Dresden Files RPG, Part 8 (Running the Game, Building Scenarios, Baltimore)

OK, folks, let’s do it. Three more chapters to go, and I’m going to summarize more this time since they don’t require detailed discussion.

Chapter 14: Running the Game

This chapter talks about responsibilities of the GM and offers advice for running the game, as the title suggests. It discusses framing scenes, when to call for a roll, how to handle success and failure*, how to build the opposition, how to best handle typical situations involving the use of certain skills**, etc.

*Of note here is that when a straight failure would be boring – a character gets all the way into a suspicious office, finds a suspiciously good safe and then just fails to open it, for example – it’s recommended to treat the failure as a success that just creates some kind of complication. A safe was opened fine, but it set off an alarm, stuff like that.

**I’ve found the rules for Resources! Back during character creation, I’ve speculated how Harry’s visits to the pub would be handled. I was off, I have to admit. Basically, by default you can comfortably afford anything at your Resources score-2 level. Harry didn’t put any points in this skill, so he can comfortably afford stuff under 10$: candy bars, cigarette packs and the like. Getting anything above that level would require a roll, and you’re not supposed to make more than one or two Resources rolls per session. Base difficulty of a diner at that pub would be 0 (50-250$), which Harry would have a 50% chance of beating. Invoking his Perpetually Broke aspect would increase the difficulty to 2. The Internet informs me the chance of beating this difficulty for Harry is about 18.5%, roughly 1 in 5. He can invoke his aspects to help (like invoking his High Aspect of Wizard PI to declare he’s helped the pub owner before, so he can eat at a discount, but he starts with 1-2 Fate points, as I recall, so that would be a rather unwise move. So, yeah, the rules are on Farla’s side here: Harry shouldn’t be able to eat at that pub regularly.

For the most part, the advice is pretty basic but important, especially for beginners. The book emphasizes the value of clear communication and aiming to create a fun and engaging game without being boggled down by the rules. As such, the GM is supposed to be mindful of what the players want from the game and provide it to them. On players’ part, engaging with the game and contributing to the narrative is rewarded. For example, declaring the presence of an aspect is easier when said aspect would be cool and would clearly influence the scene in important ways.

This chapter also provides additional rules for environmental hazards (basically, a periodic attack or a maneuver against all characters affected by it), falling (pure stress without defensive rolls, though Athletics may help a bit by providing Armor effect. When used to take someone out, they are supposed to get a chance to concede with “the body was never found” and similar effects) and time passage in relation to game structure (how long a typical scene last, how time skips affect recovery from consequences, how long it would take to do something and how to do it faster).

The chapter also introduces challenges, though they’re different than in Core. In Core, a challenge is a complex task requiring the use of multiple skills. Here, it’s just a normal task that’s done step by step instead of all at once. It’s used when the time frame is important, like when you’re trying to fix a car in a middle of combat. Mechanically, you just need to generate a stated number of shifts, which may take a few rounds, depending on how well you roll. Your enemies, of course, are free to act, so they may close up to you or sabotage your attempts, or attack, or something else, depending on the context of the challenge.

Eh, it’s a fine mechanic, though I still miss Core challenges.

The rules for divination (as in, seeing the future) are also here, though they amount to a tiny section that basically states prophecies are aspects placed on the world in general, so anyone can be compelled to bring them to pass when appropriate. As such, there aren’t any specific dangers associated with making or revealing prophecies to others.

Concerning creating antagonist NPCs, there are three things of note.

Firstly, it’s stated that most NPCs won’t fight until the very end (that is, going through all of their consequences and stress track). Mooks would go down once you go through their stress boxes instead of taking consequences, supporting characters wouldn’t go beyond moderate consequence. Main antagonists may concede and retreat if they’re unwilling to sacrifice themselves to reach their goals.

Exceptions exist and are used to control the level of threat. Obviously, it’s much easier to go through stress boxes alone than doing that and then starting on consequences, so having an antagonist concede earlier would grant the PCs a victory if they’re struggling (with the antagonist probably escaping to fight another day), while allowing the antagonist to fight to the end would make a fight more challenging.

The book advises not to overuse it and not to favor PCs too much so as not to diminish their successes: if they can’t take an antagonist out, they may always concede and regroup before another fight, now prepared with the knowledge of what they’re up against and perhaps with an opportunity to arrange for more favorable circumstances, like luring the enemy on PCs’ home ground and such.

Secondly, the book actually acknowledges that mortals have it worse than supernatural characters, especially when it comes to antagonists who don’t need to worry about getting into a vast array of situations. Aspect invocations and declarations using Fate points provide you with versatility: you can improve your chances to succeed in nearly any situation with enough creativity. But when all you do is fight PCs, solid powers are just plain better.

The book goes as far as to provide different recommendations for purely mortal and purely supernatural groups in regards to what opponents they should face.

The book still insist that it’s fine to play as a pure mortal among supernatural types and provides advice on how to handle supernatural threats without mortal characters losing relevance, but the fact that it needs an advice in the first place is rather suggestive of skewed balance.

Thirdly, the book advises to design antagonists contrasting with the PCs, either standing in direct opposition or serving as a twisted mirror: if PCs are broke, their antagonists may be from the upper society, or they may be poor as well, but while PCs are honest people, the antagonists would be thugs and criminals. Stuff like that. It’s a good general advice: you want to create an emotional connection between antagonists and protagonists, and contrasting them is a quick way to do it. If the antagonists are completely different from PCs, to the point they aren’t even their opposites, just have nothing in common, well, then you just get random bad guys. They have their place, but they probably won’t be as memorable.

Unfortunately, Harry’s presence taints that advice somewhat with this example:

“You’re looking to make an NPC antagonist for Harry Dresden. Looking at Harry’s character sheet, we see a few good aspects that stand out—Epic Wiseass; Chivalry is Not Dead, Dammit; and Perpetually Broke. This suggests a foil in the upper crust of society, exceedingly polite (but  underneath it all, a heartless, misogynistic bastard). You choose Sugar Tongue, People are Objects, and Rich Beyond the Dreams of Avarice as your mirror aspects, going straight for the stark contrast.”

Alas, with Harry dining regularly at an expensive pub and generally not experiencing money problems during the books, just complaining about them, and his “chivalry” being rather repulsive, it’s less stark contrast and more “we’re not so different, you and I” situation.

Overall, though, it’s a straightforward chapter people unfamiliar with FATE or just starting playing TRPGs would find useful.

Chapter 15: Building Scenarios

Another straightforward chapter. The basic principle of building scenarios advocated by the book is to start with PCs’ aspects and go from there. First you figure out which aspects would be the most prominent ones in this specific scenario (one-two from each PC), then you look at how they work together. Do they clash? Do they imply common goal or possibility of cooperation? From there you move on NPCs (established during City Creation process) motivations and see how they relate to PC and their aspects, how you can get them into conflict with each other.

In the end, you’ll get villains’ general goals and plans, an opening scene and a few ideas for future scenes. Connections between scenes would be improvised depending on characters’ actions and likely response to them.

As such, the book pushes heavily in favor of PC-based scenarios. It’s not a universal method, sometimes you just want to explore a dungeon or solve a mystery not tied directly to your inner demons or whatever, but it’s a good approach in FATE game. Back in my FATE Core review I’ve talked about how aspects serve as a method of communication between the players and the GM: by picking specific aspects, you’re telling what kinds of conflicts you would like to see in a game, and this chapter reinforces the principle.

The examples given here are a bit iffy, though. The only female character out of the three doesn’t get much screen time, her aspects come into play only as they clash with aspects of her boyfriend, and there is a talk about a villain kidnapping her to use as a bait. To be fair, it’s actually a setup to talk about how such situations – where some PCs are sidelined and don’t get opportunities to shine – are undesirable and should be avoided. Still, picking her out of the three characters to demonstrate it strikes me as a poor choice.

Another thing of note is this little gem from the section on improvisation and quickly coming up with scenes without much preparation:

Harry’s a [Wizard Private Eye]*, so any strange mystical disturbance will get him out of his  apartment and onto the street.

*Actually a different aspect that fits better as it doesn’t imply the need for a client, but it’s a spoiler.

Harry: Not “any.” It better be really strange and really important.

That’s our Harry, alright. It’s not his problem unless it’s something really important. He has porn to buy for his Rapist Skull and candles to burn.

Other than the examples, it’s a fine chapter demonstrating core principles of the system as they manifest in game structure.

Chapter 16: Baltimore

This chapter presents original setting for the game based, as you may guess, on Baltimore.

The closest I’ve ever got to Baltimore is by smoking Belomor*, so I have no idea how closely the fictional city resembles the real one.

*Don’t do it, kids. These cigarettes are cheaper than dirt, but that’s because they are mostly dirt. There was a pebble in the one I’ve smoked.

According to the book, Baltimore is a dying city. The failure of heavy industry resulted in a high unemployment rate, which led to crime, corruption and general decay. The city is still kicking due to being an important port, recent tourism revival and a famous medical facility with lots of cutting edge research being done, so there are some nice neighborhoods around. Neighborhoods that aren’t nice, however, really aren’t.

The state of the city attracted various supernatural predators, most prominent among which are the Lagios, a clan of White Court vampires who feed on despair:

“So, if you’re looking for a Lagios White Court vampire, look at the bank that closes down a sure-thing deal that would have saved five hundred jobs, look at the neighborhood bars where the out-of-work drink their unemployment checks and wonder what happened to their dignity”

See how they’re so much cooler in concept than lust vampires?

Fantasy genre has a prominent theme of personal power going on. Fate of the world is decided by a battle between a hero and a villain, not by political debates or a prolonged war where death of individuals loses its meaning in the big picture as the corpses keep piling up.

To enable this, certain phenomena must be given a face. In real life, killing a dictator doesn’t solve whatever issues enabled said dictator’s rise to power in the first place. In fantasy, however, an evil overlord is the embodiment of all evil. Once he dies, the vil dies with him, his empire crumbles, the ground blooms once again, etc.

The Lagios are built on similar principle: they embody corruption, decay and bad economy. They’re the reason why people are miserable.

And you can kill them.

It’s a very, very powerful tool that can be used for a great cathartic effect.

(Though, of course, as any escapism tools, it should be used carefully as there’s a risk of divorcing fantasy representation too much from the reality of the situation, which is especially important when there are actually people responsible. The book mentions the Lagios were into slave trade back in the day, for example. Thankfully, it says only they were involved, which is logical, not that they were responsible for it, which would be rather disrespectful to the subject.)

Unfortunately, DF taints even this concept as the book mentions there are some Lagios feeding on lust as well. I would just roll my eyes if the book just stopped there (OK, sexy vamps, not surprising). It didn’t.

“If that weren’t enough, some of the Lagios are skilled in the sex trade. For those that feed on lust (and there are a few), the connection is obvious; however, they frequently specifically target patrons with families. I’m told the misery of a man who’s lost his family because of sex addiction and frequenting prostitutes can keep a Lagios well-fed for weeks.”

And the paragraph I’ve quoted to praise? Yeah, I’ve cut it short. It actually ends with this delightful passage:

“look at the brothels where the johns weep over photos of their wives and children after being serviced.”

Yeah, I have little sympathy for the plight of poor little johns who just can’t stop fucking prostitutes despite loving their families so much, you guys, let’m me show you the picture, don’t mind the stains.

OK, to be fair, White Court vampires can actually induce something akin to addiction*, which would indeed be pretty awful. I’d still say it’s a rather weird angle to take, especially considering there’s a better connection to prostitution than this. A lot of prostitutes do it not because they’re content with it but because they’re forced to do it, either literally, when someone kidnaps them and keeps them in line with beatings and drugs, or by circumstances, when they have far too many bills to pay (medical ones especially can quickly pile up) and can’t find another job that would cover them. That would be especially true in a city in decline, with lots of unemployment, as was established for this setting.

*Specifically, Incite Emotion power they have allows you to give an aspect to the target based on the emotion you create, like Overcome by Lust or something similar. That aspect can be compelled, producing an effect mechanically identical to the love potion. It lasts only a scene or so, though. An upgraded version of the ability allows you to do mental attacks. Should you take out your victim, you can indeed declare they become addicted to sex.

In other words, going into sex trade business is a great way to surround yourself with miserable desperate people.

But, of course, then we wouldn’t have sexy vampires wanting to fuck the protagonists, and that’s unacceptable.

Speaking of sexy vamps, the clan is divided between two factions: one following the cautious and conservative leader who was in charge for a long time and have led the family through difficult times, and another led by a young upstart pushing for more aggressive politics and taking more risky opportunities.

Guess which is a man and which is a woman.

Oh, and Alexandra Lagios also has Sex Appeal as a stunt because even monsters literally feeding on misery and despair must be fuckable should they happen to possess boobs.

Ugh, at least she actually does feed on despair instead of lust.

Anyway, these vampires are not the only faction around.

There is a ghoul clan led by self-proclaimed God-King of ghouls going by the name Gilgamesh.

Sadly, not this guy

They’re at war with Summer Court fae, who have some significant presence in the city due to a warm climate. Gilgamesh managed to find o open a portal into Summer domain in Nevernever, as well as get Winter cooperation, so the war is heating on.

Black Court has a few members around. Recently they’ve lost their favorite hunting ground, so they seem to prepare an assault on a local school. Harry has some nice comment on it:

“The students’ safety is at terrible risk.”

Spoiler: To say the least! Harry, is the situation at Heritage High School something we should take on?
Harry: Don’t we already have enough to worry about? Plus I’m sure [Yet another spoiler, I think] made this up. Right?

Ah, Harry, never change.

Wait, what am I saying? Change, Harry, change! Change a lot!

Red Court is represented by a joke villain Damocles Ravenborn, who’s basically a stereotypical goth LARPer turned into an actual vampire but still going around in a trenchcoat and carrying katana.

It’s basically a dig at certain type of WoD fans, though not particularly malicious one.

He has a bone to pick with local wizard (suggested PC) whose father, Old Man Henderson Montrose, was an official Council representative and kept various supernatural threats in line until he kicked the bucket and left the position to his rather unenthusiastic son.

Russel Carson is an amoral sorcerer and a cult leader trying to build a power base strong enough to be left alone by the Council. He craves power, though his ambitions don’t go beyond the city.

“He recruits followers from Baltimore’s supernatural community, especially (though not exclusively)  attractive young women, and teaches them spellcasting.”

Hm, not sure if I have a problem with this or not. On the one hand, it’s not uncommon for cults to use women as a commodity. Certain Mormon splinter sects that still practice polygamy attract new members with promises of new young wives, for example.

In this particular case, however, it feels off. He recruits among people in the know and people with magical talents. I doubt he’s really free to chose. With magic people being generally rare and the Council potentially striking at any time, power and willingness to join take priority over attractiveness.

As such, this detail seems to be thrown here just for the sake of making Russel more evil. The theme is not expanded or even mentioned again, either, so, yeah.

In contrast to Chicago, the police department is presented as generally corrupt, with only a few honest cops around, and without the special investigations department.

While each faction has its own things going on, there is a conflict involving all of them: a potential fight over a powerful ley line, called Fall Line, roughly dividing the city into north and south parts. Everyone wants it, and while so far the conflict didn’t escalate into open bloodshed, it’s just a matter of time unless the PCs do something about it.

Now, to the potential allies.

The Dupin Society is named such after Poe’s character.

“Poe was clued-in, knew an awful lot, and had the good sense not to publish any of it; who would have believed him?”

I would note that Poe lived in an era when people were actively trying to find fairies and speak with the dead.

The whole “people just don’t want to see what they don’t understand” thing going on in DF gets even more silly when applied to the past.

Anyway, the society is dedicated to collecting and preserving occult knowledge. They tried to become active players, but got burned heavily in a confrontation with vampires, so now they’re strictly observers. Still, some young members want to get involved again for the sake of protecting people. The book presents it as a foolish action likely to get them killed, but come on, we’ve just spent a few sections talking about how mortals can totally be a force to be reckoned with in supernatural conflicts.

Then there are religious people knowing about supernatural: a nun, a rabbi, an imam and a reverend. They met together on prison missionary job, learned about supernatural involvement and decided to help their community together.

Props for diversity. It’s nice that the book presents a situation where people of different faiths are willing to put aside their differences for the sake of kicking demon ass. I would note that we’re still firmly in the Abrahamic tradition, however.

Then there are neutral grounds, which are a coffeehouse and a bookstore managed by a potion maker using her talents to brew some great coffee. It’s quaint enough, I guess.

Finally, there are potential PCs.

Evan Montrose is the heir to old and rich family with implied dark history. His father died under mysterious circumstances, leaving Evan with the responsibility to represent the Council in the city, a task he’s reluctant to do.

Biff Abernathy is a trust fund jock (that’s his High Concept, in fact) skilled in martial arts. Supposedly, he’s much smarter than he lets on.

Maya McKenzie is a kid from poor background who received a scholarship to a prestigious school where she met the other two characters back in the day. She’s a were-mouse and a stealth specialist.

That’s… not exactly what I expected, given city’s themes. I guess the characters were created to contrast Harry’s supposedly poor lifestyle, but, really, the setting of a dying city suggests people struggling to get money, living in bad parts of town, witnessing and dealing with shady types and shadier agendas, not people who can literally roll in money. I mean, one such character may be fun to have around for contrast, but not two out of three.

Biff especially lacks the appeal to me. His conflict is supposed to come from his casual attitude clashing with the expectations of his really high-class family, but, eh, again, it’s the city with monsters inducing and feeding on despair.

Maya seems like a better option, though for her I would note another problem. While Evan is a full-fledged wizard capable of throwing fireballs around, and Biff is a combat specialist, Maya specializes in stealth and lack many combat options. The book actually notes she would be likely to turn into a mouse and run or hide during fights.

Yeah, not the best choice.

The book also provides a number of supporting characters who can serve as allies or enemies to the PCs, depending on circumstances. I’m not going to talk about them in detail. They seem mostly fine.

Also, statistic: 8 female characters out of 30 total. Not the worst result I’ve seen, but certainly not very good, either.

So, overall, I would say there are some good ideas in this chapter unfortunately tainted by poor handling in several places. It’s salvageable, but would require a revision before use.

Aside from the problems I’ve outlined already, I would also note the lack of shades of grey here. The closest we have is the Summer Court, who are mostly reasonable but can be trouble as well, and the Dupin Society, who are neutral by default but can become opponents of the PCs under certain circumstances. Otherwise, the villains are purely evil, and the good guys are good, there is little to be found between the two.

It’s not exactly bad. This way, the PCs are facing against numerous enemies scheming against them and each other with only a couple of individuals on their side. But it does rob the game of potential moral complexity. I mean, it’s a safe bet that the PCs are going to work against all evil guys here. Alliances of convenience are theoretically possible, and could provide you with some moral dilemmas (is it really worth it to accept the help of one kind of monsters to defeat another? Don’t you just aid the former in their goals?), but they would end the moment PCs feel confident to strike.

Now, imagine Russel replaced with someone motivated not by personal power but by the desire to help the city. The simple fact here is that the Council doesn’t do much. There’s only one wizard in the city, and he doesn’t even want the job. Moreover, any sorcerer joining the Council is likely to be withdrawn from the city and thrown into another distant conflict due to spoiler events. The conflict is important, but that would leave the city open to various vampires and ghouls, not a desirable outcome.

And so someone gathers various practitioners in a group, sharing their limited knowledge of the occult and preparing to strike against supernatural threats. And if in the process they have to kill mortals working for monsters or do some other shady deeds, well, the goal is worth it, isn’t it?

So, how do the PCs deal with an organization like that? Their goals are noble, their methods are not, but is it really different from what the Council does to warlocks? Should they put a stop to it, try to regulate what such an organization is doing or outright join it? And what would happen when the Council pushes for elimination of the organization of (shaky) evidence of breaking the Laws, a decision possibly motivated by the fear of organization growing and eventually becoming a rival to the Council itself, at least locally?

That would certainly be interesting to explore.

And that’s the book. Tune in next time for Volume 2: Electric Boogaloo Our World. The second volume deals much more closely with specific events and characters that can be found in the Dresden Files books, rather than providing the underlying rules of the world. That’s more Farla’s domain than mine, so I’m going to do Our World in a single review, focusing more on how well it works as a TRPG supplement rather than talking about specific issues.

After all, there will be time for the latter once Farla stops playing with sockpuppets like me and Act and gets back to the regular readthrough.


  1. Nerem says:
    Was she waiting on you to finish before continuing? An escape from the nightmare hell of Dresden Files?

    Could be Kingkiller Chronicles, I guess.

    1. illhousen says:
      Nah. October is just a Homestuck review month for her, which requires to read Homestuck fics instead of DF. The next post on DF should be up within a week, actually.
  2. SpoonyViking says:
    Heeey, how come I don’t get to be one of Farla’s sockpuppets? :-P
    1. illhousen says:
      I thought you were a lackey, like her brother? Our hierarchy is confusing.

      (More seriously, I just didn’t want to list everyone as I thought it would be unwieldy, plus I don’t remember who did that one Guest Review. Ember?)

      1. SpoonyViking says:
        Ember, yes.
        Hmmm… I suppose lackey is fine. It’s disappointing that I haven’t merited either being considered a facade for Farla, or earning the ire of a random Internet person like Act. I have to step up my game! :-P

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