Well, this was a busy week. I planned to post something yesterday, but sleep has overtook me*.Let’s continue.
Chapter 8: Skills
This is a very straightforward and simple chapter defining what skills are and describing specific ones.
Of note here are three things.
First is that, along with general description, each skill has trappings describing how the skill is used and what are its limits, and sometimes including specific rules for certain situations. For example, Driving is used for rolls related to driving a car (driving around normally doesn’t require a roll, but you may need to roll to avoid a car crush when a car before you explodes or something) and has four trappings: Chases, One Hand of the Wheel, Other Vehicles and Street Knowledge and Navigation. Chases just means that Driving is the skill to use to resolve car chases (they are normally resolved via contest and sometimes as a part of conflict). OHW describes a special rule that Driving restricts other skills used when you are driving (like shooting at enemies), giving them penalties if they are higher than Driving rank. Other Vehicles notes that the skill can be used not only to drive cars, as long as the background of the character is appropriate, so you can apply the skill for nice boats or helicopters or what have you. SKN means you are familiar with the city and can use Driving to get around (when it requires a skill roll) even when you aren’t currently driving. Probably would allow to declare aspects regarding the surroundings as well.
Speaking off, you can declare aspects with your skills rather than by spending Fate points. You simply need to roll successfully and describe how a skill would be used to declare an aspect. Burglary explicitly allows you to declare aspects about flaws in security systems and such, for example.
Trappings define what skills can do for everyone who has them. More specialized uses are defined via stunts, which can allow you to add a trapping to a skill. For example, you can give one of the Contacts trappings to your Resources skill, which would mean that instead of carefully cultivating your information network, you just shower people in money until they talk. There probably would be some restrictions of it compared to the Contacts trapping, though.
Trappings aren’t really a new idea, in other systems similar things would be listed in the main body of skill descriptions or in sections describing specific situations. For example, some systems have special rules for car chases, so that’s where Chases trapping would normally go.
Still, it’s a useful reference set allowing you to quickly check what a skill can do and where to find more detailed information, plus it’s just a good way to present the information to the players, especially in the context of stunts.
The final thing of interest is the skill Conviction, which measures strength of character’s ideals. By itself, the skill adds Mental stress boxes, representing your ability to resist psychological attacks (interrogations, mindfucks, Kotomine), and, when the attack is directly aimed at undermining your beliefs, the skill can be used as an active defense.
For casters, it has another use: it determines the power of their spells. In the simplest way, the higher your Conviction, the more damage you can dish out. In this, we see another world-building problem: it’s true that Dresden Files talks about beliefs defining magic. There are passages about how you need to believe in what you are doing in order to cast specific spells. Unfortunately, it rarely affects the narrative. Harry is powerful despite his convictions being rather lacking, and he doesn’t really have special sexist magic reflecting his nature. In fact, he pretty much can do whatever a wizard can do, no limits, up to and including picking up the art of necromancy over, like, fifteen minutes. White Men Council members are batshit powerful despite many of them being described as petty bureaucrats who I don’t think would have strong ideals.
Another problem is game structure. Conviction isn’t connected to the aspects mechanics, making it entirely possible to create a character with I’m a Man of Principles – If You Don’t Like Them, I Have Other Ones and still give him a high Conviction score. Normally stuff like that would be vetoed by the GM if some player were to attempt it for some reason, but it still shows a conflict between two parts of the game, especially since aspects can be changed via extreme consequences, meaning that someone with strong convictions can lose them without suffering penalties to the skill itself (I guess the GM can just always invoke or compel the appropriate aspect against the character, but even that has limits).
Likewise, high Conviction doesn’t require you to act in any particular way. Skill can’t be compelled, so you can play as someone easily wavering under pressure regardless of your Conviction score.
That, I guess, is consistent with canon, at least.
Well, that’s it for the chapter. Almost. I would also note that some skills are clearly more equal than others. Contacts, for example, is clearly a supplementary skill. It allows you to gather information “on the street,” spread rumors and declare you have a friendly contact in whatever group you encounter, but it has some severe restrictions. First, you need to actually be able to go around and talk to people. The skill is ineffective in unfamiliar to you area, suffering heavy penalties at best, by spreading rumors you risk someone catching up on what you are doing, and the information you get is not guaranteed to be correct in any way, it’s just what people talk about. It has its uses, but you probably would pass this skill as your primary one in favor of Deceit or Empathy, which have a much broader application.
Chapter 9: Mortal Stunts
Another simple chapter. Stunts expand the applications of skills for which they are taken or give you situational bonuses. For example, you may buy a stunt that gives you +1 to Lore when you use it to find out information about vampires, with an additional +1 for Red Court (Bianca type). Another stunt may allow you to use Guns for dodging as long as you have a gun at hand (the idea is that you shoot in the general direction of your opponents, making them hesitant to act).
The rules are a bit more detailed than the ones in FATE Core and mention a possibility of more potent stunts with prerequisites (other stunts, aspects) and stunts that require a Fate point to use and may be restricted for one use per scene. FATE Core mentions the latter type, but here the rules for creating them are more defined. They could be expanded a bit more, though, as the book provides only one example of such a stunt (requires a Fate point to use and limited to once per scene use). Technically, supernatural powers can count as such stunts, but there are some differences which make the direct comparison tricky at best.
Each stunt costs a point of refresh and provides the benefit roughly equal to two shifts. Shifts are a difference between yours and your opponent’s roll. If you rolled 4 and your opponent rolled 2, you have 2 shifts. As such, stunts can be directly translated into +2 bonus (which, in the above example, is split into two +1 bonuses: one for a relatively broad category, another for narrow one), into reducing the time needed for a long task by two steps, etc. There are some other equivalents suggested by the book, like a stunt providing two expendable two-shift effects (like two mild consequences). The conversion is not precise: stunts applicable in broader circumstances provide less of a benefit, while stunts applicable only in a very narrow situation may provide a +3 or even +4 bonus.
It may be tricky to get a handle of it at first, but overall the rules are well-designed, and there are enough examples to clarify them.
A thing of note is a confirmation that pure mortals with too many stunts do indeed lose their free will and become monsters. Poor Jackie Chan, went over the edge and joined the army of darkness.
OK, so it’s actually pretty hard for pure mortals to get enough stunts to max out the refresh, and even munchkins would probably stop long before it becomes an issue (Fate points given to you by high refresh are valuable, too, after all), but the idea is still pretty damn weird.
The idea here is that people with many stunts refined themselves to the point of being stuck with who they are and being unable to truly change or act against their nature even when it’s in their interests, but, eh, I don’t buy it. With supernatural creatures there is at least some canon and mythological justification, with mortals it’s clearly a result of mechanics intruding upon the narrative.
Other than that issue, however, there isn’t much to say. The chapter is solid and does what it’s supposed to do. May be a bit complex for beginning players, but there are enough complete stunts to serve as a crunch before your group gets a handle on the mechanic.
Chapter 10: Supernatural Powers
Supernatural powers are similar to stunts in design: they expand the applications of skills and/or provide situational bonuses. There are, however, a couple of core differences:
– The cost isn’t static. While some powers cost one refresh point, many are significantly more expensive. Some potent powers can eat up your whole refresh by themselves. Each point of refresh is still roughly equivalent to two shifts worth of effects, typically leaning on “slightly more potent.” As such, it’s possible to craft your own powers, though it’s probably more tricky than stunts.
– Powers require backing by High Concept. You can’t take powers that aren’t reflected in it thematically.
– Powers can affect more than one skill.
– Some powers have additional prerequisites, like being dead.
– Some powers have a price or drawback attached to them.
All of it makes powers rather more potent than stunts. The book tries to assure us that everything works out in the actual game, but I’m not entirely convinced. True, more refresh means more Fate points, which leads to less troubles from compelling aspects and more benefits from invoking them, but powers provide surer bonuses, and getting compelled is ultimately a good thing helping the flow and direction of the game.
As usual, a lot of balance issue depend on exact configuration of powers and skills between characters. If they have very distinct roles (the fighter, the social expert, the sneaky type, etc.), it’s not that much of a problem. Sure, the pure mortal social expert is useless in a fight compared to the heavily supernatural fighter immune to physical attacks except for silver weapons, but, well, he or she was going to be useless in a fight anyway, and for all of his or her battle prowess, the fighter sucks at talking to people, so it balances out.
If roles overlap, however (and they are going to overlap when casters are around), it becomes much more murky. Again, it’s hard to tell precisely how good or bad pure mortals and low-level templates have it compared to high-level ones, but, as a rule of thumb, I would suggest not mixing them in a game. The power tiers section actually notes on which level of refresh various templates become available, giving us a helpful reference table for grouping templates of comparable power together and separating them from the rest. Just make sure that your characters don’t have more than one point of separation between them, that should ensure you would avoid the potential problem.
Now, as for powers themselves, I’m not going to list all of them, since there is a lot of powers, but I am going to note the more interesting ones.
– Items of power. Magical artifacts, basically. Mechanically, you just buy powers as normal, then proclaim that some of them are tied to the item of power, giving you a discount since the item can be taken away, depriving you of these powers. This is a nice mechanic allowing the game to not bother with balancing artifacts in addition to other elements. As a consequence, however, you can’t simply pick up an artifact and use it from then on. You must either buy powers associated with it or use temporary power-up rules I’ve already discussed. Alternatively, if an artifact has a living owner already, he or she may lend you the item, but would be obligated to pay a Fate point for every scene in which you use it.
Items of power are also assumed to have a code you must follow to use them. Holy swords, for example, can be wielded only with pure intent in mind or heart, otherwise they stop working and it’s paladin redemption quest time. The same principle is supposed to apply to other artifacts as well, though you may skip it. At least it’s a way to get an additional refresh discount.
– Third Sight is sensibly renamed as the Sight. I think it may be from the later books as well.
– Flesh Mask gives you a sort of human-shaped ectoplasmic shell (think Bianca with her her “mask” Harry stripped). The appearance is idealized and gives you a bonus for rolls where how you look matters, “so long as the target of your action is not aware of the horror that lies beneath the outer veneer.” Yeah, because knowing that every human hides a terrifying tentacle beast inside really kills my boner. As we’ve discussed previously, it has some unfortunate implications, and I don’t really think there should be a penalty given there is no penalty for being a horrible person, which is a more major turn-off.
– In Mimic Form ability (which allows you to copy someone’s appearance as long as you have a piece of them like a lock of hair or a vial of blood), there is a comment from Bob:
“You fleshy types leave so much detritus around, it’s a shock that more creatures don’t take advantage of it.”
Yeah, Bob, way to point out one of the world-building problems. As Farla noted, Harry really should just shave his head and in general be very diligent when it comes to leaving his bodily liquids and other parts lying around.
Commies may steal them.
– Spellcraft isn’t described here in detail as it has its own chapter, so I’ll just list the types with short descriptions:
– Evocation is “on the fly” magic, mostly revolving around summoning fiery storms, creating force shields, etc. By default, you get three elements you can use. The system uses five classical elements, though there is a hint that it can be modified.
– Channeling is a lesser form of Evocation allowing for the use of one element only.
– Thaumaturgy is ritual magic.
– Ritual is specialized Thaumaturgy. The restriction may be on theme or method. perhaps you can only do alchemy, or perhaps you can do anything Thaumaturgy allows you to do, but only when it concerns ghosts.
– Seelie and Unseelie magic are akin to Evocation, though they operate under themes of their respective courts (Summer and Winter) rather than specific elements, giving them a broad application. They can be bought as upgrades for normal spellcraft at a discount or separately.
– Sponsored magic comes from some supernatural being rather than the caster. There are hints that such beings may have their own agendas, affecting how this power works.
Various forms of spellcasting give you enchanted and focus item slot, allowing you to design rods of power and such, though, again, the rules aren’t specified yet. You also get free specializations giving you bonuses for use of specific elements (Evocation) or specific applications (Thaumaturgy). With Evocation, specializations come in two flavors: control bonus and power bonus. Power bonus gives you more power, naturally, while control bonus means you are more refined with the use of your spellcraft, even if you can’t make your spells as powerful as someone with power bonus. Now guess which bonus Harry gets and which is here for a certain witch.
– Refinement allows you to, well, refine your spellcraft, adding specialization bonuses, item slots or new elements for Evocation, allowing for more flexibility in building your caster. You can buy Refinement many times, and the bonuses stack, making it a powerful tool to overpower your caster. It’s not such a big problem normally, though, as the refresh cost of a wizard is such that you wouldn’t be able to buy many Refinements anyway.
– Finally, Lawbreaker is a power that you get automatically – reducing your refresh by one in the process – for breaking Laws of Magic (you can buy it as normal as well). It’s actually interesting. Basically, it gives you a bonus for other spells that break the same Law that gave you that ability (it can be bought up to seven times, one for each Law). If you break the same Law trice, the bonus (and refresh cost) increases and one of your aspects changes to reflect the effects on your psyche from corruption. Every time you break a specific Law three times, another aspect is changed, though the bonus and refresh cost don’t increase. Not sure what happens should you break a Law 28 times, which would require you to change your 8th (nonexistent) aspect. I guess it doesn’t come up very often.
Naturally, it’s here to represent the corruptive influence of dark magic, and it does a pretty good job at it: dark wizards become more powerful in the type of magic they practice, but their personality slowly warps, turning them into monsters. Unfortunately, there are two problems with this:
First is that it’s pretty disconnected from the free will issue. Yeah, Lawbreaker costs refresh, but as long as you focus on one Law to break, the cost isn’t going to increase above 2, which is manageable in most cases. So, those warlocks Wardens kill because they are beyond redemption or whatnot? Still have their free will intact, most likely.
Second is that thinking about the application of this power to certain Laws exposes some holes in them. It’s easy to come up with warped aspects for First or Third Laws – no murder, no mindfuck, respectively. Internet helpfully provides us with examples of what obsession over violating Second Law (concerning involuntary transformation, likely with negative effects on victim’s psyche) looks like. But what about the Sixth Law (no time travel)? How would it change me? Would I turn into Doc Brown if I were to violate that Law enough times? It’s not a bad thing.
And then, of course, there is the Fifth Law, the one against necromancy. It’s problematic for much the same reasons as the First, only it’s probably even more pronounced: only humans count. You can do necromancy 24/7 as long as you only dig pet cemetery, but why? Does necromancy performed on humans torture their souls or something? Does that mean that animals don’t have souls to torture or that their suffering doesn’t count metaphysically? I don’t think zombies in DF are anything more than flesh golems, though, so what makes one type of flesh any different than another?
So many questions and no answers.
Anyway, it seems like spellcasters form a separate class of their own, with a sub-system built on top of regular system. We’ll talk about them in detail when we get there.
– Faith-based powers are clearly inspired primary by Christianity. They are worded neutrally, with an idea that any deeply faithful individual can take them, but I’m pretty sure that, say, Hindu priest wouldn’t be very satisfied with them. Well, that’s not really surprising, given the source material.
– Harry has a comment for Holy Touch power (burning creatures of darkness with a touch). The power itself gives an example of compelling a Black Court vampire to not attack a character who just demonstrated a dangerous ability.
Harry: Works great on Red Court vampires too!
Clearly referring to Bianca. Fuck you too, Harry.
– Powers revolving around emotion manipulation (Entice Emotion, Emotion Vampire, etc.) consistently refer to lust as a “dark emotion.” That bothers me. Look, lust isn’t good or bad, it’s just something you feel. It can certainly be twisted into something ugly, but the same can be said about pretty much any emotion. Love can lead to abuse should you convince yourself it’s for the best of your child (see “cure gay” programs), hope can become a chain oppressors use to keep oppressed from challenging the status quo (“One day, even you may join the elite. It won’t actually happen, but it might!”), courage can become recklessness and purposeless stubbornness, etc. Dresden Files has this dichotomy of love vs lust, which is pretty common in fiction and leads some disturbing places, and unfortunately the game decided to incorporate it as well.
On that note, let’s end the chapter. All in all, it was a mixed bag. Again, the most problematic elements are the ones rooted in setting lore. The system itself so far is mostly fine, with a few minor problems here and there, but whenever it draws on Dresden Files as a source of inspiration or tries to reinforce its themes, well…
Tune in next time for magic.
*The labyrinth has no walls, no marks, no directions, but it does have a center. Something is waiting here.