Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Fantasy: Phases and Aspects

In SotC RAW, as you probably know, character creation happens in five Phases: Background, The Great War, Your Novel, and two "guest-starring" roles in two other characters' novels. That works well for a game built around human characters all born on the same day and adventuring in the pulp era, but taken out of the 20th-century context I think it can feel a little forced.

For one thing, putting it in a different time necessitates coming up with another "Great War" to fill that second phase, which can come off as arbitrary unless you're working with a specific timeline and setting. Second, while the idea of "starring" in "novels" is absolutely perfect for pulp, with the fantasy genre it rubs me the wrong way. There's a deeper layer of metagaming going on when you talk about your character having starred in a novel, and the implication that he or she is merely a protagonist in a book instead of a living, breathing person. Third, if you're taking out the idea of a novel for the third phase, then the fourth and fifth phases have to be revamped, as well, just to be consistent. Fourth, when I think about all the things that would be important to a character, following a fairly strict chronology seems overly restrictive.

Instead, "Spirit of the Sword," for such is the poor working title of this project, uses conceptual Phases. This is hardly my invention; I've seen this, or a variation of it, as a house rule here and there, and I like it so much it's going in.

The five Phases, then, consist of Origins, Profession, Goals, People, and Adventure.

Origins: Where are you from? What's your race? How were you raised, and with what values?

Profession: Do you (or did you) have a "day job"? What trade(s) do you know, and where did you learn it/them? Are you a mercenary? A pickpocket? A sorcerer's apprentice (or the sorcerer himself)? A Jack-of-all-trades?

Goals: What do you hope to accomplish in life? Where do you see yourself going? Do you want to rid the world of evil, or merely rule it? This can be as specific or as general as you'd like.

People: Who are the important people in your life, if any? Friends, enemies, superiors, lackeys, secret admirers, the secretly admired... who and where are they?

Adventure: Briefly recount an adventure you've already had. Did you ransack some ancient ruins? Escape from the city guard with a purloined loaf of bread? Conduct a magical experiment gone awry? It doesn't have to be life-threatening, but it does have to be exciting.

Instead of waiting for the final two Phases to establish connections, players are encouraged to cross-pollinate with other players at any time. All Phases are game for this. For example, two characters raised in the same village could appear in one another's Origins phase; if they've remained life-long friends (or enemies) and helped defend their village from a bandit raid, they might also appear in each other's People and Adventure phases. Or, given the propensity for PCs in fantasy games to start out as total strangers, they might not cross-pollinate at all.

Aspects represent a slight change as well. Under normal circumstances, each Phase comes with two attendant Aspects. In "SotS," they aren't as evenly distributed.

Every character begins with seven Aspects to spread between his five Phases, with a minimum of one Aspect per Phase.

Why the change? "SotS" characters will end up with a few more Aspects to deal with than their SotC cousins, via equipment and magic (more on those later). Keeping the number of "personal" Aspects down to seven makes things a little more manageable. Aspects are fun, but if you're dealing with 15 at once they lose some of what makes them interesting. If you ask me, the most interesting part about using Aspects is finding ways to apply what you have to the situation at hand. Limitations encourage creativity, and limiting the number of Aspects a character has encourages the player to come up with interesting, colorful ideas. To paraphrase SotC, "Trained Fencer" is one thing, but "Trained By Montcharles" is quite another. The first is only likely to come into play during combat, but the second could apply equally to social situations (Rapport or Contacting) in which being the student of Montcharles makes a difference.

In addition, I often see players struggle a bit to come up with the last two or three Aspects. Cutting them down to seven seems an efficient way to alleviate that. Besides, when it comes to actual utility, seven's plenty. Rarely do I see a character or GM make use of every last Aspect on the sheet. Speaking of GMs, fewer Aspects makes the GM's job a bit easier in terms of compels and simply keeping track of the PCs. Giving the player the opportunity to have, say, two Origins Aspects over two People Aspects is a good way of letting the GM see at a glance that the character's origin story might be more fertile ground for the plot than the character's interpersonal relationships.

Next time: Skills.

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