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Dresden Files RPG: Eyewitness Testimony

As Samhaine has mentioned, he has started up a Dresden Files game, in no small part so that he can comment on it in the greater scope of his review of FATE. I'll be posting my own commentary here in Harbinger, and it may cover anything from FATE rules (which I don't know all that well) to the neat things that Samhaine did in the session to oddities of the Dresden universe. I don't know a lot about the Dresden Files, though I know more than the other players; I've read through Summer Knight, as of current writing, and I don't remember stories that I read all that well. At this point, I'm even avoiding reading the Wikipedia article, just so I don't run across major spoilers. As a disclaimer that might make a lot of my friends scowl at me, the books I've read so far are okay. Certainly they're getting better as they go, but I have an axe to grind with Harry as a character, and with a number of things in Butcher's style. (I promise these posts won't mostly be book reviews, though - that's for another time, if ever.)

My character is a wizard named Samuel Bailey. I struggled to differentiate him from Harry Dresden, such that ideas I bounced around for my character made the GM think I was referring to things that happen in later books. It's kind of tough, though; I need a character who can justify being a nosy investigator, be interested in the world, without having phenomenal cosmic power. Also, the Laws of Magic knock out a lot of the classic wizard archetypes - mind magic and even relatively "white" necromancy are Right Out. This has presented me with something akin to culture shock - I play wizards all the time in other games, and a lot of the go-to tricks will get me knifed by the local Warden. (Which is, ahem, another thing my character would have in common with Harry!)

So Samuel is bookish and pretty determinedly non-violent. He's really good at violence, when nothing else works, but he'd much rather make some bargains and get things sorted out. The reason he's so good at violence is that I'm still a powergamer, for crying out loud, even if I'm willing to have my character hem and haw and look for other solutions first. Samhaine warns me, however, that blasting my problems to smithereens is not a great idea in this system anyway, just because of how quickly the Stress and Consequences build up. The reason he wants so badly to avoid violence is that two of the other party members are Gertrudis (played by Kainenchen) a.k.a. Buffy the Serial Killer, a.k.a. "what if Dexter Morgan were a 5'2 Hispanic black chick?" and William (played by Wombat Warlord) a.k.a. "Lycanthropy Grand Central Station." Both have one or more Aspects that really push them to eviscerate first and ask questions to the next of kin, and I wanted something that would help me push back against that when I as a player especially wanted to continue diplomacy.

(Digression: This was an issue in some previous tabletop games with a different player roster, and I knew I wanted something to at least push back against the fact that in tabletop games as in life, the person who chooses to escalate the situation to bloodshed always gets to do so, while people who want to negotiate stand by and watch. There isn't much you can do about this as a player, since none of us are here for a rousing round of tabletop deathmatch PvP using classes never balanced for such, and you can't refuse to take that character along on your adventures - or you can, but now the GM is faced with choices that are universally unpleasant: choose to pay attention to one group or the other, or deal with a split party.)

Then it came time to make actual decisions about my wizard's magic, and the rules made me bleed from the eyes. I've played a few sessions of Spirit of the Century, but the jargon of FATE is not yet comfortable or natural to me. I remember what Aspects are, but reference to "shifts of power" in the magic section is just a strange way to say it, at least to my ear as trained by all of the other games I've ever played. Points, dice, even dots my brain knows what to do with, but it's having a hard time getting used to "shifts" meaning the same thing (at least, I hope it means the same thing). There are also all of the possible Stunts I could buy to reduce my Refresh pool even lower. That confused the hell out of me too - it's what I get for not reading from page 1 - but I'm okay with it. Since I imagine Samuel as nebbishy, I am happy for him to be vaguely closer to a normal human by being closer to a normal person's Refresh pool and flexibility in using Aspects.

Unfortunately, you need to know the magic system really quite well in order to make informed decisions about your rotes and focus items or enchanted items. It's hard for me to judge ahead of time how useful a block or maneuver or counterspell might be, because a block or a maneuver could be so many different things. FATE is all about breaking down the idea behind a complex action into a form of a few seemingly-simple things, because so much of what you might want to do is actually covered by applying Aspects. This really comes down to needing better familiarity with the rules that I just don't yet possess. There are example spells later in the chapter, and the chapter does make fun of me for my laziness in not reading the whole thing. I do appreciate some case studies in how to slot ideas into Attack, Block, Maneuver, or Counterspell, though. I didn't read this section while I was creating the character - the limits of session time and my schedule thereafter forbade it - but it's doing a pretty good job, even on a skimming level of reading, to improve my comfort with the system. Did I just change my thoughts on this topic while writing this paragraph? Yeah, pretty much.

Because it's intended to be short-run, we skipped the City Creation portion of setup; the GM went ahead and created a Dresdenized Atlanta. (This involved wizards and vampires, not firebombing, thank you; my famous ancestor took care of the latter.) This made the game really, really funny for Standing in Fire, the GM, and me, Atlanta natives or long-time residents as we are, and sort of obscure for WW and Kainenchen, but they endured the in-jokes kindly. Then there was the fact that the game was set in 2000, so we got a half hour of realizing that no one had yet introduced the source of all knowledge and our web searches were taking place with Altavista (not that my wizard is using computers, cell phones, pagers, or anything really more recent than a rotary phone - for that matter, I'm glad he could ride in another character's car without breaking something).

Our first encounter was another lengthy in-joke, though much more accessible to everyone at the table: we went to Pickett's Mill and met a bunch of nerds playing a game ("it's really more like a sport") with padded weapons, called LUNAR and run by Neal Scott. The rest of these jokes pretty much write themselves, and revolve around all the worst stereotypes of Our People. Some of them hit a little close to home, but I'm mostly at peace with my current status as an unemployed nerd who thinks about game design all the time even though he's functionally been out of paid work in that field since mid-October.

We get what information we can, just in time for another incident nearby. More investigation, including some pretty awesome skill usage by the team - a lot of our best information came from WW's Burglary and Alertness efforts. Also, Standing in Fire's character, a Malvora horror novelist (who is still an okay guy, he just really enjoys scaring people), used his Performance skills to get one of the local yokels (apologies to any natives of Dallas, GA who read this) to believe that the attacks might have been carried out by some sort of mutated hell-hound that came down from from the Tennessee power plants by traveling through the power lines. (This was in almost every way unrelated to what was going on, but that would be a pretty awesome monster.) At the last possible moment, we heard that they actually found an arrowhead in the victim.

We break into the local library, already closed for the day, to research some of the local history, which would later prove to be something of a red herring. We go to the morgue and some sleight-of-hand secures the arrowhead for a thaumaturgic ritual I want to cast (being specialized in Divination was a good inducement). By this point, it had been a session of tossing around theories on not quite enough data points to figure out what's going on, but some the divination ritual leads us to the goblins responsible for the attacks. There's a brief debate within the party as to whether we want to jump these goblins or talk to them - either I can accept the Compel and WW and Kainenchen can buy their Compels off, or the other way around, and in part because my Refresh pool is so much smaller, they decide to let me win this one.

At this point, the GM really goes all out, carrying off the first three-quarters of the conversation entirely in rhyme. I could have been a cleverer player here, but it was late and I was having a hard time deriving actual information from the heavily accented rhyme. I would go so far as to say that that's a Fair Folk's goal in speaking in rhyme, though, so once again I applaud the GM's efforts here. I do a bit of floundering in trying to work out a bargain with these goblins so that they'll go hunt somewhere else and tell us who's actually responsible; in the end, they accept a starring role in the Malvora's next novel as a sufficient bargain. I think they realized that saying no too firmly might get them stabbed by our party sociopath. The goblins explained in their roundabout way that the whole point was to generate fear, so we figured out that there was a Malvora behind all of this, and that Malvora had contacted WW's character in the first place to try to get him killed off by the goblins (who would only attack people who were carrying weapons).

It was late enough, and one of the players is moving, that the GM storyboarded the denouement by noting that our Malvora knew of only one other Malvora that it could be, and accused him in front of the local White Court. Yay, case closed! We had a great time with this session, even without an actual combat taking place. I look forward to playing again, and Samhaine will be sure there's a fight next time, if only so that we can test those rules for his review.

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