Tabletop Highlight: The Dresden Files RPG

I’ve mentioned my love of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher before. I’ve yet to go into it at any real length–I’m saving it for a longer Wednesday review–but I wanted to write about something a little tangential as it has gotten popular enough to have related games and comics. There’s a card game now, a few board games, and a RPG that uses the Fate system. I haven’t played any of the board games yet, or the card game, but I’ve run the RPG and I have to say it was a lot of fun.

For those of you who haven’t played a game using the Fate system, you build a character using a point-allocation system for attributes and skills. You can use points to buy skill modifiers that give you extra ability in specific applications of that skill, but the result is ultimately decided by how many positive modifiers you have after rolling a set of what are called “Fate Dice.” Fate Dice have 6 sides, two of which have a “+” mark, two are blank, and two have a “-” mark on them. “+” adds to your end result, “-” takes away from your end result, and the blank sides are do nothing to your end result. The whole system is fairly low on numbers, compared to most RPGs I’ve played.

Most of the character sheet is actually taken up by what we call “flavor text” in D&D, except the Fate System relies on all of this color and characterization to focus your character. You have to pick strengths and weaknesses, which have the potential to affect your skills and dice pools (how many dice you can roll for a particular check), and almost all of the skill checks amount to a Pass/Fail system with the only real modifications on that being how well you’ve succeeded. The whole system focuses very heavily on storytelling rather than number-crunching, which means it can be either super forgiving or very harsh depending on how your Game Master prefers to run it.

The whole system feels super different from everything else I’ve played since almost all of those other systems are heavier on the numbers side of thing. All of the numbers feel super reassuring to me as both a player and a GM, since math comes easily to me and I’m comfortable enough with the rules as a whole to know when to fudge things, so the Fate System was almost like having to learn an entirely new language rather than just playing a different game. That being said, I don’t think a number-heavy system would work very well for a Dresden Files RPG.

While the book series has a lot of elements that would fit into a more hard-math rule system and shares a lot in common with many of those same systems, it ultimately fits best into the story-driven Fate System. There are many times in the Dresden Files were a character digs deep within themselves to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but it is hard to have something like that play out in a rules system that has clear results because of numerical dice and hard math. In the Fate System, there is literally a mechanic for saying “actually, I succeeded that because I’m a determined son of a bitch/really good at this one thing that helps out unexpectedly/got extremely lucky that the one thing I needed just happened to be in this little cabinet here.” Those are aptly called “Fate Points” and they allow a player or GM to insert an element of story into one of the times when numbers would otherwise rule outcomes.

Fate Points are allotted to a character based on how many points they have left after their character is made. This means that a higher-powered character has fewer opportunities to fudge the numbers and just succeed than a lower-powered character. In the Dresden Files RPG, this means characters who have no magical abilities or affinities can wind up steering the plot or showing up just in the nick of time to save the bacon of a powerful shape-shifter or wizard. Just like Butters has done for Harry.

The game does a very good job of balancing power levels by placing additional restrictions on higher-powered characters and giving a wide-variety of cheaper powers to non-wizards so that they have the opportunity to contribute and compete with the wizards for the spotlight. If you want to make a wizard and are starting as low-level characters, chances are good that your character won’t be able to do much at the start, whereas a shape-shifter can already transform and use specialized aspects of their powers outside of their transformation.

That being said, the lack of hard-numbers means the GM needs to be rather proficient at making things up as they go along without a precedent to go off. It can be difficult to resolve combat if no one is spending Fate Points to swing it one way or another. I recommend reading the book thoroughly rather than just skimming like you can with some of the hard-math systems. All of the information you need is in there and talking it through with other people who’ve read it or run the game before should be all you need to clear up any confusion.

If you really enjoy the Dresden Files and want to play a game in as close to the book-world as you can get, I definitely recommend picking up PDFs of the books. Some of them even include character information for the people from the books and all of the books will tell you from what point in the series the information was obtained. You don’t need to have read all of the Dresden Files in order to join it, but having read some of it is definitely helpful.

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