Sunday, November 17, 2013

Tommy's Take on Dresden Files RPG: Your Story

Pictured: Three of the most badass characters ever, Harry Dresden,
Karrin Murphy and Michael Carpenter

This summer, I discovered the Dresden Files books by Jim Butcher. A friend of mine was a huge fan and he pushed me to give them a shot...and so I did. I became a huge fan, and I started looking for the RPG (and my first set of Fudge Dice). The RPG is contained inside two impressive tomes, the first of which is the "essential" book: Your Story.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Powered by Fate, Dresden Files came after Spirit of the Century but before Fate Core, and Your Story is the Player's Guide/Rulebook for the game. You can get Your Story in PDF for $25, in a bundle with Our World for $40 or in print for a retail price of $50. This review specifically covers the physical version, a stunning, full color, hardcover tome that runs over 400 pages. The Dresden Files RPG covers the first 10 books of the series, through Small Favor.

The Dresden Files is an urban fantasy series centered around Wizard/Private Eye Harry Dresden (he's in the phone book) and his eclectic cast of supporting characters. The series has literally become one of my favorite series ever, beginning with fairly "low key" urban fantasy and getting pretty epic by the most recent book (Cold Days, number 14).

The whole book is written as an "in-universe" experiment by Harry and his friend and ally Billy to alert "normal" people to the things that go bump in the night by using an RPG (it was said that Bram Stoker did something similar in the Dresdenverse when he released Dracula, warning people about the Black Court  Vampires). This means that the book is very informal, if that sort of thing bothers you, and and chock full of humorous asides that may be less effective if you're not a fan of the books. See, the book is presented as an unfinished product, lots and lots of notes and asides from Billy, Harry and Harry's "assistant" Bob.

Chapter One covers the basics of the Dresdenverse, like how the presence of magic can force technology to short out, magic is an expression of the individual, monsters are bound by their nature, etc. This chapter also gives a quick list of the various "types" of characters to play and/or encounter, from mundane mortals (who know nothing about what's going on around them) to infected (folks who have been tainted by vampires but haven't gone all in) to the various vampire courts (each of which is markedly different) to dragons to, of course, wizards. A brief overview of the world as of book 10 is provided as well.

The game is powered by Fate, as noted above, which is pretty well known these days. This particular version uses 4dF (four Fudge dice), which are six sided dice that have two sides marked "+", two sides marked "-" and two sides blank. You roll 4dF, and add the plusses and subtract the minuses from your relevant stat, as the basic mechanic. Characters are defined by Skills, Stunts, Powers and Aspects. Skills are fairly obvious, and Stunts expand your skills. Powers can be all kinds of things, like Shapeshifting or spellcasting, while Aspects are descriptive phrases that define your character. Characters also have Fate Points, which not serve as plot currency, but are a representation of a character's free will.

In a bit of a departure from a lot of RPGs, the group creates the city they operate in before they ever create their characters. Yeah, the group creates the City (complete with its own locations, NPCs and Aspects) before moving on to character generation. Your group is encouraged to change things about the city as necessary (which is probably easier to do the more distantly familiar the city is to the group). This chapter gives a lot of advice, using both Chicago (the home of Harry Dresden) and Baltimore (included as a sample setting in the book) as examples for illustration's sake. Worksheets are provided to help you along, and there's even advice on how to apply "City Creation" to campaigns with a broader scope, like globe hopping campaigns, as well as just creating the whole thing on the fly as you go.

Character creation is also intended to be handled as a group, as each character is meant to be linked to the rest in some manner during creation. There are four different power levels (Feet in the Water, Up to Your Waist, Chest-Deep and Submerged), which determines each character's refresh level and Skill Points. Your Aspects are defined by your High Concept and Trouble, as well as an Aspect for each of your Stories, generally. Your Refresh determines the number of Stunts and Powers you have, with Stunts costing you a point each and Powers varying depending on utility. As with City Creation, the book does provide options for creating your characters on the fly.

Every character has to take a Template, which covers a good range of options (though not all are appropriate for all Power Levels). These include Pure Mortals (who get a boosted Refresh so they can have more Fate Points, generally), Champions of God (who are kinda scary powerful...and awesome in the books), Changelings (part-human, part-fae), Emissaries of Power (kind of a catch-all for someone serving a greater power), Focused Practitioners (low-level spell slingers who generally focus on one thing, like pyromancy), Knights of the Faerie Courts (who have free will, no matter what the Queens might say), Lycanthropes (who are NOT werewolves), Minor Talents (practitioners with One Cool Trick), Red Court Infected (folks infected by Red Court Vampires but who haven't turned yet), Sorcerers (these guys have the power, but not the training and the resources of the White Council), True Believers (God's servants without the terrifying power of the Champions of God), Were-Form (these guys ARE the werewolves...and werebears and so on), White Court Vampires (the only vampire court thus far that has proven remotely capable of good), White Court Virgins (those destined to join the White Court as soon as they give in to temptation) and Wizards (like Harry...and yes, they can be terrifying).

Characters advance at Milestones (Minor, Significant and Major) and can get changes ranging from swapping around skills to adding skill ranks to gaining more Refresh (and thus the possibility of more power without losing your free will). Advancement also includes a couple of interesting options, like advancing in mid-session and even driving yourself to 0 Refresh in order to borrow enough power to go down in a Blaze of Glory. Advancement even covers Cities growing and changing, with the PCs maybe altering fundamental Aspects of it, or even the overall Theme of the City.

Aspects are typically the biggest stumbling blocks for people trying to wrap their heads around Fate, and one of the biggest things that helped me with Aspects is the fact that I was familiar with Dresden Files going in...so I had the context for the Aspects held by the characters. In a nutshell, skills, stunts and powers define what you can do, but Aspects define who you are. Characters have seven Aspects (High Concept, Trouble, and five more that fill out who the character is). Aspects can be invoked to gain +2 or a reroll on a relevant roll, invoked for effect (maybe you use ANGER IS MY CONSTANT COMPANION to shake a mind altering effect, because you're full of rage) or compelled to force a negative result for a character (either accepting the consequence in exchange for a Fate point, or spending a Fate point to avoid it). Aspects also exist in the City, and Temporary Aspects can be created for a scene and then used to your advantage (like using LIGHTS OUT to sneak past a sentry). Epically, high tension scenes can be Escalated, costing (or providing) two or even three Fate points because the stakes are so high (like your High Concept being I AM THE LAW and finding out that your favorite brother, whom you swore to your dying parents that you would protect, is left holding the murder weapon at a violent scene and you have to choose whether to ignore your calling and let him go, or take him down). The book uses lots of examples of "Good" Aspects versus "Bad" (not Positive versus Negative, as most Aspects should have elements of both, but Aspects that are more game ready versus those that are not). Very useful stuff.

The Skills list isn't massive, but it is broad enough to cover a lot of ground, about 25 in all. Combat skills, for instance, are divided into stuff like Fists, Weapons and Guns, instead of Swords, Axes, Martial Arts, Boxing, Shotguns, Pistols, etc. Spellcasters want to make sure they have Conviction, Discipline and Lore covered, as the three Skills cover the various areas of spellcasting. Conviction, Discipline, Endurance and Presence can also affect various Stress Tracks. Any skill a character doesn't have defaults to Mediocre (+0), so everyone's at least kinda competent.

Skills cover the basics, Stunts cover the extra cool stuff. Want to shoot a gun? That's Guns. Want to outgun a crowd of attackers? That's the Target-Rich Environment stunt. The Empathy stunt Won't Get Fooled Again lets you learn a liar's mannerisms so you can avoid lies from them going forward. There are a lot of stunts listed, but it's mostly just a list of examples for each skill, so you can use those and the guidelines in the chapter to build your own stunts.

The Supernatural Powers list is a lot larger, but hardly exhaustive and a little harder to just make new entries for. Definitely not enough variety here to, say, run a supers game with Dresden Files, but it does cover a lot of ground, from superhuman strength to wall walking to vampirism, Evocations and Thaumaturgy (the two main types of magic), the Soulgaze (Wizards don't like to look people in the eyes for very long because of this), The Sight (where wizards open up their Third Eye and see things for what they really are) and even Items of Power (like Swords of the Cross, one of three weapons that have one of the nails used to hang Christ worked into the hilt). The selection in the book pretty well models most everything in the first 10 Dresden Files books, as it should.

The system is fairly straight forward: Every action his a Difficulty, you take a Skill and roll for Effort, and subtract the Difficulty from that to get the number of Shifts, which determines how well you succeed. There are extra tweaks (like Extended Contests, when you want more than one die roll to matter, or forcing losers of Contests to take Consequences as though they were injured). When it comes to Conflicts, Fate uses Zones, which are broadly drawn maps (as opposed to full blown grids or what have you). Initiative is based off of Skills, with the governing skill changing based on the kind of Conflict. If the attacker outrolls the defender, the shifts are applied as Stress on the target's appropriate stress track. A character can opt to take a Consequence instead of filling up their Stress boxes, effectively gaining a temporary, negative Aspect. In EXTREME circumstances, you can take an Extreme Consequence, which is so damaging it fundamentally changes who you are (replacing one of your Aspects). There are other great rules in place, like Spin, which lets you alter the next action in the conflict by rolling really high in defense, or Overflow, which lets you use Extra Shifts from an attack to pull off other non-Conflict actions. Though a lot of the rules apply to Physical Conflicts, extra attention is given to Mental and Social Conflicts, including advice on how your hero can save face in the wake of losing a Social or Mental Conflict (which tends to be a big sticking point in a lot of groups).

Magic gets two whole chapters (above and beyond the Powers chapter), as though The Dresden Files was focused largely around a Wizard or something. Special attention is paid to basically every aspect (no pun intended) of being a Wizard, from their biology (they live longer and heal faster than you) to using The Sight (including the mental effects this can have on a hero) to The Soulgaze (and what the effects of sharing a look into your inner being with another is like, as well as experiencing theirs) to Hexing (the ability of Wizards, whether they like it or not, to short out technology around them...and why your wizard will never own a Blu Ray player...for long, at least). There is also the Seven Laws of Magic, and the consequences and benefits (yes, benefits!) of breaking those laws...it's a good "Dark Side" mechanic: The more you break the Laws, the easier it becomes...but it lowers your Refresh every time, driving you one step closer to losing your free will. Also, the White Council have guys whose job it is to hunt down and behead Wizards who break the Laws. In a nutshell, they are: 1. Never Take A Life. 2. Never Transform Another. 3. Never Invade The Thoughts Of Another. 4. Never Enthrall Another. 5. Never Reach Beyond The Borders of Life. 6. Never Swim Against The Currents Of Time. 7. Never Seek Knowledge And Power From Beyond the Outer Gates.

The Spellcasting chapter gets into the nuts and bolts of it all, actually building spells. There's Evocation, which is the quick and dirty slinging of magic around. This causes you Stress, and if you dig for power beyond your Conviction, it can cause you a lot of stress. This CAN go badly, causing problems for your Wizards or having unexpected effects to others. Your Wizard can learn Rote spells, however, which are spells that you become incredibly used to casting. Thaumaturgy is the more ritualized spellcasting. This is how you track down a missing friend, summon or bind a demon or spirit, create wards, make potions, etc. Lastly, there's Sponsored Magic, which is where you are working very much at the grace of a more powerful being (but certainly not anything from Beyond, because that would violate the Seventh Law, right?). Sponsored Magic examples from the books appear, like Seelie and Unseelie magic, Soulfire and Hellfire, and Kemmlerian Necromancy. 12 pages of sample spells and items are included, to guide you through your own creation.

The GM section covers not only the basics of GMing, but some different points of concern for different Skills and such. Tips are provided for scaling opposition to your PCs (which can get questionable at times, sure), as well as warnings for dealing with Wizards (who are walking Swiss Army Knives) or characters with Super Strength, Speed or Toughness.

A very useful section on Scenario building walks you through assembling all the Aspects present in your game, deciding what the emphasis should be in this scenario, connecting dots between them and creating the scenario. The best scenarios tend to have personal links, after all.

Your Story includes a city setting, Baltimore, fleshed out as an example. It provides Points of Conflict (a power struggle in the White Court, a war brewing between Fae and Ghouls, etc), Themes and Threats (A City Battling Decay), and the important NPCs (all three major known vampire courts being represented, for instance). A number of individual characters are statted up, for use as PCs, NPCs or character creation examples, like a Trollblooded Toll Collector who takes his bridge very seriously.

The book wraps up with a Glossary, Index and blank worksheets for various phases of the game.

WHAT WORKS: A licensed RPG is about perfect for Fate, because it helps put a context to all the rules and moving bits, especially Aspects. The production values are gorgeous and the writing is hilarious, with lots of great asides and bits for fans of the books as Harry, Billy and Bob shoot comments back and forth. While the game is ostensibly a two-book purchase, this book actually gives you everything you need to play (including a sample setting), shy of a bestiary.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: If you don't already own Fudge Dice or Fate Dice, you'll need a pair. Wizards get an overwhelming amount of focus, which may be a problem if you have a player in the game that isn't a fan of spellcasters (though it is worth noting that Dresdenverse Wizards are MUCH more versatile than the Wizard archetype you're probably used to). Sample monsters would have been nice, for those who don't want to pick up a second book. If you hate informal tones to your books, stay away from this one.

CONCLUSION: I love The Dresden Files. I used to get utterly lost by Fate. Between ICONS acting as a "gateway drug" and the context of the Dresden Files license, Fate becomes a LOT easier to wrap my head around, and I hope this hits my game table in 2014. The only things I wish it had can't be taken as knocks against it, and that would be easier guidelines to expand it beyond Dresden Files (such as covering Buffy the Vampire Slayer or my own comic, The Chronicles of Rachel Strand), but it's not *designed* to do that...it's designed to emulate The Dresden Files (though that does cover a lot of ground, admittedly)...and with a little Fate Core and Fate Toolkit, that may be more than doable. Just a great licensed product that I had a blast reading, trying to match up the various pictures with their relevant scenes from the book series. This would be my immediate pick for an Urban Fantasy game to run, if I had the choice. Top notch product, well worth the price I paid for it (scored both books and four sets of Fudge dice on eBay).