Posted by: NiTessine | May 5, 2015

Review: The Paranet Papers

The Paranet Papers is the third book of the Dresden Files RPG by Evil Hat Productions. Technically, it isn’t out until a month from now, but I received the PDF as a review freebie.

It’s an impressive piece of work, much like Our World and Your Story were. The book is sort of a general accessory that mostly focuses on delivering different settings that explore alternative ways of building a campaign from the ways given in the core books, but also includes a load of new rules items and updates material from Our World to include material from Turn CoatSide Jobs, and Changes (Dresden Files book #12; the series is now at #15). It’s also a big book, with 378 pages of stuff parceled out in eight chapters. Incidentally, this review will contain SPOILERS for that book.

For those of you unfamiliar with the game, the DFRPG books are presented as “in-universe” documents, a role-playing game that one of the characters, Will Borden, is designing to sneak information about supernatural threats to the general public (in the novels, Dracula was a similar work and led directly to the spectacular collapse of the Black Court of vampires). The game books are editing drafts of the final game books, with editorial notes in little post-it notes and a lot of highlighting pen work. This allows the books to include big secrets kept by the characters, usually with an “oops, I’ll remove this in the next draft” from Will, while simultaneously presenting a lot of data as mere speculation, with no obligation for the novel series to follow it. Where in the first two books, the comments were by Will, Harry and Bob the Skull, here they are from Will, Karrin Murphy and Waldo Butters, dealing with Harry’s apparent death and sniping at each other with pop culture references that usually at least one of the three doesn’t get. The illusion is broken only by the absence of “see page XX” notes – the real page references tend to be among the last things you can insert when laying out a book.

The Contents

Let’s see what this fat bastard’s eaten, then.

The first five chapters are descriptions of different areas of the world that act as campaign outlines and also as case studies of different ways to do city generation and campaigns in Dresden Files.

The first of these is Las Vegas, more or less an exercise in standard DFRPG city-building. It’s a city with a long-standing supernatural status quo that was contingent on a very powerful Red Court vampire. Then Changes happened, and now there is a power vacuum and the big players in the city are all getting ready to make a grab for it. The situation is not yet at a boiling point, but it is simmering aggressively. There’s some wyldfae, and some Skavis, and the local cops, and the mafia, and a cult of Ishtar, and a bibliomancer at the University, and some dude who may or may not be the actual Charon hanging out at the Venetian, and loads of other things. It’s a very complex, juicy situation, presented in a lovely, creepy manner. Like all the campaign ideas, it also notes which of the NPCs in the city are suitable for use as PCs.

The next chapter is Bloody October, set in Russia… in 1918, with the Civil War in full swing. The city they picked was Novgorod, a very old but much smaller city near St. Petersburg and Moscow. It’s an example of a historical setting, but also one that is based around the different mortal power groups in the city rather than locations and their themes. It’s also a place where the shit is currently in the process of hitting the fan and spraying everywhere. The Russian Civil War is one of the great clusterfucks of the 20th century. I remember the historian James Palmer once commenting on another game product set in the era to the effect that the goings-on were so gonzo already that a high-level fantasy adventurer party in the middle of Siberia would be just par for the course.

Of course, Rasputin is here, lurking in the background. Baba Yaga also makes an appearance, as does Koschei the Deathless. My personal favourite, Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg, isn’t represented, but then again, his theatre of operations was thousands of kilometres to the east. Oh, and the local Cheka supervisor may or may not also be the Winter Knight. The Novgorod chapter is really cool stuff, though one of the NPCs presented is a Karelian Jew named Svetlana, from the lands of an evil Baron, which seems somewhat off to me. My cursory search couldn’t find references to East Karelia’s adminstrative division under Imperial Russia, but a Jewish village outside of the Pale of Settlement, in an area that never had a large population and most of that urban, seems kinda weird. The chapter is sourced from some old letters by a friend of Czar Nikolai II who also happened to be White Council and whose apprentice bumped off Rasputin (It didn’t take. It never takes. You’d think anyone killed that hard would stay down, but nooo…)

Bloody October is also mostly illustrated in a style resembling old Soviet propaganda art, which helps set the atmosphere. I like it.

The third chapter is Neverglades, or Okeeokalee Bay, a town in the swamps of Florida, home to the actual Fountain of Youth, where about a third of all inhabitants have some mystic ability or skill and the existence of the supernatural is more or less public knowledge, taken as just one more thing. Hell, the town sheriff is a changeling and the chapter is narrated by a weregator who also doubles as the town’s tourist guide. Okeeokalee Bay is an example of a tightly-knit community, which is organized around the people instead of locations in a system they call the Neverglades Twist. We get several faces for a theme, and characters who can be the face of both a location and a theme, and so forth.

This is one of my favourite chapters in the book in how it presents a believable small community with an interesting variety of plots and tensions (there’s giant bugs! there’s the crazy blood-addicts of the deceased local Red Court dude! there’s a Conquistador ghost! there’s a love dodecahedron!). It’s very self-contained milieu with a strong, somewhat quirky atmosphere that I feel would be easy to bring to life in actual play (the narrator makes some very casual remarks about disposing of bodies, for instance). There are also infoboxes about local traditions and sayings, the latter of which is probably handy for people who game in English.

Then there’s Las Tierras Rojas. In both the first and third chapters, there’s a key element in the setting resulting from the destruction of the Red Court in Changes. Well, Las Tierras Rojas, the Red Lands, or South America as the rest of us know it, is nothing but that. It’s a treatise on the former lands ruled by the Red Court and how the area is dealing with the power vacuum (not well). It’s narrated by an agent of the Fellowship of St. Giles, the vampirism-infected guys fighting the good fight, who also got decimated as a side effect of the Court’s destruction, when all their vampire mojo left them. There’s also someone who may or may not be Manco Capac.

Whereas Neverglades focuses on a very small area, Las Tierras Rojas is a very large one, and I’m not sure if it really works. I’m not getting a feel for the setting in here, and I feel it would have needed more geographic precision. I’m not an expert on South American geography, but I have a working knowledge of it and I still had to hit Wikipedia every couple of pages, such as when one of the locations is described as “a hill in Veracruz”. While it was very educational to go find out what Veracruz is (a state of Mexico on the southwest coast of the Gulf), I feel that “a hill in the Mexican state of Veracruz” would have been handier. In general, The Paranet Papers really doesn’t seem to do maps.

Then we come to The Ways Between, a discussion of ways to get from point A to point B through the Nevernever, which also includes a ready-to-run road trip campaign, complete with pregenerated characters that it’s more or less tailored for. Personally, I don’t really get DFRPG’s affection for pregenerated characters. I’ve had players categorically refuse to play even a one-shot where they didn’t generate their own character.

This is a chapter with a lot of good ideas in the margins and at the edges, such as a lot of nifty and creepy Americana, urban legends come to life and supernatural hobo signs, but the actual campaign unfortunately does nothing for me. Then, I never made it past six episodes of Supernatural, either. The adventure locales seem too standalone and only a couple of them, like Concretehenge, a circle of stones in an abandoned quarry with a faerie guardian, and Old Man Oak, a tree that’s a magnet for misery, looked interesting to me. Apart from those, there’s a mysterious abandoned asylum, a demon-possessed mine, a safehouse in the middle of a forest inhabited by a gargantuan dream spider thing, and so forth. They feel like they should have been fleshed out more and most of them lack oomph. This isn’t helped by most of the art in this chapter being fairly uninspired (one of the artists that worked on the book has an unusual view of human anatomy).

The rest of the chapters cover a variety of crunchy bits. The first of these is the Spellcasting addendum. Here we get new rules for soulfire, more in line with what was seen in later novels, and lots of other little additions to better model new material. There’s a couple of pages on spellcasting in the Nevernever, several pages of expanded and clarified thaumaturgy rules and if that’s not your thing, the simplified and streamlined “Cheer-Saving Thaumaturgy”. The name comes from Will’s Arcanos group’s tradition of “He who kills the cheer springs for beer”. Then there’s a couple of pages on the philosophy of magic and the elements in the world of Dresden Files, which was interesting and felt like a welcome oasis between all the numbers.

I’m really, really bad at reading rules, if you haven’t figured that out by now.

The final two chapters are addendums to Goes Bump and Who’s Who, detailing new information about known creatures and characters as well as new acquaintances. This is pretty basic stuff. Having rules for the fomor is nice. The Who’s Who addendum also covers “plot device” characters, who are characters so powerful there is no real sense in trying to model them in the ruleset. They’ve been popping up a lot more in the novels. These are types like the Leanansidhe, Donar Vadderung, and so on. We also get Harry and Karrin statted out to the end of Changes, as opposed to the Storm Front stats provided in Our World.

The book wraps up with a comprehensive index. This is a good thing.

The Conclusion

It’s a pretty great book. I’m not all that hot on all the material and the novel guide aspect of some of the latter chapters is probably an acquired taste, but it’s written well and was an entertaining read. I especially like how the different settings are not just the setting, but also examples of new ways to create a setting under the DFRPG ruleset. That’s handy, and even a chapter like The Ways Between that was distinctly my least favourite in the book, has stuff that I can put to use.

The Paranet Papers gets my recommendation. It exhibits the same skill that was used to put together the two previous volumes of the game, and the presentation as an in-setting roleplaying game is great. The release schedule for the game may be glacial, but the wait has been well worth it.


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