Aspects are used to gain and spend fate points, which are benefits that you use to shape the story in dramatic ways and help your character succeed at actions. Fate points are a lot like the hero points from the Pathfinder RPG Advanced Player's Guide, but are much more numerous. If you are using aspects and fate points for your campaign, you should not use the hero point system, as they are somewhat redundant.
Each character will start the game with a set number of fate points. This number will be set by the GM, but I suggest using either the character's level, or the character's level +2. This starting number is also a statistic called refresh. At certain intervals, characters' pools of fate points will reset to this value. The frequency that these resets occur is up to the GM. A couple of simple suggestions is to have fate points refresh every play session or every character level. A more complicated way, and my personal suggestion, is to base the refresh on stories, or acts within those stories. This makes a little more work for the GM, and leads to fate points being a bit more of a precious resource, but it will lead to a game that has more of a cinematic and story-driven flow. In general, the more frequently you have your character's refresh their fate points, the lower their refresh values should be.
It is best to use some sort of physical counter - glass beads or poker chips work best - to represent fate points. Avoid using anything edible, as players may absentmindedly eat their fate points. I'm only half-joking there.
There are two mechanics that you will use with fate points. The first, invoking an aspect, is used by the player to spend one or more fate points to receive a benefit. The second, compelling an aspect, is used by the GM (and sometimes other players) to add a hindrance or complication to the story in return for a character earning a fate point.
When you invoke an aspect, you choose one of your aspects which you think would give you an edge in a certain situation. The aspect should tie in this situation, and it is ultimately left up to the GM to decide whether or not that aspect is applicable. A good GM will not dismiss your attempt off-hand, and there may some back and forth negotiating on the matter. If the GM decides that your aspect is applicable, you spend a fate point for one of the benefits listed below. If he does not, the fate point is not spent. You may only spend one fate point per round per aspect you are trying to invoke.
Once you have successfully invoked an aspect, you may spend a fate point to gain any of the benefits listed in the hero point system except Act Out of Turn, Extra Action, or Recall, with the following modifications:
- Bonus: Because fate points are far more plentiful than hero points, the bonus received is reduced to +2 before the die roll, or +1 after the die is rolled. This bonus is a luck bonus that stacks with other bonuses gained from using a fate point, but not from another source. You may not use this benefit to assist another character. Using a fate point in this way is the least beneficial method.
- Inspiration: This works exactly as stated in the Advanced Player's Guide.
- Reroll: You may reroll any one d20 roll you just made, or any damage roll you just made. If rerolling a damage roll, you must reroll all of the dice. In either case, you must use the second roll, even if it is worse than the original result.
- Special: This catch-all category is always subject to the GM's approval. In addition to the examples listed in the Advanced Player's Guide, a player may spend a fate point to invoke and aspect for effect. Doing this allows the character to declare a fact or circumstance that would benefit a character and make it true. This is a very open benefit, and as always, the GM has the final say on the matter, and should establish some guidelines beforehand. Some good examples of guidelines are the effect may not adversely affect another player character, the effect may not give a direct mechanical benefit, and it may not give the character a magic item or a non-magical item over 10 gp in value.
- Cheat Death: In order to cheat death, the player need simply spend two fate points without invoking an aspect. If a player is able to invoke an aspect, he need only spend one fate point.
The flip side of invoking aspects, compelling aspects allows the GM a way to complicate stories for characters and gives players ways to gain fate points. Generally, a compel will focus on only one aspect, but in rare cases, multiple aspects may be compelled, and more fate points gained. A player is free to refuse the compel, but will not get the fate point unless they accept it - in fact, they'll have to pay a fate point to refuse it.
Compels come in two flavors: limitations and complications. Limitations restrict a character's possible actions in a given situation. This sort of compel can limit the type of actions available to a character, but can never dictate an exact action that a character can take. For example if a character had "Bully" as aspect and was trying to talk his way past some city guards, the GM could compel that character's aspect to deny him the ability to use the diplomacy skill in the situation. If the player accepted, they would still be able to use the intimidate or bluff skill to get past the guards, though this may result in some less-than-desirable consequences.
Complications are situational events or plot twists that make life a little tougher. This might be the appearance of a antagonistic NPC, or a secret coming out at the wrong moment. In some cases, the compel might even suggest failing at a skill check without even rolling the die.
When the GM sees an opportunity to compel a character's aspect, he presents the possible effects of the compel, and tempts the player by suggestively waving a fate point in front of the player. Like invoking, there may be some room for negotiation on the compel. Once the terms have been settled, the player must decide whether or not to accept the compel. If they accept, they receive the fate point, but must abide by the guidelines of the compel, and any consequences - foreseen or unforeseen - that arise from it. If the player decides not accept, they must give the GM a fate point, but do not have to abide by the compel.
Sometimes, a player may find himself in need of fate points and/or see a good opportunity for a compel. A player may initiate a compel for his own character by merely mentioning it to the GM. If the GM likes the idea, he may offer the fate point like a normal compel. If you see an opportunity for a compel against another character, you may initiate a compel against them by pushing forward a fate chip and pitching your idea. If the GM agrees, he will take your fate chip and offer the compel to the other player. If the other player accepts the compel, they receive your fate chip. If they decline, you do not get your fate chip back.
At other times, you may find yourself playing out your aspects without thinking to ask for a compel. In this case, the GM should make a note of what happened and award the affected character with a retroactive fate point, or let the character start with an extra fate point after the next refresh. This situation should only apply if the player made choices based on their aspects that adversely affected their character in some way.
Sometimes, the GM may have a particularly good idea for a compel - something that makes a very tense and dramatic turning point for a story - but the player just isn't biting. In cases like these, the GM has one more trick to pull out: escalation. In cases like these, if the player refuses compel, the GM ups the stakes by offering a second fate point. If the player still wants to refuse, he must spend another fate point (for a total of two) to refuse. If the player accepts, he gets back the original fate point that he spent to refuse, in addition to the two points for accepting the compel. In extremely rare and dramatically important situations, the GM might escalate up to three points if the second compel is refused. In cases of escalation, the GM and player should add some details to the story that reflect the mounting tension and importance of the moment.
Players may also initiate an escalation. When initially refusing the compel, the player can simply push forward the first fate point and state that they aren't willing to accept for only one fate point. The GM is then free to either accept the refusal or escalate the compel. Regardless of who initiates it, an escalating compel should be used sparingly as a tool to build and shape the story.
Those are the basics of the aspects and the fate point system, and how to integrate them into Pathfinder. Hopefully you will find them intriguing and/or useful. If you try them out in your own games and would like to share any comments, please feel free to do so.
There are also rules that I may go into in future posts, including assigning aspects for NPCs, monsters, locations, and even stories or campaigns in general. If you can't wait until then or if you are looking for more in depth examples on the workings of the system, I suggest picking up one of the many games that uses the FATE system. In particular, I recommend the Dresden Files RPG.