“Aspects Are Always True” Considered Harmful

I recently wrote a long piece on Reddit for a role-playing game system I love, FATE. People there use a shorthand for a part of the game, and I think that shorthand is not helpful to new players. My post got downvoted to obscurity, so I copied it here for safekeeping. You can safely ignore it if you’ve never heard of the game or probably even if you have.

One of the frequent aphorisms in the FATE community is that aspects are always true. Clearly intended as a guideline for using FATE, the term has too many problems to be really useful. I don’t use it in my games, and I think you should avoid it in yours. Here’s why.

It’s not true mechanically

Aspects are changed periodically throughout the “long game”, at major and minor milestones. Early in the game, players can add aspects to their characters to round them out and provide focus for play. They can modify their characters’ aspects to clarify them. They can replace aspects with new ones, or just remove them if that narrative element has been resolved.

It’s not true narratively

The character who is the Captain of the good ship Discipline was not born that way. She may not die that way. There was a time that she started Seeking the Northern Passage and there may be a time that she stops. She won’t be Dying of the Catarrh forever, and although she may Trust my First Mate Davies for now, he had to sign on, become first mate, and earn that trust at some point. Whether he loses that trust in the future is up to him (and her).

Human lives have a limited extent in time; they have a start and an end. So do important elements of their stories: jobs, relationships, philosophies, obsessions. Stories about humans and human-like creatures will have elements that have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They don’t extend infinitely into the past or the future; they are not “always true”.

It confuses people

Many of the posts on r/faterpg are about trying to figure out the logic problem about something being “always true”. “If the knight is the Wearer of the Dragon Helm, can he take it off to eat or sleep?” “If the detective is the Sworn Enemy of the Gemelli Syndicate, is he immune to amnesia, since he wouldn’t remember to be their enemy any more?”

“Always true” locks props, characters and places into unnatural poses and positions, as immovable as Thor’s Hammer. Except in extreme cases, that’s not how real or fictional worlds actually work. Nobody wants to play the character whose helm is stuck eternally to his head, who can never kiss or swim or cut his hair. That’s not why players choose aspects, and it’s not how they want to play.

It’s occasionally interesting to explore the logical paradoxes around absolute terms like “always true”, but it’s not good for playing games or telling stories.

It’s not necessary

It’s easy to describe the importance of aspects without relying on them being “always true”. In a game that is about telling stories together, aspects are the story elements we want to talk about. They are your elevator pitch for the character; the supporting structure that everything is built around.

You can get players to come up with good aspects without resorting to the “always true” idea. “Why do you want to play this character? What about them would the other PCs notice or care about? When the songs are sung by the minstrels, what will they say about your character?”

If you are finding yourself and your players getting wrapped around the wheel over what is or isn’t “always true”, you should steer clear of the concept, and just concentrate on what parts of the story are fun and interesting. That’s what we’re all here for, anyway.

One thing that’s been pointed out to me is that the FATE core rulebook has some wording that is similar to “Aspects are always true”, to talk about how to role-play in a game.

Finally, aspects have a passive use that you can draw on in almost every instance of play. Players, you can use them as a guide to roleplaying your character. This may seem self-evident, but it should be called out anyway—the aspects on your character sheet are true of your character at all times, not just when they’re invoked or compelled.

From Using Aspects for Roleplaying

That’s very reasonable, but I think the distilled wording that “aspects are always true” gets people confused. A search for “always true” on the FATE sub on Reddit shows dozens of people getting confused by the phrase. So, maybe there are better ways to say it.

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