One Module, Every Game: The Dresden Files RPG

With the coming of autumn, the weather has grown colder, I’ve been swamped with clueless first-year students, and the game nights of TYR, and by extension the One Module, Every Game project, has returned from its summer break. Also, my Rise of the Runelords campaign, which had two sessions back to back last weekend and another one tomor- well, it’s today now. The pace has been rather gruelling, and I’m afraid this is reflected in the quality, though I’ve strangely not had any complaints yet.

The game we tested out this time was The Dresden Files RPG, a magnificent piece of work from Evil Hat, based on the equally awesome series of novels from Jim Butcher. The novel series is now up to its twelfth instalment. For the record, the second book of the game, Our World, spoils up to the end of the tenth book, Small Favor.

What’s In the Game

The game, and currently the entirety of the game line, is comprised of two books, the main rulebook Your Story, and the world book Our World. The first one is the only one you’ll actually need, containing within its 416 pages all the rules of the game, from character generation to spellcasting, with an example setting of Baltimore thrown in the back of the book. Our World, then, is more of a reference guide to who, what and where in the books, an NPC guide and a monster manual all rolled into one, with a chapter on occult Chicago at the end, described by Billy, one of the in-character commenters of the book, as “this crazy love letter to Weird Chicago.”

That the entire game line consists of just two books, with nothing else announced, doesn’t actually bother me, because after reading these two books, I can’t really think of anything that’s actually missing. It’s a complete package that provides you with enough material to run a hundred games and the tools to come up with more. The only product I can think of adding anything to this is perhaps a GM screen, maybe packaged with an adventure module – and even those are a bit questionable since the game is written to be rather open about secrets and the basic campaign format does not lend itself well to the production of premade adventures. There probably is a format for scenarios that could work with Dresden Files, but it’s not the traditional one.

The reason I don’t think the traditional format for an adventure module is not a good fit for Dresden Files is that the game places a great emphasis on making your own city setting. It’s a game of urban fantasy, with an emphasis on “urban”, and the second chapter – indeed, before the actual character generation rules – is about city creation. It presents guidelines, rules and instructions to create a city and its NPCs, locations and aspects as a collaboration between all members of the gaming group, so that each player may influence the end result and bring in the kind of stuff he’s interested in playing.

This, incidentally, makes the game far from ideal for a one-shot like the one I ran. Ideally, the group should have a separate character creation session, where they generate their characters and the city the game will take place in. (Rogue Trader, I feel, is similar in this, which is why I’ll be running a mini-campaign of three to five sessions plus the character creation session at some point in the near future, instead of a one-shot.)

The ruleset chugging under the bonnet is FATE, adapted from the old Fudge system. It’s one of’s darlings, and used by such games as Diaspora, Starblazer Adventures and Spirit of the Century. The ruleset has been licenced under the Open Gaming Licence, and Spirit of the Century has a free online system reference document.

FATE is an odd bird. It’s not quite like any other game system I’m familiar with. For one thing, it uses even funkier dice than roleplaying games usually do. The Fudge dice are six-siders with two blanks, two pluses and two minuses. They’re also very difficult to get. Nobody in Finland sells them and my regular RPG webstore at Paizo is all out. Fortunately, you can use regular six-siders, which most gamers probably have in ample supply, and those of us with a long history of Games Workshop hobbies have even more. (Though the GW dice are cheap little shits that someone recently proved are biased to roll ones well over the 16,6% of the time that they should. Sorry, can’t seem to find the article. If someone can dig it up for me, I’d be much obliged.) Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like Gamescience manufactures Fudge dice, either.

Every player needs a set of four dice. This means I’d need 22 more Fudge dice for a proper set, for one GM and four players. Though I’m usually willing to play with up to six, there’s a certain… aspect of the FATE system that makes me want to cap the group at four players. That aspect is the aspect rules.

Aspects are one of the core rules concepts of the game. The core rules concept, you could say. They’re descriptive elements that all characters, cities, scenes and environments have, in varying quantities. A player character will have seven of them. While skills define what a character can do, these define who the character is. Every PC has a high concept aspect that sums up the character in a single phrase. For example, Indiana Jones’ high concept might be Two-Fisted Archaeologist. In addition, he’d probably have aspects like “Nazis. I hate these guys” and “Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?”

The aspects enter play in that they can be invoked or compelled in situations where they are relevant. For instance, in a fist fight with a burly Nazi (probably portrayed by Pat Roach), Indy could invoke his Two-Fisted Archaeologist aspect, burning a fate point and gaining a +2 bonus on his roll to kick the guy’s ass, or reroll all the dice if they came up crap. If that was insufficient, he could then burn another fate point and invoke “Nazis. I hate these guys” and get another +2. A compel, then, is a negative consequence of the aspect – while infiltrating the Nuremberg Rally, the GM could compel Indy’s “Nazis. I hate these guys” to bring a complication in the scene, in that Indy just can’t bring himself to buddy up with some Obersturmbannführer to get the information he needs. Indy can then burn a fate point to buy off the complication, or accept the complication and earn a fate point. This is the primary mechanic for getting new fate points. You can also invoke aspects other than your own – for instance, when he inevitably gets found out, Indy must flee his pursuers in a stolen uniform, and can invoke the Crowded aspect of the Nuremburg Rally to lose them. That uniform, by the way, was nicked off a captain with the Drunk temporary aspect, which Indy invoked to get the drop on him.

The conflict and damage system also uses aspects. When an attack succeeds, it inflicts stress on the character, on either the Physical, Mental or Social track, depending on the type of conflict. If the result dictates that the character would be taken out, he can buy off stress by taking a consequence aspect. These come in three flavours: mild, moderate and severe. A mild consequence can be Bruised, a moderate one could be a Bad First Degree Burn, while a severe consequence could be a Sucking Chest Wound. While the character retains these aspects – and the worse they are, the longer they stick with you – they can be invoked and compelled like any other aspect. And characters usually don’t have very long stress tracks. There’s also a fourth, special kind of consequence, the extreme consequence, which buys off eight stress, but will also replace one of your other aspects. Permanently.

If, on the other hand, you don’t want a consequence and decide to be taken out, the adversary decides what happens to you, within the realm of reason. However, you still get to describe how this happens. Even if the opponent, after stabbing you, decides that you die, you still get to speak your last words, dying curse or whatever.

The Game in Action

Mostly because I could, I set the adventure in Tampere. Because I had to do game prep in a real hurry, I only had an outline of the adventure’s plotline, which I kept filling in as we went along. I managed to do this without any logical inconsistencies or gaping plot holes.

Frozen Fingers of Midnight, adapted to Dresden Files, was about Helge, the last survivor of the shipwreck of SS Kuru, a steamboat that went down in a storm on Näsijärvi back in 1929. A cabal of evil sorcerers had cast a curse on him that was going to slowly kill him and channel his soul as a sacrifice to the undead spirit of Kuru’s captain. In exchange, the captain would deliver to them the skull of Hugo Salmela, a commander of the Red forces in Tampere during the Finnish Civil War, who is still said to haunt the building where he died in Pyynikki.

Hugo Salmela and the shipwreck of SS Kuru are real. The rest isn’t. Salmela died during the battle of Tampere when some drunkard chucked a primed hand grenade into a grenade crate and took out pretty much the entire Red high command. The ghost of Salmela really is said to haunt the place, which in the 1970’s became the first home of the language department of the Tampere University, and is something of a mascot for the language students’ club. The department moved to the new campus closer to the city centre around 2002, but they took the mascot with them. Personally, I think there’s something in vaguely poor taste about all this, but I’m the one who keeps dropping Nazis everywhere, so I’d probably just keep quiet (fat chance).

I created four half-finished characters for the game. There was Rami Karpainen, a bear lycanthrope with a thing for burning churches and senseless violence; Armo Pohjavirta, an ex-university professor and mathematomancer, actually based on a real math professor from the university, whose lectures were so legendary that people took notes of his quips and posted long quotations on the internet (here and here). They’re in Finnish and mostly untranslateable, but here are a few that I could work with:

“The Lebesgue integral is kind of like those Brezhnev speeches about the friendship of nations; really important and often spoken of, but never actually seen anywhere.”

“This Euler formula is handy to have in your pocket, you see. A gentleman does not sweat these things.”

“There’s nothing so wonderful about these vector value functions that you should think they glow in the dark or something.”

“If you think about that Banach-Tarski paradox, where you partition a sphere into subsets and when you reassemble the pieces it you can come up with any kind of object,  well of course those subsets can’t be like some Sunday school group, they’ve got to be bloody pathologically defined.”

“You should think about this for a while, it’s pretty difficult. I’ve sometimes asked about it in an exam, but then I’ve always had to hit the bottle with a gigantic melancholy.”

He loses a lot in translation. Naturally, the character ended up with the quietest player.

Also, there was a changeling whose human parents were Finnish-Swedish nobility from Kauniainen, and finally That Cop Who Gets All Stuck with Those Cases.

Like I said, I’d only finished the characters halfway. I’d left the last three phase aspects unfilled and let the group work those out among themselves. The way those last three aspects are determined in character creation is that the first of them is your character’s first adventure, a story he starred in. The players each write a sentence or two from that story’s beginning on a piece of paper and assign themselves an aspect from it. Then the papers are then passed around, and the next player is the guest star in that story and writes in the middle part. Then, a third player gets to come in and wrap it up. That way, each PC has participated in three different adventures and has three new aspects.

What we ended up in this case was four “adventures” where the characters mostly ran around each other without anybody accomplishing anything or there even being anything to accomplish. I didn’t contest it at the time since this was a one-shot, but I think that if I saw something that parochial in a campaign, I’d exercise the GM’s prerogative and veto them all. I probably still should’ve done it, since they kinda set the tone for the game, which wasn’t really adventurous.

Since we started late and the character generation took an unexpected amount of time, we didn’t actually get all that much gaming done and the characters ended up barrelling down the main plotline of the adventure and ignoring some clues of other things to be done. They went to find this Helge guy, got into his apartment, found him ill in his bed, got clues about a bunch of Lapp sorcerers, and tracked them down to a boathouse somewhere in the woods of Teisko. Minor violence and a lot of intimidation followed, and the bad guys agreed to break the enchantment if they’d just be let go and the bear guy didn’t kill them. This was done, and their headless bodies were found a few municipalities northwards a couple of days later, after the Wardens got to them. The PCs never went out to encounter this evil undead captain on the lake, or the ghost of Hugo Salmela in Pyynikki.

Now What

Well, when I’m next running the game, I’ll prepare a solid primer of information on the tone, style and rules of the game for the players. None of us really internalized the aspects as a part of the game and invoking and compelling them was rather lazy, possibly because the characters were low-level to begin with and had few fate points.

Yeah, that is a when. The game is awesome, and it inspires me. There will be future games, many of them. In fact, there will be a campaign!

It’s probably the most megalomaniacal campaign concept I’ve come up with, and the wheels are already in motion to make it happen. Now, the game is very city-focused, and it recommends that you base the created city on your own town, or a city you’re at least familiar with, because the familiarity creates more resonance in thep layers for the supernatural elements. Me, I travel a lot between Helsinki and Tampere, and am active in RPG clubs in both cities. In addition, there are fans of the books and the game in Alter Ego, over in Helsinki.

So, the campaign will be named “Helsinki-Tampere All Night Long”, and will have two groups, one in Helsinki and one in Tampere, playing their own games set in their own cities, but unravelling the same plotline from different ends, and affecting one another’s games. There can even be guest stars, and the Game Masters can have PCs of their own.

It’s still in the planning stages, but should kick off sometime next month with character creation sessions in both cities. It will either crash and burn spectacularly, or it will be the awesomest thing ever.

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