicy enchilada!

2.  Figure out four more Aspects.  What four things about this guy stand out the most, either to others or his own mind?  Strengths, weaknesses, hobbies, quirks, whatever. 

3.  Rank his skills.  You can just rank them from 1-5, but you can also rank them with adjectives if numbers aren't your thing - Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good, Great, Superb.  Here's some skills you can consider giving your character, taken from several different FATE games:

Alertness, Art, Athletics, Burglary, Contacts, Conviction, Craftsmanship, Deceit, Discipline, Empathy, Fists, Guns, Intimidation, Investigation, Might, Peformance, Pilot, Resources, Science, Sleight of Hand, Stealth, Survival, Weapons...

4.  Figure out how often he'll spend his Fate Points.  If the chips are down and he's aching for a smoke, but he's Dating Cold Turkey, will he take a Fate Point and light up?

That's pretty much it.  Not a blow-by-blow FATE character sheet but close enough.  Now what happens?  Well, good Aspects are dynamic enough to be interpreted in a lot of ways.  Ask questions about them and why.  Go for the third answer, at the very least - the first two tend to be old hat, but the third may offer an interesting twist to the standard.

* Why is he the One-Shot Outlaw?  Did he get this name by chance of the draw or did he work hard for it?  Why?  How does it affect his world?

* Why does he have these four other aspects?  How do they influence his past, present, and future?  Does he try to fight against them or accept them? 

* When did he get the training for these skills?  Why does he have them?  Are there some parts of a skill that he struggles on?  Is he satisfied with his skill-set or does he feel they all need to be Superb?

* What pushes him hard enough to give in to challenges?  What might give him the willpower to see them through even if they go against his nature?  How often would he succumb to what fate throws at him in exchange for points to use later?

These are just some of the questions you can ask.  Go ahead and ask more.  Hell, you can ask none if you want.  You can just make a sheet and toss him into a scene, go from there.  Maybe he's caught in an exploding knife factory and he has to get out.  Take this as far as you want, but if you want to write and need a starting point, a simple sheet offers layers of detail for minimal effort.

So next time you're hashing over a character for a story, do it like your local gamers do.  And even if you play tabletop RPGs, give some other character creation systems a try on the side.  You might roll something pretty good.

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