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The Saving Throw
Dresden Files Volume 1: Your Story 2010
But she's a Black Magic Woman and she's trying to make a devil out of me.

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Overall Review
published by Evil Hat Productions reviewed by Scott Wachter
414 pages, 2010, $49.99 (print and pdf)
Game Setting 5
Core Book 5
Art 5
Character Generation 5
Game Rules 5
Intelligibility 5
Overall
5
Review Scoring

The Dresden Files is a series of novels about a wizard (not very subtle but still quick to anger), working as a private detective in a setting that can only be called a tongue-in-cheek take on the old Word of Darkness Chicago. These novels, written by Jim Butcher, may not always show the hallmarks of great novel-writing, but the pacing, action beats, the success blended with failure (the 'yes, but...' principle in action), and the way that failure still drives the plot forward rather than stymieing characters, are all signals of good game mastering. This book has been in production for a long time and I have been eagerly anticipating its release since I found out about it.

Before I get too deep into the guts of the book’s content I should say that the text is amazing, it’s clear, concise, gives good examples from the novels. But what makes all this text unique is the presentation; the conceit of the book is that the Alphas, a werewolf pack/gaming group from the novels, who are creating an RPG as a means of informing mundane society about the supernatural world. It also has amazing margin notes from Billy the werewolf, Harry Dresden and Bob the talking skull who give extra bits of setting information, rules clarifications, or joking dialogue. Having the text read as an artifact of the setting just adds so much colour to the book, it's all fantastic.

The Dresden Files RPG runs on a modified version of the FATE engine (which you can find free at this link), a story game system that still manages to have a decent amount mechanical meat to it. I'm not the biggest story game guy, but I like FATE, not just for the robust skill system, but for the aspect mechanic. Aspects, for those who didn’t read my helpful link, are short descriptive phrases that characters and locations all have and that can be invoked by spending points to make the plot swing the invoker's way. Another fun thing about aspects is that some of them must bear on a specific subject, notably your character’s core conflict and your character’s connections to other player's characters. These requirements are great for nudging players into the deeper end of the role-playing pool and build connections with other PCs before the game even starts (which handily eliminates the 'so . . . you all meet at the inn' first session). It's an absolutely amazing mechanic that brings characters' qualities like virtues and flaws to the gaming table in a way not often seen with other games. The big thing Dresden adds to FATE is an advancement mechanic and a fully fleshed out spell-creation system, which I'll get into later, but the advancement is great because it's very hard to keep a group focused on a game where they’re characters are never going to get better at what they do.

When it comes to character creation; players have a choice between power and free will. Supernatural powers cost you fate points, usually a lot of fate points (for example the bare minimum of powers needed to be a werewolf is 4 fate points, and the bottom end of the power scale is 5 points), whereas pure mortals get far less expensive stunts, which are very similar to feats from D&D. Fate points can be spent during gameplay to invoke aspects for a bonus to die rolls or to reroll terrible results, or to have the plot swing their way. Fate points are earned by getting beat up in combat or by taking complications related to their aspect from the GM, these compels can be bought off with a player's fate points, but it also means that a PC who spends too many points on powers becomes a complete slave to his aspects and thus an NPC. Also part of character creation is city creation, where you design the locales of your campaign as group. This is great, it means that players can put exactly what they want into the game, and have an investment in their city because they have partial ownership.

Dresden's combat section includes not only the physical violence that we gamers love so dearly, but also social and mental conflicts. As characters fail in any conflict situation they fill in circles on a given stress track (endurance, conviction, or presence as appropriate to the conflict). You can remove filled circles by taking consequences, temporary hindering aspects (like battered, exhausted, trauma induced phobia, or a crippled arm that doesn’t heal for a couple of books). After being pushed to the far end of any stress track you are considered 'taken out' at which point the attacker decides the how the victim losses, but then the player of the defeated gets to roleplay exactly how that defeat plays out, i.e. attacker decides that after being riddled with automatic fire your wizard dies, then you as the wizard's player gets to decide that you rattle off a death curse at the mobster that gunned you down. If you'd rather not see your character die, at any point you can surrender and then you and your aggressor can negotiate exactly what it would take for the conflict to end there, this rarely goes well for the surrenderer (Bob claims these concessions are why he has to live inside a skull), but it does beat creating new character. Having surrender codified into the rules reinforces it as an option in any combat scenario meaning that no one who has read the book goes into a fight with a 'to the death' mentality, which can be great for a gamer who wants a change of pace from all the murder in gaming. For the most part, combat is pretty standard, with the usual maneuvers and tricky actions that most games offer. The way aspects play into combat and consequences play into any conflict is what make FATE shine, not to mention the fact that social interaction using the same mechanics as combat makes investigation and interrogation just as interesting as any combat encounter.

This is the first game in a long while to get me excited to play a caster and it mostly has to do with the flexibility of the magic system. Spellcasting is broken into evocation, which encompasses the quick and dirty flashy stuff, and thaumaturgy, the long-range ritual-based stuff, unlike other games where you get a big giant list of spells you can choose from, players instead declare what effect they want and then see if they can control that effect. Magically inclined players can also create rote spells that grant a bonus on rolls to perform because of their familiarity with the spell. The Sight and Soulgazing for the books are covered in more detail than I thought I’d see from any product related to the franchise, but now that I see all the detail about it I find myself excited to seeing The Sight as a game mechanic at the table.

Your Story also presents readers with Baltimore as a campaign city along with generated characters as an object example not only of creating characters and cities but also scenario design. If you’re time-strapped or looking to demo the game to friend then Baltimore and its characters are a great jumping off point. But since the city creation section came before the sample city in the book and it got me all excited about brainstorming the setting with my group I doubt I'll ever use this city except for stealing Damocles Ravenborn, an NPC who is a goth poseur turned real vampire which too hilarious to not include in every urban fantasy campaign ever.

As much as I love the mechanics of this game think I love the art and layout even more. The book has the look and feel of a gamer’s spiral bound notebook, it’s battered and stained, with all sorts of doodles in the margins and post-its with Harry’s case notes on them. The artwork (which looks taped in to the book, keeping the ‘game in production’ theme) itself is absolutely fantastic particularly the full page spreads that start each chapter. For a fan of the book you can look at any image and be able to point out what scene from which book inspired it, and there isn't a single picture I can say is bad or poorly placed relative to the content. Lastly, the book ends with an extensive glossary of game terms and a five page long index that encompasses both volume one and two, and I love both of these features. No matter how good a game is at explaining its rules, the explanations don’t matter if you can’t find them. Another thing that helps you find the rules you need that I love having is a two page cheat sheet with charts and shorthand definitions similar to what you'd find on the back of a GM's screen.

To sum up: this a game where every mechanic, every example and the humour oozes of the Dresden Files setting, and even if you aren't a fan, it still delivers a well put together urban fantasy game or an awesome magic system you can hack into your current FATE game. I have no complaints, no constructive criticism, not one ill word for this book. This is my game of the year.



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