The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game [Review]

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The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game is an RPG published by Evil Hat Productions with the permission and help of Jim Butcher, author of The Dresden Files novel series. This game is based, obviously, in the seedy, modern day world of Jim Butcher’s novels, which has all the fun-loving criminals and mayhem we already have in real life, plus wizards, warlocks, demons, fae, nightmares, daymares, vampires in three flavors, and a whole lot more. The Dresden Files runs on the Fate system, and comes in the form of two hardcover books – Volume 1: Your Story, and Volume 2: Our World. For those that don’t know what the Fate system is, it’s the system that uses Fudge Dice (stay tuned for endless iterations of tasteless, but chocolaty, puns) and a heavily skill-based character design that encourages roleplaying over advancement-based strategies. The Dresden Files pits characters against anything from rogue sorcerers and demon infestations, to extraplanar creatures too horrifying to speak about.

This game takes work, and I mean way more work than mixing brownies. It takes thought, planning, creativity and a mindset that you’re going to get vested in the game, rather than the kind of game you’d play in a one-shot session. That said, the setting is well fleshed out, the rules clear and easy to follow, and the system is very drama and story driven, over your Dungeons and Dragons style dungeon crawl. If you’re looking for hack and slash, this game isn’t it, but if you want to get immersed in a deep story with interactions, character development over skill improvement, and a chance to do just about anything you can think of (with enemies that have the same chance), The Dresden Files RPG is definitely for you.

I’m reviewing this game from the perspective of a player, not a game master, just for the sake of note. Now on to the meat…

Dresden Files is set in modern day USA – Yourtown, USA to be exact. When you start the game, the players and GM make the city, and define the major players in it. If you want a Ganache Dragon living under the city, go for it! If you want to deal with evil ransacking mutant fingernail demons that hang from ceilings during the night and flock through banks during the day because they love the smell of money, have fun (wow that’s screwed up!). If you want to run a game where a Mafia Don rules City Hall, that’s just fine too. You can make the city however you want, as screwed up and magical as you want or don’t want – it’s totally up to you.

Character generation is just the same as the city. After you choose your skills (Finances, Lore, Weapons, etc), and after you pick your powers (Mortal stunts, Magical Spellcasting, Supernatural fae-gifted weapons, etc), mini backstories are written, three per character. The first one you write yourself, the second you start, and another character finishes while you finish someone else’s, and so on, so that at the beginning of the game, your party isn’t just a collection of jamokes that just met in a tavern, you’re at least a bunch of jamokes that met once before. Often times this means “Who the hell are you?” becomes “Oh crap, I’m sorry man, I didn’t know it was your wife, leave me alone!” (I never said the backstories were always good for both sides, did I?) This part of the game is freeform – you can write whatever your mind comes up with, just like the city. The character’s player has final say on which stories are permitted, of course, but for the most part it’s just more fun to just say ‘fudge it’ and let your stories happen as they do. (Yeah, so that one was a little forced)

This game uses the Fate system, which means it’s heavily skill based, with your skills ranked from one to five, and results ranked from Terrible, which is a minus two, to Legendary plus, which is an eight or higher. Then when you want to do something – whether it’s to summon an extra-planar munchkin to help you eat four pounds of peanut butter fudge, or do a running swan dive off a moving ambulance into a cup of filtered water – just find the relevant skill and roll. This game rolls like all Fate games, that is to say you use the Fudge dice, or four six-sided dice with two Plus symbols, two Minus symbols, and two blank sides. For all you creative math geniuses out there, that means that you can get as low as minus four, and as high as plus four, with high odds on nothing. How hard a task is determines the goal number, which could be as low as one, or as high as your GM is vindictive. After you roll, you can use your fate to bump the numbers higher, but we’ll get back to that.

In case you didn’t pick up on this, the Fate system is based more on your skill list than your die rolls. In addition, the advancement system heavily encourages roleplaying more than just focusing on leveling and skill collecting. Since the skill is more important than the roll, the odds are that if you’re good at something, you’re usually going to do it. What helps your character advance, or keep interesting, is what he does, and how you roleplay him.

Now, remember those stories everyone wrote earlier? Oh come on, I hope so, it was only, like, three paragraphs back. Ok, go back and look, I’ll wait… You good? Got it now? Great.

Each backstory written for a character gives that character an Aspect based on the story, such as Hotheaded, Italian Stallion, or Overeager. Those aspects can be used in two ways: to get bonuses, by spending fate points; or to gain fate points, by letting those Aspects become a hindrance. For example, a Dangerously Creative wizard might spend a fate point to get a plus two on his check to create a brand new item no one has ever made before. On the other hand, he might earn a fate point, because that item later on does exactly what it is supposed to, and then in addition blows a hole in the building next door. These events, the player can choose which, if any, side effects this will cause. On the other hand, sometimes the GM can just decide to use one of your aspects against you and give you a fate point for it. And before you ask, this will most definitely be used to screw over the party of players every chance the GM has, but what fun is an easy ride, right? This game isn’t as much about rules lawyering as some other games can be. Instead, Dresden Files is about working with your GM to build, narrate, enjoy, and maybe survive a story told together.

This game is Fun, and I say that with a capital F because I love a roleplaying game not bound by the rules, but opened by them. Most times in this game, things start off bad, then before they even start getting better, they get worse, and more horrible, and even darker and more hopeless, and it’s your job, as players, to save… well, everything. You can do just about anything you want, and when you’ve got a pack of demonic, flaming-poo-hurling monkeys chasing you, you need to be able to think on your feet. This game is for players that love to come up with solutions as opposed to picking from a list. If you’re a player who thrives on being asked what you want to do, and enjoy describing the manner in which you do it, this is your kind of game.

I want more!

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