7/7/2011, Thursday- The FATE of Dresden RPG

Dresden Files RPG review (Part One) FATE system.

The Dresden Files’ novels breathes new life into that antiquated pulp-fiction detective cliché through magic, bringing it to the modern day with it’s stereotype somewhat untouched.  There are no “dame” comments or Boggart slapping of women because they said something Humphrey didn’t like;  but I do mean literal magic, Dresden is the protagonist in the literature and he is a wizard who can perform magic, hence “literal magic.”  Or do I mean “literature magic?”  I was an Art Major, not an English Major; I could be wrong here.  Unfortunately, the Dresden Files RPG tries to use magic to breathe new life into the FATE system, which was breathing new life into the FUDGE system, and now we are on a bad centipede movie reference that has nothing to do with the game.  Feeling a little all-over-the-place?  That is the best way to sum up the Dresden Files RPG.

Ironically, I think we might need to hire Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency to understand the full “interconnectiveness of all things” to grasp how this RPG was developed the way that it was.  Douglas Adams created Dirk before Wikipedia; so I can provide a few facts to cut down on the detective’s hourly charge.   First, Fred Hicks who “runs” Evil Hat Productions Produced the Dresden Files RPG using the FATE system.  The current FATE system is a free RPG that was “modified and augmented” by R. Grant Erswell.  Mr. Erswell claims that the Free FATE system is was developed by Robert Donoghue and Fred Hicks based on the Fudge System of Grey Ghost Press; but it is the Fudge System on Steroids.   Needless to say, there are plenty of legal documents, at the end of anything that could be printed with the heading “Open Game License”-Damn that WotC!!!! Jim Butcher is the author of the Dresden Files novels.  Now, if you are as persistent Sam Spade (Dirk would wait for fortune) in exploring all leads; we might get the girl and the answer to the mystery.  We are Role-players pretending to be hard-boiled detectives here; so all I am going to say “Fred Hicks used to game with Jim Butcher back in collage.  That’s right, Jim use to GM Fred; so therefore it was Mr. Plum with the rope, not in the library; but the conservatory!!!”  Case close.   No Girl for me.  

Crunchy Bits

I would love to explain subtle enter-woven evolution of the Fudge system that would ultimately produce the Dresden Files RPG.  I would imagine doing so would take almost as many articles as describing the transition from Chainmail to 4th Edition D&D.  We simply do not have the time; however, having gone back and paroozed the older versions, I have to say the FUDGE system was very innovated for its time.   Had I not been distracted with the false promises of White Wolf during the 90’s, then I would have been all over this game system.  Naturally, we can assume that; because it has evolved, there were problems with the original system.  Looking at where it evolved to, the problem was the game did not take you far enough within its innovations.  Most of everything within the Dresden Files RPG has a kernel idea within the FUDGE system.  So, let’s just talk about what has survived.

Can You Judge a Book by its Cover?

In the Dresden Files RPG, your character is created with descriptive titles which are then used to directly affect gameplay, rather than long lists of statistical measures.  This versatility allows players to invent original characters not found in many other RPGs.  The FATE system misleadingly boasts to not having any, yes ANY, statistical attributes to the game.  They do, but there are only a few and they are buried in the skills.   The descriptors for your character (for example: Luck loves a Lady) are called Aspects and are invoked for various bonuses when attempting to make resolution roll.  Furthermore, your character has Fate Points, which is the resource spent when invoking aspects.  The number of Fate Points given per game is modified by how many powers your character has.  Powers are mostly those neat things you can do in the Dresdenvirse, like shape shift or cast magic.  The greater or more powers you have, the less Fate Point you get.  Finally, you have skills which are what you use to make any resolution check.  That is it for characters, basically, only four components-Aspects, Fate Points, Powers, and skills. 

For as much complexity there is in this game, character generation is fairly basic and not crunchy.  No Strength, Intelligent rolls, or species choices layered with special modifiers.  You are not limited to an archetype, clan, class or specific function like “striker or tank” nor are they the source of your abilities.  There is no overly systemized generation background either, like your career path in Traveler or life-path in Burning Wheel.  Anyone who has never played an RPG or has read any of the Dresden novels will find character creation fairly easy.  The most time consuming part of making your hero is figuring out your hero’s concept.   

FATE excels at allowing a player to craft their own character easily and effectively, because a character is mostly defined by their aspects.  A player can have a character concept from Sherlock Homes to Rodger Rabbit and still be equally effective. Sure, you might be a little torn between skill choices but aspects can affect all rolls.  An aspect of “Reads and files all newspapers” can be applied to several different skill rolls, just as much as “Can do the impossible, only when it’s funny.”  Aspects, actually diminishes how much skills define your character, unlike most RPGs where skills are your character’s greatest definition.  Additionally, because most of the game’s crunch is in the metagame; your aspects allow your character to be the professional that you, as a player, are not.  Perry Mason can go into the police office demanding the release of his friend (because he didn’t do it) and use “top notch lawyer” aspect to whatever roll is needed.  As a player, you don’t need to explain in detail how the law works here, you only have to justify that as a “top notch lawyer” can be applied to your roll.  This might take away from realism from your game or frustrate old school gamers, but this game is about making a story where there are fairies, demons, and guys in long leather coats slinging fire on Wacker Drive. 

The one fault to character creation is that your character is more set in their ways than in other games.  Dresden Files provides character advancement (basic FATE has less), yet it is not in leaps or bounds.  Most character advancement is character change, not any real increase of abilities.  Most sessions allow a few reworking of skills, aspects, or powers but they are still based on the same limitations presented at character creation.  Major accomplishments within the game allow some increase, but major increases in the game can move your character into a NPC position.  Accepting the Kinghood for the Summer Court in game will increase your characters power; unfortunately, as a character, you will be retired to a NPC position for your new character to interact with.   This does have a plus side; you do see your character change in the story’s history and a feel of a natural progression.  Feeling a character change opens more opportunities to play your character and can be even more satisfying than gaining a +1 to a skill.  However, if you are planning to be three times as powerful after the third gaming session, you will be sorely disappointed.

Resolution- those book’s covers suck.

There are three indirect features to any resolution die roll within Dresden Files RPG.  First, anyone can make any skill check.  There is a base line expectation to what everyone knows and can do within the game system that is not limiting to any player.  Anyone can make a Lore Skill roll, some characters have more skill in it than others; but this does not restrict anyone from making a roll.  Sherlock might be damn good at Lore, but Rodger Rabbit can still make it.  Second; the die mechanic determines not only the success of the action, but also the degree of success.  The better you roll the greater and/or wider the range of success.  Like causing damage, every addition success causes one more point of damage.  Third, how you invoke the aspects affect the dice roll to gain the greatest success.  Keep these things in mind with the rest of the system.


The Clunky Dice Mechanic-like how they use light in the book covers’ artwork.

On the surface, the dice mechanic is awful; because it is clunky, awkward, and jarring to actual play.  Unfortunately, there are some reasons to using this inefficient dice system.  Whenever you make a roll, you are rolling to meet a difficulty number.  A difficulty number is how many successes you need to accomplish whatever you wanted to do, anything beyond that number increase your character’s advantage.  For every skill point you have within the skill you are rolling for (every roll has a skill tied to it) you get an automatic success to your die.  However, there is a large random factor added to this system; every “Roll” requires rolling four FUDGE dice.  FUDGE dice are silly six-siders where 1/3 sides have a; “-“ on them which removes a success from your roll, a “blank” which does nothing to your roll, or a “+” which adds one success to your roll.  Thus, every roll could remove up four successes from your roll or possibly add four successes.  This is highly improbable and chances are, between the four dice, most will cancel each other out giving you a +/- 1 or 0 success roll that is then added to your skill points.

EXMPL: It is late in the afternoon and Archie is trying to get to the film studio before the producers leave; a difficulty of 3, Archie Goodwin has a Drive skill of 2.  He rolls 3”–“and 1 blank, leaving him with -1 success (-3 + 2 in Drive=-1.)  Poor Archie, he should have stayed in New York with Nero Wolfe. 

Aspects are used as modifiers if you spend Fate Points on a single roll.  They do one of two things; either reroll the dice or add two successes.  Fortunately, you may use as many aspects that fit the situation as long as you are willing to spend the Fate Points.  Unfortunately, you cannot load up Fate Points on a single aspect to get additional bonuses.  Archie’s player can use Archie’s aspect “Grew up on the streets” thinking that it fits because; he has been driving across town whenever he is behind the wheel.  By spending the Fate Point, the player chooses to reroll the dice.  The roll gives him one “-“and blank, but two “+”s, (-1+2+2=3) so he makes it to the studio.  However, the player wants to get there with enough time to case the joint before the producers leave, therefore he wants more successes to this roll.  He cannot use the same aspect twice in a roll, so he makes a call to Nero Wolfe and tells him what is going on, making sure that Nero wants him to go.  Now, he can also use his aspect “Nero Wolfe’s Leg man” and add two more success to that three. 

Typically something like Fate Points ends up being a “benny” for games; however, in Dresden Files they are only spent when you are doing something that fits your character’s description.  The bonus shifts from Fate Points to aspects, with Fate Points being a resource to fuel aspects.  The dice mechanic is designed to encourage players to use their aspects by having a thick bell curve. 


Complexity through diversifying-Something that is lacking in the books cover artwork.

So there is a clunky dice mechanic that is designed to encourage role-playing and making a story.  Perhaps no more complex than any other game system; yet the game diversifies the resolution system by having four types of resolution rolls.  The simple action; as described above, with a fix difficulty (target number)-frequently used throughout the game.  Contests; where another character rolls their skill and sets the difficulty for your roll.  This is mostly used in any combat.  “The Race” where multiple characters are making a few rolls independently for the same goal, the first character to acuminate the difficulty gets the goal.  Finally, there is “Cat n’ Mouse” where characters’ goals are different but still affect each other and they are still making a few rolls, but instead of acuminating successes, they cancel out each other character’s successes with the outcome being varied.  These last two types of actions are not frequently used. 

Simple and contested actions are typical of most RPGs, while “the Race” and “Cat ‘n Mouse” are fairly novel.  The game explains when and how to use these distinctive types well; yet, does not really explains why you would use them, especially when you add the additional three types of conflicts.    

Conflicts a.k.a. Combat

Dresden Files RPG combat system is not as highly tactical as other systems, but it is almost as complex.  It is best described as “tactical story combat,” where players create various story elements which they try to use to win the combat.  Naturally, those story elements are aspects which the combat system is centered around.  Sure, there are the normal attack and blocking actions/rolls; but the most interesting action is “maneuvers” where you create an aspect that you can place on yourself or another character.  A character can make a maneuver roll and add the aspect “on the ground” to an NPC.  You can even place a maneuver on yourself, like “hiding behind a crate.”  This system creates a story of events which will lead to a resolution of the combat.  You are not counting movement spaces, nor calculating range modifiers; but rather creating a description which you can tap for bonuses. 

The complexity of the conflict system is not really the actions performed, but rather results and that does not always mean damage.  The main goal whenever entering a conflict is to “take out” the opponent while not being “taken out.”  Being “taken out” means you lost and cannot do anything more to the situation and the results are left up to the guy who took you out.  A bouncer at a bar is not trying to kill you; zombies are, so pick your fights carefully.  Your character is “taken out” when they have taken a hit hard enough to pass their stress track.  A stress track is a number of dots, typically from 1-4, and you are taken out when a hit is anything over the max number.  If you are hit with anything weaker, that specific dot is marked.  When you get hit again with that same number, you mark off the next highest unmarked number; thus you will accumulate stress until a hit progress beyond your max.  You can take out an opponent in five turns if you are hitting them with one damage point each action and they have four physical stress or three turns if you are hitting them with 3 damage points.  This is not your typical damage track, especially when after the combat all stress is removed.  Furthermore, you can negate damage being done to yourself by taking an aspect that is like a wound.  The heaver the wound the longer it last in gameplay.  Additionally, you can make a compromise if combat is not going well, giving most of goal to the opponent but getting a lot of Fate Points for doing it.

Another interesting facet to the conflict system is that there are three different types of conflict; it is not just physical combat.  A character can engage in social combat or mental combat, which works the same way as physical combat; just with different skills.  Unfortunately, the system does not go into great detail with these other types of conflicts.  Without great detail, players are going to avoid these types of conflicts. 

Consider these Aspects

This review has just begun to scratch the surface of aspects.  You can use aspects against a character and have your own used against you, this earns you Fate Points.  Scenes or places have aspects, which you can learn, guess at, and possibly create yourself.  Many times you can tag an aspect for free. 

Conclusion of the FATE system

The FATE system, including Dresden Files RPG, can be the first true step away from tactical role-playing games and yet, still offers several features started by the original games and those who mimicking them.  The old role-playing games were tactical systems that had a by-product become role-playing.  FATE takes role-playing and inserts it to the tactical system, disrupting the system’s goals (typically killing all foes) and creating tactical advantages by having players make a story.   Yet, FATE still provides enough complexity to the game to; give players a feeling of mastering the system, have mid/maxers plenty of modifiers to play with, and provide rule lawyers apply their interest.  The potential problem is that this combination of story and tactics is within the Metagame.   Players are not trying to emulate their aspects because they are exploring their character concepts; but rather, players are steering their character’s actions to exploit aspects that are defined within the story to gain a mechanical benefit. 

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One Comment on “7/7/2011, Thursday- The FATE of Dresden RPG”

  1. boccobsblog Says:

    Nice to see Harry in RPG form. Detailed review, thanks.

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