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Spotlight Review: The Dresden Files RPG

Posted By Patrick Benson On June 22, 2011 @ 12:00 am In Reviews,Specific RPGs | 18 Comments

Before I get to the the review, I need to tell you my feelings about ham.

Trust me. There is a point to this.

I do not like ham. Never have. I like bacon, pork chops, and pork roast, but I have never liked ham. I cannot blame this on ham though, because this is a matter of my personal tastes. You can serve a world class Virginia smoked ham prepared by Woflgang Puck and I probably still would not like it. Every time that I have tried it ham it turns out to be not my thing. I do not hate ham, but I do avoid eating it.

My personal tastes though should not blind me to the fact that you can still have a good quality product in the form of ham. Obviously other people like ham, and I should not try to convince them otherwise.

What does this have to do with The Dresden Files RPG by Evil Hat Productions? The Dresden Files RPG is an obviously well-crafted product that will appeal to many people that I myself am not that crazy for. Never before have I reviewed a product that did not appeal to me, but that I knew would appeal to others on a large scale. I finally understand how my friends who do not like the film The Godfather feel.

This product has many outstanding qualities, and you can easily find others singing its praises on the Internet through various web sites. It and its companion product Our World have already been nominated for the 2011 Origins Awards for Best Roleplaying Game and Best RPG Supplement. It has already won the Golden Geek for the Best Artwork/Presentation and Game of the Year. It recently made the prestigious short-list for the Diana Jones Award. I am positive that The Dresden Files RPG is also going to be a force to contend with at this year’s ENnie Awards.

Not a great place to be as a reviewer. How do I tell you the obvious (this is a really good product), and still be honest (this is a really good product that I do not care for)?

In an attempt to be both both fair to The Dresden Files RPG, as well as to share my honest opinion with all of you I am splitting this review across two web sites. Here on Gnome Stew I am going to tell you why this product deserves the praise that it is receiving, and over on my personal blog SinisterForces I am going to share with you why I do not care for the product for personal reasons. Read one of the two reviews, or read them both, but remember that my reasons for not liking the product are based upon my personal tastes as a fan of RPGs.

One last thing: I was offered a PDF copy of The Dresden Files RPG: Your Story, The Dresden Files RPG: Our World, and the free adventure Neutral Grounds by Fred Hicks of Evil Hat Productions in response to a blog post that I wrote. Props to Fred for letting his work stand on its own.

Let’s begin…

This is the most beautiful RPG product that I have seen in a long time.

From the moment you pick up The Dresden Files RPG full color artwork greets you on the cover and continues to leap out at you from its 400 plus pages. This is nothing new for an RPG to have, but unlike some products where the artwork seems to be placed on the page merely because people expect it to be there in the typical “chapter starts with big artwork, smaller pieces provide filler” formula (I’m looking at you Wizards) with The Dresden Files RPG every item on the page is used to accentuate the product. The layout work done on this product is absolutely incredible. You get a real sense of the book being a dynamic story unto itself, and in may ways it is (more on that later).

Every details seems to have been picked on purpose to ensure that this RPG does not just present you with the rules but also sucks you into the game world. The fonts, borders, and everything else seems to fit perfectly into the setting that the product describes. This is not just a book, but a portal into the world of Harry Dresden.

And speaking of Harry Dresden…

I confess that I have only read three of the Harry Dresden books, but even with my limited knowledge of the Dresdenverse it is clear that this RPG is loyal to the source material. The way that skills, spells, and other such qualities are described shows how this was not just a product made to cash in on a hot licensed property, but instead is an homage to Jim Butcher’s tales of the only wizard detective listed in the phonebook.

One reason for this is because the book is designed to read as if the character Billy, a geeky werewolf who plays RPGs and is a close friend of Harry, has designed an RPG based upon the case files from Harry’s past adventures. Throughout the book there are notes being exchanged between Billy, Harry, and Harry’s advisor in the form of a soul-bound-to-a-skull named Bob. Anyone who has read any of the titles from the Dresden series will be treated to many references to events that occurred within the books. In some ways this book is not just an RPG but a reference guide to the Dresdenverse. Even if you have not read any of the books the RPG serves as a good introduction to the world of Harry Dresden which is by all means a fascinating one.

But what about the game?

Yes the book is gorgeous, yes the book has style, but none of that matters if the game sucks. Luckily the game is solid as well, and if you are a fan of the Fate system (Spirit of the Century, Strands of Fate, etc.) you will be happy to know that The Dresden Files RPG is the first product released using the new Fate 3.0 engine (correction: Spirit of the Century also from Evil Hat Productions was the first Fate 3.0 release). Fate is a fantastic rules system that focuses on the storytelling aspect of RPGs. It is a derivative of my personal favorite game system Fudge, and it stays true to its roots while at the same time expanding upon the system and tightening up a few parts as well.

Fair warning – Fate and Fudge are game systems that may not be for everyone. Luckily both are available for free on the web for you to try before you buy, and as much as I am a fan of these systems you should try them out first before buying The Dresden Files RPG.

In many ways Fate and Harry Dresden are a perfect fit, because magic in the works of Jim Butcher is not dependent so much on what something is but what it represents. Aspects in Fate work very much the same way, as they are traits that a character can tap in order to stay true to the character’s concept. This again just builds upon the synergy between the RPG and the published works.

Should you buy it?

With all of the production work that went into The Dresden Files RPG there has to be a price, and in this case that is literally the price! The Dresden Files RPG: Your Story is $49.99 in print and $25 for the PDF, while the companion book Our World which provides more detail for the setting of the Dresdenverse is $39.99 in print and $20 for the PDF. It should be noted though that Evil Hat Productions provides a PDF copy to anyone who buys a print version of their products through retailers, and orders placed through their online store for print products includes the PDF versions. That said, $90 is a lot of money to spend on an RPG given the many cheaper products that are out there. Is The Dresden Files RPG worth the money?

That is hard to say, because everyone’s financial situation is different. Perhaps it is better to think of it this way: Do you want a Mercedes? There are very few reasons to buy a Mercedes-Benz automobile from a practical standpoint. Most vehicles will deliver the basic functionality that a person needs from an automobile at far less a price, but a Mercedes-Benz delivers that same basic functionality with a higher level of comfort and quality. This RPG is not your typical collection of mechanics with a dash of setting thrown in (again, I’m looking at you Wizards). The Dresden Files RPG is more of a luxury purchase that is as much a work of art as it is an RPG. For some of you that $90 is not worth it, but for others $90 will be a bargain for the set.

Final Thought: It is deserving of all of the hype.

In the end The Dresden Files RPG is a solid piece of work that is elegant and well done. Fans of Harry Dresden will not be disappointed, and fans of Fate and Fudge have another high quality game available to them. Even gamers who have never played Fate and Fudge and who have never read any of the Harry Dresden series should check it out just to see what a classy job the folks at Evil Hat Productions did with these books.

One thing that I am certain of is that The Dresden Files RPG is worthy of all the praise and attention that the industry is bestowing upon it. Regardless of your personal tastes these books just radiate of being of a higher quality. At the very least Evil Hat Productions has raised the bar for RPGs across the board, and that is a good thing for all of us gamers as a whole.

Do you own The Dresden Files RPG? What do you think of its quality and content? Share your opinion with the rest of us by leaving a comment below.

About  Patrick Benson

Patrick was born in 1975, and is more or less your typical American male for someone of his age. Except he is a tabletop RPG gamer and a damn fine game master! What else matters?




18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "Spotlight Review: The Dresden Files RPG"

#1 Pingback By Why The Dresden Files RPG Is Not For Me On June 22, 2011 @ 12:01 am

[...] 22, 2011 This corresponds with a positive review of The Dresden Files RPG that I have posted on Gnome Stew today. There I explain in detail why The Dresden Files RPG deserves all of the praise that it has [...]

#2 Comment By MAK On June 22, 2011 @ 12:28 am

I own DFRPG, but not through Dresden fandom. I bought the game for its engine: I found it to be a much better match for our gaming group’s homebrew game world than the heavily modified D&D we have so far used… (I won’t go into how we have slowly got fed up to the direction D&D 4e was going)

The forthcoming FATE Core will probably be even better, but we did not want to wait for it. I did buy Our World as well, although I have not really needed it except for inspiration on monsters and NPC’s.

I have later read through the Dresden novels and found out how well the game models the world, which is a impressive feat of game design but not directly useful to our campaign.

#3 Comment By Malty On June 22, 2011 @ 2:51 am

In all fairness, in response to the price of the product, all you really need to get a game going is the first book in pdf. So 25$ is the entry price. There is more than enough in the Baltimore section of that book to get a game going and keeping it going, without the need for the “official” stat blocks the second book offers.

#4 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 22, 2011 @ 8:05 am

@MAK – I agree that it is a great engine. Fate can easily handle other genres, and I am also looking forward to the release of the core.

@Malty – Yes, that is true. I still think that $25 for a PDF is still on the high side for the price, but that also has to be balanced out by the fact that you are getting 400+ pages. The product is expensive but fairly priced for what you get.

#5 Comment By BryanB On June 22, 2011 @ 9:34 am

Wasn’t Spirit of the Century the first FATE 3.0 game? Or was FATE 3.0 a work in progress at the time Spirit came out? I was under the impression that Spirit was the first.

A nice system, but one that is certainly subject to individual gamer tastes. The game books are a bit too verbose for my liking. Starblazer Adventures, for example, could stop a bullet with ease. You might be able to stop a tank round if you stacked the two Dresden books on top of SA. :D What is at the core a very simple system, takes hundreds of pages to explain and give examples for. This game really isn’t for a novice RPGer I would say.

The Dresden books are pretty. No doubt about it. The price point is a turn off for me, as I’m just not interested enough in the genre nor the novels it is based on. I wish Spirit would have had the same production qualities though.

#6 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 22, 2011 @ 11:02 am

@BryanB – You are right. SotC is the first Fate 3.0 release. I’ll correct the article when I have the chance to do so. Thanks for catching that!

I guess my confusion came from SotC being released as a sort of test case for the Fate 3.0 rules (and thus a DFRPG prototype). I was thinking that it was 2.5 (and I think I heard one of the Evil Hat guys refer to it as that on a podcast once). Anyhow, my bad.

#7 Comment By peter On June 22, 2011 @ 11:15 am

Do the rpg books spoiler the dresden files books? I’m debating buying this rpg for several months now, but I haven’t read all the dresden files books yet (I bought book 3 this week) Will reading the rpg books take away from the pleasure of the books. Or do the books remain interessting even after reading the rpg?

#8 Comment By peter On June 22, 2011 @ 11:19 am

@peter

it seems like patrick answered this question on his personal blog. according to him, the rpg books spoil the novels.

#9 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 22, 2011 @ 11:50 am

@peter – Yes, you are correct. If you read through both books completely you will come across spoilers. :( I am sure that the writers did not intend for this, and I really don’t see how it could have been avoided either.

#10 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On June 22, 2011 @ 2:56 pm

Thanks for the two-headed honesty. I pretty much agree with your assessment of the negatives, but that may also have to do with us both being busy parents…

(What negatives? Go read the other review!)

#11 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 22, 2011 @ 3:42 pm

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – I am certain that being woken up on last Sunday by two kids screaming “Happy Father’s Day!!!” has somehow caused irreparable harm to my gaming lifestyle. ;)

This one was a difficult review to pull off. The product has a lot of merits that are obvious, but I can’t say that I am excited by it even though I recognize its value.

#12 Comment By Roxysteve On June 23, 2011 @ 11:06 am

Having run the game myself, for a group that never really meshed with the system as fully as they might (which could have been my fault as much as anything of course) I have a few observations.

The book’s “beautiful” graphic design gets in the way of system assimilation, or did for me. I could never tell whether the post-its were helpful sidebars, “clever” references to the parent material or stupid running jokes (aka waste of paper).

The index in both Your Story and Our World is truly awful in both versions. Searching for Zombie using the pdf in Our World referenced a bloody smart-ass one liner post-it rather than any useful material for example. Bookmarks are essential.

The rule system is by its nature diffuse and you will have to read just about all Your Story to understand how to use it. The most prevalent comment in my LFGS is “most disorganised game book I’ve ever read”. This, again, is caused by the nature of what is being attempted.

DFRPG bears little resemblance to Fate 3, as I found when I downloaded the latter in an attempt to clarify some aspects of the former that were giving me trouble.

But it is a truly awe-inspiring product simply because you can replicate every event in the HD books using these rules, something I wouldn’t have attempted on a bet.

#13 Comment By Roxysteve On June 23, 2011 @ 12:51 pm

As for expense, a lesson from the past is in order: I recently dug out my (reprint) White Box D&D set and discovered the wafer-thin Chainmail sold in 1974 for the princely sum of $5.

Comb-bound, black and white throughout and produced, from the look of it, using a typewriter, a stencil-cutter and a mimeograph machine.

The cost of an item is always a reflection of many factors, one of which is how expensive it is to bring something to press. A small print run from a house with a small product line will always run a few bucks higher than the next Stephen King blockbuster from Del Rey.

#14 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 23, 2011 @ 1:51 pm

@Roxysteve – Fair points. I must ask though, adjusting for inflation that wafer-thin Chainmail copy would be about $21 today, so would you spend that much for it today (assuming that today it would be made using a modern printer and software)?

That isn’t entirely fair, because today’s Chainmail is going to be a PDF. It also woudl probably not sell at the inflated price value either, because distribution is easier thus a lower price in front of more eyes would come into play as well. I just feel that DFRPG was priced very reasonably considering everything that you get in that book.

I do agree though that you can recreate the Dresdenverse easily with this RPG. It hits the target with a bullseye, and the target is a hard one to hit.

#15 Pingback By RPG News from Around the Net: 24-JUN-2011 | Game Knight Reviews On June 24, 2011 @ 5:07 am

[...] up their next book, but still playing and reviewing games as well. Patrick Benson offers some insights into The Dresden Files RPG which I found extremely well balanced. It’s a beautiful book, but does the system hold up to [...]

#16 Comment By Roxysteve On June 27, 2011 @ 12:39 pm

@Patrick Benson – Sorry for late response; kid’s graduation, graduation party and the kickoff game for my Space 1889:Red Sands campaign got in the way of real life for a bit.

I must have put myself badly. I was agreeing with you on the cover price/what you get point while gently differing over the desirability of some of the graphic design elements.

I would love to play DFRPG with a GM who knows what they are doing, but no one around here who has read the book is willing to run it. Even I’m not willing to do so again anytime soon, to be honest. That game was hard work for this Savage Worlds/BRP/D20 GM. The potential it offers is staggering, though.

One of the major problems I see with DFRPG (and many “indie” games I’ve looked at) is the underlying assumption that the playing group will be stable over a given period of time. Running at a LFGS meant people dropping out and joining in as time went on, which buggered up the whole backstory integration character gen thing to the point it didn’t work any more.

Without that part of the character generation and integration, a lot is asked of the players in terms of buy-in, which is problematical when everyone is new to the Fate-derived game system and makes for extended periods of player confusion as they try and understand how to manipulate the rules and their characters to achieve a given chain of cause and effect.

I’m putting that badly, but the effect was real, and I think it worked in my group to generate a feeling of unease with the system that perhaps wasn’t deserved.

Re: Chainmail.

No, I wouldn’t buy Chainmail today. I only bought it then for nostalgia’s sake, and it was already superseded by another TSR publication in the D&D “White Box Booklet format (Spells and Sorcery?? I forget now) that I got as part of the parcel. You get much more for your money these days, even from a small print house (although the art of proofreading seems to have been lost in one popular publishing house and another is coasting on two decades of goodwill that it is apparently unaware is evaporating even as yet another recover of the same broken rules hits the shelves).

It is a genuine shame we don’t live closer together. I’d love to pick your brains and give you the “benefit” of my thinking on some of these issues over a pint and some pub grub.

Nice thing: My White Box set was *not* lost to recent basement flood as suspected, but completely unharmed. It is irreplaceable as I had all the books signed by Gary Gygax at I-Con one year.

I totally showed some laughing nitwits at my LFGS that being older than atmospheric nitrogen has an upside when I toted the White Box set in last week. There was one whippersnapper who thought WBD&D was an internet myth. :oD

#17 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 27, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

@Roxysteve – “There was one whippersnapper who thought WBD&D was an internet myth.”

I recently had to explain to some kids at the FLGS what a boxed set was. I actually pointed to the new D&D red box and the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space and one of them asked “But why do I want a box just to carry some books around with?”, and I pointed out that in the box were cards, counters, dice, etc. Kid looked at me and said “Oh, so it is like a game?” I just had to chuckle at that.

If you even attend Gen Con or Con on the Cob I would be all for grabbing a bite and pint and shooting the breeze about games. You are right that Fate is a game that depends heavily on everyone at the table being on the same wavelength. That is both a strength and a weakness IMO.

#18 Comment By ggodo On June 28, 2011 @ 12:48 am

@Roxysteve – I agree with that assessment of the game expecting a stable group, as well as feeling your pain about running it. I’m d20 and Shadowrun, and the rules-lite storytelling focus is a great thing, but not when I’m running it, and likely not for my usual crew. a buddy of mine is looking to put together a game so maybe I’ll get in on that, but I’m not GMing it.


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