Pictures as character aspects in Fate

The Fate Core rulebook defines an aspect as “a phrase that describes something unique or noteworthy about whatever it’s attached to”.

But in many cases pictures could be used instead of phrases, and they would work as aspects just as well.

I am not the first person (by a long shot) to suggest using images as aspects in Fate. Ryan Macklin talked about using the cover image from Shadowrun as a game aspect back in 2011, and last year he revisited the idea when talking about using Dixit cards as session aspects. In both cases, he was primarily talking about inspiration and tone, something that pictures can often do much better than words.

Based on this, I was going to do a post on all sorts of different ways you might use pictures as aspects in Fate, only to find earlier this year that someone had already done it. Tangent Artists Tabletop has done an amazing blog post on image aspects, covering some ways they might be used even during play (that is, drawn right there at the table, e.g. in marker on a laminated sheet) and when it might be particularly appropriate. They even included some neat hacks, all of which seem to have been playtested.

So I’m not going to do the blog post I originally planned. Instead, I’m going to talk about something that wasn’t covered in these blog posts: pictures as character aspects.

Pictures can define character

Before I talk about Fate specifically, I want to mention a couple of other games that prominently use images to depict characters.

The first is a game I’ve recently read called Swords Without Master. It’s designed to emulate the pulpy sword-and-sorcery of the original Conan the Cimmerian tales, but it’s not tied to any particular setting.

In Swords Without Master, character creation begins by selecting an eidolon or simulacrum. The game defines them as follows:

These are things of our world that remind the players of their rogues. It may be an illustration, a miniature, a song, a book, an actor, or any number of other things. They do not have to be direct representations of the rogues. They can be a painting of the aftermath of a battle in which the rogue’s father fell, a meal commonly eaten by the rogue’s people, or a song that recalls a promise once made to the rogue. All that matters is that it is of our world and reminds you of your rogue.

This definition is broader than just a picture, although pictures are the most straightforward. They are the easiest to share with other people. And of all the listed options, pictures of the individual are probably the only eidolons that do not require further explanation. Plus they have the benefit of being widely available. The Google+ group for Swords Without Master has hundred of pictures for use as eidolons or simulacra for rogues or for the overarching tales that are played.

It’s incredibly powerful to have something at the start of character creation for inspiration, and to get other people on the same page about what your rogue is like.

It doesn’t even matter much that eidolons and simulacra have no mechanical impact during actual gameplay.

The second game I want to mention is the first one I played with my current gaming society. I mentioned it briefly in the post on my personal backstory. There were no character sheets other than evocative, highly detailed and often bizarre images cribbed from the many corners of the internet. Here’s one we liked that wasn’t used:

Master of kitten kung fu

I want to talk about that game for a bit, because it was the simplest system you can possibly imagine and yet the game was huge fun. The pictures got us all on the same page really quickly. They were all very different but all tied perfectly into the tone and idea of the game: individuals created by a far-future corporation, loosely based on fragments of 18th to 20th century fiction and turned into weapons to protect the corporation’s interests. My character was a tough, knife-wielding jungle girl who rode into battle on a gigantic ferret. Everyone was wacky but on-point. We could do anything that it would be reasonable for our characters to do, based solely on our pictures and what we could rationalise to the GM. The only excuse for a system was: roll dice when you want to do something, and the GM would set a difficulty for it, based on his gut instinct.

In this game, everything we needed for our characters was in these pictures. They were the whole character sheet, and yet the characters felt just as complete as a character from another game with a sheet covered in numbers and boxes.

Using pictures in Fate

So if pictures can be used to define RPG characters without a mechanical impact, could they be more useful with a mechanical impact?

Fate is the perfect test case for this. In Fate Core, characters have five aspects. (Other versions of Fate might have different numbers of aspects, but I’ll stick to Fate Core as an example.) There’s a High Concept, to encapsulate your character idea, a Trouble, to show what most complicates the character’s life, and then three other aspects, ideally shaping the character’s position in the setting and making them nuanced and 3-dimensional.

Why not swap one of these five aspects with a picture? You could replace any of them, even a High Concept or Trouble.

High Concept pictures

The High Concept “sums up what your character is about”. Obviously, encapsulating that in a picture will be easier for some characters than others, but it’s definitely possible.

Fate Core suggests a few ways to get started thinking about High Concepts. It could be the character’s occupation, perhaps with an adjective to further define the idea, or it could be two different occupations mashed together. These are all very easy to put into a picture: a picture of the character doing what they do, in the place where they do it, using their standard equipment or talents, and with an expression to show what they think about it. The only suggestion that might be hard to work into a picture is the last one, playing off an important relationship, but that could easily be put into another aspect further down the list.

Let’s think about some examples.

If you were playing a D&D-inspired game in Fate, your High Concept should cover your race/species and your class, with perhaps specialisms and personality an added bonus. There are any number of pictures of the D&D iconic characters, which are designed to convey exactly that information.

Or if you were playing in a superhero game, the High Concept should show off your superpowers and your personality (e.g. your stance on the use of extreme force). The cover of a comic book generally would show most of that, plus information like your position on the scale from Silver Age wackiness to Modern age grit.

You can invoke these very easily when doing something that the picture implies the character can do, or when your action is particularly appopriate according to the tone of the image.

Trouble pictures

Again, going back to basics, Fate Core suggests two types of Trouble: personal struggles and problematic relationships.

In both cases, an appropriate Trouble picture could show the character actually getting into trouble. The GM can offer a compel to get into trouble in the manner pictured.

This might only fully cover the Trouble in the case of personal struggles. Problematic relationships are harder to convey through an image because it’s harder to show why the relationship is problematic. Then again, depending on the game you’re playing, the ‘why’ might not matter as long as you show what would cause the problems. (After all, like the eidolons and simulacra in Swords Without Master, the picture wouldn’t necessarily need to be of the character in question.) Then the GM could offer a compel when this antagonistic force gets involved in the situation, either directly or indirectly.

Here’s the picture from the Trouble page in the Fate Core rulebook:

The bottle calls to me from Fate Core p34

From context, it’s clear enough that this relates to the example personal struggle The Bottle Calls to Me. I mean, the not-explicitly-branded-but-obviously-meant-to-be-Jack-Daniels bottle of booze is right there. But the picture shows more than just that phrase. This character isn’t drinking because it’s a fun time out with friends; she’s drinking alone, apparently at home, using it to cope with other things. To me, that’s a lot more useful than five words.

In fact, the Trouble picture needn’t be a picture of the character you’re playing. It could be of a generic character getting into trouble in a specific way, and it could be compelled just as easily for any character. Using the example above, any character with this type of alcoholism could use this picture, but you’d need to agree with everyone at the table how much of the image is relevant and how much isn’t.

Final thoughts

Pictures as aspects are limited only by your imagination and the pictures you can find. I wouldn’t recommend using them all the time. Among other things that phrasal aspects can have that pictures can’t is double meanings in the wording. (The best example of this in my circle of friends is the Flexible atheist, who was not only pragmatic and tolerant of other peoples’ religions but also as physically bendy as a contortionist.)

If you’ve ever tried running Fate with pictures as character aspects, please let me know what you did and how it worked. I’d quite like to give this idea a try. I suspect it’s more appropriate for FAE than standard Fate Core, but I think it would work for both.

It’s unfortunate that Fate sheets in general don’t have space for pictures on them. I don’t suppose anyone is willing to whip up an FAE character sheet template for me?

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