FU works really well just the way it is, but today I am going to share with you two changes I have been working on – tags and trademarks. The first is a pretty simple adjustment to the language we use to describe functions in the game, while the second provides additional depth to characters and play.
In FU a character’s most important features, and the most noteworthy elements of everything else in the fictional game world are currently called descriptors. As I have played, tweaked and developed FU however, I have taken to calling these features tags. It really is semantics, but the word “tag” brings with it a bunch of meaning and association that fits with their purpose in the game. A tag is something “attached” to an object or item, it provides information (such as a price or description), notes boundaries and is commonly used in blogging, websites and information collation to group like things and identify conceptual ideas. To tag something is to label it, give it significance and/or draw attention to it, in the same way you might tag someone in a Facebook post, play a game of tag, or even tag a wall with graffiti (not something I have done, but some it is is quite impressive!).
Long-story-short, as I write more articles about FU you will see me making reference to tags. They are exactly the same thing as descriptors in the current version of FU. A useful or beneficial tag will provide a character with some advantage, while hindering or negative tags will apply a disadvantage to the character’s actions.
Characters in FU are defined by a series of words or short descriptive phrases that define what special qualities they have. They range from physical traits to mental attributes to amazing skills or powers. Each of these is a tag that can provide a bonus or penalty to rolls depending on how helpful they are to the action being attempted. Long-time players of FU will recognise these as the Body, Mind, Edge and Flaw that are used to describe the character. Trademarks take these character tags a step further by being more explicit about exactly what / how / when they might apply. They might also provide an additional advantage depending on the specifics of the situation.
Why introduce trademarks?
Trademarks address two key problems that have been identified by players of FU. The first is the question of how to handle character “concepts” or other broad, over-arching descriptive traits that could conceivably function as character tags with a greater scope than regular tags. The second problem trademarks address is one of advancement and balance, specifically how to add “skills” or abilities as a character grows in experience, without making them so powerful that rolling becomes irrelevant.
How trademarks work
A trademark describes an important or noteworthy feature of a character. It might define some important background detail, a physical or mental trait, affiliation with a political group, or some training they have had. Trademarks are broad statements about a specific element of their character’s background, personality or capabilities.
- Backgrounds: Dwarf clansman, Nobleman of House Hawkwind, Last Adept of the Star Guild, Werewolf
- Physical / Mental traits: Mighty thewed, PhD in Psychology, Contortionist, Keen senses
- Affiliations: Retired NYC cop, Card-carrying Whovian, Protected by the Assassin’s League, Devout Catholic
- Training / Abilities: Bare-knuckled brawling, Weather Magic, Gunfighter, Silent like the night
For all intents and purposes, a trademark is a tag. If it is helpful in a situation it will provide a bonus to the die roll, while if it is a disadvantage it will provide a penalty. Where trademarks differ from other tags is players must define the scope of each. Exactly what does each trademark allow a character to do? What actions, activities or lucky breaks is the character likely to take advantage of because they have this particular trademark?
When a player creates a trademark they also write down one or more abilities, actions or skills associated with it. Each of these is a “sub tag” that we call a meta-tag. Think of each meta-tag as sitting “under” or “inside” the governing trademark. Meta-tags are a convenient way for players to understand what the trademark is all about. If a question arises about whether your trademark applies in a situation, take a quick look at the meta-tags and see.
- Dwarf clansman: Dark vision, Drinking, Resist the effects of poison
- Mighty thewed: Bend bars, Lift massive things, Intimidate by flexing muscles, Carry heavy loads
- Retired NYC cop: Law enforcement, Know my beat, Knows a snitch, Old
- Bare-knuckled brawling: Fists of steel, Quick reflexes, Low blows, Can take a hit
As well as defining the scope of the trademark, meta-tags can become “bonus” tags, allowing the character to specialise in a particular action. At the start of play the meta-tags are purely a tool to guide decisions, but through the spending of experience points a player might “unlock” the meta-tags.
An unlocked meta-tag will provide an additional bonus to die rolls in very specific situations. If you use a trademark and an unlocked meta-tag is also relevant to the situation, you receive an additional bonus to the roll. The meta-tag modifier can only be applied if the trademark is being used in the action. If more than one meta-tag is applicable, each relevant one may provides a bonus.
Examples of trademarks and meta-tags in action
Dave is playing Drake, a tough private eye with the trademark Bare-knuckled brawling (Fists of steel, Quick reflexes, Low blows and Can take a hit). Quick reflexes is the only meta-tag that has been unlocked. Drake get’s into a disagreement with a thug and uses his fists to do the talking. When he takes a swing to try knock the thug out he gets a bonus to the roll for the trademark. When Drake tries to avoid being hit by the thug he once again gets the bonus for Bare-knuckled brawling and another bonus for his unlocked Quick reflexes! Later in the game a gangster shoots at Drake, and he tries to duck out of the way. Dave asks if he gets a bonus to dodge because the PI has Quick reflexes. Unfortunately, as Drake is not engaged in a fist-fight he can’t take advantage of the meta-tag.
In a swashbuckling adventure game Vicki is playing Constance, a daring rogue with the trademark Flashy acrobatics (Swing from stuff, Tumble out of the way and Impressive leaps). During a tavern brawl Constance leaps from a balcony to swing from the chandelier and drop onto the opposite landing. She gets a bonus for doing some Flashy acrobatics, another bonus for her unlocked Swing from stuff, and yet another bonus because the action required an Impressive leap! Then, Constance runs down the stairs just as another patron picks up a barrel and hurls it at her. She rolls across the floor to avoid the attack, receiving a bonus for more Flashy acrobatics, but does not get a bonus for Tumble out of the way as it is not yet unlocked.
Stacking trademarks and meta-tags
A player may “stack” bonuses from multiple trademarks and/or unlocked meta-tags. So long as it makes sense for the story / situation there is no reason not to do this. In fact, in many instances it is the most logical thing to do. If a Dwarf clansman is fighting in the dark (against someone who doesn’t have dark vision) and also has a relevant fighting trademark (Battle-axe Master!), both trademarks are totally appropriate. If there are relevant unlocked meta-tags, the dwarves warrior will also get to add those, too.
Negative trademarks and meta-tags
It is worth noting that trademarks are rarely outright “flaws” in the way that a flaw descriptor is. More often than not trademarks provide distinct advantages for the character. We can, however, encourage players to look for the drawbacks in their trademarks. When a trademark causes a situation to be much more difficult (creating a penalty to the die roll) the player earns a FU point. This is a simple solution that puts the player in control of their character’s fate (though a game master is encouraged to point out when trademarks might be a disadvantage).
Notice the example trademark Retired NYC cop has a meta-tag “old”? While their are a variety of situations where the character’s age might be an advantage, this is also a clear message to the player and game master about a potential disadvantage.
Meta-tags work as a shorthand so that everyone at the table understands the character concept and the world in which their story is taking place. When the player with the “Elf Ranger” writes “Nimble, Excellent vision and Detect secret doors” everyone knows exactly what kind of elves inhabit your world.
Meta-tags also let a player be more explicit with their character concept while reducing the risk of “breaking” the game with too many tags that can be applied to every situation – an unlocked meta-tag can only provide a modifier if the governing trademark is being used. A Mighty thewed barbarian can only gain a bonus for intimidating an enemy if they are able to flex their muscles or make some other show of strength.
Are trademarks aspects?
Trademarks do look and act a lot like aspects from Fate, but FU descriptors always have. The major difference is that trademarks are always “on” and do not cost points to activate. In this respect they are far more like skills or feats in other games. Trademarks are also more structured than aspects, providing a clear scope of affect. The intention is to provide “flags” for when the trademark might be used, while limiting any potential abuse (it’s too strong a word, but we’ll leave it) by being shoehorned into every situation.
Introducing trademarks into your games of FU
Using trademarks in your games couldn’t be easier. I recommend you replace the traditional descriptors of Body, Mind, Edge and Flaw with four trademarks. If you are currently playing, you might instead have the players expand their descriptors with a short list of meta-tags.
If starting new I would not use Body, Mind, Edge and Flaw. My preference would be to use the four categories described above: Background, Physical and/or Mental trait, Affiliation and Ability. If Affiliation doesn’t work for your game, then both a physical and mental trait might be appropriate.
To be honest, though, an experienced player could create four trademarks of any kind that satisfactorily describes their character. This could end up any combination of backgrounds, traits, affiliations and/or abilities.
Players should note 1-4 meta-tags for each trademark they create. Four is more than enough to begin with and too many meta-tags might make the trademark too broad. Each meta-tag should clearly evoke a situation or action in which the trademark might be used.
With trademarks and meta-tags defined, players should share their characters and ask questions of each other. Clarify what is meant by each trademark and make sure the meta-tags are effectively evoking this idea.
In play, as characters develop and grow, they may unlock meta-tags, add new meta-tags or even add whole new trademarks. The exact process of how this might be done, however, is best left for its own article.
I can’t wait to try these! A question, though: does the Background trademark replace the Concept as well? They sound pretty similar. Would it make sense to have both or should we drop Concept when adopting this new tag system, at least when using a specific “Background” trademark tag?
Great question! I would not use Concept if using trademarks as they do cover the same ground. Concept could actually be one of a character’s trademarks if players agreed, though I personally prefer a few well chosen descriptors – instead of the concept “Elven prince out for vengeance” I might instead have Elven Prince (Background), Order of the Lady’s Hunt (Affiliation) and Master Archer (Trait), for example. I would still discuss character concepts at the table and ask players if their trademarks adequately evoke that idea.
Love the terminology for this, especially on Trademarks and Meta-Tags. We did the transition from “descriptors” to “tags” in the Equinox Storygame and Earthdawn: The Age of Legend, for the same reasons stated.
The concept for trademarks is similar to what we called “Paths” and “Disciplines” to keep in line with each game world’s terminology, and I really love seeing this distilled into a broader concept.
In the same vein, a (simple) example for Meta-Tags are Earthdawn’s Skills. It’s great to see how much more can be done with that concept!
Great stuff, great article! :d
Absolutely, Dammi! There is a lot that can be done working up from the base FU game. I love the way Equinox and Earthdawn: Age of Legend provide far more depth to characters. The additional mechanical “weight” that paths and skills provide give more things for a player to grab on to, which allows for a greater sense of connection with the character (IMHO).
Im thinking of using Descriptor, Type & Focus as three of my tag names, inspired by a certain popular popular recent Game. With Flaw thrown in to bring it back to four. The sourcebook as a wealth of matierial to mine for tags and subtags.
Love the extra “crunch”. One question: how many meta-tags do you suggest start out as “unlocked”?
I am a fan of making players “work” for their rewards. I would suggest they begin with 2 or 3 meta-tags unlocked. They might all be from the one trademark, or spread across a number of trademarks.
Wow. This is almost exactly the same I made as a house rule for character classes. Except I made a skill-list for the world and the tag was the class, meta tags were the skills for that class. Just to make the transition to FU from class and skill based systems easy for the players.
I am sure there is something about “great minds” to be said here, Peter! 🙂
Some reports from my players from when we tried this system this week: They found it a bit “fuzzy” – they took a while to find things (meta tags) to put under their trademarks, or sometimes went the other way around – first meta tags and then trying to fit them under one trademark. Background was especially hard for them to define. We played in an established fantasy setting with elves, half-elves, dwarfs and magicians and they found it a bit restraining to just put “racial” abilities under there (it clashed with the name “background” for them, I guess). I told them they could alternatively put things from their personality and their hometown under there, but that may have been a mistake.
Later I had to tell them they could only use one meta tag per trademark for a bonus die, which in this context didn’t quite make sense because their meta tags didn’t necessarily belong to the same strict category.
Even in your example of “Bare-knuckled brawling”, if they were in a “dialed out” combat situation, they couldn’t use both Fists of steel AND Quick reflexes to hit (with their steely fist) an enemy before he could react (with their quick reflexes) and thus get two bonus dice for the same dialed out roll – or could they?
I think they would have preferred the earlier 4 descriptors (because it doesn’t take that long to think of four things), but on the other hand would have felt even more constrained by defining their character with just these four.
However, that may be because we played in an existing setting that really uses different, more complex rules, with many (many!) abilities and skills to define and give points to. (It’s the “Dark Eye” setting, which is a lot like the “German version” of D&D, but with an extensive meta history and loads of cultural diversity). I’m sure playing in a setting that they don’t know the “real” rules for would probably do away with this feeling of constraint.
Thanks for the great feedback, Tina. I think you are right about trademarks, in that I know some people have trouble coming up with four descriptors in classic FU, so asking them to come up with 12 – 16 will be almost impossible!
When I create trademarks I ask myself “what cool or amazing thing does this trademark let me do?” I usually go straight to cliches and archetypes, then expand from there. I think if all the players are familiar with a setting, you could leave out the “obvious” stuff. For example, if everyone knows exactly what a dwarf or elf can do (in terms of background knowledge and/or racial abilities), I would not worry. Perhaps just noting race on the character sheet would be enough. However, if we were creating our own setting, or playing in a setting that not everyone was familiar with, the meta-tags for “dark vision” and “stone sense” (or whatever) would become more important.
For a quicker start, you might consider just giving characters trademarks and filling in meta-tags during play. Can my dwarf see in complete darkness? I don’t know, do you want to make it one of your meta-tags? Can the magician use his fire magic to create a cage? Sure, note down “pyrotechnic constructs” as a meta-tag!
Another way to think about meta-tags is as “potential specialisations”. What things do you want this hero to become awesome at? Being a “Grizzled Gunslinger” is great, but what do want him to one-day excel at? Quick on the draw? Shoot enemies right between the eyes? These become my meta-tags. Thinking about meta-tags in this way might also help with understanding why you don’t necessarily get a bonus dice – I can do it, but I am not yet great at it. They indicate the not-obvious things your character CAN do now, and might become great at down the track.
Just a quick note, a player could use multiple meta-tags from one trademark, but each one has to be “unlocked”. Until a meta-tag is unlocked it cannot give an extra bonus dice. Once it is unlocked you can use it whenever appropriate, and you can use multiple meta-tags if they fit. This perhaps wasn’t very clear in my description.
Does this help at all?
Actually, just thinking out loud…
You could start with all meta-tags unlocked if that is what a group prefers.
Alternatively, perhaps begin with only one meta-tag per trademark. Have it unlocked. Players may spend FU points to add temporary meta-tags during play (they last for the rest of the session, or however long is appropriate). Players may then spend XP to make a temporary meta-tag permanent. All meta-tags count as “unlocked” in this variation.
I like this idea of trademarks and meta-tags a whole lot. I love how meta-tags can be unlocked with experience. Very nice improvements.
I completely agree! SO much cleaner and clearer. Just jump in to describing what’s important!
The fact that these meta-tags have been independently invented multiple times shows that they are the next logical progression of the system design. I have been calling them sub-tags.
Before reading this I came up with my own chargen system for a Space:1889 game I’m about to run, in the form of a template the players fill out. Here’s an example character. I may rework the template to use trademarks and meta-tags before our first session next Sunday.
Name: Miss Alexandra Loveless
I am a (adjective) (species) (profession) beautiful human adventuress
I used to be a (profession or background) mathematician
I am terrible at (skill) lying
Because of the above, I have:
(Gear or trait) sturdy clothes
(Gear or trait) lots of money/credit
(Gear or trait) excellent shooting skill
During our travels I have acquired: (this section is for advancement)
(Gear or trait)
(Gear or trait)
(Gear or trait)
Drive: Prove that women have no limitations relative to men
1. Major Thomas is a cordial companion
2. Brannig is not the loyal servant he appears to be
3. Miss Day needs my guidance
What I want: to see the solar system
What opposes me: typical male attitudes
How far will I go? as far as good conscience will let me
That’s a great way to set up a character. I really like the statement format (I am a…) that reveals information about the character.
Given your recommendation of using 4 Trademarks, Nathan, do you recommend an additional 5th Tag for Flaw?
Yes, my current iteration has four good and one bad. It feels right to me.