Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Dresden Files

Okay, first a quick 5AK update: almost all my mailings have gone out, and I should have the last three in the mail today. I have the car this week (one o the “perks” of the wife being out of the country) and I’ve been using the opportunity to make daily post runs on my lunch break.  Postage costs have been higher than I anticipated because all the packets have been an ounce heavier than my original “test” mailing…which is just weird. Did I use a different size envelope with first one? Did the addition of the adventure really add a full ounce?

Well, whatever…I’ll just eat the cost for now. The thing that REALLY bites, though, is the way the post office has changed their customs forms. They now have to manually enter all the info off the customs form into their computer for each mailing? WTF? I never had this issue with my last two books…just sending a single packet to Canada added an extra 5-10 minutes to my time at the post office yesterday. And today I’ve packets going to both the UK and France! Good thing I’ve got a Jimmy Johns just a couple blocks away.

[my lunch break is only 30 minutes]

So, yeah, people should start seeing their books arrive in the next few days. I know Gary’s Games (my local retailer) has sold a couple copies and asked for more, so the game is already in the hands of some folks.

Okay, so…Dresden Files. Had the chance to play this at Dragonflight this year and wanted to talk about the experience. Especially with regard to “role-playing” and in comparison to my recent play-test of D&D Next (i.e. 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons).

[oh no! Not this can o worms again!]

Yep…a little bit.

Dresden is one of those games that I don’t own, haven’t read, and (previously) had no interest in purchasing or playing. It uses the FATE game system, itself a derivation of the FUDGE (universal) game system, and I’m not a fan of FUDGE. I’m not a fan of “universal systems,” as they tend to be bland and generic (duh), drawing any flavor from the setting material or theme assumptions you try to slap on…and I prefer a system that synchs game mechanics tighter to the gameplay/style of the game. FUDGE with its subjective, descriptive phrases makes me cringe even more. What’s the difference between “good” and “great,” really?

Whatever…I’m an old fuddy-duddy curmudgeon in that regard. FATE offers a couple upgrades over FUDGE, and I enjoyed playing Spirit of the Century (which uses a version of FATE as well) the last time I was at Dragonflight. A lot of fun actually.

But then, SotC allowed me to live out some of my pulp fantasies (I absolutely love early pulp...). The Dresden Files? It’s “Harry Potter” meets detective noir. At least, that’s what it looks like, and I’m not a fan of Harry Potter. Yes, I’ve read the books and watched the films, but that’s because I’m a completest: I want to know how the story ends…even if the story’s not particularly compelling. The idea of a magical world living side-by-side with a mundane world, basically cooperative, kind of not-so-but-somewhat-secret…it’s like “World of Darkness Lite.”

More fun than it looks.
So yeah…not a big fan of the “fudgy-ness” of FATE, not a big fan of the Dresden theme (haven’t read the fiction nor watched the show), so why would I be interested in the game?

Well, turns out it’s a lot of fun actually.

And in ways I wasn’t really expecting. For one thing, the game made it very easy for me to role-play, and here I mean it in my own terms of putting myself in my imaginary character’s shoes. And this despite being an “indie” game…remember me talking about how “authorial stance” doesn’t facilitate role-playing because it takes you out of the character’s perception? You don’t remember that? Well, it was a pretty rambling set of posts.

Let me walk you through my experience: I wasn’t doing anything so I showed up at the Story Games Lounge just as they were deciding what game to play. A couple people voted for Dresden and I wasn’t about to rock the boat. Ogre (the GM) had a “canned adventure” ready for Dresden and handed out pre-gen characters…characters that had been played before and thus were a little developed based on past players.

My character sheet was a mass of gibberish…or rather, a mass of jargon with which I wasn’t familiar. I had a bunch things that looked like skills, ranked from +1 to +5. I had a bunch of magical gear, some of which was self-explanatory (healing potions), most of which weren’t (“vial of tears?”). I had a bunch of “aspects” which were descriptive one-liners…these things I remembered vaguely from 2010 (when I last played a FATE game) but I didn’t remember exactly how they worked mechanically. Some, like “good kid from a bad family” looked useful while others, like “channel my inner Admiral Ackbar,” were baffling to me (and I say this as a Star Wars fan who knows Admiral Ackbar). My character’s concept was something like Young Wizard Malcontent or something…a slacker 20-something who’s part of the local “wizard council” (or whatever) but has issues with authority (mainly due to his own apathy, probably).

Not every character at the table was a wizard: one dude was a (mundane) cop assigned to the Special Investigation (“supernatural”) unit. One was an older wizard “warden” (like the badass, magical “sheriff” of the territory). Two characters were supernatural non-wizards: a half-goblin/fae/changeling prankster and a dude who was like Wolverine without the claws (a brawny brawler with super-hard bones and regenerative abilities). The adventure was the kind of throwaway one-off you’d expect: someone got murdered, the police figure out supernatural beings are involved, SI cop drags his usual supernatural cronies into the investigation, and hilarity ensues. Or bloodshed. Or whatever. You get the gist.

What I’d like to do, though, is note the similarities between the (real life) circumstances of this game and my play-test of D&D Next. In D&D Next I also sat down with a group of (mostly) strangers and (very) casual acquaintances. I was given a rule set similar to something I’d played before, but that I still needed a little over-view of. I was given a character sheet for a semi-developed character with a bunch of (to me) gibberish…about the same length, too...including equipment, skills, and some special feats/stunts, abilities. Like the Dresden game, I was presented with a fairly obvious scenario: there’s a subterranean gnome community that needs help reclaiming their ancestral caverns that have become infested with non-friendlies. The players have a diversity of character concepts, all of which interact (mechanically) with the game environment in similar ways, if with different color.

Challenges will be presented. Players will address those challenges. “Stuff” will happen.

Now there WAS a difference in the type of character I played in the games: my DDN character was a dwarf fighter, while I purposefully decided AGAINST taking the “basic fighty-guy” in Dresden. It was offered to me (perhaps because it was my first foray into Dresden and only my second time with FATE), but I declined it in favor of the “snot-nosed kid.” I wanted to try something different.

[not that it really matters that much…I tend to play all characters the same regardless of concept]

The scenario in Dresden unfolded the way one would expect: you find clues in a scene, it leads you to a different scene. Sometimes there’s a fight at a scene. All leading towards the inevitable showdown with the “main bad guy” in a final, climactic scene. I’ve seen this kind of thing a lot over the years (typical World of Darkness type scenario). Having not read the rules, I don’t know if this is the typical Dresden scenario (the protagonist, Mr. Dresden, is a detective, right?).

All in all, pretty standard…which is what I would say of the D&D Next scenario, too. Not much surprising, fairly linear in the lay-out from “start” to “objective.” The players in both cases were a mixed bag, both regard to skill level (with the rules) and level of engagement (with play itself). In both case the DM was perfectly competent to run and referee, neither limiting the players through their decisions, nor providing exceptional surprises or “twists” in the action of the game.

I should also point out that both systems (DDN and Dresden) provide little kewl things (feats, stunts, powers…whatever you want to call it) that allow your character to operate outside the standard rules of the game, generally as an expendable resource. Okay? Same stuff with different jargon.

Having said all THAT, I will say that the Dresden Files most definitely facilitated the act of role-playing and D&D Next most certainly did not.

The difference was not the GMs running the game. The difference was not the players participating or the quality of their interaction with each other. The difference was not an exciting “adventure” that required a bunch of brain power or socializing with NPCs. The difference wasn’t minimalist rules or character sheets. The difference wasn’t a “lack of dice rolling” (I rolled more dice in Dresden than I did in the game of D&D Next). The difference was a lack of combat or danger: I actually missed a good section of the adventure (as I explained before) but came back in time for the whole climactic showdown with big, mean sorcerer and bunches of gun-wielding goons.

The difference was the SYSTEM…the mechanics of the game. One game (Dresden) forced me, again and again, to consider who I was as the imaginary character. It put me firmly in the shoes of my character…making me consider my game play from my character’s perspective. Here’s how:

When your character tries to do, well, pretty much anything at all interesting, you roll four “FATE dice” to see how effective you are. A FATE die is a six-sided die with two sides marked “+,” two sides marked “-,” and two blank sides; these stand for +1, -1, and 0 respectively. The result of your roll is added to your skill (+1 through +5) to arrive at a number that tells you how good your attempted action turns out. Especially with regard to combat and damage, these results are fairly objective…many times you have to overcome a specific target number (like the skill level of an opponent) in order to succeed.

I don’t own FATE dice, so I was rolling a set provided to me by the GM. My dice rolled shitty the entire session, mostly rolling negative and never rolling higher than +1 (that I remember). To compensate for this, you are allowed to tap “aspects” (those one-line descriptions) if you can apply it to the action; each aspect can be tapped once per action and gives you a +2 bonus to the result of your roll. You are also required to spend a FATE chip (like a poker chip) for each aspect tapped. Whether because my character was a wizard or young or both, I started with fewer chips than the other PCs (I believe I started with three), but I was awarded one every time I did something clever or interesting or made a cool choice of action based on my character’s descriptive aspects.

The thing is, I was forced to take actions (or motivate my character) based on my descriptive aspects because of my shitty dice rolls. Even when I didn’t roll terrible, I was still spending chips and tapping aspects because I wanted to get bigger successes. I was milking the system, constantly emptying my chip total as fast as they were awarded, and fully engaged in the mindset/personality of my character, because that was the only way for me to achieve effectiveness in the game. It didn’t matter, that my character wasn’t the strongest-toughest, or the biggest badass wizard, or the goblin-girl who’s stealth rolls ended up with “legendary” results every time because of various stacking feats and stunts and circumstance bonus. I, as a player, was fully in the mindset of my character AND still affecting the outcome of the adventure scenario simply by using the built-in mechanics of the game. I was the character that ruined the Big Demon-Summoning Ritual, and put a bullet in the Head Witch, and then later found said-witch (after she made a magic “quick escape”) with a ritual designed to follow the bullet I’d left in her. Pretty good considering my character seemed to have been designed to control wind and water and heal folks.

[as I’ve said before, I don’t really do “cleric.” In the end, as usual, I ended up leading the charge into battle and mucking everything up for the bad guy in my typical show-boat fashion. The GM later told us he’d run this scenario several times in the past and this was the first time anyone had ever actually stopped the demon from being summoned…most times the Wolverine guy would charge the summoning circle and get possessed and then turn on his buddies. I used my “wind evocation” to fly ahead of everyone and then used “water control” to wreck the summoning circle. The gun-play only came about because there’s a prohibition on wizards using magic to kill people, but in the end it worked out for the best when I had the idea to track the bullet]

I never did “channel my inner Admiral Ackbar,” though.

The aspects I did use included things describing the character’s personality, ethics, likes and dislikes. Things like “my friends are my family,” “mortal lives are in danger,” and “Erik’s not a bad guy…when people are trying to kill us.” The last referred to the character’s prickly relationship with the wizard warden – the stereotype “old guard vs. young buck” kind of dynamic. The other PCs used their aspects to do cool things as well: in one memorable instance, the cop used his cop authority to make all the mook cultists throw down their weapons, instead of doing the otherwise inevitable (and drawn-out) gun battle with a bunch of AK-47-armed, meth-head Satanists.

[just to contrast, back in my Vampire the Masquerade days, this is exactly the kind of thing that would take up hours of game play without being exceptionally interesting to the game]

SO…fun time had by all and quite a bit of (what I would consider) actual role-playing. Based on the mechanics of the game and the way the game-play unfolded. Now, am I anxious to get down to the shop and pick up a copy of Dresden Files? Or some other FATE-based game? No, not really.

Why not? Because, fun as it was to play I’m not terribly interested in running the game. I had a blast playing a character in the game (even someone else’s pre-gen character) but I would not want to act as a GM for the game…and if I purchased Dresden with the idea of introducing it to the players at my table, chances are I’d be running it. And the GM part of Dresden just doesn’t look all that fun to me. To me, it looks like the GM’s game (with Dresden) is very much dependent on what your players are bringing to it.  In D&D (and similar games), this isn’t the case: if the PCs don’t bring their “A” game, it just means they get killed…and killing players is plenty fun. I get the impression that character death isn’t really a feature of game play in FATE (judging by how difficult it is to even damage a non-mook NPC)…so unless your players are ready to dive in to the role-playing and start burning those chips, your game’s just going to be dull, dull, dull. I’m also not sure if or how the “character development” works in FATE; as a one-off session, the game worked great, but how do characters change over time in an extended campaign/saga?

ANYway…I was impressed with the gameplay and wouldn’t mind playing again (as a player, mind you). After dipping my toe into FATE on two occasions, I find myself a bit intrigued with its particular mechanics, wondering how it might be used in other settings/themes, perhaps in a streamlined form. Maybe I’ll check out a couple of these other FATE games (like Bulldogs! or John Wick’s Houses of the Blooded). I just wish the books had fewer pages.


  1. Quick note. But if you purchase all you postage online from the USPS you get a slight discount, free tracking with Priotity, and you can file out and print your customs forms.

    Print out all the labels and boom, all you have to do is drop the stuff off at the post, no line at all.

    This requires a postage scale but it saves loads of time.

    Probably a bit late witht he advice though. But next time....

  2. Over the years I've sent packages to the UK, France, Australia and Tasmania (ok, it's a part of Oz, but it took two months to get there).

    But the biggest hassle was sending a package to Canada. I could only conclude that Canada Post scares the crap out of the USPS.

  3. Heh. There should be a cabal of indie/old school game publishers, each doing some kind of print on demand within each postal jurisdiction. Raggi could do Europe and so on.

  4. "Whether because my character was a wizard or young or both, I started with fewer chips than the other PCs"

    Because you were a Wizard. There's a balancing mechanic wherein you can start off as more powerful, but your refresh (the number of chips you get) is lower.

    "the GM’s game is very much dependent on what your players are bringing to it"

    I'd say this is pretty accurate. The GMs job is to read everyone's aspects, then come up with something to engage them (either by putting the players in situations where they are useful, or putting them in situations where they are a liability). If your players aren't engaging their aspects, or have written bad ones, or just aren't into aspects at all (they're not for everyone) then it can be a pain in the ass.

    "“character development” works in FATE"

    There is "growth" where you get to add new skills and stuff, but for the most part character "advancement" in FATE is actually "character change". So, you can trade in an aspect you don't see yourself using (the Admiral Akbar one, for example) for something derived from play ("Magical Mystical Bloodhound", for example, if you really liked your tracking ritual and wanted to focus on that sort of thing some more).

    "Houses of the Blooded"

    It uses Aspects, but it isn't FATE. Very different, and even more dependent on having good players than FATE.

  5. @ Degenerate:

    A postage scale is up on my wishlist, along with a (hot) shrink wrap machine.

    @ Saroe:

    Also depends on the person at the counter; went to a different post office and the process was a LOT smoother with the international shipping. I might save my "lunch runs" for domestic only.

    @ Red:

    Raggi offers FREE shipping...within Finland.

    @ Todd:

    This is the kind of info I really appreciate; thank you for letting me know!
    : )

  6. When did you do your shipping test? It might cost more now because the postal rates increased at the end of July.

  7. @ Will:

    Huh. It was right at the en of July, but that wouldn't account for the weight increase. Maybe a couple things are at play!