Thursday, September 16, 2010

Character Generation: Phases - the Theory

Phases are an innovative and integral part of Fate character creation -- and yet, oddly enough, one that many players despise, and which can be easily ignored.

In short, phases are a method for laying out a character's past in a clear and mechanically useful fashion. For each phase, a player writes a few sentences about their character's history, covering a particular period in their life. In every Fate game so far, there are five phases as a default. Their names and precise function vary from game to game, but essentially look like this:
Phase 1: Background and Youth
Detail where the character came from, what their childhood was like, what inborn talents and deeply-ingrained beliefs they have.
Phase 2: Becoming an Adult
Detail how the character started "coming into their own," how they began the occupation detailed in their Archetype, what lessons they learned in late adolescence and early adulthood.
Phase 3: The First Adventure
The first truly exciting moment for the character, what thrust them into the adventurous lifestyle they will play during the game proper. The player is encouraged to write the events of this phase in the style of the game: Spirit of the Century as the blurb on the back of a pulp novel, Starblazer Adventures as a comic book synopsis, my old time-travel game as a military-style mission report.
Phase 4: First Guest Star
The character takes part in another PC's First Adventure phase, establishing a history between the two characters.
Phase 5: Second Guest Star
Same as Phase 4, but in a second PC's First Adventure.
[note that this means that two other PCs will guest star int his character's First Adventure].

The phases serve three purposes:

  1. To lay out a character's history, to make sure every player knows their PC and where they came from.
  2. To establish a shared background between PCs, so that during play they will have both interesting interactions and reason to stay together.
  3. To help establish Aspects...
As you will recall, Aspects are physical or mental characteristics of a character that help define who they are. Logically, anything that defines a person must have arisen at some point in their life -- at birth, if biological; in childhood or adolescence, if a personality trait; in adulthood, if a trauma or deeply-held belief. Thus, phases are a tool for helping a player determine their Aspects.

In Spirit of the Century, Diaspora, Starblazer Adventures, and Legends of Anglerre (the newest Fate-based product, a generic-fantasy game with the same ruleset as Starblazer Adventures), each phase has two associated Aspects, for a total of ten; in The Dresden Files RPG, each phase gives only one Aspect, while two Aspects are unassociated with phases.

So as you see, phases are a fundamental piece of Fate, and ensures PCs knew each other before the adventure begins. However, some players find phases repellent. They don't like looking into the background of their character, seeing where they came from. Perhaps they don't yet know their character well enough to find their past; or perhaps they like their PC to have a bit of mystery (who wasn't a bit disappointed at Wolverine's origin, whether in comics or on film? Alternately, they may not like the idea of associating Aspects with time of life -- who can say when or how someone acquires "A Sense of Justice," or figured out "My Favorite Color is Blood?"

Additionally, many players don't like creating characters with previous ties to one another. "I don't know their character," reasons the player, "it will ring false to pretend my character does, instead of just getting to know them naturally." So, for two of three Fate-based games I've run, I've modified or abandoned the phase system. For one, I cut the phases down to three, allowing the players to work out who their characters were, but removing the links between their respective characters' pasts. Luckily, the campaign structure allowed me to keep them together, as they were a mission team within a military command.

The most recent group, who have been playtesting The City of Lives, has perhaps not been so lucky. They disliked both parts of the phase system, and requested I cut it out entirely. Next time I will go over my solutions, and what happened, in Character Generation: Phases - in Practice.