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Dresden Files RPG Review

Posted on November 12, 2010 by Flames


Available at RPGNow.com

    Introduction

      The Dresden Files RPG (DFRPG) by Evil Hat Productions is their adaptation of the FATE 3.0 system to the world created by Jim Butcher in his novels. While not required reading to play the game, a brief overview of the novels will be helpful, as no such summary is included in the game, with that in mind, there are mild spoilers throughout. The novels are chiefly concerned with the cases taken by a private investigator who is also a wizard. He solves various crimes in the city of Chicago that have an occult connection. The writers of the RPG have done an excellent job of using an established intellectual property as a baseline setting and not allowing the characters from the novel to overwhelm the game, a situation that has hurt other settings in the past.

      The book itself is a large volume at just over 400 pages. The cover is a full wrap around image depicting Harry Dresden, Karrin Murphy and Michael Carpenter doing battle against a host of supernatural foes. The interior of the book consists of full color pages that are printed to appear as if a coil bound notebook. This appearance is due to the fact that the game is framed in such a way that it appears to be a manuscript of the game written by one of the characters from the series of novels. This stylistic choice is furthered by the inclusion of marginalia written by the “author,” a werewolf named Will, Harry Dresden and Bob, a spirit assistant to Dresden. Many of the margin notes are questions, asked by Harry, that may crop up during a game session, and are answered by the author, Will, clarifying the situation. I found these discussions a clever way to address frequently asked rules questions without the need for a detailed example. Fortunately all of the “in character” banter is kept separate from the rules text keeping it unobtrusive and allowing the rules sections to remain objective. This avoids the pitfall other games have suffered from in intermixing in-game opinions and out-of-game rules or facts. All of the illustrations appear to have been cut from other sources, namely the comic books based on the Dresden Files, and taped into the manuscript.

      Characters

        In the Dresden Files RPG character creation and system discussions are intertwined within each chapter. In this review I shall untangle them and initially deal with character creation.  In this game character creation is a very collaborative process between not only the players but the GM as well.
        Character creation is not limited to the player characters (PC). In DFRPG the entire group works together to create the city the game is played in as well. The processes are slightly different and this review will tackle PC creation first. In many RPGs game play does not begin until the players gather together with characters typically created separately from each other. This leads to the clichéd starting scene in a tavern/bar/other public meeting place and the PCs joining together for sake of the plot. In DFPRG actual play begins at the start of character creation. This facilitates a collaborative process between players and the game master (GM) and proves advantageous as it allows the players to have input in the direction of the game and they provide plot ideas and potential stories for the GM to use.

        The first step in character creation is establishing the character’s template, high concept, and trouble. The template is a list of powers that a character must take to fit the concept as per the Dresdenverse. Templates are detailed in their own chapter and are listed in alphabetical order with the exception of Pure Mortal which is listed first. Each template has a certain refresh value; this value is subtracted from the total number of refresh points the GM has established as a baseline for the power level of the game. A character cannot reduce their refresh pool below zero. The refresh level is set by the GM before character creation begins and there are four levels suggested in the rulebook ranging from characters just being first exposed to the supernatural (6 refresh points) up to major movers and shakers (10 refresh points). The refresh points are the number of fate points a character receives between sessions. The role of fate points will be discussed in the Game section below. The high concept is the primary definition of what the character is, e.g. Wizard Private Eye, for Harry Dresden, and is typically tied into the template assigned to the character. The trouble for a character is the prime motivation as to why they do what they do. This can also be either an external or internal complication of the high concept. These two pieces of character information become aspects of the character (more on aspects in a bit).

        The next step is to move through the five phases of background creation. Each phase will add depth to the character by granting an aspect, and some phases will establish ties to other characters thereby creating some kind of narrative logic as to why the characters are helping each other. Aspects are descriptive qualities that are applied to characters, objects or locations and are discussed in more detail below. I have found this method of character creation to be extremely useful as it drastically cuts down on the brooding loner archetype, or it compels the player to somehow integrate the character into the group. The first phase is a general background, describing the character’s life until adulthood. The second phase describes what shaped the character. Here is typically where they pick up their template and their high concept is firmly established. The third phase is the first major adventure the character starred in. In the fourth phase the ties between the characters are established by have one player contribute how their character played a supporting role in the main character’s story from phase three. The fifth phase is identical to the previous phase except the player must chose another character (different from phase four) to play a supporting role with. When all five phases are completed each character will have ties to two different characters before play even begins.

        After completing the phase portion, character creation moves to the more traditional style of character detail: skills, powers and stunts. Skills in the FATE system are rated using a ladder that is the core of FATE. The ladder is a a number line ranging from -3 to +8 and each number has an associated adjective, e.g. Mediocre (+0). The rating of Average (+1) is for a skill that a character performs regularly and professionally. All skills default to a rating of Mediocre (+0). The number of skill points available is dependent on the power level of the game as established by the GM. The maximum rating in a single skill at character creation is also limited by the power level of the game ranging from Good (+3) for a mortals focused game to Superb (+5) in a supernaturally focused game. Raising skill levels is a simple matter of spending points on a one to one basis. The only trick is that a character must have an equal or greater number of skills at each level below the highest rating. The book provides some examples of point distributions to satisfy the skill pyramid. For example, in a lower power game each character would have 20 skill points, and could spend them to buy: 3 Good, 3 Fair and 5 Average skills.

        Stunts and powers are mechanically identical, with the only difference being stunts are mortal in origin and powers are supernatural. Stunts can be selected by any character and provide situational modifiers to a skill roll. Each mortal stunt reduces the character’s refresh value by one. An entire chapter is dedicated to stunts and provides a list of examples, sorted by skill modified, and in-depth guidelines for designing stunts. Powers are more potent than mortal stunts and have a higher refresh cost associated with them. Many powers are tied to specific templates and characters with those templates must take certain powers. After taking the required powers a character can take additional ones that fit the high concept. Like mortal stunts, powers are detailed in a separate chapter. The powers are divided into functional groups based on general supernatural type, and as there are more powers than stunts a convenient table is provided with an alphabetical listing of all powers with brief summaries and page references.

        Once skills and powers are chosen the only tasks remaining are to establish the refresh level, by adding up all of the character’s powers and stunts and subtracting them from the initial refresh level set by the GM. A final note on refresh levels, a character cannot have their final refresh drop below one. If this happen the character loses its inherent humanity and free will, thus becoming an NPC under the control of the GM. This limit serves two functions, the first is in the novels reference is made to the importance of free will and how it separates the heroes from the monsters. Secondly it serves as an in game limit as to how powerful a character can be, keeping the levels within the general range of the characters in the novels. Each character begins with a number of fate point equal to their final refresh level. There are three types of damage a character can suffer and these are tracked on stress tracks. Each type of stress: physical, mental and social, begins with two boxes and can be increased with higher ratings in associated skills. Also each character has a number of consequences they can suffer, which can be increased by skill and power selection. A discussion of stress and consequences can be found in the next section.

        The DFRPG also provides options for faster character generation as well. The minimal preparation method skips the phase portion. In the on the fly method, players begin with blank character sheets and fill them in during play. Of these two fast methods I prefer the on the fly method as it maintains the idea of collaborative creation of the phased method where the minimal preparation method would result in the more clichéd band of misfits method of meeting.

        Setting

          One aspect of the DFRPG really stands out, is that in addition to collaborative character creation, the setting is created in the same manner. This shift in creative responsibility has two benefits. First it reduces the amount of preparation time a GM must commit to the game; as an older GM with other time commitments, I find a short preparation time to be a great boon. Also, DFRPG gives the players direct influence on the design of the setting and what types of stories and themes are played out. In addition, I have found that getting players involved in some setting work helps engender a sense of ownership in the setting and much more involved players.

          Setting design as presented in the DFRPG has a top down structure, in which the group begins with an overview of the city and gradually adds more detail. The first step in setting design for the DFRPG is the selection of a city. There are several options available for cities that can be used in this game. All of the options lay upon a continuum from using the city the group lives in, a city everyone is familiar with, a city that is familiar from television, or a premade setting. This book includes an example of the last option, using Baltimore as an example thorough the city creation process, and having it fully detailed in its own chapter towards the end of the book.

          After determining which city is to be used all of the players and GM should have an equal level of familiarity with the city in question. If familiarity is an issue then a bit of research is in order (and recommended) to create something more than a caricature. Referencing Internet sites and trips to the local library are both quick and easy ways to get a sound foundation. Plus the writers of the DFRPG give a nice plug for librarians. If doing a little background reading is off-putting for the group there is another, and in my opinion less satisfying, method available, the Vancouver method. This is based on the trick in the television trade of filming the majority of scenes in a less expensive city, e.g. Vancouver or Toronto, and only filming in the actual city when you have skyline shot or need to include a distinctive landmark.

          After deciding on a location the group needs to determine which elements of the city they wish to interact with. These elements can range from specific locations, public figures, popular (mis)conceptions, subcultures, etc. The recommended goal is a dozen distinct ideas, that will see play at some point in the story. These elements are then used to drive the creation of themes and threats. These are problems facing the city and will be used to drive the story forward. A theme is a recurring problem that is deeply entrenched in the city and will take a long while, in story time, to resolve. A threat is typically a single entity that actively wants to harm the mortal populace of the city in question.

          Once the overview of the city is worked out and recorded on the City Sheet provided, the group moves on to populating the city with various organizations. This can simply consist of deciding which groups have an interest in the city and going from there, or as detailed as developing relationship maps. The themes and threats to the city should drive which supernatural organizations are present. The second half of the City Sheet addresses some of these relationships with spaces to fill in the mortal and supernatural status quo and a graph to be filled in with various groups displaying their desire to maintain the status quo and how much they know about the supernatural.

          From here the focus narrows and specific locations within the city are created next. Much like the high level planning there is a worksheet provided to keep note of the various locations created during this process and during play. Locations are broadly divided into neighborhoods and points of interest. Neighborhoods typically cover a larger physical area while points of interest are tightly focused. Each location should address either a theme or threat identified in during city creation so as to keep it tied in. Each location then receives a face, an NPC that embodies the location, and at this point each person is given a high concept and motivation. Ideally each face will be connected to another (and potentially PCs) through some kind of relationship. After the faces have been established each location is given an aspect reflecting the theme or threat and is recorded on the location worksheet. Faces have their own sheet recording their name, location, concept, motivation and relationships (stats for faces are worked up in game). Both of these worksheets have room for multiple locations/faces minimizing paperwork and maximizing utility.

          Alternatives to single city play are addressed and suggestions are given as to how to use the same process on a larger scale. Examples include dealing with a traveling band of characters at a national and global level, and even into the realms of the Nevernever (the mystical other world of the Dresdenverse). On the fly city setting design is addressed as well which places a heavier burden on the GM as all of the themes, threat, locations and faces are created during play.

          System

            The Dresden Files RPG uses the FATE 3.0 system created by Evil Hat Productions. The FATE system uses a dice pool and target number to determine the success of actions taken by characters. Unlike the vast majority of other RPGs, the FATE system is designed to be used with special dice. These dice were originally used with the FUDGE system, which FATE is based on. The dice are six sided and have two plus signs, two minus signs and two blank faces. The dice pool is always made up of four dice and the operators are added together giving a result between -4 and +4. To this result is added any bonuses from aspects, skills and stunts the character can apply. This total is then compared to the difficulty set by the GM. If the total exceeds the difficulty the character succeeds and for every point over the difficulty a greater degree of success is added.

            All difficulties are measured on a single scale called the ladder. This scale is both numeric and descriptive in nature, for example, a character may have a Good (+3) rating in Discipline. The ladder is also used by the GM to set difficulty numbers. My main complaint with the FATE system is concerned with the general unavailability of the FUDGE dice. They have been out of production for several years and a player should be prepared to spend a descent sum of money to acquire them. This criticism is not a deal breaker by any means as the game provides an alternative resolution system, by taking two different six sided dice and using one as a positive die and one as a negative die, generating results from -5 to +5 along a wider flatter curve, resulting in more unpredictable results. The other mitigating factor to the dice problem is that, as of September 2010, Evil Hat is working on having FUDGE dice sets produced for the Dresden Files RPG.

            The primary way a player can influence the outcome of the die roll is through the use of aspects. These are descriptive qualities that are applied to characters, objects or locations. Typically they describe some permanent (or more rarely, temporary) feature of a character, object, or location. It is through aspects that the character acquires and spends fate points. Fate points are used to apply the bonuses inherent in aspects or supernatural powers and avoid unwanted complications in the game. In the chapter dedicated to aspects there is a short list of sample aspects mainly to provide inspiration for players and GMs. Also included is advice on how to create aspects that help shape the story the character is involved in, with several examples of good aspects and how to improve them to include advantages and disadvantages.

            There are several ways aspects are used in the game: invocation, invocation for effect, compel and tag. Invoking an aspect is where a player uses an aspect to gain an advantage, and if ruled applicable by the GM then the player can spend a fate point and can either chose to add two to the die roll, or to completely re-roll. Invoking for effect allows a player to make a statement about the game that becomes true, with beneficial statements costing a fate point to invoke. Compelling an aspect is where a player, and more typically the GM, uses a character’s aspect against them. The main outcomes from a compelled aspect are either limitations to a character’s response or adding complications to a situation. The exact terms of a compel, like an invocation, can and should be negotiated between the group so as to avoid blatant abuse. The character receives a fate point when an aspect is compelled, and can opt to avoid a compel by spending a fate point. Compels are not entirely negative as they are used to drive the story and make it more interesting and since aspects are created by the players these should be problems they are interested in playing through. This mechanic is an excellent way of keeping characters involved in the story and making sure the story remains interesting to the players.

            Aspects are predominantly a permanent part of whatever they are attached to, but temporary aspects can be created through events in game. The most common way a temporary aspect is applied is through the use a maneuver, which is an action that applies an aspect rather than directly hurts the target. These aspects come in two varieties: fragile and sticky. Fragile aspects are gained when a maneuver roll gains zero shifts, and the aspect can be then tagged once and it goes away. A sticky aspect is applied when the maneuver roll gains shifts and can be tagged without disappearing. A target of a sticky aspect must perform their own maneuver to rid themselves of the aspect. Tagging an aspect is a special type of compel that a character can use without spending a fate point.

            Aspects need to be known to a character before they can be tagged or compelled. The surest way to discover aspects is through assessment. This typically involves research by the character and after a successful skill check will allow a character to be able to tag the assessed aspect when appropriate. A quicker way to discover an aspect is through guessing, by spending a fate point a guess can be made about an aspect and if it is reasonably close then it is revealed and tagged. Declarations split the difference between a guess and assessment as they allow a player to introduce an entirely new aspect to the scene, by succeeding on a skill roll.

            While aspects define who a character (or place) is, skills define what they can do. Skills in the FATE system are the direct measure of a character’s abilities to accomplish various tasks. The rating of a skill is added directly to the die result to determine success. In the DFPRG there is a fairly short list (25) of skills, as each of the skills are fairly broad each one has a set of subsystems, called trappings, that explain how certain skills apply in specific situations. Skills can be enhanced by the application of stunts, both mortal and supernatural, as discussed above.

            Conflict resolution at its most basic revolves around inflicting stress on opponents and striving to take them out of the fight. Opposed rolls are made and if the attacker wins stress is inflicted and if the defender wins the attack is unsuccessful. Several common situations that occur in physical confrontations are presented including blocking, grappling and maneuvers.

            Unlike most RPGs, the FATE system does not rely exclusively on physical confrontations resulting in the death of one of the combatants. Each character in the game has three stress tracks: physical, mental and social. These tracks represent how much punishment a character can take in a given encounter before being “taken out.” The physical stress track is used primarily in combat situations where physical injury and character death is the goal. The mental track is used in situation where lasting mental trauma is being inflicted. The social track can be used during debates or other non violent conflicts of interest, where typically being “taken out” is the loss of the argument. Each track consists of a number of boxes (dependent on the skill associated with the track) and are marked off as stress accumulates. Unlike typical health box or hit point systems, stress is not linearly cumulative. If an attack inflicts three stress levels only the number 3 box is marked off and when another three stress attack affects the character the damage moves to the right to the nearest higher unmarked stress box. Characters can reduce the amount of stress taken by suffering consequences. A character can take one consequence in each of the three severities: mild, moderate and severe. Mild consequences last for one scene and cancel a small amount of stress. Moderate consequences last for the next session and cancel more stress. Severe consequences cancel the most amount of stress and last for the entire next story lasting multiple sessions.

            Magic

              Magic forms an integral part of the Dresden Files RPG. The magical abilities used by many of the templates are covered by supernatural powers. The chapters discussing magic deal exclusively with the forces wielded by wizards. Wizards gain several unique benefits, some more directly beneficial than others, for example The Sight allows a wizards to perceive the entirety of existence visually including magically obscured things, while the longevity of a wizard will have little direct bearing on most games. The meat of this section deals with the seven laws of magic established by the White Council (the governing body of wizards). These laws are breakable but to do so results in a visit from the Wardens, the White Council’s police force, and possible execution. The fact that these laws are mortal in nature and not inviolate cosmic rules can lead to entire story ideas in and of themselves, especially if the characters are the lawbreakers. Magic is very free form in this game and at the end of the spellcasting chapters are several examples of spells to provide a guide and examples of more commonly used spells. This strikes a good balance between the paralysis a completely free-form magic system can inflict upon players, and structured spell lists.

              Evocation is magic used to directly and immediately influence a situation. They are quick to cast and do not require a physical link to the target. The major limits to evocations are that they are of very short duration and can only affect targets the wizard can see, which does not include scrying. To cast an evocation the player describes the desired effect and determining which basic action the spell falls into: attack, block, maneuver or counterspell. The number of shifts the character wishes to use is then set as the difficulty and a Discipline roll is made to cast the spell. A wizard can use focus items to aid in channeling magical energies either adding bonuses to the Conviction (the strength of belief, typically in one’s ability to work magic) or Discipline (the ability to stay focused and withstand mental trauma) rolls. Using magic is mentally taxing and inflicts various levels of mental stress, depending on the power of the spell and the Conviction of the wizard. If the difficulty is exceeded then the spell is successfully cast and any shifts rolled over can be used to improve the spell based on the action type. Failing the Discipline roll results in a miscast spell, the character can salvage the spell by taking levels of backlash, physical or mental stress, and have the spell succeed; or they can chose to have the spell weaken in power and let the levels of failure be counted as fallout. Fallout is when the spell’s energies leak out into the surroundings and create unintended effects based on the spell and its associated element.

              Thaumaturgy allows a wizard to achieve much more powerful effects than evocation. The trade off is that these spells require a much longer time to prepare and cast, and they require a physical link to the intended target. The effects possible with thaumaturgy are broad and are described in some detail in the book. The casting of these spells uses a slightly different procedure than evocations. The effect and complexity are decided upon as per evocations but if the complexity is greater than the character’s lore then time must be spent in preparing the ritual. The amount of play time at the table used to play out the preparations is kept to a minimum by allowing the player to take certain actions that can make up the deficit, typically by making declarations and invoking aspects. When the complexity is met the ritual can be cast using the same process as with evocations, including the possible results from failure. Where this differs from evocation is that multiple rolls can be used to build up enough energy to cast the spell.

              GM advice

                The DFRPG provides two very useful chapters for GMs. The first provides general advice on how to run a game using the FATE system and includes sections on the adjudication of aspects and powers. The other major section deals with NPCs and how to create and use them in the game. NPCs come in three varieties: nameless, supporting and main. Nameless NPCs are not only combat mooks, but also any other person the characters may meet that has an extremely limited role in the story. These NPCs have only the most cursory stats written down, typically only a skill or two. Supporting NPCs have names and a few details written down. Most contacts and acquaintances of the characters fall into this category, and they will have several skills and perhaps stunts and aspects. Main NPCs are characters that have the same level of detail in stats as the player characters do. The scaling of opposition also falls into these chapters and guidelines are given for the types of opponents that all mortal or all supernatural groups can face, with solid advice as to how to balance opposition for a mixed group as well.

                Scenario creating is treated with great detail and a very solid system is used to directly tie characters to the story. This method is very flexible and can be used to generate a wide array of stories able to accommodate the majority of playable characters in the DFRPG. In designing engaging scenarios the GM should focus on the aspects the players have created for their characters and the setting as these are themes and ideas the players will want to explore. The number of aspects a GM chooses to incorporate in the story depends on the length of story desired and size of group, with the main goal of having two aspects per character and up to three setting aspects. These aspects are then paired into connections typically based around tension or cooperation. Tension connections create conflict between the characters involved, while cooperation connections give common cause to characters and is attached to an outside situation. These connections will then drive the creation of scenario ideas and what the antagonists will be doing. This then moves into the creation of story hooks that will directly involve the characters. After this a GM should only create a very general outline of potential scenes so as to avoid railroading the players along a predetermined plot line.

                Conclusion

                  The Dresden Files RPG is a very solid implementation of the FATE system and does a fine job replicating the feel of the setting of the Dresden Files novels. One of the major accomplishments of this game is that it avoids the pitfall of making the novels’ characters the most interesting ones in the game. They do this by keeping all of the game specific information for Chicago and the characters there out of this book, and provide a different city, Baltimore, MD, for their in-game examples. After my initial skim, I was concerned that the marginalia would prove to be a distraction; fortunately, this was not the case and the use of different typefaces allowed me to pay as much or as little attention to the marginalia as needed. Each part of the system is coherently described and illustrated with a clear in-game example. There is a preferred method of play (phased character and city creation) throughout the book but it is never presented as the only way to play, and other methods are presented (on the fly and Vancouver methods). This game, while being front loaded with a considerable amount of work going into character and setting creation, creates a set of characters and locations that are already interconnected and have narrative hooks waiting to be used. The way aspects are used in all parts of the game give mechanical weight to roleplaying choices made during character creation and during play making all of the pregame work worthwhile.

                  Review by Cason Snow

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