Using Iron Man to Explore Aspect Justification

There has been a lot of talk in the various Fate communities about aspects and how they justify action. There seems to be the assumption that if you want to do something not of the human norm, like having a superpower, you have to take a stunt and break the rules. But that’s not the case.

Breaking the rules where it applies to what you can and can’t do is a narrative thing and depends on what your setting, and table, will allow. In a hard-nosed investigative story, someone who can fly would break the narrative rules and not be allowed, even with a stunt to break the rules – because stunts can’t break narrative rules, only mechanical rules. However, in a superhero or fantasy game, flight may be completely fair game, and having the required aspect makes that ability true for that character. They can fly. Without a stunt, however, it still does nothing to change the mechanics, but does justify actions involving movement on a vertical plane.

As an example of what aspects can do, let’s look at Iron Man in the climactic scene of The Avengers, and I’ll show you how, given the proper setting allowances, Iron Man’s armor can be constructed with nothing more than two aspects.

 The rules in Fate Core are pretty sparse on this subject, probably because the author thought it was self-evident, but it’s in the same sentence (last sentence of the first paragraph on page 76 of Fate Core) that makes this possible.

This may seem self-evident, but we figured we’d call it out anyway – the aspects on your character sheet are true of your character at all times, not just when they’re invoked or compelled. – Fate Core, pg. 76

Given that, we will build Iron Man’s armor using two aspects: Mark VII Iron Man Armor and JARVIS, My AI Assistant. Now, how can we construct all of Iron Man’s vast features from just these two aspects (and it could be argued that the second isn’t even needed)? Where are the massive number of stunts? Well, to be sure, Stark has likely put a few of his stunts into his armor’s systems – but the third Iron Man movie shows us that he still kept a few for his out-of-armor antics.

The answer is: …aspects on your character sheet are true of your character at all times.

Now, in The Avengers, gods, monsters and superhumans are all part and parcel of the setting (it’s why we like it in the first place). So when Stark’s player says that he wants the armor to represent an advanced prosthetic that gives him the ability to fly and has a variety of weapons and gadgetry systems, we can be okay with that. At first glance it might seem too versatile, but all we’ve really done is give justification for Stark to use his Crafts, Fighting and Shooting skills with his armor. We also gave his Athletics skill new action justification (flight), but we haven’t changed any actual game mechanics. And if you borrow from Fate Accelerated Edition, aspects describe what your character can do (FAE, pg. 29, “Establish Facts”).

Because there are lots of flying characters in the Battle of Manhattan, the GM likely laid out “air” zones. Only those who can fly, or jump really high, have narrative permissions to enter those zones (and Stark can because of the previously mentioned permissions granted by his Mark VII Iron Man Armor). However, since the characters on the ground interact pretty regularly with those who fly, it’s also possible that the GM didn’t make such zones, and thus anyone can move anywhere (flight in this instance becomes a descriptor of how they get around, but doesn’t change any narrative permissions).

During the battle, Stark goes through several activities of combat: dodging while flying (moving for free and creating advantages with Athletics to take advantage of obstacles as hindrances to his opposition), shooting enemies (Shooting skill) and taking hits without suffering harm (either a description of taking stress after a failed hit or the result of consequences affecting his armor). So far, all his armor has done is give him justification to perform all these abilities.

While flying, JARVIS is giving him information about the battlefield. We haven’t discussed this yet, but JARVIS is described as being linked into the Stark satellite network. Thus, he can justify giving Iron Man senses beyond what he normally possesses. So, when JARVIS tells Stark information about his enemies, we’re seeing one of two things: either the GM is using the A.I. as a voice to give information about the results of actions (“we’ll run out of power before we penetrate the creature’s shell.” – paraphrased) or Stark is using JARVIS to justify special senses that he doesn’t normally have to create advantages. All of this uses Stark’s own skills in ways that are justified, but not mechanically modified, by his aspects.

Now, when Stark wants to put the speed on, or be invulnerable in a mechanical sense, he either has to invoke his Mark VII Iron Man Armor aspect or use a stunt to gain a mechanical benefit. Here, we are using stunts to back up, mechanically, the aspects. They’re also required when he starts attacking entire zones with his missiles. But are they needed? No. They’re not. But they do allow him to be more awesome, which is always a plus. Especially for someone with Tony’s ego. If he’s not being awesome, something’s off in the universe.

Most players hear the part about stunts allowing you to break the rules and immediately think they’re needed to represent powers, but representing powers narratively and mechanically are two different things. Hopefully, this post has adequately demonstrated how to use the justification aspect of…aspects to represent powers in your narrative and justify players taking action.

18 thoughts on “Using Iron Man to Explore Aspect Justification

  1. this is a great article, but it leaves me with a couple of questions.

    if aspects can be used to justify the use of skills in fantastic ways, can they allow the skill to function in situation where it would normally be imposable, and /or improving the skill in ways not represented by the numbers and dice? for instance, using crafts to fix an engine block when you don’t have a garage full of tools to help you. being able to access and read the files on a computer psionicly, without the need to physically interact with it, . and the like.

    should the GM be concerned about possible overlap with an aspect justification and a stunt that adds new functions to an existing skill? for instance, could a “telepathy” aspect allow a character to add mind reading to the functions of the willpower or rapport skills, and is that not kinda the territory of a stunt? depending on how you look at it, these could be framed as either an aspect or a function-add stunt, so which would be a better choice?

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    1. I think you’re misreading what it is a stunt does. A stunt adds reliable mechanical effects, they don’t affect the narrative. Whether you use telepathy, speech or a written letter to get someone to like, it’s all a use of Rapport. If you got a bonus to doing it that way, then you’d have a stunt. Being capable of telekinetically taking apart an engine only breaks narrative rules, thus the realm of aspects not stunts. Unless you want to say that all uses of telekinetically are covered by Will, then you’d need a Telekinetic stunt to swap out Will for Crafts when working with machinery.

      Stunt = mechanical changes.

      Aspect = narrative changes.

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      1. so just to be sure im catching your drift…

        an aspect can change narrative in such a way that it can change HOW you do something, but not WHAT you do. telepathy as an aspect lets you work rapport mojo through your psychic powers, but it doesnt add anything new to what the rapport skill could already do.

        on the other hand, a skill-function stunt adds a whole new capability which the skill could never, ever perform before. like using rapport as a method of physical attack, or willpower to lift heavy objects.

        that about right?

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      2. That sounds about right, yeah. But there is also justification for doing things others can’t, which falls into the “do” compartment (super strength allowing for you to lift cars, for instance). You’re still working within the realm of Physique, but your justified in doing more with it narratively.

        I always find it easier to think in terms of narrative vs. system, but it sounds like you’ve got it.

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  2. This is a nice mind opener. Of course it depends on the setting, but I never thought about aspects that way. Thanks a lot. So the setting gives the baseline and allows certain aspects to work, aspects change the narrative, it’s a cool way to see it.

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  3. But what stops the Iron Man character from doing something un-ironman-like. The aspect does not define what iron man can do or not do. Iron Man and Superman are the same. It comes down to who rolls better. Iron Man using his mind control from his Iron Man aspect battles Superman energy shaping powers given to him by his Last son of Kristin aspect.

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    1. What “stops” them is the table’s understanding of the aspects. Each aspect (whether super powered or normal) should be thoroughly examined by all parties at the table so that everyone understands how the aspect is to be invoked and compelled.

      If you give every aspect that much scrutiny, you’ll know exactly what “Last Son of Krypton” allows a kryptonian to do, as well as the concept behind Iron Man’s armor.

      And if the players decide to try and add an ability not covered by the initial discussion of the aspect, hit them with the compel stick. Say, “no way. That’s not what we discussed.” If they really want this new ability, they can spend a fate point to fight the compel and establish the new fact about the aspect.

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