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