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Let’s talk some more about the Dresden Files RPG

May 25th, 2010: Mike Sugarbaker says...
Let’s talk some more about the Dresden Files RPG

What’s amazing is how much difference some room makes. I’ve grown accustomed to reading games on digest-sized pages or not much bigger; a full-sized book gives rules text and (crucially) examples the opportunity to be next to each other. It’s a small thing, but it really makes a text easier to get into your head. (It’s a bit unfair, this thing of reviewing the layout and the reading experience. Some days I’m just in a thick mood and I’m not going to be able to comprehend anything. I have the impression that the text in DFRPG v1: Your Story is just the right balance of getting-to-the-point and spicing-things-up to get through my thick old skull, but maybe I just got lucky. To make matters worse I read most of it on my new iPod, so this is hardly objective data: maybe I was just mesmerized by the shiny.)

So yes, I’ve read through Your Story. As of now I haven’t even cracked the virtual cover of Our World, and besides the occult-Chicago chapter (wherein Ken Hite will be in his element twice over), I’m unlikely to give it very careful attention. I’m approaching DFRPG as an engine for urban-fantasy and contemporary-occult gaming in general and have little interest in the Dresdenverse fiction. (Although the well-executed margin notes in the voices of the characters have increased that interest.)

For those concerned that a wizards-noir game shouldn’t feel like Spirit of the Century, I can confirm two things that I half-remember Hicks talking about back in the day but have never been able to find again: the stress tracks work differently, and Fate point refresh works differently. These two changes really transform the game. Situations get bad faster, and you’ll be making more concessions to the situation. And high-powered characters? Well, those powers come with a direct cost to your refresh. The more juice you can throw around, the fewer Fate points you’ll get free each session to get out of scrapes with, and the more compels you’ll need to seek out. (All of this, of course, feeds right into interesting complication that keeps stories going. Everything in the game that can hose you can also let you write the next twist of the knife.)

About those compels: yeah, people, it’s called the Fate engine, not the Free Will engine, as someone said. What the DF text does better than I’ve seen anything else do, however, is really explain what that means and what players’ options are. Compels “limit the responses available to a character in a certain situations,” and can and should be negotiated between the player and the GM. The page on negotiating compels is one of those hidden bits of system that can really rev an engine when well tuned.

The one chapter of the text where I bogged down a bit was Spellcasting. Perhaps because I’m not a Dresdenphile, the balance between fluff and useful tipped over a bit too much towards fluff for me. It took the reference sheets in back to reveal to me that the two spellcasting systems (one for instantaneous blasts, one for more considered projects) strongly resemble skill challenges from D&D 4. Given the DF design team’s work on the now-defunct One Bad Egg project, that influence isn’t a big shocker. There’s even a too-brief note in the Running the Game section about, well, using a near-clone of the spell systems as a generalized challenge system. So there you go.

The last major thing to comment on here is city creation, which comes right up front in the book, before character creation even – and both city creation and character creation are set forth as explicitly collaborative activities, performed by the group together. The best thing about the city-creation process is there’s no way it can be mistaken for “playing before you play” – you put together a sheet that describes major themes of the city, plus their distillations into Aspects, then does the same for several locations and their possible NPC representatives. It’s all descriptive, not prescriptive, but it’s also not shy about putting players in a position of some knowledge of and authority over setting, going in.

DFRPG spends fairly little time apologizing for its nature or explaining its differences in detail to people already familiar with RPGs. It just says how things work. That’s going to be interesting once this thing hits Barnes and Noble, because it’s going to be the biggest statement of the recent evolution of RPGs yet to appear in that environment. On the other hand, it isn’t clear to me how broad the appeal of the license actually is, which could mitigate the effect of mass-market distro. I look forward to the real-world test.

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