So, the third volume of Dresden Files RPG. The premise here is that a number of Paranet (about it later) reports written after the events of Changes were turned into setting expansions, giving us four potential playable locations structured similarly to Baltimore chapter from the first volume. There are also some expansions on magic system due to “facts” the devs learned over Harry’s continuing adventures and some information on Nevernever.
The book actually looks promising at a first glance. The biggest problem with Dresden Files RPG always was the fact it’s a Dresden Files RPG. When it followed the deeply flawed lore of the books, the result was the inconsistent mess of the Laws of Magic and the like. More generic material not tied to the peculiarities of the books was mostly at least OK or outright good.
As such, expanding the game into other locations not directly connected to canon and doing its own thing has potential.
Let’s see if my hopes are justified.
(There are going to be some spoilers for the events in the later books, included Changes ending. You’ve been warned.)
For those who don’t know, Paranet is a young organization in the setting consisting of loosely connected magical practitioners maintaining contact for the sake of sharing information and mutual protection.
It’s basically Occult Underground, but less weird.
I actually approve of the organization existence, I’m just baffled that it took so long for it to start. It’s only natural for humans to seek company of people sharing their interests and worries, giving you local cabals and such, and from there it’s a small step to reaching out to other cities.
In DF specifically, such an organization is especially needed given that the White Council seems to purchase only the best and the brightest (and Harry), leaving the rest to rot and creating a situation where they don’t have enough people to detect warlocks before it’s too late.
Still, I guess better now than never.
So, the fictional posts serving as the foundation of setting expansion were distributed over the Paranet as a source of information, warnings or cries for help. That rather stretches the already thin plausibility of the premise: the focus of the in-game devs really should be on doing something or getting the information into the right hands rather than appropriating it for the game.
But OK, with the suspension of disbelief is activated at full power, the stylistic choice continues to be amusing if utterly implausible.
Due to the events of Changes, Harry is blessedly out of the picture (but, in a true Mary Sue fashion, everyone’s still talking about him), so we have a new team to provide a running commentary for the game: Billy (formerly Spoiler here, I figured there’s no need to conceal it any longer), our spellwolf pathetic friend serving as a stand-in for game devs (which is actually a nice inside joke, since he is canonically into TRPGs), Murphy, who uses Harry’s color and font and spends way too much space telling us how she misses Harry, and Waldo, a mortician who inherited Bob and provides some lore comments and nerdy jokes.
Overall, I’m rather ambivalent about the change. The new crew lacks the infuriating and eye-rolling qualities of Harry and Bob’s comments, but they’re also more bland. The characters don’t have a natural dynamic, so a lot of comments are pretty neutral and just clarify stuff, which could have been worked into the main body of the book.
To compensate for it, the narrators have stronger voices. The premise is that the settings are based on stuff actual people wrote, so their personalities could be seen in the writing, which does make for a better read than more neutral first two volumes. On the other hand, it makes the book more subjective, which is something I generally don’t appreciate much in TRPGs. I prefer the books to tell me important information straight rather than presenting it as someone’s opinion, preferably with advice on how to incorporate it into the game. I’m perfectly capable of altering the elements I don’t like and present the setting to the players the way I want just fine. Too much subjectivity can easily cloud what the devs actually wanted to communicate and obscure the real picture, making it harder to adjust it to my needs without throwing out good elements I misunderstood.
Well, it may be a personal peeve. The problem is not overly prominent here, anyway.
Between the books, the artist team has changed completely. Most illustrations are done in a somewhat generic style common for TRPGs. It works well enough for character profiles and backgrounds. Dynamic scenes, on the other hand…
Other illustrations are done in a more stylized manner, which works case by case. Sometimes it looks pretty nicely and magical…
And other times it gets silly.
|Give me back my hand, you fiend!|
The illustrations in the chapter on Russia are done in style of soviet propaganda, which is a nice touch.
In general, the illustrations seem to be a bit more diverse than in previous volumes. I see some Hispanic and black people here, as opposed to just Team Diversity and a black woman from the Baltimore chapter. Still, the artists mostly default to white.
Female characters are a mixed bag. Some of them are pretty fine, if afflicted with the general style issues:
|It’s hard to look dramatic standing at a bus stop. It’s hard, and nobody understands.|
|I don’t need to see you to stab you!|
|I’ll stab you with my chin!|
|This man isn’t scared of her bite, he’s scared of her spiral spine.|
I would say there are more badass women than fanservice ones, so that’s some improvement. Still no fanservice men that I can see.
Oh, and White Council still looks like a bunch of shady conspiracy villains:
|Everything is as foretold.|
So, I think that’s it as far as presentation is concerned. Overall, it’s not too bad, and some touches are neat, but there is also a room for improvement.
Now, to the content.
Las Vegas: Sins and Second Chances
The first addition to the setting is Las Vegas. Sadly, the main conflict doesn’t revolve around a bunch of mages waging war over who gets to be the next Fisher King of Nevada. Instead, the chapter plays up the contrast between the bright dream-like Strip most people see and the dark side of the city making the dream possible.
The gist of it is that Las Vegas is literally a sin city: every transgression, every crime and cruelty (which includes but not limited to drugs, territory disputes between criminals, rampant corruption and human trafficking. The latter actually gets a lot of attention in this chapter) fuels the demon living in the city, which is bound here to hold some sort of gate with worse things behind closed.
Supposedly, the seal and the demon were here for millennia, which raises a question of why the city became what it is only recently. The game actually acknowledges it, though it doesn’t provide a definite answer, speculating instead if it’s possible that the gate is not bound to a specific place but rather manifests in a city descended into decadence and corruption. Or maybe it’s something else.
Yeah, so things like that is why I don’t like TRPGs told subjectively. The question is very important to the foundation of the game. It’s possible that the current state of the city may be the result of the demon’s gluttony: maybe it doesn’t need that much injustice to hold the gate and your regular crime rate would suffice. It’s also possible that the city of sin would always exist, so fixing Las Vegas dooms some other city to follow its way. Or maybe the evil was always around, just in different form: death cults or what have you – and fixing the city is impossible without opening the gate and releasing whatever is inside. The answer to that question would define the tone of the campaign, leading either to a very bleak ending or something more optimistic.
But moving on.
The demon itself has little presence in the mortal world, appointing instead an agent to organize the feast of corruption. The last agent was called the Dragon. sadly, he wasn’t an actual dragon, just a Red Court vampire (think Bianca). He was pretty smart and managed to create a system of human misery transfer that worked almost perfectly, manipulating various players so they would absolutely need each other and crushing everyone who tried to oppose the order.
Red Court vampires were at the top of the food chain, basically controlling the city and feeding on people nobody would miss. White Court vampires worked under them, an almost unprecedented cooperation. They fed on despair of people who’ve lost everything to the city.
Summer and Winter fae Courts have little presence in the city due to the demon fucking up their mojo, which left the wild fae as the most powerful fae faction. Their leader is a goblin with his own wandering domain Wanderland, which manifests spontaneously in various casinos, suddenly making all bets fair and even, plus generally enhancing the atmosphere and allowing magical practitioners to bet metaphysical stuff like power and memories.
The Dragon used him to keep the Vegas dream alive, so more people could be lured into the city: should you get into the Wanderland, well, your winning is not guaranteed, but there is a good chance of experiencing a large boost of luck compared to other, rigged games.
Then there are the Followers of Ishtar. As in, the goddess. She disapproves of the city as a whole and human trafficking in particular, so her followers try to deal with various problems, often violently.
The Followers are presented as dangerous extremists, but come on, human trafficking. Even IRL the authorities are notoriously shitty at dealing with it, and we don’t have vampires sitting above the law due to being able to mindfuck the police. Some radicalism is pretty justified, given the situation, especially since there is no indication in the text that they go after innocent people. Vigilantism is bad when the system works or at least mostly works. When you have an entire city built specifically to generate human misery, well… Plus, their leader is a former victim of human trafficking herself, saved by the goddess, so there is an additional motivation.
Anyway, the Dragon used them as a balancing factor, feeding them information about vampires who tried to get more than they’re due or otherwise destabilize the situation.
So, that was the situation: everything is interconnected, and it went beyond the supernatural side. Crime and legitimate business is hard to separate, and a lot of otherwise innocent people unwittingly were a part of the system, helping it in small ways. Going up against injustices of the city inevitably resulted in collateral damage, as people would lose jobs due to the money in their organizations coming partly from illegal means, and join other lost souls in the city, adding their own misery to the buffet.
It’s a nice noir setup where doing the right thing would inevitably fuck something up, and leave you wondering if it was worth it.
Then Changes happened, Harry committed a genocide, and the Red Court vampires all died, the Dragon included. The system continued to work due to sheer inertia, but things are starting to break apart. Nobody is in charge anymore, but plenty of people think they should be.
Red Court is no more, but there are plenty of people around, in every echelon of the city, addicted to their saliva, trying to find a fix.
The White Court is the most powerful organization around, but they’re short-sighted, likely to run the city dry to sate their hunger for despair and leave it a barren shithole.
Summer and Winter make their moves, and Wanderland is under siege from all sides.
Followers of Ishtar want to fix the city. Honestly, they really look like the good guys. The validity of their actions mostly depend on the situation with the demon and the gate.
In come the PCs.
Unlike the Baltimore crew, the PCs here aren’t done as a coherent team. Rather, each of them presents a focal point for a PC party, with the assumption that players would make more characters around them.
There are six suggested PCs in total:
Alexander Harrowmont is a bibliomancer. Sadly, not an Unknown Armies type, he just needs books to do magic. He can work any type of thaumaturgic rituals, but only when he has access to books detailing them, and he’s limited by the library’s quality when it comes to the complexity of the spells. He can also prepare “spellbooks” containing instructions for one specific ritual to take with him and use outside of library, but they can’t be used in combat and are limited in number, the latter being normal for enchanted items.
It’s a very nasty limitation since his base library rating is 3, and he may get 4 due to his status as a college archivist, if the GM is generous. For comparison, a lot of spells easily have ratings of 8 or more.
So, he’s basically limited to tracking spells, some easy scrying, weak wards and the like.
Flavor-wise, he’s written rather tongue-in-cheek:
“Harrowmont has always wanted to be a real, old world wizard. He cultivated a London accent even when his immigrant parents had long lost theirs, secretly thanked the universe for the nearsightedness that allowed him to justify hornrimmed glasses, obsessively bought stoles and robes, and constantly studied the kinds of books that get you insulted or kicked around by bullies.”
Eventually he’s found some real magic, got noticed by the White Council, but failed their tests miserably due to being useless without books and not that good even with them.
He didn’t abandon his dream of becoming a living stereotype, however, even if it seemed hopeless:
“Decades of study haven’t made him any more powerful. The only avenues of study that seemed to help also brought a Warden to his door within the day, waving around a silver sword. He began traveling, seeking a place to avoid their scrutiny.”
I’m not sure what kind of avenue was that. His best bet is sponsored magic, which doesn’t seem to be against the Laws of Magic. I mean, they don’t like demon summoning, but apparently simply talking to demons is fine, so… Did he try to contact Cthulhu? I don’t see any Lawbreaker powers on his sheet, either.
Anyway, whatever it was, he avoided the White Council and came to Vegas, where he became an archivist in the local university.
The book suggest building a team of powered or otherwise clued-in students around him as a mentor figure.
So, basically, if you want to play Buffy, here’s your Giles.
The second proposed PC is Moira, a telekinetic acrobat in a local circus of powered people.
She was a Mormon girl who never really believed in the doctrine but was going through the motions anyway because it was easier. She engaged in a bit of teenage rebellion: fights, booze, sex. She kept it hidden from her parents until they discovered what’s going on. A fight ensued, she told them she’s not a believer, they staged an “intervention,” which went about as well as you’d expect, with people apparently trying really hard to guilt-trip her.
“Driving home, she broke. Brother Issac accompanied her, and he would not. Stop. Talking. There was no way out of this. For the first time in her life, she had no other option—she prayed. Fervently. She begged for everything to stop.
A wall of telekinetic force brought the car from 60 to 0. The airbag saved her. Brother Issac became one with the passenger side dashboard.” (OK, that’s funny)
For awhile her family eased up on her in the wake of tragic experience. Then a Warden arrived, because they’re capable of discovering random teenagers with budding powers but not people like Victor von Onewizardindustrialrevolution, I guess, so she prayed again, and the Warden was no more.
Fearing for herself and her family, she ran away, eventually making her way to Vegas, changing her name, joining a circus and becoming its ringleader.
She needs to pray to use her powers (aside from super-speed, which she has passively), which gives her Crisis of Faith Trouble aspect. I would be troubled too if God decided to smear some people across the street in response to my vague prayers. (I think the book intends the conflict to be about her reevaluating her non-believing and deciding if God really exists, after all, but, seriously, if her God does exist, he’s not a nice guy. Funny, yes, but not nice. And I think that would be a more pressing question for her.)
So, the idea here is to build a circus troupe with her as a leader. A potentially interesting idea, but unfortunately there is very little information on what the circus of powered people does or looks like. They also seem to be mostly peripheral to the conflicts (unlike the university, which is threatened by expanding White Court, fae and random threats), so they seem to be more suited for a role of scenery rather than active group.
Her story is also pretty divorced from her current role. I get that the idea here is that the circus takes everyone, but still, feels the focus wasn’t calibrated properly.
Our next PC is Daniel Smith, a ghost talker. Another Mormon for reasons that elude me. His story is that he was a good family man until he moved to Vegas because he couldn’t find a good job elsewhere. Here he started seeing ghosts, got involved with their problems, and let the normal life slip through his fingers, becoming distant from his family and having his wife divorce him.
He’s seen her only once since the start of divorce process, and she was followed by some dark shadow. He tried to warn her, but, of course, she thought him to be crazy.
So, now his goal is to save her from whatever that thing is.
Eh, I don’t know, the conflict setup is that a man who sees things nobody else can see needs to save a woman despite her not wanting to be anywhere near him. It could be played well, with the emphasis put on her being pretty reasonable given available information, but still, meh. It also feels like half of his problems could be solved by finding someone with a more obvious form of magic (which is, like, half of PCs, and that’s just counting the ones suggested in the game itself) and dragging them to show to his family, and it’s not a good plotting when core character problems are that easy.
Unlike with others, he isn’t supposed to be a group leader. Instead, he can work with any group as long as he thinks they would help him with his goals. As such, I would probably just forget about him.
The next PC is Patricia Ruiz-Borges, a student activist.
She’s a pure mortal and doesn’t know about the supernatural. Instead, she’s concerned with human injustice, picketing against corrupt politicians, actively helping the homeless and generally getting involved in various causes.
A pretty basic concept, but one that works well. Like Daniel, she isn’t supposed to be a central figure for a group, but she can be easily linked with anyone.
The next PC is Sergeant Stella Andrews. She’s formed an off-the-books squad to deal with issues her superior prefer not to see, and recently had an encounter with supernatural.
Basically, she’s Murphy with lower rank and higher pressure since she works without anyone’s approval.
Well, we’ve discussed that Murphy makes for a better protagonist, so I can’t really complain.
The book suggests that she and her squad would make a good team for “first encounter” type game: discovering the supernatural side of the city, learning to navigate it, making mistakes due to the lack of knowledge and eventually establishing themselves as a powerful faction.
Not a bad idea if you want to run a “humans against monsters” game.
The last PC is Thomas Anthony Fieracelli, AKA Little Tommy.
So, you want to play a friendly neighbor mafioso? Tommy is your guy.
“Little Tommy Fieracelli seems like he walked out of an old movie about Las Vegas and into your life. He’s suave and charming in his impeccably pressed suit and fedora. He has a firm handshake and a wicked, mischievous smile. He knows wine and cigars, ballroom dances extremely well, and conveys a mysterious and dangerous air.
Spirited away to endure a traditional upbringing in Missouri, Little Tommy didn’t know he was born into the Fieracelli crime family. His mother died of lung cancer and left him bereft and alone, until his father (named Big Tommy, I swear, you cannot make this stuff up) called for him and invited him to Las Vegas. Though he’d heard about how wicked his father was, the young man was intrigued by the idea of being a Mob boss’ son.
He soon discovered that his upbringing conflicted with the realities of life as a Mafia gangster; he tried to reform his father’s organization to conform to the classic movie image of the Mob—honor among thieves and rigorous codes and all that. It didn’t endear him to the rest of his family, so he disappeared into the city for a while, keeping a low profile.”
Then he came back when Red Court attacked the family and kicked their asses due to strange mysterious powers being awoken in him (he’s super-strong, super-tough, super-fast, always knows where he’s needed and can get there almost instantly).
The nature of these powers is never explained, he’s not even a proper Emissary of Power template due to lacking one of the prerequisites. He himself believes the city itself called for him, which, given the nature of the city, is probably not a good thing.
So, anyway, he worked for the family some time, eliminating supernatural threats on their behalf, then became a freelancer with his team of hitmen.
The idea here is to play as that team, which would allow you to create diverse characters with varying morals and ideas on what the team really should be doing: simply killing for money, refusing some jobs due to moral concerns but not being actively involved otherwise, actually protect people, etc., etc.
Not a bad premise, even if the glorification of mafia doesn’t sit right with me. But at least Tommy is portrayed as naive and being very mistaken about the nature of his family business, so there is that.
So, that’s it as this chapter goes. There is more material, of course: specific locations, some villains (including a guy who’s basically evil vampire Marcone, which amuses me) and such, but I’ve covered the important points.
The chapter ends with the following:
“Listen, whoever you are, you can fight it, them, the whole thing. I can’t. we can’t. you. the answer is here.
maybe then it’ll finally stop
i’m gambling on you
Which is a nice touch and implies there is a solution that would challenge the whole system instead of merely restoring it to a working order.
So, overall, the idea behind it is strong. The setting is nicely noiry bleak, with hope being distant and likely false. It is a good setup if you want to play a game where all attempts to do the right thing lead to collateral, but doing nothing results in even worse things being perpetuated.
Not everything is well on the execution level, however. I’ve talked about the Followers of Ishtar, and they really should have been more extreme for me to see them negatively or treated better in the narrative.
Another issue is human trafficking. While the book consistently condemns it as inhuman, the victims should have really had more presence in the setting. The way it is now, they’re… an issue, a point of conflict rather than people with their own agency. In fact, at one point they were presented as a monster:
“He shined his flashlight in, then dropped it in shock. The container had people in it. People. At least six, maybe more, stacked in—no, shoved in—an air freight container not more than 13’x5’x5’. They writhed in the light, a monster made of limbs.
Then one of them grabbed his ankle and pulled. He went down hard, hit his head on the pavement. Felt the hands and feet grope and push, crawling across him toward freedom. Smelled the sweat on them. The piss and shit. Stopped fighting back because he had to throw up.
By the time he recovered a portion of his senses, they were gone. All but the two laying still in the container, reeking of death. He threw up some more.”
It does illustrate pretty well just what kind of thing the antagonists are doing and why they’re bad people, but sympathetic to the victims it isn’t, especially since the leader of the Followers of Ishtar is the only other victim of human trafficking we see.
Having one of the lucky few who’ve managed to escape as a suggested PC, working on liberating the rest would be great. Or as an ally NPC if you want a bit of a distance from it.
I guess the Followers partly fulfill that function, but their focus is somewhat different, and, given their general portrayal as extremists…
So, overall, it’s not a bad take on the idea, but definitely can be improved here and there.
That’s it for now, comrades. Tune in next time to see how the devs handled the Glorious Revolution.