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Dresden Files: Werewolves and Harpies, oh my!

Cover of Dresden: Your StoryAt GenCon I was one of the lucky few who managed to find a slot at a Dresden Table. Rubi was kind to me, I guess. I’ve been a fan of the novels for years, and separately enjoyed games by Evil Hat– in fact, I’m running a Spirit of the Century game right now. Those two things came together to make my first Dresden experience a great one.

Where I Started

I followed the development of the game erratically, but never looked too closely at its mechanics. Honestly, I figured that anything requiring all of those pages was something not to be casually mastered. The system involves two not small books; Your Story alone is 416 pages.

In some ways, my preparation for the game has been ongoing for years– long before the Dresden Files RPG was announced. That’s because Dresden is built on FATE [1], a FUDGE variant that has been around for about a decade. I stumbled across it a version ago, subscribed to the mailing list, and have been following its progress ever since.

I’m currently running Spirit of the Century, which is a 1920s pulp game built on the FATE chassis. I’m very kindly inclined towards it; running Spirit at the RPG meetup a few years ago netted me some good friends and a new game group– and was some of the most fun pickup play I’ve ever experienced.

Sitting Down at the Table

When I got to the table at the con, there were more people waiting for an open slot than there were slots altogether! Everyone who had signed up made it, disappointing (but not surprising) the players who had hoped to jump in. One or two hung around and observed for a while. Our GM had been a playtester, so he was experienced with the rules despite their recent release.

Once we were all gathered and ready, he passed around the characters and gave us a thumbnail review of each. This was very quickly accomplished thanks to two new features in Dresden: the High Concept and Trouble. The High Concept is a short phrase that sums up your character’s core concept, like Harry’s Wizard Private Eye high concept. In many ways, your Trouble in Dresden is very like your Issue in Primetime Adventures: be sure you pick an Trouble that you’ll enjoy addressing again and again. It’s very different from old flaw systems, where it was good to pick a flaw that wouldn’t interfere often– in Dresden you want a flaw that comes up frequently and is entertaining when it comes up. Our GM was able to summarize the characters just by reading off their High Concept and Trouble.

Because we were at a con, the characters were already built. The GM did a good job and provided a variety of characters appropriate to the game and setting. In this game, we were all playing werewolves who had formed a frat, Sigma Alpha Delta, together (in backstory).

We pushed the characters sheets around and talked a bit; soon my familiarity with the system made me outspoken. The other players soon suggested that Larry Talbot, the pack alpha, fit my personality well. The other characters were quickly selected and we were (almost) ready to roll.

Much like Spirit of the Century, characters in Dresden Files are interwoven during character creation. Normally, you have a “novel” and other characters guest star in it– so you have at least a bit of history and relationships with other characters baked in. For our session, the characters were mostly complete… but they had two aspects unfilled. Just like the guest starring of full Dresden character creation, those two missing aspects involved interrelations among the group– rivalries, trust, and suspicion. Having us complete those two aspects– and particularly the discussion that cropped up around our assigning of aspects– really helped us solidify our vision of our characters and the group as a whole.

Chuck Some Dice!

We soon had our whole group set up with delicious interactions and ready for action. We got dropped into the first scene; which, given that we were a frat, was a big party at the tri-delt’s house.

As the GM described the scene, he wrote down a few scene aspects on a 4×6 card and placed it in full view so that we’d keep them in mind. A few players perked up when he described how tagging the scene aspects could be done; they immediately noticed how that reinforces the scene and encourages reincorporating elements in your descriptions. The few players who had never been exposed to FATE before nodded along, interested, and one chimed in “niiice”.

In the next scene, a cluster of harpies perched on an ancient oak tree and dive bombed us before returning to the tree top and taunted us, safely out of reach of us as enraged wolves. One of the new players had a “click” moment, where he studied the Aspects on the scene, had his character analyze the tree to throw on another Aspect, and set up our bruiser with four Aspects to tag– bringing the task of knocking over the ancient tree from almost impossible to “should do it unless the dice suck”. He was excited at the opportunity– and when it came through it became a touchstone for all of us as we pulled (and set up) “movie moments” throughout the rest of the game.

Impressions and Comments

I liked the way that FATE was quickly accessible to new players– all we had to do was loan them dice and they were ready to go.

As werewolves, Dresden was straightforward– particularly since character generation was taken care of. Given the constraints of a con session, that was a good way to go. In fact, if your players are new to FATE, I’d suggest a one-shot with pregens. That way they’ll have a chance to experience Aspects and the system in play before creating a city and characters.

As we all experienced around the table, the book is pretty enough to incite lust. It’s huge, but compulsively readable– Billy, Bob, and Harry’s notes help keep the feel light. You can skip over them when you’re looking for a rule, particularly after reading them the first time– but they break up text very well.

If you like stripped down versions of the FATE engine, like Stuntless FATE [2], then Dresden’s moving the wrong direction for you. The stunts and powers chapters are extensive– very like the Stunts chapter in Spirit of the Century, instead of Diaspora’s brief take. That said, the powers are clear– and much of the chapter winds up being the GM’s responsibility more than a PC’s. If the GM knows those chapters well and is willing to help steer the players, the players can avoid a lot of complexity and never need to master more than their own character’s powers and stunts. Playing a werewolf was pretty easy since the stunts involved were straightforward– the primary complexity for a werewolf comes from building the second skill track, which the GM took care of for us.

Is it for you?

If you love the Dresden Files novels or already like FATE and want to run a modern day supernatural game, yes it’s perfect for you. If you’re looking at a different take on a World of Darkness type setting, you should check it out– if nothing else, High Concept and Trouble might make a good variant for Nature and Demeanor. Similarly, stunts might provide a new take on, or new examples of, merits. Aspects offer an interesting balance– instead of taking flaws that you hope won’t cripple your character, you select Aspects that you hope get in your character’s way… so that you have more fate points when the hammer comes down.

Want to learn more about The Dresden Files? Read on…

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Dresden Files: Werewolves and Harpies, oh my!"

#1 Comment By BryanB On October 5, 2010 @ 10:44 am

It sounds like you had a good time. RUBI was not kind to me and so I missed out on any chance at trying Dresden Files. Not that this spoiled my first Gen Con experience. 🙂

Out of curiosity, does Dresden use the four Fudge dice method of rolling or does it use the d6-d6 method found in Starblazer Adventures and Legends of Anglerre?

#2 Comment By Roxysteve On October 5, 2010 @ 10:55 am

[9] – It uses 4 DF – if you can get ’em. Right now they are rarer than unobtanium. When I run my first game this Friday (God help the players because I still don’t have a firm grasp of the mechanics despite reading the relevant rulebook sections three or four times each) we’ll be using the “ordinary D6 interpreted as Fudge Dice” method.

#3 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 5, 2010 @ 11:09 am

[10] – Actually the dice are back in stock and are available at many locations again. My FLGS had them last weekend, and other shops already have them as well.

#4 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 5, 2010 @ 11:13 am

Also, if you have Internet access of some type at the table you can use this site:


I also installed the app Dice Roller onto my Android phone for free, and it supports Fudge dice as well.

#5 Comment By Roxysteve On October 5, 2010 @ 11:13 am

Nice article, Scott, but I wish you’d gone deeper into the mechanics you used in this game. How high was the refresh level set (I think that’s the term)?

As I said in my previous post I’m running my first game of this on Friday – I ran a character generation session for this a week or so ago. I’m hoping against hope that this is one of those games that takes four hundred pages of rulebook space to describe but plays like a dream with little memorization of those 400 pages needed.

At least it has a decent index.

I found the marginalia to be a distraction to be honest (and I *loathe* overlining in books) so task one for me was to discover that there was little of use in that material from a learning the game standpoint (most of it is “color” or Sidebar Stuff presented longhand) and task two was learning to ignore it despite its eye-drawing presentation. Your mileage and so on.

I feel there’s a point at which the graphic design of this sort of product can become counter productive. I’m not sure how far over the line this book goes, or in which direction. My views on such things are subject to change as time goes on anyway. I think the Savage Worlds guys do it best. I digress.

The character generation (the full-blown version) is a blast, though players going through it the first time seem to get “mike fright”/writer’s block and freeze up. I stressed that players shouldn’t sweat this and that anything could be revisited and changed once we’d attempted to put the characters through their paces in a game, but it only helped so much.

I’m pretty sure that no two DFRPG groups will play the game the same way though. I’m making up my cliff notes version as I type.

I will say that the artwork in the books is excellent, if you like the comic/graphic novel style. I don’t know if they drew from existing artwork from the graphic novels but the art is plentiful and for the most part spot-on.

I think you’d need to have either read at least one Dresden Files book or seen the TV show to be able to run this baby though. Much of the game seems to be cooperative improv based on he Dresden Canon, so you would have a hard time coming to it cold in my opinion.

Please write more on the DFRPG and games you get to play. I need all the advice I can get. I’m glad you had fun with it at Gencon.

#6 Comment By Roxysteve On October 5, 2010 @ 11:18 am

[12] – Yeah, my game stockist says he will have them one day. When that day dawns, if I’m still enamored of DFRPG enough to be still playing, I will buy them.

Can’t not never have enough dice, as the Cantaloupe People say.

#7 Comment By mcellis On October 5, 2010 @ 1:19 pm

So I followed a twitter link to this page to check out another Dresden review, and then I started reading it. and I was like wait a minute. Werewolves, harpies, Gencon, he’s talking about the game I ran! Awesome!

Scott I’m glad you had a good time at the game it was a blast to run and you definitely described some of my favorite moments from the game. Mainly those great ‘Ah-ha’ and ‘right on’ moments that people have when FATE really starts clicking for them for the first time.

Roxysteve if you’re curious about the specific mechanics of the scenario I can tell you all about it. The characters were all at the Chest Deep power level which gave them enough refresh to be Alpha-style werewolves, but instead of Pack Instincts I gave them each a Stunt which helped define their archetypes. Which left them just enough refresh to still be playable characters.

#8 Comment By Roxysteve On October 5, 2010 @ 4:20 pm

[13] – Thanks. How many sessions do you think it will take a FATE virgin GM to get a firm hold of DFRPG, enough so the running will become smooth from the players’ POV? I can’t get a solid read on the actual play from the book as I’ve never played (and by extension, run) anything remotely like this style of RPG, and am extremely keen that the players get a reasonable bang for what I’m hoping will be their bux spent at our local game store.

#9 Comment By Scott Martin On October 5, 2010 @ 5:27 pm

[9] – It was 4DF, and it worked quite well. I suspect it would have been okay at d6-d6 too, but we had plenty of fudge dice around the table.
[14] – I’m not a fan of electronic dice– I just like the feel of them in my hand or on the table as objects.
[15] – The rules are basic and relatively quick to pick up; calling for traditional rolls (like climbing trees with Athletics) is very simple. I suspect the complexity comes in when you mix in wizardry– which was nice not to deal with for a first game.
[13] – It was a great day– thanks for running it!
[16] – I suspect it’s a lot like rolling out other complex games, like Burning Wheel. If you just call for simple rolls on skills and don’t get too deep into stunts and powers, I think you’ll find it easy to roll out appropriately the very first session.

#10 Comment By mcellis On October 5, 2010 @ 7:55 pm

I’m not the best person to ask this question as I’ve been playing FATE games for over Three years now and running them for nearly as long. And now after demoing it all summer I’ve also run and played the hell out of Dresden Files as well.

But I think a how quickly it was picked up would depend a lot on the GM and Player’s gaming style, and what different games they’ve played and run. With my own experience I found that playing it really helped me understand it in a way that reading it did not, but I’ve found that to be true with a lot of games for me.

Sorry I can’t be more specific, other than to say that FATE and Dresden Files both work great once you’ve got them running smoothly.

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#12 Comment By SPRK On October 6, 2010 @ 2:15 pm

I like the idea of this kind of supernatural roleplay, but I don’t me (or more to the point my players) to have to read through a load of books to know the story on top of having to learn the rules. Are there any similar systems that I can create my own story for.
By the way I love the site.

#13 Comment By Roxysteve On October 7, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

[17] – Not sure I understand your question; you can create you own story for any RPG system.

The simplest full system for generic play available right now is probably Savage Worlds, and costs about 10 bux.

FATE, the system that Dresden Files RPG is built around, is a free download if I remember right.

What you pay for with D&D, Call of Cthulhu, Realms of Cthulhu, Deadlands Reloaded, Dresden Files and all the other settings you can think of is the work others put into making a consistent game setting for the basic engine those games sit on. You should be warned that doing this always sounds easier than it turns out to be and it will be a labor of love that few will give you the appropriate thanks for doing.

For ultimate freedom, you could try the Amber Diceless RPG, available in PDF format only or from eBay or (better) Amazon. There’s a steep learning curve for it though, and it takes a while for the absolute freedom of the system to be properly in the players’ perspective.

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