(A Little More) Dresden Files Noodling

A problem I have with most games lurking in the urban fantasy genre is this: those that have are PCs and those who do not are squishy meat.

Non-supernatural characters in urban fantasy games are worse than afterthoughts — they’re filler. They wander the world as empty ghosts who run the clubs where PCs hang out, get out the spackle when they get shot, die when spells go awry in messy splatters and wander through the living universe like potential hamburger. A few games have humans strike back against the super special guys via secret societies who act as limp antagonists, but typically You Haz Powahz or You Suck.

This was a major In Nomine problem. Angels and Demons are supposed to hide among the masses and never let their masks slip, but why? Humans are so weak compared to Celestials they hardly make pets let alone servitors or a race whose souls need saving.  Paper thin humans stood around helplessly miming their scripts as Celestials limped into the hospital rooms full of bullet holes. Expert surgeons were unable to dig a bullet out of a Celestial thigh with even the shiniest of scalpels.

There was no patch or workaround; the system had a scale issue that divided a world into Celestials and Meat.

I saw this the few times I played Vampire. It popped up a little in the horror games of the 90s. It does make sense from a design standpoint: why would anyone ever play a human being in a supernatural world when the supernatural world is neat and the mundane world is… mundane?

Why indeed?

I credit Buffy the Vampire Slayer* for showing off humans vs. vampires — and the humans not being quite so lame as previously presumed. Quite the contrary. True Blood is sometimes even better — Jessica and Hoyt, anyone? Humans do populate the world, vampires can be killed with a well-placed stake through the heart, monsters can be defeated by cunning plans and a dash of insanity. Humans do not need to be formless meatbags filling a meatbag universe.  They can be people, too.

This brings me around to Dresden Files, a game which takes the True Blood High Road and makes humans relevant. Not just relevant: actively dangerous to the supernatural community if they find themselves in position to be knowledgeable and can use a stake. Human allies, servants, servitors, lovers, enemies, cult members — these guys now have value. It changes the whole feeling of a genre formerly populated by ghosts and wisps of memory. I assume this comes from the novels but I see it clearly in the system.

The FATE point refresh mechanic is as elegant a bit of RPG engineering as I ever saw. It’s a simple and neat package of a solution. Regular humans may not have all the whizz-bang supernatural powers of the local magician or vampire, but they’re luckier. They can pull off a high-risk maneuver more often. They can bring out that down side of the other guy just a little bit more for advantage. Simply level the playing field by giving those without supernatural powers more playing field.

And it’s so simple. You pay for your powers out of your refresh pool. When you, the supernatural dude, refreshes FATE points, you get less than the guy who doesn’t have supernatural powers. The FATE economy in the game ensures a big pile of FATE points in the center of the table but, when push comes to shove, you, the supernatural guy, have to horde a little bit more than the human who is more inflow-positive. It’s a balance in incentives, a triumph of basic economics — humans have more so they will spend more and they will reap the benefits of having more because the fun is in moving FATE points around. And you, the supernatural guy, you get to cast a lightning bolt, but just slightly less than your human driver gets to jump the party’s Subaru over the gap of slowly raising sides of the drawbridge.

Humans get slightly more narrative control.

A simple and clean mechanic solves a problem that plagues the genre.  Worlds are populated with people instead of meat. Humans have narrative worth. All the bits about hiding among humanity and the dangers of humanity and being hunted by human secret societies now have heft.  Weight.  Don’t screw with humanity because while you may be able to live off human blood these guys can shoot you.

Clean solutions to nasty little balls of problems warms my little engineer heart. This is why I find myself talking up the game: not only does it solve a balance problem, it does so in such a nice way no one ever notices the problem ever existed in the first place.


* A show I, granted, never really watched because I am the world’s worst nerd. I am a really terrible nerd.

  • Another nice consequence of the human/nonhuman split — because nonhumans get comparatively fewer fate points, there’s an implicit encouragement for them to take more negative and/or easily-compelled aspects. Whereas since ordinary humans already have plenty of fate points, there’s an implicit encouragement for them to take more positive aspects, so they can more easily apply their fate points to the scene at hand.

    This reflects the books nicely — which I realize is less interesting to you — but also provides a nice dichotomy among characters. All the superhuman types have a kryptonite, and the resourceful mundanes aren’t just handy but are _necessary_ to help bail their superhuman buddies out of the trouble they can’t help but get into.

  • I absolutely adore this facet of the DFRPG. To me it’s very compelling — I want this collaborative story telling feeling out of my gaming sessions and I want to feel a balance of character types based on personal choices. Super natural characters are powerful, sure, but maybe they’re greedy or they are attracted to shinies or whatever and humans are more positive characters. Power has a price, and it gets reflected in the game system.

    I’ve been going around and around with Rob on game systems and economics and balance and I’m sure it will show up in posts soon.

    And yes, I have no brains for the books — which is not a knock on the books at all and more a nod to the reality that I prefer non-fiction 85% of the time. It’s just the engineer in me.

  • I liked this in principle in BtVS, but in the one play test I participated in, it didn’t quite work out. The boosting of rolls was handy but getting plot twists when the characters were stuck sat wrong with me. I was burning my character’s resources for the party, but it wasn’t associated with my character doing anything cool.

    From what I’ve heard of FATE and specifically the Dresden Files implementation, it may make the narrative control a bit more satisfying.

    • I feel a bit like a shill, but the PDF for the first book of the DFRPG is not that expensive at $25 and it looks very good in a PDF reader. I use Good Reader on the iPad and it is almost print quality. If of course you haven’t already. Then read through the examples (it’s a Rob & Fred book so of course it has a million examples) and try rolling some dice with one of a million FUDGE die rollers online and see how it feels to you.

      For me, in practice, using Aspects and compelling Aspects is one of the most satisfying parts of play.

      • Hm.. and $45 for the full book through some amazon vendor. That’s probably worth it even if just for ideas from the examples. First book being “Your story” and not “Our world” right?

        • “Your Story” is the first book, the one with the game rules. If you buy the book from Evil Hat direct, you can get the PDF + hardcover bundle.