The Lightning Bug and the Lightning: Aspects in Dresden Files RPG

This post has been a tough one to write*. The topic of Aspects in DFRPG (or any FATE game) is so central, so important, and so rich that trying to write about it can be daunting. More than the dice mechanics, or the powers, or the stunts, or the skills, Aspects are the beating heart of the system.

Mark Twain famously wrote:

The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

The same is true of Aspects. And what I’m trying to do in this post is to help you choose the right Aspect, rather than settling for the almost right Aspect.

Now, Your Story has a nice discussion about picking Aspects that highlights what I call the Aspect trick: you need each of your Aspects to do triple-duty for you:

  • You have to be able to invoke the Aspect when you need a bonus or a reroll.
  • The Aspect has to complicate your life to some extent, so it can be compelled to gain Fate Points.
  • You also want to be able to invoke the Aspect for effect.

Most of the time, an Aspect is going to lend itself better to one or two of these than to all of them, but the ideal is come up with at least one situation you can envision in play where you can use the Aspect for each of the three ways to use them. Let’s take a look at each of these functions.

Invoke for Bonus

A sucky roll is a sucky roll, and that’s the truth from system to system. And sometimes even a great roll isn’t going to be enough to let you do what you need to do. Now, you can always just spend a Fate Point for a +1 to the roll, but you get more bang for the buck (or point, anyway) when you use that Fate Point to invoke an Aspect: +2 or a reroll of all the dice. Now, from a statistical point of view, the reroll only really makes sense if you’ve rolled -3 or worse on the dice, but it’s nice to have that option there. So, for this to work, you need to have your Aspect say something positive about your character or his or her abilities.


Fate Points are the currency of game play. You want Fate Points. You get Fate Points when one of your Aspects constrains your character’s options in a way that causes you some difficulty. Got an Aspect called Bad Temper? You get a Fate Point whenever you blow up at someone and it makes your life difficult. This means you want an Aspect that talks about a complication in your character’s life.

Invoke for Effect

Let’s say you need to get in to see the CEO of a company. You don’t have an appointment, and none of your skills are up to the challenge of hoodwinking the CEO’s personal assistant. You’ve only got a single Fate Point to spend on trying to get past the gatekeeper. Well, you pay your Fate Point and say, “Because I’m a Wealthy Man About Town, I’ve met the CEO at the Sinclairs’ fundraiser last week, so I just tell the assistant to let him know I’m here. He’ll want to see me.” Boom. You’re in. This is invoking for effect. Getting to do this is an often-overlooked bit of Aspect capability, but potentially the most powerful. To make this work for you, you want your Aspect to state or imply some ability or association that has its own effects.

Beyond the three mechanical functions of your Aspects, there are a few non-mechanical things you want to think about when choosing an Aspect.

You want your Aspect to have a story.

The Aspect should come out of what’s happened to you, and should tell people a little bit about your character. Now, this may seem like a no-brainer, especially with the way character creation phases work, but it can get lost in the mix if you’re not careful. Make sure that, when you choose an Aspect, there’s a reason coming out of the phase that grants you the Aspect that supports it. And make it intriguing enough that, if someone were to find out about the Aspect, they’d want to know the story behind it.

You want your Aspect to link you to stories.

The GM advice in Your Story for creating scenarios recommends looking at the Aspects the characters have, and the Aspects you’ve created along with the city, pick the ones that catch your fancy for this scenario, and work with those to create the situation and opposition. So, you want your Aspects to give lots of good ideas to the GM, because then they’ll get incorporated into the scenarios, and your character will get to strut his or her stuff.

You want your Aspect to support your high concept.

You’ve picked a high concept for your character. All the other Aspects should feed into or flow out of that high concept. Now, that’s not to say that if your high concept is Wizard of the White Court all your Aspects have to be about wizardly magic, but they should all be about what kind of wizard you are, or what kind of person being a wizard has made you, or what made you become a wizard. High concept is very central to the character; your other Aspects add detail, colour, and shading to the high concept.

You want your Aspect to be cool.

Hey. This is your character we’re talking about. You want to make sure that, when you look at each of the Aspects you’ve chosen, they all make you glad you’re playing this character. Each one has to do its share in bringing the cool to your character, reinforcing and supporting the original cool idea you had.

Okay. So now we know what we want our Aspects to do. We still need to figure out what to use for Aspects. I generally take something from the following list:

  • Something you are. Your job, your nationality, your hobby, your race, whatever.
  • Something you do. More of an avocation – helping the helpless, reading voraciously, good cook, things like that.
  • Something you say. A catchphrase, or a line that sums up some facet of your character.
  • Someone you know. A friend, an enemy, a rival, a lover, a family member, and so on.
  • Something you have. An item with special meaning for you – your grandfather’s sword, a custom car, a friendship bracelet from your daughter.

Now, a lot of these shade over into each other: a friendship bracelet made by your daughter really says more about your relationship with her than about the bracelet itself. But still, the list is a good place to start looking at Aspects. Once you have one, run it through the test: ask how it meets the mechanical demands and the non-mechanical ones. If it’s weak in one area or another, look at ways to fix it.

Selecting Aspects can be tough. There’s a lot of ground you want to cover with each one, but you also want to keep it fairly short and snappy. The best way I can show you some of the tricks I’ve come up with is to walk through the Amadan example I used for the character creation phases to show what I came up with, Aspect-wise. In the examples below, I lay things out as if I were creating Amadan in a vacuum, but it’s important to remember I was working through the character with two other people, and we brainstormed different Aspects for each of the characters as a group. Some of the brilliant ideas below probably came from either or both of them – one of the joys of group character creation.

Aspect 1: High Concept

This one is often the easiest to come up with. The template you’re using for your character gives some guidelines for what needs to be in the Aspect – Wizard, or Changeling, or Soldier of God, or whatever. But you don’t want to just leave it there, because that’s usually not cool and unique enough.

For Amadan, I knew that I wanted a trickster fey, so that goes into the high concept: Faerie Trickster. But I want something to say a little more about what makes him different from all the other tricky fey concepts out there, so I thought about the rest of his background – too close to mortals, cast out by his court, trapped in the mortal world. And I decided to make him a drunkard. Faerie Trickster Drunkard, however, felt a little too comedic for what I wanted – it didn’t have the sense of hurt and sadness that I wanted to come across, so I twisted it around to Dissolute Faerie Trickster. That, to me, gives the right feeling of partying to hide the pain.

Now, for the test: Invoke for bonus? Check, especially for pranks and tricks. Compel for Fate Points? Hello, dissolute. Invoke for effect? Well, his fey nature and trickster predilections gives me some ideas for that. It is linked to my entire backstory, and gives me an interesting Byronesque (yet pre-Byronic) image of the character, so that fulfills the other requirements.

Final Aspect: Dissolute Faerie Trickster

Aspect 2: Trouble

Well, the common trickster problem is that they often get caught in their own plots, and wind up hoist on their own petard. Hoist On My Own Petard has some potential for this Aspect, but it’s hard to see how it can be invoked for a bonus, so I start looking a little farther afield, thinking about what it is that gets the trickster into trouble. And it’s usually trying to be too clever. Too Clever, though, doesn’t quite have the ring to it I’m looking for. I play with it a little – Too Clever For My Own Good, Not As Clever As I Think, Too Clever By Half. I like the sound of that last one.

The test. Invoke for bonus? Check on the clever. Compel for Fate Points? Check. Invoke for effect? I can see invoking it to just happen to have some obscure item that fits a situation, because of an extensive and convoluted plan involving something else entirely. Of course, that means that I’d have to come up with that convoluted plan to persuade the GM, but that could be fun, too. So, check on that. It ties into the story, supports the high concept, give the GM a hook for stories, and I think it reveals some cool things about the character.

Final Aspect: Too Clever By Half

Aspect 3: Where did you come from?

For this phase of character creation, I came up with the following:

Fox-like faerie trickster of the Summer Court who prefers to spend his time among mortals, enjoying their passionate nature and gullibility.

Based on this, and building on the high concept and trouble, I think of a few of things that could work: Student Of Human Nature, What Fools These Mortals Be, People Are Toys.

I like Student of Human Nature, but it doesn’t really lend itself to compels very well. Also, it’s not very catchy as a phrase, especially not when compared to What Fools These Mortals Be – kinda hard to top Shakespeare for good quotes. People Are Toys has two problems: one, it’s a little too on-the-nose, and two, it makes him seem more like a heartless manipulator than I want him to be.

Of the three, I like What Fools These Mortals Be best, so I run it through the test. Invoke for a bonus? Big time, when fooling mortals. Compel for Fate Points? Well, one of the things that makes Puck work in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is that he thinks this about mortals without really understanding them at all, winding up looking more foolish than the mortals in a couple of situations. So, working with that vibe, underestimating mortals makes a good compel. Invoke for effect? I can see using it to produce a number of ongoing scams to net the character resources: “I’ve been running a crooked dice game at the tavern, with these foolish mortals, so I’ve got enough silver coin in my pockets to melt down for bullets to use against the werewolf.” Check. Again, it comes out of story, showing Amadan’s preference for mortals and his sense of superiority over them, which also reinforces the high concept while setting him apart from other fey. It suggests possibilities for stories and it’s a good quote, so the cool factor works.

Final Aspect: What Fools These Mortals Be

Aspect 4: What shaped you?

My story for this phase of character creation was:

After an elaborate prank embarrasses the Summer Knight and, by extension, the Summer Lady and the whole Summer Court, Amadan is shunned by his fellows, and not informed of the decision of the Courts to withdraw from the mortal world. His first inkling is when he tries to return to Court and finds all the Ways barred, and he is trapped in the mortal world.

So, he gets ditched like a geek at a junior high party. The ideas I’m working with for Aspects here are being left out in the cold, abandoned, but not officially kicked out. Just, as I say, ditched. I start with that idea, Ditched, as my Aspect, but it’s a little colourless, and I think I’d have to go through too many convolutions to invoke it in any sort of positive way.

Ditched By Summer has some potential, because by adding the reference to Summer, I can think of ways to invoke the Aspect to reinforce the fact that he is officially part of the Summer Court, as well as to gain favour with those who don’t like Summer by relying on the Ditched part. Still, though, I don’t like the phrasing – Ditched sounds too modern for a 17th-century game. Playing with different synonyms, I get things like Exiled, Cast Out, and Outcast, before I get to Cast-Off. This has the right feel of being thoughtlessly discarded, so I go with Summer’s Cast-Off, and run it through the test.

Invoke for bonus? Check, as discussed above. Compel for Fate Points? Check. Invoke for effect? Sure. Tied strongly to the story of the character, supporting the high concept, and offering convenient story hooks to the GM? Check. Cool? Well, I like it. It gives me some thoughts about the spiteful rage that’s probably simmering under the dissolute, friendly-seeming surface of the character.

Final Aspect: Summer’s Cast-Off

Aspect 5: What was your first adventure?

Here’s my first adventure:

The Long Journey Home

Left behind when the fey retreat, Amadan finds all the Ways back to the Faerie Courts closed to him. He travels the world, seeking desperately to find a way back, but eventually comes to realize that he prefers life among the mortals.

The story is there to give the character a reason to linger in Prague, no longer searching so desperately for a way back to the Courts. I can see a lot of different ways to go with an Aspect here, from giving him something that reflects traveling the world, to one that further emphasizes his connection with mortals, to one that links him more strongly with Prague. If this were a PC instead of an NPC, or if the game was more of a road-trip game, I’d probably go with the first or the second. But Amadan is an NPC in a game centred in Prague, so I’m going to emphasize that.

The first thing I thought of for this Aspect was Right Where I Belong. The more I thought about it, the better I liked it. It could be read as either satisfaction or resignation with the current situation, and it has a lot of good uses, both positive and negative. It’s the kind of Aspect that I like most: evocative, flavourful, and generally applicable without being bland. So, it passes the test with flying colours.

Final Aspect: Right Where I Belong

Aspect 6: Whose path have you crossed?

This phase had me co-starring in Izabela’s story:

The Warlock of Vienna

Sent to infiltrate a suspected Huguenot movement in Vienna, Izabela falls in love with a young rebel and they end up working together to stop a powerful warlock from sacrificing a group of children that he has kidnapped. Amadan trades favours with Izabela, using his knowledge of the Mittelmarch to spirit the children out of the city in return for a future favour.

My thoughts on coming up with this section were to make Amadan more of a favour-broker, giving me a way to tie him in with the characters later on. I thought about an Aspect like And What’s In It For Me?, but that felt too mercenary, and didn’t develop the web of relationships I sort of wanted to create here. I settled on A Favour For A Favour, which had more of a bargaining feel to it, and the suggestion that Amadan is keeping track of a complex network of who owes him and who he owes.

So, the test. Invoke for bonus? Sure, especially in the area of bargaining. Compel for Fate Points? Yes, because he owes favours as well as being owed them. Invoke for effect? Definitely, paying a Fate Point to say that someone owes you a favour is gold. It’s tied into the story of the character, and it supports the high concept, and gives story hooks. Cool-wise, it adds a side to the character that I hadn’t been expecting, so score.

Final Aspect: A Favour For A Favour

Aspect 7: Who else’s path have you crossed?

The final phase had me co-starring in Emric’s story:

Blood Eagle

The last of the Svear dynasty resurrects an ancient, bloody ritual to direct the wars of Gustav Adophus. Can Emric save his friend, the new king, and put a stop to the sacrifices? Izabela observes the dark wizard’s preparations and advises Emric on how the ritual can best be interfered with or stopped. Amadan disguises himself and Emric to infiltrate the ceremony. When they are captured and brought to be sacrificed, Amadan magically frees them both, claiming that this was his plan all along.

In this bit of Amadan’s backstory, I wanted to build in the idea that his plans are either very convoluted – his claim – or random guesswork, luck, and desperate improvisation – what most people believe. My first impulse was a very Black Adderish Aspect: I Have A Cunning Plan, but that reference would work mainly for laughs in the game, which wasn’t the vibe I really wanted here.

I did want to hang on to the idea of a plan that seems to go horribly wrong, only to somehow actually work out in the end. See, one of my favourite ex-characters always had these brilliant plans that were terribly, terribly risky: they would either work, or doom everyone involved. Mostly, he had the ability to make them work, but it was often a close thing, and he wound up taking the brunt of the consequences no matter what happened. I just loved the look on the other players’ faces when I said, “I have a plan.”*

But I also wanted a little more flexibility and subtlety, and the ability to adapt things to the game a little more easily. I wanted Amadan to have the reputation for dangerous, risky plans that often came through, but I also wanted the feeling that he was often working on many more layers of plotting than most people suspected. Which led me to think of the Dune series, and gave me the Aspect I needed: Plans Within Plans.

I ran it through the test: invoke for bonus? Check. Compel for Fate Points? Sure, because plans can grow too complex, fed by or feeding into his trouble. Invoke for effect? Tougher, but doable – if he were a PC, I’d probably want to rethink the wording slightly, but being able to spend a Fate Point to prove that you had planned for a given eventuality is not too bad. Again, it builds on the story, ties into the high concept (and especially his trouble), and gives a GM a whole heaping helping of ways to wire him into a story. And it says some cool things about the character.

Final Aspect: Plans Within Plans

Other Aspects

Well, that’s how I build Aspects for characters, and the sorts of thought processes I go through to get the right sorts of Aspects. Now, when I’m pulling together Aspects for things other than characters, I use the same sort of thought processes, though I scale it based on how important the thing I’m creating the Aspect for is to the story. If it’s a part of the overall setting developed during city creation, you better believe I put the same sort of thought towards it, making sure it’s doing the duty I need it to, though I’m more concerned about how it fits story than with any mechanical functionality. Same thing with the faces.

On the other hand, Aspects on scenes that aren’t going to repeat – a fight in a random alley, exploring an unremarkable cellar, things like that – I don’t sweat the Aspects so much. I make sure there are a few Aspects to every scene, but I just jot them down quickly as the scene starts, based on the description I give to the players. I don’t need to be too precise, here, unless there’s something very specific I need to accomplish with the scene. And if there is, I’ve probably planned it out in advance. With scene Aspects, precision and poetry isn’t really necessary or desirable; you want Aspects whose existence is suggested by the description of the scene, and that the players have a chance to guess. An Aspect on a scene that they can’t figure out is like a secret door in a dungeon that they can’t find – it might as well not be there.

Temporary Aspects – especially consequences – require a middle-of-the-road approach. You want the Aspect to be cool and colourful and serve a mechanical purpose, but you also don’t want to spend five minutes in the middle of combat having to think one up. For these, I generally take a minute or two and brainstorm with my players to find something that fits what we agree is going on.

And that’s pretty much what I have to say about Aspects.

The important thing to remember with Aspects is that they are a phenomenal way to add cool to your game. Yes, they encourage roleplaying. Yes, they work in an interesting mechanical way. Yes, they substitute for a number of modifiers that otherwise would need charts. But the real thing they do is build cool stories.

Keep that in mind.


*Also, a long one. Back

*I miss Julian. Back

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7 Responses to The Lightning Bug and the Lightning: Aspects in Dresden Files RPG

  1. mrsleep says:

    Hah! I’ve been waiting for this thread since the last DFRPG post, and it didn’t disappoint. I’ve been following Evil Hat’s game for a while now, but haven’t had the scratch to pick up the books. I have to say, Aspects (and how you recommend picking them) are a lot cooler than I anticipated. Keep this stuff coming.

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  3. Well, Rick, Julian was a vampire, and he was around a thousand years earlier, and only a couple of hundred miles west of Prague. Use your imagination, dude. I can only imagine Julian with a thousand years of shifting, conniving and ‘plans’ under his belt. [shudder].

  4. Todd Kopanyi says:

    Very helpful tips! Aspects truly are the heart of the game but just as good ones can make a great game, bad ones can hurt. Keeping these ideas in mind will help greatly.

    One thing I’m starting to notice is that often the “invoke for effect” and “invoke for bonus” tests of a good aspect often overlap. I have trouble coming up with good reasons to invoke for effect, but I find if as Aspect passes that test, it’s a simple matter to invoke it for a +2.

  5. Stacey says:

    Aspects is where this system “pops”. I remember when my group started playing SOTC, and I could actually see the moment they got how aspects actually worked. It was a very cool moment and at that point in time it really gave them the opportunity to enjoy the game on so many levels. If done right, it makes this sysem so much fun to play, and to run.

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