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Roll Perception Plus Awareness: The Dresden Files RPG

Welcome back to Roll Perception Plus Awareness, my column on introducing role playing games to you, the SF Signal reader. This week, I am going to tackle a game based on a media property and the underlying mechanics behind the system. I am going to talk about the award winning Dresden Files Role Playing Game (DFRPG), and the system behind it, FATE.

The Dresden Files novel series likely needs little introduction to you, the readers of SF Signal. With over twelve books in the series thus far, Jim Butcher’s urban fantasy series about the only wizard in the Chicago phone book is extremely popular and is a tentpole of the urban fantasy sub genre. The Dresden Files universe is a complex, complicated hidden world, with wizards, vampires, faerie and more (including a mundane mobster with “connections”) which just out of sight to most mortals lends a rich environment for Harry, his allies, counterparts, and his enemies, to exist in. It is little wonder that such an environment would be one that many would want to set a roleplaying game in. In addition, Jim has strong connections to the roleplaying community. For example, I have role-played with his agent, Jennifer Jackson, and she herself co-ran a yearly gaming convention in the Boston area for a number of years.

The Game

Roleplaying games based on media properties (e.g. Star Wars, Star Trek, and there was even a Dallas role playing game in the 1980’s), though, often have at best a checkered history and record in the roleplaying world. For many of these games, everyone wants to play Kirk, or Han Solo, or the game itself doesn’t allow you to tell stories that go beyond what is on film. Capturing the magic of a tv series, book series or other media property in a role playing game is a surprisingly difficult task.

Fortunately, the team behind the Dresden Files Roleplaying game has taken great pains to avoid those problems and it is my pleasure to introduce their work to you. The DFRPG was created by the designers at the indie gaming publisher Evil Hat. Evil Hat, led by Rob Donoghue and Fred Hicks, has published a number of games, mostly based on their FATE roleplaying system used in the DFRPG. In addition to their talents, the talents of role playing luminaries such as Chad Underkoffler Leonard Balsera, Ryan Macklin and more have brought material to the game. Jim himself has contributed a short story for the game.

Even better, the entire text, in a clever bit of meta-gaming, is annotated in the margins and commented on by Jim Butcher in character as Harry Dresden and a few other characters, as if a copy of the game had somehow fallen into Harry’s world. The game itself is sold as two full color books (both physical and in PDF format) that together make the complete game. The production values for both books and both versions are extremely high and are works of art.

The first volume, “Your Story” introduces the players and the GM to the rules of FATE as modified for the Dresdenverse and how to run a game in the Dresdenverse.

Don’t want to play in Chicago and have your characters run into Johnny Marcone, Harry Dresden and other locals? No problem! This volume includes extensive information on how you can make your home city (or a city of your choice) into a locale for the Dresden Files. They use Baltimore as a step by step example. As I read this section, I mused about how I could use Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks as inspiration to make Minneapolis/St. Paul as a Dresdenfied city.

The second volume. “Our World”, takes on the Dresdenverse in full, providing the closest thing to a “Dresden Files cyclopedia” that exists. While it is couched in the language and terminology of the roleplaying system, and mainly intended for use for the game, this cyclopedia is, I think valuable for anyone and everyone who has delved deeply into Harry Dresden’s world and wants a reference guide to the ever more complicated world Harry lives in.

I think that the system, FATE, as used here, is an excellent choice for the kinds of stories that can be told in an Urban Fantasy setting such as the Dresden Files. Myself, I am using this system to run a game, not set in the Dresden Files universe, but in a more mythological themed and oriented game.


So what is FATE anyway?

FATE is a roleplaying game that uses three core ideas to build characters: Powers, Skills and Aspects.

Oh, and Fudge Dice.

Most gamers who know a little bit about FATE recognize the strange dice that are used to roll. Instead of the D20 or even regular six sided dice, FATE games use Fudge dice. Quartets of these dice are rolled for most actions and the sums of the pluses, minuses and blanks are added to the skill score to come up with the result. Powers are supernatural or extraordinary abilities (not every game based on FATE uses them, of course, but in the world of Harry Dresden, you bet!).

Skills are similar to skills in Dungeons and Dragons, except that FATE uses a ranking system. When you design a character, you pick a pyramid of skills, meaning that you are very good at one thing, good at a couple more things, better than average at some more, and so forth. Unlike D&D, however, if you didn’t pick a skill on your sheet, you can still make a roll–you are just average at it. Harry Dresden, for example, does not, as written up in the RPG, have any ability at Driving. So, he is considered to be just average at driving the blue Beetle or anything else.

Aspects are, to me, what really make FATE FATE. Aspects are short sentences or phrases that cover a wide range of elements and describe the character’s identity. They help define a character, who she is, and how they interact with the world. They can range from being relationships to items particularly keyed to the character. Aspects for Harry (at the end of Storm Front) include MY MOTHER’S SILVER PENTACLE and EPIC WISEASS. Aspects are used mainly to modify skill rolls, or make changes to the world. Characters pay to use Aspects by means of fate points (pro tip: do not use cookies or something edible to keep track of your fate points!)

Fate Points and Aspects can be a way to blur the GM and player divide that I’ve talked about previously in this column as well. Remember how I said in an earlier column that generally a GM builds the world and the player is completely responsible for what their player does? By offering a fate point in exchange, a GM can coax a character into invoking an Aspect that would cause trouble for the character. For example, if Harry was in the presence of one of Marcone’s lieutenants, one who had been pushing Harry’s buttons, the GM might offer a fate point to Harry’s PC to compel the aspect and have Harry tell off the lieutenant. In turn, characters can spend Fate points to make declarations about the world, be it facts, or temporary aspects for a scene. In this way, yes, the players are engaging in a little world-building of their own. As always, the GM has veto power over these declarations, but unless they are egregious (like making a declaration that there is a military-grade weapon store in Kingsbury Mall), the GM is encouraged to allow players to do it. This does take off some of the pressure of all the worldbuilding on the GM’s part, and in turn, a player reluctant to take chances can be induced to do so with a judicious compel.

I’ve only scratched the surface of how Aspects, Skills, Fate Points and Powers work in FATE, especially as detailed in the book. There is an extensive list of Powers and Skills for characters to choose from, and helpful templates. Want to build a wizard like Harry that makes a living in Portland? Have a hankering to play a Changeling? The game helps support your high concept, and makes it clear when a character is not likely to work (playing a full Red Court vampire, for example, is too powerful and evil ).

The only real criticism I have of the FATE system is that players who like to develop their characters as they go along, rather than at the start, are somewhat handicapped by this system. With the Aspects system, you are making a lot of decisions about your character at the start. While you can (and the book suggests) you can start the game with less than the full roster of Aspects and develop them as you go along, this does mean, too, the player has less Aspects of their own that they can invoke, or have compelled on them in turn. Besides that, I think the DFRPG is an excellent showcase for the FATE system, and it is an iteration of the system that can work for novice and experienced GMs and players alike. With the annotations, production values , art work, and extreme care that the Evil Hat team has brought to these game books, the result is a class act.

As Evil Hat says in the back of the book:

“Today, we don’t just run games, we don’t just make them, we work with you to make your play the best it can be–the kind that upholds and gives birth to passions of your own. That’s the Evil Hat mission, and we’re happy to have you along on it.”

The Dresden Files RPG definitely lives up to that mission statement.

The first volume (Your Story)’s won the 2011 Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Supplement, and both volumes together won the 2011 Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Game.

More recently, the Dresden Files RPG won awards at the 2011 Ennie awards at GenCon–four Gold (first place) awards, for Best Writing, Best Rules, Best Game and Best New Game. The Dresden Files also took a Silver (second place) award for Best Product of the year.

About Paul Weimer (366 Articles)
Not really a Prince of Amber, but rather an ex-pat New Yorker that has found himself living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy for over 30 years and exploring the world of roleplaying games for over 25 years. Almost as long as he has been reading and watching movies, he has enjoyed telling people what he has thought of them. In addition to SF Signal, he can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin Style, Skiffy and Fanty, SFF Audio, Twitter, and many other places on the Internet!

3 Comments on Roll Perception Plus Awareness: The Dresden Files RPG

  1. I’ve never played Dresden Files, as you said (and also as said in this week’s SF Signal podcast) games based on famous properties are not always as good as the original source. And at first I wasn’t very interested in this game. But FATE system is a great set of rules, I love how aspects works, in its time it was sort of a revolution in RPG’s. I think I still prefer Spirit of the Century.

  2. My only criticism of SOTC is that you need to really buy into the Pulp mindset to make the game work.  I have run one-shots at cons based off of SOTC, with relatively good success and fun by all.  

  3. Bryce Carlson // July 2, 2011 at 2:57 pm //

    I’ve been looking forward to the DFRPG since Evil Hat announced that they were working on it. FATE is a fantastic system, and well implemented, and I have had the opportunity to apply the system to other urban fantasy venues (including Buffy: the Vampire Slayer and Hellboy). The truth is that it works very well for what is intended, and I look forward to seeing more of Evil Hats implementation.

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