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

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