7/14/2011 Thursday- Pulling Dresden Out of FATE

The Dresden FIles RPG review (Part Two)

The Dresden Files novels are pulp fiction with magic and the FATE game system emulates pulpy.  All that needs to be done with this game system is to match the magic from the novels to the game and that, in its self, would be a good game.  Fortunately, the designers do not stop there to make their game system “Dresden-ie.”  This RPG rulebook is simply saturated with that Dresden feel. The book seems to dedicate nearly half the written material in it to establishing a “Dresden” setting and tone.  The book is set up to have the “writers” be characters from the novels; where the werewolf Billy, from the Alphas, is the designer while Harry and Bob write in notes and corrections.  If you are looking for a game that feels like the source material, Dresden Files is one of the best; exceeding Star Wars and even Mouse Guard.  Although much of this is done through good writing and production, here we will talk about how the system matters. 


Poor old Harry Dresden

Harry Dresden is always down on his luck; either he is poor or being forced into accepting crappy jobs. He spends most of the time getting knocked around by people who have greater leverage than him.  His underdog position is the strongest reason the reader sympathizes with him from story to story.  He is a wizard who has a really hard life.  Furthermore, the people around him seem to have it so much easier, they might have problems but they are successful on some level.  Despite how much the world beats Harry down, he always pulls off the incredible to save the day. 

The Dresden Files RPG creates this winning underdog story, which is typical of the noir detective pulp, with several mechanics.   The most influential mechanic is that the greater power a character has, the less Fate Points you start out with.  A full White Council Wizard only starts out with one Fate Point while many other characters can have over four.  Those descriptive character aspects do not come into play as much as other “less powerful” characters.  There are several ways to accumulate Fate Points during game play, but to gather them means having bad stuff happens to your character.

First, is letting those aspects work against you.  A GM can “compel” your character to do things based on their aspects with a reward of Fate Points; Hell, one of your aspects is called “trouble.”  Harry can use his aspect “Perpetually Broke” to block against stock market crashes and vacuum salesmen; but the GM is putting on the pressure when he places the 3rd notice for rent in Harry’s mailbox.  A character with an aspect “Loves Children” might gain bonuses when dealing with kids or protecting them, yet that GM won’t let them leave a haunted theater if they hear a child crying.  There are plenty of choices that Harry makes that seem character driven and also counter-productive.  Second, lose a few conflicts.  Losing conflicts gives a character Fate Points; the more you lose the more Fate you get.  What a great mechanic to play the underdog? Start the game with a few defeats, and then spend those Fate Points to do the incredible at the end. 


Convoluted Stories

Only in pulp fiction can a protagonist take a job where the antagonist comes a few hours later to offer an opposing case.   Don’t you wish your life was so covenant? Does it sound a little convoluted?  It happens in the Dresden Files and Nero Wolf or Mickey Spillane.  The Dresden Files is filled with convoluted plot; in the few first novels it was some aspect of magic, supernatural or just a ubiquitous starting character whom presents an important plot point.  In the later novels it became political, reoccurring characters that either holds the reins or directly interferes with what Harry is doing.  No plot is as simple as a one hour episode of Star Trek or Doctor Who.  For that, you would need to have the Sontaran General Staal, hire the Doctor to prove he is innocent; only to discover that Davros is manipulating the Cyber-men who framed the egghead in the first place, that would be Doctor Who with a Dresden Plot.  Have you looked up the plot summery of a Dresden File novel on Wikipedia?  Most are bigger than this review.  That has to be a little convoluted.  Do not think this is a bad thing, after all; how good would a Detective story be if it was as straight forward as a cooking recipe.  You need twists, layers, and puppeteers to make a good pulp fiction novel and the Dresden Files RPG backs those up with a few system mechanics.

The greatest influence to a convoluted story in the Dresden Files is “City Creation.”  From the first novel, it is a well-established fact that Harry Dresden’s stories take place (or root) in Chicago.  This RPG allows the group to place the story within any city, granting them the city’s historical background or setting to play with; but this is just window dressing.  More importantly, City Creation is a collaboration among all the players to determine the city’s threats, themes, the movers/shakers vs. the status quo.  Take Johnny Marcone and Bianca of the Red Court Vampires, both are established “status quo” in Chicago; while the city theme could be “how does Magic disrupts the world?”  Any wizard, or hedge wizard, is considered a threat—which would place both Dresden and Victor Sells in conflict with the underline qualities of the city of Chicago.  Playing in another city, like Philadelphia with the superficial theme of “Give me liberty or give me death,” the status quo could be held by the “Grandsons of Liberty” a Mason group who is dedicated to make sure there are no super-natural influences in government.  However, the Dragon Don Stinkerton wants his company to drill in the area to gain the natural gas which is his natural nourishment.   Since “City Creation” happens before character creation, your city concepts have a huge effect on your character concept.  Even if you ignore these threats and themes, the GM will bring it back and put you in the middle of the conflict-just like Harry Dresden.

Another bearing for the convoluted story is aspects; or more detailed, how you tie your character to the City’s themes/threats or just blow it off and bring in your own interest.    Your character can have aspects like “Masons are suspicious of me,” which means those Masons can drop into the story anytime even if it has nothing to do with the plot.  Additionally, you can have the aspect “A werewolf has a grudge against me.”  This brings in a new NPC threat to the game.  



Harry Dresden, just like the noir pulp, is not Sherlock Holmes; instead, they do some detective work but mostly they go to places and stuff happens.  You can call it investigative but not real detective work which takes hours of compiling data, forensics science, phone taps, and all that drudgery.  Nothing against Harry, but he does about as much detective work as Dog the Bounty Hunter.  The game is set up with as much detail.  Many of the skills are set up to accomplish the same effects in the conflict system; maneuver to get aspects, and then tap those aspects to do what you wanted.  There are a few skills; not dozens of possible skills that could reveal the special clue you need, like recognizing cigar tobacco or blood splatter analysis.  In Dresden Files you use your burglary skill to case a joint, which will give aspects of the place; then you use burglary to infiltrate the joint by tapping those aspects.  This is even more simplified by players possibly spending Fate Points to create aspects that were not there.   A GM might have a windowless warehouse, but a player might declare that there is a rusty pipe going to the roof.  The game pushes for fast pace and creative thinking, not a system heavy with detail and subtle clues for players to piece together. 


In the novels, the supernatural are story elements; in Full Moon, its werewolves; in Death Masks, it was the Fallen; in Dead Beat, it was zombies.  Also, they are characters-Thomas, Michael, and Susan each have supernatural powers.  These elements lead to all sorts of plot devices for several stories.  It is a part of the fun of reading the novels, to see how it all works in the story and modern world.  Fortunately, with the Dresden Files, we are allowed to explore the supernatural through at least a whole novel, sometimes more.  Unlike some TV series which need to come up with a “monster of the week” which if the viewers like, then additional things are added in another week.  Let’s face it, there is more written about Star Trek’ Ferengi than there are about Butcher’s werewolves; and yet Jim’s story was more original and fulfilling than all the Deep Space nine episodes.

The role-playing game provides that same character element within the supernatural.  Players can have supernatural character, with the same limitations as wizards-more power; less Fate Points.  Furthermore, the book covers several powers which you can choose from, add some aspects that define your character and you can easily be whatever you want to be.  Be a black court vampire or a half child of a Greek god.  The RPG focuses on the character and how you describe them, not as much as what special rules they have for themselves.  Instead of trying to place detailed structure and mechanics over the supernatural, the designers give a loose and flexible structure that allows the supernatural to be story elements.



Unfortunately, the magic system is not as conducive to the Dresden tone as other areas in the system.  The game is thorough, there are rules for Soul Gazing, Sight, Hexes, Death Curses, Thresholds, Potions, and everything else; however, the rules lacks an inspirational quality to story which is prevalent throughout the rest of the rules.  Perhaps the reason is that the novels use magic for so many story devices that there is no abstract meaning behind magic.  Magic seems to be both, part of the stories exploration and a direct raw power.  For the RPG, the designers focus on power and the system to regulate that power. 

Final Conclusion

Fans of the Dresden Files novels will love playing this RPG.  The designers capture the novels tone wonderfully and carry through with addressing all the settings elements.  Although the rules are complex, they are not so crunchy that new players will balk at learning the system.  The real magic to this RPG is that as you play in the Dresden World and it feels like Dresden, the story changes from being authored by Jim Butcher to being authored by your group.   

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