Building an Army through Aspects

March 25th, 2010

My favorite trapping of the FATE roleplaying game system is “aspects,” descriptive traits that a person, object, organization, or whatever may have that can provide a mechanical benefit or hindrance when appropriate. This is an old idea, what with dozens of RPGs over the years having perks or flaws available during character creation, but with each being strictly beneficial or strictly counterproductive. Aspects could swing either way and depending on the circumstances a single aspect could swing either way. Temporary aspects could arise as consequences of various actions. They’re greatly versatile.

So when my D&D game went from railroad mode to sandbox mode (this was an explicit shift; I told them it was part of the campaign structure from the outset), the militia of the small town of Freehold needed to take root, to turn into a military power of some consequence. Since we were officially in a do-whatever-you-want phase of the story, I didn’t want to put any undue limits on how this was going to unfold, so I set aside the bulk of the 4th Edition D&D rules for an extended “skill challenge” built around the notion that the player characters would have the opportunity to boss around, assist, and train their town’s militia into something more suitable for a fledgling kingdom’s national security.

We started by each chipping in an aspect to describe the status quo of the militia. We’re not a bunch of indy-RPG pass-the-speaking-stick collaborative storytelling types as such, being firmly grounded in the tradition of strong-DM rule systems (where you ask the DM for facts about your character’s world instead of asserting facts into the setting). We got the following array of descriptors, which I think was accurate but pretty bland:

  • Redshirt
  • Cannon Fodder
  • Not in the face!
  • Better them than us
  • Survivor

A pretty sorry lot, all told. Clearly they were going to need some whipping into shape. Armed with a hex map of the area, a whiteboard with an open-bottomed table drawn onto it, and a cheap erasable calendar I picked up at the teacher’s supplies store, we set to work. The players could use their D&D skills to remove or add aspects to any number of militiamen, modifying their odds of success by spending additional time on their tasks. The default DC was 25 (these were 4th level characters, so we’re talking about pretty long odds), but I would reduce the DC by 2 for each additional day spent working on it, with a few other situational modifiers available. The players quickly set to work figuring out a strategy to minimize the risk of failing any of their die rolls, consistently aiming for extremely safe rolls.

To inject some degree of urgency, I planned on having an event happen at least once a month that would progressively indicate that something bigger than their militia could handle would come down on them if they didn’t hurry up a little.

After about two months, we ended up with the following twenty five-man militia teams:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
Cannon Fodder
Not in the face!
Better them than us
Disciplined Soldier
Field Medic
Arcane Apprentice
Arcane Journeyman
Dirty Tricks
Holy Warrior
Art of War

It quickly came out that “Redshirt” and “Cannon Fodder” were purely negative traits, and needed to be removed from pretty much the entire militia, that “Not in the face!” and “Better them than us” were a mixed bag, and that nobody wanted to lose the “Survivor” aspect. The player characters proceeded to pull teams of militiamen from patrol and watch duty to drum undesirable traits out and cultivate new desirable traits. The skill challenge aspect encouraged them to play to their strengths. Can you guess which groups received a lot of attention from the party Rogue? Or the Fighter with multiclassed Cleric? Or the Wizard?

I didn’t really know how this would turn out. Some possibilities that crossed my mind included that they would set some portion of the militia to work building fortifications or crafting new equipment for themselves. I suspected they would make diplomatic gestures towards a neighboring Halfling despot for some kind of mutual assurance pact or to hire mercenaries from there. Once my players got made up their mind to focus on whipping their cannon-fodder redshirts into shape, they stuck to it.

The good people of Freehold now have a spectrum of men-at-arms, united in an ethos of self-preservation. Half of them are characterized by excellent discipline, nearly half a well-versed in dirty tricks, and a handful have specialized roles that reflect certain facets of the party dynamic. These fighting men reflect their leadership, and for once I’ve got dozens of NPCs whose primary characteristics were far more the product of the players than of the DM. In a D&D game. How ’bout that?

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