Chapter 11: Playing the Game
OK, I lied. First there is a chapter on mechanics of the game. If previous chapters established elements of game mechanics, this one talks about how they are used.
It’s interesting to note the difference between FATE Core and DF RPG here.
Core divides actions into simple actions (one roll against a static difficulty or another roll), challenges (complex actions requiring the use of several skills, like sneaking into a treasury chamber), contests (prolonged actions requiring several rolls to resolve, like heated arguments and car chases) and conflicts (battles).
DF RPG goes with single actions (one roll against static difficulty), contests (one roll against another roll), consequential contests (same, but the loser gets hit with a consequence aspect), prolonged contests (situation is resolved in a number of rolls), which are farther divided into two types: race (contest participants all roll against static difficulty) and cat&mouse (participants roll against each other). Assessments and declarations are also listed here as types of actions that reveal or create aspects that “already were there,” as opposed to maneuvers, which create aspects new in-game (you can declare that the warehouse is Dry as Tinderbox, making it easier to burn, then you can perform a maneuver setting the warehouse On Fire, to illustrate the difference). And, of course, there are conflicts, three instead of two types.
For the most part the rules are the same, they’re just structured differently, and DF RPG expands on some of them, like allowing inflicting consequences outside of conflicts. Prolonged contests, however, pay much more attention to shifts here than in Core version. In Core, you just need to score three victories first to win a contest. For race type prolonged contest, you need to score a number of shifts determined by the GM. Cat&mouse type contests last a number of rounds determined by the GM. In the end, whoever got the most shifts by beating their opponent wins.
At first it may seem like a decorative difference more than anything, but in practice it encourages players to invoke their aspects and otherwise try to get bonuses for rolls more than usual. When you just need to score victories, you simply need to roll high enough to beat the difficulty. It doesn’t matter if you rolled 4 or 8 if the difficulty is 3. With shifts being important, the precise result of your roll matters.
In that light, it’s somewhat weird that the rules don’t incorporate maneuvers into non-conflict actions properly. Core states how you can create temporary aspects to tag, while DF RPG seems to push assessments and declarations into this role, which would lead to players defining the setting more than acting upon it.
All in all, I think I prefer Core version more. It’s more simple and elegant, and has challenges, the mechanic that I like. Still, it’s mostly a matter of preference, and there are things in DF RPG that can be implemented for great effect.
Now, conflicts. The definition is changed from “people who can and want to harm each other” to a much more neutral “two or more characters are in opposition in a fashion that cannot be quickly and cleanly resolved.” Most likely it’s due to the addition of social conflict, which has a rather broad definition.
Specifically, social conflicts are any social actions aimed at taking other characters out from the narrative without the use of violence. Examples include two potential combatants in a bar trying to stare each other down, long negotiations, ruining someone’s reputation in a social event, seduction. Players are advised to first define what exactly a social conflict is about, which, in turn, would define what skills are appropriate for it.
Potentially, social conflict is a powerful tool for turning what is typically nearly free roleplay into a dramatic event, though personally I think prolonged contests work better, for the most part, especially considering the scarcity of consequences.
Now, to the other types of conflicts. Physical conflict is mostly the same, though certain rules are expanded: there are rules for blocks and grapples now, which in Core is resolved simply with temporary aspects. Overall, though, it’s still pretty simple and intuitive once you understand the system paradigm.
Mental conflict is pushed to be more dramatic. In Core, it’s simply a conflict revolving around emotional harm inflicted on the characters rather than physical one. Here, it’s specifically about deep mental trauma. To even be able to initiate a mental conflict you either need aspects indicating you have some kind of emotional power over the victim (like an abusive parental figure), a stunt for using torture instead of more mild interrogation or supernatural powers.
The book also notes that in most mental conflicts the victim wouldn’t be able to attack, only defend and maneuver, so the conflict would be about the victim trying to switch it into social or physical one rather than taking out the opponent as usual.
I suspect the change is partly due to the social conflict taking over some functions of mental one and partly due to magic use being tied to mental stress.
Well, that would be the chapter. All in all, it’s not a bad incarnation of FATE, if a bit more complex than it had to be.
Now, to the part all three of you would likely want to see.
Chapter 12: Living With Magic
This chapter is not about casting magic itself (that would be the next one), but rather about things related to magic: wizards’ biology, senses, Sight, soulgazing, hexing technology, thresholds and the Laws of Magic. As such, along with rules to handle these phenomena, the chapter provides setting details as well, which would be of special interest to us.
So, let’s take a look.
“Wizards—and perhaps other types of spellcasters and magical folk—tend to have unusually long lifespans, lasting several centuries (and a few wizards are rumored to be even older than that). Why is this? Well, no one’s certain—wizardry and scientific study don’t often mix—but some of the Council think it’s an effect of channeling magical energies through a physical body. As to whether strong magic comes from a strong life force, or a strong life force comes from strong magic, well…that’s the sort of chicken and egg thing that the Council has absolutely no time for when there’s a [Spoiler Event] going on.”
Harry: [Another spoiler] has put some of me under a microscope and says it’s something to do with my cells not breaking up when they divide, or something like that. I think it’s easier to say “it’s magic,” but that’s just me.
And we’re in for a good start already. Someone else should comment on Another spoiler’s theory here, as I’m not sure what something like that would entail, I’ll just note another instance of “it’s all just so mysterious, and nobody knows for sure how it works,” which really rubs me the wrong way.
I mean, really, for all intends and purposes, wizards are scientists: magic has defined rules that can be understood by human mind, wizards research stuff, accumulate knowledge, come to conclusions. Harry himself has crafted a number of spells, which, one would think, would require some kind of basic scientific process. Unless he shouted quasi-Latin words until they worked, I guess.
And you’d think it would be a priority for wizards to research why they live for so long and how they can live even longer.
I think the problem here is that the book is written from in-game perspective, which makes it difficult to just come up and say the truth: wizards live long lives because Butcher wanted ancient wizards running around. It’s not even a bad world-building decision, aside from how it makes Harry even more special. While personally I prefer my occult settings to be more modern in origin, an ancient wizard running around with old grudges and machinations calculated for centuries to come could be cool. It’s just really jarring that nobody is apparently interested in the effect, and the book just highlights it with little attempt at justification.
I mean, really, Spoiler Event is a pretty recent development, you’d think someone would look into the issue a millennium ago or so.
Wizard senses are rather simple: it’s your basic sixth sense with chills running down your spine and such. All people have it (though the book notes it may not be true in Dresden Files proper, it’s simply better for the game), but it’s tied to Lore skill, which is usually 0 for non-magic characters. Tying senses to Lore is kinda weird, since it’s a knowledge skill (covering supernatural, as opposed to Scholarship, which covers mundane knowledge), though the book says wizards train their senses, so it’s possible there’s in-game logic behind it.
The Sight is nice mechanically, utilizing assessments and mental conflict to represent the ability to find information it would be difficult or impossible to dig up otherwise and dangers it represents. The game also attempts to make it more friendly to mystery-style games by encouraging the GM to give out more broad aspects open to interpretation (Hidden Guilt instead of Betrayed a Loved One) for players to find, though a way to gather otherwise inaccessible information is inherently opposed to mysteries, I believe. For more adventure-oriented games it’s fine, though.
Flavor-wise, the Sight rather lacks in color. Everything is a metaphor here, as we’ve seen in Farla’s posts, but there is no underlying theme for the metaphor. The book even notes that the same sight (blood on someone’s hands) can mean a lot of different things: murder, guilt, effect of breaking a Law of magic and internalizing it, etc.I like the idea of magical vision, but it really should be something playing into the themes and color of the setting rather than a merry LSD trip. The best use of such a device I’ve seen can be found in An Imago of Rust and Crimson. Here, the magic vision has a theme, consistency and even bias as it shows superpowered individuals as unimaginably beautiful, in contrast with the rest of the world falling into decay and despair. DF hodge-podge of symbolism is rather lacking by contrast.
Soulgazing is simple mechanically: it’s two mental attacks (though you may opt for a maneuver to inflict a simple temporary aspect instead of stress and consequences) performed by people locked into it against each other. If it succeeds, one of your opponent’s aspects is revealed to you. Plus you always get the general description of what’s happening, which may reveal things on its own, just without mechanical benefit.
Going by how it’s treated in the books, it feels like something more profound should happen, but, eh, soulgaze is at best mishandled in the books, so I’m OK with not giving it too much weight.
What’s interesting about it is various setting details provided by the book. For example, consider this passage from the general description:
“It’s not uncommon for untrained people to pass out when they’re hit with a glimpse of someone else’s soul—even trained wizards can walk away with a hell of a headache and a disquieted mind.”
This neatly retcons the nonsense from the first book when soulgaze was first introduced. Harry doesn’t have a badass tortured soul that leaves people shaken from looking at it, Susan is no longer a fainting maiden. Fainting is just something that happens due to the nature of the effect. Now, granted, it does talk up soulgaze as this most awesome thing ever, but, well, still better than the books.
Not all details are as pleasant, however. Consider this passage regarding who can be soulfucked:
“It’s not as clear-cut as “human” or “not human.” We know that Harry has avoided making eyecontact with Kincaid, who’s a half-man, halfsomething, apparently. Given the example of Thomas Raith, wizards should be able to enter into a soulgaze with a White Court vampire. But other vampires seem not to trigger a soulgaze, and faeries—never having been human to begin with—aren’t any kind of a problem.”
Isn’t it cute when the book attempts to make sense of the setting?
The conclusion it reaches is that soulgaze is possible only with someone possessing a relatively human soul. Refresh count is suggested as a rule of thumb: people with positive Refresh are more likely to be open for soulfuck. That directly contradicts the first book where Harry was able to soulfuck a Red Court vampire, a being the book insists has no soul and is not subject to the Laws of Magic, like no killing.
Which brings us to this lovely passage on what soul is:
Bob: So, the word “soul” is getting thrown around a lot here. What’s a soul? Mortals’ concept of a singular, discrete, unchanging “soul” is pretty off the mark.
Here’s the deal: the mortal soul can be in several places at the same time and is more than one thing at a time. It dwindles and it grows. It can be given, taken, shared, burned. It can glow with light or throb with darkness. It is the essence of an individual. It is the cream floating atop the milk of your fleshy existence. It partakes of nature and supernature.
[Spoiler], for your “game” purposes in this chapter, whenever you say “soul,” I think you should be talking about that idea as it manifests for an individual. It’s a convenient (if fuzzy, vague, and limited) shorthand—much like any concept that magic touches upon. It’s an imprecise effort by mortals to sum up something more vast and complicated than they can understand with a simple word.
So, as usual, nobody knows what soul is, but it’s definitely not what mortals think it is. Well, that’s helpful.
Look, you can totally change various fictional concepts like soul to suit your story/game purposes instead of using commonly seen version. The catch is, you need to actually do something with it. Talking big about what a wonder soul is without actually engaging with its nature just makes you look smug, it doesn’t in any way enhance the game.
I mean, OK, so the soul can be shared. Perhaps there should be a Thaumaturgic ritual to share your aspects with a target or divide Fate points between you two or otherwise show the sharing of the soul. It can be in different places at once, wouldn’t it lead neatly to astral projections, possessions and spirit guardians manifesting in your home?
Or take ancient Egyptian model of souls, five of them for each person, to be precise: Ren (name), Ba (personality), Ka (life force), Sheut (shadow) and Ib (heart) (plus physical body Ha and Ahk, which is sort of a ghost composed of Ka and Ba). Each of them had some sort of physical manifestation rather than being purely spiritual entity (Ren must be spoken or written down to persist, Ba can take a form of a bird, Ka flows in your veins, Sheut is your shadow and Ib is your heart) and each governed different parts of human existence.
Wouldn’t it make a cool magic system to treat each soul as a magic path or an element? Taking someone else name to appear like them or erase your own to go unnoticed and untouched among the crowd. Stealing bodily fluids to prolong your life or animate puppets. Cutting your shadow from your feet and sending it to spy on your enemies. Placing your heart inside a painting to create a world.
Instead, we have this footnote that can be skipped over, and that won’t change a thing.
Talk about aimless world-building.
We should probably move on, but not before I can comment on the illustration for this section:
I don’t actually remember what this picture is about (something about Thomas’ soulgaze), but for some reason it’s just so, so funny. I mean, who’s the guy in the mirror? Slash Doctor Doom? And just look at the guy in front. His expression combined with the pose makes me think he has stomachache or something. “Ugh, last time I’ve listened to you, strange metal mirror man. No more mixing milk with cucumbers.”
Hexing section, shock of shocks, attempts to explain why wizard fry technology and why other supernatural creatures don’t. The first section even ties it back to the free will issue: basically, supernatural creatures that went over the edge of Refresh are perfectly aligned with their nature. They don’t have a choice in how to act, but neither do they have doubts. Each of their action is a direct extension of who they are. Mortal practitioners, on the other hand, have contradictions in their personalities, doubts over how to act, etc. It creates cracks in them through which magic leaks out, manifesting as general disturbance and fucking with delicate tech.
While not entirely consistent with canon (why WWII era tech, specifically? There is delicate stuff made before, there is sturdy stuff made after) and probably too wide for the issue (random disturbance should probably manifest in a variety of effects instead of a single one), it’s not a bad take on it. Mechanically, accidental hexing simply works through compels: the GM compels a practitioner, tech is fried, practitioner is inconvenienced by it in some way. So, I would simply go with the explanation and say that the leaked magic manifests in a variety of ways depending on practitioner’s aspects which are compelled in the scene. Like, someone with Short Temper would cause surroundings to grow hotter or colder with their emotions, someone with Gloom Personality would cause rot and decay, etc.
Unfortunately, there is the second section, which attempts to explain why technology, specifically, is fried, while the rest of the world remains intact. It calls for quotes.
“We could theorize all day as to why “stray magic” causes technology to fry. Perhaps the magical power coursing through the cells of a wizard affects the energy state of electrons in his vicinity? (This would definitely screw up any technology that includes a transistor or silicon chip.)
Maybe the root cause is magic’s bending of probability. That’s certainly supported by the facts; after all it’s very improbable that when some lady points at an insolent minion, fire will leap from her hand and burn his face off. That’s assuming probability enters into it at all. A scientist looking at this might say quantum mechanical effects rely on probability, and magic messes up the math.”
These two theories run into problem of not understanding what technology is. It’s not something new, it’s not a thing in itself, it’s not unnatural. Technology is simply a way to exploit laws of nature in a way beneficial to us. Our brains can be considered technology, and they even use electric signals to work. As such, something that fucks with natural laws would most likely fuck with the world in general, not just with objects defined by us as ‘technology’ (OK, so I may give a pass to the first theory depending on the exact properties of electromagnetic field it creates, but quantum effects that actually affect anything to the point you can notice it with a naked eye? Yeah).
“Maybe it’s more a question of what’s going on in the back of the caster’s mind and how he was raised. If he believes something technological is complex, then maybe that’s where his subconscious sends those stray bits of magic first. This would certainly explain why some wizards can get along with 1950’s era technology, while others need to stay closer to the beginning of the Twentieth Century in order to get anything to work reliably.”
OK, but why wizards would subconsciously direct the leaked magic into the more delicate objects? I guess the idea here is that wizards know weird shit happens around them and know the more delicate objects are more easily influenced by it, so it creates a sort of self-perpetuating loop.
That would probably result in other delicate objects, like expensive vases, ice sculptures and such breaking as well, though.
And women, if Harry has anything to say about it. Which would actually explain Murphy’s mood swings.
“Or maybe it’s just a case of technology being too new and magic attacking the thing that’s newest, most different, and least rooted in the collective mind of man. After all, a computer is a pretty new concept to someone who’s been running around for several hundred years. The idea of computers is not as powerful as, say, the idea of a simple combustion engine and so on, because it’s not as old—it hasn’t had the chance to accrete “significance.” So maybe the strength of the conceptual reality resists the stray magic and keeps older technology safe.”
That would suggest new things are less real, spiritually. That runs into the problem of plastic cups Farla discussed. If the age is what matters, it’s not just delicate technology like computers that’s going to be affected, but pretty sturdy things as well that just were invented recently. On the other hand, if the idea of an object is what matters (cups are safe regardless of material because they were around since forever), then the divide really shouldn’t be around WWII. Cars were around for far longer than that, and what does it matter if you have a newer or older model?
I guess taking into account both age of the idea and specific technology in question can work, though I’m unsure if the books really support it.
On the other hand, hey, that explains Harry’s sexism: each time his emotions flare, his brain reverts to thought patterns of the past. 50s, 40s… Soon he’ll become a proper Victorian gentleman and start believing that riding bicycles causes lesbianism.
“Considering that magic is a force guided by belief, there’s definitely at least some of that playing into what technology a wizard or other practitioner will short out when he blows a gasket. Stray magic is very likely “spun” by a practitioner’s core beliefs. For many mages, you could fairly say that, while their spells are defined by what they believe will happen, the side effects are what they don’t believe will happen. So, if they don’t trust cars, phones, or elevators, their stray magic tends to reinforce that mistrust.”
Harry’s confirmed for being a 90 year old man.
Well, OK, the plausibility of this theory depends on how wizards are typically raised. It’s sustainable with wizards mostly living in isolation and magic running in families: old wizards would mistrust technology and avoid it, so young wizards wouldn’t have it around and would inherit the mistrust.
Still, you’d think there would be a number of young wizards who’ve never got the memo and brows the Internet with no problems.
Hmmm… Victor used a radio, right?
“In the end, nobody really knows for certain what causes hexing—just that it happens, and usually in the most inconvenient of ways.”
Fuck you too, book. So, in the end, this section amounts to nothing: hexing exists because hexing exists, and that’s the end of it.
Ugh, the biggest issue here is that hexing doesn’t tie to anything. We’ve discussed how it could have been used: wizards living only in certain parts of towns because the rest is too new for them (and you can keep wizards out by rebuilding your city every few decades), wizards mostly living in isolation because they don’t like the idea of frying hospitals, leading to cities lacking serious supernatural protection from monsters and justifying Harry’s presence despite the risks. Hell, even just using it for flavor to have old-timie wizards living like they are Renaissance fair refugees would be fine by me (you don’t need hexing for it, though, just the right culture. See: Nasuverse).
Instead… We have Harry, a wizard driving a car, using a gun and making pop-culture references because apparently he watched all the movies anyway. And, of course, he has friends who can use technology just fine to get around his limitations and get info.
Basically, I care more about why hexing is here than how it works. While leaving the nature of the phenomenon without explanation is annoying, it can be acceptable if there’s a clear purpose behind its inclusion.
There isn’t one with hexing.
I guess it’s used from time to time for minor plot points, but, eh, the same result could have been achieved without it.
OK, what else this chapter got for me? Ah yes, thresholds.
“Commonly, the word threshold is used to describe the barrier that is formed around a home by the simple act of people living in it and regarding it as a place of safety, shelter, and family. The stronger the sense of “home,” the greater the threshold.”
That feels unnecessary narrow for me. Thresholds are about separation of two worlds. When you cross a threshold, you should get a feeling that inside is very different from the outside and different rules are in effect. Home sweet home would grow a threshold, sure, since normally when you get home, you would relax, lower your guard, remove any masks you may wear in polite society and accept a different set of rules, much more friendly to you. But I would argue than an abusive household, with its atmosphere of secrecy, fear and hidden pain would grow a strong threshold as well. It wouldn’t be a welcoming place, but that’s the point: a child stuck living there would feel acutely the boundary between normal sunlit world of outside and the world lying inside. Likewise, caves, old abandoned buildings, remote mansions of crazy eccentric millionaire and such would all get strong thresholds, even though there is no love to power them, no sense of security.
Depending on their nature, they would have different effects on those trying to breach them. A threshold in an abandoned haunted hospital would be extremely hostile to humans, while spooky supernatural creatures would feel at home and come in freely, for example.
The book actually seems to realize it as two paragraphs later it redefines thresholds into any barriers that prevent magical energy from going through them.
“Thresholds can even be conceptual: the transition from night to day has a weakening effect on magic precisely because it is a sort of threshold.”
I actually like that example. Mostly because of reading Umineko and especially Higanbana, which made a big point of the night world being different from that of day. Wish something more was done with it than a simple example.
Anyway, mechanically thresholds are handled well enough. They provide a threshold (huh!) that needs to be reached to succeed on supernatural actions, diminish said action in the process, making it less effective and harm spiritual creatures who managed to get inside. Pretty simple, though I suspect it could be a pain in the ass to implement every time, which may be a factor in limiting the definition of thresholds.
Next is a big section of Laws of Magic and what it means to break them. That should be interesting, but this has run way too long enough already, so I’m cutting the post in two.
Tune in next time for Laws of Magic and why it’s OK to kill.