Dresden Files: Alternate Lawbreaker Rules


I’m thinking about running a warden-focused Dresden Files game in the not-too-distant future, and I was thinking about adding a simple change to the way the Lawbreaker stunt works. For those unfamiliar with the universe of the game, there are seven laws of magic (don’t kill with magic, don’t mind control, etc.) that are formalized by the wizards’ ruling body but enforced somewhat by reality: since you have to believe fully in your magic to get it to work, doing terrible things with it (even for initially noble ends) warps you. You gradually become the kind of person that does those horrible things as a matter of habit, which is why the council generally has a zero-tolerance stance on breaking the laws. It’s a lot like going to the dark side.

The game rules model this descent as a power you have to buy the first time you break a law, and you have to buy it to a second rank if you keep breaking the law. If you break the law even further, it begins changing your Aspects to twisted versions that mention the lawbreaking. The power gives you a +1 (+2 at rank two) to any further magic rolls to create effects that break the law.

The problem I’ve found with the standard implementation is that my players are outright allergic to suboptimal character build choices. They’ll refuse to break magical laws not because they’re not tempted, or because they’re worried about the wardens, but because that +1 for a power isn’t mechanically optimal. Particularly for wizard characters, who are pretty strapped for powers after buying their standard package, there’s practically zero temptation to do anything that will force them to spend character build currency on a power they don’t want (and which is mechanically very weak, compared to the other power and stunt options).

So the tweak is simply to make the power “free” up front, but, when the character is compelled to break a law, the cost to buy out of the compel is increased by the rank of the power. For example, if you have rank two of Lawbreaker: First (i.e., don’t murder with magic), when the GM offers a fate point to murder someone with magic, it costs three fate points to choose not to. And, if you continue to sin and sin, those twists to your aspects will make you much easier to compel in a variety of circumstances.

(A slightly less downward spirally version of this change suggests that players cannot be compelled to break laws until they have Lawbreaker rank one and that doesn’t change the cost to buy out, and rank one just increases the cost to two fate points. This would prevent the GM from straight up engineering falls: you have to make that first choice yourself.)

A character trying to redeem him or herself could reverse the process, cleansing aspects and eventually removing rank two with an unbroken sequence of buy outs of the compel to sin further (up to the GM how many buy outs in a row are required to recover). But you can’t ever get rid of rank one; per the source material, once you’ve broken a law, it changes you, and you have to resist the urge to keep doing it for the rest of your life.

I think this tweak should preserve the intent of the system, while making it much more attractive to character optimizers.


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



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.


  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.


  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.


  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


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


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



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.


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.


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.


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.


System Review: FATE 3.0, Part 10


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

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