Dresden Files RPG, Volume II: Our World + Conclusion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And so my review of Dresden Files RPG reaches its conclusion. For the final part, I’m going to review the second volume in a single post rather than going through the chapters one by one, wince information presented here concerns the setting and specific events from the books, which is really more a material for Farla’s readthrough.

Without farther ado, let’s begin.

The books sets the done right from the start with the cover art. For those who don’t know, Harry fighting against demonic flying apes is a minor event from one of the opening chapters. It wouldn’t mean much for people not familiar with the books, and I don’t think it would hold much appeal. As such, we can conclude that by using this image the book clearly indicates its intended audience: Dresden Files fans, rather than regular TRPG players.

I can’t truly fault it from marketing perspective. Obviously, the adaptation of DF would be most attractive to fans of DF, so pandering to them is only logical. That does probably mean I’m going to say “It’s a good adaptation, but…” a lot during this review.

And sure enough, it is a good adaptation. The book presents an overview of the setting with particular attention paid to potential conflicts in which PCs can get involved. It also contains information about various supernatural creatures and specific characters populating the setting, followed by their stat blocks (sometimes with specific rules to handle certain kinds of creatures, like ghosts).

The information presented is concise and detailed enough to serve as a setting guide. Despite my previous assertion, I would say even people unfamiliar with DF would find the guide useful. Though, unsurprisingly, the book doesn’t really challenge the narrative of DF, presenting some characters (Harry in particular) in much better light than they deserve, while slanting others (like Morgan).

That’s a minor gripe compared to the next one, however: the book refuses to go beyond the boundaries of the books. Many character entries are basically stubs with “we don’t know enough about them to speculate” line instead of something useful. Some of it, like the entry on God, is understandable: you don’t want to offend someone by defining God’s agenda too much, and it’s not that important for the game, what with God being a distant and mostly absent figure. With others, it actively harms the game.

For example, there is this massively powerful conspiracy called the Circle, which is behind a lot of events in the books. The organization is rather hard to use without knowing its exact agenda: a character belonging to it implies heavily that at least some of its members believe (probably wrongly) that what they’re doing is for the greater good of all, which would naturally influence their interactions with the PC. You may get recruitment attempts if your PCs are powerful and influential enough, you may get attempts at justification, or just slips of information.

But the book doesn’t give us anything to go on in this direction because the motives of the Circle weren’t revealed at the time of book’s writing. It’s understandable, but I would like some speculation in the context of what would make the potential game better. What should I take into account when I use the Circle as villains in my campaign? What difficulties are there with presenting them as pure evil, as misunderstood heroes, as misguided villains? How to reconcile the role I’ve picked with the facts about them from the books?

Such information would be much more useful for building scenarios than simply summary of known facts, and yet it’s the latter the book provides to us.

In that context, three sidebars from Harry’s entry are of interest to us. One detailing the ways he can die, another detailing the ways he can be turned a villain, and the third listing the potential of his failures to affect the setting as a whole, allowing for a great villain to rise or turning the world into a post-apocalypse.

Including these sidebars is a really good idea on the book’s part. For playing DF RPG, it’s only natural to set your game in occult Chicago, and Harry is simply inconvenient in this scenario. He’s too central to the narrative, too influential, and his (theoretical) agenda (stopping crime and dealing with supernatural shit going down) is too close to that of potential PCs for him to be useful. If you keep him around, there’s a great chance of him becoming a GMPC, which is not something desirable. (Well, unless you portray him the way we see him on this blog, in which case he’s more manageable. Even then, too much is tied to them, too many supernatural heavy weights are interested in them to leave enough room for the PCs.)

And so, killing him off or turning him into a villain is, indeed, the best solution (well, unless you want one of your players to play as him, which is doable, but most players I know like to create their own characters).

The book also points out that Harry failing in certain tasks would make for a great campaign idea.

What if the necromancers managed to complete their Holy Grail War, with one of them reaching the Origin and becoming immortal and insanely powerful? You’ll get an evil overlord on the rise, with the secrecy breaking down and armies of zombies and ghosts marching victorious across the world.

Unfortunately, the sidebars are just that: sidebars. They point out the instances of Harry coming close to death or turning villain, they point out possible divergences that would redefine the world, but they don’t expand on it, leaving all works to interested players.

Honestly, this can easily justify a chapter all on its own: potential issues with running a game in Chicago*, alternatives to the setting resulting from Harry’s failures or successes.

*Use of familiar characters and potential for turning them into PCs. Use of books’ plots as a foundation for your own scenarios. Obviously, you can’t use them as is, since that would eliminate any potential for mystery or twists, but using them as a basis and changing details to keep the players on their toes, or approach the scenarios from an unusual angle (like playing as a necromantic cabal in the Holy Grail War scenario from above) – that has some potential.

In the end, however, the book remains inside the comfortable boundaries of what we know, only teasing us with alternatives.

Another issue with the book is that it doesn’t list the stats for every character. Some of them are instead treated as plot devices that provide challenges of certain level in every type of conflict. Their stress isn’t tracked, they don’t get consequences, etc. As such, they’re impossible to defeat, you can only work around them.

This practice is not unique for this game. There is an old saying popular among TRPG crowd: “any number can be reduced to zero” – referring to the fact that if something has a stat block, it can be killed, or, more generally, acted upon, which is detrimental to certain genres and certain settings. For example, in a lot of horror works the fear comes from the fact your actions against the monster have no meaning. You can stab a slasher villain, and he won’t react. You can ram a ship through Cthulhu, and he would continue watching the stars before returning to his sunken city*. There is nothing you can do to solve the problem. You can only run and hide.

*A lot of people misunderstand the meaning of this scene. So, to be clear, the ship had no effect. The narration explicitly noted that Cthulhu was healing as fast as the damage was done.

This effect is absent in the games that give their monsters definite stats. Even if these stats are massively higher than that of PCs, your actions would still have an impact. Not enough to kill the monster, but enough to give you hope. And often it’s enough to destroy the fear.

And in other games you have gods and powerful spirits and the like. Likewise, they’re not the entities that should be subject to your actions. They’re above mortal coil, and their actions should be treated as, well, an act of god or a force of nature: something you survive, not solve.

As such, it does make sense for certain characters in this game to not have defined stats. I didn’t expect to find out how many stress boxes God has, or how hard it would be to kill Mother When.

I do take an issue with lesser characters like that Circle guy or some of the Denarians.

They’re powerful, yes.

Harry didn’t manage to defeat them once and for all, yes.

But he did fight them, he’s made an impact, he’s made them afraid.

In game terms, that means they have very high stats most characters won’t be able to beat.

Most, but not necessarily yours.

In short, it does feel to me more as “don’t kill the villains Harry was unable to kill” than a sound game design decision.

The book ends on a high note, however, with the chapter on Chicago. It’s not very useful if you want to recreate Chicago as seen in the books: the chapter doesn’t go into specific locations, like Marcone’s lairs and such (they’re typically noted in characters section). Instead, it gives an overview of Chicago as see through occult lenses, allowing you to construct your own city depending on what themes you want to emphasize, what mood to set, what types of locations to explore.

In other words, this chapter can be used even if you loath the canon DF, but want to run a game set in Chicago. A different Chicago, your very own.

It also notes and fixes geographical mistakes found in the books. White-washing issue isn’t explored, though: the book does note that Chicago isn’t exactly snow white, but doesn’t go into detail on demographics beyond that.

Still, sometimes this chapter gets pretty inspired and takes a good weird approach to observing the city:

“It’s the other side of the Blood and Butchery coin—when the blood drains out, you’re left with nothing but the flesh. That was what Adolph Luetgert, the Sausage King of the North Side, thought on May Day 1897, when he tossed his wife Louisa into the sausage vat. If he’d gotten his act together to do the deed the night before, on Walpurgisnacht, her soul might have passed over. As it was, Louisa’s ghost haunted Luetgert in prison, and his attorney wound up in a madhouse raving that “Louisa will come back… some day!””

“Chicago invented the futures market in 1863, setting the ball rolling on a great kabbalistic experiment in divination using money and sacrificial beasts as tokens.”

“Or maybe they’re transformers, stepping up the sorcery inherent in architecture—feng shui and codes in stone, all governed by geometry, numbers, will, and vision—into something greater. […] The Egyptian architect-priests who built the Pyramids, and the Operative Masons who raised Chartres Cathedral—they knew buildings were powerful in their own right, and gained greater power through design and intent. Isn’t that the definition of magic? So who’s trying to knock down the fine old buildings, and what are they trying to cover up—or liberate?”

“Perhaps the towers worship the Air: the antennas on the Sears Tower and the Hancock Building send electronic pulses and digital mantras up to the high realms, just as the Aztec or Babylonian priests chanted from the tops of their pyramids and ziggurats. We know there’s Something up there, namely Chicago-Over-Chicago and the Courts. And it’s a good bet there’s Somewhere past that—Faerie is always a kind of way station, don’t cha think? Chicago’s first “tallest building in the world” was John
Wellborn Root’s 22-story Masonic Temple, on Randolph Street. (He heard magical harmonies and designed buildings on “authentic Egyptian principles.” He died before the building was finished.)”

And so on. Pretty cool stuff.

So, overall, it’s a book DF fans would like. It provides all the necessary information for running a game involving familiar characters and creatures.

For people who seek to adapt the game for a different setting, however, there isn’t that much useful material. Stat blocks for creatures can come in handy, and the chapter on Chicago is nice, but the former doesn’t contain much that can’t be simply extrapolated from the general rules, and the latter is a source of inspiration, nothing more. You’ll get as much or more from reading A Madness of Angels for London.

And that’s the end of Dresden Files RPG.

So, what do I think about it now that I’ve become closely familiar with it? Well, I’ve expressed my feelings before, and they didn’t change much.

The game is a good adaptation, perfectly suited to run a game of Dresden Files. On a flipside, it suffers from much the same problems as the source material: inconsistent world-building, unchecked sexism, poorly implemented ideas, internal contradictions.

As a setting, it’s a mess that would need a major revision before being usable, and I don’t think there’s a reason to bother. Whatever else DF may be, first and foremost it’s your typical fantasy kitchen sink with very few original ideas. You can easily replace it with WoD or Nasuverse, or Witch Girls Adventures, and nobody would notice the difference.

As a system, it’s salvageable. There are a few problems in need of fixing I’ve noted over these reviews: the theme of free will should be divorced from mechanics. Fate points system really works best as a purely metagame thing, trying to give it some kind of tangible presence creates a lot of unnecessary problems (it’s probably can be done in something like Pact, but that’s another story).

Laws of Magic need to be dropped or seriously revised to provide a consistent logic to them. Some of them do serve to create boundaries players won’t cross casually, but the same effect can be achieved by stating magic is incapable of game-changing effects (resurrection, mind reading, etc.) or by creating different balancing mechanisms.

I’m also very suspicious whether pure mortals are viable in a mixed group, but it’s hard to test without running a game. Their advantages are supposed to manifest over a long period rather than in bursts like powers and magic.

Speaking of magic, thaumaturgy is a big game-changer. Incorporating it into your game can be very tricky and would undoubtedly lead to different behavior of PCs, which needs to be matched by NPCs.

Certain sections can be expanded, like providing different element systems.

So, overall, it’s not a bad system. Certainly would need a few tweaks before being usable, but the same can be said about a lot of systems. It does require an experienced GM who actually knows how everything is put together in order to work properly, and it’s not intuitive for people with preformed TRPG habits.

If you like tweaking your systems, the game offers enough good material to be worth checking out. If you want something you can just read and run, you probably shouldn’t bother.

And that would be all.

Bottom of the night to you.

9 Comments

  1. GeniusLemur says:
    So overall, and I noticed this in the last post, too, it looks like the rules in general work fine, and it’s when they start having to deal with Butcher’s Harry-Sue centeredness and shit worldbuilding that big holes appear.
    1. illhousen says:
      Pretty much. The rules have a solid foundation in FATE System. The system is peculiar in its use, but what it does well, it does really well.

      However, the devs had a task before them to adapt various DF-specific stuff, and it’s just badly constructed, so in the end it works against the game.

      I would say they did their best short of openly deconstructing the books or changing setting elements for the better, but the end result is still unsurprisingly rough.

      1. GeniusLemur says:
        To be fair, they’ve got a lot here that would be hard to work with regardless. Anytime you’ve got a setting that’s dominated by a single character, it’s going to add extra trouble to building a roleplaying setting. It’s the difference between building a spy RPG and a James Bond RPG. Bond, Moneypenny, M, SPECTRE, etc. are going to press heavily on the game, no matter what the writers or gamemaster do. And since these are basically single-character things (the only reason Bond has a woman along is to shag her as the closing start rolling), they don’t tend to be suited to groups.
        Likewise, a series of novels (or especially movies) aren’t going to work well as a source for an RPG, because the demands of watching a story and coming up with your own are too different. It’s going to work best when the setting is “big” enough to cut lose from the established plots and characters entirely. Something like Star Wars or Star Trek, where you could have your own rebel team or starship bridge crew, and you might hear about what Han Solo or the Enterprise are doing, but you’re not worried about it.
        1. illhousen says:
          Yeah, I get what you’re saying. It’s especially prominent with stories that massively change the status quo over their course. I’ve heard some stuff about Mistborn RPG and how it was decided to place the game before the events of the trilogy because setting it during the events of the main plot wouldn’t give enough room for the GMs to come up with their own scenarios: the main plot is just too big and would overshadow them all by inflicting constant changes divorced from the actions of the PCs as time goes on. And placing the game after the books would mean basically creating a setting from scratch due to how it ended.

          Then you have Indiana Jones RPG to embody the worst possible way to approach the issue: no character rules creation, one player gets Indy, the rest get sidekicks and distressed damseles with shit skills.

          Doctor Who RPG, I’ve heard, is better, but still allows only one player to have the Doctor (though this time nothing stops you to generate several Doctors and just have them run around at the same time. Well, aside from the general time-travel headache.)

          I would say that DF (and urban fantasy in general) actually works well in that regard. Sticking with recommended game mode (picking a city, creating various local factions and characters, dealing with local threats) wouldn’t run into problems you’ve outlined.

          It’s only when you try to run a game set in Chicago or touch upon global events that you start running into established characters and Harry in particular who can overshadow your PCs.

          On the other hand, Harry’s shadow can be seen over the rules. In particular, magic was built to be one of the best and certainly the most versatile powers, and wizard is basically the top template.

          Rules for magic and related stuff in general are more detailed than pretty much anything else, and clearly were a part of the main focus of development.

          1. Nerem says:
            So, exactly how much magic have we seen Harry use in the first two books? A handful of magic artifacts, potion-making (does this exactly count? He needed someone to do it for him basically), blood-mist, and the circle/mind control stuff?
            1. illhousen says:
              To be fair, the game is based on later books, where Harry does do some impressive things. Not so many as one would expect from fans’ discussions, but still.

              But yeah, the game generally goes by what the books say (Harry is one of the top dogs, a powerful wizard, a major player in Chicago and the world) rather than what they show (Harry as a petulant child talking big because he wants to impress Daddy Marcone).

              Reply
  2. GeniusLemur says:
    They thought they needed a sidebar to give you ways to kill Harry? Here’s my suggestion for killing Harry:
    1. Start with Harry sitting in his office on an ordinary day.
    2. Withdraw Mary-Sue shield
    3. Wait five minutes.
    4. Scrape up the Harryburgers.
    1. illhousen says:
      Well, as I said, the devs didn’t want to go against their own target auditory, so they just list events where Harry was canonically stated to be close to dying.

      I do think that “just assume Harry never existed to begin with” option should be somewhere on the list. It’s the easiest one to implement, and it directly opens a position for a PC or even a group to occupy.

      1
      1. Nerem says:
        This does bring up how Harry just sits around without any sort of protection unless he’s deliberately going out to fight someone, as far as I’ve seen.

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