I’ve played my share of D&D in the past, but never ventured much outside of the comfortable space of the d20. In my heady younger days I took a few sojourns into Shadowrun and Call of Cthulhu, but I rarely stayed for long. My DM experience has been fairly limited as well, never getting too deep into a campaign, but having plenty of experience making plans that always go awry.
Recently, I dipped back into both non-d20 systems and GMing with the Fate System, specifically the Dresden Files RPG.
The Dresden Files is a pulp urban fantasy series by Jim Butcher. It stars private eye Harry Dresden, who happens to be Chicago’s only openly practicing wizard. If it sounds cheesy, it’s only because it is, but the novels are fun and fast-paced reads. My wife and I have been reading the series for years, eagerly snapping up new releases yearly when they hit shelves. It’s the literary equivalent of a popcorn movie, in the best possible way.
I’d been looking for something to try GMing, and the Dresden RPG system came up in a conversation with a coworker, himself an avid fan of the novels. With a bit of reading (and some help from the Knights of the Night Actual Play Podcast) I decided it would be an interesting system to try. Heavier on the role playing and mystery solving, while maintaining the crunch I knew my group would desire in combat. I gathered a stable of my regulars and a couple of newer role players and we got to work.
The first immediate difference I found vs D&D was how involved the players are with the GM process. Each campaign starts with city building, wherein all the players set up the status quo for the town you’ll be playing in as a group and then create their characters. This was a two night process for our group, but it was pretty enjoyable to bring in different opinions about what would be interesting to play with. As only myself and one other player were very familiar with the books, we got some cool outside-the-box ideas that were incorporated. Dresden also recommends playing with your hometown as the setting, which makes everything hit closer to home while allowing players to come up with setting ideas on the fly during gameplay.
The system also lacks a lot of the randomness of a d20 system. Instead of rolling a twenty sided die for most actions, you use four fudge dice for everything in the game. The dice have six sides- two positive, two neutral, two negative, allowing you to modify your skill up to four points either way. This puts a lot more action on the players skill points, which tend to be pretty low as well (starting with a +5 cap). Every action is either opposed by another character or hitting a target number, so the core mechanics are pretty simple. Most of the crunch comes from the magic system, or from Aspects.
Aspects are what really bring the role playing home. Every person, place, and thing has a number of aspects that define it. A character might have aspects like “Conniving White Court Vampire” or “Not so subtle, still quick to anger” meant to evoke some aspect of the character’s personality or place in the world. These can be compelled by the GM to limit a character’s actions in a situation, but more often a player invokes them for a +2 bonus on an action in which the aspect is relevant. Each aspect needs to have both positive and negative connotations, allowing them to be used to both benefit and disadvantage.
These have really helped my players craft characters, rather than just classes. Often, in D&D, your character is “the warrior” or “the healer.” The nuance allowed by aspects makes the kind of person your character is more important than the skills they possess.
The tone of the game takes on a noir, urban fantasy kind of tone akin to World of Darkness. Depending on the power level you start at, this can range from a horror show your players just try to survive to a story of experts facing off against the biggest bads in the supernatural world. Our group is somewhere in the middle- big fish in a small pond, being pushed to deal with things slightly above their pay grade.
The game loves putting players in over their heads- failure is not the end of the game, and often offers players Fate Points. These are the currency of the system, spent to invoke Aspects. The fewer powers a character has, the more Fate Points they have available, balancing a pure human to still be playable alongside supernatural badasses. A big part of the game is finding the right time to spend these points to steer the story in a direction you would like.
So far, GMing has been a blast, and the players seem on board after some adjustment to this style of role playing. Conversations outside of game nights often turn to directions the players want to take their characters, and it’s easy to plan the story when your players help write half of it. Long chunks of the night can go by without any need for my input, as the characters simply interact and find themselves butting heads or trying to figure out the next step in the mystery. It will be interesting to see how this evolves as we all get more comfortable in our roles, but this is a system that is likely to stick around in our group for a while.