Dresdenville Example, Graveyard Shift

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Since I’ve still got a few days on my Gliffy trial, here’s a time-lapse series of flowcharts showing how Dresdenville might work. I used the PCs made for my previous Dresden Files demo as examples, but we didn’t actually use this system back when we played (i.e., all examples were generated as a proof of concept… if we’d done this for real, the flowchart might have been much less orderly and needed a way bigger piece of paper).

The game concept was an Atlanta where the events of Sherman’s march in the Civil War were at least partly designed to unseat the existing supernatural powers. Ever since, they had created an office of troubleshooters from various supernatural factions to basically maintain the masquerade and keep the city from ever again suffering such thorough mortal attention. Over the last century, however, it lost much of its initial prestige and became a dumping-ground for screwups with no real political power. It’s basically a ragtag bunch of troublemakers on their last chance charged with finding supernatural crimes that nobody wants to cop to, figuring out whose fault they are, and dealing with it if another authority doesn’t want to take responsibility for the cleanup. They’re the Graveyard Shift.

We set chargen around 2000, so the vampire-wizard war hadn’t started yet. The PCs are:

  • Samuel Bailey: A White Council research wizard suffering from being apprenticed to a politically toxic master who can’t keep his opinions to himself
  • Gertrudis Bautista-Powell: A mortal girl channeling her psychotic urges toward killing monsters (put on the team as a probation by said monsters because she’s good at killing ones they don’t approve of)
  • William North: A poor rural everyman whose Lycanthropy-donated impulse control problems are compounded by a vicious run of bad luck
  • Kevin Hamilton: A Malvora (fear-eating) White Court vampire who has displeased his family by having the gall to become a famous mystery novelist with minimal interest in the family business

Their Pathways are:

  1. High Concept
  2. Trouble
  3. Background
  4. Rising Conflict
  5. The Story
  6. Guest Starring
  7. Feet in the Water

The Themes and Threats are:

  • Theme: Poor Impulse Control (Donal Malvora)
  • Theme: Murders Most Strange (Marquesa Malena)
  • Threat: Sherman’s Curse (Halloween Jack)

The Faces and Locations are:

  • Marquesa Malena
    • High Concept: Red Court Influence Broker
    • Motivation Aspect: “Killing is so… Gauche”
    • Other Aspects: N/A
    • Relationships: Interested in suborning Samuel (and Gertie is trying to stop her), Frenemies with Veronica, gets blood from Emory
    • Face of: Five Points
      • Malena works out of it and controls a lot of its traffic
      • Aspect: The Five Points Curse
  • Donal Malvora
    • High Concept: Power-Hungry Malvora
    • Motivation Aspect: “Raithe will become my servants”
    • Other Aspects: “It will work itself out…”
    • Relationships: Father of Kevin, Visits Buckhead’s clubs, Secretly owns the New Faith megachurch
    • Face of: Landmark Center
      • Has his law offices there
      • Aspect: Even a berserk killer can find representation here
  • Halloween Jack
    • High Concept: Cursed Loup Garou
    • Motivation Aspect: The nightmare that haunts East Point
    • Other Aspects: It has one speed: Kill
    • Relationships: Kevin based his first novel on it (and inspired Gertie to try to kill it), Dominic met it and survived, for some reason it cannot enter Little Five Points
    • Face of: Roseland Cemetary
      • Its urban legend centers here
      • Aspect: Nexus of Urban Activity
  • Prester Sinclair
    • High Concept: White Council Political Outcast
    • Motivation Aspect: Sometimes We Sacrifice for Knowledge
    • Other Aspects: Once seduced by a Raithe
    • Relationships: Master of Samuel, research funded by Veronica
    • Face of: Emory University
      • Prester’s research offices are here
      • Aspect: “That’s a question of bioethics…”
  • Kelly Pierce
    • High Concept: Alpha Female Lycanthrope
    • Motivation Aspect: “If you can’t get respect, make sure you get fear”
    • Other Aspects: N/A
    • Relationships: Unsure whether to take William as a mate or an underling (and frequently gets into fights with Gertie about this behavior), Former lover of Pastor Macnamara, deals drugs at Roseland Cemetary
    • Face of: Buckhead
      • Kelly owns a club there
      • Aspect: Rowdy drunks
  • Veronica Cox
    • High Concept: Pyromantic Businesswoman
    • Motivation Aspect: “Want to owe me a favor?”
    • Other Aspects: Highly Ambitious
    • Relationships: Frenemies with Malena, FUnds Sinclair’s research, Trustee of Emory University
    • Face of: Cox Communications Complex
      • Has offices at
  • Dominic
    • High Concept: Mortal Occult Aficionado
    • Motivation Aspect: “I may have heard something about that…”
    • Other Aspects:N/A
    • Relationships: Met Halloween Jack and survived
    • Face of: Little Five Points
      • Usually found there
  • Pastor Macnamara
    • High Concept: Truth-Seeking Reverand
    • Motivation Aspect: Conviction vs. Realism
    • Other Aspects: “Isn’t this a little dangerous for a priest?”
    • Relationships: Former lover of Kelly
    • Face of: New Faith Megachurch
      • Pastor there

Dresdenville

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I finally got to run Smallville, and during the course of character creation I couldn’t help but notice the ease with which it could be used to combine Dresden Files city and character creation.

This system is based on the Pathways character creation in Smallville, but is designed to output standard Dresden Files characters and cities similar to those created in Dresden Files. To that end, several liberties are taken with the Pathways method to fit DF. Significant differences include:

  • Only a single line is drawn between map elements (rather than the possibility of a uni-directional relationship). This is primarily because half of the elements (locations and aspects) don’t particularly benefit from a one or two way dichotomy. This also means that the relationship between a Face and a PC is typically how the NPC feels, rather than indicating what the PC thinks (and the PC may not even be aware of the Face; it’s up to the player).
  • PCs may not have a relationship to every other PC; at the start of play some PCs might only know other PCs through shared connections. They are still indicated by squares on the map.
  • Extras and Features are replaced with Faces: NPCs that are significant to the city either because they have actual power or because they represent some important location or concept. They are still indicated with a circle on the map.
  • Locations are not necessarily places where a PC has power (though he or she might), but are simply the most significant areas in the town. They are still indicated with diamonds on the map.
  • Aspects are a new map element. Unlike the normal advice for Aspects, on the map an Aspect should be fairly generic (“tepid”). When it connects to other map elements, the connection is given an upgraded Aspect (“fuego!”). For example, a map Aspect might be “Strong,” leading to a PC connected to it getting “Regularly Wrestles Trolls,” a Face getting “Nothing is Stronger than Faith,” and a Location getting “Impenetrable Vault.” The idea is to get a lot of city elements with thematically related Aspects but without a bunch of duplication. Aspects are indicated with triangles on the map.

Follow the steps below in order at least through Feet in the Water (stopping at the character power stage desired for the game). Have each player complete each sub-step in order (e.g., everyone does step 1 before anyone does step 2). Alternate players to begin each sub-step. Remember that there can only be one connection between any two elements: once it’s been defined, you can’t create a second link between those elements.

High Concept

  1. Add your PC’s name to the map (as a square). Do not connect it to any other PC yet.
  2. Add an Aspect to the map (as a triangle). Link it to your PC and expand the Aspect into your High Concept*.
  3. Add a Face to the map (as a circle). Link it to any of the Aspects and expand the Aspect into the NPC’s motivating Aspect (not the NPC’s High Concept).

* Note that the Aspect used as a High Concept should generally be a creature type, profession, or key driving force that directly reflects your High Concept. Whichever variation you choose will have a big impact on other Aspects and plots in the city, so choose wisely. For example, a character with the High Concept “Woods-Wise Warden” might put “Wizard,” “White Council,” “Wilderness,” or “Warlock” on the map (detailing creature type, affiliation, profession, or motivation, respectively). The choice of what map Aspect to create will focus the other elements of the city toward any of these elements of the character’s core agenda.

Trouble

  1. Add an Aspect to the map. Link it to your PC and expand the Aspect as your Trouble.
  2. Choose a Face that only has one Aspect and link it to the Aspect you just added as your Trouble. Expand that Aspect into the NPC’s High Concept.
  3. Add a Location to the map. Link it to a Face that does not currently have a Location connected and describe the relationship.

Background

  1. Link your PC to any Aspect on the map. Expand that Aspect into your first “other” Aspect.
  2. Choose any non-PC map element and link it into any other non-PC element of a different type (i.e., Face to Location, Location to Aspect, or Aspect to Face). Expand that relationship or Aspect.
  3. Choose any Face or Location and connect it to any PC. Expand the relationship.

Rising Conflict

  1. Add an Aspect to the map.
  2. Link your PC to any Aspect on the map. Expand that Aspect into your second “other” Aspect.
  3. Add a new Face to the map. Link it to any of the Aspects and expand the Aspect into the NPC’s motivating Aspect (not the NPC’s High Concept).
  4. Choose any Face and connect it to any other Face. Expand the relationship.

The Story

  1. Connect your PC to another PC. Name the story in which you co-star.
  2. Link your PC to any Aspect on the map. Expand that Aspect into your third “other” Aspect.
  3. Add a new Location to the map. Link it to any of the Faces that does not currently have a Location connection and expand the relationship.
  4. Choose any Face that currently only links to one Aspect. Link it to any other Aspect and expand that Aspect into the NPC’s High Concept.
  5. Choose any non-PC map element and link it into any other non-PC element of a different type (i.e., Face to Location, Location to Aspect, or Aspect to Face). Expand that relationship or Aspect.

Guest Starring

  1. Link your PC to any Aspect on the map. Expand that Aspect into your fourth “other” Aspect.
  2. Choose any Face or Location and connect it to any PC (if there are PCs not currently linked to anything but Aspects, you must link to them first). Expand the relationship.
  3. Link one of the Faces or Locations linked to your PC and link it to another PC. Expand the relationship in a way that indicates you’ve crossed paths (e.g., you met at the Location or with the Face as a context).
  4. Choose any Face and connect it to any Location. Expand the relationship.

Feet in the Water

  1. Add an Aspect to the map.
  2. Link your PC to any Aspect on the map. Expand that Aspect into your fifth “other” Aspect.
  3. Choose any non-PC map element and link it into any other non-PC element of a different type (i.e., Face to Location, Location to Aspect, or Aspect to Face). Expand that relationship or Aspect.
  4. Make your character with 6 Refresh and 20 Skill points.

Up to Your Waist

  1. Choose any non-PC map element and link it into any other non-PC element of a different type (i.e., Face to Location, Location to Aspect, or Aspect to Face). Expand that relationship or Aspect.
  2. Link any Face or Location to any PC. Expand the relationship.
  3. Add a new Face to the map. Link it to any of the Aspects and expand the Aspect into the NPC’s motivating Aspect (not the NPC’s High Concept).
  4. Add 1 Refresh and 5 Skill points to your character.

Chest Deep

  1. Choose any Face that currently only links to one Aspect. Link it to any other Aspect and expand that Aspect into the NPC’s High Concept.
  2. Add a new Aspect to the map. Link it to any NPC or Location.
  3. Add a new Location to the map. Link it to any of the Faces that does not currently have a Location connection and expand the relationship.
  4. Add 1 Refresh and 5 Skill points to your character.

Submerged

  1. Choose any non-PC map element and link it into any other non-PC element of a different type (i.e., Face to Location, Location to Aspect, or Aspect to Face). Expand that relationship or Aspect.
  2. Link any Face or Location to any PC. Expand the relationship.
  3. Choose any Face and connect it to any other Face. Expand the relationship.
  4. Choose any Face and connect it to any Location. Expand the relationship.
  5. Add 2 Refresh and 5 Skill points to your character.

Finishing Touches: Themes and Threats

The GM should look at the status of the map and figure out which Aspects and Faces have the most links to other elements. Pick the top three most connected Faces. Find the Aspect that connects to each Face that has the most other connections. Expand each of those Aspects into a Theme or Threat with the Face as the representative of that Theme or Threat.

System Review: FATE 3.0, Conclusion

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The Open Game License is to tabletop RPGs as Open Source is to computer software. Or at least that seemed to be Ryan Dancey’s goal when he convinced WotC to institute it. Open Source development is as intended to generate improved code that can be used by the originator of the project as it is to make free software available to the masses. It’s questionable whether D&D ever used it as a true analog: Despite years of OGL d20 supplements, next to nothing made by third parties seems to have made its way back into D&D’s core. But as a side effect that may have even been unforeseen by Dancey, smaller publishers like Evil Hat have been quietly working to make OGL to Open Source a real comparison as their own original systems reap the benefits of public exposure.

FATE started as a couple of guys with an interesting take on attributes and skills plugging in the OGL FUDGE dice mechanic and posting the results online. An interesting quirk of the hyperconnectedness of geekdom meant that they were friends with a rising urban fantasy author who wanted to license an RPG to someone he trusted to do his setting justice. Over less than a decade they went from pure indie shop to a largely mainstream publisher* and every step of the way has been with flow back and forth through the OGL. The change from SotC to the DFRPG included crowdsourced testing and the proposed rules for “FATE Core” show clear signs of being clarified by non-Evil Hat implementations of the system. When the lead developer of the system isn’t afraid to send players to non-core implementations of the system to address their rules concerns, something about OGL has gone very right.

I’m really bad about generating more nitpicks about things that I consider nearly perfect, as the perceived issues stand out better when they’re few and far between. And that’s why this review series has ballooned to half again as long as any of my others (even accounting for two games being reviewed): I think FATE is a nearly perfect system. That’s not to say it’s the best choice of engine for any kind of game you might want to run, but for the things for which it’s appropriate, it’s excellent. It’s a system up-to-date with many of the latest indie innovations. It’s something you could be equally comfortable running for unrepentant hack-and-slashers and Forge elites. It’s a modular collection of really neat system tricks you can steal for other games.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend FATE to a pure toolkit GM; the engine doesn’t work as well if you’re not actively using it. I wouldn’t run it without house rules, but I don’t run anything without house rules; FATE, at least, seems pretty explicitly designed to accommodate fairly major changes without cascading consequences throughout the system. I probably wouldn’t suggest it as a gateway game for new GMs; it has a lot of subtly nifty features that I suspect require some kind of basis for comparison.

But if you’re that increasingly common kind of individual—the experienced mainstream gamer looking for a system that leverages the cool stuff internet collaboration has come up with over the last decade while still feeling like the kind of system you’re comfortable with—I cannot recommend FATE enough. Used correctly, you’ll see system-driving-play benefits you can’t get anywhere else. And, even if it’s not your thing, I can almost guarantee that you’ll find a few system ideas that you can’t help but take with you to become house rules for your normal game.

It’s a good game and, via the OGL and general user responsiveness, Evil Hat seems intent on continually making it even better.

 

 

* Evil Hat is kind enough to post complete sales figures. None of the bigger publishers seem interested in even giving a ballpark of their sales. So it’s very difficult to determine at what point you can even call someone “mainstream,” especially these days. Given the speed at which the kings of RPGs in the 90s are fleeing to more reliable revenue streams, my suspicion is that, if Evil Hat isn’t very close to being mainstream, then the term means even less now than it ever has.

Dresden Files Evocation Tweak

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This is a simple house rule designed to address my issues with evocation in the DFRPG mentioned last week. The specifics are largely derived from the aquarium scene in Small Favor (and may include very minor spoilers).

Reserving Power

A character with Evocation may choose to draw power without immediately using it. Drawing power is an automatic, supplemental action performed once per exchange (often immediately before casting). The character can draw shifts of power up to Conviction for 1 mental stress. Each shift of power drawn beyond Conviction increases this stress by +1 (Conviction 3 drawing 5 power would take a 3 stress hit).

This power can be used immediately or reserved. A caster can continue to draw power on subsequent exchanges, even if already reserving power. Multiple exchanges of reserved power are treated as a single pool (i.e., they are not tracked individually per exchange). Any unused reserved power is lost (harmlessly) at the end of the scene.

If the power is used immediately, the evocation roll proceeds normally.

If some of the power is reserved, the amount used for any particular evocation roll is treated as the difficulty of the roll for fallout/backlash purposes (e.g., if a wizard draws 5 power but only uses 3, saving 2, the difficulty for the Discipline roll is 3, and all elements of the spell will proceed as if the wizard had only used 3 power; the wizard will then have 2 left over for another spell on the next exchange).

Reserving power stores magical energy inside the caster’s body in a way that is uncomfortable at best, and requires concentration to maintain.

A character that has at least 1 shift of power reserved by the end of his or her turn gains the temporary aspect “Reserving Power.” This aspect can be assessed as a supplemental action by any other caster by succeeding at a roll of Lore vs. the target’s Discipline (the GM may provide a bonus to this roll if the caster is reserving a lot of power, at his or her discretion). The aspect can be tagged for any roll that would benefit from the caster having split concentration, or for an attack on the reserved power (see below).

Another character that believes the caster is reserving power (either through the assessment or just guessing), can attempt an attack to upset his or her concentration. The skill used for the attack is anything that would make sense distracting the caster enough to lose focus, and it is resisted by the caster’s Discipline (i.e., it’s similar to a maneuver, but it does damage). If the attack succeeds, the shifts convert reserved power instantly to Backlash on a one-for-one basis (up to the number of shifts of power reserved). For example, a wizard reserving 3 shifts of power is distracted with 2 shifts, immediately taking a 2 shift backlash hit and leaving only 1 shift of power remaining. If the distraction had gotten 4 shifts, the wizard would have taken a maximum of a 3 stress backlash hit (and had no power remaining).

Ambient Magic

Most casting uses the natural background magic of the world: the caster draws it in, shapes it, then sends it back out as a spell. Stress from evocation represents the exhaustion this exercise causes.

Some places may have higher than normal background magic (represented by an appropriate aspect) where drawing in power is less tiring because it is easier to gather. A caster may tag this aspect to treat Conviction as +2 when drawing power in that area. For example, in Storm Front, after Harry had assessed the “Power in the Storm” aspect on the story, he could tag that aspect to draw up to 7 power (Conviction 5 +2) for only 1 mental stress whenever he had access to the storm’s energy.

Other places may have reduced background magic (also represented by an appropriate aspect). This aspect may be compelled during a power draw to reduce the power gained by half (round down); stress is still dealt at the amount intended for the draw. For example, Harry is trying to stop a massive ritual for which the villain has been channeling massive amounts of power for quite some time. He attempts to draw 6 shifts of power and the GM compels the “Massive Ritual” aspect; if Harry’s player accepts, he’ll only gain 3 shifts of power and still take 2 mental stress (but will get a shiny fate point).

Rare places (like being trapped in another wizard’s circle) may cut the caster off from background magic entirely. In these cases, the caster is limited to power currently reserved before being trapped, or his or her own life energy. When drawing on personal life energy the entire power draw is treated as a single physical attack (which can be reduced with consequences normally), and the normal stress cost (1 + excess beyond Conviction) is treated as a second, mental attack. For example, if Harry (Conviction 5) tried to draw 7 points of power when in a magical dead zone, he would take 7 physical stress and 3 mental stress. GMs are encouraged to reward casters very heavily with Fate points for trapping them in a magical dead zone.

System Review: FATE 3.0, Part 11

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Magic

While it’s not exactly a core FATE system feature, it’d be weird to review a game that models books starring a Wizard without mentioning the magic system. In the Dresden Files universe, magic is typically divided into Evocation and Thaumaturgy.

Evocation

In the novels, Evocation is the domain of fast-cast magics, typically of an elemental variety. Harry tends to prefer flinging around gouts of fire and blasts of wind as well as defending himself with pure force. Other wizards prefer water (good for disintegrating things and grounding out magic) or earth (useful for both manipulating the ground and messing with magnetism, electricity, and gravity). The theory behind evocation is that it places Power before Control: the wizard summons up a mess of magical energy, forms it into the element he wants, and then tries to control it on the fly. Harry is pretty terrible at evocation: he’s got a lot of Power, but very little Control, so without a focus item to help him channel his evocations, he tends to waste magic and set buildings on fire. More experienced mages demonstrate that they’re far better than him: even if they don’t have as much raw Power, they can use their Control to focus it precisely to great effect.

The RPG models this via the Conviction and Discipline traits to represent Power and Control. A character can automatically generate Power equal to Conviction more or less for free (see below), and can pull more if willing to take Mental stress (equal the the excess). The player must then roll Discipline to try to Control the spell generated; if the roll fails, the excess Power either becomes Backlash (damaging the caster but not reducing the effect of the spell) or or Fallout (damaging the environment and reducing the effect). The result of the Discipline roll is also the attack roll for a magical blast.

Using Evocation gives a wizard access to quite a lot of the system’s verbs, described in relation to whatever element is used in the attack. It can be used to Attack (the Power becomes equivalent to a Weapon), to Block or create Armor, to create a Maneuver, or to generate a Counterspell (undoing another spell effect). Even more versatile, attacks have rules to hit multiple targets or zones by exchanging shifts and blocks/armor can be extended past one turn or to protect allies. Just as Harry is better with familiar effects and items, the system supports Focus items and Rote spells, which trade versatility for reliability: foci give a Power or Control bonus to a specific type of effect and rotes allow the wizard to pre-set a certain spell and treat it as rolling a 0 on the Control check (i.e., the character can cast a spell equal to the lower of Conviction or Discipline with no unexpected surprises).

In practice, the Evocation rules do a pretty good job of modeling the books. Wizards, like Harry, with higher Conviction than Discipline will regularly waste energy (or have to suck it up as Backlash) and miss targets unless they have a focus item. Wizards with better Discipline than Conviction will rarely fail to control their power and will hit more often. Since hitting with a lot of shifts is at least as good as having a larger Weapon rating, having a high Discipline instead of a high Conviction mirrors the books and the cool things more senior mages (even with less power than Harry) can accomplish.

That is, at least, until Conviction gets used as a dual-axis stat. Conviction is not just the stat that represents a wizard’s power, but also the generic system stat for increasing the mental stress track. A character with Conviction 5 can take 2 more mental stress and one more mental consequence than a character with Conviction 0. A high-Conviction wizard will not just be able to channel more power for “free” but will also be able to soak up more Backlash than a lower powered caster. This wouldn’t be that big of a deal, except that all evocation deals 1 Mental Stress in addition to other penalties. Effectively, every spell (except those for pure flavor) deal damage as if it were +1 further over Conviction (to a minimum of 1 even if cast at way under the wizard’s actual limit).

This seems to have been an addition to the system fairly late as a way to create a balancing limit on wizard characters: with the ability to potentially cast spells forever (as long as they used power equal or less than Conviction and could be controlled each time), a wizard character could dominate play pretty fully via easy access to a lot of high-powered magic effects. But it has some pretty big impacts on both the ability to model the setting and player behavior:

  • Given the nature of the FATE damage system, even a high-Conviction wizard will probably only be able to cast eight spells in a scene (four stress boxes and four consequences without taking an extreme one). While Harry does tend to stay within that range of spells in the novels, that is often due more to pacing than any kind of hard limit; there are several scenes in the books where he seems to do even more casting than this without anything else special happening.
  • More problematically, any wizard with less Conviction than Harry will be able to do progressively less evocation. In the books, this also doesn’t seem to be a problem for skilled but low-powered casters. This immediately removes the modeled advantage of control over power: any wizard planning to do Evocation is well advised to buy Conviction as high as possible for the increased stress track alone.
  • Most problematically, this is the weird interaction with the shortened stress track I mentioned last week. One damage at a time very quickly overwhelms the stress track. Moreover, it doesn’t do it any faster than bigger hits: a canny player might as well juice a spell past Conviction if he thinks he can control it. Once your first two stress boxes are gone, a Conviction +2 effect is identical in cost to any effect equal or less than Conviction.

The system does include sponsored magic and self-powered magic items to give wizards more options than being totally out of juice after half a dozen rounds, but suggesting using these to avoid the fixed cost of the evocation system doesn’t really seem in line with the novels. It also feels like gaming the system rather than using magic as described in the books.

Ultimately, the Evocation system feels like a really good fit for the magic system in the books, except that it has a strange governor bolted on. I fully believe that play with the 1 minimum damage per spell feels more like the books than allowing wizards to cast forever, but I don’t believe that it’s a rule without its own flaws.

Thaumaturgy

The ritual magic of the Dresden Files, Thaumaturgy places Control before Power. Unlike fast casting, a good ritual allows the wizard to use props and diagrams to get the intention of the spell completely locked in his or her head, and then push in power with the knowledge that it’s unlikely to go haywire (unless it’s super complicated and the ritualist left a flaw or gets interrupted). Harry regularly points out that he’s excellent at Thaumaturgy for exactly the reason he’s bad at Evocation: he can take his time marshaling his less refined Control to set up the ritual, and then can cut loose with his Power and get a potent ritual energized faster than a weaker but more skilled wizard could. The actual things that can be done with Thaumaturgy are far more nebulous than the limits of Evocation in the books: rituals summon extradimensional entities, track targets, alter fortune, and make magic items for a start.

In the game, Thaumaturgy is effectively used as a replacement for other non-conflict skill rolls: divination for Assessments, summoning for Contacting, fortune for Declarations, or anything else that seems reasonable. Effectively, the GM is encouraged to set a difficulty for something magic could do as if it were being accomplished by an appropriate skill. Some rituals can do things beyond the normal difficulty chart: typically black magic things where the effect level is equivalent to “do so much stress in one shot that all of his stress boxes and all of his consequences won’t save him.”

Once the player has a difficulty, the ritual enters the Lore phase: if the difficulty is equal or lower than the wizard’s Lore rating, the ritual can begin immediately. Otherwise, the character can start building up bonuses from invocations, generating free tags, blood magic (taking consequences to add bonuses), or even just sitting out scenes doing research, prep, and purification. This continues until the character’s Lore + Bonuses equals the difficulty.

As soon as the difficulty is met, the wizard can begin what’s effectively a series of Evocation rolls to fill up the ritual with power. As with Evocation, the wizard can put in power up to Conviction (or more by taking damage) and then must control it with Discipline, with the shifts generated each round getting totaled towards the ritual difficulty. Unlike Evocation, there is no minimum 1 stress per roll. However, also unlike Evocation, a missed control roll must be taken as Backlash, and the Backlash dealt is equal to the total power built up so far (including on the current roll).

Thaumaturgy seems like it’s a worse simulation of the novels’ magic than Evocation. It includes Lore to model the setup and purification stages described in the books, but that effectively makes Lore into the Control skill in this sequence (used to define the ritual framework). The novels seem to specify that, once a ritual is created, it’s not really equivalent to Evocation to pour power in. Effectively, the novels point out that low-Lore, low-Discipline, high-Conviction Harry is very good at Thaumaturgy (much better than at Evocation), and the system in the game doesn’t really back this up. The inclusion of Lore to model prep is a nice touch, but it feels like the trio of wizardly skills are used in the wrong order.

Additionally, the system is very light on real structure for setting difficulties in the first place. Probably because the boundaries of Thaumaturgy in the books are so vague, it relies on a lot of GM fiat to figure out whether something is possible and, if so, roughly how many shifts accomplishing it is “worth” (to set a difficulty). In the case of enchanting magic items and making potions (a big use of Thaumaturgy in the books), the system abandons the Thaumaturgy system entirely for a slots-per-character-based system (even though it’s listed as a specialty of Thaumaturgy, you probably shouldn’t use Crafting for your free specialization). Of course, my own system tastes for this exact thing tend towards the complicated and simulationist, so I may be the wrong one to judge the system as designed for a more narrative game.

Thaumaturgy in the Dresden Files RPG will likely allow you to basically do ritual effects as described in the books, and the trappings of the books will make sense in the context, but I worry that the expression in the system isn’t fully in line. In particular, it’s going to be very hard to make a wizard who’s bad at Evocation but good at Thaumaturgy.

Overall

To finally sum up an overly long post:

The magic system created for the Dresden Files RPG does a really good job of allowing players to model the magic from the novels, but may not feel completely authentic to hardcore fans due to balance decisions and integration with the system as a whole. The magic described in the novels is idiosyncratic and occulty, and could easily support a hugely complicated standalone system designed specifically to just focus on magic. Though it pains me to say it, many of my issues may boil down to the magic system being too elegant of an implementation within the framework of FATE.

Evil Hat made the decision to take the complex Dresden Files magic, streamline it, and hook it into the verbs of FATE. While the system may not feel 100% accurate to a dedicated fan who’s a systems nerd like me, it’s a testament to the skill of the designers and the power of the game engine that they were able to create something that’s not hard to learn, is easy to remember in play, hooks into the language of the rules, and yet still allows you to pull off more or less anything you might see in the books. You could probably make a system to model the setting’s magic more closely, but it would take way more page count, create lots more player confusion, and still probably only have slight gains in utility.

Conclusion

System Review: FATE 3.0, Part 10

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This week, the last of the direct comparisons to SotC. Next week, discussion of the unique systems of Dresden Files.

The Damage System

The damage system is perhaps the most altered system between SotC and Dresden Files:

  • Stress fills in only the number rolled (this remained the same).
  • Characters have far fewer stress levels than in SotC (roughly half as many).
  • Taking a Consequence is done voluntarily to reduce incoming stress (rather than only happening when stress exceeds the stress track).
  • Characters can wear armor that reduces incoming stress by a fixed amount.
  • Characters can use weapons that increases stress by a fixed amount on any hit (even a minimal success that would do 0 stress without a weapon).

The third point is perhaps the biggest change (though it formalized an early optional rule) and requires a little bit more unpacking. Effectively, there are four severities of Consequence from “this will be healed after a scene” to “this changes my character forever” with a scale of -2 to -8. If you take a 5 stress hit you can take a minor Consequence to reduce it to 3, a moderate Consequence to reduce it to 1, or a severe Consequence to get rid of it entirely. Effectively, taking a Consequence happens more or less at the same time it would in SotC (when a hit is too big for the stress track or would roll up off of it) but is more granular in its application: a 6 stress hit when you have no other damage is very different from a 6 stress hit when your stress boxes are full.

When you take stress that exceeds or rolls off your stress track and you can’t or won’t reduce it with consequences, you’re taken out. As in SotC, being taken out allows the attacker to dictate (within reason) what happened. Also as in SotC, whenever you take a Consequence you can concede and determine how you leave the fight. Since there’s more control over Consequences in Dresden, if you thought you were totally outclassed you could even take a minor consequence and concede on the first hit.

As mentioned last week, inflicting a Consequence explicitly gives a free tag to the attacker. Also, at the end of combat, GMs are encouraged to give a Fate point to the player for each Consequence suffered (which certainly does a good job of modeling why low-Refresh Harry is always getting beaten up early in the novels).

In practice, Dresden Files does a full 180 on damage from SotC: you immediately go from barely being able to even deal stress to the PCs to really hoping the players remember they can concede rather than die.

This is, of course, appropriate to the setting, but it does require the GM and PCs being on the same page as to how dangerous the system can be. It also inherits a lot of uncertainty from the low granularity of the skills: an attack that barely threatens a character with armor and a high defense skill can instantly drive a less prepared character to Consequences. Sometimes this in the same PC: in my pure combat playtest the high-Weapons/low-Athletics PC went in about two rounds from unscathed to horribly injured when the NPCs decided to stop trying to fight her in melee and instead use manuevers and ranged attacks that were defended against with Athletics.

Effectively, the onus is on the GM to design interesting fights that have useful ramifications between “Total victory,” “Some enemies defeated,” and “PCs routed,” and on the PCs to accept that and be prepared to concede rather than constantly taking long-term Consequences on losing battles. Standard RPG combat encounter design where players and GM both require the fight to be won after a decent level of challenge have the potential to be highly disastrous. This is all to the good in the setting, as most of the novels feature quite a lot of incomplete victories and losses where neither Harry nor the enemy are completely defeated, but neither gets out unscathed (and the plot is advanced either way).

While the system still uses the roll up method that I wasn’t pleased with in SotC, the drastic reduction in available stress boxes goes a lot way towards removing the problem: it’s uncommon that a target will take small amounts of damage that accumulate and invalidate high amounts of damage (except in one particularly notable case that I’ll discuss next week). For most fights, I’m pretty convinced that the combat will feel right for the setting once both GMs and players internalize the potential tactics involved.

One last note is that the inclusion of subtractive Consequences, weapon bonus, and armor bonus does make damage way more math heavy than in SotC. It isn’t at all uncommon to hear something along the lines of, “his total roll is 4 between his score, his roll, and his free tag, and you rolled a 3 on your defense, and he has Weapon 2 and Supernatural Strength +2 so you’ve got 5 damage incoming. Your 3 and 4 boxes are full so you’ll need to take at least a moderate Consequence to not get taken out.” I think a couple of times I let a player spend Fate points to improve her defense score after totaling and just reduced the damage by 2 even though 2 points of defense would have actually made the whole attack miss. But I’d lost track of the margin of success vs. incoming damage number by that point. You might want scratch paper.

The Tactical System

The use of zones, border, barriers, and movement in Dresden Files is pretty identical to SotC to the best of my knowledge. I didn’t have any problems with them before other than lack of appropriate 1920s maps, and Dresden Files being modern removes even this issue. The book suggests using a few fairly large zones in general, though I fully suspect you could make the game highly tactical by slicing zones up in a particular way around obstacles. In particular, a simple border between zones can have a huge impact depending on the range of attacks involved: any combatant that has to cross a border is effectively giving up an action, which can be handily capitalized on by someone who doesn’t.

While it’s equally valid for SotC and I didn’t notice it until running Dresden Files, my only complaint with zone-based combat is that it doesn’t map well to social combat (and the book suggests mostly ignoring it for such conflicts). However, I feel like the system would almost be to the point that it could use zones for social combat (and have a social combat system that was easier integrated with roleplaying the conversation) if it just ditched the standard RPG breakdown of social skills and used ones that mapped more directly to the skills used to navigate and utilize physical zones. As it is, it wouldn’t make sense to say “Intimidate can be used up to two zones (topics of conversation) away, and Empathy is used to change zones,” but it feels like something like that could be very fun. Maybe I’ll work on that for an upcoming Monday post…

Part 11

System Review: FATE 3.0, Part 9

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Skills

Skills in Dresden Files work pretty similarly to Spirit of the Century. The major difference is that they don’t have a pre-set pyramid, but rather allow you to purchase them gradually as long as you maintain a pyramid of sorts (i.e., you can’t raise a skill if doing so would mean you have more skills at one level than any of the levels beneath it). The only weird thing about this is that you can make some skill arrangements at character generation that you couldn’t buying skills up 1 point at a time (e.g., at character generation you can use 30 points to set it so you have two skills at each level 1-5. This arrangement wouldn’t be possible stepping the skills up gradually).

While only the highest powered character generation allows you to start with a character with skills on par with a Spirit of the Century character, it’s inevitable that a long running game will eventually get to that point. However, in theory the organic nature of the skill array gives players that forget to take vital skills a bit more of a chance to have moderately important stuff at decent levels. So there’s a mild fix to my issues with SotC’s skills, but they remain mostly the same.

The Standard Roll

The method for rolling and the use for shifts remains pretty identical between SotC and Dresden, as befits a core system. I still tend to think the Quality component is unnecessarily ambiguous in play. In my demo sessions I tried to make the Time and Subtlety functions take up the slack for unopposed, non-conflict rolls: I tried not to call for rolls at all unless there was time pressure (and rolling well could get something done faster) or there was a chance someone might want to undo the effect later, and it worked pretty well. Ultimately, I’d like to see Quality turned into a less arbitrary divider and key more directly into other systems.

There might be a better section to mention it, but I did notice one thing that seems like a big system flaw regarding rolling in Dresden Files that’s carried over from SotC: research. In both games, knowing a fact can start with an initial roll to have it be known off the top of one’s head. If this roll is failed, the character researches question in a library, and the difference in shifts between the roll and the target alters the time spent based on the time chart. So far, so good. However, if you have to research, you have to have access to a library with a rating equal to the difficulty of the question: if your target for the knowledge roll was 5 and you fail, you have to research in a library rated 5 or better.

This isn’t so much of a problem for Academics rolls in SotC, because there are a wealth of public and university libraries that could easily be rated very highly and that the characters can use. It’s a big problem for Lore in Dresden Files: the novels haven’t mentioned any kind of non-personal supernatural libraries, in keeping with the insular nature of wizards. According to the rules, a character can have a general supernatural library with a rating equal to (Resources – 2), and taking a stunt can give that a +2. Given that Lore is an important caster skill, it’s very likely that, if the roll to know things fails, the difficulty is higher than any available personal library (because Lore is likely to be higher than Resources). It seems like such plot-dump rolls will either be instant successes or hugely time consuming tangents to find a library in which the topic can be researched, and the GM won’t know until the player rolls. Either way mostly bypasses the library system.

Aspect Manipulation

Maneuvers, Declarations, and Assessments remain functionally the same as in SotC. The major change that I’m aware of is in codifying as explicit that any creation or revelation of an Aspect comes with a free tag. Particularly, if you cause a consequence to someone in a conflict, you can tag that consequence once for free. This is, on the whole, a good thing to make explicit when it’s in the player’s favor. However, I do have some concerns that it creates a bit of a death spiral effect for PCs: if a character is hit once for a consequence, the next attack is likely to carry a +2. If the player took enough damage to take multiple consequences (which I’ll explain with the updated damage system next week), the enemy might suddenly have two free tags. Effectively, free tags on consequences means that concessions are very important unless the attacker just had a fluke high roll or the party is likely to take out the opponent before the tag can be used. Sticking in the fight once you start taking consequences will likely mean you’re messed up very badly on the next round.

Another, smaller change is that Maneuvers are codified as to when they make a Sticky Aspect (i.e., one that will stick around for longer than a round). Effectively, the shifts on the Maneuver roll past the target’s defense become the difficulty of removing the Aspect. For example, if a character is knocked Off Balance with 3 shifts, that target will remain Off Balance until making a difficulty 3 roll (probably of Athletics) or something else happens to logically remove the Aspect. This is a neat change that further codifies Maneuvers; unfortunately, my worry about having enough Fate points to really take advantage of taggable Aspects beyond the free tag stands. If players were more likely to get a benefit out of knowing what Aspects could be tagged on an opponent, a really good Maneuver that’s hard to shake off would be its own reward.

Declarations still use the SotC system of difficulty 0-6 depending on the GM’s determination of quality. With the change to Maneuvers, I suspect that it should be possible to deal with Declarations in a similar manner instead of relying on complete fiat. I’m not sure what that system might look like, though. Declarations are also especially weird in Dresden Files whenever the GM is using a standard critter instead of something invented new. For example, “it’s a creature of Faerie, hit it with iron!” is not really a Declaration, but an Assessment based on knowledge of the setting. And, since hitting it with iron is already the Catch that makes the target easier to hurt (bypasses its defensive powers), it’s strange to give doing so an additional +2. (When this happened in the session I ran, I wound up using it as a free invoke for effect to find a useful iron weapon nearby rather than give a +2.) Ultimately, while effectively making scientists and academics into the “buff class” in combat is a really neat idea, I’m not convinced it works as well in a more fully established setting like Dresden Files as it does in open-ended pulp like SotC, and in either case I’d like to see a system less reliant on GM discretion.

Part 10

System Review: FATE 3.0, Part 8

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The first step in reviewing Dresden Files is to hit the high points on what changed and what stayed the same from Spirit of the Century.

Fate Points, Aspects, and Refresh

Perhaps the biggest change in the systems comes right up front in two major changes:

  • Player Characters have 7 Aspects instead of 10. One of these is a High Concept, typically constructed from the player’s supernatural type (if any), and profession (e.g., “Malvora Mystery Novelist”). The second is Trouble, a mostly-negative Aspect signifying what the player expects to be Compelled about the most. The remaining five are secondary Aspects that come from the five phases of character creation (much as SotC gave out two for each phase of creation).
  • The amount of base Refresh changes as the power level of the game increases. More importantly, players essentially spend Refresh to buy Stunts and supernatural Powers. So a player might have lots of Refresh, but few permanent special abilities, or vice versa.

Aspects

As I noted in the replies to the SotC post on this topic, the Trouble aspect is pure gold, as it gives the GM instant feedback on what type of, well, trouble the PC wants to have come up the most. It’s really easy to see that the player wants some more Fate points and use that as a starting point for a Compel.

The High Concept I’m less sold on. It seems to be designed as a summation of what’s cool about the character. This essentially means that it can be invoked by the player for anything within a very broad sphere of “stuff that the PC initiates.” Wizards automatically have one Aspect they can always tag for magic. Other creatures should be able to spend on all their powers. And it’s also probably paired with a mortal profession. If the PC has Fate points left, it’s almost always justifiable to invoke through the High Concept.

Meanwhile, the five additional Aspects still seem like too many. In the off chance the player can’t justify using the High Concept, there’s probably one of the secondary Aspects that will fly if the player has used any kind of foresight as to “what I want to do a lot” when designing them.

This wouldn’t be such a big issue if the examples in the book didn’t constantly reinforce that Assessments, Consequences, Declarations, and Maneuvers are meant to provide Aspects that can be tagged more often than just with their initial free tag. In my experience, there are enough Aspects on the player’s sheet to invoke at least once for a bonus of almost any kind (and invoking is preferable to tagging, because it doesn’t mean giving a Fate point to the opponent at the end of the exchange/scene). So players will only bother with what is, in my opinion, one of the coolest parts of the system (the vast array of ways to determine and create Aspects on other stuff) if they have a free tag or they’re totally out of their comfort zone.

And in that case, they’re highly limited by available Fate points anyway…

Refresh

The theory behind how Refresh works in Dresden Files is an awesome way of simulating the setting: since Fate points allow you to buy off compels, they represent a de facto currency of Free Will. Characters with no Fate points have to act according to their natures, at least for the first Compel (and then they have a Fate point). Therefore, having no Refresh means you’re a monster. You lose Refresh as you gain more and more cool powers. Pure mortals have tons of free will (and even get a bonus +2 Refresh if they go entirely without Powers), powerful supernaturals have little or none. I’m very pleased with how this works on paper.

In practice, it’s very easy to spend yourself very low by taking just the few Powers and Stunts that seem necessary for your character. And players can become terrified to spend these at all early in a session: you risk being out whenever you really want to alter a roll or being unable to buy off a Compel you hate. This hording reflex can cause players to essentially never use Fate points, especially if they’re not being constantly forced into situations that they can’t bypass on skill alone, because they simply get out of the habit of relying on them.

The counter to this behavior seems to be that the GM has to Compel often. Like, at least once per PC per scene. The new points need to be coming in at least as fast as the GM expects the old points to go out. Admittedly, the scenario design advice encourages writing scenes where this will be easy, and the Trouble Aspect is a big flag, but without constant GM effort the whole system can atrophy. And the GM needs to be generating quality compels that present meaningful choices rather than feeling like using the mechanic to railroad. All of this while providing difficult but entertaining situations on which the players will want to expend Fate points in the first place.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that the mechanic is a good fit for the setting, and is awesome when correctly used by a GM on the ball, but is still missing something to make it easy enough to use for everyone. Even for a GM that fully gets it, it creates a lot of mental overhead. And even when being used perfectly, the players will rarely have enough spare Fate points to bother with the tagging system.

All that said, the implementation as a whole is a clear improvement from my issues with the system in SotC. I’m confident that future games from the system will continue to tune the ratio of Aspects, to Refresh, to Compels until it creates something that works well for most players.

Part 9

System Review: FATE 3.0, Part 7

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Modern Occult

The Dresden Files is a series of novels by Jim Butcher, built around the concept of a hard boiled detective who happens to be a wizard, making him the ideal choice to solve supernatural crimes. It’s one of my favorite novel series, and I’d advise anyone with any kind of interest in the modern occult fiction genre to give it a read (the standard caveat being, if you liked the first book, you’ll love the series, if you were ambivalent about it, try reading a few more as the first two were essentially Butcher’s college writing projects and he gets much better as the series goes on).

From a gaming context, it’s important to get the comparisons out of the way first: World of Darkness is the dominant name in the space, but there is a huge slate of other contenders, with Witchcraft being, perhaps, the most similar setting and focus of RPGs released in the last decade and change. So the first question about a Dresden Files RPG would be, other than using FATE, what sets it apart from all the other modern occult gaming options? There are probably a few more, but my list of differentiating factors is:

  • A tightly woven, almost “post-modern occult” take on supernatural origins: Dresden’s world, at least in my opinion, feels like it has a coherent cosmology informed by previous settings that still supports a whole raft of supernatural types, which other games struggle with. In particular, there’s an interesting continuum of power vs. free will that permeates much of the supernatural of the setting, holding it together thematically.
  • Mortals as individually important and potent: In the Dresdenverse, the major limiting factor of human defense against the supernatural is ignorance, not impotence. In the novels, both a major protagonist and a major foil are simply trained, clued-in mortals that manage to contribute heavily to any engagements. Further, individual humans are treated as significant in a way a lot of occult settings don’t: each mortal death is tragic, and a single use of magic to manipulate or kill a mortal starts a wizard on a dark path.
  • The ignorance of the masses is Noirish sentiment, not massive conspiracy: At the core, the setting is one that needs a hard boiled wizard detective, and this means that, thematically, Noir is a huge influence. Rather than a massive Masquerade or some kind of magic impetus to forbid memory of the supernatural, massive ignorance is largely related to massive apathy. There are no rules against a wizard listing himself in the phone book because the occult community hasn’t ever needed them: people just don’t want to know that there are terrible things in the night. Supernatural factions mostly seem to self-balance and self-regulate so none can get a massive-conspiracy-sized hold on temporal power (though small, local power is easily within reach).

And these are the differentiating factors that the RPG should support, in addition to the normal raft of modern occult features.

Bias and Experience

As mentioned earlier in the series, I was impatiently waiting for the game from the moment it was announced. I got impatient enough to write my own rules in the interim. Let’s just assume I had the preorder PDFs on my screen as fast as they downloaded, the physical copies in my hands as soon as they shipped them, and had been following every significant revelation up to that point. You can think of it as due diligence or insane fannishness and it makes little difference to me :) . Shortly after the release, one of my friends began GMing a semi-weekly game, and we’ve had about a dozen sessions so far.

Perhaps other posts on this blog may give the correct impression that I’m pretty comfortable with modern occult games. In this case, in the interests of full disclosure, perhaps too comfortable. The GM and I have both played a ton of WoD, read all the Dresden Files novels, and are more comfortable with toolkit systems that fade into the background. So a significant amount of play has been fairly freeform, and hasn’t made tremendous use of the system.

That said, we have used the rules a bit, and I’ve run a couple of rules-focused sessions myself to hit areas that weren’t seeing enough play in the main game (session one discussed here and here). The second of these sessions took place last night and, since I’m writing this post in the past, is not available for discussion (scheduling posts in advance is confusing!). So I’ll end a bit short this week, with next week’s post beginning to zero in on the improvements between SotC and Dresden Files with another session of focused playtesting under my belt.

Part 8

System Review: FATE 3.0, Part 1

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The Most Mainstream of the Indie Game Producers…

Around about 2005, Evil Hat Productions announced that they’d received the license to make the Dresden Files RPG. To me, this seemed like an amazing match of both systems and timing, as I’d recently discovered both FATE 2.0 and the Dresden Files novels, and was a big fan of both. Prior to this announcement, Evil Hat had just been a couple of guys releasing a free rules set on the internet, who, it turned out, happened to be friends with an up-and-coming modern fantasy novelist that could think of no one better to translate his baby to an RPG. Between an already well-received first system and a license with major geek-cred, Evil Hat seemed to overnight have to turn into a full production company.

There were more than a few roadblocks in this transition, by the developers’ own admission. They announced too soon, started with a rules set that wound up needing more development than they’d realized, and just plain weren’t ready to become a mainstream RPG publisher as fast as they thought they’d be. When the Dresden Files RPG finally came out in 2010, they had gone through quite a lot of changes in both their company and their game engine, but were still straddling an interesting line between mainstream game studio and indie press.

Regardless of the classification of the studio, the interesting part of the transition is that it was bookended by two distinctive versions of the FATE 3.0 rules set. The first of these, released the year or so after the announcement, was Spirit of the Century. A well-received pulp action game in its own right (getting a cover blurb touting its superiority by the designer of the previously best received pulp-action game), it was also a stealth playtest for the new rules engine. It was released as mostly open source, featured a wiki incorporating lots of developer suggestions for alternate rules, and was used as a basis for several other indie games. The feedback of what worked and what didn’t informed the eventual development of the DFRPG over the next few years.

So, beyond any other elements of game design, FATE 3.0 is an amazing example of system design in progress. Version 2.0 is freely available on the internet. The first version of 3.0 is available under the OGL even if you don’t have SotC. The DFRPG is theoretically the culmination of around four years of the most widespread and democratic playtesting ever undertaken in the tabletop industry.

This review series will be longer than normal, as it will begin by analyzing the system present in Spirit of the Century. I’ll then take a comparative look at the Dresden Files RPG to determine what seems to have been learned, what was improved, and what still might be lacking in a system that is now more widely used as a basis for tabletop RPGs than anything but d20.

Core Mechanics

In all of its incarnations, FATE rests on two major components: Fate points and their relationship to Aspects, and a FUDGE-derived skill system.

The use of Aspects and Fate points changed significantly between 2.0 and 3.0, but still retains a lot of core motivation. Effectively, FATE proposes the theory that character attributes are not nearly as omnipresent in fiction as they are traditionally used in RPGs. The signature example in 2.0 is that, in The Three Musketeers, while Porthos is described as quite strong, it doesn’t seem to give him nearly the advantage it would in a swordfight modeled under most RPG rules for Strength. Instead, FATE relies on Aspects instead of Attributes: adjectives or phrases that indicate something about the character that can provide an advantage or drawback only when it is interesting.

This is managed, in the 3.0 versions, by the wedding of Fate points to the Aspects on a character. Whenever a character’s Aspect is germane to a situation, a player may spend a Fate point to gain a reroll or bonus to a roll that is more significant than spending the point without a relevant Aspect. A character with the “Strong” Aspect can do better than expected on contests that could be considered strength-related, but only if the player is willing to spend a Fate point. Meanwhile, the primary method to recover Fate points is to be hindered by Aspects: a character with a “Weak” Aspect isn’t constantly inferior to stronger characters in a fight, and will receive a Fate point from the GM if his weakness actually provides a hindrance. Interestingly, players are encouraged to come up with Aspects that can be both beneficial and detrimental in different circumstances. A character with a “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry…” Aspect receives Fate points for going into a berserk rage and can spend them on combat rolls during that rage, both through the same Aspect.

The rolls themselves are based on the FUDGE system. Characters select a single skill to represent competency at a task. It is not generally added to anything else on the sheet, though may by modified by special abilities, situational modifiers, and related skills. Skills range from 0-5 (and are pegged to a scale of adjectives from Mediocre to Superb that I have a really hard time remembering, don’t find terribly useful, and find annoying when rules reference the adjective instead of the number). During a challenge, players roll four dice with equal numbers of minus symbols (-1), blank faces (0), and plus symbols (+1), which are added together to produce a range of -4 to +4 (with an identical curve to rolling 4d3-8). This result is added to the skill. So, for example, a character with a skill of 3 that rolls + + 0 – gets a final result of 4.

Effectively, barring modifiers, a player will average towards the skill level: if you have a 3, you’re regularly going to get a result of 3, with 2 or 4 slightly less commonly, and anywhere from -1 to 7 on outlying rolls. The FUDGE dice are very heavily center-weighted, such that even small score differences and modifiers can make a big difference to a contest: over 60% of rolls are between -1 and +1, so clever use of modifiers makes a much bigger difference overall than the range of the dice. This means that the +2 bonus for using an Aspect is deceptively powerful, as what would be a nearly trivial bonus in most systems with a higher range of scores and rolls is a big deal in FATE.

So FATE has a fairly simple dice mechanic that can be heavily modified by clever action and prudent expenditure of Fate points. Next week, I’ll start talking about how that is leveraged into the other systems.

Part 2

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