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In FATE, you can utilize aspects to improve your die rolls, granting bonuses or re-rolls. However, you can choose to apply aspects after the die has already rolled. Does one revise the description of the original action in order to apply aspects?

For example, suppose a room has the aspect "Columns". You announce you are going to attack someone. You roll Weapons, but don't do well enough. Can you at that point announce that you used the columns for cover to sneak up on your opponent, tagging the Columns aspect and getting a re-roll, or did you have to describe using the Columns for cover in your original action description?

EDIT: It turns out that the answer to this can vary a bit depending on the FATE system. Since I'm playing Spirit of the Century, and its probably closest to a "standard" FATE 3.0 (before FATE core is released), I chose the answer that best seemed to address that system.

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6 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

On SOTC p. 39, there is this quote about Invoking Aspects (emphasis mine):

The GM is the final arbiter of when an aspect is or is not appropriate (see “Getting On the Same Page”, page 37). Usually this means the player must invoke an aspect that is appropriate to the situation at hand. If the player wants to invoke an inappropriate-seeming aspect, he should be given a chance to describe how the action is appropriate to the aspect. The GM’s priority here is not to strictly limit the use of aspects but rather, to encourage their appropriate use by encouraging players to make decisions that keep their aspects interesting.

If the subsequent use of the aspect applies to the narrative, then yes, it would be appropriate to the use. However, retconning the action so that the aspect could apply would definitely fall outside of appropriate use. Aspects are used to modify the narrative, not change it, and once the narrative is set, subsequent aspects should be used in that spirit.

In your example above, "Columns" couldn't be justified as they were used to sneak up on the opponent because that was not the way the action was described. However if they player guessed that a convenient "Column" cast a shadow on him and tagged that, and the GM ruled that this was reasonable, he could spend a Fate point in that way- his invocation modified his narrative, rather than changed it.

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I'm choosing this one, since it seems to be the consensus. However, it sounds like some versions of FATE, like Diaspora, handle it a little differently. So it sounds like either approach can work well. –  Caleb Aug 14 '12 at 17:22
@Caleb - Remember that when choosing an answer, you shouldn't look at it as you have to follow concensus- choose whatever works best for your question rather than what works best in general. If I answered in such a way as to sway you towards this with the evidence and you plan to use it, by all means, mark it as the answer. But if another makes sense for your particular play of FATE, that's fine also. –  wraith808 Aug 14 '12 at 18:44
Good point, I didn't choose it just because others agree with you. That added some credibility to your answer. But I chose yours primarily because it seems well motivated, its well documented, and I think you explained your point concisely but completely, thus is the best "reference answer" for others who come across this thread. I was mainly interested in the "standard" way to do this. There are other answers which have nice alternative ways of play, but I'll be starting with yours since I am convinced it is that closest to a standard that exists in Fate. –  Caleb Aug 14 '12 at 23:45
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I'm not sure of the exact ruling in Spirit of the Century, but the example given in Fate Core is to use ellipses in the description of your action to defer the narration of the (possible) use of an aspect, as in: "I attack the ringleader with my sword and..." [rolls dice]. If it's successful, you announce the result. If it isn't successful, you can invoke an aspect "... since I have the Notice Things Others Miss aspect, I realize there is a loose spot in his armor and hit him there" [handing over a fate point and adding +2 to get a better result].

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You always roll first, then decide if you want to apply Aspects. Think of the roll as a randomiser that determines not whether you succeed or fail (as in most games), but instead how difficult the intended task ended up being. After the roll, applying Aspects develops the story of how the character overcomes or fails to overcome that obstacle.

What's important about using an Aspect to improve (or reroll) a roll is that your added description of how the Aspect helps moves the action forward in time. You're not changing what you did retroactively – you're describing small adjustments, good fortune, and sometimes large deviations that happen after the decision to begin an action but before the action is complete. This isn't so strange – success hasn't happened yet, so you have time to play with in between decision-to-act and the fulfillment of that action: this time is the resolution of the action.

Third, Aspects can be used in many ways, and each possible use will create a more or less different fiction going forward. It's never enough to say that you're using an Aspect; you must always, always describe how it makes the difference between success and failure. As a rule of thumb, it's easy to remember like this:

  • Cause and Effect: Your Aspect is the Cause, but you have to describe the Effect. There is no Cause without Effect.

When you pay a Fate point and tag Columns, you're not done yet. You have to describe how they make the crucial difference between hitting your target and missing. How you describe that can make for very different results. For example, you could describe any of these:

  1. The bullet ricochets off a column ahead of the target, rebounding and hitting them.
  2. The columns give me convenient geometry to sight along, giving me just the advantage I need to land the shot on-target.
  3. I dodge from column to column, pacing my target, until I have the perfect shot.
  4. I advance under cover of the columns, closing the range and giving me an easy shot. (Your example.)

See how each of those all start with the existence of the columns, but ends with subtly different outcomes? The first narratively develops your character as lucky (or maybe good at crazy trick-shots!); the second as exacting and methodical; the third both moves you to a different location and says something about your character's patience and maybe cold-bloodedness; the fourth is yet again different in outcome. Each of those three also causes the action's resolution to take up a different amount of time, which is a small but important fictional detail. The Effect (the fiction) of the Cause (the Aspect you tag) matters, and you don't get the bonus without saying how it effects the outcome. When you do describe how it effects the outcome, you create story, and that is the entire purpose of Fate having Aspects at all – to create new slivers of story about how your character pulls it off.

So that's my final bit of advice: You know you're using Aspects right when each new Aspect drawn into an action's resolution creates a little bit (or sometimes a lot of) story. If an Aspect isn't accompanied by a moment of storytelling about how it alters the direction of fate's arrow, then you're not yet using the Aspect right. If you keep this in mind, you'll rarely go wrong in using Aspects. So, if you can't think of how to describe an Aspect's effect on the action, then that Aspect can't be used for its mechanical effect.

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Do you have a reference to this mode of play? From every example I've read (Evil Hat to others), you declare before you roll what you're doing narratively. This does sound like an interesting approach, however, which is why I ask... –  wraith808 Aug 11 '12 at 18:06
You declare what task you're doing first, of course. But you always have the option of bringing in more Aspects; when you do, you have to narrate how it applies. That's just the rules restated—is that what you're asking, or is it some other part of the answer? –  SevenSidedDie Aug 12 '12 at 1:16
No, I get what you're saying. I thought you were saying something more along the lines of what Edgerunner is saying above, which I've never seen. –  wraith808 Aug 13 '12 at 1:04
@wraith808 Okay, thanks! Though in hindsight this answer doesn't seem to be attracting much agreement, so it may very well be an idiosyncratic reading of the rules. I get the feeling that there are as many ways to play Fate as there are Fate play groups. –  SevenSidedDie Aug 13 '12 at 1:22
I will definitely agree there! Which is why I love FATE questions on RPG.SE... I learn so much! One thing I will say- I don't always play that you roll then add aspects- especially when the players have already put things in place specifically for the roll. They narrate with their set-up in the description, even if they might decide what to do with the tags that they are going to use after the fact. –  wraith808 Aug 13 '12 at 2:35
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The trick here is, in FATE, you should defer the narration until after the roll is resolved. You announce your action, ask for compels and then roll. Then you invoke any aspects, and finally, you narrate the outcome.

This is contrary to the common paradigm of narrating your intended action and then rolling to see if it comes true or not.

One thing to note is that announcing an action is not the same as narrating it. When you announce, you specify the game-mechanical details of your action. The type of action, the skill you use and the target. Maybe a goal, but no more. Like so:

Right: I attack Bob's mental stress track using Intimidation

Wrong: I tell Bob the story of how he failed last time and how he will fail again, that he's doomed to fail because he is just a lowly dimwit, and he is just hopeless. I sneer and shout and try to make him feel inadequate.

Narrating first is wrong because then you will either lose access to a number of nice aspects that could have been used, because they don't fit the initial narrative, or you will have to alter the narrative with every aspect invocation. And the result of the roll will only be able to determine if the narrative is true or not.

If you just announce the action, then you will have the opportunity to freely use aspects, because there's no binding narrative yet. Then you can form your narrative in tune with the action and the aspects invoked. And don't forget that the outcome of the roll is something you should look up in the ladder that every FATE game has. And that adjective is what you should base your narrative on.

Great(+4) Intimidation with Uncanny smile: I tell Bob the story of how he failed last time and how he will fail again, that he's doomed to fail because he is just a lowly dimwit, and he is just hopeless. Bob is unnerved by the weird smile on my face and the confidence of my argument, and probably doubts himself severely.

Mediocre(±0) Intimidation: I remind Bob about how he failed last time. He remembers the disappointment but changes the subject quickly.

Terrible(-2) Intimidation: I try to disappoint Bob by reminding him of his failure, but he snaps back with the fact that I was supposed to help him, and I didn't so I am to blame. I fail to push my argument and just sip my scotch over the silence that follows.

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Do you have a reference to this type of play? In examples by Evil Hat and others, they don't defer narration. It's a nice trick, and of course you can play how you want... but is there an official source for this? –  wraith808 Aug 13 '12 at 1:03
I've not seen that style of play shown as exemplar for any FATE game - but I have seen it for Burning Wheel. It's a valid approach... but it's not one I've seen associated with FATE by the various publishers (VSCA, Evil Hat, and another). –  aramis Aug 13 '12 at 7:07
It is a modified version of the approach presented in Diaspora (narration, dice and more narration), one that I have tested and found to be useful in Diaspora and my own game, Edgerunner. Hope it helps :) –  edgerunner Aug 13 '12 at 8:02
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FATE actions are not "graven in stone" until the GM narrates the results. There is, in FATE (and many other narrativist games) a clear distinction between mechanic and narrative - at least in play. And the task attempt description is mechanic, not narrative, until the outcome is agreed upon.

Noting that SOTC p 11 makes it clear that aspects are invoked after rolling:

Invoke an Aspect: When you have an aspect that's applicable to a situation, it can be invoked to grant a bonus. After you have rolled the dice, you may pick one of your aspects and describe how it applies to this situation. If the GM agrees that it's appropriate, you may spend a fate point and do one of the following:

  1. Reroll all the dice, using the new result, or
  2. Add two to the final die roll (after any rerolls have been done).

You may do this multiple times for a single situation as long as you have multiple aspects that are applicable. You cannot use the same aspect more than once on the same skill use, though you may use the same aspect on several different rolls throughout a scene, at the cost of one fate point per use.

The example on page 11 also shows that the description of the action before rolling is mutable - notice the fourth paragraph of the following quote, where Jet is trying to get the bomb away before it goes off:

Example: Jet Black has the aspects “Nick of Time”, “Seat of My Pants” and “Motorhead”. He’s just grabbed the ticking bomb and is trying to sprint out of Tesla’s lair in time to toss it off the cliff.

Jet has Superb Athletics, but he rolls terribly ––=– (-3) for a result of Fair (Superb - 3), which is far from good enough. He points out that he’s doing something crazy “by the seat of his pants,” and the GM thinks that’s fine, so Jet spends a fate point to reroll the dice. He does a little better, ––+– (-2) for a result of Good (Superb - 2). Still, he’s worried it’s not quite good enough, so he suggests that as a Motorhead, he knows things about machinery, like… like bombs! That might be useful…!

The GM tells Jet that she feels that his engineering knowledge is not going to be much use unless he wants to stop to try to defuse the bomb – is that what he’d like to do?

It should be noted that the engineering knowledge comes from the aspect Motorhead, not from an engineering skill. This is a valid use of Aspects... representing a knowledge base that applies narrowly to any given skill, but to several skills.

As the example shows, even after rolling and then invoking one aspect, the nature of the task can be altered with aspects.

It's also worth pointing out that failure on a throw means a different bunch of story effects than a failure on a defuse... namely where it goes off. A fail on the sprint means it's still moved, but not enough to save Jet; a failed defuse means it goes off right where it was, and we can presume that would be bad... very bad.

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I see what you mean by your evidence here. However, I must say this example is somewhat confusing. If Jet were to decide retroactively that he was actually defusing the bomb, he'd be using an entirely different skill, completely changing the original action, not just modifying it to use an aspect. I have seen little evidence that such an extreme alteration is allowed. –  Caleb Aug 12 '12 at 0:49
His engineering knowledge is not a skill. –  aramis Aug 13 '12 at 6:09
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You don't change your action so much as describe how the action fits the aspects you want to invoke or tag.

Spirit of the Century, page 11

Invoke an Aspect: When you have an aspect that's applicable to a situation, it can be invoked to grant a bonus. After you have rolled the dice, you may pick one of your aspects and describe how it applies to this situation. If the GM agrees that it's appropriate, you may spend a fate point ...

Tag an Aspect: Scenes, other characters, locations, and other things of dramatic importance can have aspects. Players can spend a fate point to invoke an aspect which is not on their own character sheet, if they know what the aspect is. As a rule of thumb, tagging someone or something else's aspects requires a little more justification than invoking one of your own aspects. For scene aspects, it should be some way to really bring in the visual or theme that the aspect suggests. For aspects on opponents, the player needs to know about the aspect in the first place, and then play to it.

(Emphasis mine.)

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