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