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.
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…
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.