Tuesday, April 25, 2017

"I Have Lost a Hell": Dresden Files Accelerated AP & Thoughts

I just finished three sessions of the forthcoming Dresden Files Accelerated for The Gauntlet Hangouts. I had a great time with them. I participated in the DFAE playtest and liked it then, but the revisions make it even stronger. So I’ve pulled together some thoughts about it. I like Fate and I dig this implementation

You can see the AP videos for our game here (Session 1, Session 2, Session 3).

1. Harry Who?
I’m not a Dresden aficionado. I watched a few episodes of the show and read one of the books. While I own the original rpg I skimmed it for system rather than background. My deepest contact with the setting has come through DFAE. The book does a great job distilling that information and putting the interesting bits out front. It clearly deals with the “present” circumstances of the book series, but that doesn’t get in the way. The layout choices in this version-- inserted marginalia and post-it notes-- felt much less obtrusive than in the DFRPG. Overall it’s a great presentation and it allowed me, a novice, to run sessions with verisimilitude.

2. Laws of the Night
The book tightly breaks down the Dresdenverse’s “Laws of Magic.” It lays out the Laws (Thou shalt not transform others, Thou shalt not invade the mind of another) and the context clearly. In fact the whole chapter on the regulatory and political nature of the setting sets the stage well. Dresden Files feels more high adventure and drama than World of Darkness. But it shares the intrigue and maneuvering that accompany high level WoD games. In that way it’s closer to Urban Shadows, just without the built in PvP and high risk of mixed success.

3. Put it on the Mantle
DFAE has a killer tech: Mantles. We’ve seen Fate “Worlds of Adventure” with archetype examples. Mantles feel like character classes-- in a good way. Each mantle has unique conditions and stunts, as well as key stunt(s) you get when you choose it. You can still pick stunts following the standard FAE formulation, but the Mantle stunts are more interesting and powerful.

I haven’t run the numbers, but DFAE shifts the classic Fate stunt-building restrictions. Instead they’re crafted on what’s appropriate and thematically interesting. Not all mantle stunts are created equal and I’m cool with that. Some of them, especially those for Wizards, require heavy player development and input. I’m OK with that. The game holds together and even feels right.

4. What Condition Your Condition is in
DFAE uses “conditions,” to add depth and flavor to the mantles. I’ve always appreciated that Fate characters could have multiple stress tracks to represent important elements in a game. For example you could have Reputation for one with social intrigue or Wealth for a resource-based game. DFAE takes advances that concept. Mantles have unique conditions representing their focus.

They’re both a damage and a resource track. For example, example the Law Enforcement mantle has three distinct conditions representing how much attention they’ve drawn for abusing their status. On the flip side, the Criminal has an explicit Heat track. Gain too much Heat and you’re hauled in for questioning. You can gain Heat from actions, but you also mark it to power some stunts. Again DFAE shows the remarkable flexibility of Fate. By stepping outside the box, they’re able to add new mechanics GMs can use to shape settings and archetypes. Some conditions can be marked to pay the cost of high level magic.

5. The Price of Ceremony
Magic-focused mantles have stunts to cover day-to-day spells. But DFAE includes a system for “Big Magic.” This isn’t restricted to Wizards. Non-Wizards can develop fictional justification for rituals, though they don’t have access to some cost-paying elements. The system’s simple and easy to use. I liked the DFAE playtest mechanics, but this streamlines that. There’s a simple way to calculate the difficulty, based on what you’re trying to do. You then pay costs, and here’s the neat part. Failure on the ritual casting roll doesn’t necessarily mean failure. It just determines who gets to pick the costs, the player or the GM.

6. Parity Party
A vampire, a wizard, and a cop walk into a bar; which one gets initiative? I like how DFAE (and Fate in general) handles the concept of balance and parity. Any two characters can have the same effect. One may be better at some things, but given creative thinking, dramatic license, and actions, they can be on equal footing. That’s a big difference from games based on levels, points, and ranks. DFAE acknowledges the differences in power by the use of scale. It re-presents Fate’s scale rules smoothly. A mortal versus a vampire has to work to overcome that scale difference. But even if they don’t, it isn’t completely debilitating. The system strikes a balance that feels right for the kinds of games I want.

7. Mystery Gang
I love mystery games. But one player in our session echoed something I’d heard before, that Fate isn’t good for mysteries. I disagree. Sure Fate has flexibility and collaboration, but that doesn’t have to undercut presenting a problem to solve. My usual approach is a Gumshoe/PbtA hybrid. If players look for clues and have an appropriate skill, I offer them basic information. If they want to go for more information, they can make a roll. That roll risks consequences (drawing heat, costing money, eating up time). Depending on their success, I let them ask questions about the situation.

DFAE offers more Fate-imbedded approaches to detective work. It talks about the costs for failed checks and then breaks investigations into three types, defined by obstacle and structure. Player collaboration comes in the form of putting forward hypotheses. I like the ideas here. It isn’t how I structure things, but it makes better use of Fate’s own tech than I do. I’m glad to see these kinds of rules and advice.

8. Flip City
The original Dresden Files has great city-creation mechanics. They’re well integrated into character creation. Its drawback can be the sheer number of aspects generated. DFRPG city & character creation can take a session unto itself. Fate Core dials that back and FAE moves even further. That’s been my preference: smaller lists of setting and character aspects so that they have more weight.

DFAE consolidates the city-building mechanics to something the group could easily do in under an hour. In our video recording, went through the process quickly. We chose Detroit, since we wanted to echo Dresden, but not use Chicago. We identified four factions: White Court Vampires who feed on greed, desperate in the fading city; a Werewolf-tied group thriving on criminality and destruction; leftover Golems/Clockworks from the time when mechanomancers filled the city; and Ghost Cabals which we didn’t define but sounded cool. We established a few elements to use (tension of settlement & decay, small scale problem, big magic) and avoid (PvP, morally ambiguous bad guy).

Overall I dug the streamlined process. It worked especially well for online and short-term play. You could easily expand that with more details and connections to PCs if you wanted. Or you could use something like Microscope for that purpose.

9. Parish is Burning
I’m going to say something awful: New Orleans leaves me cold. I’ve run several games set there, always at the behest of folks who love the city. But the place has never grabbed my imagination. I’ve researched and read about it in prep, but it remains solidly meh for me. So I winced a little when I saw the sample city provided would be the Orleans parish.

But the section didn’t disappoint. It’s a solid example of how to organize and build a city. It follows the game’s own structure and rules. We begin with an overview of the major factions, then discuss the points of conflict, and then get background and character sheets for the major characters. The material doesn’t overstay its welcome and offers guidance on how to approach this. Unlike the Paranet Papers, it provides you just enough info to play from without info dumping.

10. Sell Me on a Game
I dig Fate, especially once I grokked how it worked. I’ve brought elements of it into the homebrew we use for many campaigns. In particular I’ve liked Fate Core, with the rich skill system, stunt lists, and slightly more involved rules. Fate Accelerated seemed like a clever but thinner version. I’ve changed my mind on that.

DFAE’s shown me you can do really interesting things with the simplicity of Approaches and unique sub-systems. This has firmly shifted me over to a Fate Accelerated fan. Though I still dig Fate Core, I’ll be reaching for Accelerated first for basic play and hacks.