Pondering FAE Tweaks for Star Wars: Rebel Ops

A few days ago, I publicly mulled over how the game is going. That post attracted quite a bit of conversation, much of it extremely helpful in terms of focusing down on the stuff I didn’t think was working that I think is worth trying to address, going forward.

On the whole, I’m pretty happy with Fate mechanics, the characters, the setting, the potential story, and so forth.

What I’m not thrilled with are Approaches.

Now, on paper, I love Approaches – I just genuinely like the idea of actions sorted out terms of whether they’re Flashy, Sneaky, Clever, or whatever.

In practice, there are two problems I’ve encountered.

  1. A character’s action very rarely maps to a single approach, and almost never maps cleanly. You tend to get a lot of conversations like this:

    “Hmm, do you think the action you’re taking is Quick or Clever? I mean it’s Clever, but you’re doing it Quickly…”
    “Actually, I’m trying to surprise them with this, so I was hoping for Sneaky…”

    And so on. It ends up putting the Meta game-system stuff right in my face with a frequency I find annoying, and I have a high tolerance for that kind of thing.

  2. You define your character with Aspects, but you stat them out – in terms of hard numbers – with Approaches. This has the effect of giving your character two sets of important ‘stats’ that don’t necessarily have anything to do with one another, and mechanically it leads to a weird disconnect. Now, anyone who plays Fate at all will tell you that Aspects are the core of the system – it’s the thing that, if you take it out, makes it no longer Fate, in my opinion – buuuuuuuut in FAE, Approaches get numeric ratings, and it’s those numbers that affect every single die roll first, before any Aspects get involved, and since they directly address about how you like to do things, rather than simply what you can do (like skills), they tend to affect the broad interpretation of the character much more.

What are you Yammering About, Man?

So it’s like this: You have your core concept, expressed as Aspects, and then you have these Approaches, who’s ratings also say something about your character, and because of their non-granularity, they tend to say those things with very sweeping generalizations, often (in my personal experience) pulling the character away from their core concept in either small or large ways.

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I’ll give a short example, using Dave’s character from our game, with Aspects tweaked slightly for the purposes of this example:

Aral Tholemain
Patriotic Noble of Naboo
Revolutionary with a Bounty on my Head
The Empire took my family from me.
An officer and sometimes bloodthirsty gentleman
E’lir would be my daughter’s age…

I could give you a couple paragraphs of backstory, but really, I think these five Aspects capture the gist of what’s going on, and I think it’s fair to say this is a pretty grim character, right?

Here are his Approaches:

Careful: 1
Clever: 1
Flashy: 3
Forceful: 2
Quick: 0
Sneaky: 2

You know what I see when I look at those approaches?

A swashbuckler, maybe. Perhaps a con man. If you told me “noble”, I’d nod and say “oh yeah, I can totally see that,” but what I wouldn’t see is the kind of noble Aral is.

Look at those Aspects up above? Is there anything there that says “Flashy?” I guess it depends on how you look at someone who’s a dedicated firebrand, but… well.

Yes, you can make it work.

But there’s the thing – Flashy is Aral’s big Approach, so of course Dave’s going to want to do things flashily when he can, especially when things Really Matter.

… so this Bloodthirsty Gentleman who’s lost his family is doing big attention-grabbing attacks while loudly shouting “You Dastard!”, striking a memorable pose, et cetera.

Is that the guy we see in the Aspects? I’m hardly sure, but I don’t think so.

And yes, I know you can just have a different Approach be the top one, but for a significant subset of actions important to the character, a high Flashy makes the most sense – it just gets weird when applied in other activities.

“Well, if it doesn’t make sense, then don’t be Flashy and deal with a lower rating.”

Nice idea, and it happens some of the time, but when your pulse is hammering and your blood is high, you go for the most thematically appropriate narration that’s going to give you a shitty stat to roll. Gamers will game; playing to your strengths is part of that, and is hardly the problem I’m talking about, or even a problem in the first place. Moving on…

Where were we?

Right: so I’m leaning toward dumping Approaches entirely and rating the Aspects instead – at least as a trial run, to see how it feels in play.

Doing that, Aral might look like this:

Patriotic Noble of Naboo [+3]
Revolutionary with a Bounty on my Head [+1]
The Empire took my family from me [+2]
An officer and sometimes bloodthirsty gentleman [+2]
E’lir would be my daughter’s age… [+1]

So the Aspects continue to function as Aspects, but also function as… almost miniature character classes, or gestalt skill/experience “sets,” where you pick the one most applicable to the action taken (or the lowest rated one that applies, if there are many, because I’m mean), and add that value to the roll.

Yes, you’d probably have one aspect you ‘always’ roll when shooting someone, but… okay. How is that different than a character with a “Shoot” skill? Aral’s experiences as an officer and bloodthirsty gentlemen is where he learned to shoot. Makes sense. Done.

And hey, if you throw a fate point down and activate that same Aspect for a bonus on the roll you just made with that Aspect? Then this action is SUPER important and relevant to that facet of the character, which I choose to see as a big feature, not a bug.

But the main thing – as my daughter pointed out while we were talking about this today – is that everything you’re doing, related to that roll, is only pulling you in toward that core character concept; there’s no weird double influence of “I’m being bloodthirsty, but FLASHILY.” (Which sounds a little psychotic, anyway. 🙂

I don’t mean to pick on Dave at all; I think this is relevant to several characters – probably all of them, to different degrees – it’s just that he’s the easiest example of what I’m thinking, and I got thinking about it when he mentioned Aral as he exists now is different than how he envisioned him. Some variance is obviously going to happen – it always does – but given the ability we have to define characters with Aspects, it really shouldn’t go that far afield.

Anyway, thoughts?


  1. I could have also put this on the community G+ thread, but I’ll put it here in case it’s of use to anyone.

    The stock FAE approaches can be seen as sitting on a three-axis system. When I want to decide which Approach to use, I ask myself which of these three things is most critical for the roll:

    How important is fast vs. slow? Careful vs. Quick
    How important is subtlety? Sneaky vs. Flashy
    How important is brains vs. brawn? Clever vs. Forceful

    The second decision (which of the two alternatives is appropriate) is immediate, once I’ve defined the most important thing by choosing one of those three questions to answer.

  2. I read this post and thought “good idea, but hasn’t it already been done somewhere in a published game?” I thought I’d seen it somewhere before, but was wracking my brains for where exactly – turns out it was probably a combination of several things.

    First, aspects used to have levels back in the original Hicks/Donoghue FATEs (when FATE stood for ‘Fudge Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment,’ and then in 2E ‘Fantastic Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment’). These levels were used in character creation to buy skill ranks relevant to them, and then used in play to limit how many times you could invoke a certain aspect relative to others (so if you had 3 levels in ‘Knight-Commissar of the Order of Judas’ and 1 level in ‘Exiled from France’, you could invoke the former three times and the latter once, and then you’d need a ‘refresh’ to invoke either of them again.

    Second, PDQ has ‘fortes,’ which are essentially player-defined skills. They’re not full-blown aspects: they tend to be more straightforward and less colourful (e.g. “soldier” or “pickpocket”), and PDQ doesn’t have the same economy of points, nor the same dynamic of compelling and invoking, etc. But it is similar in that players define for themselves how to describe what their characters can do, and these are then assigned ranks which determine how good the character is at them and have a mechanical impact on play.

    Third, Over the Edge (and its generic version, the WaRP System)* used a very similar concept to what you’ve described here. Characters are defined by a Concept and 4 Traits: a Central Trait, two Side Traits, and a Flaw (as well as some other interesting stuff, like a Motivation, Secret, and Important Person). These Traits are then given scores, which tell you how many dice to roll when you’re doing something that directly involves that trait.

    In fact, now that I think about it, Over the Edge is probably a much better system for constructing Star Wars stories than Fate, at least in some ways – I mean, most characters in Star Wars have a pretty clear Motivation, some kind of Secret, and an Important Person in their life. (e.g. Vader’s Motivation is to rule the galaxy, his Secret is that he is Anakin Skywalker, and his Important Person is presumably Padme or Luke? Lando’s Secret is that he has betrayed Han, Han’s Important Person is probably Chewy, Luke’s Motivation is – at least initially – to get revenge for his family, etc) I’ve never actually played the system, but I think of it almost as a kind of stripped-down and streamlined proto-Fate (although with some areas that lacked in finesse), because it manages to do the basics of what Fate originally aimed to do without the clunkiness of Skills, etc.

    I guess the ideal situation from your point of view might be to somehow create a fusion of OtE and Fate, stripping out Skills and bringing in M/S/IP, but at the same time preserving the economy of Fate Points and invokes/compels, as well as some of the broader conceptual stuff that Fate blew wide open (namely the Fractal and the idea that Aspects can be gained and lost, and apply not only to people but also to environments and objects and so on). The Fate damage/health system probably makes more sense than the OtE one for Star Wars, too, so I’d keep that…

    So the final hack would be: Aspects/Traits sort of merged into one thing and applicable on the universal and fractal basis, Fate Points and the corresponding uses of those points, stress and consequences, but characters more richly tied into the story by defined dimensions in which they have something to hide, someone in their past, etc.

    Damn, now I really want to play this hack!

    I could also have talked a bit about Wushu (at least Wushu Open, I haven’t seen the other versions) here in terms of how it handles Traits, but it isn’t a great example because it doesn’t actually explain what Traits are supposed to be or give more than 2 examples (which are “Psychic” and “Kung Fu”, which isn’t exactly expansive guidance); also, I think OtE is more pertinent because of the other things it brings to the table.

    1. Great thoughts!

      Right now, our guidelines one the third, fourth, and fifth aspects are that they’re meant to be the “rebellion”, “team”, and “bond (with someone)” aspects, so in play we’re actually pretty close to what you were talking about at the end. Good stuff!

      1. Yeah, overall (including using aspects instead of approaches) that does sound pretty close to the Fate/OtE mashup I was picturing. Sounds like a great project!

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