This is the second half of a two-part interview with Fred Hicks, Ryan Macklin, and Leonard Balsera on the design and development of the Dresden Files RPG — an adaptation of the Dresden Files novels by Jim Butcher. Read part one here.
Where do you find the balance between depicting the book’s characters and settings and offering new areas to play in?
RYAN: Because of the source material, we have a benefit and a trial all in one: the only places described in detail are Chicago and parts of the supernatural world, the Nevernever, and people will want to play “Harry Dresden in your hometown” games. We decided to run with that pretty far, and give the group plenty of tools to carve out their own corner of the Dresdenverse. Our “City Creation” chapter is a process for the group to collaboratively make their own sandbox, which is something that encompasses character creation.
FRED: Ryan says “city”, and that’s the dominant paradigm we put for there, but we also provide support for going further afield within the same basic structure. Want to run a roadtrip game a la Supernatural? Easy. Want to play the White Council’s black ops team charged with policing the entire Nevernever? Done and done.
“There’s a reason that we call the first book Your Story.”
RYAN: The major characters from the books are statted up and many of the minor characters are written up in some form, so we haven’t abandoned the source material for the new. But to us, that’s more example than immediate play (even though they’re immediately playable). That’s indicative of our overall philosophy with licenses: that while a subset of the fans are going to want to play the characters and situations from the source material, most of them want to work with the ideas and antagonistic forces presented to tell their own stories. It speaks to the “what if…” in all of us roleplayers.
FRED: There’s a reason that we call the first book Your Story. Because any license should be about taking ownership of the setting and making it your own. The City Creation chapter is just one of many ways we deliver on that.
RYAN: If we were working with an IP that was global in scale, I don’t think we’d get the leeway to do what we’re doing. Much of the playspace would already be detailed for you, and our role would be more of chronicler and translator for players than a provider of tools. But because this is The Dresden Files, we get to do try something a lot of licenses don’t with our City Creation idea.
Just to be clear, how many books make up the heart of the game? Is this a stand-alone game or the launch of a new line?
FRED: It was going to be one single book. Then it turned out we had too much material for a single book — it would have been a Ptolus-class tome as a single volume. So we split it into two. But that’s it, at least for now — the contract doesn’t go any further than that, and both Jim and Evil Hat are invested in making sure the whole thing is graspable and affordable for the fans. So right now we’re not thinking supplements at all; if we’ve done the job right, the novels themselves can be seen as the supplements — just add some quick statting. In fact we’re hoping we’ll be able to host some “public statblocking” exercises on the website as each new book or story comes out, and make the fans part of the process.
How much of an adapted RPG is about translating established elements and how much is about teaching players to evoke the flavor of the books in their own, new stories?
FRED: You have to put in the hard and heavy work up front to translate the established elements into game effects that match the feel of the source material. And frankly that’s the part that made this project take so flippin’ long: tweaking combat so it feels scary and vital and dangerous — like the books — for example. The spellcasting chapter was probably the hairiest beast of them all in this regard, because the books have so much detail about Harry and his wizardry. It’s no surprise the chapter defeated two of us before Lenny bested it, and he had plenty of help to get there too.
LENNY: One major issue at hand is figuring out what parts of that flavor are color and what parts of that flavor are structural. That’s basically where I originally went wrong with my early draft of thaumaturgy – I wascleaving too closely to the literal descriptions of spellcasting, when in terms of the narrative, those details weren’t really the point. I don’t really have good advice for drawing that distinction other than trial and error, as well as having good playtesters.
“I don’t want us telling people a whole bunch of shoulds and should nots for their own play.”
FRED: But once you’ve got the engine humming, once you have it producing natural effects of play that give you a sense of verisimilitude with the source material, that’s when it’s time to hand over the keys and show folks how to turn the game into what they want it to be. Assuming they don’t houserule the system into oblivion, I think they’ll find that they can bring wholly new stories and ideas into the game and still experience the system doing its job, evoking the right feel as they tell tales of their own.
FRED: But past that, once we’ve brought the folks to the system and the system is doing its job, personally, I draw the line: I don’t want us telling people a whole bunch of shoulds and should nots for their own play. Evil Hat makes games that provide lots of tools for play (perhaps too many for some folks) precisely so people are well equipped to do whatever the hell they want.
How did you strike the balance between sharing advice on storytelling in the Dresden mode and avoiding those “shoulds” and “should nots?”
LENNY: Really, my goal was to structure the system in such a way that the type of thing you’re talking about occurred largely as an emergent property. I think if you do what the system tells you to do, you end up with stories that share properties I like about the books. And if you don’t, I think you still end up with something you’ll find engaging that has the appropriate color to it. I think advice can only take you so far in this regard — everyone’s perception of a property or franchise is different, and they lock on to different aspects (pardon the pun) of it. You can’t really pin down the definitive experience. What you can do is structure the mechanics to encourage the kind of output you want, and trust that people’s individual tastes will fill in whatever blanks remain.
It’s also important to remember that there isn’t really a way to get around the differences of medium. RPGs are not novels, the structure of their stories isn’t as clean and tight, and you can engage with material that your group is interested in but wouldn’t work in a traditional narrative. Also, The Dresden Files focuses around one major protagonist, whereas the RPG by necessity will have several. The RPG is more like, what if you had The Dresden Files and The Borden Sessions and The Murphy Dossiers and The Carpenter Crusade going on all at the same time? This limits the practical range of pure emulation the game can achieve.
Nevertheless, I think the system does a good job of setting up the kinds of stories that’d be appropriate in that world.
“RPGs are not novels, the structure of their stories isn’t as clean and tight”
RYAN: We actually had a bit of a “should not” in my playtest group — we violated one bit of the setting, because one of the players had no familiarity with the novels. He came up with this idea of a golem with free will, and the rest of us rolled with it. We were able to model the idea with the rules and come up with a rationale for why this was a weird little exception in the Dresdenverse (largely by saying the White Council has no freakin’ clue how it happened), and presto — we had a pretty neat game. The rules of the game support us breaking the game’s setting, and while that’s a “should not” in general it didn’t hurt us. For us, those sorts of things reflect the local group & play culture, which won’t necessarily match how Lenny or Fred or I play.
That said, some of our own play culture biases show in the text, like when we talk about recommending against the GM doing City Creation on her own.
How much freedom did you have in creating new material for Dresden’s world?
FRED: On the one hand, very little, and on the other hand, a bunch. As far as what we assert to be factually true about the Dresdenverse, we stick very closely to what the books and short stories can tell us. We did not want to constrain Jim’s future writing with our own potentially less cool ideas.
FRED: But we also put forth a very strong message of “take ownership of the setting” to the people actually buying and playing the game. Because that’s what’s important — not what we might come up with as the publisher, but what you will come up with as the new kids in the sandbox. Much of this culminates in the final chapter of the first book which shows a 40-page vision of what Baltimore might look like when brought into the world of The Dresden Files. It’s essentially an example campaign much like the ones we expect players to create at their own tables.
“The best part about that is, Billy could be wrong.”
LENNY: One thing that gave us (and that gives you) a bit of leeway is our central conceit for the books: that it’s being written by Billy Borden of the Alphas as a Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the 21st century, giving people a primer on supernatural threats the way that Dracula did so people could fight or avoid Black Court vampires. The best part about that is, Billy could be wrong. He did the best he could, but at the end of the day, he’s just a smart guy doing research and making educated guesses. That’s where your group has the leeway to come in and say, “Well, we’re doing this differently, that monster needs to be way more powerful”, or whatever. It also means Jim doesn’t have to worry about it either.
RYAN: I fear I’m repeating myself, because I talk about this a bit regarding City Creation. But the way I see The Dresden Files RPG, we’re talking about a giant toolkit and a vast canvas. Our job is to provide the tools — the sense of history, adversity, etc. The parts of the world Jim hasn’t detailed in the books is the canvas. We get to paint a little bit of our own mark on that canvas with our Baltimore sample chapter, but it wasn’t our job to paint more than that. That’s your job as the players at the table.
That said, I have all manner of freedom to do that at the table with this book. I am actually eager to run a Dresden San Francisco game that goes beyond what Jim’s covered, because we’ve got the game that supports me and gives me the tools to do that.
What was the big risk or the big fear when putting this game together? What were you most worried about?
FRED: Getting it wrong for Jim. We were going to do right by him and his property, or we were going to torpedo the damn thing. Hell, at one point we DID torpedo the damn thing when it was clear we’d sent the system careening down the wrong rabbit hole. Nuked it from orbit, started over again. The game is so, so much stronger for that.
LENNY: Fear has defined pretty much every part of this project for me – fear of doing right by Jim, fear of doing right by the fans, fear of failing to make a coherent product, fear of the system not doing the essential stuff I wanted it to do, etc etc etc. The project itself equals terror, in my mind. The jump from fanboy to helper to lead system designer is nothing to sneeze at all by itself. Compound the last jump being “lead system designer of the frickin’ Dresden Files RPG…” Well. Let’s just say it’s taken a significant quantity of booze to keep me calm.
RYAN: Take a game that’s been publicly-known to be in development for a few years, and then get announced as “the guy who’s going to get us back on schedule,” and you’ll have an idea of what my big fear was. I sometimes feel like a man standing alongside giants when I work with the Evil Hat team.
What’s the lesson you’re taking away from this project—what did you learn this time out?
FRED: Man, what didn’t we learn? The Dresden Files RPG project has enfolded our entire lifespan as a company with for-sale products, from very late 2005 until today. Everything we have done at Evil Hat during that timeframe has been in service of evolving into the company that’s good enough and strong enough and capable enough to produce this game. Answering this question in full is an interview all of its own, and it’s the sort of thing I try to interview myself about, in bits and pieces, whenever I blog about the process and reality of RPG publishing.
“Man, what didn’t we learn?”
FRED: If I were to somehow distill it all I’d say the project has taught me that living life as a publisher with maximum transparency is all kinds of good for you. It gets fans on board and watching your back. It keeps people from feeling like you’re hiding a failure from them. It brings people into the circle with you, to where they’re with you along on that journey. So when you make big honking rookie mistakes — like we did — they understand, they forgive, and they help you get back on your feet.
LENNY: I learned that the best time to talk about your next project is when you actually have something to show for it. I also learned that a good editor is pretty much the key to a writer’s success, and that a good collaborator (or set of collaborators) is key to a designer’s success, even if that collaboration just amounts to having people around you to bounce ideas off of while you work. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to do this thing alone.
RYAN: In addition to learning what Fred & Lenny have talked about, I’ve also learned how to manage projects with friends. Working with friends can be a trying thing, as many of us know. I mean…well, what Fred said about this being a full interview on its own is so true. I guess I can summarize by saying: I learned how to suck it up and be a professional. I owe Fred and gang a huge debt for this education.
What’s the question you hope to get asked when you get a chance to talk about this game? Got a number-one talking point?
FRED: Pff. Honestly, I don’t know. I live so damn close to this thing it’s hard to see it from far enough off that I know what question needs to be asked.
FRED: I know what question I want to ask you after you’ve gotten your hands on the game: Does it look like fun? Are you excited to play?
LENNY: I would like more people to ask after Clark Valentine. He’s a cool guy.
RYAN: Clark and Amanda Valentine both. As far as the one question I’d like to be asked: “Hey, want to play?” Because I still have mad love for this game.
How does it feel, now, seeing the game finally come together?
FRED: Exhausting and exhilarating.
RYAN: I love it when a game comes together.
LENNY: I’m very ready for the next thing.
FRED: I’m pretty sure our next thing is at least 80 proof.
RYAN: That is a true statement.