12 February 2013

Dresden Files RPG: Part 3 - Review

This is the third part in a series about the Dresden Files Role Playing Game. Part 1 and Part 2.

The final part of this series is going to be about the session and some thoughts about the game itself, though not a full blown review - this is hardly a lesser known setting and/or system.

What I Could Have Done Better

My biggest struggle with the single session format is simply that my planning does not work that way. Previously I have been able to carve off enough extraneous plot to really hone in on a particular experience and story. That didn't happen so much during this session. The plot itself was rather complicated, weaving multiple, disparate stories and events together into a single event. From there the repercussions of actions would unfold.

This is all nice academically and the players were interested in the plot and the various threads. However, there were a lot of threads with complexity, depth and nuance, flavor pieces that weren't strictly necessary, and interesting characters to interact with. All good, but simply too much for the purpose of the session.

All of this lead to some uneven pacing at times, even though things never slowed down. It would have unfolded better as a slower burn game with more time getting involved in the city and the factions, themes and threats therein. Part of my feelings on uneven pacing (you would have to ask the players how they felt) reflect cutting a number of scenes and events that would have given more depth to what was happening, including most of the action scenes and the building tension surrounding the initial catalyst for action.

The end of the session was particularly rushed as I tried to provide the essential framework from which to hang all of the events and make some sense from them. I don't generally care for that level of exposition; I specifically do not like having some NPC faction with all of the answers (which is what I tragically had to introduce at the 11th hour to move that along).

My sincere hope is that the players realize I never intended that, but it was a sacrifice for the sake of some level of closure. To their credit, I had no doubt they would put all of the pieces together and come to all of the realizations on their own. It's always great to play with players that can synthesize all of the information provided from various contacts and events and be the group that has the answers. This group was on the ball and made effective choices at every turn - it was pretty awesome from my perspective. If any of you are reading this, thanks, it was an excellent game that you gave to me.

Mechanics

FATE, with Dresden Files in particular, is all about the Fate Point/Aspects interaction. The essential premise is that players are rewarded for portraying flawed individuals and being in character. This has some particular requirements, however. Specifically, you must be interested in that metagame - creating Aspects that aren't just fitting, but are useful. Where Tags and Compels will come when you want them, not when they will irritate you. Also, a strong sense of character going into the game is a must. You simply cannot create a semi-generic character with a few notable details going into the game to get very much out of it.

I know a lot of players (and sometimes am one of them) that has a general concept and wants to see what emerges from play. This system does not support that well, or even at all. It does provide some of the finest game play for those looking at a non-traditional character (perhaps the most useful characters in my session were the reporter and the aging loremaster) and those with some distinct frailties in the nature.

All of this points to investment in that character. Dresden Files also has investment in the city. Both of these things I love in running a game and in playing. The thrillers that I adore running generally thrive on a large cast of characters, players with a strong sense of who they are portraying, and some rigorous depth to the setting. For a one shot, none of this is particularly practical.


Again, to my players' credit, they quickly adapted to the implied backgrounds. Building some vague ties with each other, creating a sense of self from the Aspects, and generally running with things. That being said, the Aspects that I created wouldn't necessarily be what they would create. This is my own fault. Since they weren't their Aspects, it could be tricky at times to figure out what was implied there, how it was supposed to work, etc.

I like to think that all of the Aspects I wrote were flavorful (it's also worth noting that I think 8-tracks are going to make a come back). However, sometimes flavor comes at the cost of use, and nowhere was that more true than most of the characters' Trouble. (For those who don't know, Trouble is specifically an Aspect that is used to compel and make you do something stupid - it should generate a lot of Fate Points for you.) While they all said something about the character, and indeed represented possibly their greatest obstacle, there wasn't a lot done with them. Again, my fault here.

All of this demonstrates the importance of sitting down for a session and creating characters that everyone is invested in, not just you. That first session will make you care about all of the PCs at the table because you know about them, you played a hand in bringing them to life. They won't just be playing their own game, but you can be helping to create fun for each other. That's a helluva thing.

What I (Think) Went Well

The most important thing went well, way more than all of the other things listed above: everyone had fun. No matter what else goes on, that is what really counts.

Everyone was involved, contributed, and had things to do. No one character could resolve everything on their own. The strong niche protection that I engaged in when making characters certainly helped in that - as well no one was stuck with anything truly useless. Though some of the action characters had less to do than originally intended due to scenes (entire plots) that were cut (which I feel bad about, really bad).

Despite my issues with Aspects, I think that everyone quite liked their character (though I could be wrong). With some minor (or major) overhaul, they would have been set. Everyone worked well together, and even the characters that had similarities in skills used those to synergize rather than work at counter purposes. That last one may be more of a testament to the players than me, however.

I was honestly a little surprised by how well received the low power level I used was received. There were a few reasons I made the decision to go with Feet in the Water (20 skill points, 6 refresh). First, I wanted to cut down on the number of powers and stunts so that referencing the book was minimal. It would give each character a distinct focus and the low skills force everyone to rely on each other more than they may have to in a higher powered game. Another reason is that the lower power level makes Aspects more important - there are less bonuses and Fate Points going around. This may have worked against me a little. What it did do was give the mortal characters a more prominent role - the ability to have control over your success was pretty huge.

Note cards! Man, I love note cards. For a game like FATE and a setting where keeping notes on people, places, events, threats, etc, they are perhaps the most useful play aid out there (Fate Points might beat them out, but barely). I have generally had a positive response when you provide something tangible to use. Whether it is to record Aspects that you have discovered, or just some general notes.

A stack of people and places also directs attention from wondering about all of the things that might be relevant, directing it to specific people and places that are relevant. This does create a downside: it can also limit the scope of thought from what else might be relevant to solely what is at hand. I try to nip that one in the bud early by introducing more locations as they become relevant, clearly indicating that they do not have the whole story yet.

Red cards are generally used to indicate a mystery or immediate threat. This is something going on that demands attention. For games where there is a lot going on and multiple plots unfolding, these are useful to remind everyone what they are dealing with, keeping the details in a central place, and more easily allowing for potential relationships between these threats to be established.

My general impressions were that the players enjoyed the plot and the local color that they met during the session. The entire affair would have benefited from editing it down and cutting the extraneous material. While that would have created a neater package, I don't know if that would have improved the experience at all. This is definitely a story that would have played best as a three to five session mini-campaign. That would have given all of the plots a chance to breathe and all of the characters time to shine. Above all else though, everyone had fun. I cannot go back to that point enough, because it really is all that matters. People got together, had some drinks, some food, and had fun. Awesome.